JC / Railbird

Racing Archive

Planning for Pharoah

American Pharoah worked three furlongs in :36.40 at Santa Anita on Monday (photo) and negotiations re: his next race are ongoing. Monmouth Park wants the Triple Crown winner for the Haskell on August 2. Owner Ahmed Zayat wants a few things too if he’s going to commit:

Earlier Monday, word from the track was that they were still waiting for direction from Zayat as to whether he wanted them to increase the Haskell purse or put together some kind of lucrative package for winning multiple races, including the Haskell and Breeders’ Cup Classic.

That’s not what Zayat’s looking for, however, and he said he indicated that in a conference call with Monmouth Park leadership last week.

“I want to make it a festival,” he said. “Where it’s best for the prestige of this horse. Something that is appropriate for a Triple Crown winner. I want to excite the fans. I want to make it a festival that they will always remember. A great day for the sport. And whoever is going to deliver that, that’s what’s good for me. That’s where I’m going to go. That was my message to them.”

And what about Del Mar, where the colt will be training this summer?

… officials are trying to come up with a plan on how to deal with having racing’s superstar housed on the backstretch. Baffert made it clear that the colt is getting back to work, and surely Del Mar will respect those wishes. At Del Mar, it’s almost certain there won’t be nearly the fuss made over the colt’s arrival as there was at Santa Anita, where he was welcomed back as a conquering hero by adoring fans, TV stations and every form of media. As much as Del Mar would like to see it, this won’t be Cigar coming in for the 1996 Pacific Classic. Talk about a zoo.

All Del Mar can hope for is that American Pharoah’s scheduled works will be announced ahead of time to allow San Diego’s horse racing fans to attend them in the morning as they did for California Chrome last year.

If you’re not already planning to be there August 22, don’t rush to book a trip.

Plainridge Morning

Plainridge Park

It’s the only horse racing going in Massachusetts right now, so I went to Plainridge Park on Monday to catch Thursday’s rescheduled card. First post was 11:00 AM — too early to enjoy a snack before at Doug Flutie’s Sports Bar, although not too early for the crowd that was already settling into the new, cacophonous casino floor with its 1,250 slot and video gaming machines. When I emerged onto the track apron — after following a winding hallway that lost more glitz the closer it got to the beige and Formica simulcasting room — it was almost a relief to count only 28 other people out there with me.

That number went up, although not by much. By noon — that was race four — fewer than 100 people were along the rail or watching the flat screens inside. What I took for a larger group in the simulcasting room turned out to be eager casino patrons signing up for players’ rewards cards — Plainridge was processing their new loyalists in the one place they had space and the noise level didn’t make it impossible to capture that all-important marketing data.

I don’t know much about Standardbreds or harness racing, except that they’re sturdy animals who often run weekly and that horses breaking from the one hole have an outsized chance at winning because of likely ground saving. I also know that at Plainridge they’re now running for higher purses funded by casino licensing fees and a percent of gaming revenues via the 25% split harness racing gets from the state’s Racehorse Development Fund, which makes total handle a little less of a concern for horsemen and the track, and that — today, anyway — they were running races every 12 minutes. It was almost as though they were running the card as a formality.

Plainridge Park
The Plainridge Park simulcasting room.

Plainridge Park
Grandstand exterior. Tents and picnic tables were set up along the wall.

Plainridge Park
Lining up for the start of a race. A classic car with “Raceway Park” stenciled on the doors handled gate duty.

Plainridge Park
Coming down the stretch for the first time.

Plainridge Park
Debs Girloffortune (#1, outside) wins the first race.

Plainridge Park
A horse warms up in front of the crowd along the rail.

Dreamy Trêve

Trainer Criquette Head-Maarek blows a kiss after Treve wins the 2015 Grand Prix de Saint-Cloud

Trêve is traveling well towards a third Prix de l’Arc de Triomphe, winning the Grand Prix de Saint-Cloud on Sunday by 1 1/4 lengths over classy Flintshire. Trainer Criquette Head-Maarek (above) said after that she was quite confident:

“I was never worried. She was a little on her toes before the race but Thierry rode her beautifully. I’m delighted as Flintshire is a very good horse. It’s just a dream.”

