Vic Zast

From the perspective of being an owner, an industry pioneer in corporate sponsorship, a track president and fan, Vic Zast writes the "Destinations" column for The Blood-Horse. His five-star ratings of international events have shed light on racing in all corners of the globe - from England, Australia, Hong Kong, Dubai to Japan.

Vic is a regular contributor to, a columnist for the Illinois Racing News and has written on racing for, National Public radio and The Age, Australia's leading daily.

Vic makes his home in Chicago and lives in Saratoga Springs in August.

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Saturday, April 09, 2011

Horse Racing on TV a Disappearing Act

(CHICAGO, IL - April 9, 2011) The irrelevance of horse racing in the popular culture was evident on several fronts this week. In Illinois, some state legislators denounced supporting the sport by saying it no longer attracts the public’s notice. Proof that these claims have merit is borne out by the networks’ indifference to two Grade 1 stakes with Kentucky Derby influence.

If the Santa Anita Derby and Wood Memorial aren’t important enough to be televised, there are only five days of racing that are. It may be in this decade that they, too, will evaporate. Horse racing has long been considered a niche interest. But dismissing historic fixtures with such disregard makes the niche a mere secret.

Throughout the year, only the Triple Crown races and two days of Breeders’ Cup action – five days in all - will bring horse racing enjoyment to television audiences. Bowling, rodeo and boxing are on more than that. Surf the dial and find totally unwatchable trash on a regular basis. Yet, no person of marginal horse racing knowledge would think to abandon these poor offerings for the industry-produced sources that will carry this weekend’s action in alternate fashion.

Regulars maintain that the slight won’t affect them in one way or another. They know the landscape and can make do with computers. Nevertheless, witnessing horse racing’s main competitions disappear from key media has not been a pleasant experience. Considering the sport’s almost universal exclusion in newspapers and its status as “other” on Network Internet sites, the introduction of horse racing to new fans using conventional tools is nearly impossible.

As for upcoming Grade 1s like the Blue Grass Stakes and Arkansas Derby, the future’s no better. With fewer people able to learn about Dialed In and Uncle Mo by TV discovery, the Kentucky Derby will lose luster and probably viewers. Promotion occurs as a result of compounded effort.

There are two ways to become newsworthy. The first is to make news. The second is to buy it. Horse racing, at least on this weekend, seems incapable of either.

Vic Zast will be back on Monday morning with TrackWords. Find him on the weekend at Facebook and Twitter.

Written by Vic Zast

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Thursday, January 27, 2011

Lessons in Quit

(CHICAGO, IL – January 27, 2011) Chicagoans were treated to a couple lessons in quit this week.

First, there was the phantom knee ligament tear that caused quarterback Jay Cutler to watch on the sidelines as his Bears teammates went down to defeat against the Green Bay Packers in the NFC Championship game. (He was seen browsing the shops of Beverly Hills with his girlfriend Wednesday.)

Then, on the flip side, Chicagoans watched former White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel, the clear front-runner in the city’s mayoral race, thrown off the ballot by the court for not being a resident, only to claw his way back into the election like a man possessed with the thought of victory. (He was shaking hands with the electorate at El stops at dawn yesterday despite no indication that the Supreme Court would hear his appeal or vote in his favor that afternoon.)

Quit in terms of the Cutler kind occurs often in horse racing. Nobody calls it “quit,” of course. But nobody calls aiming your horse away from the competition to a lesser race that you can win “unsportsmanlike” either. In today’s ever-strengthening money-oriented society the man who makes the fiscally-sound choice is admired more than the man who shows daring. It wasn’t always that way.

“There’s a big difference now in the owners who are prominent and the old owners that you’re harkening back to,” said horse owner and breeders Jim Squires, the former editor of the Chicago Tribune, in a telephone interview. “These guys are smart enough to know that this is not a business. But, strangely enough, after they get in, they have a big horse and suddenly think that it’s a business and they’re going to make money in it,” the current owner of Two Bucks Farm said.

