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Thursday, May 29, 2014

All Systems Go For Cali Chrome....But We've Heard That Song Before!

 - OK, well, it's a busy week between work, and the Rangers, and the Dinosaur Jr show last night. So I'm gonna be a bit lazy here and reprint this post, which originally appeared on the TimeformUS blog on Saturday:

The big news on California Chrome from Friday is that he encountered a possum on the track while training.  He was apparently undaunted, and continued on his merry way. Must have been a particularly slow news day.  I see those damn critters in my backyard in Queens; even hanging out on the back porch one evening.  So I don't see what the big deal is; I can run away from them just fine too, and I don't make the Daily Racing Form website USA Today.
His assistant trainer, Alan Sherman, is really talking his horse up, telling us how California Chrome seems to be thriving despite the Triple Crown grind.
"He's a good-feeling, big, strong horse. He's just improved all the time....Most horses get a little tired during this three-race trip, but he just seems to be getting bigger, and stronger and better every day."
Oh. Wait.  Sorry, that wasn't Sherman.  That was Barclay Tagg talking about Funny Cide before he went for the Triple Crown sweep in 2003.  He finished third.  Well, OK, maybe there's no Empire Maker in this year's field.  Or, maybe there is.  Point is that trainers say what they say before these races, and these comments probably should be taken with a grain of salt. Even as good as the horse seems to be looking, and as supremely confident Sherman is.
"As good as he came out of the Preakness, I was shocked.....And he's showing me signs that he can be going forward. I don't see any signs of him starting to tail off."
Oh. Sorry again. That's not Sherman either.  That was John Servis talking about Smarty Jones prior to his attempt at sweeping in 2004. He looked pretty good around mid-stretch.  But Birdstone came along and caught him; he finished second.  Yeah, maybe his jockey Stewart Elliot moved him too soon that day.  California Chrome will have the more experienced Victor Espinoza on board.  You know, the guy who spoke about how he nearly had a panic attack and moved his horse too soon when he saw Social Inclusion moving on the turn of the Preakness.  I'm sure that won't happen in the Belmont, right? After all, we've seen that experienced riders don't make that mistake on Big Sandy. Just like Kent Desormeaux on Real Quiet in 1998.
But now it's 2014.  It's been 36 years.  We're due.  What could go wrong this time?  And, California Chrome is doing fantastic!
"I can't believe that I'm training a horse that looks this good and has done what he's done....There is no way in the world that there is any horse that is doing better.....He just looks unbelievable."
"It's a done deal."
Oh.  Damn.  Sorry again.  That was Rick Dutrow talking about Big Brown prior to the Belmont in 2008. He didn't finish the race.  Of course, Art Sherman isn't Rick Dutrow. We presume he'll have Cali Chrome's shoes glued on real tight.  So I guess it's in the bag. Right, babe?

Wednesday, May 28, 2014

NYRA's Chief Experience Officer Has Work to Do

NYRA has hired a 'Chief Experience Officer,' and for an organization that was supposed to be watching its payroll, it sure has a lot of Chiefs.  There's the Chief Executive Officer, the Chief Compliance Officer, the Chief Financial Officer, the Chief Information Officer, and now this.  (And of course there's the plain old Chief, though he seems to have stayed down at Gulfstream for now.)  As well as a new General Counsel whose hiring was also announced yesterday.

The new "CXO" is one Lynn LaRocca, a former Sr VP (of which there are a lot at NYRA too) of marketing at Modell's who has no experience in racing.

 As senior vice president and CXO, LaRocca will be responsible for all aspects of the relationship between NYRA and its guests, both current and future. She will oversee NYRA programs that serve on-premise, off-track and on-line guests as well as developing partnerships with those in the racing industry, sponsors, corporate and governmental entities and service providers. NYRA's sales, marketing, event planning, guest services, customer relations management and communications departments will be under her purveyance.

In the hiring of LaRocca, NYRA joins the health-care industry and several other customer-centric organizations in bringing in a CXO who will use new technologies and analytics to understand what guests want and then meeting, and exceeding, those needs. [NYRA Press Release]
Funny that the hiring should come at this time, because I haven't been particularly happy with my recent X-perience at Belmont.  And it's not as much that there's been no wireless in the Belmont backyard for at least the last two weeks - fortunately for me, my iPad is equipped with cellular service, so I could deal with that - as the fact that the much-touted "hospitality" at the track has been rather non-existent.  That has been the buzzword for CEO Chris Kay.  And I did note here that there were many smiling faces available to direct and assist customers at the Wood Memorial at the Big A.

