Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Bill and Bri's Excellent Adventure

-- Bill Oppenheim

If you’ve heard of Galileo, Sea The Stars, and Animal Kingdom you know something about the influence of German pedigrees at the very top tier of the thoroughbred business. They punch so far above their weight given the numbers of foals they breed (at least six states in the U.S. will produce more foals than Germany’s estimated 1,000 in 2011) that Germany should rightfully be considered one of a ‘big four’ countries of European breeding, even though their foal crops are a fraction of the size of the crops produced in Ireland, Britain, and France.

Among the places German-breds have done well is North America; three German-breds have already won Graded Stakes in North America this year, plus the dam of this year’s GI Kentucky Derby winner is German-bred. So when the Breeders’ Cup designed the new International Stallion Nomination program (the stallion owner pays 50% of a stud fee, all foals from that crop automatically nominated) in an effort to have more non-North American-bred foals nominated to the Breeders’ Cup, it was important to try and make sure the message got through to any group of breeders who might be supplying top-class horses for the Breeders’ Cup’s championship races.

The Breeders’ Cup has appointed field representatives throughout the world to explain the new program to stallion managers and breeders, including our own Brianne Stanley in Ireland. As someone who had worked on the program, and hopefully understood it well enough to explain it, we hoped that between us we could explain the background and the program, and answer questions about it, to a sector of the breeding industry we would certainly want to include in the program if we could.

Bill and Fahrhof’s Daniel Krueger.
The view behind is the ‘Hollywood’ sign of the village of
Iffezheim, where the racecourse is located,
with the Black Forest in the background.
So, last weekend, Brianne came from Ireland, and I came from Scotland, and we met up in Baden-Baden, in the southwest of Germany, literally just a few miles from the French border and the French city of Strasbourg, in Alsace. There is a sort of Spring Festival of racing, which began with two days of racing last weekend and continues through next weekend, with an auction of 2-year-olds and Horses of Racing Age on the sales grounds of the auction company, BBAG, adjacent to the racetrack, this coming Friday, June 3. We came for the racing last Saturday and Sunday, were guests at the industry’s Awards dinner at the racecourse on Saturday night, and made a presentation to stallion owners and breeders before the races on Sunday.

In a nutshell, the place is beautiful – the words ‘clean’ and ‘efficient’ come to mind; the people are fantastic – the words ‘friendly’, ‘polite’, and ‘helpful’ come to mind; and the area has a great atmosphere. Having arrived in Germany for the first time in my entire 61 ¾ years, I was told by several people that I had landed up in the right place, and it’s true. Brianne and I both remarked how much the atmosphere felt like Deauville – a resort, though not a seaside resort like Deauville. One big advantage they have over Deauville is the purpose-built sales grounds, done just 12 years ago, with plenty of space and functionality.

I hope the German stallion owners and breeders felt they had a good explanation of the new Breeders’ Cup program, and I hope many of them will sign up to the program. For our part, I think Bri and I both felt we could not have been shown better hospitality; could not have had better weather (though, like France and southern England, they have had a drought the last two months and desperately need rain); and, really, could not have been more impressed.

The BBAG yearling sale is scheduled for September 2-3, during a summer racing and sales festival which runs from August 27 – September 4. If you like to go to places like Saratoga (also a resort not on the seaside) for the sales and racing; if you like Del Mar for the racing; if you like Deauville for the sales and racing, I’ll bet you’ll like Baden-Baden for the sales and racing, too. It may have taken me an awfully long time to discover Baden-Baden and Germany for myself, but, having discovered it now, you can bet it won’t be long before my team tries very hard to get back there.

Bill, TDN’s Christa Riebel, and BBAG’s Kalus Eulenberger,
in front of the BBAG Sales Pavilion
We have many, many people to thank – far more than I would be able to list here. First and foremost we wish to thank Dr. Andreas Jacobs, best known as the Master of Gestut Fahrhof, his family’s third-generation stud, which received the award as Germany’s leading breeder in 2010. Andreas is also involved in his family’s Newsells Park Stud in England, founded by his late father, Klaus Jacobs, and now one of the leading commercial nurseries in Europe; and Maine Chance Farm in South Africa, where he stands the 2001 G1 Arlington Million winner and now very successful sire, Silvano. Dr. Jacobs has a number of other business interests, including as president of the company which leased the Baden-Baden racetrack when it went into bankruptcy in late 2009. He was a very busy guy all weekend, and we’re very grateful to him for facilitating our trip and spending more time with us than he probably had to spend.

Long day over: Bri and Klaus Eulenberger sample
the local brew, Hatz. We’re not sure what
Bill was drinking there.
Second on our all-star German hit parade is Fahrhof’s marketing manager, Daniel Krueger, who also works for the German Owners and Breeders Association. Daniel did absolutely double-time in the legwork department, and made sure everything ran like clockwork. He goes right to the top of our upcoming list of European “under-40’s” movers and shakers in the horse business. Daniel, we cannot thank you enough, we wouldn’t have known whether to turn right or left without your help. You are a star. Thanks also to the Baden-Baden racetrack team, including new racetrack GM, Dr. Benedict (Ben) Forndran, who came over from France’s PMU and is one of the most knowledgeable people I’ve ever spoken with about Tote systems in today’s era; Andre Litt, who organizes all the cars and drivers for the racetrack; and young Sebastian Merkel (no relation to the German Chancellor), who made sure we got where we needed to be when we needed to be there. Thanks also to TDN’s own Christa Riebel, who did the translating for us at our meeting on Sunday; and to BBAG’s MD, Carola Ortlieb, and Assistant Manager, Klaus Eulenberger, another who makes our Europe 'Forty Under Forty' list. To all y'all, many thanks for all your help, and we hope to see you again soon.

No Surprise: A Worthy Namesake…

--Lucas Marquardt

Patrick McBurney and John Forbes--a training team that has been a prominent force on the New Jersey racing scene for over three decades--so rarely have horses cranked up at first asking that just two of their previous 68 runners (3%) had taken the prize in their first go. So on Saturday, when the 3-year-old filly Addie's Surprise (War Front) was backed into favoritism in the early wagering for the seventh race at Monmouth, a $45,000 maiden special weight, handicappers took note. She ultimately went off as the race's second choice at 2-1, but the smart money was right. Addie's Surprise circled the field with a five-wide move, switched leads on cue in upper stretch and strode clear to a professional 2 1/2-length decision (video). The final time for the six-furlong, main-track event was 1:11 2/5; she earned a solid 94 BRIS figure. 

Just as noteworthy was the scene in the winner's circle, where the filly and the person she was named after, one Ms. Adelene "Addie" Lynch, came face to face. Ms. Lynch is 101 years old, and is the aunt of Dennis Lynch, who co-owns Addie's Surprise. The plucky centenarian--hair done up, gold earrings on, and wearing a glass beaded necklace--beamed as she pet her well-mannered namesake on the nose, then stood proudly with jockey Carlos Marquez, Jr. as they posed for pictures. 

"Dennis told me afterward, and I thought this was pretty neat, was that Addie--Adelene--had a lot of memories at 101. But she didn't have a lot of recent memories that meant a lot to her," said John Forbes. "They were all old memories. But that this would be a recent memory that would mean so much to her." (Disclaimer: John's wife Vicki works at the TDN, ostensibly as director of customer service, more accurately as the straw that stirs the drink.)

John Forbes (blue blazer), Adelene Lynch & Addie's Surprise

To give some perspective, when Ms. Lynch was born, William Howard Taft was in the White House, Babe Ruth was still in grade school, Archduke Franz Ferdinand had yet to make his fateful trip to Sarajevo, and Sir Barton was nine years away of becoming racing's first Triple Crown winner.

