Thursday, April 28, 2011

Golden State Warriors...

--Steve Sherack  

   A pair of California-based sprinters have joined the upper echelon of the division with razor sharp efforts this spring as reigning champion Big Drama (Montbrook) remains missing in action following a HUGE track-record setting performance in Gulfstream’s GIII Mr. Prospector S. Jan. 15.

   The ultra-consistent Smiling Tiger (Hold That Tiger), no worse than third in 14 career starts, turned in a visually impressive performance in Oaklawn Park’s GIII Count Fleet H. Apr. 14 (TDN Video). Last of six early after a slow start, the 2010 GI Bing Crosby S. and GI Ancient Title S. hero closed in the stretch with authority to score going away by 2 1/2 lengths. He stopped the clock in a snappy 1:08.63, good for a 103 Beyer.

   A very strong third behind Big Drama as a three-year-old in last year’s GI Breeders’ Cup Sprint, Smiling Tiger has shown a new dimension this term coming from off the pace, a change in tactics trainer Jeff Bonde credits to some extra gate schooling and maturity. Smiling Tiger, known earlier in his career for winging it on the front end, also rallied from more than six lengths back to narrowly capture the GII San Carlos H. at Santa Anita in his previous trip to post Feb. 19. 

Smiling Tiger
Coady Photography
   The chestnut is being aimed at either the GII Churchill Downs S. on the Derby undercard or the GI Met Mile at Belmont Park on Memorial Day. Bonde decided to pass on a trip to Dubai for the G1 Golden Shaheen in March in favor of taking another crack at the Sprint beneath the Twin Spires in November. Whichever spot his connections go with next, Smiling Tiger certainly looks like a sprinter to be reckoned with for the remainder of the year.

   Amazombie (Northern Afleet) continues to take his game to new heights during his five-year-old campaign, posting a career-high 106 Beyer in the restricted Tiznow S. on Gold Rush day at Hollywood Park Apr. 23 (TDN Video). Under pressure throughout, the bay zipped through fractions of :22 4/5 and :45 4/5, and kept finding more in the stretch, drawing clear to score in style by 2 3/4 lengths in the 7 1/2-furlong event.

   By no means is Amazombie one dimensional. He closed from sixth to deliver a hard-fought head victory in the GII Potrero Grande S. at Santa Anita Apr. 3, and also rallied from just off the pace for a narrow tally in the Sunshine Millions Sprint S. Jan. 29. Trainer Bill Spawr, who also campaigned top sprinter Bordonaro, said that Amazombie’s next start will most likely be Hollywood’s GI Triple Bend H. July 2. If his recent form is any indication, the Cal-bred certainly looks like he's ready for the next level.

   The Golden State also has a very promising female representative in the sprint division as well. Turbulent Descent (Congrats) stamped herself as a legitimate GI Breeders’ Cup Filly & Mare Sprint contender with a dazzling performance in Keeneland’s GII Beaumont S. Apr. 17 (TDN Video). Brilliant in three starts at two, including a victory in the GI Hollywood Starlet S., it was decided to bypass the prestigious GI Kentucky Oaks this season and keep the classy bay sprinting following a second-place finish in the GI Las Virgenes S. Feb. 5 and a narrow win in the GI Santa Anita Oaks Mar. 5. The Florida-bred is aiming for Belmont Park's GI Acorn S. and Saratoga's GI Test S. this summer before taking on her elders at Churchill Downs in the fall. Tip of the cap to the Blinkers On team and the rest of Turbulent Descent's connections for not getting caught up in Oaks fever and pointing the filly where she belongs.

Wednesday, April 27, 2011


--Sue Finley

Early last spring, I was forwarded an email from an American man living in Paris who wanted to somehow combine handicapping and bicycle riding to raise money for retired thoroughbred racehorses.

The man, Alan Kennedy, said he had a friend, Mark Cramer, an author and bicyle enthusiast who had published both handicapping books and novels and who wanted to try out some of his methods at French racetracks, which he would reach by bicycle. Kennedy was going to accomplany him.

At the time, I was the first vice president of the Thoroughbred Retirement Foundation. My principle occupation for them was fundraising, and since it was a rare day when someone showed up and asked if they could help you raise money, I quickly said, `yes, thank you.’

Kennedy and Cramer prepare for their journey in Paris
Mark and Alan’s idea was that they would pedal a few hundred kilometers for the cause. What they didn’t know was that I may well be the world’s biggest Tour de France fan. I spend three weeks every July glued to the Versus network, catching the 8 a.m. preview, 8:30 - 11 a.m. live coverage, 2-5 p.m. recap and then the 8-11 p.m. recap...which is pretty much exactly like the 2-5 recap. I’m a little obsessed.

So I said, “You know what would really be the thing? To ride this tour during the dates of the real Tour de France, from July 3 to July 25. You could go from track to track in 21 stages, just like the riders go from town to town. People could pledge money per mile, or just make general donations.” They clearly thought I was crazy, but were also intrigued by the challenge, and wanted to do some good.

We decided that they could blog about it as they rode, and I would link the blog to a personal fundraising page that I would promote in the TDN. Putting aside fears of heart attack, heat stroke and general breakdown, they agreed to do it.

The result of this journey (aside from the thousands of dollars he raised for the TRF and a similar organization in France, La Ligue Pour la Protection de Cheval) is Cramer’s fantastic new book, Handicapping On the Road: Two men, 65 and 59, bicycle 1,000 kilometers to 13 race tracks to save discarded Thoroughbreds, testing seven exciting betting methods along the way.

The book is divided into two sections; the first, on the handicapping methods he features, and the second on the travelogue aspect and real-life betting stories of the trip. (Spoiler: he paid for the entire trip with his winning bets.)

Mark at Longchamp
The forward to the book is inspiring. Writes Cramer, “Using animals for entertainment and then sending them off to slaughter seemed as much an attack on our own humanity as it was the ultimate abuse of animals...Race fans feel rightful outrage and deep sadness when an equine athlete breaks down on the track. That’s because we see when it happens. But no one sees what happens to hard-knocking working-class Thoroughbreds when they disappear from the barns.”

The finish line at Compiegne
Cramer’s handicapping books are some of the most highly acclaimed in the industry. It has been a personal honor to come to know him and Alan, and I look forward to seeing them both in France this July, when we can watch the daily Tour coverage together over a nice glass of Bordeaux.

In the meantime, I highly recommend Handicapping on the Road, available here:

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Can Exchange Wagering Fill the Void Left by Online Poker?

--Brian DiDonato

This is a pivotal time for the U.S. gaming industry. On Friday, April 15, Federal prosecutors charged the operators of the three largest online poker sites--Full Tilt, Pokerstars and Absolute Poker--with fraud and money laundering, seized the sites' IP addresses and essentially shut out all U.S. customers while temporarily freezing their real-money accounts. Those sites, and smaller ones like them, had, until now, operated with virtual impunity despite being in violation of the Unlawful Internet Gambling Enforcement Act (UIGEA). It seems likely that online poker will eventually be legalized and regulated given its incredible popularity in America and the massive windfall of cash that would be generated for financially desperate Federal and State governments but, for now, millions of American customers are left without a way to play the game they enjoy and/or make a living from.

