Friday, September 30, 2011

Analysis: 'Super Saturday' and Beyond

--Brian DiDonato

Race 2 - MSW, 2yo, 1mT - Dendrite (Rockport Harbor) had an interesting trip on debut and should be better prepared for his second start. Trainer David Donk wins with just 3% of his firsters, but with a better, albeit still average 10% of his second timers*. Let go at 59-1 when unveiled here Sep. 17 (TDN Video), the bay loped along in mid-pack before making a wide move to challenge for the lead coming into the stretch. He flattened out after that, but showed enough interest and potential to give him a second look here in a race with no obvious killers. Note that Dendrite’s second dam Savina (Nijinsky II) took the GIII Miss Grillo S. over the Aqueduct turf as a juvenile way back in 1989.

Race 7 - GI Vosburgh Invitational S., 3yo/up, 6f - Force Freeze (Forest Camp) appears overmatched from a speed figure perspective despite his impressive upset score in the Teddy Drone S. at Monmouth on Haskell Day (TDN Video), but there’s plenty of reason to believe that the Beyer he received was as many as 10 points lower than it should have been. Here is the Beyer figure change for the nine Teddy Drone also-rans from their previous starts: -21, -2, -9, -10, -12, -10, -30, -35 and -12; and here’s how much the also-rans improved in their next starts on the figs: +10, +12, +6, 0, +5 and +7. Determining exactly how many points “off” the figure might be requires a more nuanced examination of track variants and other factors, but such a uniform discrepancy in figures between the Teddy Drone and a much larger sample size of races seems like solid enough evidence to view Force Freeze as capable of running a competitive figure. The 6-year-old also appears to be doing very well--he has turned in two blazing-fast bullet drills since the Teddy Drone, including one at Monmouth that was 4/5 of a second faster than last weekend’s Parx track record-breaker Royal Currier (Red Bullet). Force Freeze is one of quite a few with a chance in this event--which is by far the most competitive of Belmont’s “Super Saturday” races--but he’ll be the most undervalued thanks to his low last-out Beyer.

Race 10 - GI Jockey Club Gold Cup, 3yo/up, 1 1/4m - There are some reasons to play against Travers winner Stay Thirsty (Bernardini) facing older horses for the first time, and while Flat Out (Flatter) is the horse to beat here, he hasn’t gone this far and may not get much pace to run at. Rodman (Malibu Moon) will be providing what little pace there is. Trainer Mike Hushion has hinted that his horse will be sent to the lead, and the veteran horseman isn’t winning at a 30% clip on the year by spotting his horses incorrectly or employing the wrong tactics. Rodman’s eighth-place run in the GI Whitney H. last time in an obvious toss, as he engaged in a prolonged wrestling match with rider Edgar Prado after wanting to do more behind a soft pace (TDN Video). He set an average to slow pace when finishing third behind Flat Out two back in the GII Suburban H. July 2, but the Barry Schwartz colorbearer did have to rush up after a poor start. Rodman earned a 108 Beyer for his against-the-grain second in the GI Met Mile behind Tizway (Tiznow) here in May, and while some may view that as evidence that more distance is the last thing he wants, Rodman did win the 1 3/16-mile GIII Queens County H. in eye-catching fashion back before a very long lay-off in 2009.

Race 12 - GII Indiana Derby, 3yo, 1 1/16m - The two headliners in this race are very shaky, and trying to get them both out of the exacta looks like it’ll be a profitable play. Shackleford (Forestry) is better-suited to this distance, but he has had a relatively tough campaign and his Travers performance was very poor--it’s entirely possible that he’s over the top, and he has several horses capable of showing speed drawn to his inside. Caleb’s Posse (Posse) should be in the Vosburgh, where he’d have a big chance and a shot at further building a case for champion sprinter honors. The three I will box are Windswept (Arch), Populist Politics (Don’t Get Mad) and Wilburn (Bernardini). Windswept has plenty of upside with just three prior starts under his belt. He won a key maiden race at Churchill Downs July 4, and closed very quickly to be second behind Malibu Glow (Malibu Moon) when stretched out at Saratoga July 30 (TDN Video). He came home in :12.76 that day--half a second faster than the winner--and another step forward from his 92 Beyer makes Windswept very competitive. Populist Politics made a crazy, very wide move in the Sept. 10 GII Super Derby, and may have won with a better-timed ride (TDN Video). Wilburn is simply very logical and offers lots to like--especially with the presence of the two favorites to inflate his price.

Race 6 - Maryland Million Nursery S., 2yo, 6f - Glib (Great Notion) was very impressive romping by 7 1/4 lengths in the slop on debut at Charles Town Aug. 27 despite being a fairly dead-on-the-board 9-1 with an uninspiring worktab (TDN Video). He showed uncommon acceleration for a sprinter on dirt after stalking a loose leader who finished third, and built up his advantage in the blink of an eye. The slop is certainly a knock against him, but considering he’s 8-1 on the morning line there’s no need to be too harsh. The bay has a nice win early pedigree--his sire does extremely well with young horses despite flying completely under the radar--and his dam is a half to the dam of this year’s SW and GISP juvenile Judy the Beauty (Ghostzapper). Trainer John Robb is 3-for-9 with debut winning 2-year-olds making their second starts with two more that hit the board, and Glib has a stamina-building six furlong work as well as a sharp five-furlong bullet on display since his debut.

