Monday, July 21, 2014

The Haskell: A Day of Summer Fun...and Pretending?

--Drew Rauso

   Back in my very first post, the opening line was a quote about how little informed people my age are about the sport of racing. The line was, “I like that one’s name; he’s my favorite.” Today, a week before the William Hill Haskell Invitational, a similarly uninformed conversation was struck up between yours truly and several other excited 20-somethings.
    “You have to go! It’s so much fun; we dress classy and then drink all afternoon." Now, being in the same age bracket as these lovely friends of mine, I have grown accustomed to the word “classy” being thrown around like a Frisbee at a summer party. However, as many as my friends and all the other countless young Haskell-goers will soon see, the classiest event they’ll be going to is work the next morning.
   Here in the heart of central New Jersey, the Haskell spells summer just as much as the beach; everyone from Long Branch to Middletown and in between marks their calendars every year to attend the $1 million race. Unfortunately, the race takes a backseat to the afternoon of drinking, socializing and eating. In taking a closer look, though, is that such a bad thing?
   The race attracts upwards of 45,000+ people, and at $5 a head for a grandstand ticket and $8 for the clubhouse, Monmouth Park will take in a considerable amount of cash next weekend. When all those tickets are paid for, do the businessmen of the sport really care if they’re watching the race or not? In their eyes, couldn’t it be said that they have already won, getting the money out of the spectators’ pockets and into the cash flow of the park.
   While 50,000 people isn’t even close to what the Triple Crown races attract, the well-known park in Oceanport handles the crowd well, with games and activities abounding. This year, in what may be seen as a direct grab to attract more young people, Monmouth Park has teamed up with Lily Pulitzer and Tommy Bahama. The “Best Dressed” couple will receive a $200 gift card to both stores, and I can only describe it as a marketing ploy toward the many 20-year-olds who would love to get $200 for looking “fresh.”

The Great Gatsby
www.media-feed.com
   This part of the Haskell, the part where young people like dressing up to go a horse race and appear (dare-I-say) classy, is where the pretending comes in to play. In much the same way that a country music artist arrives at PNC Arts Center to thousands of ripped jeans, cowboy boots and hats, there is a facade at the track. This veil, with which seemingly more and more central Jerseyans like to cover reality, has a southern twang to it. While understanding that racing and the south do not go hand-in-hand, it just doesn’t feel right to be in pastel shorts, bowties and oversized hats north of the Mason-Dixon Line, but maybe that’s just me. At the same time, if that is the point-of-entry racing needs to attract young people, then so be it. Run with the dress-up advertisement as a throwback; everybody loves a Gatsby party, right?
   Let the racegoers get drawn to the track for reasons other than racing, if that is what works (and after my conversations, it is) and let the grandeur of the sport in person work its magic. There is no use in trying to market the race, while as some people would say it is extremely important, without the title of Triple Crown hanging overhead, the vast majority just won’t find it captivating. But that is alright! Let them be convinced otherwise AT THE TRACK, not before they get there. Even to the casual fan, there are recognizable names that ran in the Triple Crown races, so the level of pedigree will be acknowledged. Wildcat Red, Social Inclusion and Bayern are some of the horses that I personally remember seeing over the last couple months.

Bayern
www.SportsNetwork.com
   While it may be a hard pill to swallow, maybe the best way to advertise racing is not to advertise it all. Put on more “Best Dressed” promotions, or other seemingly silly contests so that people feel like they can be a part of something all afternoon. The Haskell hat, now a local tradition, is another great marketing tool. It can never be said enough, but everyone loves free stuff. Then, once the crowds are at the track, let the animals speak for themselves. In terms of a marketing gambit, trying to convince young people that the Haskell is a very important race not named Kentucky, Preakness nor Belmont is an incredibly difficult task.
   The lure of the track is unavoidable; don’t hinder its magic by over-advertising. Let the day speak for itself, and fans will come to watch, drink, hang out and spend money. Heck, I know I will.

