My 2018 Eclipse Awards Ballot: Selections, Explanations, and Abstentions

That the very fabric of horse racing didn’t burst apart at the seams when I was given an Eclipse Award ballot as a member of the National Turf Writers and Broadcasters is a minor miracle, but here we are. This is my second ballot as an NTWAB member, and like last year, I’m proud to share it, along with my reasoning for several categories.

A screenshot of my ballot is below.

Screen Shot 2018-12-30 at 8.43.03 PM

As I’ve already written, Justify would’ve been my Horse of the Year regardless of what Accelerate did. He’s getting a bad rap because of what American Pharoah did in 2015, and I don’t think that’s right. I respectfully disagree with Accelerate voters who believe beating older horses is important (in large part because this crop of older horses may have been historically awful). I have no respect for logic containing the belief that we need to de-emphasize the Triple Crown, especially when those espousing that were begging for a Triple Crown winner just four years ago. That logic is inconsistent and best and outright hypocrisy at worst.

Many of the other categories were pretty simple for me, though I found myself casting two “hold my nose” votes. I believe the Female Sprinter category shouldn’t exist, especially given the last two years. Unique Bella won last year despite a single Grade 1 win going short (and against restricted company to boot). This year, I voted for Shamrock Rose given her Breeders’ Cup victory. Marley’s Freedom had a case, and she may have been best in the Filly and Mare Sprint given her exceptionally-wide trip, but I can’t vote for her when she didn’t win the big one.

Male Turf Horse was another head-scratcher. I went with Stormy Liberal, given his Breeders’ Cup Turf Sprint win and exceptional campaign that also included a tough-luck second in Dubai. I know that may not be popular with some given his distance limitations, but with all due respect, it’s not like any other American horse consistently got a distance of ground this year, either. In fact, had Heart to Heart hung on in the Shoemaker Mile, he may very well have gotten the nod from me here. He’d have had three Grade 1 wins at three different tracks. Alas, he didn’t, and I couldn’t put him higher than third.

With that, we move to the abstentions. I can’t ever see myself voting for the Steeplechase category. I don’t follow that division closely, and I won’t bring myself to cast an ill-informed vote that counts just as much as that of a jump-racing enthusiast. I know I’m not alone in feeling that way, and I wish there was a better solution.

In that same vein, the Owner category has turned into nothing short of a mess. Partnerships have done a lot of good for a lot of people in the sport. Having said that, when we don’t know what stake each owner has in a horse, how can we effectively judge any of them? Is a man who owns 25% of four one-time Grade 1 winners a better owner than one who owns 100% of a four-time Grade 1 winner? How are we to judge these situations when zero transparency exists?

As I mentioned in a previous article, Sol Kumin reached out to me last year and gave me some information on his enterprise. I appreciate that attitude, and I wish more owners had it. Personally, I want partnership information readily available so that we can adequately judge the merits of the owners involved. Until that happens, or until the partnership craze dies down, I cannot see myself casting a ballot in this category.

A Christmas Eve Miracle

In what can only be seen as a staggering failure of a GPS system, a scroll was mysteriously found beneath a Christmas stocking in upstate New York Monday morning.

“Dear Bearer,

This scroll entitles you to one day as American Horse Racing Czar. Any decisions you make over the next 24 hours will take immediate effect. For the sake of convenience, please place this scroll next to the milk and cookies tonight, so I can pick it up and pass it along to its next destination.

Signed,

K. Kringle”

How fitting. I’ve got some ideas…

– We’re marketing to the customers we get, rather than the once-a-year crowd that looks great on social media.

I’m a social/digital media guy. I get it. The type of person that looks like he/she left a footprint on the grimy interior of Aqueduct trying to get a 10-1 shot home doesn’t look great on Twitter. It’s easier to publicize someone who spent hundreds of dollars on an outfit and wouldn’t be out of place at a high-society function.

Here’s the problem: That money would do immeasurably more good for racing going through the windows than being spent at a high-end clothing outlet. There’s nothing wrong with embracing fashion as part of the races, but there’s a middle ground that is being ignored. Social media posts that take the “horse” out of “horse racing” do nothing to grow the game.

