Track management seeks reduction in takeout

There are some in the industry who think the Horseplayers Association of North America is a group of crying bettors who should just shut up, wager and be happy with the status quo.

Apparently, track management is not among them.

The Stronach Group and Hollywood Park have sent a letter, dated July 26, to the Thoroughbred Owners of California asking that takeout be reduced for the fall meets at Santa Anita and Hollywood Park on an experimental basis.

For instance, they’ve asked the TOC to:

* Lower takeout for daily doubles to 15.43 percent from their present 22.68 percent.
* Takeout on exactas and quinellas to be reduced from 22.68 percent to 21.68 percent

The letter, signed by both Hollywood Park president Jack Liebau and Santa Anita president George Haines, states: “Santa Anita and Hollywood Park believe that the requested changes are in the best interest of racing in California and that the implementation of the requested changes would be of benefit to all segments of the racing industry, particularly the wagering public.”

Pacific Racing Association, operator of the inaugural Santa Anita autumn meet that begins Sept. 30, requested that the changes also be concurrently effective for its meet in Northern California.

In an email, HANA president Jeff Platt said: “In my opinion the proposed adjustments to the takeout rates are supported not only by Horseplayers, but by the majority of Owners, Trainers, and Track Executives. If the proposed changes are approved California Racing will be well on their way to pricing their product in a more optimal way – which will ultimately lead to increased handle and bigger purses.”

So the ball is in the TOC’s court. We’ll see what they do with it.

Frankel best we’ve seen? Hold your horses

Two quick points — (1) I’m glad there’s a quality race horse out there that was named after Bobby Frankel, one of the three or four greatest trainers I’ve ever seen; (2) the 3-year-old colt Frankel is an outstanding horse. You’d have to be crazy or a member of Congress to believe otherwise.

When the son of Galileo won the Group 1 Sussex Stakes at Goodwood Racecourse in England on Wednesday by five lengths over Canford Cliffs — a horse that has won five Group 1 races and defeated the champion mare Goldikova earlier this year — he demonstrated his greatness and showed, at the moment, he’s the best race horse in Europe.

Heck, we’re talking about a horse that is 8 for 8 and has won his races by a total of about 41 1/2 lengths. He runs the opposition off their feet.

But, let’s not go overboard like his trainer, Sir Henry Cecil, and proclaim him “probably the best you’ve seen.”

Let’s be a little realistic here.

First off, he’s never raced beyond a mile. He’s won five races at eight furlongs and three at seven. No mile and a half. No mile and a quarter. Heck, not even a mile and a sixteenth.

Half of his victories have come in Group 1 races. Yes, that’s impressive, but hardly worthy of the tag Best of All-Time.

Want to convince us he’s the best of all-time?

Stop saying the Breeders’ Cup is probably not in Frankel’s plans in 2011 and send him to Churchill Downs for a dream matchup against Goldikova in the Breeders’ Cup Mile on Nov. 5. The reigning European Horse of the Year has won a record three consecutive Breeders’ Cup Miles. If Frankel could stop that streak, then maybe we’ll consider that Horse of All-Time label.

Until then, Frankel is just an oustanding race horse that has not accomplished anything close to Goldikova’s historic Breeders’ Cup streak.

Now, THAT’S greatness.

There’s never a dull week at Del Mar

Here are a few of the highlights concerning the opening week of Del Mar’s 72nd season:

* Victor Espinoza’s spill in Sunday’s ninth race could have been a lot worse than it turned out. Espinoza was down for quite a while after his mount, Be Driven, broke her left front leg and went down, causing a chain reaction that led to two other horses falling. Be Driven had to be euthanized, the other two jockeys involved — Joel Rosario and Martin Pedroza — were OK and both of the other horses checked out OK with the veterinarian. X-ray of Espinoza’s ankle at Scripps Encinitas Hospital were negative and his agent, Brad Pegram, said he’ll most likely be back in action Wednesday. The fatal injury was the first during racing at this Del Meet meet and the second overall. A horse was injured during training on Friday, July 15, and had to be euthanized. Last summer’s catastrophic numbers at Del Mar were positive. While no one likes to see any of the horses get seriously injured, the fact Del Mar had only five fatalities during 37 days of racing was impressive.

* In a blow to the nation’s older handicap division, trainer Bob Baffert announced Hollywood Gold Cup winner First Dude has a career-ending tendon injury to his front left leg. He also confirmed that Game On Dude, who won the Santa Anita Handicap in March, would run in the $1 million Pacific Classic at Del Mar on Aug. 28. I’m not sure that Game On Dude’s running style is conducive to Del Mar’s Polytrack, though. He’s more of a front-runner and, while speed was king over Santa Anita’s new dirt track and played fine on Hollywood Park’s Cushion Track, it might not be as effective on Del Mar’s synthetic. If there are any top handicap horses back east that like synthetics — think Student Council in 2007 and Go Between in 2008 — their connections would be wise to consider the Pacific Classic, especially since they’d receive $1,000 for just entering the starting gate as part of Del Mar’s new “Ship and Win” program.