However, on Saturday, and then again on Monday, I searched far and wide for somebody to report the wireless issue to, and, with the exception of a woman at the information/binoculars stand who reacted blankly to my query, came up totally empty.  I walked all around the backyard area - nothing.  Inside the grandstand - nobody.  All around the clubhouse, nope. In a place that was supposed to now be so hospitable, I was feeling rather neglected.  Finally, on Monday, I sent a Tweet to @TheNYRA handle, and later got a response that: "2 of 4 backyard access points were down for maintenance, but will be back on soon. Sorry for the inconvenience!"

So Ms. LaRocca may want to put aside, for now, her new technologies and analytics and just put some boots on the ground to help fulfill the commitment to customer service about which Mr. Kay has spoken so forcefully since he came aboard....and not just on big racing days. Because there was little of it that I could see over the weekend.

On the positive side though, been meaning to mention that the closure of the grandstand that seemed so ominous over the winter has not come to pass in any meaningful way that I can see.  Sure, there is less grandstand seating available, but the seats are open, contrary to what we'd read.  And there seems to be plenty of it for all but one day out of the season, on which the rest of the plant will magically come back to life for the day.  Concessions are closed on the upper floors, but open on the ground level.  And there are betting machines available throughout.  So I'm not really sure what the fuss was about.  Don't know if they changed their plans, or if the fuss was just people like me overreacting to an announcement that wasn't really very clear in the first place about what we would find.  One thing is for sure however - it costs more to get into Belmont, and one gets less in return. Including, at least this past weekend, customer service.

Friday, May 23, 2014

Churchill Boycott Gathers Steam

Handle at Churchill Downs is down rather substantially since Derby weekend; that according to figures released the other day by HANA, which has spearheaded the boycott over the rise in takeout rates there.  

 The Horseplayers Association of North America reports spring meet handle compared with last year is down 6.4% to $284,568,040 at Churchill. That figure represents a $1.4 million decline per race day. The HANA figures can't readily be compared with track figures because other than big race days, Churchill Downs does not release handle figures. The track does release handle figures to the Kentucky Horse Racing Commission. [Bloodhorse]
 I saw some notes on Twitter yesterday that Thursday's handle was off some 38% from the comparable day last year.

I find myself reporting these numbers with glee, even though I was initially unmoved by the call to boycott over the takeout rates.  And even now, my issue with Churchill is really more over their general corporate dickheadedness than their raising their prices.  Corporations have every right to do so, and consumers have every right to resist those increases.  I'm strictly a value guy when it comes to evaluating races for wagering, and I just figure that if the takeout rates cause races at a particular track to generally lack value, then I'll be 'boycotting' it organically anyway.  (One of the problems with a boycott such as this is that it doesn't allow the order of events that horseplayers warn of - lower churn to lower revenue to lower purses to smaller fields - to play out naturally, thus depriving them of pure smoking gun evidence to back up their claims.)

So I tweaked HANA on Twitter over the boycott at first, not because I was at all opposed to it, but because, as well-intentioned as I've always acknowledged they are, those guys just bemuse me from time to time and I like to give them the business.  As I've noted before, the horseplayers' organization is quick to take action when they feel as if their wallets are being directly threatened.  But when it comes to those hot button issues of safety and drugs that we hear them speak so passionately about, they are strictly talk.  I don't recall, for example, any calls to boycott Aqueduct when horses were dying at an alarming rate; or to refrain from betting Tampa when there were questions about their enforcement of medication rules against certain trainers.  And we've mentioned how their racetrack ratings do not take those factors into account.

But perhaps I quibble.  And anyway, in light of the subsequent stories about Churchill's poor hospitality and mistreating a disabled former jockey and, especially, their refusal - until compelled to do so - to devote resources to basic needs at the Fair Grounds racetrack, my enthusiasm - and participation - in the boycott has increased.  I think that what really put me over the top was when I read of some empty Churchill Downs suit commenting with respect to the drainage problems at Fair Grounds that were causing inordinate numbers of grass races to be switched to the main track: "Well they all train on dirt, they should be able to run on dirt."  So yeah, screw you guys too.  Unlike in California, where racing officials at least acknowledged the boycott over their takeout rates and installed a low-takeout Pick Five in response, Churchill has arrogantly turned up its noses and hoped that the boycott will just go away.  Perhaps the handle figures will attract their attention.  I know it will once it flows down to the bottom line in a material way.

 - A business group in East Greenbush, NY has come out in favor of the proposed Saratoga harness/Churchill Downs casino there.  
 “As a local small business, I know The Casino at East Greenbush would increase foot traffic to both of our shops. This kind of project doesn’t come around very often, and it has real potential to boost local businesses like mine,” said Scott Bendett, Owner of Habana Premium Cigar Shoppe. [Capitol Confidential]
 Oh man.  Somebody is sure pulling the wool over Scott Bendett's eyes if he thinks that people are going to leave the casino to walk to his cigar store.  Maybe he should visit Ozone Park and ask the store owners on Rockaway Boulevard (other than the pawn shops) how business is going for them.  I would surely imagine that fine cigars will be available for purchase on the grounds at The Casino at East Greenbush gift shops.  And perhaps given away to their best customers too.

