Saturday, August 30, 2008

Garcia, Micallef, Zayat and Alaazo

I think Alan Garcia and, perhaps more accurately his agent, Tony Micallef are making a very poor choice in not standing by their commitment for Garcia to ride Alaazo for Zayat Stables in the Pennsylvania Derby (gr. II) Monday. Micallef seems to think that winning the Saratoga riding title is more important for the career of Garcia than nurturing relationships with the owners that give them the mounts. I can understand that a certain amount of status is attached to winning a meet the magnitude of Saratoga, but, in the long run it will not harm or improve his business. His riding abilities are what dictate the mounts he receives and his formidable skills and work ethic have business booming. Jockeys work long and hard, sometimes for many years, for the privilege to be able to ride in million dollar races and when those opportunities are presented to a jockey he would be best advised to take them, especially when they have already been agreed too! He is after all only 22 years old! To say his future is bright would be woefully understating the fact. There will likely be many more riding titles ahead for him at Saratoga and elsewhere. I certainly don't imagine that their reneging on Alaazo will effect their business with their main man, Kiaran McLaughlin, but it may cause others to hesitate in the future, if not out of concern then out of principle and solidarity. The world is a strange place and the world of racing even stranger.
Garcia is named on ten mounts today(Sat.) and ten mounts tomorrow. And while I am far from agreeing with Sobhy Sonbol, Zayat's racing manager, that Garcia has the title wrapped up, it is possible he may have it delivered by Sunday evening. If they don't, that's racing and racing luck. They have a commitment for Monday and they ought to keep it. Let this be an experience that will inform future decision making. The sport does not have a lot of room for selfishness, except if that selfishness is manifest by securing as many quality mounts as possible through persistence and skill. It was not too very long ago when Micallef probably had to do a lot of selling to enable Garcia to get on horses to showcase his skills. As a team Garcia and Micallef have found success, they should not forget how they got there: by receiving commitments and keeping them. It's a very important part of the sport. In the long run it may not be Garcia that pays the dearest price, it may be Micallef. Garcia's skills are not likely to diminish any time in this decade but business can suffer if one's agent is deemed difficult to work with. I wholeheartedly hope they reconsider and Garcia rides Alaazo without it becoming a big issue between the camps. That would be best for all concerned.

Wednesday, August 27, 2008

Random Notes

Match Race
How Jess Jackson saying no to a match race between Curlin and Big Brown is headline news is beyond me. Did anyone believe that there was a real possibility? Even Iavorone and IEAH had to know it was a no-go when they made the offer. They all know that a speed horse has a distinct and certain advantage in a match race. Curlin would undoubtedly be disadvantaged. Having said that I still think Curlin is so much better that he would win at any classic distance. I almost wish Jackson had said yes to see how IEAH would squirm to extricate themselves from the duel. The offer was disingenuous from the start and made only because it was certain to be turned down by Jackson.

“I was hoping (Jackson) would accept the match race, but he turned us down,” Iavarone said. “We’re very disappointed. The date we were looking at for the match race was Nov. 29, and I didn’t realize that was the same weekend as the Clark (Nov. 28), so I’d run there. Churchill Downs could crank up the purse. We’re good to go, so we’ll see what happens.” (BH 46763)

And how distasteful is it that everywhere BB runs IEAH expects to extort more money from a track? $500,000 isn't enough of a purse? I guess for IEAH if it's split more than one way it's not enough. I wonder how much they will want to run in the B.C. Classic $12 million? He isn't the next coming of Man O' War!

There's a lot of good news on the drug issue. Between California's self imposed ban and the news out of Kentucky and Louisiana this week change is finally here. Racing will be so much the better for it.

Biancone's suspension extension until Oct. 31 falls short of an imposed severity one should incur when they blatantly disregard the rules. Biancone accepted the settlement but did not acknowledge any guilt. I guess cheating isn't really cheating if you don't believe you cheated!

"All disciplinary agreements approved by the commission are expected to be carried out by all parties and Mr. Biancone is no exception," said Lisa Underwood, the commission's executive director. "The commission will take the actions necessary to make sure its orders are followed. These actions are taken to ensure the integrity of horse racing in Kentucky." (BH)

It's bad enough he didn't take responsibility for the venom now he doesn't take responsibility for the arrogance of subverting the intention of the suspension. Kentucky should just flat out refuse him a license to train, period.

The news that Keeneland is looking into remodeling that will accommodate more fans, deal with access problems and perhaps even result in hosting The Breeders Cup will probably be met with a lot of concern and resistance. Keeneland is what racing is about. They do it all the right way, from the facilities to customer service. When I was in Kentucky I spent as much time there as I possibly could, and it was always a pleasure. I can't imagine any other facility that has the best interest and intentions for racing at the its' heart. Being from NY Saratoga will always be extra special to me, but it has nothing on Keeneland, except three extra weeks during it's meet. But to any traditionalist both tracks represent the apex of the sport. Change is always hard even when it's welcome. But it is also inevitable and necessary to move forward to keep up with the times. As much as I would like to see Keeneland remain as I know it I have faith that whatever changes they make will only make the facility better and better able to face the challenges of the future. I would also love to see Keeneland be able to host the Breeder's Cup. Their fall meet blends beautifully with the BC and already attracts the creme de la creme in racing. It would be great for horsemen to have their BC hopefuls stable at the same facility that the races will take place. Acclimation for a few weeks for so many of the horses will bring out their best and likely result in even more contentious racing in the BC. I can think of no better facility to host racing's annual penultimate event.