Ms. Lynch's life has been a story of grace, perseverance and, sometimes, horses. In 1929, the same year of the great market crash, the Jersey City native lost her father at the age of 19. Her mother had passed five years earlier, and as the second-oldest of seven children, she took on the role of caregiver for the family, taking a job as the personal secretary for three-term New Jersey governor A. Harry Moore. It was the Democratic governor who first introduced her to horses. 

Gov. A. Harry Moore
"There was an Army camp down on the shore at Sea Girt, and her and the governor would go out riding together," explained Robert Lynch, Addie's son and Dennis's cousin. "They would ride the trails from the beaches all the way down to where Allaire State Park is now--it was several miles. So she's been around horses now for more than 80 years, I guess."

Ms. Lynch's ties to horses didn't end there. During World War II, her husband, Robert's father, was a Naval physician stationed in Northern California, and the family became friendly with 'Silent' Tom Smith, the trainer of Seabiscuit. "I don't know how that came about, but we still have several handwritten notes from him on the letterhead of [Ridgewood Ranch], which said, 'Home of Seabiscuit,'" said Robert.  

Ms. Lynch, a mother of three, grandmother of seven and great-grandmother of 13, began taking her family to nearby Monmouth Park in the 1960s, and still makes two or three trips a year to the Oceanport oval. 

"My brother passed away eight years ago, and we have a memorial race for him every year," said Robert Lynch. "We'll get 60 or 80 friends and family down, including my mother. She still reads the program and does her handicapping, and she's surprisingly good at it. Her typical bet is $2 across the board--that's what she prefers. She cashes tickets more often than not."

In fact, after Saturday's race, Ms. Lynch didn't want to leave. "She wanted to stay and bet the rest of the card," laughed Forbes. 
With 102 in her sites, Ms. Lynch is still going strong. "Her eyesight's is a little tough now, but we just got her some new glasses," said Robert. "But she's still very sharp. She keeps up on current events. She loves watching the Yankees and loves Derek Jeter, and can discuss political events around the world--what's happening in Libya--or what's happening in Joplin or Japan. And she knows all of her 13 grandchildren by name and their birthdays. She's really a phenomenal woman."

Saturday clearly meant a lot to his mother, he added. "We had about 15 family members at the track, and others watching on TVG from around the country," he said. "And it was so cute in the winner's circle, Addie's Surprise was so well-behaved that she was able to pet her on the nose a few times. She was so grateful for John's graciousness and hospitality, and felt it was a really special event. She was very pleased."

Addie's Surprise, meanwhile, looks poised for bigger and better things. From the first crop of the red-hot sophomore sire War Front, by Danzig, she was hammered down to Forbes for $27,000 at the 2009 Keeneland September sale. The filly is owned by Forbes's Phantom House Farm, Dan Keegan, and BDL Stables--comprised of Bob Jones, Dennis Lynch and Lee Carr.

Addie & jockey Carlos Marquez, Jr.
Despite the modest tag, she proved a standout from the beginning. "I really hate to use the word freak, but when we were getting her ready for her 2-year-old year, right away we knew she was special," said Forbes, who shares training duties with longtime assistant and friend Pat McBurney, in whose name Addie's Surprise ran. "But she had some 2-year-old stuff, so we turned her out. We weren't going to Florida and didn't want to get her cranked up for the winter here, and we just got a little behind on her. But the reason she won is because she's so fast naturally. We're not good with firsters. We didn't crank her up, and she's much better than she ran. That's what's scary about her."

That good news for the stable, which has been represented by the likes of Tale of the Cat (Storm Cat), Mary's Follies (More Than Ready) and recent Monmouth standout Get Serious (City Zip). "And I think she'll go long," said Forbes. "The first time Marquez worked her, he was trying to slow her down, and came back and said that she wasn't just super fast, but that she'd run all day, too. She's a stretchy-looking type."

Not surprisingly, Forbes's phone began ringing shortly after the race, and thus far has had five inquiries about purchasing the filly privately. For the time being, however, Addie's Surprise will stay in the barn. "She's just learning right now," he said. "We'll probably look for an allowance race for her, and go from there."

Regardless of when she starts next, Adelene 'Addie' Lynch will be on hand to root her on. "Definitely," said her son.

Saturday, May 28, 2011

Met Mile Analysis

--Brian DiDonato

The Met Mile is always one of the best races of the year, and this renewal is no exception. While 1 1/4 miles is considered the "Classic American distance," a flat mile always seems to bring together the best fields. It's a distance that bridges the gap between routers and sprinters--especially when run on a track with a one-turn configuration. This field is somewhat different, though, in that almost every runner's proven best distance is this one. The conversation must start with expected favorite Haynesfield, who validated his lofty accomplishments last year with a very nice second in the Cigar Mile while turning back off a disappointing BC Classic performance. He's probably the most talented runner in this field at his best, but his comeback run in the Westchester was a bit dull. Yes, the pace he pressed was fast, but winner Caixa Electronica was the one carving out the splits. He could improve second time back, but has run very well off the bench before. He's obviously a contender, but Haynesfield won't offer much wagering value in as wide open a Grade I as we've seen all year.

When Tizway runs his race, he is very good. His two highest Beyers (105 and 106) were earned over track and trip and came in last year's running of this race (when third) and a five-length victory in the Kelso in October. His Kelso is pretty difficult to poke holes in, and was flattered when third-place finisher Jersey Town pulled off the Cigar Mile shocker with a gaudy 111 Beyer. Fourth-place runner Caixa Electronica--a contender in here--has also run well since, and sixth-place finisher Regal Ransom has run deceptively well this year. Tizway was then given an unfortunate ride in the BC Dirt Mile--he was much too close to an extremely fast pace. He returned in the Gulfstream Park H. and couldn't get by Tackleberry and was passed by Soaring Empire to lose second by a nose, but the pace was crawling and the winner had every reason to keep going in the lane. Trainer James Bond is just 2-for-26 with a dismal $0.86 ROI bringing horses back off lay-offs at Gulfstream over the past five years (courtesy of DRF Formulator), so that race alone is not solid enough evidence that the two foes he reunites with here are better than or equal to him. Tizway went longer over a sloppy Charles Town surface last time and was a decent third with a low-for-him 95 Beyer. Despite his pedigree, he has never seemed to love the slop and has always done his best at a one-turn mile. I'd excuse that effort and expect a big jump forward third off the lay-off, a category Bond hits at 29% in on the dirt.

Ibboyee is the least-heralded of Todd Pletcher's three Met Mile contestants, but his performance last time to be a close third in the Churchill Downs S. behind stablemate Aikenite was jaw-dropping. Completely distanced in the early going behind a pace that was slow to average for that group, he zoomed down the lane, getting his final furlong in :11.62. It's usually dangerous to expect a closer at shorter distances to automatically improve with added ground, but Ibboyee did his best running last year in routes. His two figures this year--100 and 99--aren't high enough to win this, but with an expected jump up with a return to a longer distance and adjustments for his trip, Ibboyee is very capable of upsetting this group at a big price. Caixa Electronica's aforementioned performance in the Westchester was very good and came while setting fast splits first off the claim for team Pletcher/Repole. There isn't a ton of early speed signed on here, and there's no reason Caixa Electronica can't set reasonable fractions and hold on or remain close late. Soaring Empire defeated Tackleberry, Caixa Electronica, MGISP Rule and GI Carter winner Morning Line in the Hal's Hope, and has run his three fastest races at this distance. He appears to be working very well since his second-place finish in the GP H., but how he'll take to the Belmont surface is a minor concern. His only previous race here was a dull fourth in last year's Dwyer.