* The track’s three new betting propositions — the pick five, the head-to-head wager and the $50,000 seeded pick six — got off to nice starts. The pick five is as popular as it was at Hollywood Park, where it debuted, and the head-to-head wager, matching Caracortado against Acclamation in Saturday’s Grade I Eddie Read Stakes, had a pool of $31,413. Del Mar’s marketing director, Craig Dado, told the Daily Racing Form he was hoping for a pool of about $40,000, but still not a bad debut for a wager a lot of fans probably don’t even know about yet or find hard to understand. Caracortado went postward at 1-2 in the new head-to-head wager while Acclamation was 7-5. You won if your selection outfinished the other horse, no matter where they finished in the race. The seeded pick six, which adds an extra $50,000 to the pool on Sundays when there is no carryover, is the reason Wednesday’s pick six carryover is so huge. If there was no seeded pick six money involved, the carryover would be $189,490 instead of the $239,490 bettors will take a crack at on Wednesday.

* Del Mar CEO Joe Harper, like many others in the industry, wants to see the takeout lowered in California. The Thoroughbred Owners of California, the main roadblock to a lowering of the takeout, likes to point out that the takeout on win-place-show wagering in California is among the lowest in the country. True enough, but check the handle figures and you’ll see that the majority of money at a racetrack is bet on the exotics — the pick six, pick five, pick fours, pick threes, daily doubles, etc. Many bettors are looking for that big score that can earn them lots more dollars than a $10 win bet on a 2-1 shot in the sixth race. Reader and longtime horseplayer Andy Asaro came up with a good example between Saratoga and Del Mar this past weekend. On Saturay, Saratoga, which has an 18.5 percent takeout on exactas, handled $5.6 million in exacta pools on an 11-race card. Del Mar on the other hand, which has a 22.68 percent takeout on exactas as part of California’s new bill that went into effect this year, handled a little more than $2 million in the exacta pools on a 10-race card. He also reported the daily double pools were much larger at Saratoga than Del Mar, where again the takeout rates are much lower in New York. Coincidence? I don’t think so.

* Rafael Bejarano is off to a strong start, riding nine winners during the first week to open a 9-5 edge over Garrett Gomez and Joe Talamo in the rider standings. Bejarano lost the Del Mar jockey chase to Joel Rosario in the last race of the meet last summer and it looks like he’s determined to win it all this year. Chantal Sutherland, who’ll become the first woman to ride in the Santa Anita Handicap, Hollywood Gold Cup and Pacific Classic in the same year if Game On Dude makes it to Del Mar’s signature race this summer, has three wins so far.

* There have been 46 claims during the first five days of the meet, including 16 on opening day and 14 on Friday night. Doug O’Neill leads the way with five claims and Mike Mitchell has four. There were six horses claimed out of Friday night’s sixth race alone, and there was a 19-way shake for Veillit’ — a 4-year-old filly who eventually went to trainer Dean Greenman’s barn after finishing sixth as the even-money favorite in Friday’s third race for $8,000 claimers.

Acclamation getting better with age?

Acclamation, who proved he’s not just a Hollywood Park wonder horse by romping to a 3 1/4-length victory in Saturday’s $300,000 Eddie Read Stakes at Del Mar, has matured quite a bit since last year’s ill-fated run in the Eddie Read when he faded to finish sixth.

“We were looking at pictures of him last year before he ran in the United Nations (Handicap) and he looked like a big 2-year-old,” trainer Donald Warren said. “He didn’t look like he was developed at all. He’s really changed and developed into a mature-looking race horse.”

And now the 5-year-old horse’s connections are hoping he has the stuff to win the Breeders’ Cup Turf at Churchill Downs on Nov. 5.

A winner of 7 of 26 lifetime for earnings of $938,048, Acclamation made it three consecutive victories with the Eddie Read score. He won the Grade I Charlie Whittingham Handicap by 3 1/2 lengths on June 11 and the Grade II Jim Murray Handicap by seven lengths on May 14, both at Hollywood Park. He won the same two stakes last year before heading to Monmouth Park for the United Nationals Handicap, a race where he never had the lead and faded to finish last in a nine-horse field.