Monday, August 25, 2008

Great Racing Can Produce Permanent Fans

What a wonderful weekend of racing! I thought we had seen the race of the year in the Alabama when Proud Spell had to go to the bottom of her well to emerge victorious. But then on Friday we were treated to the Ginger Punch's win by a whisker in the Personal Ensign! On Saturday Porte Bonheur's 1/2 length victory over Indyanne in the Victory Ride continued the excitement of stakes level drama that peaked with Colonel John eking out a very gutsy two inch win over Mambo in Seattle in The Travers Stakes! As if that wasn't enough, on Sunday, Whatsthescript rallied for a 3/4 length decision in the Del Mar Mile H. Yet, the excitement still wasn't over. In the weekend's GI finale, as it approached 10 pm on the east coast, Garret Gomez capped his million dollar weekend by guiding Go Between to a thrilling neck victory over Well Armed in the Breeder's Cup "win and your in" Pacific Classic (g.I). If this kind of racing doesn't get your blood boiling nothing will. If this type of excitement doesn't create new fans, nothing will.

Can any sport deliver as much excitement as often as racing did this weekend? Not a chance!That is what is so very special about this sport. Every race presents the possibility of the drama we saw in so many of this past weekends stakes races. Certainly the fact that the races mentioned were stakes adds to the drama, but this same drama is played out at every level, from the $2,500 claiming ranks up to the Grade I, everyday in racing. It is a can't miss formula that just needs to find an outlet to bring it back into mainstream consciousness. To do that cooperation is needed. The tracks and ADW's and their affiliates need to understand that they are going to be more successful if they work together rather than competing for the same customers. To appeal to a mass television audience I believe that means speeding up the sport. At the track the 20 - 30 minutes between races poses no problems but on t.v. it is just too long. Something along the lines of the sixty minute pick six needs to be instituted within the industry. Staggered post times and stakes level races could be the basis for a 60-90 minute telecast every Saturday. Yes, TVG and HRTV do give us most of the races but I am speaking of network television to promote racing to the masses; those that are not already fans. Baseball had done it for years with the 'game of the week'. Football accomplishes this by the very nature of the game being a once a week event. Racing has a better, more exciting, year round product that needs to be packaged better to grow its' fan base. It would be great if this could be sold to one of the big networks but ESPN is almost as good. If racing wasn't such an enigma to people more would be drawn to it and become true fans.

Before I got hooked on racing I, like many others non-fans, would watch out of curiosity, the Kentucky Derby and, perhaps, the Preakness and Belmont if there was some excitement surrounding a horse but that was the limit of my experience with horseracing. I think it was probably the limit of televised horse racing as well. It was a world that seemed indecipherable and unapproachable and those telecasts certainly didn't do much to change those impressions. It was not until attending the races that I became a fan. While nothing can be a substitute for being at the track and seeing and experiencing those magnificent animals up close, racing of the quality of this past weekend could undoubtedly light some fires. But how do we keep that flame ablaze? When will the next televised event occur? Well, they don't know either! As a result, a person whose flame of imagination may have been lit by what they saw this weekend will be left alone without kindling and that flame will go out of it's own inertia. As an industry it is vital that once the nibble of a potential fan is felt the hook must be set. They have to have somewhere they can access the game again. Believe me, it will not be at an OTB or a casino; racing to the non-indoctrinated fan is too intimidating, not to mention those surroundings, to all but the most aggressive of personalities. Unless they have a friend or family member or readily available access to nurture that flame all is lost. It is in the nature of people to be discouraged by something that resists welcome. Perhaps the experience of one unsuccessful attempt to enter our world can be overcome but twice and you've probably lost a would-be fan, three times and we've probably created a detractor.

I remember when the light went off in my head. I at least had friends around that went to the races that I could ask questions of. Surprisingly, even most of them as fans couldn't answer the simplest of questions. For example: How does a horse get to run in the Kentucky Derby? Perhaps it was their uncertainty that drove me even more to find out the answers. I know this sounds unbelievable to a fan, especially those that grew up as fans, but I assure you this is the rule not the exception. While we don't need every potential fan to follow their newly found passion to the extent that I eventually did, we do need them to return again and again. The best way to do this is through familiarity and availability. Racing needs its own weekly show that highlights its' best. Perhaps "Five races at Five" on Saturday's at 5 O'clock. A race from Belmont, Keeneland, Calder, Santa Anita and Woodbine or whatever tracks are running at the particular time of year. While it doesn't sound like a lot of time between races it's enough to be informative without intimidation and to keep the fire burning. Knowing what races are coming next week and where they are able to watch them may, eventually, prompt many to seek out PP's for the next weeks races and take their interest to the next level: participation.

Saturday, August 23, 2008

The 139th Traver's Day!

I don't often write about my handicapping choices but today with the $1 million dollar guaranteed Pick 4 at Saratoga I decided this would be a good time to have one of those entries. But before I start I just want to very briefly talk about class... GINGER PUNCH! -enough said. Now on to the picks.