Wednesday, July 16, 2014

A Race Fit for a Queen?


by Christina Bossinakis
    Neatly nestled between a pair of the iconic race meetings at Royal Ascot and Saratoga, the Queen’s Plate at Woodbine Racetrack in Toronto is an event I always look forward to. Maybe it’s because I am a native Canadian or it could be that I enjoy the pomp and circumstance that the 1 1/4-mile race draws. Or maybe it has something to do with the presence of royalty (that doesn’t happen every year, but it is always exciting when it does). However, I think one of the biggest reasons I enjoy the Queen’s Plate so is that I grew up enjoying Canadian racing during a time when Canadians really didn’t receive a steady diet of American racing on TV outside of the American Triple Crown and Breeders’ Cup.
   First held in 1860, the Queen’s Plate holds the distinction of being the oldest continuously run race in North America. Yes, that makes it older than its American counterpart, the Kentucky Derby, which was first run in 1875. Canadians are intensely proud of their marquee race and its long and storied history. I attended my first Queen’s Plate in 1989, the year that The Queen Mother was in attendance, and Kinghaven Farms’ With Approval won. The classy grey went on to take the next two legs of the Canadian Triple Crown–the Prince of Wales S. at Fort Erie and Breeders’ S. In fact, I was actually in attendance at Woodbine to witness Canada crown With Approval as its eighth Triple Crown winner (the third since the three races were actually called the ‘Triple Crown’). What a moment. That whole experience helped stoke my passion for racing and is a big reason why I remain a fan of Canadian racing today.
Northern Dancer
   As a Canadian living in the U.S. for many years now, I have heard my fair share of Canadian jokes. I’ve been referred to as a Canuck, a hoser and everything in between. People often think I must say, ‘Ay’ (for the record, I do not) and I am chided for my Canadian accent (like the way I might say ‘out and about’ or ‘dollar’). As a result, I never really get overly worked up when my American counterparts poke fun at the Queen’s Plate, suggesting it is not a legitimate Classic. That is until a recent exchange with somebody whose opinion I admire and point of view I value tremendously. The argument was that the race is not a ‘true’ Classic, because restricted races could not be considered Classics. I reacted as any Canadian worth their salt would in a similar situation. My back went up, way up. I have to admit, I became very defensive because the Queen’s Plate and its champions have always been something that I have been very staunchly proud.
   ‘What about Northern Dancer?’ I thought. He won the Plate in 1964, the same season he won the Kentucky Derby and Preakness, and later went on to become one of the greatest sires of all time. I instantly thought a bevy of champion fillies that have also won it, including Flaming Page (1962, 2nd in Kentucky Oaks; dam of Euro Triple Crown and champion sire Nijinsky II & Epsom Derby hero The Minstrel); and La Lorgnette (1985; dam of G1SW Hawk Wing). We can’t forget Canadian Triple Crown heroine Dance Smartly, a juvenile champion in Canada, and who added a 3yo filly title in both Canada and the U.S. following a win in the BC Distaff. In turn, she produced Dancethruthedawn (won in 2001), who went on to take Saratoga’s Go For Wand. Past winners also include New Providence (Canadian Triple Crown hero in ‘59); Victoria Park (1960; HOTY in Canada; 2nd in Blue Grass & Preakness; 3rd in Ky Derby); the aforementioned With Approval (Canadian HOTY in 1989; winner of the GII Bowling Green, 2nd in the Breeders’ Cup Turf, Arlington Million & Sword Dancer); and Alydeed (1992; winner of the GI Carter and runner-up in the Preakness). And who can forget 1997 winner Awesome Again, who went on to take the Breeders’ Cup Classic and Whitney before embarking on a successful career at stud in the U.S.

