Thursday, March 31, 2011

The Retirement `Solution'

--Sue Finley

Over the past two weeks, dozens of people have called, emailed or come to talk to me about the New York Times story on the Thoroughbred Retirement Foundation. As most of you are aware, I was on the board of the TRF for 12 years. As some of you may not know, I left the board last August for reasons which included differences of opinion with some board members, lack of time, and simple charity fatigue. After begging people for years to support this cause, I was simply worn out.

That doesn’t mean I don’t still support the cause, or don’t support the TRF, or don’t think you should still give your money to them. I do, on all counts. While I’m going to leave much of their own defense to the organization itself, as I have not been on the board for seven months now and am no longer versed in the daily goings-on, I will say that I’m pretty confident nobody at the TRF was starving horses for lack of money. They’re an incredibly dedicated bunch of individuals who have taken up a cause nobody else cared to do. If I had to guess, I’d say that it’s difficult to maintain hundreds of mostly 20-year-old racehorses over a long, hard winter, and that it’s impossible to expect that they’re all going to thrive out in a herd. Should some of them have been put down last fall? Probably. Is it hard for a ridiculously understaffed, underfunded organization to know that everyone on 13 farms is making the exact same decisions at every moment that they would make if they were there? I would imagine so. Did they make some mistakes? Absolutely.

Were they starving the horses for lack of funds? In no way do I believe that’s what has happened.

But the most troubling aspect of all this to me is people--good people, smart people, caring people–most likely overwhelmed when they look at the scope of the issue, are now suggesting a `solution’–that we should just humanely euthanize them at the end of their racing days if we can’t get them privately adopted. This isn’t a new theme--I’ve been hearing it for years–but it has grown in popularity of late.

It’s the only solution, they tell me. It’s humane, and it’s simple, and it solves the problem.

To anyone who thinks that’s a solution, I’d like you to do a little exercise. Think back to the first time you ever went to a racetrack. Maybe you were five, or 10, and your parents took you to Keeneland or Belmont or Newmarket (or Suffolk Downs, if you were me.) I know what I remember, and what attracted me to the sport. It was the horses. They were big and beautiful; majestic and inspiring creatures. I ascribed personalities to them (that they may or may not have had) and felt every bit as bad when they had setbacks as I did when the Red Sox lost to the Yankees. If I had asked someone then what happened to the horses when they were done racing, and they had said, “Well, we kill them...but we do it humanely,” I would have run screaming from the building, never to return, as I imagine you would have done.

So if you can’t admit to the world what your athletes’ pension plan is and be proud of it, I’m pretty sure this isn’t the retirement `solution’ racing needs to pursue. If we don’t want racing’s slogan to be, `the best cared-for and loved animals on the planet...until we don’t need them any more, at which time we kill them,’ let’s all aspire to better.

This can’t be left to charity any more. It’s time for an industry wide institutional funding mechanism that we can shout from the rooftops about. Because I’m pretty sure that if we can’t shout about it, there’s something wrong with it.

It’s time for all of the constituents in racing to sit down at the table and agree upon who is going to contribute what percentage from every mount, every start, every foal, every sale, every claim.

If you think we can’t afford it, you’re fooling yourselves.

We can’t afford not to.

A day at the Racino with the kids?

I like horse racing. A lot. I enjoy a good day at the track and have visited my share of them. My wife, however, is borderline obsessed. A little background: she used to write full-time for one of the big industry publications, freelanced for many years more, and also was an advertising copywriter for a Thoroughbred ad agency for several years. We've bred a few horses and she’s been on the boards of two major industry organizations. The first time she’d ever visited Lexington, she called me after seeing Calumet and told me she wasn't returning home unless I agreed to move to Lexington. I moved (she's convincing; what can I say?). I tell you that because, as we now travel full-time around the country, one of the goals of our trip was to visit every racetrack in North America. We haven't met that goal and have, at times, gotten pretty discouraged along the way.

Several months ago we were in Delaware and one day while I was working she "tried" to visit Delaware Park with our three young kids. She set off in high spirits and it looked to be a fun family day, just like we were accustomed to at Keeneland or Churchill Downs, our 'home tracks,' so to speak. Unfortunately, neither of us had been to a casino-based track before and didn't realize the ramifications of going to one with children.

While I can’t speak for other racinos, my wife learned pretty quickly you can't see a race at Delaware Park if you have kids. There is no possible way (that any available employee or security guard knew about -- and she asked several) to get from the entrance to the apron without going through the casino. Kids aren’t allowed to set foot in the casino, not even to pass through it on the way to the grandstand. There was a playground they could have gone to on the first turn, but she wasn’t there for a playground. She simply loves racing and wanted to enjoy a few races from the historic grandstand. One of the track employees directed her to an "entrance" that she had to walk with the kids (in the rain!) all the way around the gargantuan casino/grandstand to get to, but they turned out to be locked doors. She just wanted to show the kids an historic track where a lot of people cut their teeth in racing, my boss included, and finally just left after two hours of frustration.