Tackleberry is a likeable sort, but has built his reputation by setting slow paces in his own backyard. The Charles Town Classic last time was his only race outside of Florida, and while there were other factors that may have been at play, it was a decidedly weak effort compared to what he shows every time in his home state. That was also the first time owner/trainer Luis Olivares has shipped a horse out of Florida in the past five years--he has started more than 960 times in The Sunshine State over that period of time. Tackleberry will be very underlaid. Aikenite will also be overbet. He has been the beneficiary of luck and surfaces playing to his favor recently and, while his connections have correctly decided to keep him at one turn, this event might be a furlong longer than optimal for him.

Tizway would offer fair win value at 4-1+ and is worth playing at that price, but Ibboyee is also a win bet candidate at what should be double digit odds. Some combination of those two, Caixa Electronica and Soaring Empire could yield a decent exacta and Yawanna Twist, Haynesfield and Kensei can be tossed in the third slot in trifectas. I'll also use my top four in the Pick 4.

Monday, May 23, 2011

Sophomore Spotlight: BeS/Preakness Wrap-up

--Brian DiDonato

Both Royal Delta and Shackleford were deserving winners of the Black-eyed Susan and Preakness respectively, and it was another satisfying weekend of racing where trips did not dramatically affect outcomes. Of the two, though, Royal Delta certainly had more in her favor. With just five horses contesting the Black-eyed Susan after stretching-out sprinter Coax Liberty was scratched, it seemed like Hot Summer would have everything her own way on the front end. The riders of Wyomia and Buster's Ready did not let Hot Summer get away, however, and chased her through fractions that yielded an early pace that was five Moss Pace Figure Points above par--they weren't absolutely flying, but they were going a decent clip. Royal Delta and pilot Jose Lezcano watched the pace develop while perched wide and in the clear, and made a quick, decisive and daring move to squeeze through on the inside of Wyomia and draw clear, proving best under admittedly advantageous circumstances. The 100 Beyer Speed Figure Royal Delta earned for her victory was five points higher than what Plum Pretty received for her Oaks win, and the Bill Mott trainee will be very dangerous in the 3-year-old filly series in New York this summer.

Royal Delta                              (c) Wendy Wooley/EquiSport
Buster's Ready ran a big and somewhat surprising race, and she appears to be blossoming into a pretty decent horse. Three-wide while attending the pace, she dug in to prove a clear second best. She made a big jump from an 81 Beyer top to 96, but she had previously kept some decent company in New York and has clearly come a long way since breaking her maiden for a $50K tag in an Aqueduct off-the-turfer. Hot Summer ran just one Beyer point slower than she did when winning the Comely, but I'm still not sold on her wanting to go this far. A turn back to the one-mile Acorn in three weeks would be a positive move if she's doing well. Love Theway Youare was too far back early to ever make an impact--her best performance came last time at  Hollywood, and she seems like a horse who benefitted from the dynamics of racing on a synthetic surface. It's hard to blame the pace for Wyomia's last-place finish because her fellow pacesetters did not collapse like she did, and it's more likely that her dressed-up synthetic and Tampa Bay form just didn't transfer to a more traditional dirt surface. She'll prove best on grass if given the opportunity.

Shackleford Holds off Animal Kingdom
(c) Wendy Wooley/EquiSport
Even though I gave Shackleford a chance in my preview and used him on top in some bets, I was a bit surprised to see such a nice effort out of him. He ran about the same race he did in the Derby, but a 1/16th of a mile less and a surface that seemed to be playing fairer than Churchill did (dead rail) made the difference. The pace was neutral (as it was in Kentucky despite what many believe)--they went five Moss Pace Figure points above par in the first half-mile, but slowed it down to go four points below par at the next call. The 1-2-3-4 finishers were 2nd, 13th, 4th and 14th early, which is a very good indication that the pace was fair for all. The 104 Beyer Figure Shackleford earned is low historically, but it's the highest number earned by a 3-year-old in a route this year. He's clearly a talented horse with a bright future, but I would play against him going any farther than he went on Saturday. Speed horses can do well in the Belmont, but he'll be struggling late while a number of slower, but stouter runners will be doing their best running.

Animal Kingdom ran pretty much the exact same race he did in the Derby, and earned the same 103 Beyer. It was a nice effort and validated his 20-1 upset performance, but it also proved that he isn't a super horse or worthy of a Triple Crown. He's a solid and versatile runner in a very poor crop who has probably achieved more than he should have on the wrong surface because he has a talent edge on his competition. I don't like his chances in the Belmont relative to what his odds figure to be, but I don't see why he shouldn't go if he's doing well. That race is certainly right up his alley distance wise.

Astrology ran a better race than I was expecting, but he could not have had an easier trip. He saved all the ground while drafting behind the frontrunners, and while he earned a 101 Beyer Figure--a new top for him--he also proved that he's a cut below the best of his generation. If he was anywhere close to the top two in ability, he would have won with that set-up. He won't go on to the Belmont and looks to be pointing for the Haskell and/or Travers and, without knowing who he will be facing in those spots, I plan on taking a somewhat negative view on him. Once again, Dialed In came with too little, too late. He paired his 97 Beyer top, but was never a danger to win. Perhaps he was just looked better because he facing much weaker competition in the Holy Bull, but I still don't think he has reproduced anything close to that effort since he's been stretched out in distance. Shackleford's win and Dialed In's two disappointments also dispel the misinformed notion that Gulfstream was speed-favoring on Florida Derby day. As a bettor, I hope Dialed In returns for the Belmont, where misnomers about more ground being better for closers will drive down his odds despite his obvious distance limitations. As a fan, I wish the Met Mile wasn't so soon, because Dialed In is made for a race like that.

My two value keys--Dance City and Sway Away--were two of the most poorly behaved Preakness contestants in the post parade. Dance City refused to go in the gate, reminiscent of fellow Evans homebred Quality Road before the 2009 BC Classic, and made a mild four-wide move on the turn before flattening. Maybe he doesn't want to go this far or wants to be closer to the pace. I hope he'll eventually try turf, as he's bred to prefer that surface. Sway Away was extremely washed out before the race and looked very sluggish as soon as he left the gate. He just wasn't himself, and I don't think anything can be gleaned from his non-effort. It's still entirely possible that he's a one-turn horse, but there was nothing from Saturday to sway opinions one way or the other--he just ran a complete clunker.

While the 3-year-old action cools off for the next few weeks, Monday's Met Mile is looking like it will be another deep and contentious renewal. Check back here later in the week for a preview.

Friday, May 20, 2011

Sophomore Spotlight: Preakness Analysis

--Brian DiDonato

The first step in handicapping any renewal of the Preakness is determining what stance to take on the Derby winner. Animal Kingdom is an imposing figure--he convincingly established superiority over the group he faced two weeks ago and there is no reason to believe that anything has changed. From a betting perspective, however, Animal Kingdom's odds will be equal to or lower than his actual chance of victory, while a pair of new shooters figure to be significant overlays coming off rough trips and lacking the familiarity to the public of the Derby contestants. Animal Kingdom is the most frustrating kind of favorite--a deserving one, but an underlay. I will try to beat him in many of my bets, partially because I'm stubborn and partially due to my positive take on two others, but I will also use him heavily on top of my value keys--he can still top an overlaid pay-off. See below for my analysis of every runner in the Preakness field.

