The Brock Talk

Friday, July 2, 2010

Show Me The Reason

A few days ago, NBA agent Lon Babby was on the ESPN Radio’s Mike and Mike in the Morning talking about the much anticipated NBA free agency season that began at midnight Thursday. With the iconic Cleveland Cavalier LeBron James and superstars Dwayne Wade of Miami and Chris Boss of Toronto all becoming free agents this year, it is the biggest and potentially most impactful free agency season in NBA history. Certainly the biggest free agency class since future Hall of Famers Grant Hill and Tim Duncan hit the market together ten years ago. Babby, who represented both Duncan and Hill, told how as an agent he provides a list of criteria to each client before the free agency process begins. On that list are things like Championships, compensation, coaching, style of play, city livability, taxes, teammates, etc. There are 13 items on the list and the free agent is asked to rank them in order of importance. Without disclosing any names, Babby went on to say that nearly every free agent he has ever represented ranked compensation as their highest priority. He clarified that money does not trump every other item on the list, but if all other things are equal, money is invariably the most important to the players.

I’ve followed sports long enough to remember when Curt Flood of the St. Louis baseball Cardinals challenged a trade after the 1969 season, taking his case all the way to the United States Supreme Court, and pioneering free agency. And I’d be willing to bet that from the days when Flood roamed center field in St. Louis to James’, Wade and Boss today, money has been the driving force in most free agency decisions. For Flood it was a $100,000 contract in 1969. It was a very big number for a baseball player at that time. Today it is James, Wade and Boss each hoping for the NBA maximum contract of $96 million over four or five years.


I bring up free agency in light of the curious move recently by Jess Jackson (photo right), principal owner of Rachel Alexandra, who decided to run his 2009 Horse of the Year in the ungraded $400,000 Lady’s Secret Stakes at Monmouth Park July 24 instead of the grade 1 $250,000 Ruffian Handicap at the same distance at Saratoga the following week.

While all thoroughbreds and their handlers are technically free agents and have the right to command a certain level of purse money to perform, for most, that level is limited to the tracks at which one is given a stall and further within the confines of that track’s condition and stakes books.

But for a select few throughout history, stakes schedules and prize money has been significantly adjusted by race tracks to attract those stars. Going back to 1920 when Kenilworth Park put up $75,000 for a match race between the great Man o’ War and Triple Crown winner Sir Barton, tracks have used money and specified race conditions to feature the star thoroughbreds and promote horse racing at their venues. Certainly Rachel Alexandra and the undefeated Zenyatta fall into that category today.

Earlier this year Oaklawn Park president Charles Cella offered to boost the purse of the grade 1 Apple Blossom ten-fold to $5 million if both Rachel Alexandra and Zenyatta started. Jackson declined after Rachel Alexandra unexpectedly lost in the New Orleans Ladies Stakes preparing for the Apple Blossom. The purse of the Apple Blossom reverted back to the original $500,000 but Zenyatta and her connections still showed up in Arkansas to win her 16th consecutive race.

Instead Rachel Alexandra made her next start in the $200,000 La Troienne (gr. 2) at Churchill in early May and was upset. She finally won her first race of 2010 in her third start in the $200,000 Fleur dis Lis (gr. 2) at Churchill June 12. The next day Zenyatta made history winning her 17th race in as many starts in the $250,000, grade 1 Vanity Handicap. No purse levels were adjusted in the La Troienne, Fleur dis Lis nor Vanity but now Jackson is back in free agent mode, apparently taking Rachel Alexandra to the highest bidder – and taking the criticism for it from bloggers, the media and in particular the New York Racing Association, which operates Saratoga where the Ruffian will be run. NYRA president Charles Hayward said in a prepared statement that they “are puzzled and disappointed that Rachel Alexandra, who performed so well at Saratoga last year, is passing up the Grade 1 Ruffian to run in a non-graded race at Monmouth over the same distance."

The solution to Hayward’s puzzle of course is money – something the NYRA does not have much of after needing financial assistance from New York State to stay in business past the Belmont in early June this year. But NYRA’s financial problems are an entirely different story.