I’m not trying to bash Delaware Park, but from what I understand people used to rave about that track as being one of the most family-friendly around. It now seems anti-family. I suspect the problem Delaware exhibited here is not only confined to Delaware, but to racinos in general. It seems like some tracks just hold horse racing to have a casino. That's too bad.

Not for you horseplayers..., photo.
This was all brought back to mind by a note yesterday from a friend who is a long-time handicapper. In fact, I'm betting the only day he won't have a bet down on a race somewhere is the day after he dies, because he'll have been to drive-through betting at Keeneland the morning of. Anyhow, he mentioned another racino issue. He attended a handicapping contest last fall at Louisiana Downs where he'd paid a pretty significant entry fee to play. His complaint was that on the horse side, water and soft drinks were $2 a bottle and they made you pay for every little thing. In the next room over, in the same building on the casino side, they couldn't seem to give everything away fast enough, including that same bottled water and soft drinks. In fact, if a casino player tried to enter the horseplayers’ area, security made them throw their water or other drink in the trash. As he wrote, “If a new fan were to go through this, wouldn’t they choose the casino over the race track?”

Seems like a bit of disconnect to me. I'm not saying that horseplayers should be given drinks and food all day, but if the two are combined in the same building, at least make the two worlds a little more level.

I’m not sure there will ever be a right answer to the racino v. casino v. racetrack question, but I think it would be nice for management to let the people who want to go to the track, just go to the track, and for the people who want to play blackjack, just play blackjack. As for me, I just want to be able to take my kids to the races. How can we expect to build future support for this sport if we can't do that?

-- Robert Williams

Monday, March 28, 2011

Reflections on Dubai

Friday night, I was invited to dine with the Kinsale King family, whom I had only recently met. Dr. Sheehy and his family were kind enough to take me along with them on their pre-race celebration in the restaurant in the top of the Burj al Arab Hotel (the one that looks like a sailboat.) Security is so tight, you're not allowed past the guard post without a reservation number (no curious tourists allowed.) The hotel is as mad a thing as you have ever seen in your life.

Burj al Arab. photo.
If you read my post about the Arabian nights party last week, you'll guess what happened at dinner...fireworks. I have a theory that every meal in Dubai has to contain hummus and fireworks, but it's not very often that you see the fireworks below you (though I did have dinner at Windows on the World on July 4th once, so it wasn't the first time I've seen them from above.)

Dr. Sheehy is an MD from County Cork, Ireland whose profession has enabled him to indulge in his love of horses, a passion of many Irishmen, but I'd wager none are more passionate about it than Dr. Sheehy's family.

The fact that they were kind enough to invite me out knowing that their horse was experiencing discomfort from allergic reactions spoke volumes about their sportsmanship and general goodwill. Carl O'Callaghan stayed behind to make sure Kinsale King was doing well.

A fantastic evening.

Kinsale King. Michael J Marten photo.

Saturday saw more hummus at the breakfast buffet at the Ritz Carlton (no fireworks this time) with Olly Tait. More hummus, and another buffet (there is a buffet at every meal in Dubai) with Bill Nader at the Royal Meridien. No fireworks, again.

Then I headed out to Meydan for my second year at the new racecourse.

A couple of things struck me on the trip out. You hear that construction has come to a halt in Dubai, and you expect to find the city abandoned. I did see a number of buildings on which construction appeared to have stopped, but an equal or greater number that are being worked on.

The hotel I stayed in is in the process of doubling in size, and there's another hotel being built next door on the beach. Yes, there are projects which have stopped, but there is plenty going on.

Just as I saw last year in the hotel, it was filled with a very international clientele, but more than I remember, an amazing amount of Russians. My hotel was a family hotel, a beach property with a great pool, and the number of Russian families was remarkable. I wondered if there were anyone left in Moscow this week.

Driving to the track, I remarked upon the fact that while the same number of people were attending, last year's really bad traffic had been totally alleviated this year, with far more roadways having been constructed.

Thankfully, I had worn comfortable shoes, because I decided to take in the whole experience of the racetrack. I walked from the international officials suite at the top of the stretch to the John Ferguson/Darley executive suite (thank you for the hospitality), which is situated right above the paddock on the sixth level and which provides an amazing view.
Meydan. Horsephotos photo.
Next, I walked the building from the performance stage to the top of the stretch through the apron hospitality/champagne bar. It was wall-to-wall people, sitting on couches, standing around cocktail tables, drinking champagne, beer and wine, having an amazing time out in the most pleasant weather on a beautiful night (with a little sandstorm thrown in for local flavor.)

The Falcon hospitality area was past the wire, toward the hotel. There, I ran into my old friend Harry Herbert, who has been enlisted to help with the hospitality, and his beautiful wife, Chica.

I ran into Princess Haya in the paddock. She was with her daughter, Shaikha al Jaleela Bint Mohammed bin Rashid al Maktoum, who was holding the Dubai flag and a handful of flowers and wearing a decorative yellow dress. All I could think of was how much I missed my little girl who was the same age, and how we are both introducing our daughters to racing (Juliette Weisbord will be at Keeneland Blue Grass weekend.)

