A Cup of Coffee at the Longshots Bar

Research over the years by social scientists in the laboratories at Elmont and Saratoga has confirmed the classification of the subspecies horseplayer as that of an idiosyncratic and semi-domesticated cat. Quite unlike the animals they bet on, the horseplayer is extremely resistant to herding. So perhaps it comes as no surprise that when the New York Racing Association recently offered up some community outreach, the horseplayer community responded by, mostly, passing.

We note here that the invitation was for 9:30 on a Saturday morning at a shiny new bar in Ozone Park, so perhaps time, if not place, was the reason the market consensus found this offer so downright resistible.  But Around2Turns has very low standards for resisting temptation, so a few Saturdays ago we joined twelve or so other (take your pick) stalwarts/saps/hopelessly-naive-romantics as guests of the New York Racing Association in the Longshots bar at Aqueduct.

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Early in his opening remarks (in this first of a series of quarterly “community” meetings) Christopher Kay pointed out that the 9:30 AM starting time was “convenient”, and I suppose it was for some people. Personally, I’d think most horseplayers would take their convenience a bit nearer to first post than three hours, but then I’m not the one running a racetrack so what do I know? At least there was a big urn of fresh coffee pointed customer-side on the unmanned bar. If, given the topics for discussion, anyone thought to make whiskey an option along with the milk and sugar, one of the other stalwarts or a NYRA suit swiped it before I got there. Still, with the frequency of any type of free drink from a racetrack being right up there with that of a triple dead heat, we will take the NYRA CEO at his word that this 9:30 start was convenient for someone and go from there.

Christopher Kay rightly likes to tout the safety initiatives that have occurred under his watch, and it seems as if these have extended to employee training, as I witnessed that none of the many senior managers in attendance ever got caught unawares between the CEO and an open mic. Kay noted our “relatively intimate group” (NYRA management in attendance seemed to outnumber the audience), hinting at his ability to read a balance sheet. Kay also added somewhat strangely (in that “CEO humor” way) that John Durso Jr was a natural for his NYRA PR job, given his experience at the New Jersey Transit Authority (presumably referencing the Super Bowl train fiasco and/or the George Washington Bridge scandal).

Eventually the floor was opened for questions, and things started out promisingly enough. A fellow asked why NYRA does not conduct more of its own handicapping contests, as these seem to generate a lot of interest and give the little guy a chance at  getting lucky and making a major score.  Apparently gaining approval from the (New York) gaming authorities had slowed progress here, but Racing Operations VP Martin Panza affirmed that larger and bigger-money contests were indeed on the horizon for 2015, gaining him a leadoff single in our scorecard.

Some of the obvious questions were asked, such as about the problems with the LIRR and WiFi service on Belmont Stakes Day, and the NYRA Rewards system crashing early on Breeders’ Cup Saturday. Kay had ready answers for these: the LIRR has promised new procedures including the staging of multiple “return” trains on the Queens Village line; a permanent cell tower will be installed on the Belmont grounds; and a new and improved Irish-bred betting platform is apparently just around the corner.

But as the session wore on and the coffee started to kick in, it became quite clear that – even with racing’s dwindling popularity – twelve people are nowhere near enough to constitute a valid statistical sampling of the New York horseplayer community. Someone complained that Aqueduct was not “family friendly”, but no one complained about takeout or the ridiculous withholding rules on large exotic payouts. There was another complaint about the ineffectiveness of the outdoor public address system at Aqueduct, but no one complained about the tough sledding betting on the midwinter racing product. As the clock inched closer to closing time (before Kay mercifully ended the session at 10:30 on the nose), the questions became more fanciful. A short spring meet at Saratoga? The Breeders’ Cup coming back to Belmont? Someone even confessed to liking giveaway days. These only hardened my suspicions that someone had indeed swiped the whiskey, and that NYRA management must be privy to statistical evidence that says hard core complainers prefer to sleep in on the weekends.

For the record, I did not ask any questions as it was my intention to merely observe and then report back here on the “host and guest” interactions. Had I asked one, it would have been a two-parter along the lines of “did NYRA management stop by Rudy Rodriguez’s barn to congratulate him on his tremendous showing on Jockey Club Gold Cup day, and did you also remember to bring along bloodhounds and chemists?”, but, alas.

Leaving the racetrack and crossing the parking lot towards the subway platform (I needed to head upstate that afternoon), one of two early-arriving racegoers smiled and called out to me “tapped out already?” I was still flush, down only one Metrocard swipe and a few ZZZs on the day, but I did feel somehow poorer. How much hope should we have for this game, I wondered, when the best and biggest circuit in US racing invites its customer base to a freewheeling discussion of its business and only twelve people bother to show up? No one complained about move-up trainers. No one bitched about higher admission charges at Belmont and Saratoga. Why shouldn’t Christopher Kay feel like he is doing a heckuva job -the recent declines in handle aside – given NYRA’s community outreach and the horseplayer community’s seeming lack of any substantive complaints?

It’s understandable that at this late date the horseplayer community just might be feeling a little beaten down and frustrated. Horseplayers and other racing people say many things about Christopher Kay on Twitter and message boards, and not many of these are nice things, so I give the CEO props for showing up to face some high heat, even if he was thrown only cream puffs. And even if you are among those who view him as a well-paid stooge providing lip service on behalf of a certain governor said to possess an antipathy to racing and believe that it’s hopeless to think that showing up to complain will make any real difference, well, that’s also a valid point of view.

Fifteen months to the day before Christopher Kay’s shootout at the Longshots saloon (and a few days before Kay got his job), NYRA held a similarly styled bitch session at Belmont Park. One of the first questions that day was about the pitiful state of NYRA’s television monitors. “Your television sets are 20 years old!” the complainer noted, as people chuckled and heads nodded up and down. Today you can’t crumple up and throw a losing ticket at a NYRA track without hitting a brand new flat screen TV. See! Horseplayers just need to show some patience.

Another complaint that day in June 2013 was about how when you have a runaway winner in a race the camera invariably zooms in and pans away from the battle for the minor placings, causing exacta, trifecta and superfecta-wagering players to wonder why they even bother to watch. Simple to fix, right?