So what are we going to do instead? We’re going to do something very, very simple. As I stated in a column I wrote a few weeks ago, the gambling side of racing needs to be marketed by smart, savvy gamblers that can convey what they know to a public that’s eager to learn. These people can’t be seen as expendable items on a profit/loss report. We’re going to turn them loose at each track, and use them as the marketing arms of each establishment.

In an age where the widespread legalization of sports betting is a “when,” not an “if,” the value of those people cannot be overstated. Why take -$110 odds on the point spread of a game that will last three hours when you can get the equivalent of +$200 on a post-time favorite in a horse race, with another race coming in a half-hour? Furthermore, how easy is it to market horse racing as the original daily fantasy sport, with a new draft every half-hour based on data from past performances? None of this is rocket science, and yet NOBODY is marketing the sport this way.

That’s the first change I’m making, and I’m not stopping there. I’m open to all suggestions that infuse good, clean fun into the sport, including a new online show called “The Apron” featuring myself, Joe Nevills, Gino Buccola, Pete Aiello, Danny Kovoloff, and Jason Beem and broadcasting from different defunct racetracks every week (think of it as a degenerate’s version of “College Gameday”). That sound you’re hearing is a panicked racing executive calling an emergency meeting upon realizing various combinations of this sextet regularly talk.

– We’re staggering post times.

The days of tracks thinking they’re the only option in town were over when simulcasting became possible. Some situations are unavoidable (technical issues, weather delays, late scratches, etc.), but gone are situations where tracks of the same level constantly run against each other, to the detriment of the wagering public.

The goal here is to set tracks of the same level (we can sort out which ones rank where later) to run races about five minutes apart. That minimizes overlap, while also providing some buffer in the event mitigating circumstances pop up. Having said that, “mitigating circumstances” does not mean “dragging post times for the sake of handle.” We’re going to recondition the betting public to expect calendar integrity from the tracks they wager on. All fines for violations of this rule go to either the PDJF or an accredited thoroughbred aftercare program.

– We’re breeding to race, not racing to breed.

Economic realities may make a complete reversal of this trend impossible. On paper, American Pharoah’s $200,000 stud fee meant he was generating roughly $40 million in his first year as a stallion, before anyone even knew if his offspring could run or not. Having said that, if I’ve got my way, we’re giving it a shot.

First of all, we’re eliminating any sale based on workouts of less than a quarter-mile, and any workouts longer than that are untimed and without whips. How a horse “breezes” a furlong (often under enthusiastic urging that renders “breezing” an inaccurate designation) has no bearing on long-term success, and I’d pay to see a study of high-priced horses, how often they ran, and what the average return on investment was. If there’s one out there, please alert me.

I don’t want us breeding for “brilliance” anymore. I want to breed horses that can retire sound after several full campaigns, ones that won’t be retired or given six-month breaks after having the nerve to run third in Grade 1 races.

Here are my initial steps: Any stallion prospect must run at least twice as a 4-year-old, or is otherwise ineligible for stud duty until the age of five. That’s not going to solve everything. Some may deem a year off to be a prudent investment for a horse like American Pharoah. However, if this means we get several more starts out of horses entering their primes, ones that enhance their resumes ahead of second careers, that strikes me as a win-win situation for everyone involved. Yes, this would pose problems for connections of “brilliant” horses that are retired after a handful of starts early in their lifetimes, but I’d argue many of those horses shouldn’t be standing at stud at all given obvious physical infirmities.

(Also, can we please stop using the term “brilliant?” It’s lazy, and often a synonym for a horse with huge potential that never realized it.)

Finally, I want an independent, non-partisan study on the effects of race-day medications such as Lasix. There are two camps: Those who say all horses bleed and Lasix works, and those who insist Lasix is the death of the breed as we know it. I think the truth is somewhere between those two extremes, and once we know what it is, I want one logical standard set at every track in the country for all race-day medications.

– There will be more transparency.

This is a uniform rule. The more information fans and gamblers have, the better the game will be. I want the complete destruction of barriers that currently obstruct the flow of information to those that help keep the game going.

