Sunday, December 28, 2008

A Rough Start For Santa Anita and Pro-Ride

Another day another mishap or two! Two days of racing does not set a precedent, however, if the two days of Breeder's Cup races resulted in the same number of injuries to horses as the first two days of the Santa Anita meet, praise would not have been the response for the Pro-Ride surface.

I'm don't want to get into another long discussion about surfaces or offer any solutions, I don't think there are any. I've already made my feelings about the synthetic tracks known here. They will continue to occur, it's the nature of the beast (no pun intended). I have always felt that they are even more likely to occur in the premier events because that is where the sports best athlete's compete. Those races are where supreme effort pushes performance to it's physical limits. And that is why I think more injuries occur in top level races. But take this as hearsay at the moment because I don't know this assumption to be true. It may be more injuries occur at in cheap Maiden Claiming races where the physically inferior horses show up. But my assumption is they can't or won't run hard enough to hurt themselves as often.

We can try to limit breakdowns by making surfaces as safe as possible and running horses that are as healthy as possible. That's about all we can do, regardless of them being synthetic or natural. We can only hope that through track safety and by the cessation of steroid use for non-medical, non-injury uses that the numbers of injuries, over time, will be significantly lowered. Synthetic tracks are not a panacea for this problem. The use of synthetics seems like a viable option to natural surfaces in some areas of the country, but why California dove into them headfirst is a real bewilderment. I'm not suggesting there will be more injuries on synthetics, but over time I do not think there will be fewer. I do think the negative impacts to the sport and breed by racing only synthetics should have been considered more carefully (again my thoughts on that are in the above link.)

Harm to the industry as a result of harm to horses is the real issue here. And another area that falls into this is horse slaughter. No one likes to talk about it, everyone wants to come down on the politically correct side of saying that we have to save them. That too is a nice idea but I don't think it is possible either. And maybe it shouldn't be the answer. I was taken by the common sense of a letter [No Easy Answer] in the Horse (January 2009) this month that addressed this issue. The humane slaughter of horses should be at the center of this issue. The letter addressed horses in general but in the thoroughbred industry alone too many horses are being bred and too many are are not going to be useful racehorses. What is the answer? You can't save them all. And while I can't envision ever consuming a horse myself there are obviously many in the world that have and do. Is that not a noble end for any living thing? To add to life. To nourish life. It seems to me that those are two goals that one should strive for in life and are in no way demeaning or degrading as a final use for the remains of life. I think this is probably more of a cultural issue than anything else. Don't get my intention here wrong. I am not saying that we shouldn't try to save horses. I am saying that we can not and will not be able to save them all. If we all accept that reality the next best thing to do is to insure that as many as possible are humanely handled and that they are used for the greatest good.

*As a late addendum to this I'd like to link to this article in the Blood-Horse that was brought to my attention by another TBA member. Check out her site at [GBG]. When the world works with care and compassion good things happen. This is how it ought to be.

I was going over my Malibu entry to see where I had erred in my calculations. I'd have to say Amateurcapper, pointed out one of my biggest omissions in his response, namely, I found fault with several of the entries because of breaks in training but then neglected to see the same fault in Georgie Boy (23 days, as pointed out by Amateur, after the Damascus). The only fault I found with Bob Black Jack was that he hadn't beaten any of these yet. But he was always competitive. And as I pointed out he was working better than any of the others. Along with the fact that I had several points of issue with all the others it's hard to see why I didn't see what my own analysis was pointing at. Sometimes we can't see the forest for the tress we've planted. What surprised me most in the Malibu was the race Into Mischief's ran. Because of his post I thought he would have to be leading the entire way to win. I didn't think with the speed in the race that was possible so I thought he would fade a half dozen lengths by the end of the race. How wrong that was! Over all a very nice race to watch.

Friday, December 26, 2008

The Malibu Stakes

The following piece was originally written as a handicapping column for another publication with the novice handicapper in mind. As such it has been edited a little from it's original form.

This week is the 57th edition of the Grade I Malibu Stakes on opening day at Santa Anita on Friday Dec 26th. The race is for three year olds (foals of 2005) and is contested at, perhaps, the most difficult of all distances, seven furlongs. The first running was in 1952 a time when racing was still center stage in this country. The Malibu has always been contested at 7furlongs, unlike so many stakes that have had their distance changed over time. Originally awarded a Grade II status the race was up graded to a Grade I in 1980.

While the length of seven furlongs isn’t what we think of when we think of great horses many great horses have their names etched into history as winners of the Malibu Stakes. There was Round Table, Native Diver, Buckpasser, Damascus, Spectacular Bid, Precisionist and Ferdinand to name a some of the most notable. More recently Mizzen Mast won in 2001 and Rock Hard Ten in 2004. What is most notable about this roster of winners is that almost all are thought of as being stamina influences to the breed. And while Precisionist is probably best remembered for having won the 1988 Breeder’s Cup Sprint if you look back at his past performances you will see he won big races from sprint distances up to a mile and a quarter; the 1984 G.I Swaps for example.

Different types of races demand a different focus to the handicapping employed. But one of the first things that has to be done in any race is that you have to eliminate horses. Generally when handicapping I check the breeding of each horse to determine if there are any that do not, in my opinion, have the pedigree for the race. Many past performances available today have some notation, based on some formula, as to the publishers best guess for the suitability of the horse for the distance but I prefer to determine this myself and quite often find myself at odds with opinions proffered. However, by the time a horse has had several races it is pretty easy to see what type of runner it will be and if it is running to it’s pedigree. While pedigree handicapping is most obviously useful with maidens I think it can always be a tool, and I use it in conjunction with a horses PP’s to make decisions. For instance in this weeks Malibu there are two horses with pedigrees that scream out for a lot more distance in one case I see it as a positive and the other a negative.

First, Colonel John.
I love the back class of Colonel John. And class usually rises to the top. Yet his pedigree (Tiznow – Sweet Damsel, by Turkoman) would suggest he would be best suited with a lot more ground. But looking back to his second race we see that he broke his maiden at seven furlongs in a race that had another pretty nice horse in it, Medjool. Yet, it was a maiden race and a lot has happened since. One thing that happened is that he went from a horse that was forwardly placed to one that rated and came with a late run. That strategy only worked for him in the Santa Anita Derby, not a bad place for it to work but another runner in the Malibu, Bob Black Jack, is who he defeated. Bob is a horse that makes the pace or runs with it; not the type of horse one necessarily thinks about winning the 1-1/8 mile SA Derby. He again rated well off the pace in the Derby and it resulted in his worst performance. Since then Colonel John has returned to a more aggressive strategy and it has paid off. He missed by just a length and a half first back in the G. II Swaps and then won the G.I Travers. Those two races are arguably his best performances. His last race was the BC Classic. While you never have to apologize for losing the classic it is a race that he didn’t embarrass himself in and once again he sat a little farther back than I think he wants to be. Yet through his running lines his versatility and class is obvious and that is what makes him one of my favorites in this race. In the Malibu the pace should be very heated and from the opening of the gates I expect him to,once again, be more engaged. So if Gomez keeps him two or three lengths back from the first tier, as I think he will, he will be well engaged in the race while also able to reserve a little more than the rest for the end. Based on that information I actually like his pedigree here. He is a horse that has shown he has the stamina to run until next weekend, he has tactical speed and runs best when involved. As I pointed out above many of the past winners were horses that we associate with stamina. I see no problem with Colonel John shortening up here to seven furlongs. With his pedigree and preferred running style perhaps he may be best suited as a miler! Can anyone say sire!

The other horse is Golden Spikes. Another horse that should really enjoy going longer. He is by Seeking the Gold out of the A.P. Indy mare A.P interest. He should be running marathons yet here he is at that netherworld distance. He’s a horse that just hung on at 6 furlongs to win both the G.II Carry Back and the 94k Unbridled. Both tries at 7 panels have ended badly. Sandwiched in-between his sprints are four routes, three in graded company, in which he did not change his front running style of running much, if at all, and was never really a threat in any of them. I think he would be better suited to backing up to 5 ½ or learning to rate and go long. This is not his game. Here I think the horses’ pedigree and running style are at odds with each other. Far be it for me to question Marty Wolfson (31%). He must think an awful lot of this horse to bring him all the way across the country but I give him little to no chance. One eliminated
You have to eliminate horses. Those that you don’t think can’t win just toss out. Sure you’re going to be wrong a lot but the fewer horses you have to choose between the easier your decisions will be. So for me Golden Spikes is out. He just seems outclassed and over matched here to me.