That Saturday at Belmont was marked by a noisy protest from NYRA workers and their union brothers and sisters, complaining about low wages and years without a contract. Then there were individuals with products to sell (a jockey cam, ad space in a community newspaper) or axes to grind (the mayor of Floral Park had infrastructure issues!). There were even, eventually, some good comments and questions from horseplayers about racing and the racetrack experience. But in the year-and-a-half that has passed since then, I don’t think horseplayers sense that much has changed for the better. The New York Thoroughbred Horsemen’s Association just reelected a president who thinks that if horseplayers want competent drug testing they should be the ones to pay for it. Meanwhile, the powers that be squabble over a relatively innocuous matter like Lasix, while the usual suspects continue to win races with horses that were too sore or too slow for somebody else.

The beat goes on. Handle continues to drop. The highest court in our land has ruled – in a head decision – that money is speech. Which means, I guess, that horseplayers are speaking. Only it’s by way of keeping the rubber band taut around the bankroll. If people don’t want to come out at 9:30 in the morning to complain to NYRA management about the racing, they can always make their feelings known in the afternoon. If they don’t want to bet your races, there’s no way you can stop them.

Backing Out (or, Breeders’ Cup Week in Reverse: Third Time is the Charm)

Right now it’s hard to imagine that we used to live in a land where Bayern and Bob Baffert and the Santa Anita stewards had not ruined horse racing for everyone, but I’ll give it a go anyway.

Sure, it seems like a stretch. That we could all just somehow drift back to a kinder, gentler time. Before Martin Garcia and Bayern conspired with the dastardly Bob “Dr. Evil” Baffert to take out both Shared Belief and Moreno (VE Day being collateral damage) just to win a horse race worth five million dollars! 

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So the plan here is not merely to take back, but to back out of the gate entirely. To go back to that blissfully ignorant time before (seemingly) anyone knew that in order to get DQ’d for veering in or out at the break in California you basically had to unseat a fellow rider. Besides, here at around2turns we object not only to the beating of live horses but also of dead ones. Moving backwards in time then, here are our favorite stories from Breeders’ Cup week at Santa Anita.

 

Doughnuts for Europe – Ichiban for Japan 

14bc8Mile45652PMOne year ago was a great Cup for Europe, where European-bred horses filled out the exactas in the Turf and Juvenile Filly Turf, and the trifecta in the Filly & Mare Turf. But this year’s twenty starters bred in Ireland, France or England failed to win a single race. If that weren’t bad enough, two American-bred trainees of Wesley Ward, both of which ran very well across the pond (No Nay Never and Undrafted) ran 2-3 in the Turf Sprint. But perhaps the greatest shock to the Euro Zone came when Karakontie became the first Japanese-bred horse to win a Breeders’ Cup race by overcoming the dreaded quatorze hole to pick up all the pieces of a pace-shattered Mile.

Japanese race fans did not get their Arc this year, but this grandson of Sunday Silence gave them a French Classic (the Poule d’Essai des Poulains) and a $62 win mutuel at the Breeders’ Cup, which, where I come from, still buys some pretty effective forms of consolation. Group one winners’ circles might continue hearing the words “… out of the Sunday Silence mare …” for a few years yet to come.

No More “Mr. Napravnik”

Apparently, Rosie Napravnik never got the email about the Distaff being returned to its rightful moniker and that Breeders’ Cup Friday is no longer the “girly ghetto”. Otherwise, why else would this great female rider give up the lavish income she has earned – with nearly $40 million in purses over the last three years – only to kowtow to the patriarchy by taking on the subservient and culturally-imposed roles of doting mother and supportive wife?

Kidding! We signed on to the nice tweet sent out by NYRA handicapper/human-piñata-of-the-Twittersphere Andy Serling.

Napravnik’s $13 million in purses for 2014 is surpassed today by five jockeys and only two trainers. Her husband, Joe Sharp, just launched his training career and is off to a great start, having won 9 of his first 20 races, with 14 in-the-money finishes. Still, this leaves him 1,268th in purses, so we wish him well in his quest for more and better and faster horses. And with DRF Formulater informing that Rosie was in the irons for 8 of those wins, we also wish him well in his search for a new jockey.

But there is something about this Joe Sharp that tells me he is aptly named, and that he and Rosie will be just fine.

 

What People of My Generation Learned by Watching “10”

The same thing the following generation learned by watching “Tommy Boy”.

Bo Derek can’t act.

From the statement issued by Dennis O’Neill, brother of suspended trainer Doug O’Neill:

I understand her bias and dislike for Doug, but to take that out on Leandro and the owners of this magnificent horse and this amazing achievement on this day, show a complete lack of character. If members of this committee cannot contain themselves with their utter disdain at Goldencents winning, could we not find someone who could have at least faked it?

To answer O’Neill’s rhetorical question: in that town, yes, I think they could have managed.

Third Time is the Charm

My favorite story from Breeders’ Cup week came very early in the week, when Ray Paulick retweeted the news that Silver Charm had been pensioned from stud duty in Japan, and would be coming home to live out his days at Old Friends in Kentucky. Paulick’s source was Kate Hunter, who is shown below with the 20-year-old champion.

As most racing people know, the two Kentucky Derby winners who preceded Silver Charm at stud duty in Japan – Ferdinand and Sunday Silence – did not enjoy happy retirements, nor even merciful endings. Presumably because of these sad stories, it seems that Silver Charm’s sale included a buy-back clause.

Another tweet from Hunter noted the persistence of memory, and for how long grudges can be held.

I understand the concept of remembering the past so as to avoid repeating it, but there also comes a time when righteous fury must be dissolved in love and forgiveness, rather than in hatred and anger. It’s nice that Americans care about their animals, and that the best ones and the luckiest ones seem to find graceful and happy places to live out their days. But what about our racehorses who are unable to find second careers or who fail to “earn” their way into a comfortable retirement? Until we figure that one out, we would be well advised to first examine our own house, and to keep our perceived moral superiority on ice.

Here’s one of Silver Charm’s  last great races. The remarkable 1998 Breeders’ Cup Classic. Welcome home, champ!

Sympathy Card to a Wealthy Widow

Oscar de la Renta died on Monday at his place in Kent, Connecticut. He left behind three sisters, a son, and a wife, the former Annette Engelhard Reed. Here is where the faithful reader may wonder why the demise of a famous fashion designer has turned up in a horse racing blog, which is totally a fair question. And the short answer is, well, this is a blog. It’s personal.

The long answer starts with a chance encounter in an elevator at the old offices of The New York Times on West 43rd Street. I can’t recall the exact date, but, for reasons that will soon be apparent, it must have taken place sometime between late 2001 and early 2003.