After "Black Friday," as it has been dubbed by the poker community, I had planned on writing something about the influx of online players to poker rooms at racetracks. I browsed Parx Racing's "live game report" in search of a spike in the number of tables operating at a given time, and visited the Pennsylvania track's poker room to ask dealers and managers if they had noticed an increased number of customers since their online competitors had been shut down. The general consensus was that there was a noticeable, but not exponential spike in activity, especially at the higher limits. As someone with a vested interest in the health of our industry, I was pleased to hear that attendance at tracks--albeit for something unrelated to racing itself--was increasing. But I couldn't draw any conclusions about the impact this would have on the health of the sport. Any effects seemed like they would be minimal. The casino side of tracks, which subsidize somewhere around 30% of U.S. racing's purse structure, might increase their revenue slightly, but there would be no meaningful increase in handle on races. If anything, it could merely widen the gap in profit margins between racinos and tracks and raise further questions about the viability of operating a failing business by propping it up with a profitable one.

But when gaming expert Eugene Christiansen's New York-based firm Christiansen Capital Advisors released its study on the potential impact of exchange wagering on U.S. racing Monday, it dawned on me: this is racing's answer to the death--or at least coma--of online poker. The study has significant and undeniable flaws, perhaps partly because it was commissioned by TVG, a U.S.-based subsidiary of Betfair, the pioneer and largest operator of exchange wagering in the world. It fails to consider important sets of data and largely ignores many of exchange wagering's drawbacks, but it also points out the wagering platform's significant advantages. Exchange wagering would serve to, according to a press release that accompanied the study, "attract new people into the consumer base of Thoroughbred racing, in particular people who are younger and tech savvy" while restoring “a measure of price competitiveness to licensed U.S. Thoroughbred betting operations."

"Young" and "tech savvy" could not more accurately describe the typical online poker player. The average player is in his early to mid 20s, grew up in the era of computers and video games, and is comfortable playing on up to 24 virtual tables simultaneously. He is capable of generating significant wagering volume or "churn" (capital cycled and recycled through wagering markets). While currently there is little interest in wagering on racing from the typical online poker player, the games are not dissimilar. Both have an edge on other forms of gambling in their complexity and intellectual stimulation--both are cerebrally challenging and involve significant strategy and skill (despite what misinformed opponents of legalized poker seem to believe). Concepts such as "value" and "bankroll management" lie at the core of winning strategy in both games, and the educational backgrounds and personalities of important horseplaying figures, such as Andy Beyer and Steve Crist, only differ from the current breed of successful online poker players in their respective historical contexts.

Poker, however, in its human vs. human form with relatively low rake is perceived as "beatable" (and it is), while race wagering, despite its similar human vs. human structure (as opposed to an individual playing against the house as in other casino games), is not  (it's still beatable in its current form, but to a much lesser degree). Part of this difference in perception is due to racing's stigma as a corrupt game with rampant cheating, which is something that obviously must be addressed, but the other difference is the disparity in take-out between the two games. The average rake taken from a pot in an online cash poker game is somewhere around 5% with a maximum of $1-$5. The take-out on a win bet through the tote is at least three times that with no maximum, while the fee charged by operators of a betting exchange is much closer to the rake paid on a poker hand.

This is the time for the racing industry to actively and aggressively seek out a larger percentage of the gaming pie. With the very significant advantage of current online legality over one of its most formidable competitors, racing can generate a new consumer base through the introduction of exchange wagering. Readjustment of the pricing model coupled with innovative marketing strategies can appeal to a large group of young people that are currently without a product to consume. New Jersey and California already have the necessary legislation in place to implement exchange wagering, and tracks, horsemen and potential exchange operators in those and other jurisdictions would be very well-served to work out all the kinks as soon as possible before their competitor for gaming dollars is reborn and fortified through government support.

Monday, April 25, 2011

Sophomore Spotlight: Lex and Jerome Wrap-ups

--Brian DiDonato

We saw two pretty nice performances turned in by three-year-olds in Saturday’s Lexington and Jerome, but only one of those runners has the potential to have an impact on the Triple Crown series.

Derby Kitten, who gave by far his career best performance in the Lexington in his Polytrack debut, is very unlikely to run as well if he contests the Preakness or Belmont (he won’t make the Derby on graded earnings, and isn’t under consideration for that event). He was beaten 27 1/2 lengths in his only start on the conventional stuff (in To Honor and Serve’s large-margin maiden breaker) and his sire, Kitten’s Joy (El Prado {Ire}), has passed along his surface preference to virtually all his progeny. America’s Champion Turf Horse of 2004 and half-brother to the very good MGISW turf mare Precious Kitten (Catienus) has had all his success in the breeding shed with turf and synthetic runners. Of Kitten’s Joy’s top eight purse money earners who have raced in the U.S. and/or Canada, five have tried dirt. Only one, William’s Kitten, got a win. Those five runners, which include Derby Kitten (bear with me if I confuse two of the Kittens at some point), have an overall record of 14-1-1-4 on the dirt. There are some nice races for three-year-olds in the coming months on turf and synthetic, and Mike Maker and the Ramseys would be best served by pointing Derby Kitten to one of those events.

Derby Kitten Runs Away With the Lexington (c) EquiSport
Runner-up Prime Cut had a fairly neutral trip in the Lexington. He was close to an average pace, which was probably not optimal, but not as blatantly detrimental based on the way the track was playing Saturday as it would have been on Bluegrass day. His performance wasn’t quite up to par with his winning run at Fair Grounds, and Prime Cut was a big question mark on the Polytrack, so it’s difficult to draw any conclusions from his Lexington. He’ll probably run better back on dirt next time, so we’ll label his performance Saturday as “inconclusive.” Favored Silver Medallion had a very easy pocket trip, and had no excuse. He just came up empty, and might have been feeling the effects of a short turnaround from the Santa Anita Derby.

Adios Charlie Re-Rallies in the Jerome (c) EquiSport
With just a sprint maiden win on his resume prior to the Jerome, Adios Charlie emerged as an interesting, late-developing sophomore in a crop that has continued to disappoint. He was up on a moderate pace and figured to like the slop, but the $400,000 OBSMAR juvenile purchase showed a level of determination that is rarely seen from lightly raced runners stepping up into graded stakes to battle back and win going away. The 98 Beyer Speed Figure Adios Charlie received equaled the figures Archarcharch and Nehro earned in the Arkansas Derby, and exceeded the numbers earned by winners of the other major final preps. The stamina of progeny of 1998 Derby show horse (and favorite) Indian Charlie was a hot topic after Uncle Mo romped in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile, but concerns over Adios Charlie’s ability to get the Preakness or Belmont distance seem minimal. Indian Charlie’s best daughter Fleet Indian won the 10-furlong GII Delaware H. and GI Personal Ensign S. by a combined 10 lengths and, as discussed in my preview of the race, Adios Charlie receives a significant amount of stamina from his dam’s side. His mother Teak Totem (Northern Afleet), a stakes winner over a mile on grass who never went beyond 1 1/8 miles, is a full-sister to the admittedly average, but seemingly stout GI Gulfstream Park Turf H. winner Teaks North (he also hasn’t gone beyond 1 1/8 miles, but he gives the impression of a horse who could run longer). The Teak siblings are halves to Wooden Phone (Pick Up The Phone), a Grade II winner at nine-furlongs who was second in the GI Santa Anita H. at 1 1/4 miles. Adios Charlie isn’t Triple Crown nominated, but he might catch the other members of his generation at a perfect time if co-owners Stan Hough and Robert Sahn decide to pony up the late supplemental fee for a tilt in the Preakness or Belmont.

Runner-up Astrology had a soft trip in the Jerome, saving ground throughout, and was more the beneficiary of very advantageous circumstances than anything else. His connections should stick with their original plan to keep him out of the Derby, as he did not give the impression of a horse who will fire anything competitive in two weeks considering all the setbacks he has already endured this year. Justin Phillip made a very big, and very premature move, and understandably tired in the end. The seven-furlong Woody Stephens on the Belmont Stakes undercard seems like the perfect next spot.  

The X Factor

--Andy Belfiore

Mornings on the Churchill backstretch 12 days before the Kentucky Derby, it’s quiet. Trainer Jinks Fires, black cowboy hat pushed back, was getting miked for an interview, and there were a few reporters making the rounds between rainstorms, but it still feels pretty relaxed.

The Factor was out for a gallop just as the sloppy main track opened to the masses after the Derby/Oaks training session. He was on the muscle as he came by the Twin Spires the second time, egged on by a horse breezing past as he hit the wire. Trainer Bob Baffert still hasn’t made a call on the Derby, though. The colt entrapped during the Arkansas Derby before fading to seventh. “It was bad,” Baffert said Monday morning. “He was gurgling.” Turns out, The Factor had minor throat surgery shortly after arriving at Churchill, to see if that might help alleviate the problem. He will breeze Wednesday morning, but Baffert is in no hurry to make a decision on his next start. “I’m not even thinking about the Derby,” he claimed. “There’s no pressure.”

Well, that may be true—Baffert’s been down this road a time or two, and he knows what it takes to get to the winner’s circle on the first Saturday in May. He’s won it three times, and hit the board four more, in the 15 years since his first starter, Cavonnier, got beat a sliver by Grindstone. But I’d wager good money he’d love to get there with The Factor. No matter how long they’ve been in the business, no matter how many have circled their sheds, most trainers can’t help getting that Christmas morning grin when they talk about special horses. And when the topic is The Factor, Baffert has a gleam in his eye.

And, in fact, Baffert has given some thought to the Derby. If The Factor gets the green light, it will be green all the way. There will be no holding back. Baffert had no intention of letting the 3-year-old burn himself out in Hot Springs. “You just couldn’t do that,” he said. “You go in :21, :45, and you don’t have a horse left.” But tactics will change in Kentucky. “It’s the Derby,” Baffert said. “You only get one shot.” The Factor will only run if he is A-Game ready. “I’ve got to feel good about it,” Baffert said. But don’t toss those Future Bet tickets just yet.

Sunday, April 24, 2011

Racetrack Tradition

--Andy Belfiore

Did I miss a memo somewhere? Isn’t it an age-old tradition that if you leave your Racing Form behind when you go off to make a bet, or get a beer maybe, you’re going to find it just where you left it, saving your seat, when you get back? I’m pretty sure that started back when Ben Hur was 4-5 to take the Premio Pontius Pilate, and the chariot fans dropped their Daily Racing Scrolls when they went to lay down a few prutah on number XLI. So, making a first visit to Churchill’s Trackside Saturday, I trustingly left my Form at my table and went to bet Gulfstream’s Rainbow Pick 6. And when I got back—eight minutes later—it was gone. I was outraged. “Really?? Someone stole my Form??” I actually said it out loud. And four very sheepish-looking gents at the next table copped to taking it. They claimed they thought I’d left. Ha! I explained the error of their ways and, hopefully, this won’t be happening again.

Did you know that the chariot scene took three months to film, used 15,000 extras and required an 18-acre set? Fascinating what you can find out on Wikipedia.

Trackside is, by the way, the Aqueduct of Kentucky, except the Rastas have Southern accents. Just kidding…no Rastas. But the pizza did take me right on back to Ozone Park.

As for my Rainbow Pick 6 ticket…my buddy and I anted up $48 each and, admittedly using mostly his picks, that $96 ticket was still live for the last leg. We had the 1-6-12. It came in 5-1-6-12. Burned. By a jock who was 0-for-the-Interstate.

I made it to Churchill Easter morning. Unfortunately, the skies opened up about 10 minutes before the Derby and Oaks horses hit the track for their segregated training time. There were a couple of workmanlike breezes over the sloppy strip from Stay Thirsty, in company with Bridgetown, and Mucho Macho Man, alone and sporting fleece on his yoke that was snowy white when he hit the track and covered in mud when he got back to the barn. Glad I don’t have to do his laundry. The horse that really caught my eye was Oaks filly Joyful Victory. She was the first one out there, and she galloped around like she owned the joint.

There are flood warnings in the forecast, so I don’t know how much action there will be on the track the next few mornings. But now we know why Nick Zito is still in sunny Florida with Dialed In.

Thursday, April 21, 2011

Sophomore Spotlight: Lexington and Jerome Analysis

--Brian DiDonato

Saturday’s Lexington at Keeneland lost a bit of its intrigue when Jaycito was ruled out, but it could still have Derby implications as Silver Medallion looks to amass the necessary earnings to jump into the top 20. The Steve Asmussen trainee should prove dangerous in this spot as he gets back to his preferred surface. Silver Medallion was fourth last out in the Santa Anita Derby, earning the field’s co-highest last out Beyer with a 91, but hung pretty badly in the stretch and just couldn’t quite run with the top two despite a fairly easy trip. He’ll face a much easier group this time, however, and his El Camino Real Derby win was flattered by show horse Positive Response, who took the John Battaglia Memorial at Turfway by seven lengths before fading to eighth as a pace casualty in the Spiral. Silver Medallion is a deserving Lexington favorite, but the short turnaround from the Santa Anita Derby and a quirky surface make him far from unbeatable.

Silver Medallion                     (c) Horsephotos
There are two viable alternatives to Silver Medallion--one who’s sort of obvious and one who certainly isn’t. The obvious one is Prime Cut, who defeated impressive debut winner and “TDN Rising Star” Bind by 3/4 of a length in a Fair Grounds optional claimer Mar. 26, earning the field’s other last-out 91 Beyer. He enjoyed a very easy trip, stalking from third behind a longshot pacesetter and a head-strong stretching-out Bind, but closed well to run down Bind, who figured to win easily, and who could still be very talented. It was 12 lengths back to the third finisher (pacesetter Hydro Power), who came back to take a state-bred allowance at Hawthorne by 11 1/2 lengths with a new speed figure top. The biggest question for Prime Cut is the surface--it’ll be his first try on Polytrack, and he’s never raced on turf. I’m not sure what to make of his work tab, as he worked at Churchill Apr. 5, then Keeneland Apr. 12 and back at Churchill Apr. 19, but conditioner Neil Howard has won with 23% of his runners trying synthetic for the first time at Keeneland over the past year (stat courtesy of DRF Formulator), so there’s reason to expect a good showing over the strip. Hurricane Lake isn’t interesting so much because of his recent efforts (despite taking back-to-back allowance races at Golden Gate), but because of his connections. He’ll be sent out by Jeff Bonde, who boasts an impressive win rate in graded stakes. According to DRF Formulator, the west coast-based conditioner has scored with 26% of his graded stakes runners over the past five years (42% over the last year, but that stat is a bit skewed by Smiling Tiger) and has hit the board 58% of the time. Sunland Derby upsetter Twice the Appeal had very similar looking form before his big win, and shares at least one owner with Hurricane Lake. Expect Hurricane Lake to outrun his odds, and don’t rule him out for the top slot.