I don't ever play very large tickets so I set the limit I set for my P4 at a cost that is probably very low for hardcore handicappers but scraping the ceiling for the average or fair weather player, $36. Today I'll play a $24 dollar ticket.

Race 8 Victory Ride -G3 6F.

My top choice is the Greg Gilchrist trained Indyanne. I'm sure she is almost every one's top choice. More than any other reason is her last race, the Azalea (gr.III) at Calder. That performance on that track was phenomenal. Also looking at her last three works, following the Azalea it is obvious she came out of the race perfectly and has perhaps even gotten stronger. She has experience shipping and she, like all horses, will relish this cool wonderful weather. Gilchrist is an absolutely top notch trainer and if he sees fit to ship her here one better take notice. Yes, she is going to be odds-on but you have to take what is given. Also it's never smart to get beat by an unbeaten horse. Unless I have a very strong feeling against I will always include an unbeaten. However, having said that this is racing and they do have to run and so as a second choice here I'll select, aptly enough, Informed Decision. She seems the likeliest candidate to come from off the pace and they will all be going fast. Though she only shows two works since her last outing on April 11, one's a bullet and the other's a very fast tightener that illustrates she fit as a fiddle. Also she's trained by Jonathan Shepard so I wouldn't worry about her fitness even if I saw only one or no works. Johnny V. stays and that is always a positive.

Race 9 Bernard Baruch Handicap -G2

I don't think the morning line favorite, Thorn Song, will go off the favorite, but perhaps he should as he is going to be the controlling speed and we all no the adages. However, I rarely go with speed on the turf and I won't here. My top pick in this race is Operation Red Dawn. Why? First and foremost I have to say my instincts tell me so. Sometimes when you look at The Form there's is something on the paper that's not in print and you feel it more than see it. That's how I feel about Operation Red Dawn. But to give the choice some more validity I'll add these considerations: he's running for the fourth time in this cycle, more than any other cycle of his, so I'm thinking that physically he is doing better than ever. He often has a nice late turn of foot. He's a hard trying horse, having finished out of the money only twice and one of those was as a maiden. His only other off the board performance was when he tired in the Red Smith (1-3/8T)on yielding turf. Today he'll have have firm turf on a course he's done well over and a distance he's well suited for. He's trained by turf specialist Clement, ridden by the very patient and talented Dominguez (Clement/Dominguez 29% in '07-'08) and he's obviously bred for the turf. He does only show one work since his last race but Clement is another of those trainers that I would never question his horses fitness. It is a good work and for a turf horse that's all I look for to be satisfied they're ready. And too me it just feels like he's sitting on his biggest race. I will cover myself here with the horse I think will be the post-time favorite, Proudinsky (Ger). Another very talented but ouchy horse. There is a break in his training that does concern me, however, his last two works, spaced at six days were very quick and the last only 4 days ago. That says 'all systems go' to me. He'll probably be running in the garden spot about 2-3 lengths behind Thorn Song so if that horse can make his speed carry Proudinsky should still have the best shot. Prado takes the mount and Frankel trains. There's not much to not like here.
Certainly the back class of Shakis (Ire) is a concern and he's training 'lights out' but at eight I think he's lost a step or two, probably the exact distance he'll lose by. Of course he won this race last year...

Race 10 The Kings Bishop -G1

One of my very favorite races of the year and a very tough edition! I've been vacillating on this race since I first looked at it. I'm going to go with Asmussen's J Be K to win simply because I think that of them all he is most likely to be able to carry his speed to the 7 furlong distance. If there is a horse that is most likely to pick up the pieces it's probably Kodiak Kowboy and no one knows that horse better than Asmussen so I don't think he'll get beat by him. But instead of going with Kodiak Kowboy as a saver I'm going to stretch a little here and opt for Gentleman James. Yeah I know he's yet to get past Golden Spikes in a race but Golden Spikes has run two very big races in a row and although he continues to train well, racing is a different animal. I really like how Gentleman James has been training. I also like, very much, that he shipped in within the last week from Florida. I love horses that come north in the summer as much as I dislike horses that ship south in the winter. He's probably had enough time here to get used to the track and the change in weather probably has him feeling so good he's kicking down the barn doors. I feel he's ready to run his best race. Mora and Aguilar are also 25% together in '07-'08. If I was to go three deep here and stretch the ticket to $36 I would go with I'm So Lucky. He's done absolutely nothing wrong, he's continually getting better and training perfectly and I really respect John Ward. He wouldn't put a horse in a position that would ruin them. When I put in my ticket I'll probably stick to the $24, but this horse may be a spoiler today.

Race 11 - 139th The Travers -G1

This is the largest field that I've seen as a fan. This is as it ought to be. In a DRF piece earlier in the week about Mambo In Seattle, Neil Howard said it is one of those races you always dream about winning. I know it would be right up there for me! I guess it doesn't move team IEAH or Dutrow. Oh well! As with the King's Bishop I wouldn't be surprised by anyone colt that wins. I also go three deep here for the final leg of the pick 4. Choice numero uno - no not Macho Again or Harlem Rocker - Colonel John. Of all the horses in any of the pick 4 races his workout line is the most beautiful! He's perfectly tuned, well rested and I think that it's his race to lose. Of course dirt is the only question mark. The Derby was his only race on dirt and by far, his worst. But that was the "Derby" and there could have been a hundred reasons for that dismal performance. Today Colonel John will show he belongs with the elite class.
As for my savers, the first is Harlem Rocker. He's only stubbed his toe once and on a synthetic track. He is the most unknown quantity here as far as I'm concerned. He has the ability to stay close to the pace (and a quick pace at that) and still close and this race is likely to be fast. That's a dimension that Pyro has only shown on a few occasions in The Northern Dancer(gr. III) and Louisiana Derby (gr.II) and to be accurate the pace of those races were not fast. Harlem Rocker's workout line is also impeccable and it's been at Saratoga so it's obvious he likes the track. It's strange to see Coa on one of Pletcher's big horses but as good as Johnny V. is I don't think you lose anything with Eibar Coa. Pyro will be my final choice here. As mentioned I expect this to be a fast race, especially early. Pyro, more than any other colt running, has been able to maintain his class through time and his game is finishing. So if it goes as quick, as it looks to, and if he gets a bit of racing luck I think he can go back to the barn with $600,000!

So if you're playing numbers here they are: 4,5 / 3,7 / 3,8 (10) / 2,8, 11

As an aside, I imagine I'm not the only one that laments seeing a DRF for a big race without a Peb cover. It's a bit like Thanksgiving without Turkey!

Hope you all have a great Traver's day and win some money too!

Thursday, August 21, 2008

Big Brown Skips Town (Saratoga)

It's hard to keep up with the news of where Big Brown will next be seen. First Philadelphia Park offers to up the ante in the PTHA President's Cup (1-1/8 T) to $1 million if BB runs and it looks like the Brown team have gotten their wish. Then Monmouth creates a new race, The Monmouth Cup (1-1/8T), with a $200k purse that will be augmented to $500k if BB runs. And NYRA decided to create a 9 furlong turf race for $100k, bumped to $200k should Big Brown run. All of these are scheduled for September 13th. There has also been mention of the $400k Clement L. Hirsch (gr.I 1-1/2T) at Santa Anita on Sept.27 but the talk does not appear as serious for that appearance.

As of late Wednesday Monmouth appears to be the winner in the BB derby. The love's flying. IEAH loves how they were treated for the Haskell, Monmouth loved the turnout for BB. And I don't like any of it. I know races have been created for horses before, particularly match races -that are not good for man nor horse, just drama - but I just don't like to see the industry bend to the whims of a horses owners. It sets bad precedents. No horse should be bigger than the sport. It makes one wonder what the sport is. Is it racing or just printing money? I suppose the saving grace here is that none of the races, aside from the Clement L. Hirsch, is graded. If it was and BB won, the inevitable tirade from Dutrow would undoubtedly contain 'we're better than Curlin, we won a stake on the grass, he didn't'. Of course if they ran in the Hirsch, they could make that claim. But they won't run in the Hirsch. They're not looking to take on classy horses, especially older ones. As a matter of fact the only running they have been doing is running away from the classier 3 year-olds.

How great would it be for racing for BB to be running in the Travers Saturday? If IEAH really wanted to do something good for racing they would be running Big Brown in The Mid Summer's Derby. IF NYRA really wanted to lure BB and do something good for racing they would extend the olive branch to team BB and allow him to enter until Friday (of course PP's would be problematic now) but IEAH would get their desired bow, NYRA would get the best race of the summer (okay, they already had it in the Alabama) and the fans would get to see what they should get to see; the best line up against the best and decide who is best! Alas, that won't happen. Team BB has tucked tail and ran. What they do want, is, in the words of Iavorone, "This is a race we're looking to make as easy on Big Brown as it could possibly be." Maybe if they hold out a little longer someone will schedule a walk over for them! Iavorone also said that they wanted to use a grass race to get BB ready to run on the synthetic track at S.A. in the B.C. Classic. Alright, there may be some validity to that thinking but as of yet no one knows how the S.A. track will run. Also they can just try training him on synthetics to see how he'll take to it. To my mind the decisions that are being made by owner and management are just plain wrong and bad for racing. For all the posturing by team Big Brown about how BB is the best horse running their actions tell me what the truly think; that he's not.

Well, the best laid plans... Perhaps, BB will get his easy race. That may backfire on them. Maybe he'll get his easy race and not win. That would be a devastating blow. Better to face the fire, win, lose or draw, as then there is nothing to be ashamed of or regret. As for what is going on now, it makes me, quite frankly, ashamed for the sport.

Sunday, August 17, 2008

Perception Problems

I found this weeks issue of The Blood-Horse very interesting (Aug. 16 #33). In particular Tom LaMarra's article on THG and Fred Pope's article about racehorse owners responsibility to assume more control over the destiny of the game. Both articles revolve around the same issues - generally speaking - and that is takeout (money) and it's distribution.

Anyone who has read my blog from it's inception will know I have addressed this issue more than any other. I think for anyone that loves racing this is a major concern and one that threatens the sport. It seems almost everyone agrees that the system is broken. The most notable dissenter from this thought would be the ADW outlets. As with all matters that concern money it is not hard to figure out why a group is in favor or against a system; look for those whose pockets benefit the most and you find a system's staunchest supporters.