It was at least eleven-and-a-half years ago because Howell Raines was still the Executive Editor of the paper, and Jayson Blair was still plagiarizing. And I know it was no more than thirteen years ago because I had cleared lobby security by flashing my company ID, which, post-9/11, we were required to have on continuous display via lanyards roped around our button-down collars. I stepped into an elevator, pressed six for Circulation, and was then joined by Raines and a handsome, elegant and impeccably-dressed couple. The husband looked familiar, as well he should have; he was Oscar de la Renta.

Howell Raines was a pretty sharp dresser, but, by comparison, these two made him look more like Lieutenant Columbo on a bad day (below, from a different time, via the Daily News).

CFDA latestpix linkcelebs americaYes, it was a long way back to me in fourth place. Which was why you could have knocked me over with an air kiss when Mrs. de la Renta not only turned to me as if I actually existed, but almost seemed to compliment me on the sweater I was wearing. “Ooh!” she cooed, gesturing to the white stitched logo over my heart, “the Breeders’ Cup!

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For this one time at least, I knew exactly what to say. I held out my orange-colored lanyard to show her the blue stitching that read “2001 Breeders’ Cup World Championship” and replied “AND the matching lanyard!” She smiled sweetly; I gave a gentlemanly nod; and exited as the door opened on six.

Time passed. Jayson Blair’s serial plagiarism was revealed, and Howell Raines got the axe. Lobby security got beefed up, so I was able to put away the souvenir lanyard from the day that Tiznow “won it for America”. I wear the sweater every once in a while, but hadn’t really thought much about Annette de la Renta since then, until yesterday.

People with money and great thoroughbreds tend to go together, so back then it had not struck me as odd that the wife of the famous designer was familiar with the Breeders’ Cup. Perhaps I should have realized then that her familiarity with racing preceded her marriage to de la Renta. Their 1989 wedding was a second act for both; with the designer’s first wife having died of cancer, while Annette Engelhard Reed had been divorced.

Mrs. de la Renta was born Anne France Mannheimer in 1939. Her father was a German Jewish banker who died mysteriously before she was born (his bank-financed art collection and the Nazis may have been involved). Her mother was an outcross of a Shanghai-based German Jewish industrialist and a woman named Ignatia Mary Valerie Murphy (of the San Francisco Murphys). After the war, mother and daughter moved to the United States, where mother remarried well and young Annette was adopted by her stepfather, the industrialist Charles W. Engelhard, Jr.

Horseplayers of a certain vintage might remember Engelhard as the man behind Cragwood Stable, which campaigned great horses like Halo (the sire of two Derby winners) in the states. Engelhard also had some success in England. His best horse was purchased at auction in Canada and sent across the pond to Vincent O’Brien for training. That horse’s name was Nijinsky (and I will not sully his great name by adding the “II” you often see when he is referenced stateside).

So now when I think about that elevator ride, my first thought won’t be of Oscar de la Renta or Howell Raines, but of that warm and stylish lady who noticed my Breeders’ Cup sweater, and whose father (the only one she ever knew, anyway) owned the last horse to win the British Triple Crown. Today, she has all my sympathy for what must be an inconsolable loss.

Nijinsky and Lester Piggott claiming a historic Triple Crown triumph in the 1970 St LegerNijinsky, Lester Piggott up, photo from The Guardian

Sometimes a Cigar is Just a Cigar

 

Photo: James Shambhu, Kentucky Horse Park

Photo: James Shambhu, Kentucky Horse Park

Cigar died last week from complications following surgery for severe osteoarthritis in his neck, which sounds like a very painful condition for a horse. There are probably not that many 24-year-old thoroughbreds who undergo neck surgery, but this was Cigar, and he more than paid his own way. He won almost $10 million on the racetrack in 1995 and 1996, and later cashed another $25 million in insurance money when he proved to be infertile; his one payout at very long odds. No bettor ever lost more on a single horse than Assicurazoni Generali S.P.A. lost on Cigar, but that’s why equine insurers are the bridgejumpers of the financial services world.

Until last Tuesday I hadn’t really thought about Cigar for a long time. Maybe that’s what happens when horses are infertile and there aren’t any cigarillos running around reminding people that none of them could hold a candle to the old man. But as I got to thinking more about him, I realized that – for several various reasons – he always left me a little cold.

It started for me with his second race in 1995, which was the fourth consecutive of his remarkable and record-tying sixteen straight wins. I was living up in Putnam County and my horseplaying was suffering from being more than two hours away from all three NYRA tracks. When races were televised I could stay home and watch them, but then I couldn’t bet. So I was spending lots of Saturday afternoons at an OTB parlor in relatively nearby Dutchess County. That’s where I was for the 1995 Donn Handicap.

The ’95 Donn was the last race in Cigar’s career where he was not the favorite, owing to the presence in the starting gate of the 1994 champion 3-year-old and Horse of the Year Holy Bull. Cigar broke well, and with jockey Jerry Bailey not about to let Holy Bull get an easy lead the two of them hooked up early. As they raced in tandem down the backstretch, Holy Bull’s left foreleg made a popping sound, and Mike Smith smartly and quickly pulled up the great gray champion, while Cigar rolled to an easy victory.

There was an excited corner of the OTB parlor because a woman had keyed Cigar on top of the entire field in the trifecta for a dollar and won about two grand when two bombs filled it out. Meanwhile, the feed from Gulfstream delivered not a shred of information about the condition of Holy Bull, which seemed to me a totally unacceptable situation (it wasn’t until I read the Sunday paper that I found out he would be OK). I didn’t have a dime on the race, but the combination of the woman cashing a signer only because Holy Bull had broken down, and the seeming total lack of concern as to his condition, put me into a foul mood that lasted well into a bottle of tequila back in Putnam County. This was my introduction to Cigar.

I’m not saying that Holy Bull would have won that race without the bad step, or that Cigar would not have gone on to win his sixteen straight races. But as the year played out, I knew damn well there wasn’t another horse around that could have given Cigar the kind of test that would have been provided by a healthy, 4-year-old Holy Bull. [In the next eight races that completed Cigar’s “perfect 10 for 10” 1995, he topped exactas over Pride of Burkaan, Silver Goblin, Devil His Due, Poor But Honest, Tinner’s Way, Star Standard, Unaccounted For and L’Carriere.]

There was an inevitability to Cigar’s victories that year that made backing him the equivalent of going to the Coliseum in Rome, laying a ton of points, and rooting on the lions. Both Bill Mott and Jerry Bailey had their best years for wins in 1995 and 1996, and owner Allen Paulson won the Eclipse Award both years as top owner. And all of Cigar’s wins in 1995 were cut from the same cloth (break well, grab an easy early lead or sit just off the pacesetters before putting the thing away at the top of the stretch). If he was so good, I figured, couldn’t he at least hand the field a spot every now and then and find a way to make it interesting? But, no. Ten daylight wins, with his one-length victory in the Jockey Club Gold Cup being the only one with a winning margin of less than two lengths.

