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Checking the horse racing crawl, as often happens, it's much more than just a great horse returning to the track. We see good, bad, sad and suspicious.
I know it's the Sabbath for a lot of people, but set your DVR to 4 p.m. Sunday, NBC, as our newly minted Triple Crown winner American Pharoah faces seven challenged challengers in the William Hill Haskell Invitational Stakes (Grade 1, 9 furlongs, and more on the $1.75 million purse later) from beautiful Monmouth Park, hard by Springsteen's Asbury Park promised land. You'll see the term "invitational" in the quiz later.
If you are morally torn about the propriety of wagering on Sunday, you could sit it out and just watch, as the road apple on this race is that it will be merely a gallop, a handsomely paid workout, breeze, cakewalk. It certainly looks that way and if 'Pharoah holds any kind of his form, it will be. The East Coast Skillings are calling for a sunny high of 89, but our hero has been training, and training well, at Del Mar, so he should be fine. Oh, and trainer Bob Baffert has won this race seven times - in the money all 11 times - including last year with Bayern and previously with stars such as Point Given and War Emblem, who, at only 16, will soon dominate Mah-Jong at Old Friends Farm.
So you say it's not a bettable race? After 'Pharoah who cares? You tell that to the bronze medal winner in Trampoline in the five-ring circus in Rio next summer. I think bronze could be heavier than gold this Sunday.
Which of his subjects will the 1-5 morning line king see in the paddock?
Upstart, at 6-1, is considered the chief rival. The Holy Bull and Fountain of Youth winner, and runner-up in the Florida Derby, finished last in the Kentucky Derby and hasn't run since. So he's going to have to run to his form from way back in the spring to contend.
Competitive Edge (8-1) won the Hopeful Stakes showcase for two-year-olds last year and looked impressive in the Pat Day Mile Stakes on the Derby undercard. But he looks more like a sprinter, just like his sire, Super Saver, having never run more than a mile.
Keen Ice (12-1), whom you may remember from such races as the Louisiana Derby, Kentucky Derby and Belmont, resurrects, because of his name recognition, the age-old question about the morning line: Is that what his price should be, or the price the bettors will set? He hasn't won since his second race, last September. He was a moot, decent third to 'Pharoah in the Belmont.
There is absolutely nothing in the past performances that tells me any of these can beat American Pharoah.
The suspicion comes in the raising of the purse from $1 million to $1.75 million Wednesday, merely hours before the post position draw.
There are four big races this weekend for three-year-olds: the Curlin Stakes on Friday and the Jim Dandy on Saturday, both at Saratoga; the West Virginia Derby; and the Haskell.
Being an invitational, you have to think the Monmouth people invited at least several of the cream of the crop. But for weeks, the racing world was resigned to a five-horse field for the Haskell, with the old spin that nobody wanted to take on the mighty American Pharoah.
Raise the purse, why not?
Forbes contributor Teresa Genaro explains: "While it's not unusual for purse incentives to be added to big races to attract top horses, those incentives are generally announced weeks, not days, before the race is scheduled to be run, and not the day before the race is scheduled to be drawn, in order for owners and trainers to make decisions about where they will run their horses."
The mass racing media dutifully transcribed this gut buster:
"The Haskell has been called the fourth jewel of the Triple Crown," said Bob Kulina, president of Darby Development LLC, operators of Monmouth Park Racetrack, in a press release. (So has the Travers; and both sparingly.)
"With the Derby purse at $2 million and the Preakness and Belmont going to $1.5 million, it's only fitting that we join in that mix for our race, which has proven itself the next logical step for 3-year-olds following the Triple Crown."
"While a popular, lucrative race that carries Thoroughbred racing's highest ranking - Grade I - the Haskell is seldom, if ever, discussed in terms of the Triple Crown," Genaro confirmed.
Sending a Triple Crown race runner to Monmouth is one thing, but it has never seen a Triple Crown winner. Derby-Preakness winner War Emblem won in 2002, but other than that, the best horse to win the Haskell is probably Rachel Alexandra in 2009. A hobbled Big Brown won it in 2010.
On the other hand, winners of the Jim Dandy have included luminaries Palace Malice, Street Sense, Bernardini, Flower Alley, Medalgia d'Oro, Awesome Again and 1978's Triple Crown hero Affirmed.