Headliner Astrology seems vulnerable in the Jerome. Illness has precluded him from being able to stay on his Derby-minded schedule all season, and his connections have re-routed to this spot because he’s not ready to run in the big one. Obviously this one-turn mile is less demanding than the Derby, but he might not have been good enough to beat this field is he was 100%. He was slow from a speed figure perspective at two, and while he had a pretty tough trip when second in the Sunland Derby to the aforementioned Twice the Appeal, he’s facing a completely different class of animal here.

Astrology Runs Second to Twice the Appeal         (c) Coady
Cal Nation might just be too talented for this group. The 93 figure he earned on debut when romping by 7 3/4 lengths at Gulfstream would be enough to win this, and while his nose loss to stablemate Dance City in an allowance over this trip was disappointing at the time, Dance City’s solid third in the Arkansas Derby last week casts the quality of Cal Nation’s allowance performance in a totally different light. The bounce theory is terribly overused, but horses who run relatively high numbers first out usually come back down to earth a bit in their second starts before returning back to their tops or higher in subsequent efforts, so look for the half-brother to Bluegrass Cat to run something in the 90s. While Adios Charlie’s 82 maiden-breaking figure last time doesn’t match up well with this group or with the visually impressive nature of that run, he was up on a very fast pace. He should improve second off the bench; trainer Stan Hough has been a 23% trainer off a lay-off over the past year, but a 38% trainer second after a break (courtesy of DRF Formulator). Adios Charlie has enough speed to clear early here, and if allowed an easy lead he should have plenty left late. His stakes-winning dam (at a mile on turf) is a full to the Grade I winning turf router Teaks North, and a half to Wooden Phone (Pick Up The Phone), who upset Tiznow in the Strub and finished second in the Big ‘Cap in 2001.

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Keeneland Spring - God’s Country

--Gary King

People talk about Saratoga and Del Mar, but there is something very special about Keeneland Spring. I have been fortunate to attend many of the world’s top races/festivals, and Keeneland Spring is comparable to any of them. The buzz around Lexington leading up to, and during the month of April is amazing. The horses are top-notch, the atmosphere is electric, and the girls are very easy on the eye. What more could you ask for? Granted the weather tends to be a little erratic, evidenced this weekend, but this fails to dampen people’s spirits.

The young demographic at Keeneland
 For the people of Lexington and beyond, Keeneland is the place to be for the month of April regardless of weather conditions. Moreover, to see such a young demographic at the track is refreshing to say the least. It’s true that the majority are there solely to tailgate and some never actually see a horse, but racing needs to be promoted as a social occasion. Despite angering the purists, people do not need to know the ins-and-outs of handicapping and pedigree analysis to enjoy a day at the races. As Darley America’s Gerry Duffy so aptly put it at dinner last week--you need to get the masses racing before converting them into fans/bettors.

I realize that not all racetracks can be a Keeneland or a Saratoga, but it is pleasant to attend the races where there are more people than horses. It simply fuels my desire for adopting a two-tier racing system, similar to a major and minor league. Such a system would adhere to the quality over quantity philosophy, while also making it easier for the general public to identify and relate to our complicated and fragmented sport. For example, the Australian industry is thriving at present partially due to its tiered approach--city tracks and country tracks. 

If nothing else, Keeneland Spring makes you feel a little more optimistic about the sport’s future. Racing still has the capacity to evolve beyond the sporting realm, appealing to a variety of people from all walks-of-life.

Monday, April 18, 2011

Sophomore Spotlight: No Factor

--Brian DiDonato

We saw longshot winners Saturday take both the Arkansas Derby and Bluegrass, but the races could not be more opposite in how productive they should prove come Kentucky Derby day.

While I picked Brilliant Speed to win the Bluegrass in my preview of the race, I do not consider him a contender for the Derby. I handicapped the race as if it were on turf, and the best turf horse won. Brilliant Speed’s two tries on dirt to begin his career were obviously at distances dramatically shorter than what he figured to be best at, but he never showed any life in those early events and has never turned in a reasonably quick work on dirt. Dynaformer can get very good dirt routers (Barbaro, Dynever, and Perfect Drift), but his runners will always be geared a little bit more towards grass. Brilliant Speed also gets a reasonable amount of surface versatility from his dam’s side, but performance always outweighs pedigree, and what he has shown on the track suggests that he is not well-suited for the Churchill Downs main track.

Brilliant Speed Gets Up. . . Barely                         (c) EquiSport
Brilliant Speed’s run in and of itself--rather than how it projects for the Derby--is hard to interpret. He put in a very visually impressive run from dead last and got his last three furlongs in :34.75, but the track was blatantly anti-speed all weekend, reminiscent of how it was two or three years ago. The Moss Pace Figures for the Bluegrass suggest that the pace was absolutely glacial, but I don’t think they can be taken at face value considering the nature of the surface. Brilliant Speed’s 89 Beyer Speed Figure was low compared to what other members of his generation have been running but, again, the number cannot be relied upon heavily because of the way the race was run and the surface over which it was run (Note: Beyers and Moss Pace Figures use the same track variant--so their interpretation of the speed of the track is identical). While Brilliant Speed was the beneficiary of a track that played to his running style, he took advantage of those fortuitous circumstances in impressive fashion--horses can have things go their way and still be given credit for good performances. Brilliant Speed will be dangerous when put back on the turf this summer in races like the Secretariat or Virginia Derby, just like last year’s Bluegrass place horse Paddy O’Prado was, but don’t expect much from him in Kentucky unless the track comes up muddy. Runner-up Twinspired ran more against the grain of the track than Brilliant Speed, but the worst race of his career came in his only dirt start. He is unlikely to factor on May 7.

Archarcharch Holds off Nehro; KY Derby Quinella?
(c) Horsephotos
Whereas the Bluegrass did not produce any serious Derby contenders, The Louisiana Derby featured what I consider to be the two most likely horses to get the roses. Both Archarcharch and Nehro have the right running style (somewhere between stalker and closer) to win the Derby and the necessary stamina for 1 1/4 miles, and the 98 Beyer Speed Figures they each received is the highest number earned in the final round of Derby preps. The respective trips of the one-two finishers were pretty much a wash; Nehro saved more ground early, but Archarcharch got the jump on him turning for home. The pace was fast for the first quarter, but the frontrunners were able to slow things down for the middle part of the race and should have had plenty left if good enough. This was a fairly run event--it did not feature the pace collapse that some seem to think it did. Going forward, I still prefer Nehro. He seems to have a bit more upside and room for continued improvement, although his lack of seasoning is cause for concern. Both colts are sired by stamina influences, but while Nehro’s siblings were better routers, Archarcharch’s dam was a pure sprinter. Nehro also galloped out in front Archarcharch. Both will be featured prominently on my Derby tickets, but Nehro’s still number one on my list.

The Factor’s performance was disappointing and obviously does not bode well for the Derby. I suppose it’s possible that his very dull effort can be explained by him displacing, but he never seemed comfortable rating. In what was supposed to be the true test of his stamina and ability to handle an adverse pace scenario, The Factor simply came up short. He is undoubtedly talented, but if he goes on to Churchill he will once again be very vulnerable. The Factor’s best hope in the Derby would be to send hard early. Under the right circumstances and on the right track, if he were to clear, he would have a chance to hang on for a piece late, but the likelihood of him being able to get the lead without any pressure is very low. Dance City doesn’t have the graded earnings to get into the Derby, but his performance was solid and much better than expected. One of the toughest trips in racing is to be the horse chasing the leader, but the way he dug in and ran on was very encouraging. Sway Away’s run was produced much too prematurely. He has not been given the opportunity to showcase the ability he flashed in the San Vicente in his last two, but will at some point--probably when turned back to a one-turn mile or seven furlongs.

