Avioli is on to something, but is anyone listening?

Maybe Greg Avioli, who is new to this train wreck called California horse racing, needs a lesson in how the industry here is faring these days.

The former president and CEO of the Breeders’ Cup, who is now president/CEO of the Stronach Racing Group, appeared at this week’s California Horse Racing Board meeting at Hollywood Park and said something very interesting.

What Avioli said has a lot of merit, but were any of the powers that be — i.e. CHRB and Thoroughbred Owners of California — listening?

I doubt it.

“We want to work with everyone,” Avioli told the CHRB. “When times get hard, it’s time to put aside your differences.”

Truer words were never spoken, yet trying to get the TOC to give an inch is like trying to pry that chew toy away from your dog.

Ain’t gonna happen, folks.

So while the TOC continues to stand its ground and argue in favor of the increase in takeout that took effect this year, the bettors have to suffer with bad decisions by both the CHRB and TOC.

Small fields, despite the fact the TOC told us the increase in takeout would lead to larger fields and, thus, more handle, continue to plague this industry. We had two five-horse fields and two six-horse fields during Hollywood Park’s Thursday program. Who wants to bet on that?

The TOC at first argued against the popular pick five, claiming it would not fly. Santa Anita wanted to institute it, but management was rebuffed. Finally, Hollywood Park was allowed to offer a pick five that carries an attractive 14 percent takeout, and the fans ate it up.

Maybe we should run a few more ideas by TOC officials, have them shoot them down, then adopt them and watch them flourish and help the sport.

Let’s start with rescinding that terrible idea to raise the takeout at a time when fans were staying away from the game to begin with. It just gave them further reason to turn their backs on the sport.

Sort of like a store with a $35 pair of jeans that’s been sitting on the shelf for two years and raising the price to $44.50.

Makes no sense at all.

Whittingham looks like two-horse race

I can’t see anyone other than Acclamation or Bourbon Bay winning today’s $250,000 Grade I Charles Whittingham Memorial Handicap at Hollywood Park.

Those two have a huge class edge over the other four runners, and Acclamation loves the Hollywood Park lawn. He’s won four of seven at Hollypark and, with little speed in the race, is a huge threat to go gate to wire like he did last year while winning the stake.

Bourbon Bay can lay second or third and pounce in the stretch under Rafael Bejarano. He’s winless in four tries over the Hollypark turf course, but he’s class personified and trained by Hall of Famer Neil Drysdale.

The $70,000-added Cinderella Stakes is wide open, but give the first-time starter Chloe W a close look. The Eric Kruljac barn is sharp, and Patrick Valenzuela in the saddle doesn’t hurt the 2-year-old filly’s chances.

I like one of two Bob Baffert-trained runners, Coil or Awesome Patriot, to win the $100,000 Affirmed Handicap later in the card, and Star Billing looks tough in the $150,000 Honeymoon Handicap on the lawn.

Star Billing, by Dynaformer, has excellent turf breeding and is two for two lifetime. She comes into the race off a 2 3/4-length victory in the Grade III Senorita at Hollypark on May 7 and can come right back and make it three straight.

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Hollypark pick six returns more than $500,000

Despite two boxcar winners, there will be no three-day carryover at Hollywood Park.

The winning pick six returned $518,564.80 to two winning tickets on a day when there was a $312,00-plus carryover and 37-1 and 23-1 long shots won the fourth and sixth races, respectively.

There were six horses in the final race that would have caused a massive Sunday carryover if they’d won, but the closest was Deliah Jones, who finished fifth at 15-1.

The total pool for Saturday’s pick six was $1.6 million.

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Boxcar superfectas at Hollywood Park

If you play superfectas when you bet the races, you’ll be interested in this — the super at Hollywood Park in Saturday’s fourth race paid more than $144,000 for a buck. Nobody had it for a dollar, but seven tickets had the 10-cent super that was worth $14,448.15 when the Paul Aguirre-trained Siempre Esperanza won at first asking at 37-1 and 27-1 shot Rags for Ben came home second.

Our Lady Gaga, at 6-1, was third and 115-1 long shot Girls Lacrosse came home fourth to complete the historic superfecta. It was the second-highest $1 wager in the history of the track, even though no one had the winning $1 dollar ticket.