I don't think there could be a greater facility anywhere that could accommodate 50 - 60,000 people in the style they do in that building--the food, the hospitality the service, the half-time show, and more.

And of course, there were fireworks at the half-time show, and more fireworks when the races ended.

It is a spectacle that is almost beyond description. I couldn't imagine any place could have been more successful in pulling it off. Tremendously great job.

I ended my day with a ride back to the hotel for a shower and a trip back to the Dubai airport for the famous international flight departures. It is amazing to be in an airport with wall-to-wall people shopping at 1 in the morning--flying anywhere in the world from this international hub.

Aidan O'Brien was on my plane back to Heathrow. I thought it was great that he brought some horses and was thrilled to see them run very well.

I hope there will be a lot more of that in the future. Having him and his owners show up in Dubai can only be good for racing.

-- Barry Weisbord

Sophomore Spotlight: Part One

With the Kentucky Derby less than six weeks away and an interesting round of preps and performances in the books, it’s time to start looking ahead to the Triple Crown series. The following is my analysis of some key sophomore performances from the past weekend.

While Pants On Fire took the top slot and the winner’s share of the GII Louisiana Derby’s $1,000,000 purse, the circumstances were in his favor. If we ignore a 111-1 pacesetter who faltered to last, the 1-2-3 finishers in the race were in the same position at every call before turning for home. The pace was average, and every other route on the card was won by a horse who traveled in one of the top three spots early. I’m hesitant to call the track definitely speed biased because every one of those winners was logical and well-backed, but it’s clear that Pants On Fire’s lifetime best performance was aided by a very easy trip--and a trip that was significantly better than those of his two nearest adversaries.
Pants On Fire holds off Nehro - (c) Hodges Photography
Third finisher Mucho Macho Man lost a shoe early on, which is plenty of reason to upgrade his performance by as much as a few lengths, but the fact that he ran even as well as he did hints that perhaps the lost shoe did not bother him as much as some would expect. If the lost shoe was a huge detriment, the favorite probably would have been well-beaten. He displayed good determination and consistency, but his consistency is part of the problem. While all of Mucho Macho Man’s graded stakes efforts have been solid, none have showcased the level of ability required to win the Derby. Runner-up Nehro, however, might have significant upside. After making an eye-catching move to graduate at Oaklawn by 4 1/2 lengths last out, the lightly raced colt successfully stepped into the deep(er) end while showing much more early speed than he had before. He was shuffled back entering the stretch, was forced to wait for a seam while full of run, and saw a hole along the rail shrink as Anna Napravnik on Pants On Fire did a good job to angle her mount inside and narrow the gap. Whether or not Nehro was best on Saturday, which seems like a logical conclusion to draw, he offers by far the most room for improvement of the Louisiana Derby top three.

Animal Kingdom kicks clear - (c) Equisport
Animal Kingdom’s visually impressive run from the back of the pack in the GIII Spiral S. at Turfway showed off the nice turn of foot that he had already displayed in his previous three races against a classier bunch, but did little to answer the biggest question surrounding winners of this race since the track changed over from conventional dirt to synthetic: can he reproduce a similar (or better) performance at Churchill Downs? Since talented and versatile Hard Spun took second in the Derby after annexing this event in its second renewal on Polytrack in 2007, the past three winners have finished 19th, 12th and 14th in the run for the roses. Animal Kingdom’s pedigree leaves little doubt that he will have no trouble with 10 furlongs, but is very skewed towards success on the grass. His sire, Leroidesanimaux, enjoyed all his glory on the lawn (he only started once on dirt in a sprint in his native Brazil) despite being by a stallion in Candy Stripes who sired Breeders’ Cup Classic winner Invasor and the dam of Pacific Classic winner Candy Ride. Leroidesanimaux’s female family is of European origin and Animal Kingdom’s dam also hails from a European family of stout turf runners. The Spiral winner obviously hasn’t proven for sure yet that he won’t like dirt, but all indications are that he will do his best running on the sod. Decisive Moment’s performance was rather impressive from a trip perspective. Wide and pressing a pace that was 20 points above par at the first call according to the Moss Pace Figures, the GIII Delta Jackpot runner up stayed on much better than could have been expected considering his early exertions. More ground and a hotter pace in the Derby certainly won’t help his chances, however, and he will prove more of a sprinter/miler than a classic distance horse.

Twice the Appeal overtakes Astrology
 (c) Coady Photography
Twice the Appeal, who upended the GIII Sunland Derby at 25-1, is Kentucky-bound according to his connections, but probably not bound for the winner’s circle. He seems to be getting better with each of his past four starts, but the location of his big win and the field against which he did it does not inspire confidence that he can seriously contend in the Derby. He will have to take another big leap forward to be any sort of factor at Churchill Downs against a significantly more talented group. Runner-up Astrology, last term’s GIII Iroquois S. winner over the Louisville strip, simply has too much to do too soon to make up for the time he lost by starting his sophomore season this late. He did improve by nine points on his very low previous Beyer Speed Figure top after making a premature move, but he did not give the impression of a horse ready to peak next out going 1 1/4 miles against a dramatically tougher field.