Squires believes that the new brand of owners applies predictable business principles such as cost cutting and brand management to what is essentially a gamble. Their business approach leads to carefully managed campaigns that are designed to achieve perfection for their stallion and broodmare prospects.

A horse used to be considered a potential sire because he was well-bred, properly-conformed and durable. Proof of such attributes is no longer necessary. Prudence explains also, in part, why the best horses race infrequently, retire early and bankrupt the sport’s history.

“Today, horses will come off the track after four races and the trainer will be featured in some article saying, ‘This is the fastest two-year-old I ever trained.’ It’s amazing that people are taken in by that garbage,” Squires said. “For the last ten to 15 years, the speculators went nuts over first-year stallions, even when they didn’t do anything - they might have run a big Beyer, or they set a track record, or they won a stakes at Saratoga, and that’s all you have to do,” he said, explaining, in part, what goes on. “Well, most of them are junk,” he concluded.

“You want to send a stallion to stud at the height of its popularity and prominence,” Squires continued, underscoring that “junk” is introduced into the breed’s bloodstream because fiscal considerations overrule the sport of it all. Modern breeding and training practices have forced business-driven owners to operate on borrowed time. A permissible medication policy produces few horses that are able to last long, and even fewer horses able to compete at a peak level over several seasons, which, by the way, make the achievements of Zenyatta more astounding than casual fans of the sport realize.

Horses with Triple Crown potential and graded stakes success – the ones that offer the most commercial upside as sires - are at a much higher risk of catastrophic injury that would jeopardize their value than horses without great ability. They’re subjected to harder training, more medications and x-rays, and they most likely have a genetic disposition toward unsoundness that was passed along to them by sires of similar circumstances. The situation has the force of a perfect storm, yet it doesn’t seem to be a storm that will pass over soon.

Too often, the news of the day when it comes to horse racing is about which horses didn’t run instead of which did. Boys At Tosconova will be walking the sidelines when the gates fly open for the Holy Bull. The unpredictable nature of a two-year-old colt’s development is the cause of it – at least that’s what the owner says. Wait another 30 days, and the trainer will say, “Fastest two-year-old colt I ever trained.”

Written by Vic Zast

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Wednesday, January 05, 2011

Eclipse Award Make-up Sex

(CHICAGO, IL – January 5, 2011) By deciding to present a Special Eclipse Award to Team Zenyatta and an Eclipse Award of Merit to Claiborne Farm, a few representatives of the National Thoroughbred Racing Association, National Turf Writers and Broadcasters and Daily Racing Form made getting an Eclipse Award seem like make-up sex.

Now, some people would say that make-up sex can be the best sex of all. And nobody is questioning the propriety of giving these designates a kiss. But Eclipse Awards become precious because horses and people earn them in competition, by a vote of experts - not because someone’s afraid to ruffle a few feathers when the results don’t come out the way wanted.

Members of Claiborne and Team Zenyatta have stated openly that they believe their horse is deserving of Horse of The Year. Only one horse can win the award, unless there’s a tie in the voting. To be certain that each party goes home at least somewhat fulfilled, it apparently was decided that an ancillary Eclipse Award would serve to placate the party whose horse came up short in the vote What’s been wrought is an insult – an insult to those receiving the made-up award and to those who are winning the real ones.

The industry has ways to acknowledge extraordinary contributions. Just about every organization with its own annual fund-raising event has concocted an award which provides supporters a legitimate excuse to attend. If the Eclipse Award organizers were serious about making their awards program more extensive, they could have created a “J.B. Faulconer Award” for that purpose.

Faulconer was the Keeneland publicist who invented the Eclipse Award program. A J.B. Faulconer Award would serve the thoroughbred sport in the same manner as the Jean Hershholt Humanitarian Award or the Irving G. Thalberg Memorial Award serves the American Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences – not as an Oscar but as a prestigious award which is committee-determined and presented to a worthy recipient on Oscar night.

