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Monday, February 27, 2012
Racing can learn from Little League

By Bob Ehalt

It may seem an odd source of inspiration, but New York racing can learn a thing or two from Little League baseball.

In dealing with fragile and developing throwing arms, there are restrictions on how many pitches per week a youngster can throw.

In light of some recent events, perhaps the New York Racing Association should institute its own version of the “pitch count” by restricting the amount of times a horse can race over a short period of time. How about mandatory a five-day gap between races? It seems pretty painless. It wouldn’t affect many horsemen and would have little to no impact the average number of daily starters.

It would also eliminate a frustrating problem for handicappers and the industry, while reducing strain on horses.

Is there really a downside to it?

All of this stems from this past Saturday’s Aqueduct card when trainer Linda Rice ran Lithe Legend in the fifth race. Some 48 hours earlier, on Thursday, Lithe Legend finished third in the fourth race. Because of the quick turnaround, the track program and Daily Racing Form editions lacked information on how Lithe Legend fared on Thursday, leaving some fans in the dark.

Compounding matters, NYRA did not declare Lithe Legend a non-wagering starter, and stipulate she run for purse money only. In a similar incident three months ago, when trainer Rick Dutrow Jr. raced Iron Lou on Nov. 6, two days after he ran on Nov. 4, the horse ran for purse money only.

Clearly, NYRA deserves a Big E on the Rheingold scoreboard (old Mets fans will recall that one) for that blunder as Lithe Legend finished fourth on Saturday, burning plenty of money as the 9-2 third choice in the wagering.

Establishing firm rules that would have mandated Lithe Legend run for purse only is a start, but in a game that’s propelled by wagering, the presence of non-wagering interests can create unnecessary headaches. Lithe Legend, for example, pressed the pace of the front-running Mad River, a 9-1 shot who finished fifth. Perhaps if Lithe Legend spent Saturday in the barn resting, Mad River gets brave on the front end and lands in the triple.

The presence of a Lithe Legend in a field can also be exasperating to a handicapper who studies a race the night before it’s run. The general expectation is that a horse like her would be scratched. Instead it runs and then in some way, shape or form affects the outcome.

A major part of the problem is that while it might be assumed that Thoroughbreds are too fragile to compete effectively when given less rest than a starting pitcher, they are usually competitive. More precisely, they tend to run back to that very last race.

The infamous Oscar Barrera would often run a horse on a couple of days rest and win at 3-5 odds. Just last week, Dutrow won a high-priced claiming race at Aqueduct on Friday with This Ones for Phil and then 72 hours later sent him out to finish second -- to a stablemate -- in a graded stakes, the $200,000 Grade 2 General George at Laurel.

A few years back, in discussing horses on short rest with Len Freidman, a partner with Ragozin Thoroughbred Data, which puts out The Sheets, a question was raised about the way he views a horse on 2 or 3 days rest. Keep in mind, the Ragozin -- and Thoro-graph, too -- philosophy revolves around a sufficient amount of rest after a taxing effort. His response is that they can sometimes duplicate or come close to their last-race figure, but then need an extended rest to recover from the strain of back-to-back races.

Which means, good luck wagering on Lithe Legend if she returns to the races in another week or so. It’s unlikely she’ll run faster than she did Saturday unless she gets a vacation until April, though there’s even no absolute guarantee of that for beleaguered handicappers. She could be an exception to the rule that runs huge next time, creating more angst for the wagering public.

And, in a worst case scenario, what happens when a horse running on two days rest breaks down? There might not be medical evidence linking short rest and breakdowns, but why should facts suddenly get in the way of public opinion.

So why risk it? Put a protective rule in place to end all of the confusion and uncertainty, and look like good, caring guys and gals. For the sake of a few starts a month, why not? It makes sense.

If we can be protective of a 10-year-old’s arm, is there really anything wrong with safeguarding the legs of 3-year-olds and the wallets of 21-year-olds and up?

And what are your thoughts on this? Is running for purse money only enough? Is a 4 or 5 or 6 day ban fine? Or should it be a case of “gambler beware” with no set policy?