 - I still can't believe that the Rangers lost that game last night.  Those are the games that really hurt; the ones when your team is clearly the better one, but somehow manages to wind up on the losing end.  Happens in hockey I think more than in any other sport.  That what makes it so "slippery," as Emile Francis used to say.  I fully expect the result to be different in Game 4 on Sunday.  Think we should kill them.  (Though I said that before Game 4 of the Pittsburgh series too.)

Wednesday, May 21, 2014

Gaming Commission Changes the Rules on Local Approval

The NYS Gaming Commission has issued a clarification regarding the requirement of local approval by the host communities of a casino.

"The identities of the potential gaming facility applicants have now been established. Accordingly, the board believes that for a host municipality resolution to be sufficient, such resolution should indicate support for the specific gaming facility within the jurisdiction of the host municipality.
For the guidance of bidders, we have provided a specific “resolved clause” which would meet the Host Municipality support requirement....

NOW THEREFORE BE IT RESOLVED, that in furtherance of the above goals, Municipality X herby [sic] agrees to the location of Gaming Facility Y at premises within Municipality X.

As of today, the Board has received 23 Host Municipality Resolutions; only three (the Village of Johnson City; the Town and Village of Liberty; and the Town of Wawarsing)are acceptable as consistent with the standards contained within this Guidance.
Uh oh.  That is sure to send some of the bidders back to the drawing board, at least with respect to meeting this requirement.  That includes the proposed facility by Saratoga harness and Churchill Downs in East Greenbush.  The vote for that casino took place under shady circumstances, before the project had been announced publicly.  That will give East Greenbush residents who oppose a casino - of which there is an organized group - a chance to have their say.  Presumably, anyway.

Hilariously, this rather major "clarification" comes just after the deadline for applicants to request the return of their $1 million application fee.  Nice going there.  Two companies did submit timely requests to have their money returned.  One of them was Pinnacle Entertainment, which was interested in partnering with David Flaum to operate the E23 project in Albany.  However, Flaum announced last week that the Chickasaw Nation in Oklahoma would be the operator of that facility.  The two defections leaves a Kentucky Derby-sized field of 20.

Also worth noting that this new rule is sure to touch off a frantic flurry of local lobbying efforts by the bidders to have their host communities pass the required language of Gaming Facility Y at premises within Municipality X.  We, the public, however won't be party to the details of who is lobbying who, and at what expense.  That is due to the previously reported loophole in the law which exempts such disclosure in towns, hamlets, or communities with populations of less than 50,000.  All but one of the bidders would qualify for that exclusion.  So, nice going there, again.

 - Greenetrack CEO Luther Winn Jr visited the site of his proposed casino in New Windsor, in Orange County, near the Stewart International Airport (67 miles from the Empire State Building).  He was accompanied by former US Senator Alfonse D'Amato, whose lobbying firm is representing the company.  D'Amato is apparently not bothered by the allegations by shareholders that Winn has misused company funds to pay for personal vacations and cars.  (I wrote more about Greenetrack earlier this year in this post.)

 - A Saratoga Casino and Raceway executive had some really kind words for the city that hosts his racino.  Skip Carlson, a VP of something-or-other, told the Washington County Board of Supervisors:
“If the city of Saratoga Springs had embraced this project, they would have benefited — as the host community — $5.7 million....Does anybody know how much the city of Saratoga Springs now will receive? Zero. The City Council passed a resolution against us becoming a commercial casino ... and I think they sent a message that Saratoga’s closed for business.”  [Saratoga Wire]
I'll keep in mind that Saratoga is closed for business when I'm up at the races this summer.

 - The plans have been unveiled for a casino at the waterfront in Schenectday - the Rivers Casino at Mohawk Harbor.
 Galesi’s riverfront rehabilitation also includes a 124-room hotel and banquet facility, 304 apartment units and a supermarket. Previously, Buicko was targeting a film studio for the site but did not receive adequate funding from the state for California-based Pacifica Ventures to build a $69 million studio. [Daily Gazette]
A film studio?

 - The Rangers are doing pretty well, have I mentioned that?

Monday, May 19, 2014

Jockey's Comments Do Not Bode Well for Cali Chrome's Belmont Chances

The following is the uncensored version of my post that originally appeared on the TimeformUS blog:

Here's the TimeformUS result chart for the Preakness.