It’s not like this would be hard in certain respects. I want cameras in steward’s rooms, and microphones on telephone conversations with jockeys involved in inquiries/objections. I want data to not be monopolized, and situations like the one involving the Handycapper tool (profiled in this excellent T.D. Thornton piece where he asks the most picture-perfect question I’ve seen in racing journalism in a long, long time) ending not with the tool being shut down, but it being made to be the best it can be, for the long-term betterment of the game.

– That applies to owners, too.

Partnerships are all the rage, and for obvious reasons. However, it has made analyzing the successes of owners very, very difficult. As a general rule, we don’t know how much of each horse partnership entities possess. That information is certainly available, otherwise how would racing offices know how to distribute purse money?

As an Eclipse Awards voter, I want that information in order to better judge owners come voting time. The current lack of knowledge makes it impossible to do that, and I plan to abstain in this category until a better solution is worked out.

(Full disclosure: When I expressed my displeasure with the system last year, Sol Kumin reached out and wrote an email he didn’t have to write. I applaud that sentiment, and I wish others had it.)

– Other small odds and ends.

Here are a few other rules and regulations we’re rolling out while we’re at it.

Free grandstand admission to all tracks, with $5 vouchers thrown in once a week to the first X amount of people that attend. Want to charge for clubhouse admission? Go ahead.

Stable public WiFi at all tracks that can afford it (and don’t even think about blocking ADW sites).

Either find a way to fix New York’s “purse money only” rule, or eliminate the concept of multi-horse entries entirely until one can be figured out (as described in this article from last summer).

Constructive criticism of handicapping methodologies is encouraged, especially if done in a respectful way. Destructive, empty, and/or sexist criticism is punishable by public flogging and/or publication of the offender’s lifetime betting record (whichever is more humiliating). In the words of Leo McGarry, we’re going to raise the level of public debate and let that be our legacy.

Bad ideas will be seen as bad ideas regardless of who has them. They will be dispatched immediately, and we will learn from them accordingly (hi, Breeders’ Cup Derby!).

Handicap races will be handicap races again. I’m done with weight ranges being four or five pounds in major handicap events. Going forward, the top weight is 126 pounds, and we’re going down from there. As a trade-off, those races get purse boosts to make them more attractive to connections that fret over their thousand-pound animals toting two or three more pounds than usual.

Finally (and as a journalist, this one’s important): All reporters, from all outlets, get whatever they want from tracks they cover. In an era where racing’s struggling for momentum in the public eye, I have no time for petty politics.

Now, Mr. Kringle, what kind of cookies would you like?

Justify, Accelerate, Horse of the Year, and Unfair Conundrums

A few days ago, top-notch turf writer and all-around good guy Jeremy Balan attempted to get a constructive dialogue going about Justify, Accelerate, and the voting for Horse of the Year. As most such attempts do, this went haywire quickly, with many respondents on Twitter unable to engage in basic discourse without resorting to tactics often seen during elementary school recess (seriously, folks, we’re better than this).

It’s no secret that I’m passionate about what I believe in when it comes to this issue. I respect Accelerate and what he accomplished this season, but I firmly believe an undefeated Triple Crown winner trumps anything any other thoroughbred could do in a single season. As such, when it comes time for me to submit my Eclipse Award ballot, Justify will earn my Horse of the Year vote.

I understand that others disagree with me on this, and I even get a few of the arguments. Justify didn’t run after the Belmont, and in the back half of the year, Accelerate captured three Grade 1 races (including the Breeders’ Cup Classic). Justify never raced against older horses, and this year’s crop of 3-year-olds (which looked promising at the start of the season) fizzled as the months went by.

However, I can’t help but feel like Justify is paying for something else. Let’s head to Peabody and Sherman’s WABAC Machine and travel all the way back to 2015.

mr-peabody-and-sherman

No horse had won racing’s Triple Crown since Affirmed in 1978, and the sport had suffered through several agonizing close calls. Silver Charm never saw Touch Gold. Real Quiet was nosed by Victory Gallop (and may have been taken down had the photo gone the other way). Smarty Jones was several hundred pounds overweight, with half of the riders in the field ganging up on him before Birdstone picked up the pieces.

