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Mar 31, 2005

RACING TO THE DERBY

By: JOHN PIESEN


Some totally unbelievable news came out of New Jersey this morning.

According to my unimpeachable sources, the State of New Jersey stands

 on the brink of losing Monmouth Park as the host of the 2007 Breeders' Cup.

 The reason? The New Jersey Racing Commission and the New Jersey

Thoroughbred Horsemen's Benovolent Assn. continue to go at each other's

throats -- as they have been doing for years -- and the Breeders' Cup people

find this situation sufficiently objectionable as to tell the warring parties that

if they don't patch things up by April 9, there will be no Breeders' Cup at Monmouth.

Needless to say, the Breeders' Cup will be the biggest racing event in the

history of New Jersey. In fact, the last official piece of business that the

Love Guv did before leaving office last Fall was to sign for the 2007 Breeders' Cup.

Monmouth Park already has started to pour millions into the facility in preparation

 for the Breeders' Cup. So what happens next?

The feud between the Racing Commission and the horsemen's group goes back

 to the previous century. Until now, nobody other than racing insiders and

power brokers gave a damn, but now everything changes. If the Breeders' Cup

 goes through with its threat to change venues, all bets are off. And,

unfortunately, this may be literally.

Jersey racing, which has been flirting with disaster for years, may go over

the cliff. Perhaps the only hope is that Dennis Dowd, the new Sports Authority

 boss, and interim Gov. Richard Cody, a big racing fan, can use their good

offices to force a truce.

How bad is the situation?

Bill Handleman, a respected racing columnist for the Asbury Park Press, tells

 the following story:

"Three years ago, Alan Foreman, chairman and CEO of the Thoroughbred

Horsemen's Assn., was invited to speak at the New Jersey horsemen's annual

 meeting. He and his wife drove up from Maryland, and were going to stay

 at the Eatontown Sheraton, where the rate was $109.

"But there was an accident on 95 North, and they arrived late, and the hotel

 had given away their room. So they sat in the lobby until 1 a.m. before they

 got a room at the Hilton on the ocean in Long Branch where the rate

 was $300.

(Seems fair to me.)

Foreman said he would pay for the room. No, the New Jersey horsemen

 insisted. They wouldn't hear of it. He was their guest.

The racing commission took great exception to this, including it as a prominent

 line item in its audit of the horsemen's books.

That's the kind of nickel and diming that's going to keep New Jersey from

getting the Breeders' Cup," Foreman says.

The bottom line is that the Breeders' Cup people say that if the feud between

 the commission and horsemen isn't settled by April 9, the 2007 Breeders' Cup

 is heading elsewhere. Kentucky? California? The usual suspects.

April 9 is the drop-dead headline," says the Breeders' Cup.

Stay tuned.

Otherwise, as the days count down to the 2005 Kentucky Derby, some dumb

 things are going down in print. Exhibit A is a column by Paul Moran in Newsday.

An exerpt...

"Rockport Harbor had a good 1 1/16-mile work in the Rebel, but jockey

Stewart Elliott was helpless in his attempt to reserve the colt early, and had

nothing left when challenged by Greater Good. This would have been a more

useful effort had it happened a month ago, but with only one Derby prep left,

 it is reasonable to dismiss Rockport Harbor as a legitimate Derby

contender....Rockport Harbor is an unattractive betting proposition."

First of all, I need to point out that, after 40 years of writing about horses, I

 realize that you're generally on pretty firm ground writing something negative

 about a given horse because racing being what is, and horses lose a lot more

than they win, most of the time you go negative you're right.

But in this case, it's sad that Moran didn't do his homework. I certainly have

 to believe he wasn't watching the race. Rockport Harbor was at most 70 per

cent for the race, he got slaughtered leaving the gate, opened a huge lead, and

got nailed on the wire by a serious racehorse.

Bill Finley of ESPN said that Rockport Harbor was more impressive in defeat

than he was in any of his four wins last year, and virtually every pro agrees

with him. I know I do.

It's also interesting to note that Rocky's price went down in most Derby

futures, not up. At the Pinnacle in Las Vegas, for example, Rocky dropped from

 14-1 to 10-1 after his Rebel second.

I'm around Rockport Harbor every day, and I see a horse reaching the top of

 his game. He'll be odds-on in the Arkansas Derby, and if he wins, he'll go to

 the Kentucky Derby as the favorite, and that current 10-1 price will look

awfully good - despite what Newsday says.

This brings us to the toughest beat of the week.

Seattle was minus 4 at Portland on Thursday night. Seattle was up one, and

Portland had possession with 20 seconds left. Portland rushes a shot,

misses, Seattle rebounds, is fouled. Two free throws. Portland time out with

 10 seconds left. Seattle steals the in-bounds pass (we never saw that before).

The guy dunks very much. Ballgame. Five.

Seattle seeems to get involved in many situations like this. Remember when

 they were plus six against Detroit, and were up three with two minutes to

go, and Detroit won by seven.

Back to racing...and one of my favorite peeves.

How many times does it happen that they replace a no-name rider with a

 name rider? Like all the time. In the case of Afleet Alex, Jeremy Rose was

 5-2-0 in seven rides on Afleet Alex. The owners wanted a name rider. They

 got John Velazquez, who is every bit as good a rider as Jeremy Rose,

 although he's never won a race at Oaklawn (0-for-10).

I don't think the rider switch helped that much. With Velazquez up for the

 first time, Afleet Alex checked in last.

You can get all of my selections in all of the major Derby Prep races in

my Season Of Piesen package right here on the web, or of course, call

my office at 1-888-612-2283. There are 6 big stakes races Saturday,

 and you can have my 1-2-3-4 finishers in all 6 for only $25 on my

Season Of Piesen here online.



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