While I will now give Allen Paulson a lot of credit for the way he campaigned Cigar – making him perhaps the most well-traveled champion since Seabiscuit – at the time I did not like the guy at all. Alas, I have some “acutely judgmental” coding in my DNA, and have always been disapproving of the way that certain owners make the naming of their colts and fillies more about themselves, rather than about the horses. Cigar, by Palace Music out of a Seattle Slew mare named Solar Slew, was named for an aeronautical navigational checkpoint in the Gulf of Mexico. This was how Paulson, who had once owned Gulfstream, the private jet manufacturer, came up with names like Cigar; Arazi (in the Arizona desert); and Azeri (in Azerbaijan).

These bits and fragments from the days when Cigar ruled the handicap division are in no way meant to diminish his accomplishments, but more to show how, sometimes, not everybody loves a winner. I did have a hell of a lot of respect for Cigar. Sheet players marveled at this horse who ran nothing but fast figures and never bounced. I remember being on a Belmont return train where a drunken loser was demanding to be told how Andy Beyer could have possibly had a good day at the track when his figures stunk, to which Beyer replied with a sort of beatific air “I really liked Cigar!

This past week has shown that Andy Beyer has company. A whole lot of people really liked Cigar. The folks at the Kentucky Horse Park, where Cigar spent his last years as the star attraction, will certainly miss him. Those who were lucky enough to see him as he criss-crossed the country in ’95 and ’96 know that they were witness to a special part of racing history. And since Cigar never finished out of the money after Mott put him back on the dirt, it’s a pretty safe bet that all of the bridgejumpers out there will miss him too. Well, except maybe for Assicurazoni Generali S.P.A., who must know better than anyone that Cigar was a one-of-a-kind horse, and that we won’t be seeing the likes of him again.

Silent Sundays: Japan’s Long Road to Glory in the Prix de l’Arc de Triomphe

The Breeders’ Cup people like to refer to their little bar-b-q as thoroughbred racing’s world championship event, which would be true if the best thoroughbreds from around the world all raced on dirt and they all showed up in Southern California nearly every late-October. But let’s get real. If there is any one event in all of horse racing that even comes close to  “world championship” status, it is the Prix de l’Arc de Triomphe; tomorrow’s feature at Longchamp. And – despite all the sorrow that Japanese racing fans have suffered in Paris – I’m making it odds-on that these two guys (below) will be back, whether it’s for more bitter disappointment, or, for the greatest amount of joy that can be distilled out of twelve furlongs and two-and-one-half minutes.

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Perhaps you are unaware of how much of an obsession winning the Arc has become with the Japanese thoroughbred racing community. Allow me, then, some backstory.  The Japan Racing Association (JRA) inaugurated their own international event – the Japan Cup – in 1981. This was done so that the JRA would have a measuring stick on the annual progress of their fledgling thoroughbred industry.

In its first decade, what was then the richest race in the world served mainly as an easy payday for superior “gaijin” runners, with Japanese-bred horses winning only two of the first eleven runnings. But as the 1980s gave way to the 1990s, the Japanese horses started getting faster, and the better American and European horses started declining invitations to travel to the other side of the world to compete in an actual horse race. Japanese-bred horses have now won fifteen of the last twenty-two runnings of the Japan Cup, including the last eight in a row. Roughly ten years ago it became clear that if Japan wanted to continue measuring their horses against the best in the world, they would need to start playing some away games. Enter the Arc.

The first taste of near-triumph came in 2006, when the Japanese Triple Crown winner Deep Impact – perhaps the best horse ever sired by Sunday Silence – took a narrow lead in the Arc with about 100 meters to go before tiring and finishing a length back in third. [Two weeks later it was announced that Deep Impact had tested positive for a banned substance. For his fans, this probably made his loss a little easier to take, as being disqualified from an historic win would have been brutal for a country that – rare for these days – continues to recognize shame as a valid and even admirable quality sometimes found in humans.]

Four years later bitter disappointment returned, as Nakayama Festa (a grandson of Sunday Silence) fell just a head short of beating Epsom Derby winner Workforce for Arc glory. But there is disappointment, and then there is the most agonizing and excruciating loss in the history of horse racing, for which “disappointment” is simply too small a word: Orfevre, and the 2012 Arc that got away.

https://m.youtube.com/watch?v=4kluttGunQc

How many times have you heard a race caller say with a furlong to go that a horse is going to win a big race, and then it doesn’t? Yeah, me neither. “Orfevre, now for Japan! They’re going to do it!”  Only, he didn’t. It was interesting to hear the announcer say they’re going to do it, as if all the hopes and dreams of that small island nation hopped on Orfevre’s back with a furlong to go. Some may not think that hopes and dreams weigh all that much. This is from the Horse Racing in Japan website:

After the race, trainer Yasutoshi Ikee bowed his head saying, “I apologize to all Japan’s fans. He had enough to win. He is a top-level horse and I think we proved that a Japanese Triple Crown champion is on a par with the world’s best. He finished far ahead of the French and English Derby winners, but as this is a matter of win or lose we have to win.

“He was able to run smoothly from the back as we had planned, but he got left out in front, and was then marked and overtaken,” Ikee said, then turned the criticism on himself. “For that to have happened, shows that my own skills are not yet on a par with the world’s best. I think that in order to win this race, Japan’s trainers are going to need to improve their skills a great deal. From tomorrow, I am going to reassess things and I want to come back to win this race.”

Well, as gallant as it was for trainer Ikee to take the blame upon himself (Does he not watch American racing? Hasn’t he heard of blaming the ground or the jockey?), he did not improve himself enough to make any difference a year later, when Orfevre once again landed the second spot in the exacta to the runaway filly Treve.

Perhaps tomorrow will be the day that the rising sun finally shines at Longchamp. Last year they had the second (Orfevre) and fourth spots (Kizuna) with two grandsons of Sunday Silence, and the sharpies at TimeForm seem to think they have a great chance tomorrow with three more of the dual-classic winner’s grandkids: Just a Way, Gold Ship, and the 3-year-old filly Harp Star. [An aside to Arthur Hancock: Oh, what might have been, had Sunday Silence stayed at home.]