The upcoming Lexington should be an interesting event featuring some runners trying to sneak into the top 20 in graded earnings. Check back later this week for a preview, and perhaps a discussion of the Jerome in New York if it draws an interesting field.

Sunday, April 17, 2011

And the Best 3yo in the Land Is...

--Steve Sherack

   Anybody else had it with this crop of three-year-old colts yet? I certainly have. Following another weekend of head-scratching Kentucky Derby preps and disappointing efforts from the so-called division leaders, I'm beginning to think that the top sophomore in the nation is the Tapit filly Joyful Victory. Owned and trained by the same connections of the ill-fated Derby runner-up Eight Belles (Unbridled’s Song), the Fox Hill Farm colorbearer has been spectacular in her two Oaklawn Park attempts this season, dismantling the GIII Honeybee S. field by 8 3/4 lengths (TDN Video), then making a very promising filly in Arienza (Giant’s Causeway--Azeri) look rather ordinary in the GII Fantasy S. (TDN Video), scoring by seven lengths. Joyful Victory, transferred to the Larry Jones barn after beginning her career with Tony Dutrow last term, hasn't received any love from the Beyer boys yet (82-Honeybee; 83-Fantasy), but couldn't have been any more visually impressive in that pair of runaway victories. The well-built $400k FTFFEB 2yo grad gives the impression that she's just getting warmed up at 1 1/16 miles, and hasn’t been asked for any serious run yet by regular pilot Mike Smith either. Can’t blame Joyful Victory's connections for bypassing the Derby with her following the well-documented tragic tale of the filly Eight Belles in the 2008 Run for the Roses, but it should still be awfully fun to see her strut her stuff in the previous day’s Kentucky Oaks beneath the Twin Spires.

Maiden Watch...
   "TDN Rising Star" Ripples n’ Waves (c,3, Malibu Moon) looked like the real deal turning in a 6 1/4-length tour-de-force maiden win at the Big A on Friday (TDN Video), earning a very respectable 91 Beyer in the process. The Riley Mangum homebred, trained by Jimmy Jerkens, ran like a horse in need of a race after getting outsprinted early in his six-furlong Gulfstream debut Mar. 12, but appeared a new animal stretching to a mile for a barn that is deadly with its second-time starters. Confidently handled throughout, the only movement from jockey Edgar Prado came when the pilot took a couple of sneaks back at the top of the lane and a little bit later in mid-stretch. I wouldn’t be surprised to see this guy’s name appear in the entries for the May 14 GII Peter Pan S. at Belmont Park next time out.
   Haven’t really noticed anything in the two-year-old division to get the blood pumping at this early stage of the season in mid-April, but one performance that did catch my eye came in the form of a Maryland-bred daughter of Two Punch named Bluegrass Atatude at Pimlico Apr. 15 (TDN Video). Trained by John Salzman Jr.--who has been on fire with his juveniles thus far--the $10k FTMOCT yearling purchase came from at least 14 lengths back after a slow start, rallied smartly between foes while racing greenly in the stretch, and finished up full of run to win in style by a good-looking two lengths. Not too sure what finished behind Bluegrass Atatude at Old Hilltop that day, but she certainly looks like one to watch in the Mid-Atlantic region going forward.

Stable Mail Alert...
   It was nice to see another workout from "TDN Rising Star" Eightyfiveinafifty (Forest Camp) at Belmont Park Saturday. The talented bay, off since an unplaced effort in last year's GII Woody Stephens S. on the Belmont Stakes undercard due to a serious case of pneumonia, was close to returning to the races this winter before suffering from another respiratory illness. According to co-owner Jeff Massaro of Team Stallion Racing, the $100k OBSMAR graduate will be handled very patiently in the a.m. by trainer Gary Contessa, and will be pointed toward a Saratoga campaign if he returns the right way. So far, so good. The 2010 GIII Bay Shore S. hero has posted a pair of easy three-furlong breezes in :37.88 (dirt training track Apr. 10) and :37.44 (main track Apr. 16).

Eightyfiveinafifty at the 2009 OBSMAR sale
Sherackatthetrack photo

Saturday, April 16, 2011

A Day for the Ladies

--Christina Bossinakis

After enjoying my first Apple Blossom day card at Oaklawn, I can honestly say I was given a real treat. Following a wickedly powerful storm that ripped through the area overnight Thursday, Friday dawned with a little sunshine, laced with a stiff wind. Oaklawn was already pretty packed by the time I headed through the grandstand on my way to the press box, which made me think, if this is what it is like on Apple Blossom Day, I can’t even imagine what the big day will bring. Each day since my arrival, I have a noticed more and more press appearing in the press box, so I assume we will have a full house for Arkansas Derby day.

Mariachi Band,
Early in the card, I had my head buried in my computer with such intensity that I probably wouldn’t have noticed a troupe of dancing monkeys if they had made their way past my desk. But despite my single-minded focus (which is usually pretty impenetrable, by the way), something caught my attention. Was that music? Not only was it music, it was a Mariachi band, located on the track’s apron, that provided patrons a mean version of La Bamba. I’m not sure why, but I found it pretty amusing. I guess when I think Mariachi, I don’t instantly think Arkansas. And for the hunch bettors in the crowd, the winner of Friday’s second race was none other than Taco Don. Seriously.

As the day progressed, the sun gave way to clouds and it became seriously cold (and today I chose to wear a dress!). I have to say, one of my highlights of the day came a little later when the big man himself, Charles Cella, came up to the press box. It was very interesting how people’s reverence and respect for the man was palpable. The Cella family has been in control of Oaklawn for almost a century, so I must admit, I was pleased to have the opportunity to meet him.

Larry Jones, cowboy chic, and Old Fashioned, 2008
(c) Sarah K. Andrew, TDN
As for the big show, Havre de Grace was really impressive in the Apple Blossom, and really stamped herself the leader of the division. It’s really too bad it had to come at the expense of such a classy filly, Switch. At the press conference held soon after the winner’s circle presentation, Larry Jones strode in to the conference room toting a very large blanket of carnations. When asked how he was feeling at that moment, Jones quipped, "Them flowers are sure heavy." The man who is the definition of cowboy chic (at least he's mine) was certainly on his game, both in his training exploits and his ability to please the crowd. He not only is an immensely talented horseman, but he’s also a pretty entertaining guy as well.

Later for dinner, I joined the currently hot team involved with Thursday’s GIII Count Fleet winner Smiling Tiger and Road Ready, who took Friday’s Bachelor S. I must say, I was very entertained by owner Phil Lebhertz (he had a great day besides the Oaklawn win, you should congratulate him!) and Mersad Metanovic, who was also had a hand in selecting the winners. However, the one I was most pleasantly surprised by was trainer Jeff Bonde. Not that I ever had a negative impression of him, but he is a real hoot! (As they say, when in the south..) He too, was an integral part of the selection process and it appears there is a very good reason why the team calls him ‘golden eye.’ I think they have a very good chance to make some more noise in the Arkansas Derby with Sway Away.

