Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Former Harness Racing Venue Suffolk Downs in Massachusetts is Closing

by Pete Lawrence

Former harness racing venue Suffolk Downs in Massachusetts apparently is closing up shop for good, says this report.

Better-known as a thoroughbred track dating back to the 1930s, Suffolk, located in the Boston area, played host to such running-horse stars as Seabiscuit, Whirlaway, Stymie, Riva Ridge, Dixieland Band, Skip Trial, Waquoit, Lost Code, Private Terms, Cigar and Skip Away, and jockeys like Eddie Arcaro, Jean Cruget, Eddie Maple, Ron Turcotte, Don MacBeth, Chris McCarron, Angel Cordero, Jacinto Vasquez, Jean-Luc Samyn, Craig Perret, Kent Desormeaux, Jerry Baily, John Velazquez, Gary Stevens and Edgar Prado.

Most of these luminaries appeared at Suffolk by way of its marquee race, the Massachusetts Handicap, which, by harness standards, was a free-for-all, a big one, during most of its existence.

Suffolk Downs also hosted harness racing from 1959-70, though I know a great deal less about the standardbred era there. Seems to me I do recall that Ted Wing, Jim Doherty and Bill O'Donnell - as well as the usual New England regulars like John Hogan, Art Nason, Bert Beckwith and Ken Heeney - raced there.

Joe O'Brien raced in New England when he first ventured down to the United States from his native Canada - as did Doherty and O'Donnell later - but that may have occurred before 1959. Seems to me Joe raced at Foxboro (aka, Bay State Raceway), another defunct Massachusetts harness track.

The Beatles played a concert at Suffolk Downs, as did Elvis Costello, Aerosmith and others.

Bill Veeck, the well-known (you might call him legendary) sports entrepreneur, was Suffolk Downs' president in 1969-70. By my math, that means he ran the place for at least one harness meet,. Those years were before my time in the sport, though not by much.

Veeck wrote a book about that experience - which I read a long time ago, though I don't remember much of what was in it - called "Thirty Tons a Day." It did stick with me that the title referred to the amount of horse manure which had to be removed every day from the barn area.

(That's probably one small reason - or maybe not so small - why fewer and fewer racetracks have stable areas anymore.)

Anyway, if this report is accurate, and Suffolk does cease to exist, you can add its name to the long list of former harness tracks I won't enumerate here, but the latest members of which include Windsor Raceway and Hollywood Park.

If I've misstated or missed anything important here - or if anyone wants to add any remembrances of Suffolk Downs - feel free to do so.

Tuesday, September 16, 2014

We Have Met the Enemy and it is Ourselves

THe original plans for Canadian Trotting Classic night had the $15,000 RUS event being a wagering event.  So you can imagine when some fans saw the RUS event go as a non-wagering contest.  Were they mistaken?  Apparently not.  Turns out members of the old-guard had objections to this new fangled way of racing so the kabosh was put on wagering despite the fact RUS events in the province have basically made up 8-10% of the daily handle where wagering was permitted.

The public wants RUS, progressive members of the standardbred community want it, but those with years in the sport either can't look through the forest to see the trees and recognize RUS is a new entree to get new participants and fans for the sport or fear the loss of racing opportunities for their racing stock despite RUS supporters hoping to get initially one race on a daily racing card.  What is ironic about the fear of losing racing opportunities is there is nothing keeping them from training their trotting stock to race under saddle.

It is this parochial thinking which helps keep standardbred racing back.  But then if these people had their way, we still wouldn't be racing with hopples.  The time has come for the old guard to give way to those willing to give the sport a change to survive.

Meanwhile, while the old guard digs their heels in, those involved with RUS are doing their best to promote standardbred racing.  Maybe the old guard should think again who their real enemies are, it is not those involved with RUS.

Monday, September 15, 2014

Sunday's Canadian Yearling Sale

Two years ago, under the pall of the announced end of the SARP program, sale averages at the first day of the Canadian Yearling Sale were off a full 50% from the first day in 2011. Last year the second day was eliminated as 47 fewer yearlings hit the sales ring, and buyers and sellers alike approached the venue with an air of trepidation. But, alas, the average was up $1,830 or 18%. And the OSS program has been very successful this year, so many who rejected the pessimism have been rewarded for their faith. A 22% bump at Sunday’s 2014 edition of this bell-wether sale should bode well for the leaner and meaner auctions that will follow in Canada and the US.

The sample is small and drawing too many conclusions from it would be foolhardy. That being said, there is always something to be learned from the way stallions are received at the CYS.

Last year a Sportswriter colt sold for $65,000 at Harrisburg and a filly sold for $62,000 at Lexington; the top colt went for $20,000 at the CYS and the top filly sold for $23,000. Only five sold on Sunday, for an average of $41,000, up from an average of almost $12,000 last year. And Sports Cowboy, a colt out of millionaire Moving Pictures, stretched the field for the mega-star of this year’s OSS program by commanding a $100,000 price.

Kadabra stands for a $15,000 stud fee that is surpassed only by Cantab Hall and Muscle Hill, yet unlike that pair, and all the other stallions in his general price range, he maintains a very low profile on the Grand Circuit. Bee A Magician is an outlier. Yet, Kadabra is second in the overall OSS standings, behind Muscle Mass. In 2011 nineteen Kadabras averaged almost $30,000 at the CYS; 12 averaged $12,800 in 2012; and five averaged $10,800 last year. Do we have a trend? This year the Kadabras were down to two at a $12,000 average. 

Muscle Mass, who is the leading trotting stallion in the OSS program, and maintains eligibility through 2017 in the sophomore class, despite having been relocated to New York for the 2014 season, didn’t have any blockbuster sales, but six colts and four fillies brought a solid average of more than $17,000. This was off last year’s average of $23,000 for thirteen. Ten from that lot were colts and that surely accounts for some of the drop.

Bettor’s Delight, who led all pacing stallions in the NYSS for two and three-year-olds, will have his only Ontario crop hit the track next year. He’ll give Sportswriter a run for his money, but only two sold on Sunday, a colt and a filly for $13,000 each.

The new Western Ideal stallion, Big Jim, who won his division at two in the US and Canada,  received a courteous reception: six fillies and two colts averaged a shade over $13,000, with a colt selling for a high of $29,000 and a filly for $17,000. Future auctions will tell the tale on him.

First year trotting stallion, the fast but unpredictable Manofmanymissions, who won the Breeders Crown, Kentucky Futurity and Stanley Dancer, also received a cordial reception. Nine fillies and four colts averaged $12,500. He sold a $27,000 colt and a $26,000 filly.

Harper Blue Chip has helped raise the profile of 11-year-old Majestic Son. He only sent three through the sale, two colts and a filly, but they averaged almost $27,000.

Shadow Play was another high profile stallion with a slim offering at the CYS. In 2012, nine members of his first crop averaged $11,600, while last year there were only six, but they averaged almost $26,000. There were only two on Sunday, and one of those sold for $4,200. The other one, a filly, brought $22,000.

While the sale was short across the board on the offspring of the better OSS stallions, there was an overabundance of sale average killing colts and fillies by the Astreos stallion, Astronomical. Fifteen of these beauties—ten colts and five fillies—averaged a whopping $2,780. Twelve of them sold for $3,000 or less.

Holiday Road, the full brother to Ken Warkentin, who has exceeded expectations with his first crop, only sold two, a colt for $10,000 and a filly for $7,000.

Old reliable, fifteen-year-old Mach Three, who ranks third behind young upstarts Sportswriter and Shadow Play in the OSS standings, held his own. Last year ten averaged $17,000 while Sunday 11 fillies and four colts averaged about the same. St Lads Moonwalk, a half-brother to Jan It Jackson, brought $47,000.

Another in the old reliable category is 27-year-old Camluck, by far the oldest stallion of either gait still generating top-dollar bids. Rothwell, a full-brother to Mystician, sold for $61,000, the second highest priced yearling at the sale. He is out of the 22-year-old mare, Mystic Mistress. Talk about old blood. Last year Camluck’s top dog at this sale brought $36,000. In 2013 eight of them averaged almost $16,000. Sunday five averaged close to $24,000, courtesy of Mr. Rothwell.

The eight-year-old Western Ideal double millionaire Vintage Master was relocated to New Jersey for the 2014 season, but he had his coming out party at the CYS. Two colts and three fillies averaged $8,900.

Eighteen-year-old Angus Hall, who went from a $29,000 average at this sale in 2011 to a less than $7,000 average the following year, and rebounded to better than $11,000 for 14 last year, held on to his gains. Productive fillies like White Becomes Her and Margie have given him a boost, to the point where he slots third behind Muscle Mass and Kadabra on the OSS leaderboard. Eleven colts and two fillies averaged about $12,700.

North American Cup winner, Up The Credit, a six-year-old dual-duty stallion, sent the initial offering of his first crop to the Canadian Yearling Sale. Four of them—two and two—sold for an average of almost $13,000.

Last year the Badlands Hanover fillies averaged less than $7,000, while the colts averaged almost $18,000. Déjà vu all over again as six fillies and two colts averaged less than $7,500 on Sunday.

Nine sons and daughters of Federal Flex averaged less than $4,200 in 2013; this year three averaged $5,600.

Mister Big, who has given no indication that he’s the next Western Hanover, only had one $4,000 colt go through the sale.

Nine-year-old Windsong Espoir, who stands for $3,500 and plays the middle in the OSS, went from five for a $5,700 average to six for a $9,000 average. Walnut Hall controls him.

Joe FitzGerald

Revisiting the Gural Rule

Jay Bergman argues for the end of the rule which requires 4yo horses to return to the track in order for Father Patrick, the trotting Niatross, to head to the breeding shed after this season.  While the so-called 'Gural Rule' making the off-spring of four year old stallions ineligible to the major stakes is meant to get the sophomore stars to return for at least one more season is to be reviewed this year, Bergman indicates it is necessary to get Father Patrick in the breeding shed in order for him to continue the Cantab Hall line.