Claiborne is celebrating its 100th year and the Hancock family has been prominent in the game for almost that long. In partnership with Adele Dilschneider, the Paris, Kentucky breeding and racing operation campaigned the Breeders’ Cup Classic winner Blame. Team Zenyatta, represented by owners Jerry and Ann Moss, trainer John Shirreffs and jockey Mike Smith, enabled the country’s most charismatic horse to continue making memories when, in fact, she could have entered a life of baby-making last fall. These are reasons indeed to salute them.

In addition to Claiborne, Marylou Whitney will be receiving a Eclipse Award of Merit, and she, too, is deserving of being honored. Whitney will receive her Eclipse for considerably less transparent reasons. Being one of two winners instead of one, however, will make her award a bit diluted. The Eclipse Award of Merit, first awarded in 1976, has been shared in only two years; the Special Eclipse Award, awarded for the first time in 1971, only three times. But the last time it was shared between Roy and Gretchen Jackson and the New Bolton Center, which, in that particular instance, was one and the same anyway.

No Eclipse Award of Merit was presented in one of the last three years; there have been several years when no Special Eclipse Award was presented. Both awards are awards of convenience, found inconvenient in 21 different years. It may be that, when given, they provide satisfaction to the people awarding them more than the people receiving them.

Horse racing has a problem comprehending that “exceptional” is a concept that derives its definition by being rare and singularly estimable. Last year, the same people who couldn’t control their urge to designate three recipients for what should be, at the very most, one special Eclipse Award, toyed around with the ultimate fence-sitting idea of allowing voters to cast a vote that could have resulted in Rachel Alexandra and Zenyatta as Co-Horses of The Year.

Perhaps that maneuver wasn’t what you’d call make-up sex, but ménage a trios. Nevertheless, to deeply-avowed monogamists, it seemed as boner-less as two of this year’s three extra Eclipse Awards.

Written by Vic Zast

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Saturday, January 01, 2011

Collective Accounting, New Year’s Eve

At midnight on the last day of the year, as the moon lays a blanket of light on the pastures and the wind stirs the needles on the pines that line their edges, nothing seems different than the night before or the day after. Yet, the horses will celebrate a birthday.

It is a custom used to categorize the species simply. The event slips away undetected. In a quiet room where records are kept and matters like this may mean something, someone takes notice. But the horses don’t. They sleep standing, bobbing gently when the burden of their weight on a leg makes the other leg numb. Meanwhile, another passage in the continuum of life rolls on by.

A small band has gathered in a corner. The tracks of a rabbit in the snow corral its members. An aurora of steam frames their elegant shapes with a halo. Their bodies are backlit by the blue from a lamp that hangs from the eaves on the corner of a nearby farmhouse. Smoke seeps from the chimney. Stars splatter the globe’s dome. The night is unremarkable, otherwise.

Acknowledging a faint faraway sound, a mare paws the sodden Earth. She is heavy through the middle like an old man laying face down in a hammock. She shakes the dusting off her swaybacked spine with a tremble and lets out with a snort. Her eyes shut, her head dipped, the jagged movement in her back is subtle.

The waning hours of the 365th day, with their emphasis on ritual and excess, represent a human concept. Nature marks the seasons by the forming of ice on the streams and the flight of geese and a new circle in the trunk of a sycamore. Homo sapiens, the ingenious species, create history, define goals and make resolutions.

As proof of this, the farm’s owners are engaged in Lucullan revelries. Homes across the region are aglow. Strands of Auld Lang Syne can be heard, champagne’s poured, toasts are made and there’s kissing when the clock strikes twelve. People are unique in maintaining a record of their lives. The past, present and the future merely happen for other life forms.

Animals comply with the natural order. Possessed with uncanny awareness, horses behave at the command of their instincts. Their sense of place and role is a result of a genetic disposition. Which of the many shall lead the pack through a figure eight in the paddock? Which will enter a gate first when they’re brought home from the elements?

Remarkably, within the fenced borders, myriad issues that escape the human experience are being sorted out. The equine universe is holistic. Hierarchy and purpose are the dictates of DNA, not the adherence to convention. There’s a place for even the least of the beasts.