#6 Sway Away - This sway-backed colt was second with a very nice late move in the seven-furlong San Vicente behind The Factor and in front of next-out romper Premier Pegasus while earning a 101 Beyer. He appears on paper to have struggled with added ground after that, but he had significant trip excuses in his two route attempts. After a rough start in the Rebel, Sway Away was rank while being wrestled with a bit by Garret Gomez. In the Arkansas Derby, rider Patrick Valenzuela commenced his mount’s wide move much too prematurely. He grew leg weary late, but not because of distance limitations--because of trip. That heat was clearly the strongest Derby prep, as runner-up Nehro returned to fill the same slot in Kentucky and fifth-place finisher Alternation took last weekend's Peter Pan. He is by Preakness winner Afleet Alex, who sired last year's Travers hero Afleet Express, and is out of a Seattle Slew mare who herself is out of a Summer Squall mare--there's plenty of stamina in Sway Away's pedigree, and value to be had if you excuse his last two.

#8 Dance City - He seemed overmatched coming into the Arkansas Derby, but at almost 30-1, he was a surprising late factor after chasing faster-than-average fractions. All the positives discussed above for the race he and Sway Away exit are obviously relevant here, too. Dance City does not appear to need the lead, and figures to be well-ridden by Ramon Dominguez. He could find himself getting the jump on Animal Kingdom, and has a bit more stamina in his pedigree than meets the eye--especially on his dam side. His second dam, Dance Review, is by the incomparable Northern Dancer. She produced No Review (GISW at 1 1/4mT), Dance Colony (GISP at 1 1/8m) and Another Review (GISW at 1 1/8m, GISP at 1 1/4m).

#11 Animal Kingdom - It's hard to find any knocks against his Derby performance--believe me, I’ve tried. He was not the beneficiary of an advantageous set-up (nor did he overcome a rough trip), and he proved best. From a value standpoint, however, he will be an underlay. While he's the most likely winner and an absolute must-include, the two new shooters are closer to him in “actual” chance of winning than the odds will reflect and Shackleford has at least a minor chance to turn the tables. With a short turnaround and plenty of other obstacles, there is no reason to concede the race to Animal Kingdom at a short price. But you still can’t toss him.

#5 Shackleford - The pace he set in the Kentucky Derby was not nearly as glacial as it has been made out to be--it was very neutral. While the chart says he was off the rail in the Derby, he was inside for much of the race on a track that seemed all weekend to be a bit dead inside. He hung in for a long time and the minor cut back should help him. The big chestnut is similar in many ways to First Dude--the fellow Dale Romans trainee who finished second to Lookin at Lucky here last year--and the pace is not guaranteed to be as fast some believe it will be. I can conceive of scenarios where Shackleford will get loose and hold on, and will therefore protect with him in PK3/4 bets. I will also use him very sparingly on top in my exactas and trifectas and include him heavily underneath.

#9 Mucho Macho Man - He always runs his race, and might be the most likely of anyone to hit the board, but the big, still-developing colt always seems to find a foe or two better. There's really no reason to expect him to turn the tables on Animal Kingdom and he won't offer much value, but he is an underneath threat. He might even be a good anchor to build a backwards ticket around.

#14 Mr. Commons - Supposedly he displaced late in the Santa Anita Derby, which might be the only way to put a positive enough spin on his performance that day to project competitiveness Saturday. I thought highly of him before the Santa Anita Derby, and will use him in the third slot on the off chance that the promise he flashed when breaking his maiden on the sod will be realized in this spot. He's not a win candidate, however.

#7 Midnight Interlude - He was towards the top of my list for the Derby off a very solid Santa Anita Derby performance (not exactly flattered by him or Comma to the Top, however), but he ran an absolute clunker with no apparent excuse. He was a danger to find the Derby too much, too soon, and maybe that's what happened. It's not as if he put in a run like Curlin did (the immense chasm of talent between them aside) in the Derby, however, and it seems somewhat ambitious to even run him back here. I will use him protectively in the third slot, but it's hard to envision him performing the sort of U-turn he would have to to find the winner's circle.

#10 Dialed In - This might be my most dangerous opinion in the race (for my personal bankroll at least)--I don't think Dialed In will hit the board. His Kentucky Derby run was more of an illusion than the monster move from too far back it is being made out to be, and it was comparable to what he ran in his two previous efforts. It is a fallacy to believe he would have run a better race with faster early splits. He would have run the same race, just with more horses coming back to him. The expected second-choice has not come close to returning to the 98 Beyer top he earned for annexing the Holy Bull in impressive fashion, and gives the impression of a closing miler.

#1 Astrology - He has had a number of set-backs this year, and his form last term was dressed-up. He had a very easy trip in the Jerome and, while he finished second, nobody besides the winner impressed. This is a tall task for a horse who has been backed off on and re-routed several times, and it seems far more likely that he'll take a step back here rather than a jump forward.

#4 Flashpoint - His two sprint races were very impressive, but what was most puzzling about his Florida Derby try isn't that he was fairly uncompetitive--it's that he wasn't on the lead or at least pressing Shackleford. It's hard to count on him to be close early this time, but considering the lay-off and quick drills in the interim, he'll probably show more speed before fading. He'll be an interesting King's Bishop prospect down the line, but going long just isn't his game.

#2 Norman Asbjornson - He'll be running late, but there aren't going to be enough horses stopping in front of him to make up for the talent and speed edge many of his opponents have on him.

#13 Concealed Identity - He's the only Preakness contestant with a win (x2) or even a race at Pimlico, but that isn't nearly enough to make him competitive with these dramatically classier animals. He was offered up for a $30K tag when he won two-back, and the short turnaround probably won't do him any favors.

#3 King Congie - He improved dramatically when switched to the turf, and paid $88 that day because of how poor his dirt form was. His turf/synthetic races wouldn't be good enough to win this if he were able to transfer them to the main track, and I'm not convinced he wants to go long (unlike most turfy types)--his dam was a sprinter, by a sprinter (End Sweep), who sired sprinters (i.e. Trippi). King Congie also tends to misbehave late in his races.

#12 Isn't He Perfect - Not sure why he is in this race. He broke his maiden for a $40K tag and his only other victory came in a starter allowance--he faced three other runners that day and the second-place finisher was coming off a winning debut for $12.5K.

I will be betting Sway Away to win at what should be double-digit odds, and will box him in the exacta with Dance City and Animal Kingdom. I will also make a smaller Sway Away/Dance City/Shackleford exacta box. I will play trifectas with my top three, adding Shackleford and Mucho Macho Man in the second slot and Mr. Commons and Midnight Interlude in third. I will go for more of a home run in the Pick 3s and 4s, leaning almost completely on Sway Away and Dance City, and using a little Shackleford.

Thursday, May 19, 2011

Sophomore Spotlight: Black-eyed Susan Analysis

--Brian DiDonato

The Black-eyed Susan didn't draw the deepest group, but if the morning line proves accurate, there is still some value to be had. Wyomia is the 9-5 choice based mostly on the fact that she was second in the GI Ashland last time. Fillies from that contest that moved on to the Kentucky Oaks did not run particularly well, however. Ashland winner Lilacs and Lace, who scored on an easy lead over a speed-favoring surface, was 12th, beaten 24 lengths under the Twin Spires; Kathmanblu, who was probably best in the Ashland, was an exposed sixth; while Bouquet Booth, fourth at Keeneland, was fifth in the Oaks. Wyomia's win in the Suncoast S. is suspect for similar reasons--it came on the quirky Tampa Bay Downs surface, and the subsequent performances of runners coming out of that race have not flattered the group. Royal Delta put in a total non-effort in her first start off the bench, so her subsequent race is not relevant in this context. More on her below, however. Wyomia is also unproven on conventional dirt and her pedigree does not suggest that it should be her preference. If we toss her Suncoast  because of the tricky track, we're left with only turf and synthetic form. While Wyomia's sire Vindication was purely a dirt horse, her dam's side is all grass. She's out of the Kingmambo mare Beyond the Sun, who was 0-for-4 on the dirt, and whose only on the board finish on the main track came on wet ground. She was 2-for-8 on turf. Wyomia's most notable sibling is Red Giant (Giant's Causeway), a talented world-record holder on the sod, but 0-for-3 on dirt. She's also a half to Carnera (Old Trieste), who recorded seven of his eight successes on the lawn. Wyomia probably won't be as heavy a favorite as predicted by the morning line, but she's a play-against at any price.