Out of the darkness came American Pharoah, a four-legged wrecking ball that had demolished two overmatched fields in Arkansas ahead of the Kentucky Derby. Despite being kept extremely wide on the first Saturday in May, he prevailed over Firing Line. A torrential downpour couldn’t stop him two weeks later in the Preakness, and the next month, he made the Belmont Park grandstand shake.

(Relevant tangent: I get a lot of arguments in favor of Accelerate, but the “we’re emphasizing the Triple Crown too much” argument needs to go the way of the dodo bird. In 2015, many of us were wistfully wondering if we’d ever see a Triple Crown winner again, and some in the industry openly wondered if the sequence needed to be changed to make it easier. We’ve gotten two since then, good for a mere 13 in a century, and suddenly it doesn’t matter as much? This is inconsistent at best and flat wrong at worst.)

American Pharoah was instantly revered as a legend. It didn’t matter what he did after that, or who he beat, or that he lost the Travers, or that Beholder scratched ahead of a highly-anticipated showdown in the Breeders’ Cup Classic. Because he accomplished something no equine had in nearly four decades, the public was grateful for his presence and didn’t ask questions.

Justify got no such favorable treatment. It was only a three-year gap between Triple Crown winners, and the same guy who trained the last one got to do it again. Even considering Justify’s defiance of the Apollo Curse, his journey to racing’s pantheon seemed…almost ho-hum by comparison. As impressive as it was, there was a hint of, “we saw this movie three years ago, and that one was better.”

For purposes of this exercise, let’s assume American Pharoah either never existed or retired after the Arkansas Derby. In this alternate reality, Firing Line wins the Kentucky Derby, Tale of Verve wins the Preakness, and Frosted wins the Belmont. Racing continues to be without a Triple Crown winner until 2018, when Justify goes from an unraced maiden to the horse that snapped a 40-year drought in less than five months.

It doesn’t take a genius to see that such a scenario would make Justify one of the most beloved horses in history. He’s not seen this way because another Bob Baffert trainee won the same series of races while Justify was nursing.

I submit that such a conundrum is unfair to the horse’s legacy, and that this perception has altered the way some are approaching Horse of the Year balloting. If you’re more impressed by Accelerate’s resume given his year-long campaign and number of Grade 1 victories, I respect that (though I’ll exercise my right to amicably disagree). If you’re voting for Accelerate because of a distorted perception of the Triple Crown, its degree of difficulty, and what another horse did several years ago, I find that ridiculous.

Can Horse Racing Grow Without Passionate People?

Over the past 30 years, your fearless scribe has come to one unmistakable conclusion: I’m cursed.

It’s a curse that probably doesn’t sound like a heavy burden, but it’s one I’ve had to deal with all my life. You see, my mind doesn’t stop. When I get stressed, or frustrated, or whatever the case may be, I see things in weird ways and use the written word as a way to cope.

Sometimes, this works. At least one executive at The Saratogian wanted my written weekly column gone in late-2012, and it took a convergence of two bizarre happenings to save it. The first came when former Kansas City Chiefs linebacker Jovan Belcher committed a series of unspeakable acts, and his one-time teammate at the University of Maine, fellow Kingston High School graduate Andrew Downey (to whom I still owe a debt I cannot repay), agreed to talk to me. The second came when my grandfather passed away and I wrote one of the things I’m most proud of (I’d link to it, but The Saratogian changed website providers several years ago and lots of content was lost).

Sometimes, though, it doesn’t work. At least one track probably still has a bounty on my head for something I wrote for Horse Racing Nation in 2014, and I know for a fact several industry heavyweights have taken plenty of exception to things I’ve said and/or done. What I’m writing now is probably going to go in the latter pile, but this is an issue I feel incredibly strongly about, and one that I’ll always fight for.

It’s been a tough month or so for a lot of people in the horse racing industry. The genesis of this column came after a visit to Los Angeles last week, where a lot of people (including several of much higher status in the racing business than yours truly) came together to say goodbye to Lou Villasenor. Lou was one of the most visible front-side employees at Santa Anita for three decades. He worked for both HRTV and Santa Anita’s simulcast department, and he was one of the good guys. As Kurt Hoover said in a post-funeral gathering, if you had a problem with Lou, something was wrong with you.

Lou was a sweet, kind, passionate man who loved what he did and was loved by the people he worked with. If everyone in racing attacked what they did for a living with the zest and vigor that Lou did, the industry would be a much better place.