The chart is missing last place finisher Ria Antonia here.  Not making any comment....I simply ran out of room.  I'll leave the editorializing to this rather hilarious tweet:

Figures here are pretty straightforward; not much esoteric stuff in the way of adjusting them for pace.  Only significant upgrade was for Pablo Del Monte, who set the honest pace before fading to 6th.

It was a lifetime best TFUS speed figure of 116 for California Chrome....and career highs as well for the other two who came out of the Derby.  I did question whether that made sense considering that they all were racing two weeks after Kentucky.  The answer was a resounding "yes!"  This was an easy race to make figures for, according to Craig, our figure guru.  Ride on Curlin and General a Rod both had challenging trips in the Derby, and an easier time of it here.  As 3yos in the spring, they are both eligible to be improving at this time of the year....particularly, I'd say, Ride on Curlin, who had been showing a general trend of moving forward despite the impossible trips to which he'd been subjected.  And, of course, the Derby is run at a distance that doesn't really suit most any of these horses.

Of course, I had no questions about California Chrome's figure.  Makes perfect sense that he ran his fastest race on Saturday.  His Beyer of 105 however is not his fastest race on their scale.  That's fine, not a big difference really, just a few points.  I would however continue to question the low 97 that he got for the Derby.  His Beyer pattern of two career tops (108 and 107), followed by the 97 and the Preakness 105 might be par for the course for Sheets guys.  But I don't think that narrative really makes much common sense, considering how consistent the horse has been in terms of style and the ease of his victories.  I think we have it right that the Churchill track was slower when the Derby went off, be it due to the fact that the track hadn't been watered for quite awhile, or whatever.  Wouldn't at all be surprised if the Beyer boys adjust that number at some point down the road.

Social Inclusion was an absolute mess in the minutes leading up to the race.  He was obviously agitated, with sweat pouring down his legs.  I believe that his not going to the lead had more to do with that than with any pre-planned change in strategy.  He was still, however, able to mount enough of a challenge on the final turn to prompt Victor Espinoza to move earlier on Cali Chrome than he said he wanted to.  We can only hope that this apparently brilliant colt can endure going forward after being rushed into the Triple Crown races.

Here's the quote by Espinoza:  “I had to start moving at the half-mile pole, which is tough for a horse to start moving early and keep going all the way to the end.” [AP]

This, in my opinion, does not at all bode well for this horse's chance of winning the Belmont and, thus, becoming the first Triple Crown winner since Affirmed in 1978. (Wouldn't you miss saying that should he win?)  I'm honestly not sure if Ride on Curlin would really have caught California Chrome even if they took the proverbial "another trip around the track."  But the Belmont will be a different - and longer - race with a different cast of characters; and probably a lot of them....don't know if many will be scared away.  Upon those horses will be a lot of anxious jockeys likely to have a quick trigger finger as they're approaching the final turn for home (if their horse is not already done by then).

It's one thing to move a bit early in the Preakness; another one entirely if Espinoza feels the need to do so in the Belmont.  For all of his handiness, it seems as if the Derby/Preakness winner needs to be handled with some extreme care.  He's reportedly skittish in the starting gate (though we've seen no evidence of that of late), needs to be kept close up and outside of horses in order to avoid too much dirt in the face; and his jockey obviously felt the need to move prematurely to prevent another from passing him turning for home.  "I felt like I was under attack," Espinoza said, who added that he was more tired mentally than physically. Seems like odd statements for a win that looked so totally routine.  If he thinks he was "under attack" in the Preakness, just wait until the Belmont.

Additionally, we've now learned that California Chrome also needs the use of a nasal strip.  We hadn't read much about it before, but its use coincides with his six race winning streak.  The NYS Gaming Commission announced today that it will permit him to wear one in the Belmont, even though it denied permission for I'll Have Another to use it two years ago (before he was scratched due to physical issues).
The Stewards immediately sought expert analysis from New York State Gaming Commission Equine Medical Director Scott E. Palmer, VDM, on their use.

Dr. Palmer wrote: “I recommend that the stewards at State-based Thoroughbred racetracks discontinue their ban on equine nasal strips. Equine nasal strips do not enhance equine performance nor do they pose a risk to equine health or safety and as such do not need to be regulated." [NYS Gaming Commission press release]
Yeah.  I am SO sure that they would have reached the same decision if Art Sherman had a record like that of Doug O'Neill.  Or if rejecting the request wouldn't potentially lead to 40,000 less people attending the Belmont Stakes.  What a bunch of crap.

Tuesday, May 13, 2014

Casino Minimum Capital Requirements Are Minimal

I wrote about the win by Palace Malice at Belmont on Sunday, and a bit about the Preakness, over at the TimeformUS blog.