I can’t blame Jackson and his partner Harold McCormick for taking the extra money offered by Monmouth Park management. After all, Rachel Alexandra did win the $1 million Haskell Invitational over colts last year at Monmouth Park so we know she likes the Jersey Shore. It is also easy to imagine why Jackson and his ownership team, family and friends may want to return to Monmouth Park – the track and community have wonderful reputations. But you can’t tell me the crowd at Monmouth cheers any louder than the Saratoga folks last year when Rachel Alexandra won the Woodward.

I also don’t understand why Jackson exposes Rachel Alexandra to the potential criticism of skipping a grade 1 race – something she doesn’t need nor deserve. In the Zenyatta v. Rachel debate, (however tiring and ugly it can become at times) the Zenyatta supporters can now say Rachel dodged Zenyatta in the $5 million classic because the owner didn’t like the artificial surface. The Zenyatta supporters can now say Rachel dodged them again in the $5 million Apple Blossom. And now – never mind the competition in Zenyatta’s grade 1 wins in California, at least she shows up. Rachel’s critics now have her dodging grade 1 competition in their arsenal.

And I’m not sure the winner’s share of the extra $150,000 in the Lady’s Secret compared to the Ruffian is enough for a man like Jackson. I would take the barbs for $90,000 as I’m sure many would. But Jess Jackson can spend $90,000 at a concession stand if he sees a hot dog that he thinks is worth it. Jackson could probably lose $90,000 miscalculating a few tips.

Jackson has every right to take his filly anywhere he wants and run her anytime. And we as race fans are lucky she is even running this year at all. Most owners would have retired the Horse of the Year to the breeding shed. So don’t mistake me for looking a gift Rachel in the mouth.

As Lon Babby said, all things being equal between two teams, money comes into play making a free agent decision. But all things are not equal between the grade 1 Ruffian the Lady’s Secret. So we can only deduce that money is trumping every other factor for Jackson – at least in this instance.

I just don’t know why.

Editor's Note:
The subject of this post was suggested by the Thoroughbred Bloggers
Alliance, and other posts like it will be found at the TBA homepage
throughout the day. Click here to visit the TBA Homepage.

16 comments:

ReneC said...

It seems pretty obvious that Jackson and Assmussen don't think RA is up to grade I competition anymore. She hasn't started in one since last year in New York.

The_Knight_Sky said...

Show Me The Reason

I've expounded on this many times over but getting to the nitty gritty..


The owners already have money.
Rachel will never see a dime of it.

Monmouth Park needs a supporting cast the way Curt Flood needed his teammates.

Upping the purse money makes The Lady's Secret stakes a credible race for a superstar to perform in. At the same time it entices rivals to run "at least" for second or third money.

Brock Sheridan said...

Knight,
I certainly am not criticizing Monmouth Park. In fact, I salute them for bringing a mare like Rachel back to Jersey for a non-graded race.

PEM said...

Don't think black type is an issue with RA anymore-plus I like the fact that an owner like Jackson runs his horse where lots of fans can see her--so many more than the same old 15,000 that show up to see the "big mare" in her semi-annual appearances in Socal.

And as dissapointed as NYRA may be--seems to me the Saratoga schedule does run through Labor Day just as it does every year-so I don't think showing up at the Spa is by any means impossible. I mean the Monmouth/Saratoga thing worked out pretty good in 2009 for her did it not??

As far as "not up to Gr 1 competition"? Assinine--like the minions of mid level fillies Zenyatta has beaten of late. Is there even any Grade 1 talent out there?

Best,
PEM

John said...

I'm sorry this is so long, but I want to take a guess at what the big picture might be, and have included Zenyatta in this discussion.