Hot Summer Scores up the Rail in Comely
(c) Adam Coglianese
Second-choice Hot Summer is a much more likely winner than the chalk, but there are some knocks against her as well. Her Comely win came with a perfect ground-saving trip and, like Wyomia's races, has not been flattered. Runner-up Her Smile--third behind Wyomia previously--was 11th, beaten 22 lengths in the Oaks for new connections, and while show horse Ava K filled the same slot on return in the Wanda at Belmont two weeks ago, she was running against a small field of lower-class foes. The other two return runners from the Comely finished 10th (of 10, beaten 19 1/4) and eighth (beaten 8) in their next outings. Hot Summer's biggest edge is her speed. According to the Moss Pace Figures, she should get a pretty clear lead even though Coax Liberty is stretching out, and you would expect savvy Ramon Dominguez to do his best to allow his mount to capitalize on her advantage. But Hot Summer may not want to go this far, regardless of how easy the fractions are. She liked sprinting at two, and a one-turn mile on Aqueduct's main track (like the Comely) is very different than traveling nine furlongs around two bends--it plays closer to seven furlongs than 1 1/8 miles. From a pedigree standpoint distance is not an issue, but Hot Summer simply runs more like a one-turn horse. She's far from impossible, but still vulnerable.

Royal Delta in her Jaw-dropping Debut
(c) Adam Coglianese
That pretty much leaves Royal Delta, who I have a sneaking suspicion will be lower than her morning line quote at post time. The daughter of MGSW turf router Delta Princess (A.P. Indy)--a full to GI Garden City winner Indy Five Hundred and a 3/4-sister to last year's G1 Gran Criterium winner Biondetti--fits this race perfectly. She will love the distance and is lightly raced with room for improvement. The homebred's debut at Belmont last October was jaw-dropping--she won by 12 lengths with some traffic trouble for Bill Mott, who is not known for his prowess with firsters. After some time on the shelf, Royal Delta resurfaced in the Suncoast, finishing a never-relevant ninth as the 8-5 chalk. I'm inclined to toss that race for the same reason I did for Wyomia. Mott's lack of recent success with his better runners coming off lay-offs adds further reason to forgive the poor performance, as does Royal Delta's subsequent effort. With devastating ease and a blatant disregard for ground loss, the "TDN Rising Star" beat a good-looking Pletcher maiden winner by three lengths in a Keeneland allowance. She earned a 90 Beyer figure--the field's best last-out number--while spotting her foes anywhere from 2 3/4 to 9 lengths (6 in the runner-up's case) in extra distance covered, according to Trakus data. With good-looking works in the interim, Royal Delta has this field at her mercy.

I expect the public to catch on to Royal Delta's obvious merits and do not anticipate her being a particularly enticing win bet candidate. Instead, I will play a straight exacta of Royal Delta over Love The Way You Are, who should be running late and who is an interesting cross-country shipper from very successful owner/trainer (and sometimes breeder) Myung Kwon Cho. I will also play the Black-eyed Susan/Preakness double with Royal Delta linked to my two value selections in that race (check back here tomorrow to find out who), and will single Royal Delta in all PK3s and 4s. Those wagers will also lean heavily on Supreme in the The Very One, whose turf debut last time at Tampa against cheaper must be seen to be appreciated (TDN Video).

Monday, May 16, 2011

Sophomore Spotlight: Peter Pan Wrap-up

--Brian DiDonato

Alternation validated his “TDN Rising Star” status with a solid score over Adios Charlie in the Peter Pan. As expected, he was significantly closer to the pace with Ramon Dominguez aboard behind fractions that were a bit slower than anticipated--the pace was fair/neutral. Alternation received a 94 Beyer figure for the narrow victory, which normally wouldn’t be much to get excited about, but in this crop and considering his next objective, the number is plenty high enough. The logical next start for the Pin Oak homebred is obviously the Belmont, and while trainer Donnie Von Hemel would not yet commit, it would be surprising to see Alternation bypass that spot if he’s healthy. The “Test of the Champion” is a race perfectly suited to Alternation. He’s a large, grinder type who figures to run for as long as he’s asked. He isn’t brilliant and hasn’t displayed the same sort of ability as Animal Kingdom or Nehro, but steady, workmanlike staying power is often what gets the blanket of white carnations. Alternation also has freshness working in his favor. If Animal Kingdom comes into the Belmont with a chance to make history, he’ll have to face a new shooter with a lot more left in the tank. 

Alternation (outside) wears down Adios Charlie
(c) Jessie Holmes/EquiSport
Adios Charlie ran an admirable race in defeat, and probably proved that trainer and co-owner Stan Hough’s distance concerns were warranted. He seemed to tire just enough to let stouter Alternation get by, and looks like he might top out at slightly shorter distances. He ran well enough to win plenty of upcoming 3-year-old races at nine furlongs, however, and it will be interesting to see where he resurfaces. Maybe he’ll come back in the seven-furlong Woody Stephens on Belmont day. It’s a shame the Met Mile is coming up so quickly, because it would be a good, albeit slightly ambitious spot. He should handle turf as well--at least based on his female family--so perhaps he’ll get a try on the green at some point. Monzon didn’t really have any excuses. He was far back and looked to be making a move on the turn, but flattened out late. The only way his Count Fleet could have been fraudulent was if it was an inner track special, so I’m inclined to believe that the nine furlongs dulled his kick. He’s like Adios Charlie in that he’s stuck between sprints and longer routes, but he’s got a turfy-looking pedigree, so maybe he’ll be switched to the lawn.

Speed Ring was bet off the board at Woodbine on Sunday, but finished third. He ran very wide and without cover throughout, and made a sweeping turn move before flattening. According to the Trakus data, he traveled 21 feet more than the winner--which equates to about 2 1/2 lengths--putting him one length behind the victor. With the added toll that running with a lack of cover takes on a runner, the argument can be made that Speed Ring put in a better performance than the winner. His champion dam Catch The Ring took four starts to graduate, and as a son of A.P. Indy you’d expect him to be a slow starter, so I’m not willing to give up on him yet. The Queen’s Plate is coming up too quickly, but he still has a chance to make an impact in the second or third leg of the Canadian Triple Crown (it hasn’t taken much in recent years) if he finds his way. Red Ace couldn’t have run any poorer at Churchill Downs. It’s very possible that he hated the slop, and he might also need to be turned back. His form might be dirtied-up enough to get a nice price on him next time if he sprints.

On the Radar...

--Steve Sherack

TDN’s Steve Sherack reveals a trio of recent also-rans that should be on your radar.

Finale, from the first crop of 2007 GI Florida Derby hero Scat Daddy, stamped himself as one to keep a close eye on following an encouraging debut third at Belmont Park May 5 (TDN Video).

Trailing the field of six by 12 lengths at the first call after hitting the gate at the start and completely blowing the break, the juvenile came alive on the turn for home gamely splitting horses to race in fourth. Still with plenty left to do at the top of the lane, he was guided to the outside by Cornelio Velasquez, and finished with good energy to place third, beaten only 3 1/2 lengths behind first-out winner Francesco Rules (Roman Ruler). The final time for the five-furlong event over a drying out muddy track was :58 2/5.