Acclamation tried to go gate to wire in last summer’s Eddie Read and carved out similar fractions as he did this year. Only this time he drew out in the stretch rather than fading to sixth, beaten 5 1/4 lengths in a race won by The Usual Q.T.

The difference? Either it’s the added maturity or the fact he stayed home this summer. The trip to Monmouth might have taken a little bit too much out of the son of Unusual Heat, who also sired The Usual Q.T.

Warren, who by his count has now won three Grade I races, all by Acclamation, was pleased with the ride by Joel Rosario, who is 2 for 2 aboard the winner.

“He gave him the perfect ride,” Warren said. “He broke a little slow, but he made the lead easy. I like to see him cruising on an easy lead and I always like to see a horse slip away on the last turn like he did. Just done to perfection.”

Said Rosario: “He was very comfortable today. I could see his ears up and going back and forth. He was just having fun out there. This was like when I rode him in that mile and a half (Jim Murrary Handicap) up at Hollywood. He ran the same way that day. So relaxed. He’s a really nice horse.”

Next up for Acclamation?

Most likely the Del Mar Handicap, at 1 3/8 miles on the turf, on Aug. 28. It’s a Breeders’ Cup “Win and You’re In” race, meaning a victory would guarantee Acclamation a berth in the Turf and give his connections an extra $10,000 for travel expenses.

Trainers playing the claiming game at Del Mar

The pace will slow down as the Del Mar meet wears on, but at the current rate, there would be about 360 horses claimed this summer at the seaside oval.

Yeah, it’s an absurd number that will never even be approached, but it’s interesting to note the number of claims through the first four days of this 37-day meet.

Forty — count ‘em, 40!!!! — horses have been claimed so far, including six in the sixth race, a $10,000 claiming event for horses 3-years-old and older, on Friday night.

Mike Mitchell leads the way, having claimed three in the first three races on opening day and four overall. A number of trainers have claimed three horses so far, including Steve Knapp; Paul Aguirre, who took two in one race; Jack Carava; Doug O’Neill; and Adam Kitchingman.

Overall, 16 horses were claimed opening day, five on Thursday, 14 on Friday night and five more Saturday.

There were signs this could happen at the recently concluded Hollywood Park spring-summer meet, where claims were up significantly over 2010.

On Friday, Hollywood Park reported a total of 195 claims during its 54-day meet. The total cost of those purchases was $4,206,500.

Both numbers were up considerably over the 57-day spring-summer meet a year earlier when there were 151 claims for a total cash outlay of $3,120,000.

It was Ladies Day at Del Mar

When Kayla Stra and Chantal Sutherland won races on opening day at Del Mar on Wednesday, it maked the first time in track history that two female jockeys won races on the same day.

Stra won the second aboard King Ledley ($18) for trainer Gus Headley and Sutherland came back four races later to score on Mentidoso ($38.40) for Vann Belvoir.

Sutherland returned Thursday to win aboard Certified Diamond, another Belvoir-trained runner, in the fourth for a $13.80 payoff. The Sutherland-Belvoir combo is two for two at this meet and three for four lifetime.

The victory aboard Mentidoso was the first at Del Mar for Sutherland, who had ridden only three races previously at the seaside oval. Stra, who began riding at Del Mar in 2008, had won previously at the track.

“I know Chantal was happy for Kayla,” said Brian Beach, Sutherland’s agent.

Earlier this week, Sutherland told me all three regular female riders on the Southland circuit, Joy Scott included, pull for each other.

“I think girls always kind of root for each other, especially the three of us,” the Canadian native said. “We get along really well in the room. They’re really nice girls. I’m happy to see that Kayla is starting to pick up more business and she’s doing good, and Joy is just wonderful to have around and I always hope the best for her.”

Through the first two days of the meet, Sutherland was one of only five jockeys to win two or more races. Rafael Bejarano was atop the rider standings with three wins and Joel Rosario, the defending riding champ, was winless in 10 tries.

Certifield Diamond was the first horse to win a race under Del Mar’s new “Ship and Win” program, which makes a horse eligiible for a 20 percent bonus on top of purse money won if its previous race was run out of state.

The 4-year-old Tahoe City gelding ran previously at Emerald Downs in Washington, meaning in addition to the $12,000 winner’s share, owner Walter Thompson received a $2,400 bonus.

Thompson also received an additional $1,000 bonus for starting Certified Diamond in the $8,000 claiming event.

HANA meets with TOC, Stronach Group officials

Jeff Platt, president of the Horseplayers Association of North America, and two other HANA officials met with Thoroughbred Owners of California president Lou Raffetto and executives from The Stronach Group on Thursday morning.