 - The state announced the minimum capital requirements for casino developers.  Considering the numbers that have already been thrown around - for example, the $750 million proposal for the Adelaar casino at the Concord - these are not likely to dissuade anyone.  Especially in Orange County, with its proximity to NYC.

 “I think it shows that they are rushing through this and that this has clearly not been thought out,” said Mitchell Grossinger Etess, the chief executive of the Mohegan Tribal Gaming Authority, which wants to rejuvenate his family’s famed Grossinger’s resort in Liberty, N.Y. “The premium spot, and they are only asking $350 million? It doesn’t speak to creating economic development.” [NY Times]
There had been calls from some in the Catskills for requirements as high as $1 billion for Orange County, and these numbers obviously fall far short of that.

Not quite satisfied with the minimum set at only $85 million for his hoped-for casino at Tioga Downs, Jeff Gural expressed hope that he can apply the $45 million that he's already spent on renovations towards the requirement!
“I thought they did what they said,” Gural said of the commission. “They want to get as many bidders as possible and let the free market set what everybody plans to spend.” [Pressconnects]
That's one way of putting it.  A cynic might say that keeping more bidders in the game is a good way to keep the campaign contributions and lobbying expenditures flowing.  But I guess that's being way too cynical. Right?

The bidders now have five business days to request a refund of their initial $1 million fee.  But I don't expect them to be lining up at the door.

Granted, these minimums do not include all of the expenses that will go into constructing these things.
The board also said that casino projects would entail up to hundreds of millions of dollars in additional costs that it did not include in the capital requirements — things like land acquisition, legal work and marketing. Those expenses could swell the investment in a hypothetical Orange County project, for example, to nearly $500 million, it said. [NYT]
But still, we're hardly talking about prohibitive amounts here.  I would surmise that Genting would be willing to spend up to twice that amount to have a casino just 40 miles from Manhattan.

Expenses related to convincing local communities to vote in favor of a casino - a requirement by the Gaming Commission - would presumably not count towards the minimums.  According to a report on the Capital NY website, a loophole in the law means that companies hoping to build in communities with populations of less than 50,000 would not even have to disclose their lobbying expenses there.
 And all but one of the known locations where the 22 different casino bidders have said they plan to build casinos are in towns, hamlets and villages with populations under the 50,000 population threshold, leaving it unclear how much, if anything, the casino bidders have spent to cultivate community support. [Capital New York]
 Gotta love loopholes, eh?

Speaking of disclosure, the details of NYRA CEO Chris Kay's contract have been released.  James Odato, writing in the Albany Times Union, claimed it was a FOIL request by his paper that led to the release.  But blogger Tom Noonan spilled the beans on the contract last week, claiming that it was his FOIL request that was responsible.  We'll have to give the nod to Noonan here, who revealed the generous severance clauses contained in Kay's contract on his blog well before Odato did.

Nonetheless, NYRA released the information after initially opposing it.
"Disclosure of the requested records would constitute an unwarranted invasion of Mr. Kay's personal privacy under Public Officers Law," NYRA wrote last summer. "Mr. Kay is not a public employee. He, therefore, has a significant privacy interest in avoiding disclosure of the requested records. [Albany Times Union]
I have to say that I fully agree with that.  NYRA is presently not supported by taxpayers, so I don't really see where the details of the contract is anybody's business.  I mean, by the same logic, then wouldn't we be entitled to know what Tom Durkin or Andy Serling makes?

And I say good for Chris Kay that he was able to obtain some financial protection given the uncertain circumstances under which he took this job - a temporary state takeover and talk, at the time, of selling the enterprise off -  and the relatively paltry, for a Chief Executive Officer of a business like the New York Racing Association, base salary that he agreed to take.  I don't particularly care about his automobile allowance and his stipend for living in Saratoga over the summer.  Don't understand why that is even news.  Let's move on to some important stuff.

Sunday, May 11, 2014

Exit Durkin, Enter Irrelevant Musical Choices for Belmont Day

Back from Florida, where my daughter Kayla graduated from the University of Miami.

I guess this is an appropriate photo for the times in which we live.

Yeah, I'm pretty proud of her!

A couple of relevant news items caught my attention upon my return.  Tom Durkin has announced his retirement as the track announcer at NYRA after 24 years.  Some quick math reveals that he started in 1990, coming from the Meadowlands, where he called harness races (strangely, that stint was omitted from all of the news reports that I've seen).  It's been a great ride for Durkin.  However, his retirement, effective after the August 31 program at Saratoga, cannot come as a surprise to anyone who's heard his labored calls this year.

There will of course be much speculation as to his replacement. Personally, I rarely get the kind of chills from race calls that I did way back when. Maybe I've just heard too many of them.  Or perhaps it's because there just is not the kind of young talent with the kind of genuine enthusiasm who used to get me all pumped up.   Dave Johnson, Chic Anderson and, on the harness side, Ed Gorman.  Some of the greatest races I ever saw, I never actually saw at all.  The race calls told the whole story.  It's been a long time since anybody has gotten me as excited as those guys used to.

Having said that, there are plenty of fine announcers out there.  Two of them recently got high profile jobs which they perhaps wouldn't have applied for if they'd been paying closer attention to the racing at NYRA over the last year or so.  Personally, and those hirings notwithstanding, I think Vic Stauffer is the best guy out there, and he's not calling races anywhere these days.  I'd be thrilled to hear him call races here.  Kurt Becker (Keeneland) and Frank Mirahmadi (Oaklawn) would be fine choices as well.  [UPDATE: And definitely should have mentioned John Dooley (Arlington/Fair Grounds) as well; thanks to reader ljk.]

And then, there is the announcement of the entertainment choices for Belmont Stakes day.  Oh, boy.  Well, anyone who's followed this blog over the years when I had time to write about music, or has seen my occasionally-updated Playlist selections, knows that I wouldn't be happy unless the acts were booked by Bowery Presents or Todd P or Chris White. But I don't even know what to say about this. I thought at least they'd book bands that would actually draw people even if they were the wimpy pop or faux-punk crap that dominates what passes for "popular" rock music these days.  LL Cool J was cool 20 years ago.  I didn't know (nor care if) Frank Sinatra Jr was still alive....and Bernie Williams?  Seriously?   Chris Kay said: "We want everyone to come out and kick off the New York summer party season with a great afternoon of racing, complemented by a great day of entertainment and enhanced food and beverage options."  Guess we'll have to settle for the racing and food.

Wednesday, May 07, 2014

Post Post-Derby Notes

I wrote a bit about the Kentucky Derby here, on the TimeformUS blog. Just a few short thoughts here, because I suppose everyone is over it at this point.

 - So much for the workout reports this year.  I'd say they mostly qualified as "too much information." Never read anything that was particularly positive on California Chrome.  The workout "star," arguably Intense Holiday, was arguably the most disappointing horse in the race.  Amongst the others who got good reviews, Danza, did run well.  And though Dance With Fate actually ran pretty well, I do get to say that 'I told you so' with him.  Wicked Strong also ran pretty well.  I'd be saying 'I told you so' about him too, but I did end up wussing out and using him, though really more because there were so few horses I liked that I could afford to use him defensively.

 - Untapable, the Oaks winner, will not face the boys in the Preakness.  The owners cited "the best interest" of the filly in saying they did not want to run her back in two weeks.  I teasingly chided them for not being sporting in this TimeformUS post; but quickly backed off.  Because yes.....of course, it's all about the "best interest" of these animals, so I could never demand that an owner do anything that might smack of overextending.

On the other hand.....let's be honest here.  We all know that the "best interest" of the horse really means the best interest of owners who want to nurse her through a few more starts, and get her through the end of the year fit and sound so that they can bring her to the Keeneland sale in foal to Giant's Causeway and sell her for $20 million.  OK, sorry to be so cynical, and I apologize in advance to these particular owners if I'm being too harsh in their case.  But, as we've said before, if they were really interested in her best interest, they'd take off her tack, provide her with a lush field in which to frolic all day, set her up with a big screen TV and a cool pad so she could hang with her buddies, smoke blunts, and groove to Roy Rogers dance remixes.  But whatever.  This game is rarely about fun and sport nowadays.  All about the bottom line.  Hopefully, we'll get to see her against the boys later in the year.

It sure would have turned the Preakness from what seems like a mere formality to one of the more fascinating matchups in years.  Now we're hearing about the filly Ria Anotonia possibly running, and that deserves nothing more than a big LOL.  Social Inclusion could be an intriguing addition to the cast, but it's hard to get too enthusiastic about a horse who couldn't make his prep on Saturday because of a foot bruise.  We could see a handful of the vanquished horses, such as Commanding Curve. He's been declared as 50/50.  I'm hoping that they wait for the Belmont where we could be all in against him when he gets way overbet off his close for second.  Then there's Ride on Curlin, whose owners have fired Calvin Borel for not following instructions when he steered the horse directly over to the rail. They are the only owners that I've read saying that their horse could have won with a better trip.