Friday, April 15, 2011

Oh Brethren, Where Art Thou?

-- Lucas Marquardt

Bet now or forever hold your peace is a popular saying nowhere. Except in my house. Or, at least since I thought of it several seconds ago, it could be. This thought, in the wake of Uncle Mo's loss last weekend, which may or may not be explained by the announcement of a GI infection. I like Uncle Mo just fine, and I like his connections more, but as he jogged back to the winner's circle after romping in last year's GI Breeders' Cup Juvenile, I said to no one in particular that this wasn't a Kentucky Derby horse. In light of his upset, this sounds like unremarkable hindsight--it isn't, especially since the Derby is still three weeks away. Moreover, I'm wrong so much more often than I'm right, and plenty of people shared this opinion, so there's no claim of victory or originality. But he struck me as a fleet, fast-developing sort (like War Pass, a comparison made earlier in the week on the blog of the TDN's Brian DiDonato, or like paternal sibling Indian Blessing), and not that kind that grows into a true route horse.

Toby's Corner wins Wood Memorial; Uncle Mo (rail) third
Anyway, the point being is that I was waiting until Kentucky Derby day to bet against the juvenile champ. I didn't (and don't) think he's a 10-furlong horse, or really a nine-furlong horse, but I figured his talent and class would pull him through to an easy victory in the in the GI Wood Memorial at Aqueduct. Everybody did. That's why he was 1-9. And at 1-9, what better time to pout your money where your mouth is? Instead,  I took what could be called the most tepid stand against a horse that's ever been taken. I played a $1 trifecta with Toby's Corner (second choice, at 8-1), Arthur's Tale (third choice, at 20-1) and Duca (fifth choice, at $26.75-1) in the first spot, Uncle Mo in the second an the same three horses in the third spot. The bet cost $6.

If I had a bit more foresight, or a lot more gumption, I could have done well on the race. The $2 exacta paid $158. The $2 trifecta paid $183--and would have paid exponentially more had Uncle Mo faded to fourth. Those are huge numbers considering the fact that we're talking about the second choice winning the race and the third betting choice finishing second. To top it off, the fourth betting choice, the 26-1 Norman Asbjornson, ran fourth and completed a $867 superfecta.

This will be on my mind when I bet Saturday's GI Arkansas Derby, where the The Factor (War Front) will be favored over Oaklawn Park's 1 1/8 miles. He is 7-5 in the morning line, but as the Great Gray Hope in what has been thus far a disappointing three-year-old crop, he could be odds-on by post time.

I feel about The Factor the way I feel about Uncle Mo: wickedly talented…but a miler at heart (again, no claims of originality here). Despite his considerably speed, I actually have a little more confidence in The Factor to see out nine furlongs right now, partly because I love the way Bob Baffert has been training him, with a steady diet of six-furlong drills, and partly because his fluid, efficient stride never seems to shorten. But I've  seen a number of classy sprint types run great in their first route, in this case his dominant win in the GII Rebel S., only to regress dramatically in their second go at two turns. I have no empirical data to back this up, so this must be taken with a grain of salt…and some lime…and possibly some low-grade tequila.

So who will it be Saturday? Well, here's what I'm playing for the trifecta: On top, Zayat's Nehro (Mineshaft), whose middle move in his maiden win two back was downright sexy, and which was followed by a strong up-the-rail second in the GII Louisiana Derby. I'll also use Batman Stable, et al stable's Sway Away (Afleet Alex). I would have liked to see him pick up some more stragglers than he did when sixth in the GII Rebel S. last time, but he ran a nice one when 3/4 lengths adrift of The Factor in the GII San Vicente S. and gets the addition of blinkers.

WinStar Farm homebred Brethren        Tampa Bay photo
And last, the Todd Pletcher-trained Brethren (Distorted Humor), the forgotten stepchild of the Derby trail right now. The way I figure, if Brethren had won his last start (third as the 1-2 pick in the GII Tampa Bay Derby Mar. 12), he's probably third choice in the Derby wagering right now. As is, Super Saver's little brother was a regressive but unembarrassed third in the Tampa Bay Derby--his first loss--enters this off two bullets at Palm Meadows, and is 10-1 on the morning line. He's a better horse than that. Brethren has every right to rebound, and the narrative roughly mirrors that of a year ago: Pletcher has a big gun (Eskendereya) in the weeks leading up to Derby but it's the WinStar homebred (Super Saver) who comes through. Brethren went off at 36-1 in the final Kentucky Derby Future Wager Pool, and I wish I'd remembered to put at least a few bucks on him.

In second, we'll add The Factor, then throw in Elite Alex (Afleet Alex), who made up a lot of ground from last to be fourth in the GII Louisiana Derby last out, in the third position.

So, the ticket looks like this:

2, 5, 6
2, 4, 5, 6
2, 3, 4, 5, 6

= $27

If The Factor doesn't hit the board, I imagine the trifecta will pay a minimum of $175 for a dollar, so a decent return on our money if we're lucky enough to win, even using perfectly logical horses. Good luck with whatever you're playing this weekend…

Oh, and a side note: I hope I'm dead wrong about The Factor. I hope he romps by 10. I like the bloodstock agent who bought him as a yearling, Kim Valerio, and I like it when guys who pour money into the sport, like George Bolton, do well. And it would be nice to see a superstar emerge from this crop. Even if my money's not on it.

Thursday, April 14, 2011

Sophomore Spotlight: Bluegrass and Arkansas Derby Previews

--Brian DiDonato

   The complexion of Saturday’s GI Bluegrass, which will be run on Polytrack at Keeneland for the fifth time Saturday, has changed dramatically in recent years as it has become clear that turf horses excel over the surface. Half of this year’s field last raced on grass, and all but one entrant has tried the sod at least once in his career. The race has yielded quirky results, and giant pay-offs. The winner’s average odds over the last four years is 17.8-1. Two runners from Polytrack runnings of the Bluegrass have gone on to hit the board in the Derby. Street Sense, who was second in a three-way photo in 2007, obviously went on to win. He had serious dirt form, though, having taken the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile under the Twin Spires the previous fall. Paddy O’Prado was second last year before finishing third in the Derby, but his Derby performance was aided by the sloppy surface and he would go on to do his best work on the lawn.

Santiva gallops over the Poly (c) Wendy Wooley/EquiSport
   Favored Santiva seems to be the most versatile runner in the group. Second while still a maiden over this strip in the GI Breeders’ Futurity last term, he took the GII Kentucky Jockey Club in Louisville to end 2010 and was second in the GII Risen Star at Fair Grounds in his only other outing this year. Up until the Risen Star, the biggest knock on Santiva was his low Beyer Speed Figures, but the drastically improved 91 he earned in his sophomore debut stands out in this group. An impressive winning performance would probably make him a Derby contender. If you are inclined to wager on an event like this, however, it’s hard to take a short price--especially on a horse who has a propensity to run second (5:1-3-1 record) and in a race where the recent results have been head-scratchers.