Platt, Barry Meadow and Roger Way of HANA and longtime horseplayer Andy Asaro represented the horseplayers at a meeting that was held to discuss ways the TOC, Santa Anita and Golden Gate Fields can alleviate some of the concerns that have caused many around the nation to boycott California racing after takeout on two-horse exotics was raised 2 percent to 22.68 percent and three-or-more horse exotics were raised 3 percent to 23.68 at the beginning of the year.

“We had what I felt was a very promising meeting this morning,” Platt said.

Greg Avioli, president/CEO of The Stronach Group; Santa Anita president George Haines; Santa Anita marketing director Allen Gutterman; and Golden Gate general manager Robert Hartman represented The Stronach Group.

“By the end of the meeting we came away with several tangibles (suggestions from horseplayers) that if implemented have a good chance of leading to increases in both on-track and off-track business for them,” Platt said.

Platt said Ruffetto and Stronach Group officials are expected to respond to HANA’s proposals in the next few days.

On Wednesday, Del Mar CEO Joe Harper said he was in favor of the takeout being lowered. Asked if any changes could be made between now and the end of the meet on Sept. 7, Harper was non-commital.

“It is possible,” he said. “The probability of it, I don’t know until we have a few more meetings with (horsemen).”

Santa Anita’s average daily all-sources handle was down 9 percent this past year and Hollywood Park, which just completed its 54-day spring-summer meet on Sunday, showed a 2.4 percent decline.

Few track officials are willing to guess how much the players’ boycott has affected the handle in Southern California, but none are willing to completely dismiss the adverse effect it’s had at the betting windows.

“I can’t come close to quantifying it, but it’s had an effect,” said Tom Robbins, Del Mar’s executive vice president for racing. “I think there are people out there that pay close attention to it with the social networking going on, where maybe 10 years ago it would have been difficult.

“Those folks have done a pretty good job at telling the story in terms of what tracks charge in terms of takeout. So I gotta believe it’s had an effect.”

Tidbits from opening day at Del Mar

This and that from opening day of the summer meet at Del Mar:

* Joe Talamo, who’s as enthusiastic on Twitter as he is in person, won the first race of the season, rallying with 4-1 shot Price for trainer Howard Zucker. If you have a twitter account and don’t follow Talamo, you should start.

* Mike Mitchell claimed horses out of the first two races — Times Gone By in the first for $40,000 and Isle of Prado in the second for $25,000.

* It was Kayla Stra and not Chantal Sutherland who became the first female jockey to win a race at the meet. Stra won the second with King Ledley, for trainer Gus Headley, at odds of 8-1.

* The inaugural pick five pool at Del Mar was a whopping $348,428. Very impressive.

* Nice to see Tyler Baze win the third aboard Classy Lion at 6-1. Baze was sidelined most of last summer after an accident behind the starting gate at Del Mar and didn’t return until Hollywood Park’s spring-summer meet.

Excited about Blind Luck-Havre de Grace showdown

I don’t know about you, but I’m eagerly awaiting Saturday’s matchup between 2010 champion filly Blind Luck against her rival, Havre de Grace, in the $750,000 Grade II Delaware Handicap at Delaware Park.

The two talented 4-year-old fillies have squared off five times previously, with Blind Luck getting the best of it three times. Their lone meeting this year came in the Azeri Stakes at Oaklawn Park in March, when Havre de Grace breezed to a 3 1/2-length victory.

Havre de Grace is unbeaten in three starts in 2011 and could become the leader in the Horse of the Year race with a victory in the Delaware Handicap, but it’s going to be tough. Havre de Grace (124 pounds) is spotting Blind Luck (122) weight, and whereas the Azeri Stakes was only 1 1/16 miles, the Delaware race is 1 1/4 miles, which is right up Blind Luck’s alley.

Blind Luck also has the services of the best money rider in the country, Garrett Gomez. Not to say Ramon Dominguez, who’ll be aboard Havre de Grace, is any slouch, but I’ll take Gomez in a big race like this one. It was only last November when he guided Blame to an upset victory over the previously undefeated Zenyatta in the Breeders’ Cup Classic at Churchill Downs.

Havre de Grace, the 4-5 morning-line favorite, and 7-5 second choice Blind Luck figure to put on quite a show Saturday, and I can hardly wait.

Sassy Image closes like a freight train

Think Sassy Image might be a candidate to win the Breeders’ Cup Filly & Mare Sprint on Nov. 4 at Churchill Downs after this impressive victory?

The Broken Vow filly, trained by Dale Romans, was close to 20 lengths out of it at one point, yet came charging home to win the Princess Rooney Handicap on Saturday at Calder Race Course.

Take a look for yourself. Quite an impressive victory by the 4-year-old with Mike Smith aboard. She went postward as the 8-5 favorite: