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The Conscience of Thoroughbred Racing


So for a moment let’s forget Churchill Downs Inc.’s effects on racing in South Florida where Calder Race Course is no more, where second rate jai alai has replaced a solid summer and early fall meet of juvenile racing, their inexpensive way of maintaining a gaming license.

And forget the racing dates themselves which, of course, were leased to The Stronach Group that now conducts the ‘Gulfstream Park West’ summer meet while its racing surfaces in Hallandale Beach get a needed respite.

Note, too, CDI’s failure to back a casino legislation for struggling Arlington Park, one of racing’s top venues, because if doesn’t want to compete with its own casino 20 minutes down the road that earns revenue it need not share with Illinois horsemen in the form of purse contributions.

But they do pay attention to the Kentucky Derby, “America’s Race,” an event any corporation would be proud to call the face of its brand and franchise. Yes, their obligation is to their shareholders and this world class event is a huge money maker that richly enhances shareholder value.

But it was good news delivered on Monday that CDI will invest money in racing by ordering the construction of a 20-horse starting gate, thus making the start of the Kentucky Derby fair for all, right from the moment the latches are sprung.

Without the wide gap between stalls 14 and 15, the gate can be placed a tad closer to the outside so that slip #1 doesn’t line up directly with the end of the fence on the far turn, making the start for all not only fair but safer.

The 20-horse gate also will help reduce some of the crush caused by horses that cross over from their wide draws before reaching the all important first turn, where many Derbies are lost even before the serious running begins.

Churchill Downs has entered an agreement with Australian-based Steriline Racing to design and construct a 20-stall gate that will be ready in time for Derby 146, May 2. Delivery of the gate is scheduled for early April.

The new gate will be used exclusively for the Derby and will replace Churchill Downs’ standard starting gate, which will continue to be used for all other races. This begs the question can a 20-filly Kentucky Oaks be far behind?

Steriline Racing’s equipment is used by many major racing organizations, including Happy Valley and Sha Tin in Hong Kong, Flemington and Royal Randwick in Australia, Dubai’s Meydan Race Course and at every race course in the U.K., including Royal Ascot and a 22-stall gate at York.

While the move is in its own best interests, the sport benefits when an unneeded element of danger is removed at a widely disseminated racing event. Now all that’s needed is a tighter rein on overly aggressive race riding.

Nobody Knows…

… Or at least they’re not saying why the abrupt announcement that John Imbriale has replaced Larry Collmus as New York Racing Association race caller. Several insiders knew it was coming but none of them blew the whistle. And after the fact there are still no clear answers.

The speculation that it was a cost-cutting measure is plausible and may or may not be true considering how the announcement was handled.

There has been a movement to reduce the payscale of announcers, e.g. Frank Mirahmadi’s replacing Michael Wrona at Santa Anita. And a trusted HRI source told us that CDI asked Arlington’s John Dooley to accept a pay cut, a story we have been unable to confirm.

Those close to the NYRA situation hint there had to be more to the Collmus dismissal since the announcement stated that the change would be effective immediately. Imbriale has been calling Aqueduct’s winter meet for years, going back to Durkin era, including the 2019-20 season.

Collmus was a Gulfstream Park visitor several weeks ago but has spent time vacation time in South Florida every winter since he exited the Gulfstream booth to go to work at NYRA.

Many feel that Imbriale finally got the recognition he deserved. Imbriale’s style is probably closer to the legendary Fred Capossela in that it’s a straight forward race description free of editorial, popular with today’s older racing fans and bettors.

It was Durkin who changed the style of race-calling forever and his descriptive phrases are heard virtually everywhere today. Collmus came closest in terms of phrasing, tone and delivery. It’s never easy following a legend.

Catching Up with Harvey’s Lil Goil

Finally got to see Sunday’s Busanda in replay and while clearly a budding star she will need to run a tad faster, ever over Aqueduct’s slower interized surface Other than that, wow!

A scopey filly, this gray daughter of American Pharoah from a Tapit mare that has produced three other siblings, all winners; she was tons the best in the Busanda, racing virtually four wide every step of the way going two turns, drawing off under intermittent pressure, but geared down at the end.

Ironically, her breeder, Harvey A. Clarke of I’ll Have Another fame, died suddenly last month and failed to see the fourth offspring of Gloria S, finally become a stakes winner.

On Sunday, ‘Harvey’s’ won at the Oaks distance and Bill Mott, who prepared the filly at Payson Park, sent her back to a track she’s knows to like. Undefeated in two dirt starts at 8 and 9 furlongs, she’s certainly a filly to follow going forward.