Treve does not now seem to be the same freaky filly that ran away with last year’s Arc (she strained her back over the hard summer turf at Ascot in June and finished an uninspiring fourth in her only race since then). The early favorite for the Arc – the German Derby winner Sea the Moon – was injured in his prep race and was subsequently retired. This year’s French and English Derby winners are both taking a pass on the big race. And Taghrooda, the ante post favorite for the last couple of weeks, drew an outside post position and was quickly demoted to second-favorite by the bookmakers in her native England. Germany sends out Ivanhowe, a longshot; and Ireland (dba Aidan O’Brien) sends out a trio (Ruler of the World, Tapestry, and Chicquita) that are all double-digit odds to win. So who will step forward to claim the Arc and keep the Japanese faithful saying “wait until next year”?

The bookmakers and Around2Turns think the most likely winner is a 3-year-old French colt named Ectot. He has won six of seven lifetime. His win in the Prix Niel was deemed the best of the three “course and distance” Arc preps that ran on September 14th. He gets weight from the older horses and seems to run on any ground (he won the Niel on the good-to-firm turf that is expected tomorrow). If you are among those who believe that jockeys make lousy handicappers, perhaps your angle should be that Gregory Benoist had the choice between Ectot and the unbeaten 3-year-old French filly Avenir Certain and opted for the former. At about nine or ten to one, she’s probably not a bad bet, given the recent success that 3-year-old fillies have had in this race.

Whatever the result, as with any race our main hope is that they all come home safely. And, if  the Japanese horses once again fail to hit the wire first, we hope that they will lose in an honorable yet non-heartbreaking way. The last few years have already provided Japanese racing fans with enough pain and disappointment to last a lifetime.

*****

Around2Turns selections: Ectot, Harp Star, Prince Gibraltar

Photo of Japanese race fans: Reuters

Mirror Images

Given the very well-documented recent history of the British newspaper business   – Google “Milly Dowler” if you need a refresher – the degree of difficulty for establishing new lows in journalistic integrity would appear to be a very tall order. And yet the Daily Mirror nearly pulled it off on Saturday with their front page story and photograph (with more inside!) about the sad end of Wigmore Hall on the turf at Doncaster.

Perhaps you missed this on Paulick or on Twitter, so we will provide here a brief synopsis. On Saturday the 13th of September the green screen came into use at Doncaster, as the rugged and talented 7-year-old Wigmore Hall suffered a catastrophic injury and had to be put down on the racetrack in order to minimize his suffering. But the green screen only blocks the view of the injured horse from the paying customers in the grandstand, so it did not prevent an unidentified candidate for sainthood in the infield from reeling off several shots of the dying horse’s last moments and subsequently making those photographs available to the Daily Mirror. Which published them yesterday in dubious service to their readers under the headline “Shot in the head … a tragic end to a ($2 million) champion.”

As much as it pained me to contribute to the Mirror’s unique reader and page view counts, I visited the site a second and final time today so that I could describe the photos here and allow you to form your own opinion as to their journalistic value. I will not link to them. Photo one shows Wigmore Hall standing on three legs as a vet holds a pistol to the horse’s head. Photo two shows Wigmore Hall crumpling to the ground. Photo three shows the vet checking the dead horse’s neck for a pulse that is not there.

While it is probably safe to say that the photographer was the only person present at Doncaster who was actually hoping that a horse would break down, our concern here is not the internal motivations of any individual. Rather, our concern is with the group decision inside the offices of the Mirror that led to these photographs getting front page play. Were these photos “newsworthy”?  Hardly, as Wigmore Hall’s injury and humane destruction had already been widely reported. Is it news that catastrophically-injured horses are relieved of their suffering by guns or needles? How was society served by bringing these photos to the general public? We turn to Lloyd Embley, the Mirror’s editor, who told the Guardian that there had been “an extensive debate” within the paper, before adding:

“The intention was to be as balanced as possible. In fact, two of the three opinion pieces we carried were in defence of horse racing.”

Thank goodness for “balance”. For those of you unfamiliar with this fig leaf that helps to cover the junk that is today’s “journalism”, balance is the thing that tells you it’s OK to run a front page photo of a horse about to take one between the eyes so long as there are one or two strongly-worded editorials somewhere in there between the Page Three Girl and the horoscopes.

If the Mirror had been brave enough to actually take a stand and come out forcefully against horse racing, then you could at least give them credit for having the courage of their convictions. But Embley’s words are those of a weasel, and the only convictions he and his fellow editors have shown are to newsstand sales, page views and the bottom line. The Mirror’s editor dressed up this cheap stunt by telling the Guardian “there is clearly some debate about the issue and more than one opinion”, as if there was some debate on whether or not catastrophically-injured horses should be euthanized, or whether a needle is preferable to a gun (there is no such debate). It takes a staggering level of cynicism to bear witness to an act of of mercy and represent it as shameful violence, but that is exactly what the Mirror has done.

The Mirror did note that Wigmore Hall’s was the only death from 1,563 runners this season at Doncaster, which is an astoundingly low rate, even lower than the “fewer than one fatality per thousand runners” statistic that describes the high level of safety at British flat races. These are difficult days for the thoroughbred racing industry, but there is nothing in the Wigmore Hall story that even hints at abuse or other shameful activity. Which is much more than can be said about those beacons of virtue who publish the Daily Mirror.

 

The Final Hurdle

It was late in the afternoon on the next-to-last Monday of the Saratoga meet and I was driving back down the thruway with my wife, who was still quite upset over what had happened four hours ago. “How do you do it?” She wondered this out loud. “How do you love and support a sport where THAT happens?”

We hadn’t really talked about it at the track. We went for a walk around the backyard and got an early drink. But it was a fair and obvious question, even if I wasn’t ready for it. I off-the-cuff’d it best I could, but she was not convinced. “Well, maybe you should write about THAT in your blog”, she offered, as if I took requests, or could make it come out better.

Had it not rained like cats and dogs the previous Wednesday, things might have turned out different. If only. But the Thursday turf races were moved to the main track, and the New York Turf Writers Cup over two-plus miles and one-too-many hurdles was postponed, and subsequently rescheduled to the following Monday. Which turned out to be just one more perfect summer day. I had lucked into two great seats just inside the sixteenth pole, prompting the Missus to join me by making one of her rare excursions to the races. The Turf Writers was the first race. And as the horses came down the stretch for the third and final time, Makari and Jack Doyle were just heads behind the leader and gaining when they fell hard going over the last hurdle, and only Doyle got up. Through my binoculars I could see Doyle look down on his fallen partner and then turn away in despair. Makari was dead from a broken neck.

