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The Conscience of Thoroughbred Racing

ON PACO LOPEZ, RACE RIDING, AND A REVIEW OF SATURDAY’S DERBY PREP PERFORMANCES

HALLANDALE BEACH, FL, March 6, 2022 – Immediately after the Fountain of Youth horses reached the finish line, I left the building.

After all the bad news this week, watching the carnage at headstretch was so upsetting that I eschewed post-race interviews and reached for the single malt as soon as I arrived home.

While driving, a friend called to ask if I was still at the track, I told him no, that the incident rattled me and I just had to leave.

I was relieved when he told me the horses walked off the track and back to their barns, and that early reports were that the riders involved did not suffer serious injuries.

I went to bed knowing I had a solid lead for a Sunday column. It would have been something like “It’s very rare when three main events produce three dominating victories in a single division, Triple Crown prep races no less.”

Then I checked my Twitter feed.

Before putting my head on the pillow, I learned that the prodigious Richard Migliore, a friend I respect, lodged serious criticism of Paco Lopez. So much for sleep, a video review was in order.

I reviewed the pan shot no less than eight times and, while something clearly happened with Lopez in the middle of the action, what I saw was inconclusive as to ascribe blame to anyone, including Lopez. A bang-bang play, literally.

An aside: I recently wrote extensively on modern “race riding,” how it’s gotten out of control, a quasi-contact sport when big money is on the line–someone was going get killed unless stewards everywhere did something about a practice that happens virtually everywhere, every day.

My wrath was directed toward Irad Ortiz Jr. for two incidences, which ultimately resulted in a combined 30-day suspension. But I’ve been critical of Lopez in the past, too, noting the Ft Lauderdale Stakes back in the day when he nearly dropped Jerry Bailey who was moving into contention up the fence on the backside.

Lopez’s reputation precedes him. He probably has gotten more “days” than anyone in the history of Florida racing. Not unexpected, there was a Twitter piling-on mostly in support of Migliore’s assertion. More than once tweeters stated that a head-on view was unavailable.

Like so many things on social media these days, that was untrue.

I reviewed the head-on as many times as the pan and was left with the same conclusion, I could not make a definitive call. In my view, the stewards did the right thing taking no action and Gulfstream Park did the right thing by not eliminating the head-on view.

From my vantage point, Lopez had In Due Time in close quarters between horses and, at about the time he decided to make the space bigger, there was slight pressure from the outside of the fallen horse, making the situation untenable for all. It was an accident.

A review of the head-on camera from behind the field did not clarify what took place. In fact, it appeared that a trailing horse clipped the heels of the animal in front of him. Consequently, two horses fell and those in the vicinity altered course for safety. Joel Rosario said he didn’t have time to avoid contact.

The spill was horrific and it’s miraculous that all parties walked away, the riders suffering “minor” injuries; Junior Alvarado suffering some damage to his left ankle and Rosario complained of back pain. No jockey claimed foul, neither did Bill Mott who trained both fallen horses.

“All I know is High Oak was in close quarters,” Mott said afterward.

The industry must make a concerted effort to put an end to race-riding. If you need to resort to herding, or making contact to intimidate a path to victory, stewards need not change the order of finish, but the rider must get “days” for his actions. This has to stop. There are rules. Enforce them.

What I don’t understand are owners and trainers who apparently are OK with putting riders and their own horses at needless risk. If jockeys have to violate safety and racing rules in order to win, they are cheating. A racing official who feels conflicted and doesn’t want to do his job needs to find a new line of work.

Derby Picture Coming Into Focus

As the horses for the Fountain of Youth Stakes entered the walking ring, a colleague asked “who do you think is Todd Pletcher’s best Derby horse?”

“I don’t know, maybe this one,” I said, nodding towards Emmanuel, “but I don’t know. Tell you the truth, I really don’t have a handle on this year’s Derby yet.”

The view is a bit more focused after three impressive victories by horses in Florida, New York, and California over the weekend.

Saturday’s Tampa Derby, the Louisiana and Arkansas Derbies, and eventually the Santa Anita Derby, Blue Grass and Wood Memorial will color what’s left of the landscape.