Super-impressive debut winner Bind did not produce anything close to his much-talked about first effort when stretching out in an allowance at Fair Grounds Saturday, but I am not willing to give up on him so quickly. He was very headstrong and unwilling to rate, which was compounded by his pilot’s decision to fight with him rather than allow him to do as he pleased. He is too fast to not have been on the lead on Saturday, and he would have won handily if guided to the front from the bell. Bind still has every right to be a top caliber competitor with added maturity and continued patience.

Check back later this week for a preview of the GII Swale and GI Florida Derby--two events that should have a very big impact on the Derby picture.

--Brian DiDonato

Learning from Laguna Seca

As anyone who's on my Facebook friend list or follows our Twitter feed knows (maybe too well), I spent the last couple of weeks at Laguna Seca, one of motorsport's premier tracks, near Monterey, California.

Though technically it's called Mazda Raceway now, I'll never be able to call Laguna Seca anything other than the name my Dad taught me...and there was reverence in that education. With that background, I found it an amazing amount of fun to stay at the track's campground and to be able to hear and see the cars from Skip Barber Driving School or the local Ferrari, BMW, or Porsche racing club all day long. Perhaps the highlight was watching vintage cars from the same time as the historic beginnings of the track run around for the day and then to get to walk the garages and see those fantastic testaments to racing up close.

A few of the various vintage cars around turn 5. (c) Robert Williams
By far -- my favorite view in 'the paddock'.
 (My Dad owned both of these at one time in his life)
(c) Robert Williams
The straightaway
between turn 2 and 3.
(c) Robert Williams
Perhaps because the area around Laguna Seca is run by Monterey County as a park, there is a tremendous amount of access to the track. One can stand within feet of the raceway and watch the day's events unfold. One can view just about every corner and straightaway, at times walk through the garage area, and once a month, through a special arrangement, bicycle every inch of the track. Why aren't we in horse racing doing things like this? How much more fervently would fans' fever for horse racing rise if we allowed them a little more access? If people were given the opportunities at Thoroughbred tracks that I was given at Laguna Seca, then we - as an industry - would garner a lot more FANS. Fans tell their friends; fans revere the locations; fans respect, appreciate, and will pay money to attend - and bet on - the races.

For a fan - how cool is that?  Yeah,
that's me at the start/finish line.
 (c) Robert Williams
Last week, I rode my bicycle around Laguna Seca for a charity fundraiser; the raceway allows people to simply sign a consent form, pay $10, and enjoy two hours. Unfettered access to be on 'the corkscrew' (one of auto racing's most famous stretches of track), to be lined up on the starting grid, and to cross the start/finish line under my own power. Aside from actually driving it, this is the most amazing way to be one with the track. And that got me thinking...

In horse racing, we have Keeneland - and maybe a few others - which give pretty good access to various areas of the track, and that's great. Breakfast with the Works, the Track Kitchen, and the tailgate area are all really amazing things. But I'm not sure we do enough to promote them. We really should let people walk the Churchill Downs stretch (reenacting their favorite Derby moment) or do a 5K for charity around Del Mar. Fans would go crazy and tweet their entire friend list from Belmont..."I'm moving like a Tremendous Machine!" So many things could be pushed so much further out into the general public that it would be worth the minor inconveniences for the track and their personnel. It'd be downright amazing if tracks, on a dark day, hosted a public "see what horse racing is all about" day where people could have access to the track, learn about what it feels like to walk on it, etc. Maybe get the chance to wander through a couple of barns. Ask a trainer some questions. See what a hotwalker does. View the track from the perspective of the track announcer. See the press box. Teach people how to bet the exotics. Tell the general public about simulcasting and that they can play the ponies just about every day all over the country. Show them the places they can bring a picnic and have a great day with their family. Send them up to the reserved areas with table service and great views. Get the message out about how great, exciting, and enjoyable racing can be.

This was my campsite.  Overlooking turn 5.
Tough to beat for a motorsports fan. (zoom zoom)
(c) Robert Williams
If a Thoroughbred track gave a normal, everyday person the kind of access I was given at my revered Laguna Seca - they'd be hooked, plain and simple. They'd give us the handle we need so badly right now. With numbers that we can count, we'd get better TV contracts, more sponsorship dollars, more eyes to look at advertisements. Fans = eyes. Eyes sell advertising. Those sponsorship companies don't care if they are bettors, players, industry connections, or just fans that root for the horse with the longest tail.

Unfortunately, I believe, the people in our industry who can make these things happen have forgotten what it's like to be a regular, average, pay-at-the-gate fan. They have privileges and access to 'everywhere,' so they don't even realize the simple pleasures the fan longs to be a part of. If we don't embrace and build fans now, we will lose them to the sports that do.