The end justifies the means. The goal for Rachel is the Breeders' Cup Classic. Despite everything she did last year, and despite, IMO, being worthy of HOY, the connections caught flak for not showing up to Santa Anita. I would think that Jackson, knowing Zenyatta is also pointed toward that race, would like nothing better than to defeat her and shut a lot of people up. As difficult as that may be to do, it's actually going to be a lot harder, not just for Rachel but Zenyatta as well. While I don't think the connections of either Rachel or Zenyatta are necessarily intimidated by Quality Road, Blame, and possibly Rail Trip, I do think they realize how formidible they will be.

Rachel, IMO, shouldn't have to do what she did last year, yet if she gets to the "promised land" (Breeders' Cup Classic), her end will be more grandiose than her Woodward win and insure her of another HOY title. I'm inclined to think she won't face males, nor Zenyatta, until the BC Classic. I'm also inclinded to believe her next race after the Lady's Secret will be the grade 1 Personal Ensign at Saratoga, giving her a chance to try unchartered waters (10 furlongs) and also perform in front of those fans who won't get to see her sooner. If Rachel wins the PE, all systems are go for one more start prior to the Classic (probably not another 10 furlong affair, which would leave the Jockey Club Gold Cup out), staying with the gals, then hopefully on to the big one in November. If Rachel indicates she doesn't want 1 1/4 miles, then Jackson has to decide whether or not to keep her pointed for the Classic or opt for the Ladies' Classic, knowing her chance to cop a second HOY is virtually out the window, unless someone other than one of the favorites wins the BC Classic.

If Zenyatta's schedule is also conservative, albeit in graded stakes, the end still justifies the means. I think her connections may have felt a bit "robbed" that their mare didn't land the biggest Eclipse last year and also would like nothing more than to meet Rachel in the Classic, beat her, and finally come home with the award which has eluded her; and remember there are those who felt she should have won it over Curlin in 2008. And who owns Curlin? But again, it isn't just Rachel whom Zenyatta has to worry about. No matter how you slice it, both of them still have Quality Road, Blame, et al to contend with. So why use up either horse now, when they're going to have to pull out all the stops in November? And both might still lose.

But if one of them does win, think what a BC Classic means. With Rachel, it undoubtedly means four consecutive HOYs for the same owner. For Zenyatta it means finally getting the recognition many feel she's long overdue for, and a glorious way to end what would probably be an undefeated career.

It's going to be quite a show, that's for sure.

Brock Sheridan said...

PEM, you bring up a number of very good points. In particular, I like: 1.) the take Rachel to Monmouth for a big crowd.
2.) Monmouth-Saratoga angle.

I respectfully disagree with your criticisms of Zenyatta however.

1.) I don't consider St. Trinians a mid-level filly
2.) When a horse reaches this number of consecutive victories, the "level of competition" argument diminishes.

Remember Dare and Go ended Cigar's streak and other less memorable names defeated the some of the greatest of all time.

PEM said...

Brock-St Trinians may be the second best filly/mare on the grounds at Hollywood-but so what-Zenyatta winds up beating one honest horse--and an otherwise rather mediocre bunch--you'd have a hard time selling me on her.

Bottom line--no one can dispute 17 in a row--I don't care what surface it is-but I still find zero legitimacy in poly/tapeta/proride/flubber AS A RACING SURFACE. Period. So is that mare a one trick pony that freaks on ceiling insulation, telephone wire strippings and ground up Firestones? Who knows--and the sad part-we probably never will know.

And please don't try and sell me on the "Won twice at Oaklawn" argument---I was at the Rachel Woodward and it was probably the weakest Woodward field in decades so I won't try and polish that win any brighter than it was--but those two win at Little Rock were against nobodies (yes I know who crapped out).

I guess what chaps my heiney most of all about Zenyatta is the absolute refusal to race east of the Missisippi. Sure Oaklawn is a fine winter meet-but I think it would be fair to say there's a whole lot more talent sitting around in New Orleans and Miami that time of year. A constant snub to the east coast. Hey-she only runs about as frequenly as Sugar Ray Leonard boxed--sure she has a gaudy record--but the wins sure are spaced far apart.