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27 Responses

  1. Thanks for getting into the Busanda. Watching replays of the Sunday races this afternoon, I realized that Alvarado got into ‘Harvey’ a little more than I had made it sound in my comments in the other article – ‘hardly asked her at all’ was a bit off. She probably doesn’t measure up to the boys at the moment in 3yo graded stakes unless Mott wants to use her non-existent distance limitations to shoot at the Belmont. I want to see her run inside of quality horses before anything like a Belmont try is considered an option though; she isn’t sitting 3+ wide the whole way around Big Sandy and closing vs colts at 12f.

    Let’s get to the KY Oaks and see what happens; I’m excited to see her get the big test.

    1. Ask Jose Ortiz about sitting 4 wide the whole way around Big Sandy (Tacitus). Unluckiest Horse of 2019 (new Eclipse Award category). Pitiful ride. Had I been trainer I put brother Irad up and call it a day right there. I know, Irad was already committed to other top horses.

  2. You are right to be excited and make a good point about being able to mix it up between better horses, but she’s young and will learn. Personally, I’m not sure she’s the equal of Taraz, much less colts. Plenty of good things to see the rest of the spring, a really nice bunch of prospects at the top…

  3. Yeah that is very fair. I find the early Oaks trail just as interesting as the Derby trail this year. And looking ahead, I think we are potentially set up for a really strong Acorn & Mother Goose this spring at Belmont.

    1. Don’t forget The Black Eyed Susan at Pimlico. Then again the winner of Oaks would probably skip in a nod to her male brethren. The Codex/Genuine Risk fiasco was all the more interesting because of Derby matchup. Filly was robbed. As bad as MAX fleecing.

      1. Wrong again. Wikipedia tells how Codex owner, John Nerud, believed Triple Crown races too demanding of a top 3-year old like Codex and did not nominate for Derby. Wayne Lukas son, Jeff, accidentally nominated for Preakness and so he ran, and won. Codex was considered leading horse in CA in 1980. JP would’ve corrected me so I checked it out.

  4. Strange to see that Jai Alai is still around,after all,personally,i believe that ,since my experience betting on it during my days in Conn,circa 1980`s,it had to be the most ‘fixed game’ since southern Rasslin` ,,which by the way calls itself a ‘Non Event’,,and people still spend ,watch their $ on it ,its tickets,PPviews,Shirt and other fac similes on several different TV stations under different ‘brand’ names { ROH,WWE,Total,,and on and on. ” An Ignorant Patron is Our Best customer ” is a slogan which Barney`s never used. Someone dropped his pelotas [brains,marbles] somewhere and never found them again. If you cannot bet it in Las Vegas,New Jersey is not a sport,amigos,suckers. but as long as they pay $ for it,’Step Right up ,Folks’ as they used to say at the Circus moons ago.and leave your logic behind…if you had any..

  5. I see both sides of the track announcer compensation situation.
    Basically, it’s a five to six hour job with excellent hours, generally in by noon, out by 6. You don’t get your hands dirty and unless you’re the extremely nervous sort, you don’t break a sweat. So salaries well into six figures might seen overly generous.
    But it’s a mentally taxing job with a very unique skill set, one that is mastered by only a select few. In the business world, this is routinely well rewarded.
    The caveat is, this only applies when the business is doing well. Race tracks no longer are money printing presses. As other forms of gambling move to the fore, racing’s slice of the disposable income pie is being cut drastically. I don’t get to see race track balance sheets but I feel confident that salaries, if not jobs and entire departments, are experiencing cutbacks.
    It’s also fair to say that track announcers are in the entertainment business, where people are routinely compensated far beyond their literal contribution to society.
    The announcer’s job at NYRA is the top of the profession and should be rewarded as such. Alas, the audience is shrinking. Metaphorically speaking, talents that used to be performed for arena if not stadium size audiences is now playing theaters.
    Few simulcast venues turn up the volume so that race calls can be heard. With so many tracks in operation simultaneously, it would sound like a Tower of Babel. If not for TVG, announcers would be heard only by the live crowd at the track, which on many days barely breaks into four figures.
    Larry Colmus had a figure he felt he was worth. NYRA had its estimate of what he contributed to the track’s bottom line.
    There is only one way this could have ended.

    1. Love it, ‘tho, when Pete says something like, “This horse is 70-1 but you wouldn’t know it!” Remember Larry Lederman? “And the fans are on their feet and the fans are screamin’ for more… (Atlantic City Racecourse in winter with nobody there).” Or Jack E. Lee at Freehold, “Jackie Mo (Moiseyev), that’s all you gotta know.” Hey, Chick Anderson used to call the WRONG horse!

  6. C, Thanks for saving me some time, at a premium these days. Also, your candor is appreciated…

  7. TJ, saying that race calling is a 5-6 hour day is not fair. What about the preparation? Did you ever see Durkin’s notebook, filled with phrases that are occasion-appropriate? He worked on it constantly, I know that for a fact.