 - As I said above, Intense Holiday was probably the biggest disappointment in the race.  I was apparently wrong when I speculated that they were just schooling him when he was closer to the pace in the Louisiana Derby, because there he was, for some reason, close to the pace again.  Don't really understand what the thinking is with this horse.  Clearly, he's been most effective as a closer.  The Toddster hasn't yet said what he plans to do with his quartet....though We Miss Artie is apparently headed to the Queen's Plate on the Poly at Woodbine.  Yeah, Ken Ramsey sure had the "best interest" of that horse in mind when he insisted that he run in the Derby despite his trainer's very public misgivings.  But I guess he gets a pass because he's Ken Ramsey.  He got to party at the Derby, make the walk to the paddock, his horse split the field and lives to play another day.  Danza, the horse who I was perhaps most wrong about, seems the most likely of that crew to come back next Saturday.

 - Rick Violette expressed satisfaction with the effort of Samraat, who he said "ran his eyeballs out." The trainer doesn't sound too enthused about seeing California Chrome again anytime soon. Uncle Sigh was no Palace Malice with the blinkers on, but still set a pace which was too fast for him to go on.

 - I had the NBC telecast on, but didn't really pay much attention.  Found myself doing other things while they were running features like the one on the Ortiz brothers.  I'd rather be playing other races. I mean absolutely no offense whatsoever to any of the excellent folks who worked on the telecast, both on and off camera.  It's just that I don't believe that, as an experienced horseplayer, I'm really a part of the target audience for that kind of telecast.

I'd seen the Asmussen interview online the day before.  As I'd said beforehand, he was relaxed and confident.  He probably made a pretty good impression (though, if I'm not mistaken and I didn't miss it, Costas let him off the hook on the immigration and minimum wage thing).

Saturday, May 03, 2014

Derby Day 2014

Happy Derby Day!  Man, it is gorgeous here in New York - it's warm, the sun is shining, they're back on the turf at Belmont....and the Rangers won in OT!!

For my horse-by-horse Derby preview and picks, I'm going to send you to the TimeformUS blog for my Today in Racing post.

In short, my pick is Uncle Sigh (30-1 ML).  He lost those two toughies to Samraat before breaking bad and getting hung wide on both turns in the Wood.  His TimeformUS figures are competitive and steadily improving; and the Wood was actually a career high.  I like that Contessa adds blinkers, which are intended, anyway, to help him focus and not to sharpen his early speed a la Palace Malice.  His horse has come up a bit short, so hey, why not take a shot to get him over the top?  He’s also been reshod to address minor foot problems.  Looked great in an unofficial work on Wednesday.  And he has some very interesting distance influence on his female side, as detailed here.

I'll play him to win and place.  For exotics, I'll use Samraat, California Chrome, Intense Holiday and, strictly defensively, Wicked Strong.  Maybe throw in Candy Boy and Ride On Curlin if I have any money left for deep exotics by that time of the day.

Best of luck and have a great day!

Friday, May 02, 2014

He Just Can't Help Himself

A few more Derby thoughts on this Oaks day up at the TimeformUS blog here.

Quite a surprise on the front page of the New York Times today.  Not only was there no new PETA bombshell nor negative racing story of any kind, but there was this:

Can you believe this?  A bucolic (h/t to the person who uttered that word that I was struggling to recall) backstretch photo with the sun coming up in the background.  As prominent as it could possibly be!  Could this be a new age of detente?  Is the Times trying to make up for past transgressions; to make people forget that it has violated many rules of fair journalism in its zeal to advance its anti-racing agenda?  Did it send Joe Drape to the woodshed?

Well, turns out that they sent him to the online edition.  Drape apparently just could not help himself.  Just couldn't let the occasion pass.  So, we have this article on their website, entitled Scandal Casts Shadow Over Grandeur of Kentucky Derby.  Nothing to see here, really.  It's just a rehash; it contains no news whatsoever.  Gratuitous and unnecessary, in my opinion.  Makes some of the same twisted assertions; such as the totally unfounded claim that the medication issue has anything to do with the decline in wagering handle.  Perhaps we'll see it in print tomorrow when nobody is reading the Times. 

Well, I don't want to dignify it by going into the details.  But I will point out this one particularly sensationalized passage. 
  Is there a human athlete, even one paid millions of dollars annually, who would agree to a regimen of up to 26 drugs — including thyroxine to raise his metabolism and acepromazine to calm himself? Is there one who would agree to multiple injections a week to joints and muscles or undergo shock-wave therapy to get one more inning, one more quarter or one more match out of a sore body?
  Well, for one thing, I don't know that the answer to the second question is as obvious as Drape wants to make it seem!  But in any event, the comparison is just absurd.  Horses are not human athletes.  There is no comparing them.  Humans don't eat hay and oats either, nor do they sleep in a barn.  And they are not bred with the sole purpose of serving the financial and entertainment interests of other humans.  (As I've said many times, if you are a fan of the sport, you have willfully accepted that we breed these animals to exploit them for our own pleasure and gain.)  So, spare us the linguistic dramatics, please.  Just tell us who you like.