Two races later, Brice Blanc, who rode Girls Lacrosse in the fourth, booted home 23-1 outsider Bench Glory for trainer Sean McCarthy in her career debut to help key a $30,000-plus superfecta. The 10-cent super returned $3,074.08 when a parade of long shots — Amelia Rose (20-1), Little Red Dress (40-1) and My Brite Caroline (10-1) — finished second through fourth.

The long shots through the first three legs of the pick six ensured there will more than likely be a three-day carryover. Threre was a carryover of $312,000-plus for Saturday’s pick six pool and Sunday’s figures to be massive.

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Best 3-year-old that didn’t win the Triple Crown?

Since Affirmed became the 11th and most recent 3-year-old to win the Triple Crown in 1978, there have been three exceptional sophomores who won two-thirds of the crown but couldn’t grab all three.

To me, Spectacular Bid in 1979, Alysheba in 1987 and Point Given in 2001 stand out as the best 3-year-olds that didn’t sweep the Kentucky Derby, Preakness and Belmont Stakes. Sunday Silence, in my opinion, is probably No. 4 on the list.

Spectacular Bid was a colt who showed his brilliance whether running short or long. He won the seven-furlong Malibu Stakes in then-record time at Santa Anita in 1979 and also still holds the track record for 1 1/4 miles, running a 1:57 4/5 while winning the 1980 Strub Stakes.

Spectacular Bid lost once more in his career after the Belmont, falling short to 1978 Triple Crown winner Affirmed in the Jockey Club Gold Cup at Belmont Park.

He won all nine of his starts as a 4-year-old, setting track records at distances of seven furlongs, one mile, 1 1/4 miles and twice at 1 1/8 miles, and was named the 1980 Horse of the Year.

Alysheba, who had only a maiden victory to his credit when he won the Derby, went on to enjoy a brilliant 4-year-old season, winning the Strub Stakes and Santa Anita Handicap at Santa Anita and then clinching 1988 Horse of the Year honors with victories in the Meadowlands Cup, Woodward Stakes and Breeders’ Cup Classic.

Point Given never had the chance to show if he could turn in as brilliant a 4-year-old season as Spectacular Bid and Alysheba, but he was mighty good as a 3-year-old. After finishing fifth in the Derby, he came back to win the Preakness, Belmont, Haskell Invitational and Travers Stakes en route to 2001 Horse of the Year laurels before an injury ended his career.

He ran the fourth fastest Belmont ever, quicker than even Triple Crown winners Seattle Slew and Affirmed, and he’s the only horse in history to win four $1 million races consecutively. He also became the first horse since 1967 to win the Preakness, Belmont and Travers, joining an elite group that includes Man o’ War (1920), Whirlaway (1941), Native Dancer (1953) and Damascus (1967).

There have been other outstanding 3-year-olds that won two-thirds of the Triple Crown since 1979, including Pleasant Colony (1981), Swale (1984), Risen Star (1988), Sunday Silence (1989), Hansel (1991), Tabasco Cat (1994), Thunder Gulch (1995), Silver Charm (1997), Real Quiet (1998), Charismatic (1999), War Emblem (2002), Funny Cide (2003), Smarty Jones (2004), Afleet Alex (2005) and Big Brown (2008).

Of course, we’ll never know how Barbaro would have fared in 2006 if he hadn’t broken down in the Preakness after a scintillating victory in the Derby. Would he have beaten Bernardini at Pimlico and gone on to become the 12th Triple Crown winner?

Here are replays of the two Triple Crown races that Spectacular Bid and Point Given couldn’t win, the 1979 Belmont and the 2001 Kentucky Derby. I couldn’t find video of the 1987 Belmont Stakes:

Tell us what you think:

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Hollywood Park to honor Michael Baze

Hollywood Park announced Wednesday that it will hold a memorial for jockey Michael Baze immediately following the races June 2.

All those who wish to honor Baze, who was found dead in his vehicle in the Churchill Downs barn area on May 10, are invited to attend the service, which will be held in the Sunset Room.

Baze, who was 24, was the leading rider during Hollywood Park’s 2007 spring-summer meet, the youngest jockey to accomplish the feat since Bill Shoemaker won the title at 19 in 1950.

He was also leading rider at Arlington Park last summer and finished fourth at this year’s Oaklawn Park meet, which concluded April 16.