Make no mistake, the returning three year old stars for the most part have been disappointing on the track, perhaps not surprisingly as it takes time for horses to get acclimated to racing against the best (look at Sweet Lou).  My personal feeling is the Gural Rule needs to be modified, not scrapped as we need to get older horses to remain on the track.  My proposal would have the rule involve four and five year olds.  As Bergman mentioned, what fans and horsemen are are talking about are the veterans Sebastian K and Commander Crowe, not other horses.  This is not surprising since in the trotting ranks, the older horses have historically been the ones which do the best.

There is one problem with Bergman's idea to scrap the Gural Rule.  If the stars are allowed to retire after their sophomore campaign, you aren't going to get those older horses.  We can't expect Europe to send over their top horses annually; this year is a fluke.  We need to depend on our own domestic horses to become stars and they can't become stars if they are residing in the breeding shed.  Rather than scraping the rule, it needs to be modified and there needs to be more racing opportunities for the four and five year olds so it pays to keep them racing.

With regards to racing, I propose we redefine Junior Free for All (JFA) to represent the top four and five year olds racing, where FFAs would be for the top horses regardless of age.  Overnight  and stake races can be created for the JFA so there are racing opportunities for them.  If we can not provide sufficient racing opportunities to make it financially attractive for these horses to race as four and five year olds, then the rule needs to be scrapped.

At the same time, we need is to encourage horses to breed and race, not do one or the other.  For example, at the end of this season, Sebsastian K will be heading for the breeding shed prior to returning for his nine year old campaign.  Why not allow the four and five year olds to breed and race at the same time without penalty?  This way, syndicates can recover part of their investment by racing and breeding, as we keep the stars racing at the same time.

The first argument regarding the current and future (if adopted) rule is owners should be able to do what they want with their horses.  Normally I would agree, but these horses have been purchased knowing the Gural Rule is in effect so they are aware of the 'restrictions' prior to purchasing.  

Some would argue having these horses race past their three year old careers put their value at risk.   Perhaps it is true, especially when you look at this year's class of four year olds but maybe the problem is not the fact the horses are still racing, but these horses may have been precocious when racing against their own age, but quite ordinary when racing against unrestricted company.  However, being necessary to race as five year olds, they will have the opportunity to show it was just a case of having to catch up to the older horses ala Sweet Lou.

Captaintreacherous will not be appearing at Delaware this year after all.  Earlier plans had the Captain racing in the Winbak Pace but it is clear something is not right with the Captain and that is confirmed with news that trainer Tony Alagna is still running blood tests in an effort to see what is wrong with the champion horse. When dealing with horses, sometimes the best laid plans will go awry.

Jug 2014 is not in the books but you can win a VIP experience to 2015's LBJ courtesy of Jug sponsor Fazoli's by entering Pick the Jug Winner .  The contest involves picking the ultimate Jug winner as well as earning the most money based on your fictional selections in race 9-18.

While there was no thoroughbred racing this year, the 2015 standardbred meet begins this Wednesday at Colonial Downs for a stand which ends on October 26.  With the meet starting on Jugette Day, one must wonder why the New Kent, Virginia track is not offering a promotion cross-tying the fist two days with the Delaware County Fair, such as alternating races and promoting the Jugette and Jug.

Sunday, September 14, 2014

Sunday Morning Review

You know fall is in the air when Tioga Downs closes for the season, the Canadian Trotting Classic is contested, and Jug week is upon us.

The Canadian Trotting Classic was won by Father Patrick, the horse who will be the 3yo trotter of the year.  I would like to say the race was contested but let's face it, Father Patrick is heads above the others in his crop.  There is only two ways Father Patrick gets defeated; he defeats himself with a costly break as he did in the Hambletonian or sickness takes hold of him.  Neither is very likely.  At the betting window, the CTC shows me it is foolish to bet against him at the windows (and I tried last night playing second place finisher E L Titan).  If I ran the racetracks he will still compete at this year, I would bar Patrick from wagering so there would be better options (and payoffs) for the gambler.

Meanwhile at Delaware, a field of 23 fillies dropped in the box for the Jugette, resulting in three elimination races while 16 colts dropped in the box for the Little Brown Jug resulting in two tilts in the first elimination.  For those who desire a little early action, off-track there is the second Jug future wager while at Delaware, there is an additional future wager which consists of a Jugette-Jug Daily Double (Race 3 is the Jug future wager program page).

Can Mcwicked have it any easier, drawing the rail in the second heat of the first elimination of the Little Brown Jug?  It's not a slam-dunk as He's Watching is versatile and has the potential to make the race interesting, but the rail at Delaware certainly makes things easier for Mcwicked.

While Delaware is racing today, as usual there will be no simulcasting of the early cards of the Delaware meet.

Last night at Mohawk, in addition to the Canadian Trotting Classic was a non-wagering $15,000 RUS event.  While the original plans were for the race to have wagering, it ended up as a non-wagering event.  I must confess, the start was not good with a few horses far off the gate but the race had an exciting finish as Radical Dreamer (ridden by Marit Valstad) held off a stretch charge by Smarty Pants ridden by Riina Rekilia.