Owned by Mrs. John Magnier, Michael Tabor and Derrick Smith, Finale was the highest-priced weanling colt by Scat Daddy to go through the ring in 2009 when selling for $175,000 at the Keeneland November sale. The half-brother to GIII West Virginia Derby hero Bright One (Dance Brightly) is trained by Todd Pletcher.

The future also looks bright for Glen Hill Farm’s Marketing Mix (Medaglia d’Oro), most recently a strong second behind the talented Roxy Gap (Indian Charlie) in Woodbine’s Fury S. for Ontario-breds Apr. 30 (TDN Video). The sophomore filly found her best stride too late in the seven-furlong affair after trailing the compact field of four through easy fractions, and reported home 3/4 of a length behind the victress, who enjoyed first run.

Roxy Gap holds off Marketing Mix in the Fury S. at Woodbine
WEG/Michael Burns photography
Marketing Mix, a $150,000 KEESEP yearling graduate, galloped out after the wire like a horse dying to go two turns, and based on her pedigree out of a Kris S. mare, turf should be right up her alley as well. (Note: Marketing Mix's second dam Nimble Mind {Lyphard} was multiple graded stakes placed on the infield).

Marketing Mix previously annexed a Keeneland maiden special weight in impressive fashion over the Polytrack, flying late from 11th to get up by a head Apr. 10 (TDN Video); she was sixth in her unveiling over the Gulfstream dirt Mar. 13.

The dark bay has returned to training at Tom Proctor’s Churchill base following her big effort in Canada, covering four furlongs over the spinach in :52 May 12.

Parting Words (Artie Schiller), an eye-catching last-to-first allowance winner over the Gulfstream lawn in February, should move forward nicely off a respectable third-place finish in the GIII Appalachian S. at Keeneland Apr. 21 (TDN Video).

The dark bay filly, owned by Lael Stables and trained by Barclay Tagg, was a handful for Julien Leparoux throughout while racing toward the back along the inside, fighting the rider for most of the way before riding the rail in the stretch to finish 2 3/4 lengths behind the brilliant Winter Memories (El Prado {Ire}). Parting Words has shown in her two career victories that she prefers being on the outside, and still ran pretty well against a very deep group in the Appalachian despite her reluctance to settle early.

With three workouts at Belmont Park since, it won’t be long before seeing Parting Words back in the entries.

From the Finish Line to the Start Box: Thoroughbreds at Jersey Fresh

-- Sarah Andrew

Monmouth County, New Jersey is the home of many excellent equine events, including the Jersey Fresh Three-Day Event, held at the Horse Park of New Jersey in Allentown.

For those who are not familiar with the sport, eventing is comprised of three phases.

Phase One of eventing is dressage, a test of strength, balance, and discipline for horses and riders.

Phase Two is cross country, which highlights the heart, speed, and endurance of the teams.

Phase Three is stadium jumping, which requires precision, accuracy, and rateability.

This weekend at Jersey Fresh, I photographed top-caliber riders, some of whom compete at an Olympic level. The horses were also tremendous athletes, and for some of them, this was not their first career. Here are a few of the two- and three-star Thoroughbreds from Jersey Fresh 2011 who were racehorses before finding their second career:

©2011 Sarah Andrew
Vaunted, ridden by Ashley Adams: Two Punch - First Quad. Lifetime 2-0-0-0 Earnings $0

©2011 Sarah Andrew

Mensa, ridden by Andrea Leatherman: Colonial Affair - Fire the Secretary. Lifetime 40-5-7-4 Earnings $92,901

 Buckingham Place, ridden by Amanda Silver: Buckaroo - Old Maid. Lifetime 40-4-3-4 Earnings $23,298

Here's To You, ridden by Emily Beshear: Will's Way - China Sky. Lifetime 3-0-0-1 Earnings $1,290

High Finance, ridden by Melissa Miller: Peruvian - Centerfold Rebe. Lifetime 39-2-3-4 Earnings $35,549

 Sea Lion, ridden by Pam Fisher: Sea Salute - Ivory Today. Lifetime 12-1-2-4 Earnings $63,360

Loki, ridden by Jeff Kibbie: River Quest- Bea Gifted. Lifetime 11-0-0-0 Earnings $746

For more information about this sport, visit the United States Eventing Association website.

Friday, May 13, 2011

Sophomore Spotlight: Peter Pan Preview

--Brian DiDonato

Saturday's Peter Pan at Belmont drew an interesting field of 11, including several out-of-towners. Only five members of the field are Triple Crown nominated, so the race won't necessarily have Belmont S. implications, but two of the more interesting horses in the race seem to be using this as a stepping stone into the final leg of the Triple Crown. At this point, I think Adios Charlie is the most talented runner in the field. I've discussed his merits on this blog several times, so I won't go over them again, but I think he'd win if the pace were neutral. It probably won't be, however, and that's why he's slightly vulnerable. Uncle Brent, Prime Cut, Bold Deed, and Joe Vann all like to lay close, and might compromise the morning line favorite's chances. I will still use him because he's not a need-the-lead type and might be able to rate from farther off the pace, but  my win money will go on another runner and I'll use three horses in the Pick 4.

When Alternation secured his third consecutive route win two back at Oaklawn in February, I opted to go out on a limb and make him a "TDN Rising Star." He hadn't ever run particularly fast from a speed figure standpoint, but he seemed like one who would improve with added ground and had a late kick that would be dangerous in the Triple Crown races and/or other big sophomore events if he made it that far. By leading sire Distorted Humor, the Pin Oak homebred is out of the MSW and MGSP Seattle Slew mare Alternate, who won at up to 1 3/8 miles and earned $550,000. Alternate is a half to Canadian champion Peaks and Valleys, a MGISW at nine furlongs who was GSP at 1 1/4 miles. Alternation ran fifth in the Arkansas Derby last time, and I didn't look closely at the performance until now--I sort of dismissed it as a clunk-up and proof that he might not be as good as I thought he was. But upon further examination, he ran sneakily well. While the pace was on the faster side (not by much), Alternation was so far back early--up to 18 lengths--that he had no chance to win. His rider, Luis Quinonez, must have tried to push his mount up closer after the opening quarter, as Alternation ran the fastest second quarter in the race. He also ran the second-fastest final eighth (:12.57) behind only Nehro, and was one of only three (winner Archarcharch was the third) to break the 13 second mark. While I do expect Alternation to get plenty of pace to close into, I don't think he'll be as far back early in the Peter Pan. The 24 early Moss Pace Figure he received for the Arkansas Derby was off-the-charts slow, and just half of what he received in his previous race, so he can definitely lay closer. He also shows two quick works over the Polytrack at Arlington in the interim, and will get leading rider Ramon Dominguez, who should be able to figure out where to lay early.

The third horse I'll use in the Peter Pan is Monzon. If we toss all his turf races and his fifth in the Sam F Davis--which came on a surface that many horses dislike--he's left with a 12 1/2-length maiden breaker at a mile at Laurel (with a incredibly slow 48 Beyer), and a quick-closing score in the Count Fleet over the Aqueduct inner with a 90 Beyer. That Count Fleet performance alerted many to Monzon's promise, and while he fell off the radar a bit after that, I expect him to serve up a reminder Saturday at a big price. A quick rundown of who Monzon beat in the Count Fleet might be all one needs to jump back on the bandwagon. Runner-up J J's Lucky Train returned to take the Miracle Wood S. at Laurel with a 97 Beyer, then the GIII Bay Shore at Aqueduct with a 92 Beyer before finishing third when rank in the GIII Derby Trial. Third-place finisher Pants On Fire finished second, beaten a head, in the GIII LeComte and took the GII Louisiana Derby (albeit with an easy trip) two starts later over Nehro with a 94 Beyer. Fourth finisher Arthur's Tale would eventually come a neck short of winning the GI Wood Memorial, while second-to-last and last-place finishers Tap Star and Rush Now won next out on class drops.