Yeah Cigar did finally cave in and lose. Of course those 17 races (16 wins) were run in NY (all 3 NYRA tracks), Miami, Arkansas, Boston, California, Baltimore, Chicago and of course that short little trip to Dubai.

He managed all his 16 wins of the streak inside of two years-that's a start every 6 weeks more or less. Zenyatta? More like 4 years.

Cigar ran in his career--well he ran all over--Nocal-Socal-NYRA Circuit-Chicago-Boston, Baltimore to Miami, Canada and Dubai.

Zenyatta-Socal and a couple of trips to Arkansas.

Hey if you think those two accomplishments are comparable-feel free.

But I ain't buying!

Best,
PEM

Brock Sheridan said...

PEM, again a much appreciated spirit of debate.

Re: St. Trinians - Pretty subjective either way. Agree to disagree.

Re: Artificial Surfaces – I was a public relations exec. In the DeBartolo Corp. when Remington installed Equitrack in 1988. Believe me. I have heard every pro and con regarding artificial surfaces for 22 years now. My opinion is that if it has any chance of increasing equine/jockey safety, I’m for it. I concede we do not yet definitely know that conclusion. In the meantime, I enjoy the handicapping advantages and challenges plastic creates.

Re: “Won twice at Oaklawn” argument – Forgive me. I know you politely asked me not to sell you… but. In the 2008 Apple Blossom, she defeated Breeders’ Cup Distaff winner Ginger Punch. And Rachel’s Woodward was one for the ages. Not the greatest cast of foes granted, but they (some pretty solid older horse) threw everything they had at her (3yo filly) and she repeatedly responded. A classic performance by my standards. 3-year-old fillies typically don’t want to be on the same planet as stud horses, much less beat them down in succession like some bad Bruce Lee movie.

Re: Absolute refusal to race east of the Mississippi. – Last year, why prep on dirt for a Breeders’ Cup on synthetic? This year, I’d like to see her go to New York and I appreciate the “heiney chapability” thereof. But I’ll be satisfied with the answer she gives us in the Breeders’ Cup at Churchill.

Re: Cigar comparison – dangerous as it was, I wasn’t trying to compare horse-for-horse (Cigar-v.-Zenyatta). My point was that as great as Cigar was, he was tripped up by circumstance and challenge. Granted, Zenyatta has not risen to the challenge of traveling across the country (world) like Cigar, but she has overcome a number of adverse circumstances in terms of pace, weight, etc., throughout her streak.

In conclusion, we disagree on a number of different points. A perfect note for celebration on the Fourth of July.

PEM said...

Brock--yeah I always have to deal with the "she beat Ginger Punch" argument but in all fairness Frankel (who was pretty damn good coming off the bench) probably waited a little two long between races that time. Onion beat Secretariat-is Onion the better animal?

Ultimately though- the thing that truly bothers me about Zenyatta fans is the fact they place this horse's accomplishments with names like Citation-Secretariat-Cigar-and my favorite Spectacular Bid. I just would like to know from what point of reference is used to come up with their opinion. Maybe they listened to Jim Rome and became fans? To me the biggest "class" barometer of a race horse was Grade 1 wins on 3 or more different tracks. I guess Zenyatta qualifies-or does she?

Nah.......it's like asking if a recently retired baseball player is worthy of enshrinement in Cooperstown--if you have to think about it-if you don't just shout out "yes!" then the answer is no.

Interesting you worked w/ DeBartolo group out there --did you know Dave Vance-the Okie-not the trainer? Good guy!

Anyway like the page putting it up on my favorites. Nice to see someone reading a counter point without getting insulted or violent! Your years as a P.R. man have served you well.....

Now don't get me started on poly-personal bad experiences on it-and summer heat in California seem to bring out the very worst--nothing beats WELL MAINTAINED dirt but we can save that for another time.



Best,
PEM

John said...

Of Man o'War's 21 starts, 18 were in New York, the other three being Pimlico, Havre de Grace, both in Maryland, and Kenilworth Park in Canada, which was the farthest he traveled. Granted, transportation in his time may have been more limited, and with the majority of major racing in the East. I'm not really sure. I'd have to compare his schedule with other horses in his day.