   Brilliant Speed doesn’t look like much on paper, but further examination into his form yields some interesting findings. In his first start on firm turf at the end of 2010, the Live Oak homebred beat Extensive, who would later finish one slot behind Spiral winner Animal Kingdom in a Gulfstream allowance before taking a listed stake at Tampa last Saturday. Brilliant Speed was stepped right up into the Dania Beach on the turf at Gulfstream off his maiden win, and came just a nose short after getting stuck behind a wall of horses in the lane and having to alter course significantly to find racing room. Also-rans in that heat include Rushaway winner Swift Warrior and fellow Bluegrass competitor Twinspired. Brilliant Speed last appeared in the Hallandale Beach and finished third, beaten only a neck. Stablemate King Congie--also entered in the Bluegrass--came out significantly on Brilliant Speed in the lane, however, and was demoted from first to third. Once again, Brilliant Speed was best but didn’t make it into the winner’s circle. As a son of Dynaformer, Brilliant Speed should appreciate the added ground. He is out of an unraced Gone West mare who sold for $1.45M as a yearling and who herself is out of a GISP half-sister to Belmont and Haskell winner Touch Gold and Canadian champion 3-year-old and MGSW With Approval. Brilliant Speed’s form coming into this race also resembles that of stablemate Arthur’s Tale, who was a narrow second in last weekend’s Wood Memorial for Tom Albertrani.

Sensational Slam (outside) gets up in Capossela
(c) Jessie Holmes/EquiSport
   Team Valor’s Crimson China, already a winner over Polytrack last year at Wolverhampton, showed an impressive late kick in his first U.S. start over the Gulfstream sod at this distance in February and garnered the “TDN Rising Star” tag for that allowance win. He then overcame a significant pace disadvantage over a similar surface at Turfway in the Rushaway. Last early, Crimson China finished second in a race dominated by speed. He is very well-suited for this race, but might be at the mercy of a pace that doesn’t figure to be too hot. I’ve been on the Willcox Inn bandwagon almost as long as my savvy colleague Steve Sherack, but he’ll need to run much faster here to contend--not that he isn’t capable of it. His past foes--Animal Kingdom, Soldat, Santiva and Great Mills have all flattered him with subsequent efforts. Sensational Slam is a two-time stakes winner on Poly in Canada, and looked pretty good taking the Capossela at Aqueduct. In his only route attempt, however, he was ninth of 10 in the With Anticipation over the Saratoga lawn. With the added distance, his pedigree could go either way, but the chestnut appears to belong with these based solely on raw ability.

The Factor                                             (c) Coady Photography
   The Arkansas Derby is clearly The Factor’s race to lose and, with Uncle Mo’s flop last week, he might be the last hope to see a truly fast Derby prep performance. He is a legitimate talent (not that Uncle Mo wasn’t), but he is not without question marks. The Factor was not tested on the front end last time in the Rebel--”unopposed” is how the chart caller put it. Four runners are adding blinkers and could show more early foot, and Dance City’s early speed, according to the Moss Pace Figures, is comparable to The Factor’s, so perhaps the chalk will get a sterner front-end test this time. Representatives of red-hot sprinter War Front’s first crop haven’t been fully tested yet at nine furlongs or more. Soldat took the Fountain of Youth with an advantageous trip before finishing off the board in the Florida Derby, and a son of War Front broke his maiden at 1 1/4 miles in France two weeks ago, but a larger sample size must be available before we can conclude how much stamina the War Fronts will generally possess. It’s entirely possible that The Factor will once again run his foes off their feet in this spot but, until he proves otherwise, he will continue to be somewhat vulnerable as the distances get longer and the pace gets more crowded.

Nehro (inside) can't squeeze by Pants on Fire (c) Hodges
   At this point, Nehro is number one on my list for the Kentucky Derby. I already praised his runner-up performance in the Louisiana Derby in the first Sophomore Spotlight entry (here), and see him as having three additional advantages in this spot. Firstly, Nehro is one of only three runners with previous experience at the distance (Elite Alex was fourth behind Nehro in Louisiana, and Dance City broke his maiden at nine furlongs in the slop at Gulfstream). Clearly he relished the added ground last time, as you’d expect with his pedigree. His half-brother Saint Marden (Saint Ballado) was twice a winner (once in the GIII Discovery H.) at this distance and earned a 112 Beyer for a 1 1/16-mile allowance win. Nehro also owns a win over the track--he broke his maiden in very impressive fashion with a quick, sweeping move to win going away. His third advantage comes from the change in tactics he employed in the Louisiana Derby. Nehro was much closer that day, and his ability to keep The Factor in his sights on Saturday should help minimize that one’s tactical advantage. If Nehro can stalk in the second flight while one or two other runners pester the Factor, he should be able to run him down.

   Alternation has been very consistent--taking his last three starts, all routing, but was scratched from the Rebel after flipping in the gate. In addition to an attitude adjustment, he needs a speed figure boost, but his consistency and two wins over the track are positives. He too should love nine furlongs. Alternation is by top sire Distorted Humor out of the MSW and MGSP router Alternate (Seattle Slew), who is a half to MGISW at this distance Peaks and Valleys (Mt. Livermore). Archarcharch has the stamina and consistency to hit the board here and/or in Kentucky, and Sway Away deserves another chance if he’s ridden more aggressively. With P-Val in the irons, that’s guaranteed.

Check back early next week for a wrap-up of the last two major preps for the Kentucky Derby.

Me and A. P.

--Sue Finley

Much has been written about A.P. Indy this week; his incredible career at stud, how he revived the Bold Ruler sire line, and what an amazing racehorse he was.

I will always remember him best for the race he did not run.

Rhythmic gymnastics:
 one weird sport
In 1992, I was a researcher for ABC’s Wide World of Sports. Over the course of two years, I covered every sport imaginable, from synchronized swimming to rhythmic gymnastics. The tough part of the job was that in a matter of days, you had to make yourself into an expert on something you had barely heard of a week prior, in order to guide the producers and announcers through that week’s program. So every week started out something along the lines of, “I’m sorry...they’re actually going to perform the gymnastics with those clubs in their hands?” and by the end of the week, you’d be intelligently advising Frank Gifford to watch out for the proper opposite club rotation in the next pass.

I interviewed 128 12-year-old baseball players in a single afternoon and made notecards for Jim Palmer for that evening’s Little League World Series games (well, they claimed to be 12, anyway); I watched eight college football games at a single time and called out statistics to Roger Twibell at a second’s notice (“Ty Detmer: 52-yard TD pass, 8 completions, 243 yards!”) and I went to Cuba and reported on boxing at Kid Chocolate Hall.

Most of the time...I had no idea what I was talking about, which was a pretty disquieting feeling.

Which is why I loved major racing weeks. In 1991, we had gotten the rights to the American Championship Racing Series, and, combined with the Triple Crown, Triple Crown preps, and Travers, that gave me about 18 weeks a year when I actually felt really competent at my job.

Having worked in the NYRA Press Office for eight years, I pretty much knew every question they threw at me off the top of my head. Nick Zito’s mother’s name? Carmella. Wayne Lukas’s hometown? Antigo, Wisconsin. Richard Migliore’s wife? Also Carmella. In a world where these questions were fired at you seconds before Al Michaels would say them on the air...this was a very good thing.

For the seven days leading up to the Derby, I would prowl the backstretch with a camera crew, coming back with news and pre-taped items for the producer. And here’s a trade secret: much of what you see on air on a “live” telecast...really isn’t live.

Are those roses really growing in the Churchill infield...?
Those shots of the track with roses in the foreground? They were usually taped earlier in the day or earlier in the week by a cameraman and someone like me, who carried a dozen roses around all day to stick them in the shots and give the audience the feeling that Churchill Downs is covered in roses on Derby Day.

