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COVID, cold, Churchill: Whither the 2021 NHC

By Ron Flatter  (VSiN.com) 

NHC_Ballys_NTRA
Bally’s Las Vegas is scheduled to welcome back the National Horseplayers Championship this summer. (Horsephotos/NTRA)

Las Vegas

There was a time not so long ago when the National Horseplayers Championship was an immovable fixture the week before the Super Bowl.

“In hindsight I’m happy it wasn’t held this past weekend,” said Keith Chamblin, chief operating officer of the National Thoroughbred Racing Association. “We may have had some cancellations because of the storm in the northeast.”

Weather is the least of the NTRA’s challenges in staging the nation’s biggest tournament for racehorse handicappers. Moved three years ago to the week after the Super Bowl, it was supposed to happen this month at Bally’s Las Vegas. That was before the pandemic forced a postponement to Aug. 27-29.

The one-time move into the scorching desert summer might be a good excuse for horseplayers to stay away. But Chamblin said there are 3 million good reasons why he expects participation will be just as strong as it has been in the winter.

“Participation has always been in the 99th percentile,” Chamblin said. “It will continue to be so regardless of when we hold the event, because people are so anxious to play for upwards of $3 million. I think we could run this just about any time of the year.”

Even though it will be 18 months between events, the qualifying window for this summer’s NHC is already almost completely closed. It will still be limited to competitors who qualified during the 2020 NHC Tour and those who win their way in through a last-chance qualifier in August on the eve of the championship.

Oh, yes. There is the not so small matter of making the tournament safe if the COVID crisis lingers. That also means not leaving it to the last minute to decide whether to press ahead this summer.

“We don’t know for sure right now how many people will be able to receive the vaccine in advance of August,” Chamblin said. “We’re going to have to examine the environment that we’re all living in in late spring and make some real decisions about the August event and our ability to host it.”

Presuming the event goes forward as rescheduled, Chamblin said added social distancing is a certainty. That means even the enormous Bally’s Event Center might not be able to handle roughly 600 spread-out competitors. Additional space might have to be carved out in other rooms. That is unless a lot of contestants decide it is still safer to stay home.

“I anticipate that there will be a number of people who won’t be comfortable flying or traveling or being in Las Vegas in August even if they’ve gotten the vaccine,” Chamblin said. “We’re going to have to figure out how to take care of those people, because I think we’re going to have to be willing to be understanding and show some compassion.”

For those who are able to make the trip, a higher-profile track menu will be on offer, including the summertime meets at Saratoga and Del Mar.

“I’m sure some participants will view this as a dramatic upgrade to the quality of racing available to them in February,” Chamblin said. “From that standpoint I think our participants are going to be very happy with the racetracks available to them.”

That also brings to mind the tracks that will not. If the 16-month dispute between Churchill Downs Inc. and the Nevada Pari-Mutuel Association lingers into the summer, Arlington Park will not be part of the NHC program. That is no big deal compared with gaps that could be on the menu when the contest returns to its usual wintertime date next year. The Fair Grounds, Oaklawn Park and Turfway Park, all tracks with CDI-controlled signals, would be unavailable if the dispute drones on into a third year.

“Turfway has never been part of the NHC anyway because they run at night,” Chamblin said. “But certainly, Fair Grounds and Oaklawn are extremely popular. We’d have to look at either going with fewer tracks, which we used to do, or we’d have to look at adding new tracks that are available in Las Vegas. It would definitely be a cause for concern.”

Asked if a worst-case scenario could lead the NTRA to consider moving the NHC out of Nevada, Chamblin said, “I don’t think it would go that far. I would hate to think that it would force us to consider other host locations. Let’s hope it never gets to that.”

Presuming there are no further complications from COVID or other acts of God and Nevada’s racebook cartel, the 22nd renewal of the nation’s biggest contest for horse handicappers will go forward in August, and the 23rd back at its old slot the week before the Super Bowl.

“In 2022, due to conflicts at Bally’s, we’ll go Jan. 28-30,” Chamblin said. “That’s the date on the calendar, and we’ve got Bally’s, and we’re looking forward to a return there.”

Considering the circumstances of the last 11 months, Chamblin amended that.

“Barring the unforeseen.”