Preliminary autopsy results found no anatomical cause of death, according to a Jefferson County deputy coroner. He also said toxicology reports would take three weeks.

Kudos to Zayat for keeping Nehro in the barn

It had to be very tempting for owner Ahmed Zayat to enter his talented 3-year-old colt, Nehro, in Saturday’s Preakness Stakes.

After all, he’d closed like a freight train to finish second in the Arkansas Derby behind Archarcharch on April 16 and then followed that effort with a runner-up showing in the Kentucky Derby on May 7.

Zayat has been saying the past few days that the colt looked great and was sending out signals that he was ready to go in the Preakness, but Zayat himself was hesitant. He said he had mixed emotions about running.

Well, on Tuesday morning he made his decision. He said Nehro will not be entered in the Preakness today, and it says here that he’s absolutely making the right decision. By skipping the second leg of the Triple Crown, the colt’s connections figure to reap the rewards further down the line, i.e. Belmont, Travers and perhaps the Breeders’ Cup Classic.

When an owner and/or trainer is conflicted over what to do, it’s best to go with the gut feeling and wait for another opportunity. It was obvious Zayat had reservations about running Nehro and decided to listen to his head and not his heart.

“It’s a very hard decision, but I want to err on the side of caution,” Zayat told the Daily Racing Form. “He couldn’t look any better. His work on Monday was absolutely awesome. I’m just concerned about him having four hard races in eight weeks, even if, outwardly, he doesn’t appear to be showing it.

“I want to be super cautious. I want to keep him happy and healthy for the rest of the year. We are in a great position to have a horse who can run in these classics. We will point now for the Belmont, God willing.”

Nehro’s defection means five Derby starters, including Animal Kingdom, Mucho Macho Man, Shackleford, Dialed In and Midnight Interlude, will likely run in the 1 3/16-mile Preakness.

Only three times in the past 28 runnings of the Preakness has a non-Derby starter won the race, including Rachel Alexandra in 2009, Bernardini in ’06 and Red Bullet in 2000. Before that, you have to go back to Deputed Testamony in 1983 to find a Preakness winner who didn’t run in the Derby.

Will a new shooter win Saturday’s Preakness?

So you think you like Astrology in Saturday’s Preakness Stakes? How about Concealed Identity or Flashpoint?

Well, before you start picking any of the non-Derby starters to win the 1 3/16-mile race, you might want to consider this tidbit of info — according to statistics provided by the Daily Racing Form, only three horses in the past 25 years that didn’t run in the Derby have shown up at Pimlico Race Course and won the second leg of horse racing’s Triple Crown.

That’s not a very good percentage, although two of the past five Preakness winners — Rachel Alexandra in 2009 and Bernardini in ’06 — didn’t run in the Derby.

Here’s the complete list of non-Derby starters since 1919 who won the Preakness Stakes:

2009 Rachel Alexandra
2006 Bernardini
2000 Red Bullet
1983 Deputed Testamony
1982 Aloma’s Ruler
1980 Codex
1972 Bee Bee Bee
1962 Greek Money
1951 Bold
1945 Polynesian
1942 Alsab
1934 High Quest
1929 Dr. Freeland
1928 Victorian
1925 Coventry
1924 Nellie Morse
1922 Pillory
1921 Broomspun
1920 Man o’ War

As of this morning, 10 of the 16 horses listed as possible for the Preakness did not run in the Derby, including the intriguing Mr. Commons, a colt trained by John Shirreffs who finished third in the Santa Anita Derby on April 9.

Astrology is another colt who deserves a look, seeing as though he was on most experts’ Derby rankings early in the year and will go off at a healthy price in the Preakness. The fact that Steve Asmussen is his trainer only adds to his resume.

Also, Concealed Identity is an interesting long shot after he won the Tesio Stakes at Pimlico on Derby Day. We know he likes the track and he won from off the pace, which may be an advantage in Saturday’s race.