The Saint-Cloud was the 5-year-old mare’s second win in as many starts this year, a much more promising record than her early 2014 campaign — she was 0-for-2 at this time last year en route to her second Arc victory.

On avait le terrain un peu trop ferme pour elle mais on dit que les bons chevaux vont dans tous les terrains,” said jockey Thierry Jarnet of Trêve’s effort. Google Translate comes to the aid of my high school French to reveal that he was saying something along the lines of, “The ground was a little too firm for her, but they say good horses go in any condition.” Watch the replay:

More on the Saint-Cloud: “Flintshire famously loves a fast surface and he will surely never have a better chance of turning over Treve.”

The Squeeze

Mike MacAdam is bruising on NYRA and this year’s changes to Saratoga:

They just keep adding layers of cost to the fans and bettors. They continue to introduce pockets of exclusivity in what historically has been one of the most democratic places in the country, the racetrack.

See also: “What’s next? Charging fans to drink from the Big Red Springs?”

Taral’s Tattoo

Joe Palmer, writing in Names on Pedigrees, on the great racehorse and prepotent sire Domino (1891-1897) and his jockey:

Domino has his first outing at the Gravesend track at Brooklyn, in a five-furlong 2-year-old sweepstakes. Fred Taral, who rode the colt in all but one of his 25 races, and who was one of the most powerful “whip riders” of all time, was in the saddle. Domino broke in front, led all the way to win by six lengths from Fonso and Patrician …

Taral, whose contract had been bought for $10,000, hammered a terrific tattoo on Domino on several occasions, and the horse, sensibly enough, came to hate him, tried to savage him whenever possible. Toward the end of the horse’s racing career, according to Foxhall Keene, a blanket had to be thrown over the colt’s head before Taral could mount.

(This passage jumped out as I was looking something up in Pedigrees today, a lingering after-effect of this year’s Kentucky Derby whip discussion.)

Postponed

Suffolk Downs’ application for three days of live racing this year — July 11, August 8, and September 5 — has been knocked back another month. In the Massachusetts Gaming Commission meeting on Thursday morning, general counsel Catherine Blue reported to the commissioners that her office was still reviewing public comments on the proposal and had sent several questions to the track’s executives seeking clarification on various points. Blue said that she expects to return with an update on the application at the second MGC meeting in July, which means the first planned date “won’t be possible.”

Conditions for 12 races on July 11, previously available on Equibase, have been removed, and the July 11 steeplechase scheduled at Suffolk Downs has been re-carded at Parx. An August 8 jumps race at the East Boston track is still on the National Steeplechase Association’s calendar.

Hundreds were lined up to play the slots at Plainridge as soon as the doors opened on Wednesday, “and within three hours … the casino had hit its fire department-imposed capacity of 3,750 people.” Not everyone loved the crowd:

Al Valenti of Framingham said he waited about an hour to get in, and was dismayed by the congestion inside.

“I like to be able to spread out,” he said.

Mr. Valenti should come back on Monday for racing. That’s when Thursday’s card will be run, with first post at the unlikely hour of 11:00 AM. “Plainridge postponed Thursday’s harness card because of anticipated casino traffic,” tweeted Tom LaMarra, adding later, in conversation, “I don’t think they get how bad this looks.” So it does, but here’s the thing — nobody’s watching. The money pouring into the ringing, dinging, blinking machines is too distracting.

Opening Day

If you’re a fan of Thoroughbred racing, or anyone affiliated with Thoroughbred racing, in Massachusetts, then today is probably a bittersweet day, emphasis on the bitter — the state’s first slots parlor opens this afternoon at Plainridge, the state’s sole harness track. “The casino is projecting $20 million a month in gaming revenue.” Nine percent of that revenue will flow into the Racehorse Development Fund, set up to support horse racing in the Commonwealth with a split of 75 percent for Thoroughbred purses and breeding, 25 percent for Standardbreds. Millions have been banked, millions more will be added.

Purses at the harness track are already running higher:

Plainridge offered $38,300 in purses on Tuesday’s 10-race card. As recently as 2013, the average purse was $2,700 and last year they averaged $30,000 but were overpaid by $900,000.

“We’ve already turned $3,000 claimers into $4,000 claimers and purses can only go up. It’s all positive,” said trainer and driver Jim Hardy.