Then, of course, one final piece: Who is having the best fortnight in the run-up to May’s first Saturday?

Each of Saturday’s preps yielded eye-opening performances. Forbidden Kingdom, the most dominating of the three, won in front-running style, which is not the preferred Kentucky Derby style. This makes his Derby chances tougher to assess.

Consider, for example, what happens when Forbidden Kingdom’s speed matches up with Messier’s? Do they cancel each other out? Or Epicenter’s speed?

(Yes, we’re aware that Messier is Derby ineligible as of this post).

But Forbidden Kingdom pleased all eyes, including Mr. Mandella’s, even if the effort came at speed-kind Santa Anita. Doppelganger’s new style was effective as he narrowed the margin, and he likely will continue progressing [yes, I know, see Messier].

There are things about Morello we really like. As noted in our pre-race analysis Saturday morning, there appears to be a good amount of juice left in this lemon, which came in handy in the Gotham mile. And then we learned something else:

Morello has gears, which he showed by separating himself from the group at the three-sixteenths marker, leaving the impression a second turn and longer trip will be within his wheelhouse. It had better be, longer and tougher are on the horizon.

Drama notwithstanding, the Fountain of Youth was the most entertaining, and illuminating, of the three preps, leaving good things to say about the first four finishers. In reverse order:

He would never say so but Todd Pletcher could not have been pleased with Luis Saez’ performance on race favorite Emmanuel. A flat-footed start was not on Saez, and neither was the four-across positioning on the first turn.

But getting strung out five wide the entire trip thereafter? Maybe it was an effort not to eat too much dirt. But good horses must overcome to succeed at the highest levels. The colt’s inexperience took a toll and he did very well to finish fourth.

O Captain? My Captain, where did that run come from? Third in his previous start, he managed to pass five rivals from the stretch call home, racing wide through a final sixteenth that went in 06.64. Coming from last of 11, he fell short by only 4-1/2 lengths. Ultimately, we’ll need to see a repeat of that effort.

In Due Time and partner Paco Lopez got a lot of attention for the incident at headstretch, but this colt is most worthy of praise for his overall performance.

Yes, he saved ground but was buffeted around when trying to split rivals as seven horses were racing in contentiously close quarters. It was a very promising two-turn debut. This is a very nice colt that merits strong consideration the rest of the way.

In our view, Simplification was the most impressive prep performer this weekend. He did manage to save some ground while between horses, but was forced to rally six across the track on the turn approaching headstretch.

Antonio Sano’s charge fought his way to the lead and kicked clear with authority despite failing to change to his correct right lead. The most impressive aspect of the victory was he did not appear gassed as he crossed the finish line. This old school type overcomes adversity, a necessary tool come May.

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15 Responses

  1. Yeah, about that race, why did they, TVG, refuse to show the replay since *nobody was injured*? They could not spend a few seconds showing its viewers what Really happened? They can Always edit and just show the few seconds before the stretch ! It was like watching trying to Hide whatever happened by just switching to another race.. and to think that They Had a reporter-handicapper at the track looking at the jockeys, horses involved as the ambulance was already at the scene !!! That was BS, trying to shield the happening even if there was no major, early, injury. Patrons, viewers, bettors and horse racing fans should not get this childish ,Big Bro treatment! That was very insulting to anyone with a modicum of logic, intelligence, and yes, curiosity. Still say, for the 100th time, no matter who wins, longshot or odd- on favorites, Gotta show the replay, or at least the stretch, of all races. This *Hurry up on to the next race* style of one screen multi simulcasting has Never been to my liking. Too many times, viewers do not know who is running, at what distance and what the odds are of the quadrupeds involved. That is Another reason why I ve only played Seven races in Three days, all of them at Aqueduct… Patience, my friends, patience.

  2. First, I resent when racetracks eliminate possibly incriminating replays. You are right, it is a disservice and horseplayers are entitled to information and respect.

    Perhaps, TVG could have done a better job, vis a vis editing and analysis, but in their defense there were big events coming up from different venues in a short period of time and it’s extremely difficult for producers to always make the right call.

    (I didn’t watch today to see if there was any follow-up).

    As for the rest of it, patience, indeed.

  3. A funny thing happened on my way to the replay center Monday morning to double-check several trips after spending many, many prior views concerning the two-horse spill and the role Paco Lopez played, or not, in the incident.

    The pan shot was edited at headstretch and the incident was unavailable for viewing. I was looking to see how race favorite Emmanuel continued through the stretch after being swooped up, along with everyone else, by Simplification’s wide stretch rally.

    The reason that will be given is saving the public from viewing the ugly incident at headstretch–thank the Deity that horses and riders were not seriously injured, or worse.

    But as JGR stated above the public is entitled to see what happened, after all, millions of dollars, in straight, vertical and horizontal pools, were wagered on the Fountain of Youth.

    When will racetracks ever give its fans and betting public the transparency they need and deserve. The fact that the Fountain of Youth video was edited as a matter of policy is indefensible and an unassailable embarrassment.

    1. ,,and since we’re talking about Editing, my Patience was not directed at what happened in that race but to the individually chosen ways to Bet Which you decided to delete. There are no excuses for what they chose to show and hide. Who,what,where,when and how remain the questions to be answered,whether it happens in sports or politics. Being irresponsible makes people lose interest,respect.

    2. Wow I get not showing the replay of the fall during a crossover audience television broadcast – which many Derby prep races are. You absolutely CANNOT edit that film on the replay center feeds though; serious horseplayers have every right to see everything that was recorded during a race. Period.

      1. Could not agree more, Doc. Just like in government, often, there is no accountability…

    3. And for the record, I really don’t care for Paco Lopez’ act – I was not displeased when Irad Ortiz fed him some Golden Gloves – but at least from what I saw myself I cannot jump down his throat on this one. This feels like a (well deserved) pre-written conclusion that was just waiting for the next opportunity to be retrofitted into an incident. Only problem is, in this case it feels like it was shoehorned in with force.

      For all the legit foul stuff Paco does on track during a race, it was a serious swing and a miss to waste the call-out in this spot.

      1. Doc, have stated over and over, I can’t make a definitive determination. Better headstretch video is a must at all racetracks, who never seem to make investments that benefit the public–without passing those costs along.

        Unfortunately, Paco’s reputation precedes him and many judgment were based on history, not conclusive video evidence. I kept thinking–probably a little crazy, if this were the NFL what would happen. Hearts and minds? #Inconclusive

        Have to disagree on one thing. No one should be sucker-punched…

        1. I am cool with that – I am sure there is a lot of history between two riders as frighteningly aggressive as these two, and i would be absolutely shocked if that was the first time Irad Ortiz threw hands with Paco. But he did catch Paco in a situation where Paco was not expecting to have to defend himself and that is not cool. On a side note, it’s pretty wild how incredibly different Irad and Jose Ortiz are in terms of personality and demeanor. Jose is considered one of the most genuinely nice people on the grounds.

          I love Richard Migliore, and his spots on the Steve Byk show are always really good in addition to the NYRA broadcast work he does. But it is not fair to unload both barrels at Paco Lopez and not have the video evidence to accompany the commentary.

          1. It’s true. While fierce competitors, the Ortiz brothers are night and day personality-wise, at least publicly. Don’t know either well enough to comment further.

            I, too, love Richard Migliore, but what I said to him via twitter and here is that I could neither agree nor disagree with his assessment because, despite watching the video ad nauseum from both angles, I could not make a determination either way.

  4. John, do you think the 7 could have gotten in the number if he hadn’t clipped heals?
    I ask because i needed him 2nd or 3rd for the trifercta.

    1. Impossible to answer Denny because it’s not knowable in my view. Best guess? Maybe…maybe third, not second…

  5. And now Paco was just suspended for 14 days for the ride. CAN WE PLEASE BE ALLOWED TO SEE WHAT “HAPPENED?!?!?!”

  6. Everyone should call the GP stewards and ask. My take has been posted. Guess they’ll go back to the original video to [prove their point. The sanitized version shows nothing.

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