Celebrating Festivus, horse racing style


How is it that the editors of this fine digital magazine did not see fit to put Jerry Stiller’s memorialized mug on the cover?
The comic whom I first saw in the 1960s on “The Ed Sullivan Show” with his brilliant wife Anne Meara died in May, leaving a legacy of great roles like Arthur Spooner in “The King of Queens” and as the real-life father of Ben Stiller.
But Jerry Stiller might be best remembered for the “Seinfeld” character Frank Costanza, the blustery inventor of the fictitious holiday Festivus celebrated every Dec. 23. Yes, the very day this edition of Point Spread Weekly dropped.
In keeping with this tradition that began with a Must-See Thursday 23 years ago on NBC, let there be an airing of grievances — racing style. (This is not an attempt to steal any thunder from the Thoroughbred Idea Foundation, which observes Festivus all year long.)
How about a “C” with the “L” and “B”? It has become apparent the last few months that the use — and abuse — of clenbuterol has come at the expense not only of horses but also horseplayers. Simply put, it expands air passages in the lungs. The more air a horse can process, the faster and farther it can run. But clenbuterol also has the effect of a body-sculpting steroid with dangerous side effects. Trainers have been sneaking around using it on their horses for a quarter-century or more. Bettors have had to guess whether a horse is on it or accept the risk of not knowing. States have made noise about banning it going back to years that started with “1.” A renewed push is on to do it again. Lacking such a ban, how about this compromise? If a horse is on clenbuterol, why not list it in past performances right alongside Lasix (furosemide) and bute (phenylbutazone)? Of course I am being facetious. Somewhat. If racing authorities are not serious about doing away with clenbuterol, then get transparent. If nothing else, it would make horseplayers feel like their money was not being taken for granted.
Do away with the Las Vegas cartel. Churchill Downs, the Fair Grounds, Turfway Park and Arlington Park are unavailable to Nevada bettors because the tracks’ owner is greedy and asking for an exorbitant percentage of the takeout for racing that is inferior 364 days a year (the Nevada view) or Las Vegas will not pay the going rate for a premium product like the Kentucky Derby (Churchill’s view). Based on extrapolation of the limited figures available from the Nevada Gaming Control Board, this never-ending dispute really centers on less than $10,000 per year per racebook. That is it. If there is a scorched-earth mentality to this fight, the guess here is that Churchill Downs will survive it. So will Nevada casinos. But will horseplayers who see fewer and fewer racetracks on the Nevada betting menu take their business elsewhere? Actually, they already have. The individual members of the anachronistic Nevada Pari-Mutuel Association would be better off leaving that cartel and making deals on their own if they want to salvage what is left of the horse-betting business in the state.
Open the doors to fixed odds. This country is woefully behind the world curve in sports gambling. The mere fact that more states are approving it will help close the gap. But until I see betting kiosks and thriving sportsbooks inside American stadiums the way I did when I lived in Australia until 14 years ago, the U.S. will be pressing its nose against the wrong side of the looking glass. The lack of fixed-odds betting on every race at every track is also glaring. Fixed-odds and pari-mutuel wagering have worked side by side in Australia and England and Ireland and on and on for decades. New Jersey is in the vanguard trying to crack the economic code to making it work. One hopes that happens soon. One easy way for racing to attract new business is to have fixed odds as an entree for those who do not know how to read pari-mutuel steam. Come to think of it, that is a good way to expand business among seasoned players who also do not know how to read pari-mutuel steam.
Give me a better view. Can someone find a way to get the pan camera about 20 feet higher at Saratoga so it does not look like we are watching every race through a submarine periscope? Can we get rid of all the trees on the infields at tracks like the Fair Grounds, where viewers need machetes to see the horses on the backstretch? Can the Japan Racing Association decree that the leading horse always be on the screen rather than panning to the back of the field at critical times of its races? Racing telecasters need to discover common sense. Think of it this way. If the NFL were like horse racing, we would see every play from ground level through trees planted at the hash marks and the camera trained on inconsequential players rather than on the ball.
Stop betting at the first load. Want to end the frustration of the odds changing with that last click about the same time as the first quarter-mile fraction flashes on the board? Do what was proposed more than 10 years ago. Lock out bettors once the first horse is loaded. If a problem occurs and they have to reload, reopen the betting. If that will not work under existing technology, replace those antique Commodore 64s with something invented after the first President Bush was in office. Computer players who might rail against this will adjust, and the business attracted by a more honest readout on the tote board would be worth it.