Awesome Again
   So after patting myself on the back for coming up with the list of top notch horses that were competitive at the highest level, both in Canada and in the States, I quickly realized several factors. First, the most recent of this group to win the Plate was Awesome Again in 1997. One can argue that Wild Desert, the 2005 Plate winner, later placed in both the GI Clark and GI Suburban and should be considered among the top horses who were able to extend their form south of the border. However, I have to admit, I just didn’t think of him. Though he was conditioned by one of the best American trainers of all time, Bobby Frankel, he was neither a graded winner nor a champion. Upon further investigation, the second issue I found enlightening although not surprising was that every one of the horses that I felt stood out, in my mind at least, were bred or campaigned by a handful of breeding/racing titans in the Canadian Thoroughbred industry; Winfields Farm (5); Kinghaven Farms (2); Sam-Son Farm (2) and Frank Stronach (1). I can already feel I will become assaulted by those of you who feel I left out such top-class performers like Kennedy Road (1971); L’Enjouleur (1975); Steady Growth (1979); Key to the Moon (1984); Golden Choice (1986); Izvestia (1990); Peteski (1993) and Wando (2003) (by the way, several of these horses were also bred/campaigned by those industry leaders . All lovely horses, to be sure. However, my point is, how many of those would people from outside of Canada, and who don’t particularly follow the Canadian racing scene, even recognize?
   In the last 25 years, we have seen many of the influential breeding/racing operations scale back or disappear entirely (although Sam-Son did win the Plate in 2009 with Eye of the Leopard). The argument becomes how many of the winners in the last 10 or 15 years have gone on to race at the highest level, and have an impact, outside of Canada? While some might argue that is not a big deal in itself, I counter that it is significant since it has become quite commonplace for horses to ship across the border to compete in the big races in our neighbor’s backyard.
   One of my favorite racetracks in North America, Woodbine has done a fantastic job promoting and developing races like the Woodbine Mile and Canadian International into events that not only draw runners from south of the border, but from across the pond as well. It’s hard to dismiss the fact that the influx of top-grade runners strengthens the Canadian industry. Well, why not take it a step further and open the Queen’s Plate (and in fact, the entire Canadian Triple Crown) to runners bred outside of Canada?
   I can hear the cries of disdain and the accusations of treason already. I understand that the Queen’s Plate is Canada’s big prize, meant to reward Canadians for all their efforts in owning, breeding, riding and training racehorses. However, opening it to foreign breds would not only mean a boost in the level of competition domestically, but it would also bolster the significance of the Canadian bred outside of the country. Canada’s Sovereign Awards (equivalent to Eclipse Awards in the U.S.) can only be bestowed upon a horse that has raced in Canada no less than three times (as a 3yo; 2 times at two); well why can’t participation in the Triple Crown races be structured similarly? The increased interest from owners and trainers outside of Canada would not only make the Queen’s Plate itself more competitive, but it would also serve to draw stronger fields to the Triple Crown’s traditional prep races. Competitive fields would in turn generate greater betting handle on domestic races, which in this day and age is no small thing. And for those that might argue that opening up the races to outside runners would be taking money away from Canadians, there could be an additional nomination fee levied on horses bred outside of the country and that could be added to the purse. Ultimately, stronger participation would mean the race could become eligible to garner graded status, which would prove be of even greater significance to a horses’ stud career upon his or her retirement.
   I want to be clear, the goal is not to take something away from Canadians or dilute Canada’s historic race(s). Rather, the hope is that the Queen’s Plate could be structured into a format that would leave no room to doubt that it is anything but a veritable Classic.

Thursday, July 10, 2014

Guest Post: The Last Resort

--Mark Cramer

   If you can't get reservations for the seaside Deauville meets, as a last resort you can go up the Normandy coast to Dieppe. It's a resort town for the claiming ranks of vacationers--a stony beach, but a magnificent palisade and a castle towering amidst rolling green hills above the beach.
   A half-hour walk inland from the beach is the Dieppe race course, also a last resort, for some horses that have not been able to make it at the Paris tracks or at Deauville. The conditions for the ninth and final race were “for horses that were not among the top-five finishers in their last five races, excepting small tracks that do not offer national pari-mutuel wagering.”  
   I have become a lover of such country tracks. Often big-time stables come slumming, expecting to pick up an easy win, only to be thwarted by the hillbillies of the Thoroughbred world.  
   A few years ago, I bicycled 100 kilometers from outside of Paris to Dieppe, not even knowing there was a race course there. The road leading into town passed along the empty backstretch, and I resolved to return on a racing day, which I did this past Tuesday.
   Also arriving in Dieppe was the Irish filly Cocktail Queen, daughter of Motivator (none other than the sire of Treve, winner of the 2013 Arc de Triomphe). Cocktail Queen had just finished fifth in a field of seven in a Group 3 race at Ascot for a purse of £60,000. She was now racing for a €20,000 purse.

Outdoor café culture at the Dieppe race course.

   She got beat by Storm River (Stormy River {Fr}), a French-bred gelding coming from a claiming race with a €23,000 purse. Dieppe is a place where scores are settled. Winning gentleman rider Florent Guy is often involved in such small track retribution against aristocratic invaders, with 24% wins and 59% in the money, incredible stats considering the large average field size in France.
   I bet on a similar pattern in the third race, for women amateur riders. The favorite had once been in the G1 French Derby and was now slumming for a purse of €15,000. Among the riders, only two had respectable win percentages: the rider of the favorite, with 10% wins, and the rider of the horse I backed, Madmoiselle Barbara Guenet, with 32% winners. Because of this jockey stat, I found myself betting on a claimer against a former stakes contender. My claimer won at 8-1.
   The anti-aristocrat bet does not always win at places like Dieppe and AndrĂ© Fabre broke the pattern in the 6th race by winning with a colt named Fauve (Ire) (Montjeu {Ire}) at 4/1. It was a poet's victory, with "Fabre" and "fauve" forming a near perfect alliteration in French pronunciation.
   The arts were also alive in the walking ring, where a local painter stood in a kiosk before his easel and did a painting of the horses. The winning rider of the seventh race was to be awarded the work of art. Raphael Marchelli won the race, but was later fined by the jockey club for "abusive use of the whip-nine lashes." The fine was €75, but he got to keep the painting. 