My desire for auto racing was fueled, so to speak, these last couple of weeks. Imagine if an average Joe could camp in the infield at Santa Anita or could walk down the stretch at Gulfstream Park. Chances are all his or her friends would hear about it - and maybe, just maybe, some of those friends would become racing fans too.

--Robert Williams

Saturday, March 26, 2011

Ah, Dubai World Cup Day!

Ah, Dubai World Cup day! As the annual 13-hour-plus adventure unfolds at the TDN office, it brings back many memories of the inaugural event held on a Thursday at Nad al Sheba in 1996. I was just 18 months out of college at the time and working at Banker’s Trust, which was across the street from the World Trade Center. After telling my then-boss that I had a dentist appointment, I bolted from our building at 130 Liberty St. to the OTB over on John St. That establishment had a healthy crowd at 10 a.m. and, as happy as I was to see Cigar triumph over Soul of the Matter, I was even more thrilled that L’Carriere held on for third to complete my all-American trifecta.

There’s no Cigar entered in the races tonight, but there’s plenty of good stories. I do hope Buena Vista can win the World Cup for Japan and, in the process, become the richest racehorse of all time. And who doesn’t appreciate Gio Ponti?

Can the New Zealand-bred Beauty Flash bring home the Duty Free for Hong Kong? Is there any chance Kinsale King will double up in the Golden Shaheen? And will Rewilding follow in the hoofprints of his half-sister Dar Re Mi in the Sheema Classic? Stay tuned...

(update at 10:46 a.m.) What a race! There have been some thrilling stretch runs already, but the one in the UAE Derby was a beauty. Godolphin wound up taking another trophy in the race, this time with the first filly ever to triumph in Khawlah. Master of Hounds--my pick in last year's Breeders' Cup Juvenile Turf--put up a brave fight on the rail, but he couldn't fend off the filly.

(update 11:57 a.m) Third time's the charm! Presvis went through the gaps, and the 7-year-old got up to defeat the classy South African mare River Jetez. Presvis was second in the 2009 Duty Free, Presvis was up the track last year, but showed real determination to get the trophy here. Kudos to trainer Luca Cumani!

(update 1:30 p.m.) Well done by Rewilding to take the Sheema Classic, but now a sandstorm is affecting the video on the TVs. is able to provide audio; hopefully this will get sorted out in the next 4 minutes...

(update 1:46 p.m.) Live coverage came back on just in time for the World Cup! After setting a glacial pace, Transcend did his best to hang on, only to find countrymate Victoire Pisa just a little bit too good for him. Bravo, Japan, for the one-two finish!

That's it from Dubai...and now, we can look forward to today's Kentucky Derby preps at Fair Grounds and Turfway ;-)

Friday, March 25, 2011

From Moonee Valley to Meydan

For someone who usually enjoys racing that tests a horse’s stamina, two out-and-out speed merchants have captured my imagination over recent times, namely Black Caviar and Rocket Man. Both horses are blessed with a scintillating turn of foot, and can dispel their rivals with effortless acceleration. Black Caviar has proven herself to be the proverbial freak, highlighted by her stroll in the G1William Read S. at Moonee Valley, Melbourne last night.

Black Caviar
By running fast and often, Black Caviar symbolizes everything that is good about Australian racing. Her domestic dominance and perfect eleven-for-eleven record has transcended the sporting realm Down Under, making her the most talked-about horse since Makybe Diva. Unfortunately, her connections have been a tad reluctant to embark on an international campaign, but it can only be a matter of time before she spreads her wings and follows in the footsteps of Choisir, Takeover Target, Miss Andretti and Starspangledbanner.

You Tube Video Link - Black Caviar William Reid Stakes Group 1 Moonee Valley
Rocket Man - (c)
On the other hand, Rocket Man is no stranger to the international scene having competed in Singapore, Hong Kong and Dubai over recent seasons. Patrick Shaw’s bullet is unbeaten in 12 starts domestically, with his only defeats coming by an accumulated 1 1/4 lengths in four international Group 1 races. Rocket Man’s talent shows no signs of abating, and is in fine fettle leading up to the G1 Dubai Golden Shaheen at Meydan this weekend. The six-year-old’s epic duel with Kinsale King in last year’s renewal will live long in the memory.

You Tube Video Link - 2010 Dubai Golden Shaheen
Black Caviar and Rocket Man are what racing is all about. Hopefully, their paths will cross on the racetrack in the not-too-distant future.

--Gary King


Since arriving in Dubai, I have encountered a lot of people who want to chat with me, or learn more about the reaction in America to the New York Times story last Friday about horse retirement. Over the course of the past 10 years, I have thought a lot about, and given a lot of time to this issue, specifically to raise money for the Thoroughbred Retirement Foundation, the charity that was called into question in the article. I have given my time because I think their work is necessary. I think that their prison programs have been an incredibly compelling story, and have been very good news for the racing industry. Not only has it created good feelings about thoroughbred racing, but it has been a model of what good racing can do, particularly when the sport is under attack. I have always felt that these programs separated them from the pack of other rescue organizations--all of which do good and important work. Additionally, my publishing partner, Sue Finley, served on the board for 12 years, and I knew it was important to her and I wanted to support her.