There are my Festivus grievances, aired without any prosaic tinsel, which I find — distracting.
RIP, Jerry Stiller. May your legacy as Frank Costanza and a collection of other characters live forever.
Spielberg (70-1 Circa, 35-1 William Hill). Maybe distance makes the horse grow stronger. So might a little bit of rest. His two worst performances came 19 and 14 days after his previous starts. His two victories came 36 and 34 days after those clunkers. The most recent was Saturday, when he stretched out from 7 furlongs to 8½ in winning the Grade 2 Los Alamitos Futurity. It certainly changed the perception of this $1 million colt trained by Bob Baffert, who has won all seven Los Alamitos runnings of the Futurity.
Prate (45-1 Circa, 75-1 William Hill). It may be a couple of months before we see this horse from Brad Cox’s barn test the Kentucky Derby trail. He is biding his time now in entry-level races, including a debut Saturday that parlayed a pair of bullet workouts last month into a 4¼-length victory against 11 other maidens at the Fair Grounds in New Orleans. That earned Prate a Beyer Speed Figure of 90, which certainly puts him in the high-rent district among 2-year-olds. Oh, yes. Into Mischief is his sire, he of this year’s Derby winner Authentic and Circa futures favorite Life Is Good.
Senor Buscador (35-1 Circa, 100-1 William Hill). There is a curious case involving 2-year-olds still on Lasix, because as such they are not allowed to be in next year’s Triple Crown. Senor Buscador’s worst-to-first run to victory Friday in the Remington Springboard Mile was eye-catching, but it earned him no Derby qualifying points. That is because he was legally on Lasix for that prep. Trainer Todd Fincher said he would take his colt off the medication if the Derby becomes the aim. Yes, “if.” Not to be forgotten is that deep closers seldom win the Derby.
Red Flag (60-1 Circa, 40-1 William Hill). Former National Horseplayers Championship winner Michael Beychok had part of his dream come true Saturday when this Grade 3 winner came up a bland fourth as the odds-on favorite in the Los Al Futurity. Beychok’s diabolical scheme, as described two weeks ago on the Ron Flatter Racing Pod, was to hope trainer John Shirreffs did not tighten the screws barely one month after the Tamarkuz colt won the Bob Hope sprint at Del Mar. The idea was that the odds would then drift to something north of 50-1 in the futures. Mr. B., your wish is Circa’s command.
Saffa’s Day (250-1 Circa, 200-1 William Hill). Here is Lesson No. 5,369 in not falling in love with every runaway triumph by a debutant. Trained by Steve Asmussen, this Carpe Diem colt has gone the wrong way since he won by 5¼ lengths more than two months ago at Keeneland. Racing over the same 6½ furlongs last month, he tired to a sixth-place finish in a $125,000 stakes on the Breeders’ Cup undercard. On Friday he tried two turns for the first time and flattened to finish fourth. Saffa’s Day needs a confidence-builder in allowance company more than he merits support in Derby futures.
Ascot Storm (250-1 Circa, 200-1 William Hill). Here is Lesson No. 5,370 in not falling in love with every runaway victory by a debutant. This time it was a product of the John Sadler barn that never let nine other 2-year-olds come near him nearly three months ago at Santa Anita. This Shackleford gelding followed that 4¾-length sprint victory with a distant third-place finish in a restricted stakes last month at Del Mar. Then came a troubled trip Sunday in the 1-mile King Glorious Stakes at Los Al, where he steadied in the final turn before giving up and finishing eighth. Not to overreact to that race, but all these starts were against California-breds. Considering his breeding, maybe sprints are the best place for Ascot Storm’s future to unfold.
In addition to this report, Ron Flatter’s racing column is available every Friday morning at VSiN.com. You can also hear the Ron Flatter Racing Pod posted Friday mornings at VSiN.com/podcasts. Workout analyst Bruno De Julio, Horse Racing Nation CEO Mark Midland and longtime turf writer and publicist Jennie Rees will be part of a roundtable on this week’s episode sharing holiday stories plus thoughts about the year past and the one coming up. The RFRP is available for download and free subscription at Apple, Google, iHeart, Spotify and Stitcher. It is sponsored by 1/ST BET.