The Butterfly Effect

In 1956 Ray Bradbury wrote a short story called A Sound of Thunder. It was later used as the basis for a movie called The Butterfly Effect. The premise was fairly simple. In the future, a company that has perfected time travel takes people back to a point 60 million years ago to allow them to hunt and kill a T-Rex. The catch is that they must stay on a designated path because even the smallest action, say killing a mouse, could have disastrous consequences for the future. Naturally one of the party panics at the sight of the gigantic dinosaur, steps off the path and inadvertently kills a butterfly. While we don’t get to know exactly how that changed the course of history, it does in a dramatic way.

Luckily the Santa Anita stewards weren’t familiar with the story. In Steward-World there is no butterfly effect. Things can happen at the start of a race that the Oracles of California know had no impact on the eventual finish.

Knowledgable people can agree to disagree whether Bayern or Toast of New York should have been taken down after the rodeo start of the Breeder’s Cup Classic, but what we can’t disagree on is that the explanation the Stewards gave for leaving his number up was thoroughly unsatisfying.

CHRB rule 1699 states, “A horse shall not interfere with or cause any other horse to lose stride, ground or position in a part of the race where the horse loses the opportunity to place where it might be reasonably expected to finish.” In the opinion of the stewards, “it [the bumping]  didn’t happen in the point of a race where it was reasonable to speculate that they didn’t finish in a position where they were reasonably expected to finish, which is the language of the rule.”

Seriously? Shared Belief, an undefeated horse, was never going to finish better than fourth? Moreno, the other classy speed in the race and a horse that has made a career out of running to the front and hanging tough in the stretch, was never going to finish better than last? Not one single horse involved in the incident could have possibly been affected by the actions of Bayern?

If you ask me, the plot of the movie Rise of the Guardians where Santa Claus, the Easter Bunny, the Tooth Fairy, and Mr. Sandman get Jack Frost to stop the evil Pitch Black was more believable.

Frankly, I didn’t have a betting interest where a change in result would have made a difference, so my opinion isn’t tainted by that. To hear the Stewards tell it, they insisted their interpretation of Rule 1699 was absolutely dead on. They wanted the betting public and the other trainers to believe the incident at the start did not cause anyone to lose the opportunity to place where it might reasonably be expected to finish.

The key word in there is reasonably, and frankly that is where I think the Stewards missed the boat. Based on the feedback from knowledgable racegoers around the country, one has to conclude that a lot of reasonable people saw Bayern’s start as costing some horse a placing.

I don’t care how many races you’ve watched. If you are a steward and can state without equivocation that a foul at the start of a race – and remember, everyone including the Stewards agreed it was a foul – has less impact that a foul in the middle of a race or in the stretch, then I’d say you are wasting a unique talent judging races.

Just like the people in The Butterfly Effect, none of us could know with reasonable certainty that a clear foul at the start of the race would have no impact on the outcome. Beyond that, a lot of reasonable people who are not regular racing fans had to wonder if that just wasn’t one more reason why horse racing is losing popularity. In the biggest race on horse racing’s biggest stage, the Stewards made a decision that just didn’t pass the smell test for a lot of fans. I referee high school basketball, and I guarantee if I went to a coach and said, yes, he got fouled on the shot, but he was never going to make the shot anyway, I’d be lucky to get assigned to a third-grade girls game after that.

Perception is everything.

“It’s not what you physically look at that matters in life, it’s what you see in it.”

Or in the case of the Santa Anita Stewards, what you don’t see in it.

Aqueduct November 6

Race 1

  • 7 Seven Stars – the hunch bet of the year. How could you not bet a horse with seven in its name breaking from the 7 post? Well that and the fact that she is a Jacobson claim coming back at a reduced price. She’s better on the fast dirt but does have a third on a wet track. She’s in that critical third back off a layoff. This is not a high grade field, and the horse has a good dose of back class. She’s 9-5 on the ML and you’ll be lucky to get that.
  • 6 Kiss Cat – has been showing decent speed and is probably better suited for six furlongs. She’s 0 for 11 on the fast dirt but 2 of 4 on the wet track. Has been a little over-raced in 2014, but seems to take to AQU as well as any track.
  • 4 Jealous – Drops way down off her last two, but she’s probably at the right price today. A little uninspiring at 2 for 28, but did have a nice work 12 days ago.
  • 3 Appearance – Dropping to the level where she has a shot to win. Most of her races have been against 3 year-olds. Trainer change to Bernardo Callejas from Bruce Levine is not a big positive.

Race 2

Worst race of the year so far. Welcome to Aqueduct. There isn’t a horse that has a 1, 2, 3, or 4 in its past performance at any call in the race.

  • 6 Sister Charm – dropping from MSW. Hoping the fast work on 9/29 means she has speed. It’s discouraging though that she hasn’t been on the track since then. She’s well-bred for the distance. As long as we’re taking a stab, might as well stab at 10-1.
  • 8 Oohlala – showed a little more when dropped to MCL. Has the monster 52 Beyer and that is what makes her 4-5 on the ML. Don’t be fooled too much – she stinks, just a little less than some others.
  • 1 Yellow Cello – couldn’t get out of her own way at the break last out, but at least she has an excuse and in this group it’s good enough to use her.

