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By T. D. Thornton

It was uncharacteristically windy at Santa Anita Park late last week. But it’s unclear whether those gusts were caused by the rush of departing and incoming key employees (racing secretary, track superintendent, vice president of operations, and announcer all new since last meet) or if this was just the annual breath of fresh air that the Southern California circuit enjoys every Dec. 26 when the racing season opens anew with a stakes-laden program and high hopes for the coming year.

There will be plenty of time in 2019 to ponder whether the SoCal circuit is in danger of sliding off the grid or if the work-in-progress rescue operation by The Stronach Group (TSG) will be able to right the venerable Santa Anita ship before frantic bailing-out begins and the lifeboats are deployed. New condition-book and horse population strategies, plus a new roulette-styled wager, have accompanied the recent spate of firings and hirings, and the implementation of this sweeping TSG game plan is being played out against the backdrop of an ugly family lawsuit initiated by patriarch Frank Stronach against his daughter, Belinda Stronach, the chairman and president of the company.

But on Day 1 of the new racing season at least, Santa Anita was able to rise above the chaos and worries, posting an all-sources handle of $20.4 million that represents a 19% jump over a year ago while establishing an opening-day track record. Wednesday’s crowd of 41,373–up 3% from 2017–contributed a 5% percent betting increase over last year’s on-track $3.3 million (although a botched scheduling of mutuel tellers on 2017’s opening day resulted in numerous shut-outs that skew any meaningful comparison).

And if you break out the opening-day feature race as an (admittedly ambitious) microcosm for what’s to come in 2019, my only response is “More, please!” Full fields of 14 in a North American Grade I stakes are about as frequent as a blue moon, and I counted no fewer than seven middle-distance specialists who earlier in the year had been considered either legitimate or wannabe contenders on the Triple Crown trail.

And the rip-roaring race winner McKinzie (Street Sense)? Is this the same horse who was a well-backed no-show when languishing home twelfth in the GI Breeders’ Cup Classic not even two months ago? The same highly heralded ‘TDN Rising Star’ who, even in victories earlier in the season, swished his tail whenever he was put to pressure in stretch drives, never looking quite comfortable when asked for his all late in the lane?

Even by trainer Bob Baffert’s demanding standards, McKinzie’s 4 3/4-length, off-the-pace triumph as the 6-5 favorite represents a significant turnaround, as the colt looked sleek and mean while classily leaving a top-notch field in his wake.

“After the Breeders’ Cup, [jockey] Mike [Smith] was like, ‘Is he okay? He just quit,’ Baffert said in the Malibu aftermath. “And I told him, ‘Don’t worry about it, it was my fault.’”

Smith subsequently got aboard McKinzie for several morning workouts, and said he could immediately sense the bay was on the cusp of a positive turnaround.

“This horse really has something in store,” Smith said. “Bob brought him back here, gave him a little break and his energy came back up, his weight came back up, and he was ready to run. He was loaded from the word ‘Go.’ I’ve said all along that we haven’t seen the best of him yet. When he learns to put a few of these in a row together, we’re going to see something special.”

McKinzie’s connections have always regarded the colt loftily. He was named after their good friend Brad McKinzie, the longtime executive at Los Alamitos Race Course who died in August 2017 after battling cancer.

“When you name a horse for someone, you’ve got something invested beyond money,” said Mike Pegram, who co-owns McKinzie in partnership with Karl Watson and Paul Weitman. “It did my heart good to see this horse get lucky today.”

It’s all about the money…

Somewhere along the line–I’m not entirely sure when–the emphasis on being the “winningest” jockey in the nation shifted from ranking riders by actual trips to the winner’s circle to how much in purse earnings they’ve bankrolled.

To me, it seems as if an aesthetic has been lost in the shuffle with this change.

Think back to the 1940s and 50s, when the annual late-December rush to attain winningest jockey status in terms of victories generated a national publicity opportunity for the sport as riders (on the East Coast in particular) scrambled to land mounts down south after the northern race meets came to a close.

In 1952, when 16-year-old whiz kid Tony DeSpirito established a then-record for 390 wins, the entire nation followed his chronicles as he zoomed south from New England and embarked on a whirlwind tour of tracks in Florida and Cuba. On the final day of the year, after he had broken the record for wins in a year set by Walter Miller in 1906, DeSpirito was rushed from Miami to New York just so he could appear on CBS’s “Toast of the Town” with Ed Sullivan.

Three decades later, in 1982, the honor of being the leading jockey by wins was still enough of a big deal that determined 28-year-old Pat Day chartered a plane during a New Year’s Eve storm to fly into Delta Downs just so he could secure the title by two victories, besting rival Angel Cordero Jr., 399-397.

And given the precipitous declines of both the annual foal crop and the number of races in North America, with each passing year it seems as if Kent Desormeaux’s 1989 mark of 598 wins in one year edges closer to “record that will never be broken” status. Only one jockey since then–Edgar Prado with 536 in 1997–has eclipsed 500 victories.

For 2018, the wins/purses debate is a moot point. That’s because Irad Ortiz, Jr. is the clear leader in both categories. Through six races Sunday, he had 346 wins and had amassed $27,714,169 in earnings.

Ortiz can safely take Dec. 31 off without concern that those leads will be significantly eroded in his absence–but he need not sit around waiting for the modern-day equivalent of Ed Sullivan to call for a last-minute booking.

New Jersey–the gift that keeps on giving?

Although I have a strong suspicion that–like racinos–legalized sports betting will not be the long-term panacea that many within the racing industry project it to be, there is little doubt that New Jersey wins the 2018 award for sparking the biggest short-term cash influxes to its Thoroughbred industry.

First came the landmark May 14 Supreme Court ruling that struck down a federal law barring wagering on team sports, opening the floodgates for individual states to pursue legal sports betting as they wish. This long-shot victory was made possible chiefly by the perseverance of Monmouth Park’s management, and the state’s legislature acted fast to ensure first-to-market status for sports wagering at a horse track.

Then this month, the New Jersey Senate unanimously advanced a bill that would guarantee a five-year, $10 million annual purse subsidy for Monmouth Park. The money would come from the state’s general fund, and there are separate windfalls for New Jersey’s two Standardbred tracks.

The State Assembly and Governor Phil Murphy still have to approve SB 2992 before it becomes law. But The Press of Atlantic City last week argued against giving more money to “wealthy horse breeders.”

According to the publication’s Dec. 27 editorial, “The last thing taxpayers need is a holiday gift they don’t want bought with their own money…. The Legislature already threw the state’s remaining three ailing horse-racing tracks a lifeline this year …. The sports betting revenue was supposed to allow the racetracks to offer bigger purses to create more popular racing events, and otherwise stabilize the diminishing industry…. New Jersey sports gambling has turned out to be stronger than expected and looks like it will be a $2-billion industry next year…. But apparently that’s not enough for the well-connected horse and racing people.”

The opinion piece summed up the pending legislation by stating, “Legislators have said taxpayers should support the horse-racing industry because it is historic and employs people–like every other failing industry. This one just happens to be well-connected politically. State Senate President Stephen Sweeney said legislators never promised that sports-betting revenue would be the end of what they would give New Jersey racetracks. If the subsidy bill passes the Assembly, Gov. Murphy should make that promise, side with the taxpayers and not the affluent horse breeders, and declare the sports betting windfall is enough help for the racetracks.”

 

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