Tuesday, April 04, 2017
Graded Stakes Committee on the Downgrade
Not only did the downgrading of two former Grade I Triple Crown preps by the American Graded Stakes Committee (AGSC) dominate discussion of their graded stakes list for 2017 this winter
, it has been the talk of the industry since and diverted deserved attention away from the committee’s failure to reduce the total number of graded stakes, as was expected
According to the group’s spokesman, Andy Schweigardt, “… the time is right to begin reducing the number of graded races in the U.S. [given] the sharp decline in the foal crop from 2007-12 and a comparable decline in the number of races held in recent years…
"These races are getting harder and harder to fill and that’s because there just aren’t the horses to fill them... So we’re going to look at the total number of Grade 1s and try to make that number commensurate with the number of horses in inventory..."
"The committee is likely to start trimming the number of Grade 1 races this year and will then seek to trim Grade 2 and Grade 3 races from the roster in subsequent years. It’s not going to happen in one fell swoop ... "’
So the graded stakes total for this year remains at 464. Although there are two fewer G1s at 107, and five fewer G2s at 128, there are now seven more G3s at 229.
Schweigardt further indicated that the committee wished to work from the top down in a process that will take years to complete.
The “one fell swoop” Shakespearean reference became a self-fulfilling prophecy. More of a "foul swipe," the committee took a slice out of traditional fixtures by "hacking off" a pair of G1s that fuel enthusiasm for the sport via nationwide telecasts.
In our opinion, the action that downgraded the storied Blue Grass Stakes and Wood Memorial was disrespectful of racing’s history and traditions. Worse, it affirms a lack of common sense.
Field size for 2016’s G1 Triple Crown preps were 12 at Gulfstream Park, eight for the Santa Anita Derby and Wood Memorial, and 10 for the Arkansas Derby. If field size was a legitimate issue, why was the Blue Grass penalized after attracting 14 runners?
Or for that matter, the Wood, which matched the number of starters at Santa Anita, the base of recent Kentucky Derby winners, but not their Derby itself. And since when did eight become a low number, anyway? It can’t always be about handle.
In fact, the Mother Goose was the only one of 39 G1s downgraded that featured a field with seven starters or less.
No races, with two notable exceptions, assigned G1 or G2 status will actually go away. The real candidates for extinction should the plethora of G3s that mean little in the big picture, bold print on a catalogue page notwithstanding.
Too many of them existed even before the committee downgraded the stock on seven Grade 2s.
Whichever G1s survive should be worthy of focused attention whenever and wherever they are renewed; a celebration of America’s best racing to be enjoyed with its fan base.
Unfortunately, national stakes scheduling doesn’t allow for proper focus on those most worthy. Instead they are too frequently combined on single cards or are in conflict across disparate venues.
Of the 45 days in 2016 when at least one G1 was scheduled, there were 25 days on which two or more G1s were scheduled; 12 of them involved two racetracks, and two of those at a third track as well.
Santa Anita carded two or more G1s on the same day 8 times (includes both Breeders’ Cup days), Belmont Park four times and Saratoga thrice. Churchill and Keeneland had two such days and Arlington, Aqueduct, Del Mar, and Gulfstream once each, a total of 23 multiple-stakes cards.
Further, consider that there were 11 days on which three or more Grade 1s were carded and eight cards with two Grade 1s, including two Breeders’ Cup prep "Super Saturdays."
The 7-Grade 1 day was the result of three major Triple Crown prep days created last year when Keeneland moved the Blue Grass up one week. Despite the conflict with the Wood and Santa Anita Derby, it attracted a field almost as large as the other two combined.
Aqueduct’s spring stakes schedule has the newly downgraded Wood still competing for starters on the same day as two other major preps but will do so with a 25% purse reduction.
If targeting Grade 1 excess on "Big Days" has become the AGSC’s strategy for the future, then NYRA is wearing a bulls-eye with the clustering of its 36 Grade 1 events at the expense of other weekend opportunities.
Saratoga hosted 16 Grade 1s at its 7-weekend race meet. Why couldn’t one G1 have been run each Saturday and Sunday and on the closing holiday Monday? Belmont hosted 17 Grade 1s during its 11-week summer meet and its 7-week fall meet.