Race 3

  • 3 Doublicious – another one with speed and may compromise the 2. She’s dropping way down and trainer Abigail Adsit has been quietly having a good year.
  • 5 South Sound – Has been running well lately, although has had some issues getting by horses in the stretch. Mostly likely to have first run at the leaders into the stretch.
  • 2 Star Magnolia – lots of speed and probably isn’t useful beyond 6 furlongs. If she gets out on her own she has a good chance to hold on.

Race 4

  • 5 Stonely Heart – showed a lot of interest first time out, just missing to Kleptocrat. Decent figure and a useful work since then.
  • 8 Moonlight Fantasy – lots of speed but not so much heart. Finished behind both the 5 and the 12 after having the lead in the stretch. Have to believe she’s getting a little better and might be a little stronger this time.
  • 12 Moldavite – ran with the 8 and outfinished her, albeit by a nose. Expecting these three to duel again.
  • 2 Bossy Boots – last race first two finishers have already come back to win, and second last race winner has repeated. Of course, those races were seven months ago, although the last was on the AQU main dirt. Has some useful breezes leading up to this one.

Race 5

With the race off the turf the MTO Lotsa Noodles looks good. The other MTO House Rules has primarily been running graded races this year, and the last time she didn’t run a graded stake she won by six and a half. 

  • 4 Marbre Rose – ran a good one for Clement in a yielding BEL turf three weeks ago, and before that was Group placed in Europe. Looks like Lasix has made a difference for the horse. Best horse in the field as long as we don’t see a Euro bounce.
  • 5 Party Now – lightly raced horse that was competitive in the Wonder Again last May. Perhaps the rest has allowed her to mature. Certainly has competitive figures and McGaughey is very good with layoff horses.
  • 9 Rubindy – Chad Brown is on top of the world after the Breeder’s Cup  and is back home with the New York stable. Ran a good one first on the turf and improvement wouldn’t be a surprise.
  • 8 Neolexia – Always seems to be around at the end, but some trouble getting the top prize.

Race 6

  • 3 We Fly Private – improved on the slop and looks like he’ll have another chance to improve today.
  • 7 Jimmy Soul – starting to look like a professional maiden, but has a big wet track rating. Perhaps the claim by RuRod gets him on the right track.
  • 5 Alyish – six starts and not a lot of success, but he does have a good turn of speed and on this track it may help.

Race 7

  • 1 Old Upstart – claimed by Abigail Adsit last out after running a good second in the slop. Has the right style and figures to do well today.
  • 3 Sean and Matt – ran away from a $50K maiden field last out after being off nine months. Looks like he matured during the time off and fits in this group.
  • 10 Oltre’ Oro – been off since spring at AQU but has a good series of works for the comeback.
  • 8 Invasion Point – powerful rating on the wet track and he’s coming off a strong maiden win, albeit with a lesser group.

Race 8

  • 8 Cool Samurai – Sherriffs runner ran well at BEL after coming back east from Santa Anita. Major distinction is that he finished second to Wicked Strong in his debut outing. Has the wet track rating to dominate this group.
  • 3 Celebrated Talent – a win and two seconds on the wet surface, and that makes him dangerous today. Loves the distance as well.
  • 5 Apex – In good condition for low profile connections. Often around for a piece at the end.
  • 1A – M J Plus – won an $8K starter allowance at Parx and was probably the stronger of the two horse entry. 3 wins in seven wet track starts.

Race 9

  • 6 Great Cross – won on a muddy BEL track last out and was taken by Maker. That’s the best race she’s run in a while and maybe the moisture gives her two in a row.
  • 7 Bartiromo – finally ran on a wet track last out and finished a distant second. That was encouraging enough for trainer Barbara to keep him in this off the turfer.
  • 9 Malibu Queen – nothing special about her wet track races but with the shortened field, she has a chance.

Enough of Bo Derek

Mary Cathleen Collins has done pretty well for herself. You probably know her better by her stage name, Bo Derek. Not everyone can reveal most of what you need to know about her life in four sentences. On the David Letterman show, she once  said,

“I was 16 when I quit high school. I didn’t really mean to quit. I spent a month going to the beach surfing and sunbathing while I was supposed to be in school: when I got caught my mom was furious. I started to go back to school, and I was really enjoying it, and then I went to go do this film with John in Greece…”

Seven years after going to Greece with John Derek, including a couple of years living in Germany where co-habitating with her future husband wouldn’t be problematic, she was reinvented as Bo Derek, snagging her iconic role in the movie 10. The rest, as they say is history. She became a hot property after her defining role, was subsequently cast in a few generally forgettable films, but eventually parlayed her popularity from 10 into a career serving as spokesperson or ambassador for various organizations.