Horses coming on to the track. The receiving barn in the background has typical
Normandy spires.

   When I first wheeled past an empty Dieppe race course a few years ago, the French renaissance of small rural tracks had only just begun. Most small tracks offered only local wagering that was not tied into the national French PMU. This afternoon's Dieppe racing was simulcast across the nation.
   The locals showed up in good numbers for the racing, with encouragement from the regional newspaper, Paris Normandie Dieppe Bray, which published a four-page spread on the day's races, including abbreviated past performances.
   There'll be racing on July 14th to celebrate the French national holiday. After the racing, you can stroll down to the beach along a side street with a vibrant display of colorful Normandy brick architecture, then watch the sunset and see the fireworks.
   My plan is to visit all 250 French race tracks. Dieppe was my 23rd.  Each of these smaller rural tracks is different.
   What was distinct about Dieppe? The artist with his easel in the walking ring, the grassy apron, the rolling green hills behind the backstretch, the typical Normandy spires of the receiving barn, and the mile-and-a-half circumference more in the form of a triangle than an oval, with three turns to get around, with the jockeys vying for the outside rail in the stretch drive.

Jockeys vie for the outer rail in the stretch.

   But French rural tracks have one thing in common. There's an intimacy that allows the racing fan to chat with the jockeys and trainers, get a close look at the horses, and even voice opinions directly to the management.
 

Saturday, July 5, 2014

A Live Queen's Plate Longshot

--Brian DiDonato

   I don’t think I’ve ever picked a Queen’s Plate winner. I did talk my father off last year’s 16-1 upsetter Midnight Aria, however. He wasn’t very happy. So consider that a disclaimer before I state my case for a horse who I think is an extremely live longshot in Sunday's feature...
   Three of the last four Queen’s Plates have been won by the pacesetter: Big Red Mike (2010, 5-1), Strait of Dover (2012, 7-2) and Midnight Aria (2013, 16-1). Despite an average of 13 horses in those three renewals, North America’s longest-running race seems to differ significantly in terms of dynamics from the U.S. equivalent. The nature of the Kentucky Derby makes it close to impossible to go box to wire, but the Queen’s Plate seems to feature the opposite phenomenon in recent years. Maybe it’s the different surfaces the two races are contested over, or maybe I’m just being fooled by randomness, but I expect this recent trend to continue in 2014.
   Heart to Heart, who’s 30-1 on the morning line but will likely go off at about half that price at post time, was a decent, if not standout 2-year-old last term while trained by Mike Stidham. He was beaten a nose in the six-panel Vandal S. here last August while finishing ahead of two other Queen’s Plate runners, and finished off his juvenile campaign with a fourth-place run in the nine-furlong Coronation Futurity in which a number of these horses competed. That final 2013 effort wasn’t bad considering he was a bit headstrong early and was being asked to carry his speed over a distance that’s probably a bit too far for most 2-year-olds.
   Subsequently transferred to Brian Lynch, Heart to Heart resurfaced in a grassy one-mile Keeneland allowance in April, and couldn’t have been much more impressive setting quick splits before drawing off to win by 6 1/4 lengths. He earned a 92 Beyer Speed Figure for that effort--tied with Lexie Lou’s Woodbine Oaks win for the fastest race by any horse in the Queen’s Plate. Jessica’s Star, second in that allowance, has won three times since then, including last Saturday’s GIII Iowa Derby.
   Heart to Heart was a very close sixth last time in the Marine S., but I think you can toss that effort. His rider took a hard hold of him early despite what looked like a significant pace edge, and he just wasn’t quite as effective. Now Eurico Rosa da Silva, winner of the 2009 and 2010 Queen’s Plates climbs aboard, and there’s no way he won’t send Heart to Heart.
   The distance might prove too far, but the aforementioned Strait of Dover was also by English Channel (who could obviously run all day himself), and I’ll take my chances in the stretch if Heart to Heart can get to that point without much pressure.

Bonus Pick: I really like Main Sequence in Monmouth's GI United Nations S. He has some very good European form and Graham Motion does extremely well with foreign imports making their first Stateside starts.

Friday, July 4, 2014

Belmont Derby Horse-by-Horse Analysis

--Brian DiDonato

#1 Toast of New York (3-1) - Enters this as the buzz horse off a decisive 2 1/2-length win in the G2 UAE Derby in March (video), but I’m very much against him here. For starters, I’m not sure he beat much at Meydan. He’s also completely unproven on turf, with all three of his wins having come on synthetic surfaces. The bay certainly doesn’t have Bobby’s Kitten speed, but he’s rail drawn and tactical--there’s a good chance he could get taken out of his game having to chase a type of speed he's never seen before. Potentially being fresh off the break won't help matters. At a short price, he can beat me.