Belmont day used up six Grade 1s, excluding two "Super Saturdays" that carded seven Grade 1s between them, leaving only four for the remaining 16 weekends of racing.
Parenthetically, NYRA capped attendance for both of its six-Grade 1 days, featuring the Belmont Stakes and Travers. The logic behind keeping their core customers away from one-third of their Grade 1 schedule continues to elude me.
Of California’s 30 non-Breeders’ Cup Grade 1s, 19 were run at Santa Anita in 12 days, eight at Del Mar in 7 days and two at Los Alamitos in one day. Santa Anita gets away with purses of only $300k for each of 4 Grade 1s on its first "Super Saturday." Attendance was sub-par, too.
Not surprisingly, the race-rating arm of the Thoroughbred Owners & Breeders Associations has preserved the status quo for the benefit of commercial breeders, not racing’s customers.
Graded stakes excess hurts overall competition which has a negative impact on creating greater interest and increased handle.
The wisdom of scheduling more than one Grade 1 race on a single card also escapes me. Surely 94 non-Breeders’ Cup Grade 1s could be distributed more equitably across additional Saturdays, Sundays, Filly Fridays and holidays.
Why not reduce the number of graded stakes across all levels by 20% by 2018 without favoring any particular venue or region by focusing on the divisions themselves?
Start by looking at the 12 non-BC Grade 1s restricted to two-year-olds which in 2016 featured seven races with seven or fewer starters. They might also consider the five G1 turf routes and four G1 dirt sprints restricted to 3-year-olds. Those 21 races alone represent 19.6% of the glut of Grade 1s.
The spotlight of racing shines longest on the final 10 weeks of the Triple Crown trail. In my opinion, that should never have been tampered with. Still, four representatives from five Grade 1 venues stood by and let it happen.
As for the Blue Grass and Wood under-performing in recent years in terms of being winning stepping stones, aren’t preps by their very nature and the random nature of things by definition cyclical?
If, hypothetically, McCraken were to win the Blue Grass, remain undefeated and become the Kentucky Derby favorite, how would a Derby loss reflect poorly on a Derby prep run hard by this country’s most famous Thoroughbred nurseries?
And what if Battalion Runner goes out and wins the Wood in the same impressive manner his stablemate took the Florida Derby? He becomes a single-digit-odds Derby player but then is defeated. Didn’t the Wood do its job by getting him there in high-profile style?
Does that mean the Wood--which produced two of the 1970’s three Triple Crown winners—is no longer deserving to be New York’s Grade 1 three-year-old spring showcase? Aren’t New York fans deserving of a spring championship event?
Maybe the next time the Four Horsemen of Racing’s Apocalypse appear under the same roof they should focus on creating a cohesive national stakes schedule that produces the constructive results they seek.
Events such as the Blue Grass and Wood have more than enough history to stand alone and not be viewed through a narrow Kentucky Derby prism. If the foal crop were to drop below 20,000 or somehow reach 35,000 again, there still will be only one Kentucky Derby hero left standing.
LOS ANGELES, April 3, 2017
Written by Indulto
Monday, February 06, 2017
LOS ANGELES, February 5, 2017 – The 2016 Breeders’ Cup Classic ended the two-day event on an unprecedented high note with the face-off between Arrogate and California Chrome and extending the thrills generated by the showdown between Beholder and Songbird the previous day.
The best faced the best and all the star performers actually gave their best when asked for it. It was Thoroughbred Theater at its best.
Fans were left thirsting for more of the same and Frank Stronach’s Pegasus stood poised to deliver the remunerative rematch designed to divert would-be stallions from lucrative liaisons.
The confrontation was expected to exhibit not only equine excellence but an entertaining clash of cultures and providing a mixture of motives and machinations among the connections.
Executed in the shadow of the enormous extravagance that enshrines Stronach’s love of all things equine, an enthusiastic elite embraced elevated attendance expenses which begs a question:
Can excessive pricing be expected to rekindle interest in Thoroughbred racing?