A more recent example which perhaps is more akin to Zenyatta was Personal Ensign. Undefeated in 13 starts, the great filly won 10 of her races at Belmont Park, another at Saratoga, and the other two at Monmouth and Churchill Downs.

I must confess that I also have questioned Zenyatta's record given she has stayed mostly at home; however, I can't in all fairness call Personal Ensign great, without giving Zenyatta the same recognition. I do think it would be nice if she would ship more so that more of her fans around the country could see her up close and personal. I believe Zenyatta could win on any track, anywhere in the country.

One thing I haven't done is put her in the same class as Citation, Secretariat, et al. I do think horse racing fans tend to look at things in terms of "what have you done for me lately?" Human nature, I guess. We are inclined to be quick in labeling our athletes not just "great" but sometimes as possibly "greatest." I think these kinds of judgements are better left for historians, and a horse's place in history usually is best decided years later when more objectivity and less emotion is present.

trracki said...

The answer to me is that Rachel is going to take the path of least resistance. This path will only be changed by how much her owner gets out of it. My opinion of her owner is that he only races her for his benefit and is not at all interested in the good of the sport or its fans. He gave us all the middle finger when he passed on the BC, regardless of Distaff or Classic.

First off $400K is a lot better than a $250K purse. Secondly an ungraded event means lesser competition. If RA goes and wins by 5 against allowance horses she will look like a "super star again". If she runs against G1 competition and only wins by a nose well "she's still not what she was".

RA can do no wrong so one might as well put her were she's least likely to screw up. Queen Z can do no right so she has to race hard to earn the respect she deserves. Hopefully Queen Z will get HOTY for 2010 but I have a feeling that if RA wins one race this year or Super Saver can win one more then they will get HOTY. I don't know what people have against Queen Z. I'd wish they'd forget what state she is in and vote for how much she's accomplished. Three G1s this year and I hope she goes to the BC Classic and wins a second time in a row. Still, somehow, I feel that won't be enough.

Does anyone else think that?

Brock Sheridan said...

PEM,
I've know David Vance since my days in college at Arizona and he was at Latonia promoting the Jim Beam and coming to the Symposium on Racing in Tucson. I was lucky enough to work with him at LaD and still correspond with occasionally.

I truly think there are few horses that can lay claim to being among the greatest. That list is the fodder of much debate and like you, I think a certain amount of time must pass before consideration.

But perhaps my favorite cocktail party question of all-time is "Who are the 3 greatest TBs of all-time. in your opinion?"

Trracki, if Zenyatta stays undefeated and wins her second BC Classic, no way she loses HOTY this year. No matter who does what.

PEM said...

Top 3?

Spectacular Bid #1
Secretariat #2

...and #3 ----hmmm---that's a moving target. Invasor? Not enough races. Ghostzapper? Ditto. Curlin? Same reason.

Maybe Skip Away or Cigar. Both are worthy. Don't know if I can ever land on a solid #3.

RE-David Vance--lucky enough to share a limo ride with him and his beautiful new bride to a Christmas party at Mr. D's house a couple of years back. I'll tell you Brock quite a learning experience for me--having been fan-then owner--but to see racing from business perspective--if you happen to touch base with him tell him Gino from St Pete sends his best--David is really a good guy....

Trracki-I don't see how an exhausted Rachel Alexander does anyone any good running on that fake surface the owner stated from day 1, day 1 mind you-he would not run on. Would not risk his fine horse on. Period. As they lead that filly off the track on Woodward day I told my buddy "look at how tired she is--she won't be running until next year" and it proved prophetic. Not calling myself a psychic--had anybody laid eyes on her I think the conclusion was obvious. Then again--why wouldn't see be worn out-after her monster 3yo campaign where she raced all over the country WHERE FANS COULD SEE HER rather than the same old crowds in the weak, short fields of Southern California. 8 races in 8 months--clipping off FIVE Gr 1's in a row. Zenyatta in the same period? 4 races facing weak, inferior California medium stakes/allowance horses. It's just inferior racing-period. Did I say inferior? Yeah--those typical fields of 6--with a scratch or two---not exactly murderer's row--I mean 8 lousy races a day--the pool's just not all that deep--it will be weak again come Thursday--oh wait a minute--no it won't racing CANCELLED---ONCE AGAIN! Is there a hurricane coming? Is the earthquake detector finally working? Is the faulty surface being re-worked yet again? Nah--not enough horses--again!