But the money outlay worked. Upstart and Competitive Edge, both cross-entered in the Jim Dandy, decided to go south to Monmouth. Todd Pletcher, a veteran of the Eastern Seaboard turnpikes, did his part by sending - along with 'Edge - Nonna's Boy and Dontbetwithbruno.
Preakness runner-up Tale of Verve trainer Dallas Stewart was probably a lot more miffed than the quotes portray. He said he would have sent 'Verve to Monmouth, but for him the purse increase was made too late. 'Pharoah's charter touched down in Lexington, but took off again before Stewart knew of the extra Monmouth moolah.
"It's an invitational but they never notified the invitees," he said.
One somewhat unusual aspect here is that the total purse was raised. It will now be $1.1 million to the winner, $330,000 to Place, and $150,000 for Show. A straight appearance-fee bribe would have been so unseemly. Owner Ahmed Zayat and Baffert each personally get a $75,000 bonus at Monmouth, $25,000 for each of the Triple Crown wins. The m.o. must be that American Pharoah is so sure to win, there's his appearance fee. But if he doesn't fire . . .
Let your imagination run wild. Was Monmouth so worried about appearances of a five-horse field that might have scratched down to four or three? Did Monmouth rig the race through its invitation process to get 'Pharoah a Haskell win? Did 'Pharoah make the layover in Lexington in order to make sure the squeeze was on? Is Zayat on a slippery slope, greased by greenbacks, as we look past the Haskell to his next race?
The money is bleeding out of the walls.
Canterbury Downs in Shakopee, Minnesota, offered a $2 million purse for 'Pharoah to run in its Mystic Lake Derby, even offering to take it off the turf for him, according to the New York Times' Joe Drape.
"(Dennis) Drazin (an adviser to Darby Development, the management company that operates Monmouth Park for the New Jersey Thoroughbred Horsemen's Association) said he tried to persuade Parx executives - as well as those at the New York Racing Association, and Del Mar and Santa Anita in California - to guarantee a $5 million bonus if American Pharoah swept the Haskell, the Breeders' Cup Classic and either the Travers Stakes, the Pennsylvania Derby or the Pacific Classic," Drape reported.
Drape added "Drazin said that he had told Baffert that Monmouth would create a $1 million race for American Pharoah here in September on the date and at the distance Baffert, a Hall of Fame trainer, specifies for the Triple Crown champ."
Hey, Secretariat ran for the money, once, right here at Arlington Park in the Arlington Invitational, but not before stopping at Saratoga first for the famous Onion upset in the Whitney Handicap. The Marlboro Cup was invented for him in 1973, but before tobacco sponsorship became taboo and helped end the race, superstars Forego, Seattle Slew, Spectacular Bid and greats Winter's Tale and Slew o' Gold also won that race. Secretariat finished out at Belmont twice and at Canada's racing jewel, Woodbine. Affirmed ran as a four-year-old and if you want to see a legacy, you can look it up.
I'll say this now, before the Haskell. If American Pharoah keeps dancing this way as expected, all the money in the world is not worth him running at Parx in the Pennsylvania Derby. It's a cheap, casino-pomaded track of the Monday- and Tuesday-night variety that was successful in flashing the cash last year to California Chrome, who was beaten by Baffert's Bayern. Parx? It's called Parx Casino, with horse racing only a menu item behind the homepage of its website.
It will be a very serious demerit for Zayat and Baffert if they never visit Saratoga to run in the Travers on August 29, or, if there's a problem there, at Belmont in the Jockey Club Gold Cup on October 3. Then they finish out at perhaps America's greatest racetrack, Keeneland, in the Breeders Cup' Classic.
My guess is that 'Pharoah's connections will think the Travers is too far out from the Breeders' Cup and the Gold Cup is too close. I'd even take the September 26 Awesome Again Stakes at Santa Anita, nine furlongs, three and up. So pump up the smallish $300,000 purse. Anything but Parx!
But before Sunday's racing church service, it should be a great Saturday too.
Saratoga runs the Alfred G. Vanderbilt and Amsterdam Stakes sprints, the 11-furlong test of the Bowling Green, and the Jim Dandy, which will feature Japan, Texas Red and Frosted.
The West Virginia Derby (GII, 9 furlongs, $750,000) from Mountaineer will feature Tale of Verve, Stanford, Tommy Macho, War Story and Madefromlucky.