The system as it is now configured does not give enough back to those that put on the show and by extension that means the sport itself is not benefiting from the money it generates. Most particularly these parties are the horsemen, owners, fans and the tracks that are not also ADW's. As I have written about this before I don't want to get into the dollars and cents, per se. Both articles correctly site that only about 3% goes back into the game directly as purses. That is simply not enough.

Fred Pope offers a reasonable solution based on the lotteries scheme where bet takers are given 5% and the lottery producers are given the rest of the takeout. He uses 22% for that figure (27% takeout, I had no idea!). There may be differences from state to state and game to game, especially the multi-state lotteries, but his point is well taken. Why shouldn't this be a model that the industry follows? It seems to me that if followed the takeout can be lowered and the sport will still reap more benefit.

How is that possible? As it stands now the takeout is divided between horsemen, host tracks and ADW's or other off track facilities that accept bets. The cut is determined by state regulations mainly having to do with host/source market laws etc. Of course many ADW's find ways around paying the most by incorporating in other States etc. To make my point the specifics don't matter. Simplicity is almost always best except when you rely on shadows for your benefit.

What I propose is simple. Drop the takeout to a flat 17%. Give the hosting track 11% of the takeout. This to be divided further with 8% going back to the horsemen and owners through purses and 3% to the track operators for maintenance etc. This insures a healthy industry and a revenue formula few on the production side could find any fault with. Give the other 6% to those that handle wagers off track. What this accomplishes is that it puts the ADW's, OTB's, casino's and other NTBA's in competition with each other for their profit, instead of preying on the horsemen and tracks. This in turn would benefit the fans because it would force those outlets to provide better fan service. I can't speak for everywhere but almost every OTB I have been to in New York is tragic. The monitors are few, old and of poor quality to begin with, not to mention that quite often nothing will be on many of them until you bring that to a managers attention. The tellers are too few and generally non-interested. And if the parlor you're at has personal terminals they are often out of order or in poor working condition and also too few. Availability of information - DRF's or programs (and never anything else) - are on a first-come, first-served basis and usually after a few no more are served. All these contingencies result in many of those watching the signals at an OTB to bet through ADW's or other accounts. I can't speak for everyone but most of those I know would prefer to bet where they are, if for no other reason than your winnings are cash in your pocket, not in an account in Oregon. So, under this system for a provider to receive a benefit they have to take the bet. In order to get the bet they have to serve the customer. Of course this works in theory. In NY OTB's take 5 or 6% of anything you win as well. So you would think they would bend over backward for the fan. But they don't! Go figure. If I could make money that easily from someone I'd teach and help them win in every way possible. Just more short sightedness. But I would also get rid of that tax. Why should they have the right to soak the fans even more? It's also another reason fans choose to bet elsewhere. Why pay a 6% surcharge on winnings on top of the the 20% you had already payed for the right to wager? As a result, in essence, many OTB's are giving their signal away free! One of the major reasons they have such financial woes!

Okay, many will say that the ADW's and OTB's will go the way of the dinosaurs if left to this formula. I doubt it. In LaMarra's article THG's executive director, Wilson Shirley is credited with stating that ADW's 'currently generate about $100 million for tracks and purses, but if the growth trend continues, that figure could be $800 million in 10 years.' I don't know how much they actually handle to create $100 million for the tracks but if figured as 6% of the take it's roughly $1.7 billion; at 3% it's more than $3.3 billion! Yes the numbers will be turned around, they will be earning the $100 to the projected $800 million, not the billions, but not only is that as it should be it's more than enough money to ensure that we will always have wagering options. Not only is it a lot but it's enough that if they want to offer rebates let them do it with their money, not ours. For the average betting fan I know of nothing that is more aggravating than knowing that the big operators get rebates from our dollars! It's called gambling! If you don't want to risk losing what you bet, DON'T BET! And for all those entities that offer those rebates, if you want to do it to lure big time gamblers, do it with YOUR OWN MONEY!

This brings me to my only disagreement with Fred Pope. In summing up, while urging owners to take control, he states: "We need some racehorse owners with a little maverick in them to engage now and save the sport of thoroughbred racing. You, know, their game. (BH #33, 4032)"

The horses may be theirs but it's not their game. Without the fans they'd be racing them in their backyards. As expansive as they may be I don't think it' would be quite the same, or satisfy the ego to the extent that many - not all- need it to be massaged. As John Sabini, NY's new racing board chief said "We don't run races so horse owners can watch their horses race." However, I do agree with Pope's overall point, owners need to have more say in the control of the sport. It is sad that, as he puts it, "You can own a horse and your only responsibility is to pay the bills (BH 4030)." I believe he meant to say that their only function seems to be to pay the bills. Certainly their responsibility is a privilege that they need to exercise much, much, more.

I know this entry is quite long but before ending I just have to comment on the 'state of the game'. I, like many fans I know, have been concerned about the future of racing. Perhaps we ought not be. We are, after all, talking about BILLIONS! of dollars before even considering the industry's peripheral economic impacts, as well as many, many thousands of jobs. It is unlikely that such an industry will dwindle and die or be allowed to do so. I think the problem is perceptual. Perhaps it is also manipulated. I believe, that in general the public takes a poor view of racing resulting from two distinct perceptions.