But one of my main jobs was to get a taped shot of every horse standing in his stall so that going to a commercial on the live Derby telecast, Jim McKay could say, “We’re just 53 minutes away...and there is Arazi...waiting in his stall...the moment at hand.”

But of course, no trainer wanted you in his horse’s face 53 minutes to post on Derby Day, so my job was to convince them that to take down their hay rack, clear the shedrow and let us roll a minute of tape was a good thing for them. And everyone agreed, and was happy to participate...except...

Monday, I went to A.P. Indy’s barn, and was told he was tied up to the back wall, and they didn’t want to disturb him so I should come back Tuesday. Tuesday, he was eating and shouldn’t be disturbed.

Wednesday, he was sleeping, and they didn’t want to wake him. Thursday, he was being done up. “I won’t shoot his legs,” I pleaded. “I just need him to stand at the front of the stall for 30 seconds or so with the hay rack down.” No dice.

A. P. Indy...out of his stall
 Friday, he was...I don’t know...doing something very important which precluded me from getting the stall shot.

So Saturday morning, back I went with the crew bright and early for one final shot at it.

“Neil,” I said, “I’m here to get the shot of A.P. Indy standing in his stall for the telecast today.”

Neil: “I’m holding a press conference at 8:30.”

Me: “I don’t need you to be here. I just need the shot of the horse in his stall.”

Neil: “I’m holding a press conference at 8:30.”

Maybe he didn’t hear me?


Neil (louder still): “I’M HOLDING A PRESS CONFERENCE AT 8:30.”

Me: “Ohhhhhhhhhhh.  You’re holding a press conference...”

I imagine I was the first person in the media to find out that A.P. Indy wouldn’t be running in the 1992 Kentucky own little piece of history with one of the best racehorses and sires of a generation.

All because I couldn’t get a stall shot on Monday.

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Hello Oaklawn, Nice to Meet You

--by Christina Bossinakis

So, by the grace of God, I made it to Hot Springs last night, or should I say, more appropriately, morning. Following a delay from Newark (that’s a shocker, I know) added onto an already late flight, I found myself making the journey from Little Rock to Hot Springs shortly before midnight (Central time). For those of you who have never had the opportunity to visit Arkansas, be warned, the drive from Little Rock to Hot Springs (they swear it’s an hour but it’s not!) is a treacherous one. Negotiating the abysmally dark roads that never seem to run straight in the middle of the night is a very bad idea. Trust me.

After catching my first glimpse of daylight, Arkansas style, I made my initial foray to Oaklawn Park. I must admit, I’ve been to my fair share of Thoroughbred racetracks in my lifetime, however, I will go on record to say that after only one day at the Oaklawn Park, the Hot Springs oval would certainly rank among my favorites in this country. The attention to customer service here is really something to be applauded, and many tracks around the country would be well served to emulate their attention and dedication to accommodating the patron.

CBoss Photo
  I had the opportunity to speak to Oaklawn’s General Manager Eric Jackson and David Longinotti, assistant general manager/racing today, and they couldn't have been more gracious and helpful. In fact, even before my arrival here, Jen Hoyt from Media relations was wonderfully helpful in setting me up with all the necessities of the press, and was equally helpful following my arrival. Also instrumental in getting me orientated during my first visit to Oaklawn was Bruce Emery in the press box. A real superstar at his job and a genuine gentleman.

As circumstances would have it, I was extremely fortunate to get my first glimpse of Oaklawn racing after officials decided to add the Wednesday card to the schedule in an attempt to make up for the eight days lost to bad weather earlier in the season. Locals seemed largely unimpressed by the turnout, however, my perception was that it was a really solid crowd for a mid-week card. But maybe that’s because I’m accustomed to the often anemic crowds at New York-area tracks. One thing I found very interesting was that, while chatting with a few of the Oaklawn patrons, I learned a few of them had traveled a very long way (in one case, the gentleman drove all the way from Texas), to enjoy a day at the races. I was mildly surprised to learn that Oaklawn is to the South what Saratoga is to the East and Del Mar to the West. I guess you can only really appreciate that fact when you make it to Arkansas for a visit.

My first experience at Oaklawn was capped off exactly as I would have scripted it--with D. Wayne Lukas winning the final two races on the card, including the Red Bud S. with Westrock’s Tidal Pool. Currently, he leads the meet standings by three wins, with only a few days left to go. I have faith in the King.

Tidal Pool
Coady Photography
It appears that the California contingent arrived at Oaklawn Tuesday and among them was The Factor, favorite for Saturday’s GI Arkansas Derby. I plan to head out to the back side Thursday morning and get my first look at some of the hopefuls for this weekend’s features. Also, as luck would have it, the racing Gods seem to have smiled upon me (not to mention the good folks at Oaklawn), because the forecast for the Racing Festival of the South couldn’t be better if it had been custom ordered for the final hoorah. The good word is that most of the connections of the top horses are slated to make it to Arkansas for the Derby and Apple Blossom, so the pieces seem to be falling in place for a great weekend of racing. Stay tuned..

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Time for A Hart to Hart

--Andy Belfiore

   Thank you, Randy Hartley. After getting beaten over the head by those who preach that racing is a dying sport and we’d all better find another way to make a living, it was refreshing to read Hartley’s comment in the TDN coverage of the Keeneland April sale. “People love horse racing, and they are always going to buy the good racehorses.” Yes, they do. Yes, they are.

   Not that I’m an expert, but the Thoroughbred market seems to mirror that of real estate. Things get good, investors and buyers get caught up in a wave of enthusiasm that causes them to extend beyond their means. More and more helium gets pumped into the balloon until it gets just a little too high and then, pop, and back down to earth we all come. Real estate always rebounds, and, guess what? So does racing. In both industries, the best players regroup and adapt and weather the storm.

Mike Repole
   Are some people getting out of the business? Sure. But plenty more are jumping in with both feet. Think about it--10 years ago, there was no Stonestreet Stables, no IEAH, no Zayat Stables. Mike Repole wasn’t boosting the attendance at the Big A by bringing 120 of his nearest and dearest out to the track. Kaleem Shah and Westrock Stables only hit the scene in the last three years. You only have to go back 15 years to find a world without Robert LaPenta or Paul Pompa Jr. or Starlight Racing or Southern Equine. And those names are pretty much off the top of my head.

   Handle on horse racing is down, for sure, but in this economy, you have to expect that. Gambling dollars come from discretionary income, and there just isn’t as much cash to toss around these days. But we don’t have it as bad as some...just ask the Atlantic City casinos.

   Some tracks are suffering, but others are thriving. Business at Oaklawn Park and Tampa Bay Downs is booming. Fair Grounds and Laurel Park both announced purse raises this year, as did Remington Park and even Hastings Park. Morris Bailey is looking to make a five-year commitment to Monmouth Park, and they could just about be minting money at NYRA when the casino opens its doors.

Oaklawn Park
   It’s a good thing, too. Like just about everyone in the racing business, I’m in it because I love it. I love the horses, I love the people, I love to cash a bet on a longshot (thank you, Jeff Bonde and Twice the Appeal). I’m grateful for every day that I've been able to make my living doing something I am passionate about. If not for racing, I’d probably wind up endlessly asking, “Would you like fries with that?” And those little paper hats just don’t suit me.

   So thank you, Randy, for that reminder.