Take a look at Astrology’s effort in the Jerome Handicap on April 23 at Aqueduct over a sloppy track. It was only his second race of the year and he might be sitting on a huge effort:

Or how about Mr. Commons’ effort in the Santa Anita Derby behind Midnight Interlude and Comma to the Top? He’s a lightly-raced colt who was rallying nicely along the rail in the Arcadia race and may be rounding into form:

So tell us what you think:

Kentucky Derby picture cloudier by the day

How fitting that the final two major preps for the 137th Kentucky Derby, last Saturday’s Blue Grass Stakes and the Arkansas Derby, were won by 19-1 and 25-1 long shots, respectively.

That’s the way it’s been this year so far with this crop of 3-year-olds, none of whom can establish any sort of consistency that would warrant Derby favoritism.

So who will be the favorite when the Derby gates open May 7? Your guess is as good as mine, although I assume Florida Derby winner Dialed In will get more than his share of support:

My latest Derby rankings:

1. Dialed In — Come-from-behind style may be suited for Churchill Downs’ long stretch
2. Nehro — Loved his runner-up effort in the Arkansas Derby; may be the real deal
3. Uncle Mo — Could still go postward as Derby favorite if he makes the race
4. Midnight Interlude — Figures to be in perfect tracking position
5. Jaycito — Don’t like the fact he might race with only one Derby prep
6. Toby’s Corner — Wood winner could be this good in wide-open year
7. Pants On Fire — How much did Jump Start colt beat in Louisiana Derby?
8. Archarcharch — Will he like Churchill as much as he enjoys Oaklawn Park?
9. Stay Thirsty — As others fall, this guy finds himself back in our rankings
10. The Factor — Proved in Arkansas Derby he can’t rate

Santa Anita closes books on 2010-11 meet

Santa Anita wrapped up its 74th season Sunday, but it didn’t come with a nice little bow on top. Yes, the 18,018 who showed up on track on closing day was a nice send-off, but the handle figures and the inconsistent new main dirt track cast a dark cloud over the meeting as a whole.

Track officials reported average daily on-track handle was down 3 percent and average daily all-sources handle was down 9 percent.

But when you look at the numbers overall, this is what you get, remembering that this year’s meeting was eight days shorter than in 2009-10:

Win/Place/Show wagering — down $36.3 million, or 19.2 percent
Exotic wagering — down $86.6 million, or 21.6 percent
Total wagering — down $122.9 million, or 20.8 percent
Wagering per race — down $108,000, or 12.4 percent
Wagering per day — down $891,000, or 11.8 percent

Field size this year was down from 7.81 horses per race to 7.63. So much for the bigger fields that the increased takeout in exotics were supposed to bring.

The horseplayers’ boycott did nothing to help Santa Anita’s business this year, and to management’s credit they plan to meet with the bettors in the near future to discuss ways to improve the product.

Also, the terrrible weather back east in December and early January plainly took its toll in terms of Santa Anita’s out-of-state business, as did closure of the New York Off-Track Betting hubs.

There were 19 fatalities over the dirt track — 12 during racing, including one horse that fell over a downed horse that had clipped heels, and seven in the morning, including one horse dying after a collision with another horse and one sudden death.

Dr. Rick Arthur, equine medical director of the California Horse Racing Board, attributes much of the inconsistency to the fact the track was not given enough time to settle. He believes it will perform better for Santa Anita’s autumn meet beginning Sept. 28.

On a brighter note, the Bob Baffert-trained Game on Dude was voted Horse of the Meet in Santa Anita’s annual media poll for his victory in the $750,000 Santa Anita Handicap. Game on Dude was ridden by Chantal Sutherland, who became the first female jockey to win the Big ‘Cap.

Baffert won his record ninth training title and became the first trainer since Jimmy Jones in 1953 to win the Santa Anita Handicap and Santa Anita Derby (Midnight Interlude) in the same year.

Joel Rosario unseated Rafael Bejarano and won his first Santa Anita riding title. It was his sixth in Southern California.

Results of the 2010/11 Santa Anita media poll:

Horse of the Meet: Game on Dude
Older Horse: Game on Dude
Older filly/mare: Always a Princess
Grass horse: Fluke
Grass filly/mare: Cambina
3-year-old: Midnight Interlude
3-year-old filly: Cambina
Sprinter: Amazombie
Claimer: Separate Forest
Trainer: Bob Baffert
Jockey: Joel Rosario
Apprentice: None
Race: San Luis Obispo Handicap
Owner: Arnold Zetcher
Achievement: Baffert’s Big Cap/Derby double