The first is gambling. Gambling always seems to carry with it the vision of the degenerate, the person that lives on the fringe of society not in it. Gambling and gamblers are things that we, as a culture, are generally taught to avoid. While any vice that becomes addiction is a serious problem the biggest problem here is that all fans are lumped together into the same category. No matter how one handles their bankroll we are all thought of as the $2 bettor that will soon be spending the family grocery money on Peanut Butter in the fifth! Just like the teen that first experiments with pot is surely on his way to a broken life and heroin! It's a bad perception and should be fought by promoting the intellectual aspects of handicapping, both the numbers side and equine knowledge. Also money management should be part of any and all promotion to create a responsible atmosphere about wagering on horseracing.

The second poorly perceived aspect is the tracks themselves. On a normal day at Belmont there wouldn't be enough people to crowd the apron! It looks plain bad, as though no one cares or watches the sport. Why? Obviously many reasons. Off-track opportunities, difficulty of getting to a track, the areas in which many tracks are located, it's a daytime sport etc... But, I think most of all it is how the product is sold to the fan. You get whacked to park your car, you get smacked by having to pay admission for the right to spend your money and then you are pummelled by the price of concessions! How much can a fan take! As time goes by the fan has also slowly been denied access to the sport. One cannot even go to the training track in the morning at Saratoga to watch the workouts unless you have credentials! Of course most of these problems don't occur at premier meets like Saratoga, Keeneland and Del Mar. Why? because the product is great! The product is great enough to overcome the gouging that people put up with. It's that good because the purses are great compared to anywhere else. Good purses brings the best horses and talent the industry has to offer. We need to get that money back into the sport. That is why the money issues have got to be settled. I think the poor image of most tracks is manipulated to some degree by state government. In the long haul I think they see racing as a cash cow that can be restricted to the smallest possible space with other space now used for racing eventually going for other types of tax creating development. I especially think this is so in NY. I don't have enough knowledge of too many other jurisdictions to be as confident about them. But, we will say good bye to Bay Meadows in a few weeks. Hollywood Park is not likely to see many more seasons. I fear for Aqueduct here in New York. If Hialeah hadn't gotten historic designation I'm sure that the talk going on now about bringing it back would be moot. These are just a few examples.

Over all my final point about not worrying about the health of the industry is this: If the industry is so sick how does it manage to create more money almost every year! I think it is just the product that is ill, suffering from malnutrition, but the industry is well. You can't deny nourishment and expect something to flourish. Just some food for thought.

Friday, August 15, 2008

Magna Note

Over the last several weeks we have all heard the thunder in the distance as the storm rolls closer and closer to MEC's ground central. The news out of Maryland that Pimlico would close to training in the end of August, along with Maryland's loss of The De Francis Dash, Laurel Futurity, The Safely Kept S. among others was ominous. But lightening struck when we learned that Frank was willing to sell at least part of Santa Anita. The news hasn't been good in Florida since Gulfstream was re-imagined as Magna's Filmore South. These are just the anchors of a failed, crumbling would-be empire that has always operated with the arrogance of ego but without vision of improving the racing product. For quite some time I have wondered what all this will mean to racing but still haven't gained the insight into how this situation can all sort itself out. But, I do imagine it will hurt both fan and horsemen in the short term and be to every one's benefit in the long run.

This morning, for the first time in weeks, I had a chance to look at a few blogs and Steve Zorn's The Business of Racing, Adieu Magna? entry is an in depth discussion of just how bad things are for Magna. I had no idea it was as desperate a picture as Steve paints. Changes are coming at high speed in the industry and for Magna it appears changes will be coming at warp speed!
Also check out the terrific photo's on Green But Game.

Saturday, August 9, 2008

Welcome Change

In the aftermath of the tragedy of Eight Belles we heard from various commissions and groups recommending abolishing the use of steroids in racing. While most of these groups are associated with racing they had no real power to enforce any changes. That type of action -inaction - had been the status quo following any misstep, for as long as I remember. Event, followed by public outcry followed by the seemingly insincere self-flagellation of the industry and proposals for change. Seemingly insincere because the proposed changes rarely, if ever, became manifest. In light of this history the very positive actions of the last few weeks regarding the use of steroids is welcome news.

The first shot was fired by the Breeders Cup Committee outlining penalties and loss of funding for the B.C. race program. The Breeder's Cup is in a precarious position in that they have to try to level the playing field for international entrants to be lured to it's program. Certainly owners and trainers world-wide had to ruminate about the risk of running against doped horses before undertaking the risk and expense involved in shipping horses and personnel around the world. To truly have any right to the moniker 'World Championship' you have to have horses that represent that tag. Regardless of the spur, they did a good thing and that's all that matters. In my mind they didn't go far enough but any positive change is welcome and in reality the penalties did have teeth. While a one year ban of a trainer - for a first offence -doesn't seem very harsh it would have had the effect of clearing the trainer's barn of the highest quality horses. No owner is going to place their horses in a barn that can't run the big races. Of course most trainers wouldn't have been too concerned as they don't have that type of horse.