The next horse I would throw out is Guns on the Table. I know a lot of people wouldn’t throw him out just because Baffert trains him and the new perennial winning southern California jockey Rafael Bejarano has got the mount. But I’ll take a good horse over a good trainer or jockey any day. Good horses are what make good trainers and jockeys. He is a horse that only broke his maiden three races ago. He may end up being a nice horse, I expect he will. But today he is part of the chaff. Yes, he’s worked steadily and well but to me he is just in way over his head. Is it possible he wins? I guess anything is possible but I would have him as the longest shot on the board.

Another horse I will take a stand against is the early favorite, Into Mischief. He has really done nothing wrong. Three wins (one a G.I) and two places in five starts! He has already defeated Colonel John and Georgie Boy. He’s won at the distance and he’s won on the Pro-Ride surface. So what’s not to like? A few things. First his PP’s suggest an ouchy horse. Second, after his Oct. 25 win he did not record another work for 27 days. That scares me a little. Since then he has been working steady and well, however, he shows two 7 furlong workouts one on Dec.11 the other Dec. 17. While I like longer workouts to determine if you think a horse will get a distance I don’t like them here. I can’t figure them out and that throws up a red flag for me. Maybe he’s real fresh and kicking down the barn or maybe he’s playing catch up. But it’s worrisome to me especially with a horse that seems to have had some health issues. By race day he will have had two works (1-3/8ths miles total) and a Grade I race in the last eight days. For a war horse no problem, but that’s not how I see him by looking at his PP’s. Of course if you know a horse and know that he had bucked somewhere along the line or at least knew the reasons for his ouchy form that’s different. I don’t know in this case. I could perhaps research it but most often we have to go with what’s in front of us and so that’s how I read his lines. Another reason I don’t like him here is the pace. That word has to come up in EVERY race. Into Mischief is going to be at the front and his #1 post position forces the issue a little from the start. He will be going early and he will have a lot of company. This race will be fast. Into Mischief, Bob Black Jack, Golden Spikes, all like to get right at it and Georgie Boy and Guns On the Table will likely be nipping at their heels. I don’t think the race sets up well for Into Mischief. I don’t think he can win this race from off the pace and his post doesn’t allow him many options. Most of us like to be able to throw out the favorite for value (though I don’t think he will be at post time, I think Colonel John will be) and in this instance I have enough reasons that I will. Into Mischief is out.

There’s a lot to like about Bob Black Jack. He keeps good company. He’s won at the distance and he’s training extremely well. As a matter of fact his last race on Nov. 22 was right on schedule with his works. And since then he hasn’t missed a beat. He also runs very well second time back from a layoff, as this race is for him.. He makes it hard to go against but again I think the pace of this race will be his undoing. Although he’s kept company with a few of these horses he’s yet to beat any of them and I don’t think he will change that in this race.

Nownownow is an interesting case. On paper, he really doesn’t look like he fits here. But he has won on an artificial surface and has, occasionally, shown a very good turn of foot on the turf. I think he can move up here on the Pro-Ride. On paper the race sets up best for him or Colonel John best of all. That is if Colonel John doesn’t sit too far off the pace and if Nownownow is fit. Perhaps then this horse has an outside chance of picking up the pieces at the wire. I don’t expect that to happen but I won’t be stunned if it occurs. The horse is also back with Biancone who has a lot to prove. The negatives are that I don’t like the work tab much . It was 42 days from his last race to his next published work and he has had only two more works since then. Seems like they are trying to play catch up. Though maybe he’s just been getting a lot of those long morning stamina building gallops. He’s run some good races and has been entered in races that would lead one to conclude that there is a lot of untapped potential. Will Biancone and the switch from turf back to synthetics be the catalyst he needs? He’s the dark horse here and will have a lot of upside as far as the tote is concerned. To me he’s worth a small bet as a longshot possibility.

Like Colonel John Georgie Boy has versatility. He is also a specialist at the distance having won two of three (one against Into Mischief) and a horse for the course having also won 2 of 3 at Santa Anita. We should, perhaps, hold off judgement on that for another race or two as he has only raced over the Pro-Ride surface once and he finished fourth to Into Mischief in that one. But that was his first race back after 7 months. One can’t find fault in his running lines and they have all been on synthetics. He has also proven his class. The downside is that this will only be his third race since March. That would normally be a concern but I know from the Blood-Horse article about his trainer Kathy Walsh ( Dec.13 no.50) that he pulled a muscle in his back and they were just giving him plenty of time. After such a long time away he needed that last race. He certainly is working well and he shows up to run every time. One of the hardest factors to determine with two and three year olds (especially when they have been away for a while) is how they have matured against each other. Rarely is the precocious two year old hanging around as a good late three year old. And they change so much as three year olds from the beginning of the year to the end, without races to gauge the change, it is very much guess work. That is when knowing a trainer will help you. I don’t think Kathy Walsh would have him in this spot if she didn’t feel he was up to the competition. A race can break, as well as make, a horse. So if she’s got him in I assume he has developed well. For me this race comes down to how Edgar Prado rides Georgie Boy. Starting on the outside he’ll be able to see the race unfold better than anyone and should be able to find a comfortable position from which to stalk the leaders. If he’s fit enough I think he wins. He’s obviously shown he has the stamina and I think he’s also faster than Colonel John at seven furlongs.

Colonel John has got the class but I think this is just a touch short for him. I would play #7 Georgie Boy to win and an exacta box with #2 Colonel John (just because class usually finds a way).

Friday, December 12, 2008

More on ADW's and the IHA

On the heels of the recently wrapped up Symposium on Racing and Gaming at U.A. comes an article on the Bloodhorse site : IHA Blamed for Flawed Revenue Model. This is an issue I have been directly and indirectly barking about for a long time and most recently in my first entry for this month. In my opinion it is the single most important issue for the health of horseracing in the U.S. That is of course now that a relatively industry wide drug policy seems to be emerging. And I would argue it has always been even more important. Without funds to maintain the show the lights would go out, regardless of the integrity of the business.

Fred Pope said it perfectly, “The IHA resulted in an upside-down business model that’s killing Thoroughbred racing. The bet-takers are ‘gaming’ the IHA to the point where there is no incentive for the host track to put on the show. The potential closing of Hollywood Park (in California) is the new reality. Correct the IHA, and American racing will be the strongest program in the world.”

Perhaps at the time of the legislation it made sense, but as with almost all laws and regulations they don't evolve or change with time to meet the evolving landscape of the area it was meant to regulate. And in racing the changes have been fast and furious since 1978. The entire ADW sector has evolved since then and in a way that benefits the bet-taker over the producers of the show. It is likely that any change in the law(s) will eventually create yet another niche for yet another industry that will again present a threat, but that is no reason not to do something now. We can't see into the future but we can enact regulations that have the best interest of the industry at heart. Perhaps a law that guarantees that at least 50% of the takeout -that Pope argues for- stays in the game. I would argue for higher, along the lines of 65%. Most certainly the ADW's will argue that they cannot run their businesses on 30 -35% of the take. I say fine, let them close shop. Someone will come along and find a way to take our money and make a nice profit off of the billions of dollars that the 30-35% represents. And it might be noted that the ADW's have expected the horsemen and tracks to conduct their end of the industry business on that same 30-35% percentage of the takeout.

Please excuse me for stating the obvious, but the takeout was established and (presumably)calculated to ensure the health of the industry; not for the health of several industries. And considering the lions share has been siphoned out of the sport in the current model it is a no brainier that something has got to be done. While the figures Pope cites "In racing, those that put on the show get 3%, and bet-takers get 15%, he said," are not exact for every jurisdiction they are (or have been) generally accurate throughout the industry. This follows the mistaken model NYRA made with the NY OTB's in the 1970's. So perhaps it should not have been an unforeseen inevitability, even in 1978. But farsightedness is not an attribute of greed or government; they are much more about "what can you do for me now."

As stated by Pope in the above quote "...there is no incentive for the host track to put on the show." That is of course unless you are an ADW that owns a track e.g., Twinspires and Expressbet. Then you are able to keep even more of the takeout. I don't know of any other business where you can control (through track ownership and purse distribution) , distribute (through sale of signal) and sell (take wagers) a product when it is the only product of it's kind. I'm sure Ma Bell would have loved to continue under those same business circumstances. Well I supose there is one other business, cable T.V. And I'm not sure how that is continuing (follow the money) since the 70% saturation rate is a long ways back in the rear view mirror! It's time to start following the money. Where's it going? Who's ending up with it? Really, who's getting it? - and I don't care to see the creative accounting behind it all. Wall Street has shown us what creative accounting can do. I want my money to go back into the sport. I want my money to help maintain and improve the sport. I am not suggesting that ADW's do not have a raison d'etre or that they do not provide an important service to the industry. But they are NOT the industry. It is a case of the remora having outgrown the shark and now the provider has become the feed. They (ADW's) deserve to exist and profit but not at the expense of the sport and not on my dime. I don't like government involvement any more than anyone else but when it is seen as preferable to the model, the model is obviously a broken one. And at this point I think it is preferable. Legislation is needed to set realistic intra-state and inter-state minimum rates for the industry to ensure that the sport can sustain and improve itself into the future. Let the market dictate how secondary and tertiary providers can best service the fan on the remaining share. I'm sure then the sport and all its' fans will benefit. If you are truly a fan of racing and not just of wagering you should not only care about how high the rate of takeout is but where that money it is going. If you care try to place your money where the largest share will go back into the game. For most that don't live near a track it is a Sisyphean task that further illustrates the problem.

Thursday, December 4, 2008

One Percent

It appears that all that use NYC OTB's will be paying an extra percentage point to play the races for the next two years at least (except on play at Finger Lakes). That is of course in addition to the 5% surcharge on winnings. Reading through the numbers it's hard to imagine how they are insolvent. [see the bill here] Well this isn't the worst news we've heard in the last year and seems like a pittance when compared to the larger global economic problems. Nonetheless...


I have a lot of catching up to do with news and racing but the one issue that I was most interested in before my sabbatical was the continuing ADW saga, particularly the situation that was being played out in California. Obviously they have come up with an agreement of which the terms have not been released - at least not to my knowledge. I would venture that not everyone got everything they wanted, otherwise the percentages would most likely have been revealed along with news of the year pact.

I still believe that the ADW situation is now racing's biggest problem. In an industry where the takeout was established to assure the health of the industry it is now relied upon by several (greedy) industries to exist. I can't say with complete certainty that I understand where all these problems began but I think the seed was planted with the first OTB's in New York City, circa 1970. Apparently NYRA didn't see OTB's as a real threat to their business (handle) that in those days was (for all intents and purposes) completely generated on track. Perhaps it could not be fathomed that people would prefer to watch and wager on the races from a remote location when they could go to the track and see the races / horses in person. From what I understand NYRA agreed to take just 3% of what OTB took in -presumably because NYRA didn't believe that it would amount to a hill of beans - and the mold was cast. But preceding that historical event I presume the takeout was split between the track and the horsemen - though to what breakdown of percentages I have yet to discover. I also have yet to hit on the proper google terms or to send an inquiry to the right person to find out historical rates of track takeout for days gone by. But if I go with the 14% I saw mentioned somewhere what could have been the worst case scenario? An 8% - 6% split? more likely 7% and 7% between track and horsemen? Perhaps it wasn't even thought of in those terms back then, maybe there was just an allocation of funds. (To all my fellow bloggers I would appreciate any accurate information that you can add here).

But what occurred in California, before the new pact, is this [from my Ellis Farce entry July 5].

The distribution of takeout on ADW wagers differs in state and out.
For this purpose, let’s assume we’re focused on out-of-state ADW wagers on a race;otherwise, they can be quite different.

Assuming a 20% takeout:
2 to 3.5% to purses – Host Fee split·
2 to 3.5% to track commissions – Host Fee split·
13 to 16% to ADW company

In states where an ADW has to pay a source market fee (payment to local track/horsemen) – few – it looks like this (on average):
· 2 to 3.5% to purses
· 2 to 3.5% to track commissions
· 3 to 7% to local track/horsemen
· 9 to 13% to ADW company

When source market fees are paid, the 1/3 revenue model horsemen are talking about is met; by adding the source market and host fees together.

My point is that we (as fans of the sport) should all be behind the THG & TOC and all horsemen/owner groups (that aren't ADW's like CDI and Magna) because they are fighting for money that would go back into the game and therefore benefit the product. I also believe that the track operators should be fairly compensated. Horseman's groups should see them as partners, and likewise those owners should see the horsemen as partners. But this will never be true or practical when the tracks are also ADW's. Like so many things today the industry is dealing with antiquated laws that no longer have legitimacy. I see anti-trust implications here though I never see anyone raise those questions. This is not so far removed from what has happened on Wall Street. Those with the power (money, [ADW's] ) have managed to keep their advantage. I leave it to all of you to surmise how.

I'm for the ADW's being fairly compensated. However, my view of what is fair is obviously a lot different than theirs. Personally I would like to see 7 % to horsemen, 7% for ADW's and 6% for the tracks. Assuming a 20% takeout.

Yes there's a lot more money in the game now then back in the sixties but there are a lot more people trying to make a living off that money these days and things are much more expensive. But as fans we should be concerned with the health of the game first and foremost.

Here at the Thoroughbred Bloggers Alliance we have standings and other advertising that comes from CDI, TVG etc... While almost all of it goes directly to charity [Old Friends] those of us that don't carry the standings have to personally donate our share to that cause each year. I don't carry them because I will not lend support to those [ADW's] entities [I did for two days but thought better of it and opted out again] . When all is finally settled and everyone is getting a fair share I will put the standings back up. Until then I will keep them off my site in solidarity to the sport I love. I don't for one moment question those on TBA that do post them; it is an individual decision. And for most one thing may have nothing to do with the other. We all have our own thoughts and I support everyone's individual decision. And, after all, whatever TBA receives goes to a good cause. Taking from Peter to pay Paul? But for those fans that have been and are irate over loss of signals etc... please try to see the bigger picture.

Wednesday, December 3, 2008

Virtual Racing

It's hard to know if my being out of the country and away from the blog so long in November has curtailed production or if it's just the time of the year that is to blame for an apparent lack of fire when it comes to entries. However, with the opening day of the inner meet at Aqueduct upon us it is hard to get revved up about much in racing. It's always nice to see some of the old winter stalwarts emerge once again from the barns but after a month of six furlong and a mile and 70 races things do get a little (lot) stale. Of course the flip side is that I have always felt that as a handicapper you can do very well in the winter at the big A. The bias and familiarity with the horses always seemed to make collecting much easier, albeit not as lucrative on a race by race basis. We have some new faces stabling at Aqueduct (Bruce Brown, Michael Maker and Chad Brown) this year and the return of some old familiar ones (Iwinski and Lake) as well. This should add some interest to the racing at least for the short term.

I came upon an unnerving reality while at the off track shops in Ireland; virtual racing. I remember positing this possibility in an early blog entry in which I was discussing the slots. In today's market almost all of us would acknowledge that all racing jurisdictions need racino money to compete (with those that already have racinos). But, my concern with racinos has always been that the fast, easy, cheaply produced money they generate with very little real estate needed will in the long run pose a threat to racing. Government is a greedy entity. If it feels it can generate as many tax dollars with less then we may be in trouble. They are not committed to racing for racing's sake, but for tax dollars. In NY this is especially troubling as the state can now claim full ownership of the real estate that our three main tracks sit upon. How much is that land worth to the state developed as compared to it's value when used for racing? I certainly can envision a casino surrounded by new development and malls and condos where Aqueduct now sits. That is where the (fatal) vision of virtual racing came into the equation for me. If they could generate racing without having to commit so much real estate to the venture I think they would do it. If government thought people would actually wager upon virtual racing in my mind they would not hesitate to try and incorporate it into the scheme. Let's face it people actually go in and play slots with the thought thought that they can win or at least get some kind of roi! I wonder how the racinos make a dime? Do the players really know how gambling, especially slots work? It's amazing people go in them and throw their money away. Well if they will spend money on slots they would likely spend it on virtual racing! Scary! A chilling vision. Perhaps that's the difference between horse fans and pure gamblers. I hold good handicappers in very high regard, and while I am absolutely certain that handicappers would never wager on virtual races they don't need us if there is enough suckers to just go and throw there money away. And with the success of most racinos it seems there are enough of those out there that they may not need we horse lovers and players; let alone designating all that ( in their opinion I'm sure) under-utilized real estate.

When I offered virtual racing as a possibility I did so mostly tongue-in-cheek, just to offer a scenario that I was concerned with. But it was chilling to come across it in reality. The shop I was in no longer took wagers on virtual racing. I'm not sure why. I'm not sure why they were still showing it if they didn't accept bets but there it was nonetheless! By the way it looked close to real! Real enough that I had to watch for thirty or forty-five seconds before I was certain I was seeing what I thought I was. Chilling!

Sunday, November 30, 2008

It's all in the Production

I arrived back from the land of the winter jump meets just in time to watch Tale of Ekati win the Cigar Mile. I completely agree with the DQ of Harlem Rocker. Harlem Rocker who had a full head of steam while taking the lead definitely impeded the forward progress of Tale of Ekati. The ability for Tale of Ekati to re-rally and just about catch a full-out, momentum-carried Harlem Rocker, is nothing short of amazing all by itself.

Tale of Ekati just continues to get better. By winning the Cigar he adds a second Grade I to his resume (The Wood Memorial being the other!), along with his last out Grade II conquest of the Jerome. He is winning the races that make one think that he will make a fine sire. Though the bottom of his pedigree is not one that I would target I don't think it would deter many.

While away of all the performances that I wasn't able to watch live I was most impressed with the performances of Einstein in the Clark (grII) and Hyperbaric's performance in the Citation (gr IT). I always love to see the older horses do well and with Hyperbaric being gelded we are sure to see many more scintillating performances from him. It's also good to see Helen Pitts to have the opportunity to win the big races. She has shown so much skill and class in the past that one can't help but root for her barn.

Over in Ireland the jump season is on until March. I suppose it's a little like our winter season in that many different horses now get to compete and give (most) of the flat horses a much needed rest- by contrast by late January many of our big guns are already being wound up. It's very hard to adjust to watching that type of racing. Sure we have a jump circuit. But with the exception of the few races at Saratoga most of us never see them. Many of the races are several miles in distance over some impressive hedges and the races (seem to me) are ones of endurance. The pace is obviously much slower and calculated and you spot a tiring horse much more by the way it takes the jump than how it is running -at least that's my observation.

While I can imagine gaining a great appreciation for the jumps after watching and getting to know it's idiosyncrasies over time I still couldn't help wanting to see some horses just run an old fashioned, gut wrenching, dirt mile! I have an acquaintance that had made a very good living at the track for many years in Ireland. I was hoping to spend a good amount of time with him to pick his brain. Unfortunately there was not as much time as I had hoped. Travel schedules seldom work out the way we plan, but it was terrific nonetheless. You can really appreciate the effort put forth by these horses. When they come up to the line many of them cannot manage anything more than a walk! I saw one race in which the place horse, exhausted, had slowed to a walk after the final hedge but after being passed by another foe somehow got back up to a slow gallop to retain place! While not exciting in the way we are used to it was inspiring. You could see how spent the horses are and the courage they need. For years I have been hearing from some Irish friends about the great Arkle - Man O' War to them - but it's hard to truly understand his greatness without having enough experience watching and appreciating that type of racing. I've read a few books about him but again while they put his accomplishments in perspective I wish I had a better feel for the racing. However, if I wasn't already a horse fan I probably wouldn't have continued to watch the sport because I wouldn't have a built in appreciation for the effort put forth. Being a fan I wanted to see more to try to appreciate it but often my prejudices made it less than compelling for me. The basic prejudice results from our speed game. Here horses most often go as fast as they can for as far as they are able. It's an adjustment. It's not better just different.

These thoughts made me think about how hard it is to create new fans here as well. Horse racing is very intimidating and nonsensical to the un-indoctrinated. A sprint event of a minute and ten seconds seems silly and inaccessible to them and a mile and a quarter in two minutes is no more enlightening . It is really not until the race slows down for a fan that they can appreciate the sport. It strikes me that if we can slow down the sport for them it may be more compelling and digestible. So how do we slow down the sport? I don't mean literally slow it down. But perhaps aspects that were compelling to me as I was a fledgling fan may also work for others. And the most compelling aspect is the performance of the horse itself. When you experience your first race up close through the glasses and see a horse, nostrils flared breathing fire, while at the same time on the brink of exhaustion, continue to the wire you are either going to be hooked or not. It's that close up and personal view of racing that can make the difference. So in wondering how to accomplish this I think we can learn a little from jump racing. When watching the races in Ireland on a monitor or TV it seemed that almost every jump had it's own camera so you didn't have to see the race from afar. While it was still a wide view (in that it encompassed the entire hedge) it was close enough to make you hurt if you saw a horse go through the hedge instead of over. More cameras is what we need to slow the race down for fans and would-be fans. There should be one at every gate and at several spots all along the course -at very least at every pole. And these cameras ought to be able to give us CLOSE! ups of the racing. This would make for much more compelling and exciting viewership. It would in essence slow the race down, making it more accessible. Even as a devoted fan the usual view of the break and the run down the backstretch is less than inspiring, and for all intents and purposes shortens the race to the stretch run. So a race for the uninitiated tends to be somewhere between 24 to 36 seconds! We need to show the physicality and exertion of these athletes all the way around. The race is not just the stretch. I think how the sport is presented may be a big problem. Some of the races from Dubai are great just because of their camera work, especially from the lead car that tracks the race from inside the rail. It's time to take a lesson from Hollywood (not Hollywood Park) and put some time, effort and money into production. As it is now, with the exception of the triple crown races, the production is only for the betting fan. The sport should be delivered by highlighting its' best assets, the horses up close every step of the way; preferably from head on. This would also augment the split screen that many tracks utilize. While you can see the shape of the race on the wide screen view we will also be able to watch the lead horses up close and personal. It would also give a much better perspective to the main view often presented of the race. So often when a horse is alone on the lead the main shot is that horse alone with no other runner in view. You are forced to watch the wide impersonal view. With an up close view we can "see" how easily a horse is running or how much it may may be expending while having at least some perspective of what is behind them. As people that take photographs know a long lens can greatly shorten the distance between objects. So the wide screen view of the race would offer perspective while the main picture continues to compel us (to watch). This would present the sport in its' most exciting and digestible form that both novice and hard core fan would appreciate. Just an idea that I would like to see tried. Perhaps if we slow it down through production they (new fans) will come.

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Gone Fishing

"Gone Fishing" across the pond. Back in December. Hope to stop by Leopardstown and some of the yards. If I find anything of interest I'll try to find a computer and you'll know about it. Otherwise ADW's will probably be the subject I return with, unless something unforeseen, like sanity, occurs between now and then.Talk with you in December.

Tuesday, October 28, 2008

The Great Divide

The Europeans took five races on the B.C. card including two on the "dirt." While we have come to expect the "world" contingent of horses to do well on the turf we have more or less owned the dirt from the inception of the Breeder's Cup. This year the two biggest changes in B.C. rules (ever) seem to have shot a few holes in our illusions of dominance: no steroids and the Pro-Ride, synthetic surface.

One has to wonder if as many European horses would have shown up had the B.C. been held at Churchill or Belmont? Certainly the turf horses would have shown up - perhaps even more of them - but I don't think the dirt invaders would have been as numerous, though numerous may not be the best adjective to describe eight. Of course if you consider Ventura, Cocoa Beach, Cedar Mountain, Rebellion, Well Armed, Square Eddie and Champs Elysees as European that number swells to 15. All of those had started their careers overseas. Most of them have raced at least half of their careers elsewhere and all of them have only run on turf or synthetic surfaces since arriving in the U.S. By now I'm sure you can see where I am going with this post; arguing against the synthetic surface.

We would probably all agree that having as many foreign horses as possible at the Breeder's Cup should be one of the goals because it adds interest, credibility (for the claim of World Championships) competition and wagering value. But it has become obvious to all that the synthetics run much more like turf than dirt. If that's what we're looking for why not just run everything on the grass? That could eliminate a few races like the Dirt Mile, Sprint, Marathon, etc.. And we can fit it all into one day again! That's obviously not what is desired. So why the synthetics?

The argument has been made that synthetics are much safer. Perhaps that may prove to be true but let's consider some other factors that may not have been taken into account regarding "real" dirt injuries. The very first of these considerations should be steroids. We know that in humans and animals steroids add muscle mass and therefor weight to those that use them. How much has this added, unnatural weight, contributed to injury? And - though some will continue to argue the point - steroids also enhance performance. With the superior strength of added muscle mass how can that not result in better performance? Taking those two factors together and the result is a bigger, stronger, heavier horse that is able to outperform the frame they were born with. What would anyone guess may be the result?- Disaster. Coincidentally the upturn in synthetic steroids (a relatively recent phenomenon) seems to have taken place during the era in which many feel like the breed has gotten more fragile. Coincidence? I don't think so. Now I may be ranting without bothering to bolster my argument with scientific numbers but it also seems to me, in human athletes anyway, that when steroid use ends performance diminishes and injury rates again rise. I believe we will end up seeing that supposition playing out in racing as well. I think we will see a lot more horses just disappearing from the track or retiring due to less than catastrophic injuries. Hopefully the new crops, being steroid free will prove more durable. Only time will tell.

Another variable that may have added to injuries is the amount of racing days and the plenitude of options to run horses. As a horses ability wanes and they are claimed they can quickly move downward to the lower ranks of tracks and find a place where they can compete. More and more syndicates vying for horses, that usually start at the lower claiming levels, (we can't all afford The Legends Fund or the IEAH's of the world) puts more pressure on horses to run. No one wants to pay for a horse that just eats hay and burns money (except perhaps for Old Friends), so if it can't compete it is probably sold and moved on down. I can think of one horse recently that is a good example: Mike's Classic. He is a record holder at Belmont. He competed and won at the highest level and last I saw him (recently) he was running up at Finger Lakes, for $4,000, I believe! And he lost big! That's just plain wrong! He not only was a very good race horse he was a very nice, likable horse ( I had the pleasure of walking him many times). What is going to happen to him? Will they run him until he breaks down? How much do these situations add to the breakdown statistics? There are too many races and horses are over raced or race hurt. That is probably the biggest factor in injury in both humans and equines. Perhaps without the steroids they won't be able to run hurt anymore and that will help the situation.

I guess I have become a bit jaded in that I don't always believe the reasons I hear for change. I do believe in change, but I also believe there should a reason behind every decision. And that reason ought not be a supposition. I question if the synthetics are really that much safer than the dirt tracks or that dirt tracks can not be made as safe. I wonder if all considerations that led to injuries were taken into consideration. Or is the move for tracks to "go synthetic" more a fiscal/logistic decision. If it is I could accept that a lot easier as a reason for the switch. I have to wonder if the change in the drug rules, and more specifically the steroid rules, will not help to pad illusory results. I hope that the dirt tracks don't disappear. At least until there is a certainty of superiority based on substantial enough evidence not to be coincidence.

Part of my defense of the dirt is based on the horses. We have always had a great divide between U.S. horses and world horses, based on surface preference, but now with the introduction of synthetics, we are creating a divide in our own country. Just when we were finally moving towards more uniform drug laws that would promote more competition between jurisdictions we are, perhaps, creating a divide that will prove wider than the old ones. Are we creating a situation where we will have the dirt runners and the synthesizers and never the twain will meet? I think so. That is just plain bad for business; very bad for business. We have to have the best meet the best. There has always been a difference in tracks. Santa Anita ran nothing like Belmont. Nor did either run like Bay Meadows (R.I.P) or Oaklawn. The differences were enough to make the races interesting and often had an effect on the outcome of a race. But they were similar enough that a dirt horse could go, run and reasonably assume they could handle the track. Are we headed toward the day when we will never see another West Coast horse come to the Classics or to Saratoga? I know that is a little dramatic but the synthetics will definitely slow the exodus East in the spring, probably to a trickle. It was already a big issue this year. The California breeding industry is now headed in a completely different direction. Every Stallion station and breeding farm has to be reevaluating their stock. I would. Without any dirt opportunities in California the "American Breed" will be gone in the foreseeable future.

When a horse of Curlin's abilities ends up 'up the track' the difference is great enough to impact the breed. Sure, he could have had an off day. And Raven's Pass should not have been let off anywhere near $13.50-1! Curlin has been at it for two long years and perhaps the time and the miles had finally caught up with him, but I think he just got bogged down in the wax. It is his first finish out of the money in 16 attempts and he's been in against -at least in my opinion- a lot tougher fields. This is not sour grapes. I'm disappointed he lost but not angry about it. My argument is that he lost to the track not to another horse. That is not to say Raven's Pass or HenrytheNavigator may not have beaten him on the dirt. But if it was run on the dirt I don't think they would have been in the race.

I hope the industry is making the right decisions to improve the sport for the future. Unfortunately I think the future or the breed may end up running "up the track," as a result of the synthetics. I vote to keep the difference in racing.

Saturday, October 25, 2008

Saratoga Sire awards for Breeder's Cup # 25

I think the best thing to do is just jot down my initial impressions of the 25th running of the B.C. in the moments following the final race as I want the immediacy of the moment to blaze my trail.

My Favorite Moment: Mig winning the Turf Sprint. One of my all-time favorite riders executing an amazing trip. Good for Him!

Best Performance: Goldikova!!!! AWESOME!!!!! Nothing more needs to be said.

Best Improvement: No Drugs!

Biggest Disappointment: Curlin losing.

Most Surprising Event: Iavorone stating that his family received death threats in the event something happened to Big Brown during the Belmont Stakes.

Biggest Question: Did Desormeaux receive death threats in the event something didn't happen to Big Brown during the Belmont?

Worst Change: The synthetic surface.

Biggest Disappointment: (I've changed my mind) Not being involved!

Worst oversight in handicapping: (The list is very long! but...) Donativum in The Juvenile Turf.

Best Horse: ZENYATTA!


Biggest Disappointment: (changed my mind again) The Synthetic surface!

Best Human Performance: Trevor Denmon. I may be a New York guy, but he's just the best! No offense Tom it's just a matter of preference, you're terrific too!

Best Training performance: Bob Baffert for Midnight Lute. WOW!

Favorite Occurrence: More World entries.

Best Ride: Garret Gomez, Midnight Lute.

Best Celebrity Appearance: Kurt Russell.

ABC/ESPN coverage C+

Get rid of Hank and get Jerry Brown for God's sake! No offense Hank it's business!

Biggest Disappointment: (I was right the first time) Curlin losing.

Thursday, October 23, 2008

Breeder's Cup Sentiments

I wanted to write something for the Breeder's Cup but didn't want it to be the same old pro or con analysis of the new, expanded program format (already done that). But what then, race analysis? Nah. Perhaps another time. So I decided to just let it be (there's always a Beatles song that applies somewhere). That is until I read Mary Rampellini's piece on Cash and Steve Asmussen on the DRF site. The Asmussen's are only one of hundreds of great stories in horse racing. I think that most fans are just as intrigued by the people in the industry as they are by the horses. And, almost all of these stories evoke some emotion. They often tell more like the tall yarns spun in folklore than slices of someone's reality. So there I had it, my subject, emotion. Even to those whom find fault with the Breeder's Cup they are passionate about how it can be improved. I am no different.
This year I have been feeling a little ambivalence leading up to the B.C. for many of the reasons I and others have voiced. However, as the day(s!) draw closer (T minus 1) I can feel the usual excited anticipation. Reading about the Asmussen brothers and how they have made their dreams come true prompted me to access old dreams of my own to one day be a trainer competing right there where they are now. For anyone who has shared such dreams you know the imagined campaign of your horse. You know that no equine ailment will occur to ruin this imaginary dream (sorry Red Giant, Indyanne). And if something does occur your skills or your horses superiority will somehow win the day. That's the dream they are all dreaming now. That's the dream we are all unconsciously involved in with them. That's the Breeder's Cup!
I have a tangential association with the Asmussens having briefly worked for them down in Laredo. To me they are a family that is bigger than life, characters of folklore, "carved out of wood" my friend would rightly say, while being so human at the same time. Several weeks ago after Curlin broke the earnings record at Belmont I went and congratulated Mr. Asmussen (Keith) on another family accomplishment. While I believe I saw the wheels of recognition turning in his head I knew that even if he did remember me it would be memory of a face, not a name, not of another carved of wood. But I had expected this as it was a long time ago and thousands of faces later for him. And it doesn't take away my memories, just adds to them. Also I think most of us think that those 'at the top' are somehow islands. But I think that no matter who you are it has to be a joyful experience to know others share in your joy. I know with absolute certainty how much Keith Asmussen enjoys the accomplishments of his family. And I know that the top is not where the family began. Keith and Marilyn got the family in the gate and class prevailed.
I know it is a business just like show business but for almost all of us that love the game it is much, much more than that. It is emotion more than all else. The Breeder's Cup, for me, has become a cathartic event. I relish and experience the joys of all the winners and feel the depths of the momentary despair of the losers. These feelings are the same toward all regardless of if the connections are my favorites or my least favorite; at least for the day(s). There is only one other event when this phenomenon of good will toward all holds sway and that is the Kentucky Derby. For me perhaps the most poignantly emotional moment of the year is when My Old Kentucky Home is played before the Derby. Just thinking about it fills one with what I think the English refer to as the brown study.
Horseracing is a state of mind and it's personal. We all take it personally when it gets slighted as it often does. Even the Breeder's Cup, it seems, has to play second fiddle to an infinitely less important telecast (see Left at the Gate). Now my intention is not to upset the NASCAR fans out there but even you must admit that a lead in show to some qualifying races does not have the same gravity as a Championship day. Speaking of gravity comparing NASCAR and Horseracing is a little like comparing Bud and Miller to a Gueuze or Framboise. Okay that was a little bit of a shot but not like having your chosen sport rescheduled!
The Breeder's Cup is not just another day(s). It is truly a spectacle of sport at it's highest level. In U.S. sport it is also the closest thing we have to a true World Championship of anything. It deserves to share the spotlight with any sport. Here's to hoping that all the emotions we experience over the next two days will be positive ones. But in the event something unwanted happens I know that is unwanted. I know that everything that could be done to prevent anything bad from happening was done. And even when such sad situations do occur and we all are feeling the pain I am reminded so much of why I love racing. In the end racing is a microcosm of life. We can never avoid the pain of loss in our lives, and our greatest moments of joy can't be held onto forever. Welcome to horseracing, life as it should be! Real! Enjoy the B.C.

In the event you did want B.C. picks go to to see many of the TBA member's B.C. choices.

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

A New Standard

As an added bit of fun and interest, fellow TBA blogger, and our intrepid leaded (and founding father I think) has posted a response arguing against my post. I have included a link to his response at the bottom of the post. (I've got to try to get you all to read it!) My thanks to Patrick. This is a previous entry that was reworked for the TBA blogspot space on The Blood-Horse site and ran 10/19/2008. After the previous three entries I thought it apropos to re-post it today.

I know that trying to change something in racing is like trying to stop the tides. But if I could there is one regulation I would like to see the industry impose upon itself: No horse can stand until he is a horse (5 year old). I think this would have a positive ripple effect throughout the industry and here's how.

It would have the positive effect of horses having longer campaigns. This in turn will have several positive consequences. First, a horse will have to prove his durability and superiority on the track for more than a season or a season and a half. It will nurture new fans because they will be able to follow and root for a horse for several years. It would also create rivalries, so rare these days outside of the triple crown events, further nurturing fan interest.

What about a horse that is injured? Implement a standard that makes the horse sit out one year after it's mishap before standing. So, for example, a horse that is injured at 2 would have to wait until its' fourth year to stand. I think this would be a propitious standard because it would forestall the mysterious rash of injuries that would almost certainly occur for most successful three years olds! Certainly it would not benefit anyone to feign injury and sit out a year therefore taking a chance that the shine may fade from the star. It would also have the further effect of allowing time to impose its' propensity to allow clearer vision of value.

To do this would not curtail business one iota. I'm certain bidding for future stallions would be just as heated as ever. However, I think it would have some positive effects. One being somewhat reduced prices paid for a future stallions -with a ripple down effect through the industry - because to buy a colt at three would now carry more risk. The risks are manifold. The most obvious risk is that a colt does not continue to be as dominating a runner as it matures. There is also the risk that a colt from the next year's crop may become the shiny new gem outshining the previous year's model. And of course with every start that proves durability comes risk of injury. It will also result in something that we rarely see in racing anymore, it would oblige the best horses from different crops to compete against each other to prove superiority. So if the connections of a colt risk racing a horse into his fourth year before selling its' rights and it does prove to be dominant that huge payday will still be there. But the difference would be that we could be more certain a horse is worth the price. This year we would have had an example of how this would play out if Big Brown and Curlin met in the B.C. Classic. If Big Brown did win the race he would, in my mind, be absolutely the best horse running. If he lost to Curlin but ran well it would hardly diminish his value (of course this is assuming Curlin wins). However, next year we would be able to see if BB would maintain his dominance when he ran against the best of the next crop at year's end as well as maturing horses of his own crop. We would also get to see if his negative traits would be his undoing or not. This year, such a regulation would also have had the effect of assuring fans that they would get to see BB run again, as his injury is not career ending. In turn the answers to these questions would truly inform us of his value as a stallion to promote the well being of the breed. This last point may be the best result of this scenario: it would have a long term positive effect on the durability of the breed. And added durability is something that almost everyone would have to agree is desirable.
Perhaps one other positive is that it would prompt more discussion of which horses are superior through time as there would be the much more tangible thread of competition between crops. It would not be out of the realm of possibility that the best representatives of three crops may meet. Though unlikely it wouldn't be nearly as impossible as it is now. This would provide kindling - and results - for the flames of opinion. Any time there is disagreement of opinion among fans it's good for the sport.

Admittedly there are some negatives to this plan also. One of the most obvious is that it may result in a later start for some horses because there would be less need to get horses to the track at two. I happen to think that is a positive but I know many – especially owners – will see it as a negative. I know we have recently heard from Dr. Bramlage about the positive effect racing at two has on the longevity of a horses career. But I for one don’t believe it to be true. And in a letter printed in the October 11 issue of the Blood-Horse, Dr. Mark A. Rothstein (BH4890) points out one of the most obvious reasons; (paraphrasing) there’s usually a good reason a horse doesn’t start at two and that reason is more likely the reason that those that start later don’t last as long. In short they were flawed from the beginning.

Another negative might be a lighter schedule for many horses. Again, I would look at this as a positive. I'd sacrifice a few races per season for the benefit of following a horse through a longer career. Especially when it would result in the type "inter-crop" competition I have already mentioned. While I’m certain other’s will have a longer list of negatives I think the positives are far more plentiful.

This could all be accomplished without anyone ever missing a beat in the industry. It would not cause one problem if the next crop of new stars of the breeding industry had to wait an extra year to start their service. There are enough stars in that universe already, no void would occur. This idea limits and possibly eliminates the need for anyone to lose. It would just cause a one year delay in reaping rewards.

And now to the rebuttal at Handride .

Monday, October 20, 2008

Opus Part III, The Final Act: Racing

This post is obviously tardy in arriving. The reasons are manifold. The idea I had in mind as part of the Opus was that I had many reservations about Graded Stakes. So I began by going over the stakes races; make up of the fields, field size, quality etc. But this was an arduous task and if I was to go through them all I would never get to the post. Next I started to research how the powers that be actually determine the grades etc. (I think the best explanation can be found on the TOBA site). But like most explanations in the industry it all seemed like quicksand as in the end the determination can still be subjective. That's not to say I don't agree with much of what's there because I do. However, I still have some ideas that I think would improve the system. So I've decided to just voice my objections (some of which are addressed by the committee(s). After all that is what blogging is about - voicing one's opinion - isn't it?

One thing that most of will agree on is that when all is said and done and the dust has settled back to the track it is the results of these races that actually has the greatest effect on the industry. The results have the consequence of determining, for the most part, the health of what we consider to be the best of the breed. In truth the races should be the determining factor. And one can surmise that in the old standard saying of the breeding industry, "breed the best to the best and hope for the best" 'racehorses' can be substituted for "best." If it's accepted that results of the races are the most important determinant for the industry as a whole then action should be taken to insure that the races deemed best actually are the best races. Here then are some of my objections and possible resolutions.

First, often a field for a graded stakes -and seemingly more often in G.I's- comes up light in two ways, in talent and field size. And usually those two failings come in tandem. This can be because of the presence of a "Zeyatta" in a race and other's have decided to duck her. This bothers me perhaps more than any other occurrence. I know Zenyatta beat a very good horse in Hystericallady while winning the Lady's Secret (g.I ) but a field of four does not make a race - even if all runners are of the same running style - at least in my opinion. This is so because there is often such a great discrepancy in talent even at the graded level. I would suggest that a field that does not start 6 horses should automatically be downgraded for the year. I would settle for five but I'd prefer six. One of the arguments against this I can foresee is that some may wonder where are we going to get enough horses to fill the 110 Grade I races? I'd counter that with proposing that maybe we have too many Grade I races. These races should coerce competition between the top tier not enable easy spots for horse to get black-type. Even the best horse running in an aggressive campaign will enter what five maybe six? And that's really being optimistic. Let's be honest the quality of horses drops off dramatically after the creme de la creme. It seems the system is just a vehicle to get undeserving horses black-type for breeding purposes! It's a good thing this isn't going to the BH as there's not a shot of it getting in! While quality and size of the field is taken into consideration by the committee(s) I think that unless there is a combination (total) of three Grade I or Grade II runners in a field a Grade I should automatically be downgraded. I also think this should hold for every grade e.g. a Grade II should have a minimum of a combination of three G.II and GIII winners. And for a GradeIII at least a combination of three GIII or overnight winners. For fields with more than six entries perhaps these minimums should be upgraded. This would assure that the grade is more reflective of the quality of the race.

Graded Stakes, especially GI's are traditional, often they have been around for decades or more and it seems to me that it is their history that is being graded more than the history of their recent entrants. And this brings me to an idea that will probably be met with a collective Bronx cheer but here it is. With the exception of the three Classics (K.D. Preakness, Belmont) races and the Breeder's Cup races I don't think any grade should necessarily hold it's rank. All other races should be run with the grade from the year before, that is if they meet the minimums I mentioned above. However, in November when the committee(s) meet to review and set the grades for the next year they should regrade all the races run. As we all know "key races " tend to produce much more quality than other races. And key stakes races do the same thing. So if at the end of the year a grade II ended up meeting the criteria of a grade I then the race should be upgraded. Likewise a grade I or II that at the end of the year doesn't meet the criteria for those designations they should be downgraded. In other words it would work like this: a grade II race is run in March with horses that at the time would only have the race meet Grade II criteria. In November (after the B.C) when that race is evaluated it is found that four horses had gone on to win G.I's then the race would carry a G.I designation for the year. In this way the years race grades will be much more reflective of the true grade of the field that ran in them. But in no case would a race lose a graded status (nor could it) at worst (g.III) This would also, presumably,have a positive effect in the breeding shed. I think this would be especially helpful for the two year olds. Though I love to watch them often a graded stakes for two year olds come up with several maidens or lightly raced horses. It's not any one's fault it's the nature of the beast. But more often than not the precocious horses will fade by years end, often by summers end. I think that the grades should more represent the crop over all than the time of year they are able to be ready to run. All this can be easily sorted out to the advantage of the industry as a whole because at the end of each year the best horses will have secured the best grades. It is a sliding scale, so to speak, with historical precedent determining a races starting conditions and grade. The only negative I can see is in advertising a new stallion. In some cases those claims of Grade I winner of... would have to be postponed. But let's be honest, everyone in the business knows what's going on. In the end I doubt it would have any negative effect on business. I would hope it would only have positive effects. And of course until the end of the year they could actually advertise as having run and won a Grade I. I don't think it would upset too many apple carts or change too many results but the ones it does probably should be changed, for the good of the sport and the breed.

In the end I just want there to be enough races so every horse gets it's chance. So few that they are not able to duck each other. And rated according to a true evaluation of the horses that actually ran. It's not the grade that brings the people it's the horse(s) as was proved by the Monmouth Stakes (ungraded). Any track would take that race and that field any day. It's the horses stupid! should be the industry motto. The grades are useful and add interest but they are more an industry tool than a true predictor of fan interest. It truly is the horses!

Thursday, October 16, 2008

Opus Part II: Breeding

I always felt that the breeding end of thoroughbred racing was where the industry drew it's strength from. After all hundreds of millions of dollars are generated each year through stud fees and sales. So much money is wrapped up in the "horses" that I had always thought that it would protect the breed and the sport. I'm not so sure any longer. Though the relationship is symbiotic it may more resemble that of the lamprey and the salmon than shark and remora. The breeding industry looks more and more like Wall Street these days where quick profits and fast deals are, I will argue, threatening the health of the industry.

The first way in which breeding harms the sport is in pilfering racing of its best runners. Or, to be more exact its best three year old runners; the very runners that are showcased in the sports biggest races. These are our stars. And because of the pressure exerted by breeding money they quickly fade from sight. To the neophyte or fledgling fan this loss of recognizable runners, almost as quickly as they appeared, may be a major reason they seek other pastures for entertainment.

I would further argue that three is not the best age to determine the horses that are the best of the breed. For some reason three is the age the industry has determined to use as its standard of excellence. I don't think I would encounter much disagreement in saying that a horse has not reached its prime until their fourth or fifth year. So it would make more sense to wait until at least four and maybe five before casting a final ballot on superiority. It seems a bit like women's gymnastics where teenagers (barely) are the force of the sport. A grown (young) woman would have a difficult time competing let alone excelling against the mini-mights because her body has matured. I don't see how that is a true representation of excellence.

Perhaps the reason that three year-olds were decided upon is a bit more simple. And I see a parallel to blistering. I have often wondered about the efficacy or wisdom of blistering a horse. Anytime I had the chance to ask someone why they blistered a horse the reasons never seemed all that good to me, nor did the explanation of how it works. That is until I once got a response that did make sense to me. It was along the lines of, 'It probably just forces you to give a horse time that patience alone won't allow.' I did believe that and I think that's why the industry settled on three year-olds, they ran out of patience. After all it takes a long time from the breeding shed to the racetrack even when they start at two! But the breeding industry may be threatening the industry by breeding to horses that may in fact not be the best of the breed. The most precocious yes, and in many cases they probably are the best, but in many others I would like to see more evidence. I offer one way that we can change things in an earlier post: The Year of the Five Year Old.

Another way breeding is hurting the industry is by the inflated stud fees of new stallions. These fees put an ever increasing negative pressure on industry players. In the long run I feel the result will be a consolidation of the breeding industry to only the supremely wealthy. We all know the basic scheme. Pay a truckload for the new kid on the block and rake breeders and purchasers over the coals for the first three years, recouping all you paid and usually then some, before the first runners of the new sires crop hit the track. If his runners pan out, great! If they don't adjust fee down. But the amount of money being thrown around to buy these colts makes it impossible to risk continuing to race a prospect. That's all backwards! Superiority should be demonstrated on the track and not just in six or seven races. A top new sire will probably always demand more than all but the best sires because a) they are the unknown quantity and the best new hope so true value is speculative and b) they are the fashion of the moment. This in turn makes it likely that their get will be a highly sought after commodity at the sales, further inflating industry costs. This regardless of the fact that the odds are still poor that one will get a good or great runner and they are still an unproven commodity. At the moment I can't think of any other business or industry where you pay more for the unknown than the known. While there may be every indication that success can be expected one can never know until success is attained. The end result of this is that many a breeder and pinhooker stand to lose more than if they took the safer route of breeding to a less expensive but proven sire or buying it's get. Of course they also stand to win bigger too. But that is a dangerous game to play. And if losses do occur it makes it even more important to offset those losses and future expenses with a big hit next time. So the risk of breeding to the next new flavor of the month becomes more necessity than choice. It would only take a few disappointments to put a small commercial breeder out of business. In a perfect world an escalating limit would be put on first second and third year sires. This would not limit the price someone could get for their horse just how quickly someone can recoup their investment in the stallion. After year three they would be free to charge as much as they wanted for a fee. This makes more sense for the breed as well because it makes the stallion a long term investment. And it predicates that success be built on success. Buyers of a new stallion prospect would have to feel very confident that they are making the right decision before paying tens of millions of dollars. They would also likely be more selective in choosing the mares to be bred because success in the long run will be based on success at the track. That is how all good business is done with forethought, investment hard work and a little luck. These considerations would help insure the health of the breed.

As an aside my feeling about mares is probably a bit different than most. I prefer a lightly raced or unraced mare with complementary traits and pedigree over a black-type mare. I feel a great race mare leaves too much on the track and that her effort on the track more often than not compromises her chances of delivering a superior foal. I know it happens I just don't think the odds are as good. I don't feel racing harms a colts ability to produce.

Another way (and the last I will deal with) the breeding industry harms the sport has been implied throughout this post: fashion. The breeding of fashionable pedigrees is not the same as making wise breeding choices to enhance the breed. For those that have read my blog I will start sounding like an old record here but the ideal thoroughbred is a horse that can carry weight, quickly, over of a distance of ground. And I think that result ought to be the goal of every mating. As I've also said before, even with this intention we will not run out of sprinters or mid-distance horses. But one day we may breed an even better thoroughbred than anyone has yet seen. And that is what I want to see.

In the end the health of the industry is dependant upon the health of the product on the track; that means we need good horses for good competition. And further we need those horses to be physically able to remain on the track longer and put that ability into practice. We need the stars in the sport to campaign longer. In my mind the breeding industry has veered off course having been wooed too much by quick heady profits. I have read many comparisons over the years of the thoroughbred industry (especially sales) and Wall Street. We are seeing the result of unregulated greed on world markets now. Let's take away some lessons from the disaster we are witnessing and apply good fundamental logic to our industry before it too has to recover from the ravages of too much greed and not enough well placed care.

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

An Opus of Problems in Three Parts, Part I : Drugs.

When I try to interest my non-fan friends in a day at the races the very first objection is that they believe that racing is fixed, that cheating is rampant. I tell them that while there will probably always be some amount of cheating going on I believe that the better tracks and the more high profile the race the less likely that there is any cheating going on. I explain why I think that's so; basically telling them that there is too much money in the horses and the breeding end of the business. And that successful commercial breeding is very much tied to a horses success on the track. A horse that does not accrue black type is not really worth anything. This is less so for the distaff runners but still applies. But at this point they usually have two retorts a) If they need to win to be valuable isn't that more a reason to cheat? and b) they point out, rightfully, that most horses don't run at the highest levels. So I am put in the position of defending the sport as best I can. I try to point out the folly of a jockey or trainer for risking an entire career for a race here and there. But, it's hard to clean up a negative image. They have all heard of the drug problems even if they have not heard of any specific example. This year they have all heard of Big Brown and the steroids. I am then amidst a conundrum. Do I defend the fact that steroids are (were) not illegal? - but this never feels right. Or, I can shrug my shoulders and acquiesce to their accusations and lose a chance to nurture another fan. Not all horses run on them and that has got to be a disadvantage. I have always felt as though it is cheating, legal though it may have been. So it's hard to convince them that the game is on the up and up; after all it's not based on this reason alone. To be certain I don't know that there is not a lot of cheating going on. In my time at the track I didn't see any cheating, and I truly don't think that it's rampant or even a big problem. I believe most horsemen and their employees properly and truly care for their horses. I also want to believe that this is true and I'm sure I fall into the category of seeing what I want to see, at least to some extent. But, obviously if someone is going to cheat they aren't going to make it obvious. Undoubtedly many trainers, usually the most successful ones, have been suspected of juicing their horses. I don't know if any of those suspicions have been true either. I imagine that at the B and C league tracks cheating is more likely to occur. After all there is little or no money in the horses at that level and the day money is probably lower, so I imagine the tote becomes all the more important for survival as a result - especially when the purses at those tracks are so much less than the big leagues. That is why I and so many fans are relieved and excited that new drug rules are going into effect across the county. Yes, the jurisdictions were coerced by the graded stakes and B.C. committees but it doesn't matter how it occurred just that it did. Like many of us I have lost money because a horse we felt had no chance, let alone a right to be in a certain race, suddenly ran a race like a champion. It is those times when I have had that sinking feeling about my own beliefs and desires. But with the new drug rules going into effect I'll feel much better about when encountering such a performance. I'll feel much better about looking through those rose colored glasses. NY is the latest jurisdiction to announce that they will be implementing the new drug rules. It was inevitable, we all knew that, but it's good to hear it anyway. And it will give me a little more ammunition in defence of a sport I am passionate about. Who knows maybe my arguments will hold a little more sway and prove to get a few more friends to the track. And even though this step will not erase all types of cheating I do know that it is a step that is years late in arriving.

Tuesday, October 7, 2008

Off The Fence and into the Dirt

I'm certain that when Breeder's Cup weekend comes around it will feel as exciting and festive as ever. But this year I feel something insidious has cast a pall over The Breeders Cup. I may be the only one feeling this way. And at first I didn't discount the possibility that this feeling is somehow a result of a juxtaposition of racing and the national and world financial woes of the day. However, after ferreting out the culprit I am sure it is solely the result of an industry that runs before it walks. I am referring to the synthetic track on which this years races will be contested. I also believe that there have been many small decisions made since last years event that had already started to dull the shine and I'll start with some of those.

For me, Filly Friday is a negative. I won't be alone in trying to juggle a schedule so that I may be able to watch the races. And if I am unable to watch the Friday races I'm sure I won't be alone in that unfortunate circumstance. Of course if the worst does occur we'll miss all the distaff decisions; that's foresight for you! Sure one can access replays but replays, while a helpful tool, are passe` by definition. All the attributes that make the sport of horse racing so great- the visual of the horses body language in the paddock, anticipation, the excitement of the race itself, those few fleeting seconds that make up each race that are the penultimate moments and can only truly be experienced live, are all gone with the running. To watch Zenyatta or any of the hopeful runners on replay, after the fact, does not nearly hold the same drama or urgency as the live event. Horse racing is about being live and alive. It's a celebration of physicality. I would still vote for one long day. But if it has to be two days I'd prefer to see Juvenile Friday. As I've stated before, I believe Saturday and Sunday is the way to go. This after all is the 'Big Leagues'. Does the brain trust of racing really believe they will lose more handle going against baseball and football than running on a day when the only race fans that will definitely be able to enjoy are industry workers? Horse fans are HORSE fans.

Getting to my main area of contention - the synthetic track - I have to admit I had not thought about it as a negative until trying to figure out why I was feeling as I was about the B.C. I can trace the seed of the sentiment to mid summer when Jess Jackson laid out plans for Curlin's turf experiment with an eye toward running in the Prix de l'Arc de Triomphe (Fr.-I). The proposition was exciting and one that I was hopeful of seeing. In hindsight I would have preferred to see Curlin run in l'Arc - especially in light of Zarkava's historic performance. I would have liked to see it because it hasn't been done before. And I would have liked to see it because it would have Curlin, our best, meet Europe's best on their turf, literally. At the time I imagine most (myself included) believed that Curlin would go on to win his turf debut in the Grade I Man O' War, even though he was challenging two previous B.C. champions. So how does this impact the Breeder's Cup? One of the major concerns - if not the reason - Curlin was to skip the B.C. (aside from the chance to make history) was the Pro-Ride synthetic surface that was in the process of being installed at Santa Anita. One might reason that now that we can reasonably assume we'll see Curlin and Big Brown in the Classic the shine would be restored, but there is more fallout to a synthetic B.C. Zito won't be sending any horses and he has a few that should be attending. One of those is Commentator. I am not as big a believer in him as many but he should be there in the dirt mile, maybe even the classic. Bobby Frankel also expressed some ambivalence about the surface. And though that may not be the reason Vineyard Haven isn't going (as of this writing) it was a consideration. I imagine it was a large consideration since they ran in the Champagne last Saturday. Being only three weeks from B.C. boy's day it's doubtful he was considering running Vineyard Haven in both. And these won't be the only defections due to the surface. And let's keep in mind that if both Big Brown and Curlin did not have pedigrees that suggested turf one or both may not be running.

I had actually liked the synthetic surfaces. I'm merely trying to highlight reasons why I believe the B.C. is going to be less than definitive this year. I became a big fan of Hollywood Park because of its' synthetic track. But I see a problem looming on the horizon because of synthetics. Just when it seemed we may get uniform drug rules in most racing jurisdictions, creating a more even racing flat, resulting in more crossover competition nationwide, we may be faced with a dichotomy in racing based on track surfaces. Will we have horses refusing to meet each other unless it's on their preferred surface? We already do. I have to think that some of the connections of horses that will run in The Breeder's Cup have reservations because of the surface. How will this play itself out in the industry? I think some ought to start thinking about this.

There has always been posturing and differences in tracks, circuits and their respective horses. There has always been East vs. West. But, eventually the twain would meet somewhere to have it out, to settle the score, at least once. This year it appears we will be lucky as all signs point to Curlin and Big Brown running in the Classic (they may have some 'Navigation' problems but I'll save the analysis for another time). But in the future 'showdowns' may be the exception rather than the rule. We saw the beginnings of this trend this year when the connections of Colonel John and other West Coast colts had to decide whether to come East to run on dirt. The more the synthetics are ran on the more an undeniable bias toward horses with some turf pedigree becomes evident. I fear a scenario where dirt runners and 'synthesizers' will never meet. That will be nothing but bad for racing. The synthetics ( I had believed) were meant to simulate (replace) dirt, not grass. After all if it were grass that was being simulated we would be eliminating turf courses not dirt tracks. Are we just unknowingly creating another division in racing? To me it seems so.

I had always been on the fence but leaning pro on synthetics, but I have changed my mind. Obviously there is something very different between running on synthetics and running on dirt. There is something not so very different between running on synthetics and grass. Do we really want to breed the ability of our race horses to run on dirt out of the thoroughbred? I think we need to embrace the difference in the two abilities not eliminate one. I think it would be a disservice to the breed and to the fans if that were to become the trend.

As I have been writing this The Blood Horse has reported news that Churchill plans a "major" announcement on Wednesday. It is presumably about CD hosting the 2010 Breeders Cup. I only hope that is all of the news. I hope we are not about to hear about the first Synthetic Derby!

I have jumped off the fence and have landed in dirt! If some tracks stop trying to speed up the surface so that it resembles a tarmac for big races that would probably go a long way toward solving the breakdown problem. I have to believe that they can make dirt tracks as safe as synthetics. In any case I think that 'going synthetic' should be thought out a little more before steamrolling ahead without a thought toward how it may impact the future of the sport or the breed.

addendum: (added Tue. morning) Apparently Zito would have considered sending Commentator but he's not 100% [DRF]. Regardless, it doesn't change my thinking.