Racing notes and opinions

Despite wins by a combined 10¾ lengths in his last two races, pacesetting Capo Kane (3-1) is not the morning-line favorite to win Saturday’s $250,000 Grade 3 Withers Stakes at Aqueduct, a 1⅛-mile points prep for the Kentucky Derby. Instead, it is Chad Brown-trained Risk Taking (5-2), a turf convert that comes back from winning a slowly run, nine-furlong maiden race over the same course in December. The betting public may yet beg to differ Saturday. Since stretching to a mile-plus in late November, Capo Kane has led at every call. With Dylan Davis riding from post 3 for Parx-based trainer Harry Wyner, the Street Sense colt might find himself in an early speed duel with a maiden winner from Todd Pletcher’s barn. Donegal Bay (7-2), a colt by Uncle Mo, finished 4¼ lengths ahead in a one-turn mile nearly two months ago at Gulfstream Park. Eagle Orb (10-1) drew widest in Saturday’s field of nine, and he was a distant second to Capo Kane in the Withers, but he might benefit from a second turn and a drier track. Painful as it is to bet the chalk, it is more painful to lose. Capo Kane and Donegal Bay look a cut above the rest, so they look good to box with Eagle Orb and minor stakes winner Shackqueenking (10-1). In other words, I dare class jumper Risk Taking to prove me dead wrong. With a sunny forecast and a high of 38 in New York, the Withers is scheduled for Saturday at 4:25 p.m. EST.

Pletcher has trained a record six winners in the $250,000 Grade 3 Sam F. Davis Stakes, all between 2006 and 2016. Maiden winner Known Agenda (6-1) looks like his best chance for No. 7 in Saturday’s renewal of the 8½-furlong Kentucky Derby points prep at Tampa Bay Downs. The Curlin colt did not take to the slop in his last start, a distant third two months ago in the Grade 2 Remsen at Aqueduct. His lone win came at 1⅛ miles against a slow-running field that he clearly outclassed. It certainly will not be so easy this weekend. Not with the likes of morning-line favorite Smiley Sobotka (3-1) in the 12-horse field. Sired by Brody’s Cause and trained by Dale Romans, he came back from his maiden victory to finish a close second Thanksgiving weekend in the Grade 2 Kentucky Jockey Club. The play here will be on Boca Boy (5-1), a would-be pacesetter that has two wins, a second and a third in Gulfstream Park four starts – none on fast dirt. Graduating from restricted stakes for trainer Cheryl Winebaugh, the gelding by Prospective gets hot local jockey Antonio Gallardo. The National Weather Service says there is a 50-50 chance of showers and thunderstorms. Dry or not, Boca Boy could lead this one from gate to wire. The Sam Davis is scheduled for Saturday at 5:02 p.m. EST, although Tampa Bay Downs is notorious for post-time drag.

Three weeks after his debut win earned him a Beyer Speed Figure of 88, Concert Tour (8-5) moves up to stakes competition Saturday when trainer Bob Baffert sends him into the $200,000 Grade 2 San Vicente at Santa Anita. The seven-furlong race that is a de facto Derby prep without points could turn into a speed contest among three of the five starters. The Chosen Vron (5-2) won by 6¾ lengths in his Christmas weekend debut for trainer Eric Kruljac. Freedom Fighter (5-2), the “other Baffert,” returns to the track for the first time since his narrow victory in his first start last summer at Del Mar. Concert Tour keeps jockey Joel Rosario but comes off Lasix for this race. Freedom Fighter was never on it. The lean here is to him and Drayden Van Dyke with Concert Tour and the Doug O’Neill maiden winner Found My Ball (3-1) included. With ideal weather forecast, the San Vicente is posted for Saturday at 6 p.m. EST.

Gamine was disqualified from her third-place finish in the Kentucky Oaks after a positive drug test from last September was confirmed. The Kentucky Horse Racing Commission made the decision four months after the first report that the Baffert-trained filly had been flagged. It marked the third time since May that a Baffert horse had been disqualified for positive tests – and the second time it happened to Gamine. A colleague wondered, if we in the media had known this outcome before Eclipse Award ballots were due early last month, would we have voted Gamine the champion female sprinter? A similar question came up last year, when trainer Jason Servis was indicted in an FBI horse-doping sting after Maximum Security had been voted the champion male 3-year-old of 2019. Perhaps the Eclipse Awards should have a new category: Most Likely to Need An Asterisk.

Ron Flatter’s racing column is available every Friday morning at VSiN.com and more frequently during coverage of big races. You may also hear the Ron Flatter Racing Pod posted Friday mornings at VSiN.com/podcasts. Kentucky Derby qualifying points are there for the taking in New York and Florida, and the RFRP previews both of this weekend’s races. Trainer Harry Wyner talks about Withers Stakes favorite Capo Kane. Mike Henry of Tampa Bay Downs looks ahead to the Sam F. Davis Stakes. Paul Zilm of Circa Sports handicaps both preps. The RFRP is available for download and free subscription at iHeart, Apple, Google, Spotify and Stitcher. It is sponsored by 1/ST BET.

 

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