The problem is, it seems as though we’ve decided that people with this sort of passion are expendable.

Before I go any further, I need to point out that this isn’t about me. As many of you know, my position with DRF was transitioned to part-time in September, and I left that position in November. However, what I’m writing is much more about what others in the industry have had to go through over the last few weeks.

Michael Wrona’s abrupt dismissal from his post at Santa Anita came as a shock to the horse racing world. He won an unconventional contest for the job in 2016 following the semi-retirement of Trevor Denman, and over the past two and a half years, he called races in Arcadia with professionalism, flair, and enthusiasm.

I count new Santa Anita announcer Frank Mirahmadi as a friend. Whether Frank knows it or not, he did a lot for me during a brief time where we were both employed by TVG, and I’ll always be grateful to him for that. Santa Anita is his dream job, and I know he’ll do great work (as he has in each of his prior career stops). However, I feel terrible for Wrona, who, by all indications, was completely blindsided by Santa Anita’s decision to not renew his contract.

(By the way, if you want an example of how classy Wrona is, here’s one: Last Wednesday, during what had to be one of the worst weeks of his life, he suited up and went to Lou’s funeral. Michael Wrona doesn’t know me, nor does he have any reason to be reading this, but that was a first-class move from a man whose character has been vouched for by many others elsewhere.)

Unfortunately, that wasn’t the only rough news from Santa Anita. When Wrona was dismissed, word leaked out that several members of XBTV’s production staff were also shown the door. This included several former HRTV colleagues of mine, such as Aaron Vercruysse, Richard Migliore, and Michael Canale (among others). Additionally, following news that several of Santa Anita’s graded stakes races were downgraded, longtime racing secretary Rick Hammerle (who trainer Bob Baffert gave the utmost credit to for filling the allowance race Justify won prior to the Santa Anita Derby) was let go as well.

They’re all fantastic, talented people, and they’re too gifted to be unemployed for very long if they don’t want to be. Furthermore, none of them need me to vouch for any of that, and I’m sure at least one of them wishes I hadn’t (sorry, guys; it’s my website, and I like each of you very much!).

The reason I’m writing about this now, though, is pretty simple: In a time where horse racing needs to be focused on creating passionate fans in order to ensure the sport’s continued survival, why is it that we’re making a habit of kicking out passionate employees?

This isn’t solely a Santa Anita issue. As racing has slowly dwindled in popularity, no circuit or outlet has been immune from this trend. The folks from Thoroughbred Times have horror stories about the publication’s shutdown in 2012 (and the lean years that preceded it). TVG had a highly publicized round of layoffs in 2011, and had a less public round in 2017. Analyst Jason Blewitt, whose work very few have ever criticized, was let go from NYRA for reasons that remain unclear (though, thankfully, he’s since latched on at Gulfstream Park).

In order for handle and revenue to grow, the gambling side of racing needs to be marketed by smart, savvy gamblers that can convey what they know to a public that’s eager to learn. Forgive me, but this doesn’t strike me as a complex concept. Beer festivals, food trucks, and the like are nice (and one could argue that they drive attendance and look great on social media), but those don’t teach anything that would make good players out of mediocre players or indulge the curiosities of someone making his or her first trip to the track.

I’ve learned a lot over the past three months about doing what you genuinely love to do. I’m passionate about communicating facts and opinions about this great game, and having a full-time job allows me to keep my hand in some aspects of it. Similarly, I have no doubt that the people looking for work will be more than fine in the long run, and that they’ll be back doing what they’re excellent at in short order.

Unfortunately, this is a worrisome trend. While racing (like anything else) is a business, complete with profit/loss margins that must be met, it seems counterintuitive to not invest in passionate people that can help a racing company grow. We need those people in the game, because if they’re put in the right spots, they’ll create more people like them that will contribute to its growth. Maybe that isn’t a fan base that plays well on social media, but it’s a fan base horse racing cannot survive without.

(Rest in peace, Lou. We miss you.)