Oh.  Wicked Strong?  That's original.

Thursday, May 01, 2014

Thursday Morning Derby Musings

[This post, as well as previews of some of Friday's stakes race at Churchill, is also available on the TimeformUS blog.]
Most of the Derby trainers expressed satisfaction - and probably, mostly relief - after the post position draw.  Even Jimmy Jerkens, whose Wicked Strong drew the dreaded #20 post, at least was able to smile as he said: "I’m trying to convince myself it’s not a bad post, but I don’t know if I can.”  The trainer seemed more concerned that his horse would have to stand behind the gate for so long while the others were loading. Strategically, considering that the game plan has always been for Wicked Strong to close from well off the pace, perhaps it won't be fatal given the near certainty of a fast pace. Jerkens said that Edgar Prado, who has ridden him the past, texted him: "Perfect."  Don't know about that, but hey, any closer needs things to go his way anyway in order to get an unimpeded path no matter what post he breaks from.
California Chrome was on the track on Wednesday, and the Daily Racing Form's clocker Mike Welsch wasn't particularly impressed.  "I gotta tell you, he is not the most impressive horse to watch when he gallops.  He was not striding very smooth....Out in Southern California, he might not have had many opportunities, if any at all, to set foot on a wet racetrack like we had this morning.  But it's something you have to be concerned about."
Richard Migliore, on HRTV's Pursuit of the Crown, expressed similar concerns.  "I really didn't like how he carried his tail even."  Ok, that's probably "too much information." Both gentlemen were quick to point out that they don't have a frame of reference as to how the colt generally trains.  "It's what's out of character for a particular horse, and she [HRTV's Zoe Cadman] says he looks much better going fast."  Which is the idea.  Stay tuned for more if and when he trains faster over a fast track.
Uncle Sigh had a half mile blowout, or a workout, or whatever you call it when it doesn't get timed. Welsch however caught him galloping out an extra furlong in 13 seconds.  I thought he looked great, and so did The Mig.  He's listed at 30-1 morning line; and man, at that price I'm going to have more than just a few bucks on him. (I wrote more about Uncle Sigh in my last entry.)  Here's our Pace Projector for the Derby, which shows Uncle Sigh in front.
Screen Shot 2014-05-01 at 10.11.40 AM
(You can see the post positions here.)  Now, remember that we add some early pace juice when a horse adds blinkers. And it's that extra credit that is responsible for Uncle Sigh being projected as the leader.  That very well may come to pass. As trainer Gary Contessa has conceded, you don't quite know what one will get when you slap on the hood. However, sharpening his early speed is definitely not what the trainer has in mind.
"He's much more focused (with blinkers); he's rating kindly," Contessa said. "Everybody that puts blinkers on before the Derby worries about being the next Palace Malice. I see that he's rating kindly in behind horses; we put him in behind horses and made him eat dirt. We've done our due diligence this last month and we've worked him where he has to come up through the rail. I don't see any hesitancy, and I always saw hesitancy in (Uncle Sigh) without the blinkers." []
Personally, I think that we're going to see Wildcat Red (#10) much closer to the front than is pictured here; and probably General a Rod (#8) as well.  Those two have shown that they want to be in front, no matter how fast or slow the pace is. That's their style, and I sure don't expect any conscious effort to change anything now.  Samraat (#6) may very well be closer early as well.  Vicar's In Trouble will likely have to gun from the rail post.  California Chrome (#5), assuming he's running fast on Saturday, will also probably be closer.  I don't believe that Ride on Curlin (#19) will be gunning toward the front from that post considering the way he closed in the Arkansas Derby, a change of tactics that would seem to serve him well.  So, while we all love Pace Projector, I have some issues with it here.
Medal Count is a horse who is getting a lot of positive attention from Welsch, and from the folks on Pursuit of the Crown for his appearances on the track this week. But he's another horse who has shown a clear affinity for synthetic, specifically that at Keeneland.  So, as with Dance With Fate, I'm just not buying the hype.
Screen Shot 2014-05-01 at 10.35.59 AM
With Wicked Strong in the #20 hole, morning odds maker Mike Battaglia has installed Hoppertunity as the 6-1 second choice.  [UPDATE: He's scratched.  Damn.] Don't know if I'm buying that either.  I think that bettors will see that he lost to California Chrome by five lengths and shy away.  I'm looking for Danza, Intense Holiday, Wildcat Red, General a Rod, and Samraat to be bet a bit lower than what they are listed at in the morning line.