If Alternation is 5-1 or higher, I'll bet him to win. If not, I'll bet Monzon at 9-1 or higher. I'll box those two, and also use them with Adios Charlie. I will use all three in Pick 3 or 4 bets.

Also, look out for Red Ace in Churchill Downs race 9 and Speed Ring in Woodbine race 5 on Sunday. The former looks on paper like he had no excuse when setting an easy pace before getting beat by a rival in a Keeneland allowance Apr. 16, but the track was absolutely killing speed that day. His maiden-breaker two back was extremely impressive, and I expect him to show more this time. Speed Ring is a son of A.P. Indy out of the Canadian champion 3-year-old filly Catch the Ring (Seeking The Gold), making him a full-brother to Canadian champion 2-year-old filly Catch the Thrill. He received some glowing reports from the Keeneland clockers prior to his debut, which came the day after Red Ace’s race, and he set the pace before also falling victim to the track, finishing fourth. 

Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Moonlighting as a Pony Rider with Silver Swallow

-- Sarah Andrew

This week, Silver Swallow was officially retired from racing at the age of 7, sound, with earnings of $473,415.

In 2009, I had the privilege of spending a morning on the track with her.

3:55am Pacific Standard Time. The only times I’ve slipped out of bed so willingly at this hour were for a horse show, a sunrise at Saratoga, or to try to catch a glimpse of Santa Claus on Christmas morning. Today was a bit of all three rolled into one.

Within minutes, I was dressed, out the door, and on the road to the racetrack. It was not yet 4:30 when I arrived at the barn. Barn cats sashayed toward me and exercise riders greeted me as if I was a regular. Sunrise was almost two hours away but the barn lights glowed warmly and the track bustled with activity. The sharp odor of stalls mixed with the warm, earthy smell of the horsepath and familiar notes of shampoo and liniment.

Decades of win photos decorated the walls of the office of legendary California trainer Bruce Headley. The trainer stepped into the office to begin the day’s work and turned the dial up on the heater. November at Santa Anita is chilly air for Californians but downright balmy for a Jersey Girl. Bruce’s daughter and assistant trainer Karen greeted me with the casual cheer of a person who spends every morning at a racetrack. I wondered if she could see just how nervous and excited I was. I’m pretty sure she could.

I left the office and spotted my mount for the morning, a stout bay gelding named Captain who was snoozing in the barn before the day’s work began. The first thing I noticed was how placid he was and the second thing I noticed was his tack. He had a western bit and bridle and an exercise saddle on his back. I had been expecting a big western saddle, but the exercise saddle was even more interesting since I’ve never ridden in one before.

Captain stood obediently at the mounting block as I slipped my paddock boot into the small lightweight stirrup and mounted up. The stirrups were shorter than my shortest jumping length. Karen asked if I needed them longer. I smiled and said they were great- when in Rome… right? The pony’s back was broad and he felt quite solid and the saddle was remarkably comfortable.

I rode Captain to the edge of the shedrow and waited for Karen to get a leg up onto her morning’s ride: Silver Swallow, a mare who was entered in a Breeders’ Cup race the following day. Silver wore the signature royal purple Breeders’ Cup saddle cloth with her name embroidered below the logo. There were no freckles on her snowy coat; she was nearly white with a perfect silver mane. It is difficult to see shine on some grey horses, but this mare was different- she shimmered like alabaster. Her luminous, expressive, almond-shaped eyes were set wide on her head, offsetting her round jaw and delicate muzzle. Her ears were slightly curled at the very tips and one seemed to be set on a slightly steeper angle than the other, giving her a jaunty expression.

I rode beside Karen and Silver Swallow on their left, past the barns and toward the training track. Both horses briskly walked down the path; my pony knew his job so well he could have done it by himself. The mare was eager to stretch her legs. She walked on a loose rein and her closely-set ears were radar antennae, rapidly swiveling to gather information. She had a fine, silky, neatly-pulled mane- it swayed and bounced like human hair with each nod of her elegant head. Upon first glance, she appeared dainty, but her feminine features belied her constitution- she was deep and muscular through the chest with a powerful loin and strong, sound legs set on well-balanced feet. She had the heart, speed, and class to race against the finest mares in the sport, finishing second to Rags to Riches and third to Zenyatta.

After we walked through a tunnel and onto the track, we asked the horses to stand for a moment. My vest pockets were stuffed with carrots. Karen asked me to feed the mare a bit of carrot- she politely accepted her snack. Captain turned his head to me hopefully and he got a carrot as well. Everything I did this morning was alternately foreign and familiar; feeding treats from the horse’s back was second-nature to me since I do it all the time back home. Feeding treats to a Breeders’ Cup contender, however, was something I had never done before.

Silver Swallow’s trainers had done a masterful job with her preparation for the big race- her sharpness and fitness were palpable but she was not too sharp. Timing is essential, Karen told me. As if to prove her point, at just the right moment, she and the mare slipped onto the track like an Olympic diver slipping into a pool. She called over her shoulder and said, “Sarah, turn around.”

I had been so focused on my task that I had not looked up even once until now. When I did look up, I grinned and my eyes glowed. The surrounding scene was breathtaking. The sky was dark and the Santa Anita grandstand sparkled. Palm trees were silhouetted against the lights. Exercise riders softly sang to their horses and the horses purred rhythmically in time with each stride as they cruised around the oval.

I rode Captain to the gap and greeted Cindy, the outrider, and her pony with a hello and a carrot. Cindy and I chatted for a moment as I peered over the rail, watching for Karen and Silver. From halfway across the track, I could see them gliding over the dirt in perfect harmony. The mare powerfully switched leads and navigated the turn, ears still forward and swiveling. Her pilot’s heels were flexed and her skilled hand followed as softly as a Grand Prix rider guiding a horse over a fence. They were a perfect pair. The mare’s neck bowed proudly onto the bit as they slowed from a gallop to a jog and met back up with me and the pony. We slipped off the track together. The mare’s veins stood out on her neck and she appeared to be a hand taller than she was before her gallop. She had barely broken a sweat. Her walk had changed- no longer was there anticipation or urgency in her gait. Now she had a proud spring in her step. She was ready for her race.

We walked back through the tunnel, down the path, and back to the barn. Silver accepted a good-luck pat on her nose and returned the favor by playfully nipping at Captain. I gave Captain a pat and a carrot as a token of my appreciation and I dismounted. When I was on horseback, my perspective changed. I was no longer the photographer recording the scene, instead I was a part of the scene. When my joyride was over, I was back to having two feet on the ground and I had work to do.

The rest of the weekend did not disappoint. Breeders' Cup 2009 is the year of Zenyatta’s Classic triumph and the year when Conduit and Goldikova reaffirmed their dominance on the turf, but I will never forget it as the year I spent a little time in the saddle on an early California morning on the training track.

(c) Charles Pravata
Happy Retirement, Silver!

Commensalism: Dialed In and My Derby Experience

--Lucas Marquardt 
America, it seems, has a fascination with all things "behind the scenes"--it's only a matter of time before there is a show dedicated to a behind-the-scenes look at reality shows, which by definition, don't have scenes to be behind. I am an American and no different, and so Derby week is an especially fascinating time for me. I also have the black mark of being an inquisitive journalist, and so there is nothing more interesting than seeing what goes into putting on the biggest show in racing.