#2 Sheldon (30-1) - Trainer Jimmy Toner is red hot, but can’t imagine this recent maiden winner making much of an impact on the steep class hike.

#3 Bobby’s Kitten (6-1) - Clearly this aforementioned speedster has serious ability, but I just can’t envision him seeing out 10 panels—especially against a field of this caliber. He rated effectively last time in the Penn Mile (video), but he was tugging pretty hard, and two more furlongs just can’t possibly be better for him.

#4 Adelaide (7-2) - This is the type of European I look for--he seems like a major stand-out. The bay is lightly raced with plenty of upside, and is already a convincing Group 3 winner over heavy ground going this distance in the G3 Gallinule S. (video). He had a less-than-perfect trip last time in Royal Ascot's G2 King Edward VII S. (video), but did well enough to be second going an additional quarter mile. According to DRF Formulator, trainer Aidan O'Brien is nine-for-35 (26%) with a $3.21 ROI in North America over the past five years with horses running on Lasix--hard to argue with that stat.

#5 Flamboyant (15-1) - Thought his winning Stateside debut in Santa Anita's La Puente S. (video) was visually impressive (and looks even better after the runner-up took his next two), but didn't like how he let Gala Award battle back in the Pennine Ridge. Not sold on him at this distance, but wouldn't be shocked if he won or ran well.

#6 Dance With Fate (10-1) - Definitely appears better on turf or synthetic. His GI Blue Grass S. win was nice (video), even if he got a solid pace set-up. Has some distance questions to answer, but he was running on pretty well in the GI Kentucky Derby. Definitely one of the better U.S.-based chances.

#7 Gailo Chop (5-1) - One of the harder reads in the race for me. He beat a horse in the G3 Prix la Force (video) who came back to beat Adelaide, but he did get a perfect drafting trip to do it. Then he seemed to get away with an easy lead last out in the Prix Noailles (video). He may run into a similar problem like that of Toast of New York--he's not as fast as Bobby's Kitten, but the race won't be run slow up front like he's accustomed to and he might get dragged into running too fast early. I also don't like that he's not getting Lasix. Play against at 5-1, but could see reevaluating if he gets lost on the tote.

#8 Pornichet (10-1) - I'm a big fan of the "other Euro" angle, and this is the horse who fits the bill. He wasn't beaten much when third in the G1 Poule d'Essai des Poulains (video) and, most interestingly, is now trained by legendary Australian conditioner Gai Waterhouse after a private purchase. Distance is, again, the big question, but previous conditioner Nicolas Clement was already considering the bay for this event, and Waterhouse purchased him as a G1 Melbourne Cup prospect, so the consensus among some very capable horsepeople seems to be that he'll handle the trip just fine.

#9 Mr Speaker (15-1) - Was on the verge of tossing this runner when I remembered my new rule to give every Shug McGaughey horse going 10 furlongs or more an extra look--according to Formulator, he's a gaudy 34% with a $3.29 ROI in that category over the past five seasons. Mr Speaker's form was very good before the Pennine Ridge, in which he pretty much stopped after finding himself on the lead. I'm just going to toss his last and give him another shot at a much bigger price than what he would have been had he run to his 95-100 odds last time.

#10 Global View (12-1) - Closed very quickly to win the GII American Turf S. two back (video), but that race came against a much weaker field. Was no match for Bobby's Kitten last time in the Penn Mile, and while as a Galileo he should appreciate the trip, there's no way he'll appreciate it more than the other Galileo (Adelaide).

#11 Gala Award (10-1) - Was a deserving winner of the Pennine Ridge (video), and he also beat Mr Speaker (who rallied from very far back) earlier this year in the GIII Palm Beach S. The 11 post is by no means a death sentence at 10 panels, but it does put him in an awkward position tactically. Can see him getting a wide trip out in no man's land, and not sure he's good enough to overcome such a disadvantage. Figures to take money as well considering his connections.

Play: Win on #4 Adelaide at 3-1+. Exacta key box 4 w/ #6 Dance With Fate, #8 Pornichet and #9 Mr Speaker. Will use those four in pick threes and doubles (and an imaginary all-stakes pick four). 