TRF Retiree The Optimist, (c)
Over the past week, the issue has gone from something that it was nice to participate in as individuals, to something we need to do something about as a sport.

If we don't, I believe our entire industry is in jeopardy. I don't think we can trust that the positive attributes of Thoroughbred racing (whatever that means to each of us as individuals) will always be able to overcome the question that will be posed to our most prominent participants as they head for the Derby, run in the Breeders' Cup or maybe accept an Emmy. That question is: "Hey, you love Thoroughbred racing. Why does the industry allow its participants to be killed?"

In today's world of instant communication, I don't think we have the ability of controlling the message without solving the problem.

It has now become a mandatory thing if we want to stay in business.

--Barry Weisbord


I have been a fan and devotee of Hong Kong racing for a little over a decade now, ever since I first traveled (circuitously, I might add) for the 2000 International Races meeting. After seeing the legendary Sunline and Fairy King Prawn come to settle the Hong Kong Mile, I was hooked. Since then, I have been able to apply my knowledge of Hong Kong racing and horses on the world stage, on occasion, and never more so than on World Cup night over the past few years.

The great Fairy King Prawn registered the first overseas victory by a Hong Kong-based horse when he took the Yasuda Kinen in Japan in 2000, and I had the honor of seeing Hong Kong’s favorite son take on Australasian legend Sunline in the Hong Kong Mile, the most exciting race I’ve ever witnessed personally and maybe the best ever staged in Hong Kong. Those two rivals would square off again four months later in the desert in the Duty Free S. Fairy King Prawn, ridden too quietly by Robbie Fradd that evening, finished ahead of the great Sunline, but both were trumped by the globetrotting Jim and Tonic in one of the most stirring finishes in the history of that race.

But, despite that smattering of world-class performances, many regard the brand of racing in Hong Kong as substandard and provincial. Vengeance of Rain came to Dubai in 2007 as a winner of the [locally] prestigious Hong Kong Derby and Hong Kong Cup in 2005. He was supposed to strut his stuff on the international stage in Dubai the following March, but was sidelined with a potentially career-threatening heart arrhythmia. He made it back to the races, and his third-place effort in defense of his Hong Kong Cup title in December 2006 suggested he’d lost little of his ability.

His desert debut awaited in the Sheema Classic against a field including reigning Epsom Derby hero Sir Percy, Breeders’ Cup Turf upsetter Red Rocks and Melbourne Cup runner-up Pop Rock. Vengeance was sent off at 10-1, with my money on his nose (finally a chance to bet him!), and he always traveled like a winner for Anthony Delpech, coming home 1 1/4 lengths ahead of the Mike de Kock-trained Oracle West. Hong Kong would be represented by the Sheema favorite in 2008 in the form of Viva Pataca. While I was thrilled to have a shot to invest in him (at a little more than 2-1), I was committed to the exacta with Sun Classique (15-2), an Australian-bred mare who miraculously got out of jail in her Sheema prep and figured to be right there in the big race. Well, Viva drew 12 and always had to cover ground, but came into the stretch with a chance to win.

Dynamic Blitz
That was short-lived, as Sun Classique ran right back to her Balanchine S. score and cleared off by about three. In 2010, the unheralded Joy and Fun upset the Al Quoz Sprint at odds of 18-1, while One World ran a place in the Golden Shaheen at 11-1. This time around, Dynamic Blitz owns an upset in the Al Shindagha Sprint--a pointer to the Shaheen--and Beauty Flash, the reigning Hong Kong Mile hero, is as tough as nails and should give a good account of himself in the Duty Free.

I’m not here to say that I’ll be emptying the pockets this weekend or that there’s a ‘banker’ in the bunch, but I’m certain the Hong Kong horses will hold their own.

--Alan Carasso

Arabian Nights

Last night, I boarded the bus at the Royal Meridien to go to Sheikh Mohammed's desert party, and drew the good straw. The front of the bus was filled with an international congregation of folks I didn't know, so, eyeing another group in the back, I headed to the back of the bus to take my seat in the kids' section. I was soon lucky enough to discover the kids' section was made up of this year's Flying Start graduating class.

Each year, I give a dinner to the Flying Starters during their first year in the course (which is quickly approaching on Bluegrass weekend), but this year, I got to double my yearly Flying Start pleasure, spending what could have been a fairly tedious hour-long ride out to the party arena engaged, instead, in a very spirited discussion with a group of very engaging, very talented young people who are hoping to make our Thoroughbred world their professional world. There were a lot of questions and discussion on just about any and every topic you could think about.

They invited me to continue the discussion, and sit at the kids' table during dinner.