The media presence is indeed impressive. Each morning before dawn breaks on Churchill's backstretch, the myriad TV crews pile into their respective white tents, small and in a line and so looking more like stalls in an outdoor market than makeshift television studios. Producers bark into headsets, on-air talent sip coffee and look at notes, and those who work and live on the Churchill backstretch everyday--not just 10 days or so before the Derby--look on with a mix of  bemusement and annoyance. I feel for them. And their horses, some of whom seem fine with the ruckus, while others look like they're about to jump out of their skins.

Last year was my first Derby, and my favorite part of the experience was making the famed walk from Churchill's backside to the paddock just prior to the race. Rains had soaked the area for much of the morning and early afternoon, and the walk was more of a trudge, through the muck and mire, which in the end took nothing away from the excitement of being in the midst of one of the sport's great traditions. Because you're not a participant in the race, you feel a bit like an opportunistic remora, those flat-headed fish that affix themselves to the undersides of sharks and eat whatever scraps their hosts can't gather in. To take part, I was fine with that. Anyway, I followed closely behind the connections of longshot Conveyance (Indian Charlie), and watched as one young lady in the entourage tried to maintain her equilibrium aboard heels of the highest order. In the end, she wisely gave up, ripped the shoes off her feet and made the rest of the journey barefoot. Conveyance took the journey better, and maybe better than he'd take his Derby sojourn: he would set the pace through a snappy six furlongs in 1:10.58 before fading to 15th.

This time around, I was determined to be an even better remora. I brought my camera and took flight from the press box seconds after Get Stormy (Stormy Atlantic) wired the GI Woodford Reserve Turf Classic. In direct contrast to a year ago, the weather was ideal. Clouds and a brief shower at noon had given way to a bright, breezy, sunny afternoon. I made my way down to the track and slipped under the rail. As people partied all around me, I walked along the outside edge of the track. Looking back at the big grandstand, Churchill Downs seemed like a living organism, undulating with all the shifting colors and noises. People yelled and laughed, and only those two big spires remained motionless. Midway through the walk, Jordin Sparks began the Star Spangled Banner, and I thought it best to stop and turn and take it in, and was glad I did.

By the time I got to the backstretch, there was already a big crowd of trainers, grooms, track workers and their friends lined up on each side of the gap leading back to the barns. They were stacked four or five deep, and looked like they'd been having a fine time all afternoon. State policemen were on hand to maintain the shape of the V that came to a point at the tracks edge and fanned out from there, but the people were perfectly content standing where they were and smiling and waiting for the horses to begin lining up.

I had hitched my Derby wagon to Dialed In (Mineshaft), if not after his maiden victory than after his impressive victory in the GIII Holy Bull S., and headed back to Nick Zito's barn, away from the crowd, to watch the big colt ready for what I and my creditors hoped would be a 5-1 date with destiny. At Barn 36, owner Robert LaPenta held court with probably 15 or 20 friends and family. I'm not sure how typical this pre-Derby group was, but I was struck by the near silence. A few people whispered to each other, but mostly it was just the sound of the small single-prop planes overhead, towing banners for Kroger's and the like. When an NBC cameraman and a producer broke through the hushed tones, an elderly lady gave them a stern 'shush.'

Back there, the breeze stopped, and it got very warm. Even I felt nervous. LaPenta's son, Robert Jr., stood with other family members sporting a pair of plaid canvas boat shoes that belied his linen suit, while a trio of ladies snuck away to have a quick cigarette. Eventually, NBC's Bob Neumeier, who had been waiting nearby, sidled up to Zito, and they stood side by side waiting to go live. Neumeier squinted and looked off--I imagine he was listening to directions in his ear piece--and it was a long time before he finally started the interview. Even from 10 feet away or so, Zito spoke so quietly that you couldn't make out what he was saying.

Looking perfectly at ease through all this was LaPenta himself. He has been to the Derby a few times before, including last year with runner-up Ice Box (Pulpit). But never with the favorite--and really, how used to the Derby can one get?--and so one would have to attribute his apparent comfort level to his natural disposition. He just smiled like he was enjoying time with friends at a backyard roast. With only a few minutes to go, someone yelled 'Bob!' and it was trainer Bob Baffert, coming over from an adjacent barn to wish LaPenta luck. They chatted for a few minutes, LaPenta thanked him for something, and the two parted ways laughing. An associate of LaPenta's gave the silver-haired conditioner a fist bump.

A PA announcement was made requesting that the Derby horses be brought to the gap, and the quiet ended. From all directions, the connections of the horses and the horses themselves flowed toward the track, and the V by the gap narrowed and got exponentially louder. Steve Asmussen's assistant Scott Blasi, with eventual Derby runner-up Nehro (Mineshaft), flipped someone a thumbs-up. Asmussen himself followed with his children. Little Kathy Ritvo, who availed herself as an inspiration to many during the week, nervously walked in advance of Mucho Macho Man (Macho Uno) in a flower-print dress and broad-rimmed black hat, decorated with a purple bow, while a couple in the colt's entourage patiently took an elderly gentleman by the hand and led him onto the track. Mike Repole waited with Todd Pletcher, talking with his hands as much as his mouth, and a dozen Italians stood nearby with Repole Stable shirts and hats.

Churchill's one-mile chute turned into a staging area. Groups assembled, TV and track personnel tried to direct the chaos, and the horses became agitated and pinned their ears back. Or they didn't, instead looking around at the fuss and wondering what it was all about. I lost sight of the LaPenta crew on the track, but then attached myself once again when they marched by with Dialed In. It was tough for me to tell how the colt looked. He was up on his toes and on the muscle, but his ears were turned and he appeared distracted. Maybe it was all the noise this long parade was both generating and eliciting from the crowd situated on the clubhouse turn. A big fellow next to the rail suddenly yelled out, "Ladies and Gentlemen, THAT'S the original Italian stallion…Nick Zito!" and everyone laughed. LaPenta just took it all in, holding hands with his wife Laurie Winters.

As the long parade came past the trackside winner's circle, I nodded to LaPenta and wished him luck, then ducked under the rail to join the other journalists gathered there--The Blood-Horse's Steve Haskin and Lenny Shulman standing on the track, Sean Clancy talking into a microphone for his radio show Track Talk Live! Twenty-five minutes later, the gates sprang open for the 137th Kentucky Derby, and when the field stormed past for the first time, I was worried about the chances of Dialed In, caboosing the train and not looking terribly comfortable under the tiny barrage of the kickback of 18 rivals. In the end, he put in probably a better effort than he'll get credit for, rallying from second last 5/16ths out to finish eighth, beaten 7 1/2 lengths by Animal Kingdom. Not a great result, not for the favorite, but not terrible.

As I (and somewhere, my creditors) thought over another blown Derby ticket, the field galloped back to be unsaddled or, in the case of Animal Kingdom, to be adorned with roses. Owners and trainers flooded the track to collect their charges. Aidan O'Brien, with a group that included M.V. Magnier, huddled with Garrett Gomez, who explained his trip aboard Master of Hounds (Kingmambo). Pletcher walked past to hear the report from Stay Thirsty (Bernardini)'s jockey Ramon Dominquez, and Julien Leparoux--Dialed In's rider--sullenly answered questions from a group of reporters. Meanwhile, toward the middle of the track, Dialed In stood amidst the din, dirty and tired, unsaddled and now in the the capable hands of his grooms, as Nick Zito approached him. The Hall of Fame trainer leaned in and gave the colt a kiss in the middle of his forehead, then patted his neck as his grooms turned away from the spires and headed back toward Churchill's backstretch, watching Animal Kingdom trot past.

Dialed In