Belmont Oaks Horse-by-Horse Analysis

--Brian DiDonato

#1 Gold Espony (10-1) - Seems like a true 1 1/4-mile horse--has pretty much run exclusively at or close to the distance. Really liked her win three back in the Prix Rose de Mai (video), in which her final time was some :04 2/5 quicker than Belmont Derby contender Gailo Chop over the same course and distance on the same card. Not sure how much stock you can put in French final times, but it's certainly noteworthy. Was game to subsequently annex the G3 Prix Penelope (video), but didn't run a step in the G1 Prix Saint-Alary. Maybe she bled? Gets Lasix for strong connections--major chance, especially if she's sent right to the front in a field that isn't filled with true speed.

#2 Room Service (3-1) - Her last two races look good on paper, but she might be a little dressed up. The early pace of the GI Ashland S. (video) was off-the-charts fast, and the GI American Oaks featured a three-way pace battle up front that set the table for closers (video). Don't see her getting the same set-up here, and she won't be much of a price.

#3 My Conquestadory (12-1) - Was vastly overrated after her win in the GI Alcibiades S. last fall (video), but she ran better than I expected when fourth in the GI Breeders' Cup Juvenile Fillies Turf. Resurfaced in Woodbine's GIII Selene S. in May, and was out-nosed despite setting glacial fractions (video). She'll have to run a whole lot better here to compete, and think she'll prove best as a late-running miler.

#4 Summer Solo (30-1) - She's a nice filly, but this is a very tall task.

#5 Flying Jib (5-1) - One of my favorite types of Euros to bet against--she's almost certainly going to find this trip too far. Sire Oasis Dream was an excellent sprinter who finished 10th in the 2003 BC Mile in his only route attempt; dam Jibboom was a nice Frankel runner, but she never won beyond 1 1/16 miles and was probably best at about seven furlongs.

#6 Rosalind (12-1) - Got the same set-up in the Ashland as Room Service. Can excuse her GI Kentucky Oaks fourth (though she didn't run terribly all things considered). Dropped her rider when ambitiously spotted in Royal Ascot's G1 Coronation S. June 20, so certainly doesn't come into this optimally. Always seems to have a following, and still not sure how good she is.

#7 Xcellence (5-2) - Morning-line favorite seems to be getting plenty of buzz on twitter off two thirds in Group 1 company. Handled more ground in the Prix de Diane last time (video), but she's done nothing to suggest she's some sort of world beater. For as profitable as it can be to bet Europeans in American grass races, the shorter-priced runners are rarely the ones you want. Doesn't get Lasix, and won't be getting much of my money--maybe just on some back-up tickets.

#8 Wonderfully (12-1) - It's impossible to know what to do with this horse. She's been a complete non-factor in two races this year. Maybe Lasix will help, but her 2013 form was decent enough that it doesn't seem particularly likely that bleeding is the issue. Using sparingly by default.

#9 Minorette (12-1) - Has run sneaky-well in both of her Stateside races. Was simply too far back in a front-end dominated one-mile allowance at Keeneland Apr. 6, but still flew home to be third. Runner-up A Little Bit Sassy returned to annex the Edgewood S. before getting DQ'd in the GIII Regret S. Chad Brown trainee made a wide, premature move in the Wonder Again S. (video) before getting reeled in by Sea Queen. Could be poised for another step forward, and more ground shouldn't be a problem if she gets a better trip.

#10 Recepta (20-1) - Don't expect her to find the improvement she needs with the added ground.

#11 Sea Queen (10-1) - First inclination was to take a negative view considering what a perfect trip she had in the Wonder Again, but it's not like the rest of her form isn't solid. Going to include, but again, sort of by default since I'm against the favorites.

Play: Win on #1 Gold Espony at 8-1+ or #9 Minorette at 12-1+. Chad Brown 1,9 exacta box. Additional exacta box 1,9,11; and smaller exacta box 1,8,9,11. Will likely cover Xcellence in some horizontal wagers.

Wednesday, June 25, 2014

Shipping Down: Are There Advantages to High-Altitude Conditioning?