(c) Horsephotos
(c) Horsephotos
For those of you who haven't been, the annual Dubai World Cup desert party has morphed from a celebration of the Arab bedouin culture, done in tents with guests sitting on pillows and indigenous rugs and eating favorite dishes--lamb, chicken, hummus and kabobs that are often referred to as Lebanese cuisine in America--and a display of Arabian horsemanship, Arabian dancing (men only) and music. It has now grown into a party held in an egg-shaped permanent ampitheater with 10 tiers encircling the performance area. Each tier has tables which, while low, no longer have you seated on the ground, but which are complete with pillows and permanent tables. It has the same feel as the rustic tradition, but everyone now has a good view and a great seat. Beer and wine are served, along with a buffet of the native cuisine, delivered at the top of the amphitheater in each section. The evening starts off with skydivers coming down in the night, landing precisely on the right spot in the performance area, and carrying flags of the countries represented in the weekend of racing.
(c) Horsephotos
The party is attended by Sheikh Mohammed and his entourage, who weave their way through the crowd. There is a display of amazing horsemanship and stunt riding, dancing horses, horses jumping through fire, horses with their bodies lit up like electronic light shows in the night.

And, of course, the performance has to end with fireworks--as everything seems to in Dubai. When the fireworks come out, everyone freezes to watch them, guests and workers alike. We think of them as an American Fourth of July tradition, but of course, they have a great following in many cultures, this one among them.

Gio Ponti - (c) Horsephotos
Other sights and sounds: I spent a few minutes with Christophe Clement where Lee and Ramona Bass and children were enjoying the festivities for the first time. Who is more enthuiastic about being a racehorse owner than Ramona Bass? Maybe her son. Having been an enthusiastic financial backer of Gio Ponti against Zenyatta and thinking I was a winner at the eighth pole, and then seeing him bravely cut back in distance only to run into Goldikova on one of the greatest afternoons a horse could have, I would love to see Gio Ponti run great. Maybe Saturday will be his day.

--Barry Weisbord

Tuesday's Cheltenham Festival

I was at the Cheltenham Festival on Tuesday for the opener, which perennially offers a taste of the new Spring, of Guinness and the (often false) promise of financial gain. This week, all you can hope for as you approach the brooding Cleeve Hill that overlooks the hallowed arena is that the Gold Cup favourite you have 20-1 about ante-post doesn’t spontaneously combust or get kicked at the start, but nothing is a given here. At first sight, the tweed count remained relatively high although I had a double-take at one guy matching this customary racing apparel with a pair of pillar box red trousers, the like of which even Vivienne Westwood would back away from.

Champion Hurdle Winner's Enclosure - (c) Tom Frary
Hurricane Fly - (c) Tom Frary
Tuesday was about the Champion Hurdle and the big Irish hope Hurricane Fly, who was bound to be nervous coming here for the first time. It certainly looked that way beforehand, but he is a Montjeu (who was 0-44 at the meeting up to then) and this place takes some knowing. By the time of the feature race, I was suffering from a severe case of seconditis. I’d rather have laryngitis during this particular week, when it can seem that everyone else is pulling off remarkable feats of punting. I stuck with the unbeaten Peddlers Cross, whose trainer Donald McCain is the son of the famous Ginger, responsible for the three-times Grand National hero Red Rum. Peddlers Cross looked like he had more than a share of the heart of that jumping legend, but at the end of his near four-minute stab at immortality it was that extra piece of Montjeu power that got Hurricane Fly past him. Still full of electricity in the winner’s enclosure afterwards, the new Champion Hurdler was struggling to get to grips with the Cheltenham hooplah. Well, it was his maiden visit after all.

Guiness Village - (c) Tom Frary
Time for a breather and some of the black stuff, as the barmy army tackled the banks, rails and ditches of the Cross-Country Chase before the incomparable Ruby Walsh steered Quevega to a third (Arazi-style) win in the Mares’ Hurdle. With some fire back in the belly, there was time to attempt some salvaging in the last race courtesy of the Alec and Ghislaine Head-bred Divers ridden by Cheltenham’s answer to Calvin Borel, Graham Lee. Sports Personality of the Year and general legend A P McCoy had hit the front before the last fence on the topically-named Quantitativeeasing and the crowd went mad, but they hadn’t banked on Lee and the gutsy grey squeezing up the rail and surging past on that climb to the line. A small victory to (slightly) reduce the deficit, but a sweet one nonetheless. The alchemy was complete.

-- Tom Frary

Thursday, March 24, 2011


--Lucas Marquardt

"It's all going according to plan. Someone else's." That's what an older gentleman cracked at Barretts March earlier in the week when Pete McCormick, part of the auctioneering crew, asked him how things were. It made me laugh. It has to be what many of the two-year-old consignors are thinking right now. It always strikes me when you're interviewing a consignor who has just sold a horse for big money, and he or she still sighs heavily when asked about the state of the market. But that's it--the home runs are huge, but sometimes, they're helping to make up for a few foul tips.