You'll find these two in the sports package, but if your TVG is not hi-def, look around. The Fox regionals often pick up the feed. Keep an eye on scratches because of the musical chairs between the three tracks.
When a corporation is as evil as Churchill Downs Inc., you must cease to be amazed at the depravity.
CDI has announced that it will be tearing down the grandstand at what is now called Calder Casino & Race Course - the priorities are in the name - and will be erecting tents on the grounds to accommodate its patrons. Ever see a late-afternoon, sideways mini-hurricane during the races there?
With track officials saying the teardown "will not affect the adjacent casino building or other non-attached racing structures (praise the lord for that!)" it comes just months after CDI, in a move perhaps inspired by the Daley-Meigs Field blitzkrieg, fenced off access to several barns and then demolished them earlier this year. All for good old-fashioned "development opportunities."
CDI owns Calder. Horse racing has become so distasteful to its new, greedily fashioned culture, that it gave up on racing all together and leased the horse operations to The Stronach Group, once hated rivals, who own and operate racing at nearby Gulfstream Park.
Consistency is a key for the nefarious, and CDI is focused.
The New York Off-Track Betting Corporations have decided to end its carrying of the Churchill Downs simulcast signal and bet-taking because of exorbitant demand for rights fee increases from CDI.
Besides a blatant effort to get New York State players to perhaps go online to wager, hopefully to the monopolistically ambitious TwinSpires.com owned by CDI, it's also a pure money grab. You know, maximize every revenue opportunity of what is a marquee event in all of American sports, the Kentucky Derby. Just like the Cubs and the Ricketts crew.
CDI's Luca Brasis have been regular callers at the shop door of the NYOTB.
"In exchange for the rights to simulcast the 2014 Kentucky Derby, CDI demanded non-negotiable rate increases totaling 29 percent over 2013. In 2015 CDI further threatened that New York State OTBs would lose the right to simulcast the Kentucky Derby if their demanded rates, which violated New York State statute, were not met," the Daily News reported.
"The actions of CDI constitute nothing less than extortion," said Western OTB President Michael Kane. "CDI's rate increases are outrageous and outside the boundaries of industry standards."
NYOTB said that with the combination of the the payouts it has to make to various faction in the industry, and the forwarding of tax revenues to municipalities and other governing bodies, CDI's demands simply cannot fit its economic structure.
CDI is on the march. Realize it, understand it and know that the dominoes are falling and the not-so-shadowy menace already occupies our suburban shores. And as monolithic threats often do, where sanctuary within the corporation shields the individuals, it must and will assert itself, only following the orders of Wall Street of course. It knows not its past, and cares only of a future built on the hypnosis of spinning fruit, aqueous-coated cards and tiny plastic cubes. It cannot last, at least not as long as what put them on this earth.
IT has no problem turning its back on its own bedrock. Such as 13 of the 15 jockeys in the first Kentucky Derby, won by Oliver Lewis, being African-American, although probably being considered less than that and given the "chore" to ride the races and becoming some of the best jockeys this world has ever known. As good as any, even today, until somebody planted the notion that blacks do not belong in any major sport.
Look at Alonzo Clayton, or Isaac Murphy, or Jimmy Winkfield, who was huzzahed and hailed around the world, including Russia, but not here after sentiment turned and his usefulness was deemed evaporated.
Arlington Park still functions as a racetrack only because Richard L. Duchossois still draws breath. But the signs are there. While the racing might be a notch above Parx, the signs of not-so-benign neglect and rank exploitation abound.
AP needs a new main track, lifespan, if not book-cooking amortization of the PolyTrack already come and gone. It is squeezing its fans at a regular rate through higher ticket prices, fees, the fleecing through "special packages" on the couple of "premium days" it has, including watching and betting the Derby on TV(!) at Arlington.
CDI is holding out for slots - I can only imagine how much grease it has slathered in Springfield - touting the idea that racing will be back, better then ever with them.
Don't be naive. The evidence is there, and it's not circumstantial. Hollywood Park, leveled. Calder, soon to be leveled. Lackadaisical (at best) attention paid to Fair Grounds.
It'll take what, 15-25 years, tops, for Churchill Downs Inc. to destroy what took, pick your date, 125 years to build in Kentucky and beyond?
It's just one of the things evil does.
Tom Chambers is our man on the rail. He welcomes your comments.