The shock around the clubhouse was palpable. I said what I thought I should say. What I thought she needed to hear. “Are you OK? I’m so sorry you had to see that.” And, oh, had she seen it. Catherine had her binoculars trained on Makari going over the last jump. I now had mine trained on the inner turf course, where the two sets of fences between us obscured my view, but I could see that the horse was as still as a distant hillside on a calm day. “He’s not moving,” I told her. I saw the attending vet standing over Makari with a needle that would not be necessary. “I don’t think he suffered much. He’s gone.”

She went up the stairs to the bathroom, and came back down after a few long minutes. Later she told me that two other women in the bathroom had been a comfort. “I come with my husband because he loves it,” one of them told her, “but you never get over it. You never get used to it.” We went for that drink, and to watch some horses walk around the paddock. After a while we walked over and said hello to some friends who I figured would be in the backyard outside the Carousel. After that we ventured back to our nice seats and watched some more races, but we left before the feature so we would be back home well before the sun went down.

When shocked I tend to withdraw somewhat. It helps me to process, but I’m sure my wife and others could read this as coldness. But as Makari lay there and I tried to think of soothing things to stay, I could not help but think about the first time I ever witnessed a bad breakdown from up close; at the 1990 Breeders’ Cup at Belmont, when I was also sitting just inside the sixteenth pole.

But this one was completely different from Go for Wand and pretty much every other racetrack catastrophe I’d ever witnessed. That first flash of disaster is almost always shadowed by that eternity – usually no more than a couple of minutes – when the horse is suffering and the needle can’t arrive fast enough. As I saw Doyle turn away, and then the vet realize that there was nothing to be done, I felt an odd peacefulness, as if some dreadful but necessary part of the process had been surgically removed in real time. I felt the presence of Mercy.

Which may help to explain why my impromptu “how can I love it?” speech in the car had fallen flat. While being sad for the horse and his connections, I had come right up to the brink of telling my wife that I looked upon Makari’s as a noble racing death, before chickening out. But, having thought it over, I’ll say it now. Sudden and sad and way too soon, yes. But it was also heroic and pure, in a way that many racetrack deaths are not.

She had asked if we should blame it on the jumps. And while of course it was the final hurdle that felled him, an admirer might say it was Makari’s courage and will to win that had left him vulnerable his third time down the lane. You don’t win 7 of 11 lifetime jumping and become a Grade One winner over Saratoga’s fences by being overly concerned with your own personal safety. Maybe you can help convince a horse that hurdling is a good idea, but you can’t insist upon it. It’s doubtful Makari had needed much convincing.

Besides, I told my beloved, none of them is safe from disaster. Racehorses will break down; often catastrophically. This is true even in the places that do much more to prevent it than is typically done here. The shame of American racing, I told her, is not the first “one per thousand starts” fatalities that claim the inevitable and unlucky ones all around the world; but the second set of “one per thousand starts” fatalities that seems to be uniquely American.

And this was where I lost her. Even if we washed all the drugs out of racing’s system, I couldn’t tell her that this wouldn’t happen. Even if every owner were as rich as Paul Mellon, and every trainer as kind on a horse as Julie Krone’s hands, things like this would still happen. So the question remains: How do I, how do we stand this?

We can stand this, I submit, because we love them. We love thoroughbreds so much that we do not care to even imagine a world without them, let alone live in one. You wonder if those who are so certain of their feelings that thoroughbred racing should be banned would feel the same way if they understood that doing so would virtually erase these magnificent but fragile equine hybrids from our landscape. Where would you go in America to see a thoroughbred in full flight, if you could not go to a racetrack?

When I go to NYRA tracks and look out upon the men and women who train and tend to these animals, I don’t see exploitation: I see love. As a tourist who wouldn’t know these horses without saddlecloths and a program, I can’t even imagine the pain that must wash across the backstretch when a great horse like Makari goes down. It is an emotional cost that will eventually be paid and then paid again by anyone who has ever made the mistake of falling in love with a horse.

It remains a perilous world out there. We can’t seem to find a way to keep our brave youth from becoming their generation’s cannon fodder, or keep second-graders safe from gunfire, so what sort of chances does a horse rate? Every time a field of ten lines up there’s about a 50-1 chance that one starter will not survive the race. Even 100-1 is probably too short a price for my wife and many others, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try. Then when the inevitable happens, we can console ourselves by saying that the poor horse was unlucky, or was very brave and tried too hard. We won’t ever have to say it was because we did not care enough.

A Gambler’s Problem

Daniel Colman is a gambler with a problem. Make that two problems. You could make it three if you think that having almost everyone in your field believing that you are a jerk is a problem, but our concern here is his second problem.

The first one is the typical “problem gambler” problem. He’s just got to play. He loves it too much. In an online interview about a year ago, he was asked if he still woke up every morning “itching to play” poker. Part one of his reply:

 Yes. It’s a problem.

Perhaps it would be a bigger problem if the 24-year-old Colman was not one one of the best professional poker players in the world. Early last month he won the Big One for One Drop tournament in Las Vegas, taking down more than $15 million for himself and (mostly) his backers. But, like I said, he’s got two problems: the other one being that he has to live with himself. Part two of his reply:

It is still really good for making money currently for me; but as far as being a productive person with other goals, it is something I am looking to change.

It does not look like winning more than $14 million (the tournament had a million-dollar buy-in) has assuaged Colman’s concerns about productivity, or made him forget about his other goals. He seems to be as conflicted as ever. It’s enough to make you ask … “What would Jesus Ferguson do?”

This conflict within Colman does not reveal itself while he is playing. He was loose and smiling and feeling right at home at the poker table all throughout the last televised hour of the tournament (which Colman won on July 1st but was televised only a couple of weeks ago). It was only when it became clear that the tournament was ending and that his conflict would soon be on display – catch Colman’s demeanor immediately after the dealer throws the ten – that the second problem kicked in.

This was a big charity tournament benefitting One Drop, which provides clean water technology solutions for desperately poor third world communities. Prior to his interview after the big win, Colman insisted to ESPN that he would not talk poker, but wanted to comment only upon the charity’s great work. After doing just that, he left the building faster than Elvis in his amphetemine-fueled prime, blowing off all other interview requests. Since then, very little has been heard from Colman, but what has been heard is choice (and we will get to that shortly).