The event was well-promoted, albeit narrowly targeted, including a self-financed network telecast. Avid horseplayers anticipated attractive betting opportunities among an ample supply of undercard stakes, including a final Pick Four with 12 horses per leg and preceded by a maiden race with 14 runners to begin a second Pick Five.
Although the weather in the Sunshine State lived up to its billing, the rematch of Eclipse Award winners did not. While the consistent brilliance of Arrogate continued to be confirmed, the familiar quickness and stamina of two-time Horse-of-the Year, California Chrome, failed to materialize in his final on-track appearance.
Post-race reports from Chrome’s connections indicated the horse sustained an injury to its knee.
While some may be willing to write off that result to misfortune, it could be argued that the conditions of the race were indirect contributors given the extraordinary influence of an enormous entry fee and purse to the winner.
As misfortune had it, Chrome was stranded in the outside post in a full field with ample early speed inside him to overcome a position so close to the first turn.
Indeed it would have unfairly penalized any entrant unlucky enough to draw it, with the possible exception of a deep closer.
Under different circumstances the horse might have been scratched to run another day rather than face such a proven obstacle as well as a freakishly talented rival.
But there would be no refund for the million-dollar entry fee so, counter to the animal’s best interests, Chrome started as planned.
We’ll never know for certain how or when the alleged injury occurred. Maybe it was it during the all-or-nothing-at-all run to the first turn but perhaps a predisposing weakness developed earlier, even if his local workouts were counter-indications that nothing was amiss.
Dreams and Schemes and Circus Crowds
With the benefit of 20-20 hindsight, it seems reasonable to challenge the wisdom of Chrome’s paid workout at Los Alamitos against far inferior opposition and ask why he was put in a position to break a track record while extremely wide all the way around.
Why subject the animal’s bones to stress for a winner’s share of $50,000 when the main objective was a share 140 times greater? One possible answer is the increased value of a track record on his stallion resume.
“Thank you Los Al” came off as a hard sell to us.
Personally, the running of the Pegasus World Cup left a familiar bad taste in my mouth. To me, it Big Brown’s Belmont redux, or Looking at Lucky’s Kentucky Derby disaster.
While the heralded co-headliner that was expected to win actually did, I couldn’t shake the feeling that it was Chrome’s connections that compromised him most.
‘To say "I [pick] you" right out loud’
One of the surprises was Neolithic’s third place finish at 23-1 just ahead of his 16-1 stablemate Keen Ice, whom I had considered to be the unintended beneficiary of the former’s early speed as they are owned by separate interests.
Another was Breaking Lucky’s odds of 70-1 following his Grade 1 placing in the Clark compared to 20-1 for his established rival, Shaman Ghost, who had finished third in the same race. The former became my focus but he failed to fire, finishing eighth while the latter finished second for the event’s creator.
“I’ve looked at [luck] from both sides now”
At the end of the day, several developments were clear:
A. The wagering total exceeded $40M with half bet on the PWG.
B. A great horse gave a great performance.
C. The rich got richer.
D. The foolish got fleeced.
E. The event was declared a phenomenal success, at least by the connections of the top two finishers, and -- too often – by a fawning media.
In my opinion, the Pegasus model has yet to prove its viability for the future. It succeeded this year because:
1) The best thoroughbred since Secretariat was able to participate.
2) The most beloved horse in America was able to participate.
3) There were no scheduling conflicts to divert eligible participants.
4) Novelty has its own appeal.
5) The driving force behind it, the most influential individual in racing, was able to marshal all the necessary ancillary resources and was given the benefit of the doubt by deep-pocketed, curious risk-takers.
Fundamental flaws in funding and fairness which had been identified beforehand will require correction before the risk-takers ante-up again. Consequently, the distance of the race at Gulfstream Park will likely be expanded to 9.5 furlongs, and the purse distribution more variably tied to order of finish.
If Arrogate remains available for next year’s renewal, doesn’t his presence virtually take the top prize off the table? Will 11 other “investors” still be willing to risk $1 million for possible representation of some other 99-1 shot?