Bill Abdelnour, a director of the Harness Horseman’s Association of New England, told the Sun Chronicle, “People can pretty much count on harness racing being around for a long time.”

The same can’t be said of Thoroughbred racing, which is looking for dates and a home after Suffolk Downs and Mohegan Sun lost their bid for a Boston-area casino license to Wynn in September 2014. An application to run three days this year at the track is before the Massachusetts Gaming Commission; an update on the application is on the agenda for the commission’s June 25 meeting. The three-day proposal was criticized as not doing enough for New England horsemen in a public hearing two weeks ago.

Neither breed has enjoyed robust days in recent years — attendance and handle have been in decline for both — and how Plainridge won the slots license and Suffolk Downs lost the casino is a more complicated story than fits this post, but Thoroughbred racing was the bigger draw, employer, and revenue generator of the two by far. It’s just the latest odd turn on the long road to expanded gaming in Massachusetts that as the doors open on casinos, the future of Thoroughbreds in the state is what’s in doubt.

Where Next?

Joe Harper says it’s a ‘long shot’ that American Pharoah runs @DelMarRacing,” tweeted Marc Doche. “Seems resigned that path is in place. Haskell, PA, BC.”

If the Haskell Invitational, Pennsylvania Derby, and Breeders’ Cup Classic is the Triple Crown winner’s path for the rest of 2015, I’m going to say, called it.

It does sound as though the Pennsylvania Derby is in strong contention. “I did get the impression that our race,” said Parx racing director Sam Elliott:

from a scheduling standpoint, considering the value of winning the Breeders’ Cup for the horse, is what they’re considering. I’m not sure how much the financial part comes into play, but money is money and everyone likes it. I’m sure they’re going to sit down and do what’s best for the ultimate goal of the horse. Hopefully he runs at Monmouth and then in our race.

Elliott knows his quarry.

Last Saturday night, as American Pharoah paraded, Justin Zayat told Elliott in the Churchill Downs paddock, “You’re on our radar screen big-time.”

But the Travers hasn’t been ruled out:

Zayat’s son Justin, the racing manager for Zayat Stables, messaged ESPN.com on Thursday that his father was “leaning towards Saratoga to make real history. We’ll see as it gets closer.” On Friday, Ahmed Zayat pulled back slightly, texting Tim Wilkin of the Albany Times-Union that “Everyone in the hunt still. Horse comes first. Every track wants to do what best for sport and give honor to our champ.”

Mike MacAdam doesn’t see the colt in Saratoga:

I’m not buying it …

Sorry to repeat myself, but Baffert has had lousy history at the Travers since Point Given won it in 2001, and he’s been spectacular in the Haskell, winning it a record seven times. Bayern won it last year and followed up with a win in the BC Classic.

Enough about 3-year-old restricted races — why not try him in the Whitney?

An Introvert’s Refuge

Joe Nevills:

An ever-growing sentiment among the movers and shakers of the horse racing industry is the concern over empty space in their facilities. They bemoan the sections of empty grandstands or an apron spotted with racegoers as a sign of dwindling attendance, and they are not wrong …

The answer some are coming back with to combat this problem is to shrink, by building smaller grandstands or otherwise funneling the existing patrons into smaller areas until it gives the appearance of a crowd. It is easier to advertise a track as a happening place with a party atmosphere if it looks like there are actually people there to party with.

I understand this sentiment, but if the idea is widely adopted, it could jeopardize one of the one of the greatest perks horse racing has over other professional sports — the ability to be left alone.

This is truly one of the best things about horse racing, especially at a typical track on a typical day: It’s you and your thoughts and the horses.

Circling

The best-case scenario is that the commissioners table it or just say ‘no’ in a formal vote,” said trainer Bill Lagorio of Suffolk Downs’ application to run three live racing days this year, which is pending before the Massachusetts Gaming Commission. That might be taking for granted the money set aside for Thoroughbred racing in the state’s Racehorse Development Fund.

Tammi Piermarini, a five-time leading rider at Suffolk Downs and the third-winningest female jockey in racing, has moved on to Parx. Her book is being handled by a name familiar to New England fans — former rider Joe Hampshire has signed on as Piermarini’s agent. Her services are in demand, reports the jockey, and she and her family have settled in well at their new home.

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