So once again--as most of America sees the Moss way of playing home games and facing inferior talent-vs. Jackson's method of taking on all comers at all venues--maybe you can come to grips with the reason most people in this country won't give zenyatta the credit you Socal fans think she deserves...

Maybe if she faces real talent on a real surface-on a big time circuit--she will gain her due. But running in her own back yard vs. second class talent--won't earn her anything!

Best,
PEM

PEM said...

Top 3?

Spectacular Bid #1
Secretariat #2

...and #3 ----hmmm---that's a moving target. Invasor? Not enough races. Ghostzapper? Ditto. Curlin? Same reason.

Maybe Skip Away or Cigar. Both are worthy. Don't know if I can ever land on a solid #3.

RE-David Vance--lucky enough to share a limo ride with him and his beautiful new bride to a Christmas party at Mr. D's house a couple of years back. I'll tell you Brock quite a learning experience for me--having been fan-then owner--but to see racing from business perspective--if you happen to touch base with him tell him Gino from St Pete sends his best--David is really a good guy....

Trracki-I don't see how an exhausted Rachel Alexander does anyone any good running on that fake surface the owner stated from day 1, day 1 mind you-he would not run on. Would not risk his fine horse on. Period. As they lead that filly off the track on Woodward day I told my buddy "look at how tired she is--she won't be running until next year" and it proved prophetic. Not calling myself a psychic--had anybody laid eyes on her I think the conclusion was obvious. Then again--why wouldn't see be worn out-after her monster 3yo campaign where she raced all over the country WHERE FANS COULD SEE HER rather than the same old crowds in the weak, short fields of Southern California. 8 races in 8 months--clipping off FIVE Gr 1's in a row. Zenyatta in the same period? 4 races facing weak, inferior California medium stakes/allowance horses. It's just inferior racing-period. Did I say inferior? Yeah--those typical fields of 6--with a scratch or two---not exactly murderer's row--I mean 8 lousy races a day--the pool's just not all that deep--it will be weak again come Thursday--oh wait a minute--no it won't racing CANCELLED---ONCE AGAIN! Is there a hurricane coming? Is the earthquake detector finally working? Is the faulty surface being re-worked yet again? Nah--not enough horses--again!

So once again--as most of America sees the Moss way of playing home games and facing inferior talent-vs. Jackson's method of taking on all comers at all venues--maybe you can come to grips with the reason most people in this country won't give zenyatta the credit you Socal fans think she deserves...

Maybe if she faces real talent on a real surface-on a big time circuit--she will gain her due. But running in her own back yard vs. second class talent--won't earn her anything!

Best,
PEM

The_Knight_Sky said...

Mr. Sheridan wrote:

In the 2008 Apple Blossom, she defeated Breeders’ Cup Distaff winner Ginger Punch.

__________________

True.
But Zenyatta beat runner up Brownie Points first.

Third place finisher Ginger Punch did not bring her A race. Perhaps she was ridden too close to the pace (not her customary style) but more likely she suffered from The Bounce after a hard race in her debut at Gulfstream Park. But probably both factors played right into the hands of a Zenyatta victory.

A top level effort from Ginger Punch would have been able to put away at Grade 3 filly in Brownie Points. She did not.

Even D'Tara can win a race if Big Brown was running on Aches and Pains. That doesn't automatically make D'Tara or the other horses who finished ahead of Big Brown, top notch rivals.

Anonymous said...

I would like to exchange links with your site www.blogger.com
Is this possible?