Now we have welcome news that the Graded Stakes Committee has determined:

Under the rules, states or racetracks through house rules must adopt, at a minimum, the Association of Racing Commissioners International model rule on androgenic anabolic steroids by Jan. 1, 2009 or the date of a state or racetrack’s first graded stakes in 2009, whichever is later. If a state or racetrack does not adopt the model rule, their races will lose their graded status and will not be eligible again for grading until the rule is adopted. (BH)

This really begins to tighten the seine! Together, the B.C. and Graded Stakes Committee has found a way to move the industry forward. This will cause almost immediate change in the industry, for the better. Of course after reading through the RCI model rules I still think there is more that can be done to tighten the purse strings of the net. However, these steps, while long overdue, are welcome and need to be applauded for the changes they will assuredly promote.

Cosmic Queen was a big disappointment in the Sorrento (gr. III). I had high hopes. It seems she hasn't got the heart. I hope I'm wrong and Paasch figures something out. I'll be following her for a while longer. I suppose Mike Smith jumping ship to Paash's other entry , Stardom Bound (the post time favorite), should have given me a clear clue. Like most handicappers sometimes I'm clueless and only see what I want to.

I wish I had seen Midnight Lute's Del Mar work! He's credited with 7 in 1:21 3/5! The track record is 1:22.46! Well, at least we know he's no morning glory. Maybe we'll get to see him again in the Forego this year. Not that I would want to move him if I were Watson, Weitman or Pegram, but if you look through Del Mar's offerings the rest of the way there's nothing there. That amazes me. I read the Pat O'Brien (gr.IIT) has been mentioned but I can't see going that route when the Forego is at a track he likes and offers a extra $50,000 and a grade I status. Seems like a no brainer.

Thursday, August 7, 2008

BB & co.

Paul Pompa has been heard from, not Richard Dutrow or Michael Iavorone. That speaks volumes by itself as far as I'm concerned. Quite often what's not heard tells the true message . Can anyone say damage control? Unfortunately the words heard are not what one had hoped. There will be no meeting with Curlin in The Woodward (gr.I) or an appearance by B.B. in the Jockey Club Gold Cup (gr.I). with or without Curlin. It seems 27 days is too much of a rush for the Woodward. While I don't think many truly believe that excuse these days it's possible. But, if true it doesn't speak well for the durability of his pedigree. No I don't believe it's too much of a rush. I do believe that they want to keep B.B. racing against 3-year-olds a bit longer or just find some softer spots. According to Pompa B.B. will be pointed to a race on the grass. I agree with Pompa that B.B has probably done enough to "solidify himself as 3-year-old of the year. (BH)" But his comment "If he wins the (gr. I) Breeders’ Cup (Classic) later this year, it would give him a grade I on synthetic (surfaces). And, if we find a turf event where he can win a grade I, he’ll have won grade I races on three different surfaces.” Yes, and if the pilgrims had shot a skunk... That's a lot of "ifs." Pompa doesn't sound as confident as Dutrow. If Dutrow is to be taken at his word and B.B. truly is the incarnation of Pegasus, why, one has to wonder, would they dodge a decisive bout with any horse? Why look for a grade I turf event "he can win?" If he's that good shouldn't he be able to win any event? So they should be looking for the most prestigious, not the most winnable race. As Curlin and his connections have proven, it's no disgrace to try and loose. But you have to have the courage of your convictions and at least try! So why the change in direction?

I have my own conspiracy theories. First, not all team B.B. is as certain of the colts dominance as Dutrow. Second, his foot problems continue and they believe the grass will treat him better. Perhaps his feet are another reason he seems to want to stop in his last two races. But my coup of conspiracy theories is ...(drum roll), maybe, just maybe, his retirement package was tied to performance accomplishments. Maybe he would have been worth - or at least he would have allowed Three Chimneys, to at very least, recoup - the reported $50 -$60 million if he had won the triple crown. Maybe everyone involved was so certain he would win the Belmont that it was considered a fait accompli. But of course, if you're Three Chimney's, you have to cover yourself. I say this because lately I have read little to nothing about him being retired. I don't believe I'm alone in believing B.B would have been retired had he won the Belmont. The best (easiest) way to create a legend is to leave all the accomplishments in the 'what if' category. But he would have been just that, legendary, if he had gone on to win the Belmont. Forever the questions would have circulated: What if he had run in the classic against Curlin? What if he won everything and raced as a 4-year-old? What if he lined up alongside Seattle Slew? or Secretariat? Fun? -yes, and the type of questions $50 million dollars is made of. Unfortunately, B.B has only gone on to have a P.R. problem. A P.R. problem is great to get people to the track but not so good for getting them to the breeding shed. So I believe the thinking of team B.B. is that they need to try the grass. They will find a spot -or have one created - on the grass that he can win so as not to damage his rep. In doing so they will also get a better gauge on how he'll handle the synthetic surface. So in effect it kills two birds with one stone. If the grass race doesn't turn out they way they hope, or expect, I don't believe we'll be seeing B.B. in the B.C. Classic. Regardless of Dutrow's boasts, at this point the brain trust of team B.B. seems intent on containing the damage and avoiding the big horse. Too bad for racing fans.

Wednesday, August 6, 2008

Politics as Usual

It was good to have a little time away to just enjoy what racing I could without thinking of blogging much. However, on returning to the task I was struck by yesterday's article on the DRF site about the news that NYS will, or is, trying to link track attendance to the cut NYRA will eventually receive from the inevitable racino(s). Somehow it is not surprising and, perhaps, maybe even an unconsciously expected complication to the ongoing drama of racing in New York State. When it comes to dollars and "sense" the later rarely is a result or cause of the former. The politicians want every red cent they can get and they will try every avenue to get them.

Just last week Governor Patterson was stumping about how bad the current economic crises was and the need for everyone to get on board and share the pain. He basically said that no one was exempt from the effects of the current downturn. Of course if you are NYRA and the economy is at all to blame on the current downturn of business, (-16.6% @ Saratoga) and how can it not be to some degree, you get to be a victim twice. Once from the loss of revenue resulting from the difficult economic times (as well as weather) and again by being penalized through loss of future income that is going to be determined by an anomaly created by the difficult economic landscape. It is also disingenuous for the State to assign attendance as the determining statistical factor in fixing NYRA's cut of the racino purses. Even if $4 gas was the only mitigating circumstance in an otherwise healthy economy, attendance would be likely to continue falling because of the other opportunities for the fan to wager and watch the races. The State has decided to use the sports most vulnerable and predictably declining statistical figure as a measure of value. It's outright ridiculous, otherwise known as politics as usual. If The State was to make any statistical relationship the yardstick for allocation of racino money then it should use revenue brought into the state as a result of New York's racing product. At least that way there is some reflection of the true measurable value of the product. Of course the state doesn't look for fair, does it?

NYRA's biggest mistake, (I know I've gone on about this before) was ceding title to the tracks to the State. They were it's biggest asset and bargaining chip. And, I believe, if they (NYRA) didn't own them then it is more likely that the heirs of August Belmont and W.C. Whitney have a better claim than the State. NYRA could have decided not to allow the racino's on their property or had more leverage in hammering out a fair deal. Actions truly speak louder than words and I see the State's action here as just the ominous tip of the proverbial iceberg. It seems they have already made a distinction between racing money and casino money. It's obvious which is more desirable and manageable to them. If this is a peek into the future it certainly doesn't look sunny, fast and firm for racing. The new contracts aren't even drawn and signed and NYRA's being kicked about. If anything other than a racino remains at Aqueduct in 26 years I'll be amazed. While I don't envision 'New Rochdale' can anyone say Capital City? The other big mistake seems to be the "undefined" benchmarks that are part of the new 25 year agreement. How can anyone agree to something that hasn't yet been spelled out? NYRA shoulders much of the blame here. Anyone that had any say on NYRA's side had absolutely nothing at stake here other than securing a 25 year work contract. By that time they will all be retired and collecting their hefty pensions, I'm sure. Who involved in these negotiations truly had racings' best interests in mind? What a mess! Can we find integrity anywhere?

For a fan this is all hard to digest. In all other racing jurisdictions that I am aware of slots were put in not only as a cash cow for state's government but also as a supplement for racing. Suddenly it seems NYS wants to change the formula. It is so underhanded and greedy a move that everyone that cares about racing should let their local representative know that they are against soaking the public with slots unless it is going to benefit the racing industry, as had been promised. At some point the populous has got to say no to the greed of government. If the State truly wanted to help the industry they would do what's right and they would also help the tracks get crowds. Create more and more frequent mass transit opportunities to get to the tracks. I'll guarantee that they'll be shipping their pigeons into the slots by the busload. The Aqueduct racino will probably get an express train! It's all just too much to stomach!

On a lighter note there is the happy news that we will see Curlin run at Saratoga in the Woodward! Saratoga is a track he should have on his resume. I don't mean to count eggs before they're hatched but if wishing can make is so than it shall be.

I haven't yet read any opinions about Big Brown's Haskell win but I imagine most felt as I did; any win is a good performance. However, my immediate feeling following the race was that Desormeaux probably wishes he had kept after Curlin in the Belmont. He ran the exact same race and seemed to start to quit at the exact same spot on the track. While he may not have beaten Da' Tara in The Belmont Stakes, you never know. I didn't think he was going to catch Coal Play on Sunday. As to why B.B. has fallen into this apparent bad habit it is any one's guess. Maybe his past performances through the stretch, that seemed so effortless to the observer, hurt him more than his appearance suggested. One thing that has been suggested to me by several friends is that he doesn't look like happy horse. I'm not sure I see that but his actions may suggest that. After the race he acted up just as he did after being pulled up in the Belmont. Something is working on him or in him. I also didn't hear what Dutrow said after the race but after reading some other articles I surmise that he knocked Curlin again. What can be so distasteful about Dutrow at times is that he is like a child that never learns. It's as though experience is no teacher for him. It would be wonderful to see Curlin and Big Brown meet! I would prefer it be on a surface that they both have excelled on. Jess Jackson, as ever, continues to take the higher road. Kudos to him!

I can't end without mentioning Zenyatta! - winning the Clement L. Hirsch Handicap (gr.II). It hardly looks like she's exerting herself and the result is a new track record! Wow, she is scary good. That's the way you want to see a horse return after a substandard performance. Added distance should only help her as it takes her a while to get under herself. I suppose most big horses run like that, Point Given comes immediately to mind. Of course her one race at 1 -1/8 - The Vanity (gr.I)- doesn't support that observation but I think that was just an off day for her. But, as I said about Big Brown's Haskell, any win is a good performance. The great ones find ways to win on their off days, and she did. Add Mike Smith and John Sherriffs and it just makes one feel added joy about her success.