A Requiem for a Different Saratoga Meet

Every once in a while, maybe every few years, I go out to dinner and have a weird internal dialogue with my subconscious. The last time I can remember this happening before Monday night was the week of the 2015 Breeders’ Cup. In addition to being the lone social media person for TVG at the time, the company was rebranding HRTV into TVG2, which meant redesigning what was then HRTV.com to fit the new brand, all while staying on top of Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube during one of the four busiest weeks of the year.

That Thursday, I came into work at 6 a.m. and watched the sun rise on one side of the Howard Hughes Center. I left at about 8 p.m. after watching it set on the other side, and the first place of repute open on my way back to my then-apartment in Pasadena was a Denny’s in Culver City. I was running on fumes at that point, and it’s a miracle I didn’t pass out during that weekend’s TVG Extra broadcast (visions of overtime money danced in my head!).

My present-day corner of the world has a dimly lit dive bar next door. It’s called Vinnie’s, and after two long days of work Sunday and Monday, I wound up there as a local band was doing a sound check for a 10 p.m. set. The food isn’t fantastic, but it’s solid, cheap, and, most importantly to me on this particular evening, someone other than me was preparing it.

The best way I can describe Vinnie’s is this: Picture Sister Margaret’s, the bar in the “Deadpool” movies. It’s dark, to the point of being gloomy, and there’s sometimes strange stuff going on (on this particular evening, several people were shooting dice on the bar and sending the same $1 bill back and forth). It’s popular with bikers, but not the ones you need to be afraid of (think of the One-Eyed Snakes from “Bob’s Burgers,” in that they look menacing but are mostly harmless).

You may be thinking to yourself, “Self, I thought this was a horse racing column.” I’m getting there. The reason I was so winded tonight is because the 2018 Saratoga meet has come to a close after 40 cards of racing in upstate New York. It took me a little while to realize it, but I wound up at Vinnie’s for a reason. It’s a different kind of place, and this year’s Saratoga stand was a different sort of meet.

Sure, at its peak, it had the great racing Saratoga is known for. The meet hosted slam-dunk Champion 3-Year-Old Filly Monomoy Girl, who cruised to victory in the Grade 1 Coaching Club American Oaks. Top sprinter Imperial Hint ran roughshod over the field in the Grade 1 A.G. Vanderbilt. Fast-rising Marley’s Freedom galloped home much the best in the Grade 1 Ballerina for Red Jacket honoree Bob Baffert. Fans saw Saratoga County native Chad Brown set a single-season record for wins by a trainer, and were treated to a rousing rendition of the Travers, which found a way to stand out even without Triple Crown winner Justify (thanks, Catholic Boy).

There were certainly highlights, ones Saratoga produces every single year, and by the numbers, the track saw its second-highest all-sources handle in history. However, there were some bumps along the way. The first 20 days of the meet saw nearly 10 inches of rain drench the Saratoga area, and 50 races were rained off the turf. From a handicapping perspective, that often meant having to look at races twice, just in case the skies happened to open up.

There was also the infamous race run at the wrong distance. When Somelikeithotbrown waltzed home to break his maiden, it was going a mile and an eighth, not the race’s intended route of a mile and a sixteenth. Additionally, there were a few late scratches of horses entered as parts of entries, which meant that the remaining horses in those entries ran for purse money only and were not eligible betting interests. The worst-case scenario in that instance happened in one day’s opener, when half of a Joe Sharp-trained entry was ruled out and the other half won as much the best. Bettors who liked that part of the entry and bet accordingly got nothing for having a correct opinion, which is a situation that must be avoided at all possible times.

For me, this meet was weird in other ways, too. I started writing for The Saratogian in 2012, and stayed on as a seasonal freelancer after leaving for California in late-2013. In that time, I’ve seen a lot of changes at the newspaper. My two primary supervisors, managing editor Barbara Lombardo and sports editor Kevin Moran, took buyouts in 2015. David Johnson, who assumed Kevin’s post after his departure, left following the 2017 meet. This summer, the paper’s full-time sports staff consisted of two people: Editor Joe Boyle, whose primary job was to produce regular sports sections for both The Saratogian and The Troy Record, and Stan Hudy, who took the lead on producing The Pink Sheet. Compare that with the staff I walked into in 2012, which boasted a sports editor (Kevin), several full-time reporters (myself, David, Stan, Alex Ventre, and eventually Mike Cignoli), a few freelancers (Jeff Scott, who still contributes, and the great Mike Veitch, who retired last year), two clerks (Chris Maley and Tyler Michaud), and a dedicated sports paginator/copy editor (first Matt Donato, and then Ryan Hayner).