Why anyone allows cruelty in this kingdom is a mystery. Yet, men with a worldly motive have shown to be uncommonly heartless. Everything in nature deserves to be watched over. Rescue, sanctuary and euthanasia are choices. The world is connected.

When a living thing appears at the end of its happiness, humans who do less than they can to preserve its dignity face the sad fate of becoming diminished. The life of a creature exists at their biding. Horses ask little in return for their beauty, their loyalty and service. A person enters into a compact with a force beyond comprehension whenever a horse is bred, born and raised. At the very least, the manner with which people dispose of animals who suffer is a reflection of how they themselves wish to be treated.

There are men who can see invisible things, it is said. This night, on the occasion of collective accounting, a man of unusual insight approaches the arena. He breaks the peace of the falling snow. The pointed flakes, each in their own composition, descend on the oil-treated shoulders of his Barbour. He is a shaman, whose mystical powers enable him to operate in nature’s realm.

Quietly standing in the circle of the herd, the shaman understands that his thoughts lack in consequence. But he’s unable to escape them. And he listens, and hears nothing. And the horses show no signs of wariness. Their acceptance of fate proceeds without complication, as if nothing in the past or the future, regardless of its influence, will intrude upon the stillness.

Written by Vic Zast

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Thursday, November 18, 2010

Riding the Third Rail

(SARATOGA SPRINGS, NY - November 18, 2010) The readers’ response to the recent column I wrote entitled “Psycho Talk” is not surprising to me. As a matter of fact, the sentiments expressed are consistent with the phenomenon I wrote about. I consider my piece an affirmation that passion is good for the sport. My closing paragraph is clear about how I think about that.

Even though the public reporting of the fans’ over-zealous attachment to certain horses has been largely ignored by the media (for obvious reasons), it does not mean that the topic should not be researched, understood and written about. No movement more clearly describes the past six years or so accurately illustrates horse racing’s recent history. Nevertheless, I believe that in the heat of the conversation, some readers stooped beneath the level of dignity with their comments and I’m disappointed in that. Some comment writers should be ashamed.

Lacking the intelligence to craft a proper rebuttal, several readers used disinformation and relied on distortion of history to get their licks in. (I forgive the misspellings; they could be typos, e.g. NEGITIVE and f_ucking.) Few readers who posted comments have my resume or know what I’m really like, yet they didn’t feel in the least bit inhibited about calling me names or saying that I’m unqualified, disrespecting my age, using profanity or spitting in my face verbally. Fielding ignorance like theirs comes with the job. I didn’t eat snakes in the army like one reader wrote. But I’m sufficiently tough-skinned. Still, the erosion of civility in society is troubling.

If a reader remains objective, I believe he will read far more in “Psycho Talk” that honors the legacies of Barbaro, Rachel Alexandra and Zenyatta than tears them down. Other horses have had long unbeaten streaks during their time and have not received the kind of adulation they’ve received. I tried to provide reasons to explain why. I asked an expert in the field of social psychology to shed light on the subject.

Is the piece provocative? Well, of course, it is. But then why would I want to write something that bores you or replicates something you’ve read elsewhere? Does it reflect anger? No, I think the comments in response to the column are angry. Is the editorial unusual in the way it is challenging? Perhaps it is in the world of horse racing, but not within the context of thought-generating op-eds about politics, life trends and current events that you read in newspapers daily. Is not horse racing a realm in which disagreements flourish?

I am not sorry that some people were offended by what I wrote. I wrote nothing that insulted anyone directly, individually or unfairly. What some readers are experiencing – identifying personally with the remarks written about the behavior of unspecified individuals – is common.

At the same time, if you’re really a Barbaro maniac, Rachel Alexandra fanatic or avowed Z-lot, you may want to reflect deeply on the various ways you’ve exhibited your loyalty. You might find that prejudice, pettiness and open hostility to people who disagree with you have, on occasion, earmarked your passion.

On the other hand, you may not reach this conclusion at all. You may conclude that your behavior has been appropriate throughout. That would be consistent with how I think you'll react and consistent with what I wrote.

Written by Vic Zast

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