    I think I have a little ability, did some TV back in the day, radio, just as you have. But there is no way I could ever be a viable race caller–and that’s before ‘senior-moment syndrome’ became a reality!

    Denny, Larry left GP for the NYRA job; doubt they would take someone back who walked out on them. But one never knows…

    1. Larry’s call of American Pharoah Belmont an instant classic: “A horse of a LIFETIME!” The guy was good, very good.

    2. Can’t go to Sufferin’ (Suffolk) Downs, shuttered (open for simulcasting Weds thru Sun). “May the horse be with you”-Harvey Pack

  8. John: Thanks for following up on the NYRA track announcer story. Doesn’t it seem strange that there is a dearth of information about the Collmus/NYRA breakup? Why is everybody being so secretive about a change in announcers? One more thing, both Tom Durkin and Trevor Denman retired/semi-retired ( Trevor gave up Santa Anita) at the age of 63. Johnny I has been a loyal NYRA employee for 40 years, and is a good announcer, but at the age of 64, the question must be asked as to how long he intends to be the full-time NYRA announcer? Both Tom and Larry took the long winter off and they were much younger than John. Something is wrong out by Jamaica Bay.

  9. I agree Fram re NYRA has issues. Perhaps they always have but the problems have exacerbated since the state started looking over their shoulders. Johnny I too much of a professional. When he feels it slipping away, he’ll walk away. Jobs like his do not get easier with age. And I hope they find a suitable backup in the interim…

  10. Larry is very good, C, just wish he had adopted a more original style. But technically he more than did the job…

  11. JP,
    You are making it sound like I am denigrating announcers. To the contrary, I have nothing but respect and admiration for them.
    I think I made that clear when I wrote, “it’s a mentally taxing job with a very unique skill set, one that is mastered by only a select few.”
    I’ve solo hosted hundreds of hours of talk radio. I like to think I did it fairly well (though not close to as well as the real pros) because I kept getting asked back. But I wouldn’t dare attempt to call a race.
    I think Tom Durkin is the best there ever has been but jotting down phrases for use in the appropriate context is something that just comes to every creative person in the course of the day. I do it and I assume you do, too, in putting together columns.
    To reiterate, nothing in my comment was meant to diminish the work or skills of race-callers.

    As for NYRA, transparency is not one of the company’s strong suits. By not being more open when Chris Kay was shown the door, effective immediately, they encouraged the wildest kinds of speculation, which did not well serve NYRA or Kay. CEO’s of billion dollar corporations do not get fired because they had a maintenance guy cut their lawn.
    The exit of Collmus, explained by “couldn’t agree on a new contract,” is more of the same. One thing people have learned in our business is those who have coveted jobs do not suddenly leave to see what else is out there. There is nothing out there better than the NYRA job.
    My suspicion is, NYRA made an offer so low-ball that Collmus felt insulted and the relationship was irreparably fractured. I have heard from numerous sources that this is what happened with Trevor Denman at Santa Anita.
    But unless, someone writes a book we probably will never know.

  12. TJ, right on all counts. I guess I have announcers n such a high pedestal that I get sensitive when I think they are being short changed.

    Totally agree re NYRA’s transparency issues and, yes, it did start with the Chris Kay “effective immediately” phrase. In Kay’s place, it turned out that he did something contrary to policy.

    I know there’s more to this story but nobody’s talking. Perhaps when and if Larry lands at another track he might be tempted to talk. Meanwhile, however, he did leave three tracks as he rose up the ladder of prestige. But as you say, where does anyone go from NY?

  13. Didn’t realize John I was my age, thought he was a bit younger, thinking that this is more of a temporary solution thus. John is a good soldier and will do his best, as always.

    The question would be is there someone out there that will get the job after. The names that come to mind – Michael Wrona, John Dooley, and Travis Stone., with the last two having had previous relationship with NYRA. Travis was actually my longshot choice to get th a job when Durkin retired somewhat unexpectedly. Always felt bad for Tom that the very next year American Pharoah won the Triple Crown without him being the racecaller.

    1. Jack Lee was fired by Roosevelt but I never heard reason why. I think he liked the amber colored liquids but could be wrong. Excellent harness announcer. They’re not gonna catch The Redman, Carmine, he’s gonna win it all.” Carmine was the best. Go to the front and stay there.

  14. What does the horserace announcer have to do with pick’in winners? At the local joint, unless you are sitting in a carrel in front of your own personal TV, there is no call of a race as all volume on wall TV’s is turned off. Occasionally, if my plodder is within a city block of winning, I will get a bit loud. Ya’all know where your horse is during a race, so what’s a race caller got to do with it? I can’t recall when Tom Durkin ever gave me a winner but I always cringed when he would comment ‘X has another gear’ as if the horse was a machine.

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