It was my first time covering a Barretts sale, and only my second-ever trip to Los Angeles. The first trip was over 10 years ago. I sat on Venice Beach with a pal and we made snarky comments about speedos for two days straight. It was great. Barretts was a different scene entirely. Driving through Fairplex, on the state fairgrounds of the same name and where the breeze show is held, you are taken back in time. Not in a good way. It's a maze of disused old rides and world-weary attractions, and if ghosts of a psychotic carnival clowns leapt out at you, you wouldn't be completely taken off guard.

The Barretts Pavilion - (c) Horsephotos
But that's the track. The barn area at Barretts--and the sales pavilion--are great. The sale barns, sitting three by three and extending three deep back toward the track, are well maintained and sit under the same San Gabriel mountains that give Santa Anita Park its famous backdrop. The pavilion doubles as an OTB teletheater and is tiered with long tables. The padded chairs that swing out from them give the room the feel of a well-appointed university lecture hall. Before Monday's evening's sale, Barretts auctioned off three pieces by painter Fred Stone for charity. Stone was on hand to introduce them. He told a story from the auctioneer's stand, the punchline of which involved Eddie Arcaro loudly dropping the 'F' bomb in a crowded restaurant. The re-telling of the story meant Stone was also loudly dropping the 'F' bomb in a crowded venue, and that made me laugh, too.

Inside the Sales Pavilion - (c) Horsephotos
The rear bidding area at Barretts is a sports bar, and many buyers sat at tables with cocktails. The walking ring, small and surrounding artificial turf, was under lights, as Barretts held its first night edition of March, and there were more tables where horsemen could order a sandwich or a drink and get a last-minute view of prospects. At the head of the path that leads from the barn area to the pavilion, consignors Ciaran Dunne and Eddie Woods spent much of the night trading quips.

Hip 37, c. by Pomeroy-Leah's Angel
March Sales Topper: $625,000
Purchased by Stonestreet Stables
Consignor: Eddie Woods, Agent
I talked to many consignors in the days leading up to the sale and asked about their support of Barretts. On a purely pragmatic level, it might appear the sale's days would be numbered. It's wildly expensive to ship a horse from Ocala, say, and fly out staff (and put them up at a hotel), etc. and that's one of the reasons the sale's catalogue has been halved over the last five years. But it didn't take long for me to realize the importance of a California select sale. If nothing else, the sale is a great marketing tool, sitting 20 minutes away from one of America's great tracks, Santa Anita, and 30 miles from the second biggest metropolitan area in the U.S. It was at Barretts, I'm told, that California-based Jess Jackson purchased his first horse. Monday, he came back and spent $625,000 to land the sale topper, a colt by Pomeroy from Woods's consignment. How many Jacksons, how many Mike Repoles, live within an hour of Barretts? Maybe we can get a few to the track next year, and then over to the sale. It's something to plan for.

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Thoughts on the Dubai World Cup

-- Bill Oppenheim

My maiden voyage in the blogosphere. Hello.

The Dubai World Cup is this Saturday, and the field for the $10-million G1 Dubai World Cup itself is interesting: three for Godolphin, three for Japan, two for Sheikh Mohammed’s cousin, Sheikh Mohammed bin Khalifa al Maktoum (trained by South African Mike de Kock), one more (Richard’s Kid) for Sheikh Mohammed’s son, Sheikh Rashid, plus Cape Blanco, Twice Over, Gitano Hernando, and Fly Over and Gio Ponti from the U.S.

Buena Vista - (c) Horsephotos
I think the Japanese horses have a big shot, particularly the four-year-old Victoire Pisa and the five-year-old mare Buena Vista, who were one-two by a nose in a Group 1 in Japan last month. Victoire Pisa is unbeaten at up to 10 furlongs, Buena Vista has never been out of the first three in 14 starts (including a second to Da Re Mi in the G1 Sheema Classic last year) and has earned $12-million (both are by sons of Sunday Silence).
Gio Ponti - (c) Horsephotos
But I actually fancy Gio Ponti to win. He was second to Zenyatta at Santa Anita in the Breeders’ Cup Classic in 2009, and second to Goldikova in the Breeders’ Cup Mile last year. He’s the forgotten horse. Last year, ridden by Brazilian jockey T.J.Pereira and trained by Pascal Bary, the Brazilian-bred Gloria de Campeao crawled on the lead and turned the world’s first $10-million race into a paceless farce; Gio Ponti was fourth, beaten by tactics and not beaten far. So that’s my three-horse Exacta and Trifecta box: Gio Ponti, Victoire Pisa, Buena Vista. Maybe throw in ultra-consistent Twice Over too.

Meydan Grandstand - (c) Horsephotos

Here’s my other great bet of the week … April 9, Aintree, on the Grand National undercard: Peddler’s Cross, who lost his unbeaten record when second to Hurricane Fly in the Champion Hurdle at Cheltenham, steps up to 2 ½ miles for the G1 Aintree Hurdle. It will be a double-tough spot, but no Hurricane Fly, so I think he’ll win.

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