02/02/2018 3:06PM

Hovdey: Funny money alters serious calculations

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One month into the 2018 season, some familiar trends already are developing in the national standings, especially among trainers. Steve Asmussen is setting the pace, with Bob Baffert and Chad Brown near the top, both of them just warming up.

There are a few surprises, as always happens early in the year, but none of the names jumps out like number 15 on the list, one J.A. Osborne, known as Jamie to his mates. Osborne made the list with one start, no firsts, seconds, or thirds in January, and earnings of $650,000. Number 16 was Jerry Hollendorfer, with 81 starts,18 wins, and $595,00 in earnings. Somebody is working way too hard.

Osborne, who trains in Upper Lambourn, west of London, is on the Equibase list because of the appearance of Toast of New York in the Pegasus World Cup. “Appearance” is the kindest possible reference, because the classy 7-year-old was far from ready to compete at that level after three years away from the races and a single, modest prep back home. He finished a distant last.

Toast of New York’s berth in the Pegasus was secured with a $1 million fee from his owner, Al Shaqab Racing, in partnership with a temporary group of investors that included Dean Reeves, Randy Hill, and Eric Young. They were hoping the old horse could hit the board and take down one of the top prizes, but they had to settle for the guaranteed $650,000 rebate on their original investment.

They were not alone. In the official Equibase chart of the Pegasus, the seven runners finishing sixth through 12th each were credited with $650,000 in earnings. Carrying forward into the data pool, each of their jockeys, trainers, and owners (some just for the day) also received a $650,000 bump in their official totals. Never was so much awarded, statistically at least, for so little in terms of results.

“I don’t expect to be paid anything above the mount fee, which was $1,000 for that race,” said Mike Smith, who rode Collected to a seventh-place finish. “But I guess I do get the credit in my stats.”

Ever since the Breeders’ Cup and then the Dubai World Cup entered the scene, earnings have been skewed in favor of horses who reap those considerable rewards for hitting the board. In that sense the Pegasus is merely the latest manifestation of the mega-event.

Many tracks pay token amounts to all participants no matter where they finished, usually in the low hundreds of dollars that would never impact the standings. But $650,000, for finishing 10th? Such an amount could have a ripple effect throughout the standings, and year-end totals can have a real impact in determining a championship, an Eclipse Award, or the advertising of a stallion.

Last year, Graham Motion and Peter Miller finished well within $650,000 of making the final top 10 in trainer earnings, which would have provided considerable bragging rights. Ditto 2015, when an extra $650,000 credited (but unspendable) would have leapfrogged either Mike Maker or Motion into the top 10. Among riders, Ramon Dominguez edged John Velazquez in 2010 by just $168,552 for the championship, while Garrett Gomez topped Dominguez by $186,583 in 2009.

Giant Expectations, the San Antonio winner who was a late invitee, was compromised by the 12 post and unable to overcome the disadvantage. He ended up ninth, beaten less than five lengths for third. The chart of the race reports that he earned $650,000, the same amount credited to trainer Pete Eurton, jockey Gary Stevens, and the ownership group.

“I was a little surprised to see that on the Equibase earnings,” said Ryan Exline, one of the partners in Giant Expectations. “We did not get any of that. It was not part of the deal we made. The Stronach Group put up the million dollars to fund our spot, so we were technically in a one-time partnership with them. Our contractual relationship meant that they would get the first $650,000 out from the purse earnings.”

The compilation and distribution of the Pegasus purse broke no recognizable rules, but did play havoc with common practice. The 11th-hour deals cut to flesh out a field of 12 resulted in not all of the competitors running for the same amount. The $650,000 in also-ran cash spread over the back of the field was either a partial refund of entry fees or a reversion of money to the event itself. And how healthy is it to have track management involved in even the temporary ownership of competing horses?

“It’s definitely untraditional because it’s an untraditional way of funding a purse,” said Tim Ritvo, COO of The Stronach Group. “The reason [jockeys and trainers] wouldn’t share in the $650,000 is in reality the owners still lost $350,000 after putting up the million dollars.”

Ritvo conceded that the $650,000 returned to the event based on the also-ran performances of the three invited runners might be better defined. The Stronach Group was represented in their temporary ownership as Pegasus Race Participants.

“It was part of the contracted arrangement with those horses,” Ritvo said. “But it’s something that would have to be looked into, that’s for sure.”

In the meantime, a horse like Giant Expectations is $650,000 richer, on paper.

“Even if we don’t have the money, I’ve got a million-dollar earner now,” Exline said. “I don’t know whether to celebrate or not.”