Written by John Pricci
Tuesday, December 06, 2016
Oldies, Goodies and Newbies
LOS ANGELES, December 5, 2016—What do Mike Smith, Bob Baffert, Gary Stevens, Richard Mandella, Bill Mott, Aiden O'Brien, Michael Stoute, and Frankie Dettori have in common?
Well, they're all racing legends that have won multiple Breeders' Cup races for decades--and they did so again in 2016. And none of the winners were the public’s choice.
Like some human recording stars, many of racing's equine stars can be one-hit wonders. Though spectacular first-time successes create cherished memories and visions of sugar plums, stardom is truly bequeathed against proven competition on center stage.
That’s what makes the Breeders' Cup work, and its strength is that it does so multiple times a day across multiple divisions.
What often gets overlooked is the overall performances of jockeys and trainers. Owners choose conditioners proven to have their high-priced horseflesh ready when it counts.
Likewise, trainers want riders known for coolness under pressure by overcoming unexpected obstacles in order to make the most of their preparation without costly error.
Smith's latest Breeders’ Cup win on Arrogate was his third of 2016 and 25th overall. Many were disappointed he didn’t win a fourth event aboard the very popular Songbird, who suffered her lone career defeat in the Distaff.
Instead, it was good friend Gary Stevens who won the Distaff on sentimental favorite and Eclipse champion Beholder for Dick Mandella, snatching victory from defeat’s jaws that was reminiscent of his ride on Victory Gallop denying Real Quiet Triple Crown immortality. It takes a legend to beat one.
But the true golden oldie is Smith, whose (8) 3-3-1 record in this year’s event elevated Money Mike’s achievement to platinum status especially since his other winners, Tamarkuz and Finest City, reported home at 11-1 and 8-1, respectively.
If Smith was heartbroken by the photo decision that went against Songbird, he didn't show it Saturday aboard Arrogate, engineering a close but decisive victory over older male champion California Chrome.
In the Classic, Smith's patience and confidence enabled him to reverse the role he had played in the previous day's feature, happy that he enhanced his mount’s chances of winning three-year old championship, maybe even Horse of the Year.
For his part, it was Travers Day all over again for Bob Baffert, who sent out both Drefong and Arrogate to repeat wins in their respective races.
Baffert, of course, started out as a quarter horse trainer fittingly winning his first Breeders’ Cup race in the 1992 Sprint in 1992, an event he’s won five times, including a back-to-backer with Midnight Lute in 2007-08.
But he also proved once again there’s no better conditioner of 10-furlong Grade I stakes runners. Indeed, Arrogate gave him back-to-back Classic wins as well, joining American Pharoah, Game On Dude, Real Quiet, Silver Charm and War Emblem, underscoring his mastery of mile and a quarter Grade 1s.
Another notable irony was that Baffert's Classic repeat required a reversal in roles for Smith and Victor Espinoza, American Pharoah’s partner.
The Chrome camp, of course, is chomping at the bit for a rematch in the Pegasus World Cup Invitation, but what do Arrogate's connections really gain by meeting California Chrome again at a shorter 9 furlongs, except perhaps getting 7-1 on a million-dollar bet?
Then again, $1.75 million for second and $1 million for third are worthwhile consolations when added to potential sharing of ancillary revenue.
As for the Pegasus, should destiny deposit the desired dozen stars to compete beneath the gaze of Pegasus himself, the ultimate winner should be the Stronach Group.
They had better after establishing new levels of admission and seating pricing that will limit participation in the event to only the deepest of pockets interested in racing.
Perhaps related in some way, Santa Anita recently announced a purse reduction for the "Big Cap," from $1M to $750K. Maybe TSG is considering a bonus-incentivized series that includes the Pegasus, Santa Anita Handicap and another graded stake at one of their properties to be named later.
Incrementalizing the purses of any subsequent legs for each starting Pegasus performer couldn't hurt potential Pegasus participation.
It also might be worth some discussion that rewards trainers and jockeys independent of the horses involved, perhaps another aspect of the promotion sure to come.
Mike Smith, while certainly one of the very best, isn’t the only money rider around, right?
Written by Indulto