View From The Eighth Pole: Preakness Aftermath

by | 05.22.2017 | 12:59pm

It's not supposed to be easy, this Triple Crown thing. Yes, there was plenty of disappointment to go around when Kentucky Derby winner Always Dreaming chucked it at the top of the stretch, but what a terrific horse race winner Cloud Computing and runner-up Classic Empire put on in this 142nd running of the Preakness at Pimlico.

When the dust had settled at Old Hilltop on Saturday night, there were two very happy guys named Seth and Bill, who had grown up near different racetracks as kids (Seth near Pimlico and Bill near Saratoga) and they were always dreaming of buying a racehorse when they had the financial wherewithal to do so.

They made good on those dreams.

Seth Klarman and William Lawrence, – the co-owners of Cloud Computing and many other graded stakes winners like G1 winners Practical Joke, Annals of Time and Currency Swap – have the resources. Each man runs a company that manages investments measured in the billions of dollars (Klarman, who races as Klaravich Stable and prefers to stay out of the spotlight, offered a cautionary warning about the financial markets earlier this year after Donald Trump became president). Klarman and Lawrence like giving names to their horses that reflect their vocation: among other graded stakes winners they've campaigned in recent years are Takeover Target, Deeply Undervalued, Pricedtoperfection, Strict Compliance, Consumer Credit, Balance the Books and Central Banker. They show restraint at yearling and 2-year-old sales, usually spending in the $200,000-$300,000 range for their acquisitions, even though their pockets are much deeper. Cloud Computing, a colt from the first crop of Maclean's Music, went for $200,000 at the Keeneland September Yearling Sale when agent Mike Ryan found him, Hip 1831, at John Sikura's Hill 'n' Dale Sales Agency consignment.

(Ryan, incidentally, is on something of a roll, having bought 2016 Kentucky Derby winner Nyquist as a yearling, co-bred with fellow Irishman Gerry Dilger this year's Derby winner, and purchased Cloud Computing on behalf of Klarman and Lawrence.)

Hill 'n' Dale is the farm that took a chance to stand unproven Maclean's Music, a Distorted Humor colt who ran just once for Stonestreet Stables and trainer Steve Asmussen. A favorite colt of the late Jess Jackson and named for a grandson of Jess and wife Barbara Banke, Maclean's Music ran a blazingly fast six furlongs at Santa Anita Park on March 19, 2011, when he blitzed fellow 3-year-old maidens to win by 7 ¼ lengths in 1:07.44. Complications from surgery on a splint bone led to his premature retirement.

Chad Brown and Javier Castellano were two other very happy fellows at Pimlico Saturday night. Four-time Eclipse Award winner Castellano and agent Mike Lakow had to choose between Cloud Computing, a horse the jockey had never ridden in a race, and Gunnevera, the G2 Fountain of Youth winner trained by Antonio Sano, who like Castellano is from Venezuela. They made the right choice, obviously, as Gunnevera finished fifth.

Brown, who won his first Eclipse Award as outstanding trainer of 2016, can finally shed the label of “filly” and “turf” trainer. If owners keep sending him fillies and turf horses they'll win big races. If they send him good colts bred to run on dirt, they'll win, too. This 38-year-old horseman has a lot of big wins in his future.

Glue, Bubble Gum, Duct Tape
Rickety old Pimlico got through another Preakness unscathed, and all credit goes to Maryland Jockey Club President and General Manager Sal Sinatra and a hard-working team. A key person on that team is Vice President of Racing Georgeanne Hale, who put together tremendously competitive racing cards back-to-back on Black-Eyed Susan and Preakness days.

At one point on Saturday, Sinatra paid a visit to the press box and talked about the challenges of hosting a massive crowd (reported as a record 140,327) in a facility that is badly outdated and unable to offer the kind of comfort and services many expect at high-end sporting events.

In Friday's 90-degree heat, several air conditioning units gave out and there was a small fire in a kitchen, Sinatra said. On Saturday, with cooler temperatures, there didn't seem to be any major problems.

“The glue, the bubble gum, the duct tape – it's all working,” Sinatra said in reference to how many parts of the Old Hilltop grandstand are held together.

It's no secret Maryland Jockey Club owner The Stronach Group would like to move the Preakness down the road 29 miles to Laurel Park, where company officials are investing tens of millions of dollars into capital improvements. Tim Ritvo, Stronach Group's chief operating officer, said plans are to make a bid to host the 2020 or 2021 Breeders' Cup at newly renovated Laurel. Workers will break ground later this year on a train station adjacent to the Laurel Park grandstand entrance. New barns are going up. It is the future of Maryland racing. It makes absolutely no sense for Stronach Group to invest millions more dollars into a second facility.

The Preakness is Maryland's race. The song sung during the post-parade is not “Baltimore, My Baltimore.”

There are two realistic options for Pimlico, and both involve a wrecking ball. Either tear the place down and rebuild it using public financing so the Preakness can remain in the city of Baltimore – as Mayor Catherine Pugh and many others would like – or tear it down and turn the property into something that will be good for the beleaguered neighborhood and good for the city.

Some might suggest a third option is to keep putting glue, bubble gum and duct tape on the aging track. That's not fair to the people who come to the Preakness expecting a world-class experience for one of racing's premier events. It's also not fair to the track's owners, who are hamstrung in trying to make money on their big event. A study done by the Maryland Stadium Authority showed Churchill Downs makes nine times as much money on the Kentucky Derby/Oaks weekend as the Maryland Jockey Club does on Preakness weekend. The main difference is in high-end seating options: luxury suites, dining rooms, private boxes. Churchill Downs has them, Pimlico doesn't. Laurel Park will.

On To Belmont Park… For Now

The loss by Always Dreaming in the Preakness will downsize business expectations for Belmont Stakes day at Belmont Park on June 10. No matter who shows up to contest the final leg of the Triple Crown, Belmont day is one of the best racing days of the year, and Senior Vice President of Racing Martin Panza was wise to build up the day with as many Grade 1 events as possible.

Business on Belmont Stakes day may not be the only downsizing for Belmont Park. The recent announcement that NYRA will add a second turf course to Aqueduct (in place of the inner dirt track used during winter) has raised speculation that the massive Belmont Park grandstand will undergo a long-overdue renovation. Belmont Park was one of the grandest racetracks in the second half of the 20th century, but we are now well into the 21st century, when crowds are smaller and demands higher among those who attend live horse racing year-round.

Belmont Park, as big as it is, does not have the premium seating, food and beverage options, or climate control to host a Breeders' Cup comfortably in the fall. The grandstand itself is oversized and outdated. The dirt track, a mile and a half in circumference, is an outlier in American racing and also should be downsized.

If Gov. Andrew Cuomo gives NYRA's board of trustees enough independence, great things can happen for New York racing. It would mean a renovation and downsizing of Belmont Park, with year-round racing shifting to Aqueduct during the time of construction (with the exception of Saratoga's summer meet). When that is complete, the need for Aqueduct would be greatly diminished and it could be closed.

Like Maryland not needing two tracks less than 30 miles apart, we are in a new reality in the horse racing world. New York does not need both Aqueduct and Belmont Park. One world-class facility would do.

That's my view from the eighth pole.

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