This unsmiling, hasty, largely silent exit did not to go over well at ESPN. The month-long post-production process not only edited out many of the boring parts of the tournament, but also added lots of snide and insulting commentary about Colman from the network’s witless announcers. They also piled on with critical comments about Colman’s silence from several others in what we will call – for lack of a better term – the professional poker community. But all of that was fairly mild compared to what Case Keefer had to say in the “Analysis” he provided to the Las Vegas Sun the day after the tournament ended. According to Keefer, our young Mr. Colman …

“… fled the scene with winnings of $15.3 million like a bank robber”

“… stole a chunk of aura”

“… (was) channeling a petulant child”

But Colman’s greatest sin, according to Saint Keefer anyway, was his failure to sell out.

“… it’s too bad he couldn’t have positioned himself for another easy windfall with a better attitude.”

If these and other professional poker insiders did not much care for Colman’s silent treatment, they took a harsh lesson in “be careful what you ask for” when the insouciant winner released a statement in response to all of their criticism. It is one of the most heartfelt examples you will find of a thoughtful and principled young man trying to navigate a world that does not seem too big on thoughtfulness and principles. Some of the choicer excerpts:

“To have a job where you are at the mercy of variance can be insanely stressful and can lead to a lot of unhealthy habits. I would never in a million years recommend for someone to try and make it as a poker pro.”

“It bothers me that people care so much about poker’s well-being. As poker is a game that has such a net negative effect on the people playing it. Both financially and emotionally.”

“As for promoting myself, I feel that individual achievements should rarely be celebrated. I am not going to take part in it for others and I wouldn’t want it for myself … If you get people to look up to someone and adhere to the “gain wealth, forget all but self” motto, then you can get them to ignore the social contract which is very good for power systems. Also it serves as a means of distraction to get people to not pay attention to the things that do matter.”

In other words, while Colman enjoys the game of poker, and gets some satisfaction out of being good at it, he does not think it should be confused with “the things that do matter.” Colman, who clearly stayed silent because he did not trust ESPN’s final edit to faithfully deliver his message, slow-played the network and his critics like, well, a poker champion.

Many of Colman’s critics find his stance hypocritical, since he is willing to make his fortune in the poker industry, even as he decries the human cost to the saps and suckers that he leaves behind in his wake. In his way, he agrees:

“And yes, I realize I am conflicted. I capitalize off this game that targets peoples weaknesses. I do enjoy it, I love the strategy part of it, but I do see it as a very dark game.”

Outside of that statement and some tweets (the wallpaper on his Twitter page states “You don’t need to be Muslim to stand up for Gaza, you just need to be human”), Colman has continued to keep a low profile. His mentor, good friend, and one of his backers, Olivier Busquet, was quick to defend Colman in an email to ESPN’s poker doofus Lon McEachern. Colman, his friend wrote …

… is extremely disturbed by out money-obsessed and celebrity worshipping culture. He doesn’t like the idea of celebrating many personal achievements, especially ones relating to financial success. He feels that it promotes hyper-individualism, consumerism and materialism and that those are overall pretty corrosive for our society. Finally he feels that many winners pursue the attention and glorification associated with winning out of self-centeredness and a desire to feed their egos. He has been actively trying to do the opposite of those things and this was an example of that.

If he ever does decide to give up professional poker, Colman would make for a very fine and polite horseplayer. He understands living and dying at the mercy of variance. He understands that his winnings are someone else’s losses. Given what he displayed in Vegas and in his statement, you would not expect any jumping up and down or “I’m the king of the world!” proclamations, even if he were to take down a carried-over Pick-6 all by himself.

Can racing take away any lessons from the Colman affair? After all, unlike most of the other casino games, poker is basically a parimutuel affair, where your winnings are courtesy of losses by your friends and neighbors, not by some anonymous “house”. While the advent of global horseplaying via ADWs may bring racing a little bit closer to the potentially addictive, non-stop siren song that is online poker and casino games, it says here that this is not today’s lesson.

By mocking and taunting him over his conflicted state (and remember, Colman became a professional poker player at the ripe old age of seventeen), ESPN probably only succeeded in bringing more bad publicity to an online “game” that has shattered many households and ruined more than a few college careers. [Colman divides his time between Montreal and Rio de Janeiro, where online poker, unlike in most of the US, remains legal.] The issue is not about the nature of parimutuel betting in the 21st century; it’s about morality.

Colman’s gripe is not with the game that he loves. His beef is with the television and advertising-fueled industry which encourages young sapsuckers that – against all odds – they too can become bracelet-wearing “kings of the world”. People, and the industries that people populate, do not like being told that their morals stink. They get defensive. And they protest too much. But in a land where animals are property, and ownership holds dominion, and the dollar is almighty: sometimes the morals stink.

If racing has a corollary to Daniel Colman, I’d say it is Michael Beychok of “Horseplayers” semi-fame. As many of you will recall, Beychok won the National Handicapping Championship and a million dollars in 2012 when a horse named Glorious Dancer got up by a nose in the last race of the tournament. A few months later, Beychok claimed Glorious Dancer for $6,500. She raced a few times before the champion eventually pensioned her to a life away from the racetrack. Why did he do it? He said it was because he wanted her to have a good life. But I’m guessing that what he really meant was, if that horse who won him a million dollars was to somehow slip all the way down the claiming ranks, winding up broken down, or reduced to meat waiting around a kill pen, well, he wouldn’t have been able to live with himself. When money comes in the window, love does not always walk out the door.

 

 

 

A Dry July

No. I haven’t stopped drinking. And, no, it’s not about the drought in California. It’s about the fact that it’s been more than a month since I last posted here at Around2Turns, which, as blogging goes, is just about flatlining.

I had been keeping a fairly lively pace for my first two months of this. But after a relaxing yet modestly productive 4th of July weekend, the bus found the ditch and has stayed there until today.

I was kind of expecting it. For years now, the terms of my employment have required me to effectively x-out four whole months on my yearly calendar. Because July and October and January and April demand the filing of quarterly reports and the providing of related analysis, workdays grow longer; days off become impossible; and truncated evenings become inhospitable to anything except comfy couches and tightly-clutched beverages. No running off to the Keeneland and Saratoga meets for you, Mr. Businessman!

In the spirit of the corporate reporting ethos that helps to propel American industry boldly into the next quarter, here’s a slide I put together that summarizes the latest trends here at @2T.

Slide1

 

You will note that a big project at my Hudson Valley home (the “Turf Club” is the working title for the sporty and elegant “man cave” under construction in a large, upstairs bedroom) was a factor in my “down” July. But time spent working on this DIY project will pay out down the road, both in a commodious and luxurious place for yours truly to play the horses, and also as an @2T post postulating that the well-appointed man cave is, in fact, the grandstand for the “racetrack of the future”. But that’s another post, for another time.