--Mark Cramer

   What if there were a revolutionary training method that improved horses’ oxygen delivery capacity
and thus their aerobic power and stamina? Such a method seems to exist, but digging for the story is daunting because most of its practitioners are not interested in spreading the word.
   Anecdotal evidence abounds that high-altitude training improves the performance of Thoroughbreds. Canonero II, an outlandish Kentucky Derby outsider (500-1 in the Caliente book), shipped in (and down) to win the 1971 Derby. He had raced in Venezuela at 3,704 feet above sea level, lower than Denver, but still considerably higher than most American race tracks.
   The inspiring Canonero story is too exquisitely complex to detail here--see Steve Haskin's 2011 piece. Was high-altitude living and training a factor in Canonero’s Derby and Preakness victories? One piece of evidence says yes: Canonero’s pre-Preakness electrocardiogram. Haskin writes: When a Baltimore radiologist, Dr. George Burke, took an electrocardiogram of the horse, he discovered his heartbeat was only 30 beats per minute, which was five less than the average horse. “Fantastic,” Burke said. “That’s as low as a horse will go.”
   Following Canonero’s Preakness win, the effects of the altitude should have begun wearing off, but his loss in the Belmont could have also been attributed to physical ailments. The following year, stabled in the USA, his career did indeed tail off with life at sea level. However, the following year he beat Riva Ridge by five in record time in the Stymie at Belmont.
   Mine That Bird (Birdstone) also shipped down, from the 6,500 ft. altitude in New Mexico, to win the 2009 Kentucky Derby at 50-1. Sid Gustafson, a specialist in Thoroughbred sports medicine and equine behavior, attributed the win to altitude training.
   I have accumulated other pieces to the puzzle, including stories of horses that had overachieved after shipping down from mile-high Arapahoe, with confirmations from the trainer that his precise intention had been to descend in altitude just before the race.
   The logistics and expense of training horses at Arapahoe, Ruidoso or other high-altitude venues and then shipping down will discourage most trainers from trying the method. But some owners and trainers who believe in the altitude factor are resorting to hypoxic (oxygen reduced) stabling of horses in climate-controlled stalls.
   In 2003, Howe and Swanson presented their findings on the subject, in “Athletic Performance and Altitude Response in horses exposed to simulated altitude (3658 meters).” “Through the use of the latest altitude simulation technology as a training aid, trainers are realizing increases in aerobic power and endurance that reflect the horse’s true genetic potential,” the researchers noted.
   Their study advocates “living high and training low”: The proven advantages of the 'live high, train low' approach to altitude training are that horses can benefit from the physiological effects of altitude acclimatization without suffering the untoward effects of chronic altitude exposure. High-low training allows for the beneficial physiological adaptations from exposure to hypoxia with
concurrent maintenance of high intensity exercise because of maximal oxygen flux during low altitude training.

   Some high-profile human athletes abide by this approach. Notably, Olympic swimming champion Michael Phelps admitted that he was sleeping at 8,500 to 9,000 feet, in an altitude chamber (watch here).
   In Australia, simulated high-altitude conditioning purportedly contributed to the success of Shamus Award (Aus) (Snitzel {Aus}), the first maiden to ever win the A$3 million-dollar G1 Cox Plate in Australia.

Shamus Award                                                              Racing and Sports

   “At his Flemington stables sit three stables that look a bit different to the rest. Shamus Award spends a fair bit of time in one of them. In layman’s terms, the oxygen is drawn out, emulating altitude training, like running in the mountains to increase lung capacity,” wrote Matt Steward in the Oct. 26, 2013 Herald Sun.
   In 2012, Australian trainer Darren Weir incorporated simulated high-altitude training into his horses’ routines. “The trainer has enjoyed a seemingly blessed run of luck in the past 12 months, and is well on target to post his best season ever. Weir has trained nine country cup winners, becoming the first trainer to train 100 winners in Victoria for the current season.” (“Horse racing to reach new heights,” by Aaron Hamilton, On the Record, March 26, 2013)
   The specially designed altitude simulator was purchased for Weir with the help of Gerry Ryan. Ryan is connected with the 2010 G1 Melbourne Cup winner Americain (Dynaformer).
   Individual success stories become newsworthy, but as a horseplayer, I would like to know the return on investment for all horses using reduced-oxygen climate controlled stalls. Even the most down-and-out horseplayers offer their big-score stories as a smokescreen for their negative bottom line.    
   The wife-husband team of Dina Alborano and Don Carmody manufacture climate-controlled horse stalls, with floor-to-ceiling kickboard, rubberized walls, a pure-air monitor, a power-failure ventilator system, and generator limiters that simulate high-altitude training for their company called Equine Altitude .Com.
   Both are athletes who have used high-altitude simulation in their own training regimens. But their clients are secretive about using the stalls. Once Shamus Award became a lucrative breeding prospect, his handlers denied using the stalls supplied by Equine Altitude, Alborano said. 
   Dina Alborano told me that harness trainer Noel Daley used their product on Hambletonian winner Broad Bahn, so I phoned Daley and asked him if it was true. Daley told me that Broad Bahn stayed in the self-enclosed simulated altitude stall for “12 hours per day, for five to six months prior to his Hambletonian victory.”
   However, Daley also used the stall for a 3-year-old filly and “with the filly I didn’t see a huge difference,” he said. “The stall is a bit claustrophobic and I would have liked to have a bigger stall that could contain a treadmill.”
   Even with the dominating Hambletonian victory of Broad Bahn, Daley remains skeptical about the live-high-train-low approach and would prefer his horses to live high and train high as well.
I am a visceral believer in “live high and train high” because I’ve tested it on myself and felt the tremendous boost when running and bicycling at sea level. Right off the plane after descending from my residence at 12,000 feet to sea level, I could literally run all day.
   Nairo Quintana, the Colombian cyclist who finished second in the 2013 Tour de France and then won the demanding Giro de Italia in 2014, is not worried about his pedigree value, and so he openly confides on how he lives and trains in his native country at about 8,000 feet prior to his races.
Sifting through the scientific literature and anecdotal evidence, it’s not clear whether natural or simulated high-altitude training is ultimately superior. Personally I would rather travel and train high than sleep in a contraption.    
   But as more horse trainers explore the more practical mechanical method, questions have arisen about the fairness of the simulated version of altitude training.
   Back in 2006, the ethics panel of the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) was considering banning altitude tents or altitude rooms because they violated the “spirit of the sport.”
   However, two months later the same “World Anti-Doping Agency declared that altitude simulation does improve performance, but is not doping.” The decision to not ban hypoxic training was supported by the worldwide scientific community.
   Four essential questions must be answered about the simulated high altitude:

Does it work successfully on horses? 

Is it safe?

Is it doping?

Does it create an unfair advantage?

Does it work?

   Dina Alborano claims that, “Every horse that has utilized our system has had increases in blood parameters. These increases are documented in RBC count [number of red blood cells], PCV [overall amount of cells in the blood], MCV [mean corpuscular volume, which includes number plus size of red blood cells], Hematocrit [the proportion of your total blood volume that is composed of red blood cells] and Iron Building Total Capacity.” (Bracketed definitions inserted by this writer.)
   Even without seeing copies of before-and-after blood tests, most high-altitude medical specialists would not be at all surprised that hypoxic living would increase oxygen delivery capacity.
   But does this translate into consistent improvement for race horses? We will not know for sure until those trainers who use the simulation techniques are forced to come forward with results that can be translated into statistics. (Of course, it’s in their interest to keep it a secret.)

Is it safe?
   The high-altitude stall is a non-pressurized system and a low-oxygen environment that is unable to support fire. This is the opposite of the potentially dangerous  hyperbaric chambers that use pressurized highly explosive compressed oxygen as a quick fix.
   In hyperbaric therapy, air pressure/oxygen density is increased, which has caused occasional fatal fires. Furthermore, the suddenness of hyperbaric therapy involves physiological risks, including potential lung damage.
   Once you mimic the “hypoxic” low-oxygen environment of high altitude, the chance of a fire decreases abruptly. On my first Christmas in La Paz, Bolivia, 12,000 feet above sea level, I was alarmed to see folks place lit candles on a carpeted floor. I blurted out “fire hazard”. What fire hazard? they said. There’s not enough oxygen to support a fire. (La Paz fire fighters have plenty of time to play cards and watch TV.) 

Is it doping?
The World Anti-Doping Agency says it isn’t.
   Altitude researchers Baker and Hopkins (“Altitude training for sea level competition,” in Sportscience Training & Technology. Internet Society for Sport Science. http://sportsci.org/traintech/altitude/wgh.html) explain the dilemma succinctly:
   Altitude chambers, nitrogen houses and nitrogen tents would be dangerous if the simulated altitude was high enough and long enough to raise the thickness of blood to an unsafe level… so far, no one has made a public case for banning these devices on the grounds of health or safety.  It also seems unlikely they will be banned as an expensive innovation, because they are no more expensive than the high-tech equipment used in training or performance by many Olympic athletes. If they aren't unethical, are they unsporting? Perhaps... Somehow it's less objectionable if the individual athlete pursues this avenue of performance enhancement via a personal altitude chamber or tent. Still, it will be a sad day when all endurance athletes have to spend weeks of their lives in such apparatus to keep up with other competitors. Can they be banned?  No, because you can't ban normal altitude training, so it's unfair to ban a safe practice that makes it easier or cheaper for athletes to achieve the same effect.

Is it fair? The $64,000 question

   A single high-altitude stall currently costs $64,000. This would clearly favor the wealthier stables.
   Horseplayers need to demand disclosure: past performances should include whether or not a horse uses a simulated high-altitude stall, and if he does, how long he has been using it. This should be no different from transparency about the use of blinkers or mud caulks.
   Trainers should go public about their use of simulated high altitude. The betting public should not be left in the clouds.