Even with a full staff, producing two sections a day for seven weeks is not easy (DRF colleague and former Saratogian sports editor Nicole Russo can back me up on that!). The realities of journalism are such that editors and reporters must do more with less on a constant basis. Joe and Stan put forth herculean efforts to get the paper(s) out as scheduled, and while I thanked Stan in my final bankroll blurb of the season, it’s worth doing so again here, in an area where I’ve got a bit more room to express myself. Thanks, Stan. Hopefully, I never held anything up!

From a handicapping standpoint, the meet was its own kind of difficult. Saratoga is always hard. The rule of thumb I’ve always used is that three wins per day is an admirable pace, and that 120 winners (three a day for 40 days) will yield a solid placing amongst other handicappers of that ilk. When I somehow came out on top amongst all print handicappers in 2017, I did so with 128 top-pick winners. John Shapazian, who won the crown this year, had 123. As I recall, one or two others were in the 115-120 range.

This year, Shapazian had 116 winners. Liam Durbin, who regained the Pink Sheet title, had 109. I had 108, and as far as I can tell, that was good for a clear third (feel free to correct me if I’m wrong). These are incredibly low numbers compared to the ones that are usually needed to win, but that’s how hard this year’s meet was.

Put in other ways, consider a few of these facts: Talented but little-known trainers Chuck Lawrence, Gary Contessa, and Greg Sacco all won more Grade 1 races (one apiece) than longtime Saratoga maestro/future Hall of Famer Todd Pletcher (zero). Mark Casse, one of North America’s most respected horsemen, suffered through an ugly 0 for 48 streak at the Spa that ended when Fly Away Birdie came running late in the Labor Day opener. Gary Sciacca saw Casse’s streak and raised it 21 more, to 0 for 69 (special thanks to DRF’s David Grening for his note on the specific number). He hadn’t won a race at the Spa since 2016, but the drought ended when Sicilia Mike romped in Monday’s seventh race. Paraphrasing an Andy Serling remark from early in the meet, you’re nobody until you get crushed at Saratoga, and this year, the bakeries making humble pie did incredible business.

I look forward to Saratoga every year. I grew up going there every summer, getting autographs from jockeys, listening to Tom Durkin, and learning how to read the publication I’d eventually work for. There are changes every summer. More people I’ve rubbed shoulders with leave the business, for one reason or another. Durkin retired after the 2014 meet. Many people that populated the press box in 2012 and 2013 no longer work for those employers, and a few, unfortunately, have passed away (Paul Moran, Mike Jarboe, Matt Graves, and John Mazzie are all missed). We’re already preparing for one additional change that’s coming sooner rather than later, as longtime NYRA bugler Sam Grossman’s last day of work came and went Monday afternoon.

Saratoga provides a rush to be able to test my skills against other handicappers (for my money, some of the best ones around). As an incredibly competitive person drawn to horse racing not by fashion or Instagram photos, but by the very nature of pari-mutuel wagering (my money against yours), that’s always been something I value. Having said that, it’s also an incredible honor to produce content others can use as a tool to make some money, and that’s the primary reason I love doing what I’m privileged to do for seven weeks out of the year.

Personally, there are years where the Saratoga meet means something bigger. 2013’s meet was my way of burying myself in work to keep my mind off of other things in my life. 2017’s meet was about me proving several high-level doubters dead wrong, and I remain proud to say that that’s what I did (you can blame those doubters for me going into wrestling promo mode at times over the past year; if you find me, ask and I’ll tell you the story).

This summer wasn’t quite like that. It was an endurance test, handicapping’s version of the 24 Hours of Le Mans, where hitting the wire brought with it its own special sense of relief (and, for a privileged few, some sense of accomplishment). It was a summer where a lot of creatures, both human and equine, had to navigate around situations that were far from ideal. To those that did: Congratulations. You made it.

God willing, I’ll see you all next year. I’ve got a title to get back!