Meanwhile, it occurs to me that @2T could afford to be a little bit more personal at times. Not every post needs to be strictly about horse racing. And since my day job offers me a front row seat (OK, maybe first row in the mezzanine) to the ongoing decline of the American newspaper industry, there’s no reason why I can’t occasionally write about that, without getting myself fired for giving away any proprietary information, of course.

Towards that end, I suppose I could start with being a bit more open about what I actually do for a living (Circulation Analyst) and for whom I work (The New York Times). The great Joe Palmer once noted that a prejudiced witness is all right, if you know what his prejudices are. And so to help you make allowances, and because people tend to sum up to more than what they do for a living, I should also point out that my friends involved with racing all tend to be either its customers (handicappers, in case any racing executives are reading this) or its analysts (I have good friends at both ThoroGraph and TimeFormUS, and have written one or two things for the latter).

I should be happy that I have managed to stay gainfully employed and adequately compensated, even as printed newspapers lurch ever closer to the way of the dodo. But it’s difficult to watch something you have loved your whole life fade away. Ask Steve Haskin. As a sports-loving hippie kid growing up in Westchester County in the 1970s, “my America” and Dick Young’s America were usually poles apart. But I don’t think either of us ever thought the day would come when the Daily News would be without a racing writer.

One of these days in the not-too-distant future I will be able to walk away from my day job. Or maybe I’ll get kicked to the curb if my desire to stick around outlives my apparent usefulness. But that will be fine either way. I’ll finally be able to make that fall meet at Keeneland.

 

 

Another Spoiled-Rotten New York Horseplayer Chimes In

I hope Martin Panza is not feeling down about the underwhelming crowd of about eleven thousand who showed up at last Saturday’s inaugural Stars and Stripes Day at Belmont Park. Sure, it was a picture perfect day for early summer racing, but as Yogi Berra actually said one time (speaking about a ballpark) “If the people don’t want to come … how are you going to stop them?”

As Senior Vice-President of Racing Operations at NYRA, Panza seemed to do everything in his power to put on a great day of racing, and succeeded on almost every count. So what if there was hardly anyone there to see it? As I watched the races in high-definition on my iPad while sitting on my back porch here in the Hudson Valley, cosseted by gentle breezes, my dogs at my feet and an assortment of beverages and snacks mere steps away, I asked myself, “why am I blowing off perhaps the greatest July Belmont race card in my twenty-five years of playing the horses?” I mulled that one over for a second or two before answering, “Oh, that’s right. I’m spoiled rotten.”

It is a truth universally acknowledged that a single horseplayer in possession of a decent bankroll must be in want of an iPad and a solid WiFi connection. For today’s American horseplayer, these two rather low hurdles are cleared more easily than a World Cup soccer player falls down. This is especially true here in New York, where a NYRA advance deposit wagering account is free, and lets you bet Royal Ascot while in your pajamas; the feature at Del Mar from a cocktail bar; and Stars and Stripes Day from your back porch. Which is why all of Panza’s efforts should be graded only on total handle (just under $19 million on Saturday), not on attendance, and why he gets an “A” from this corner.

I hope Stars and Stripes Day continues to be an Independence Day fixture on the Belmont scene. Hell, I may even go next year. [With the holiday falling on a Friday this year, attending the inaugural S&S Day would have kept me in the city for two days of a three-day weekend: a non-starter for this working stiff with a house in the country.] While this new marquee day does a nice job of bridging the gap between the Triple Crown and the Saratoga season, anyone expecting very big crowds for what was obviously a manufactured event was courting disappointment. But if Panza can eventually manufacture a NYRA “turf triple crown” around his new Independence Day card, who’s to say that this invented event won’t go on to become part of a new tradition?

Martin Panza sets his sights on Saratoga

Martin Panza sets his sights on Saratoga

Although it seems almost too obvious to say it, the acid test in Panza’s first year as NYRA’s racing director will take place over the 40 days of the Saratoga meeting. Early signs indicate that Panza would prefer a racetrack biased more towards quality than quantity (via scheduling slightly fewer races by way of modestly shorter race cards). This should be welcome news to those among us who have bitched about the recent abundance of Saratoga races for New York-bred maiden claimers with speech impediments going five furlongs on the turf. If Panza can actually pull off the “quality for quantity” swap, I would hope that horseplayers would reward this pending minor miracle with a nice bump in handle, if not in attendance.

And speaking of attendance, it will not be surprising to see lower turnstile counts at the old spa this year, thanks to the jacked-up entrance fees that NYRA instituted earlier this year in a budget-balancing gambit. To this tourist, slightly fewer people at Saratoga seems like a great idea. To paraphrase Yogi, you wouldn’t want people to stop going to the place because it got too crowded. Five bucks does not seem like too much, when to find even vaguely comparable summer racing you would need to cross either a continent or an ocean.

All the hullabaloo about NYRA’s pricing schemes from earlier this year seemed, to me anyway, largely devoid of context. Critics suggested that struggling industries should not be raising rates, but have you checked the price of your newspaper lately? France is a bastion of egalitarianism when it comes to horse racing, but last month I paid five Euro (about $7) for general admission to an ordinary Saturday at Longchamp. Going to the races in Ireland and England practically requires financing. Fancy the summer festival at Galway? Gate prices range from 20 to 30 Euro ($28 to $42, seats are extra). Or how about “Glorious Goodwood”? A mere 40 Pounds (pushing $70!) gets you through the gate. Crikey!

Looking up these admission rates reminded me of a visit to Cheltenham with my wife about twenty years ago. This was one of their April fixtures, not the pricy festival in March. We went down to the last fence to watch the horses up close and happened to meet a posh twosome who seemed eager to chat up two youngish New Yorkers. When asked what I thought about going to the races in Britain, I confessed that I was surprised with how much it cost to get in, especially compared to what I paid back home. The posh lady gave me my first official tut-tutting, and said, “Oh, dear! How do you keep out the riffraff?”

At the time I didn’t think she was talking about me, but these days I’m not so sure.

So as we exit the Independence Day weekend and set our sights on Saratoga, let’s not quibble about a few more dollars. Instead, let us celebrate once again that Burgoyne took one on the kisser back in the fall of 1777, and that we also won the war. If not, today we’d be sticking a lot of extra u’s where they don’t belong, and lord knows how much we’d be paying to pass through the Saratoga turnstiles.