So how is she qualified to be on the California Horse Racing Board (CHRB)? There is a reality to the appointments to most state boards and commissions. For the most part, the people who make it are either politically or personally connected to the Governor, or are being pushed by someone who is. In the case of horseracing commissions, it is also common for some members to have had long involvement as owners or breeders. which for the most part is seen as acceptable preparation for a body like the CHRB.  Ms. Derek was apparently less chosen for her race horse experience and political connections than being a member of the Hollywood community where former California governor Arnold Schwarzenegger apprenticed for his job, since her bio doesn’t go into much more depth than she owns Andalusians and has loved riding horses since she was young. The other six board members are something of a mixed bag.

The Chairman of the CHRB, Chuck Winner, came from a public relations background, founding the firm Winner and Associates. He began his career in the political world, working within the legislative and executive branches of the state and federal governments, and in senior management positions in numerous national, state and local campaigns.

The vice-chair, Richard Rosenberg, was the executive vice president of the William Morris Agency from 1992 to 2005, an agency that primarily represented Hollywood types, and primarily spent his career in that field.

Madeline Auerbach was the head of the Thoroughbred Owners of California, and has been involved for many years in horse ownership and breeding.

Steve Beneto has owned a plane rental business and has been a small-time race horse owner for decades.

Jesse Chopper was a professor of law at the University of California at Berkeley before coming to the CHRB. He has been a long-time horseracing fan, and had been looking for an appointment to the CHRB for a while. Upon his appointment he said, “I’ve loved the sport ever since my colleague, Larry Sullivan, took me to Golden Gate Fields in the late 60s. I was particularly fascinated by the challenge of handicapping, as well as the excitement of the horses coming down the stretch, and the whole atmosphere of the racetrack.”

George Krikorian worked in real estate for many years, and then opened a chain of movie theaters. He also has owned race horses for a long time, including Box Office Girl, Star Billing and Starrer.

It’s not up to me to determine if the CHRB has the ideal membership, but its composition is typical of racing boards around the country.

With the Breeder’s Cup at Santa Anita, it seemed natural to name Bo Derek as an “Ambassador to the Breeder’s Cup.” Her job was mostly to be Bo Derek, appear on the awards stand, hand out a trophy or two. Unfortunately, the Breeder’s Cup must have had an incredible brain cramp, because they decided Bo Derek should present the award to the winner of the Dirt Mile.

The favorite for that race was Goldencents, and he may have been the most logical favorite of the entire Breeder’s Cup suite of races. You can’t concede a race to any horse before it is run, but pretty much every serious handicapper recognized that Goldencents was bet correctly at 3-5.

The issue was not with Goldencents, but his regular trainer, Doug O’Neill. O’Neill had been cited by the CHRB for what they originally thought was a “milkshaking” violation for the horse Argenta. O’Neill decided to fight the citation, and pushed back hard against the CHRB. It was a messy battle and over the course of the year it took to ultimately resolve the issue there were some hard feelings on both sides (see my October 15 blog piece, TCO2 and Argenta). The point here is that Bo Derek was a horrible choice to present the trophy, especially given the high likelihood she was going to have to present it to the team that had recently gone through one of the more acrimonious cases decided by the CHRB.

That boneheaded move by the Breeder’s Cup was bad enough, especially since Ms. Derek should have immediately recognized the potential for, at the very least, an uncomfortable situation and been astute enough to tell the BC folks, I don’t think I would be the best person to present the award to WC Racing and O’Neill’s assistant, Leandro Mora.

Unfortunately, Ms. Derek decided to wait until they had reached the award stand for the Dirt Mile to express that sentiment, turning to Santa Anita President, Tom Ludt and saying, “I can’t believe you would have me give the trophy to these guys.” The blood drained from Ludt’s face when he realized she said it loud enough for the connections to hear it, and later he apologized to the principals. But, as the old saying goes, that horse had left the barn.

It’s hard not to be critical of Bo Derek as a CHRB member on a number of counts. Other than loving horses, about as low a bar as one could set for a commissioner, she seems to have very little in her background that suggests she has the depth or critical thinking skills to make an effective commissioner. For example, in CHRB meetings she has said that any trainer with a positive test is a cheater, which if nothing else points out she has a special enmity for trainer O’Neill. It’s hard to find someone who defends her abilities as a commissioner.

Chuck Winner has recognized some of the public relations problems horseracing has, and I understand at least part of the attraction of having Bo Derek on the Commission is that she is recognizable as “that 10 woman” by pretty much everyone over 40. She provides visibility to a sport in dire need of some way to attract players. But I believe once you’ve exposed yourself publicly as having personal biases, you have no business as a decision-maker. Certainly, you wouldn’t think the CHRB needs a member who blurts out something so inappropriate at the exact moment she should be acting in the best interests of Santa Anita and the Breeder’s Cup.

Bo Derek may have a soft spot for horses, but it’s long since time for her to step down from the CHRB. She was thrown into the deep end six years ago and this last incident makes it clear that while she may have public appeal in some quarters, she has worn out her welcome on the administrative side of horseracing.