*All trainer stats courtesy of DRF Formulator.

Thursday, September 8, 2011

The Perfect Horse

--Sue Finley

Yesterday, Airdrie Stud announced that they were pensioning Slew City Slew. Many will recall him as the sire of 54 black type winners, or as a two-time Grade I winner, or the sire of Lava Man. But 25 years ago, he meant the world to me for entirely different reasons.

I was a terrible hotwalker. Really, truly terrible. My `real’ job was working in the NYRA press office, where I had been hired my senior year in college in 1984. Somewhere along the line, it occurred to me that if I were going to promote racing, I really should understand it not just from the fan’s perspective, or from the company’s perspective, but from the backside perspective as well.

Being the mid-eighties, I had interviewed Woody Stephens about a million times during my first year or so of the job. He was not only in the middle of his incredible run of five consecutive Belmonts, but had assembled some of the most amazing equine talent and pedigrees in history. It seemed like a great opportunity to learn about horse care and training from one of the true legends of the sport. So, one day, during the spring of 1985, I tentatively asked him if I could maybe walk hots for him a couple of days a week. He said that pay day was Friday, and that some of the hotwalkers would go out and get drunk Friday night and not show up for work on Saturday, so if I wanted a job on weekends, it was mine, as he could use the extra help. Simple as that, and I was in.

The legendary Woody Stephens
The pay was $25 a day, or about $41 per weekend, after taxes. I was taking home $160 a week at the time for NYRA, so this was a serious boost to my finances. Now, after my rent, car and student loans were paid, I would now actually be able to afford dinner, if not every day, at least sometimes.

Woody had two barns back then, Barn 3 and 4. Barn 3, run by Sandy Bruno and Phil Gleaves, was where he kept the older horses. Billy Badgett was in charge of Barn 4, and the two-year-olds. They told me that the barns alternated sets, so I would walk a horse in the first set in Barn 3, then in the second in Barn 4, and so on, back and forth all morning.

I showed up the first day, and was sent to Barn 3, where a groom led a cold horse out of a stall, and handed her over to me. Her name was Soli, by Alydar out of Nicosia, and she was on the shelf at that time, but had won the Shirley Jones at Gulfstream that winter, and they expected big things out of her. The groom pointed to a bucket, hanging out the outside wall, and told me that was her bucket. Every two turns, give her a drink, he said. She walked very placidly for me around the barn, and I noticed all the other horses drinking out of the big communal tub in the middle. A couple of turns, and I tried to steer her to the outside wall, which proved to be much harder than I thought. She wanted to drink from the tub in the middle. It seemed so much I let her. The groom looked at me like nobody could be that stupid. She was sick, and I had just risked passing that infection to the entire barn. Disgusted, he changed the entire water tub.

My next horse was Alexandra My Love, a Danzig filly. She hadn’t been out of the stall in three weeks with some sort of injury...and they gave her to me. She took about 20 steps to each of my three, and since I was holding her head, this meant that her rear would swing around in front of me and she would end up facing me every three strides or so. I tried to walk faster...but I wasn’t even close to keeping up. Literally, I had no idea how to solve this problem. So around the barn we went, with her wheeling, and me straightening her out, every three strides, for a half an hour. More `I can’t believe anyone could be this stupid’ stares followed from my co-workers.

Soon, I discovered that walking horses in Billy’s barn, full of young two-year-olds not yet nearing a race, proved to be a much easier task, so I took to hanging out there, until one day, I was walking Two Punch and someone startled him by adjusting his blanket from behind, and he lunged forward, knocking me into the water tub and sending it flying, and then running out the center doors with me holding on. I was somewhat proud I hadn’t let go, seriously bruised...and from then on, scared to death.

Two punch provided me an early scare
Barbara Livingston photo
 I lasted the summer and fall at Woody’s, until he headed south for the winter. The next spring, I decided to give it another go. I had interviewed John Hertler several times, and he seemed like a really nice guy, so I asked him if I could work two days a week for him. My friend, Cathy Riccio, was working as a groom for him, and promised me that she’d lay me into the easiest hotwalking spots there were, keeping me far away from the crazies. My general unease with the whole situation was never far from the surface, however, stoked by incidents like the day Proud Truth got loose, charged into our barn, and took a serious interest in the filly I was walking.

On April 1, 1986, however, my salvation arrived in the form of a tiny, quiet two-year-old. By Seattle Slew out of Weber City Miss, Slew City Slew showed up in John’s barn the first day two-year-olds were allowed on the backstretch. He was dark, with few markings, and so placid, you could set a bomb off and he wouldn’t turn a hair. He never startled, paid no attention to loud noises, which made him, in my mind, about as close to perfect as a horse could get.

He would take three steps in the shedrow, stop and sigh, needing some mild encouragement to move along. Oftentimes, when he would stop, he would rest his head on my shoulder, just content to stand still with me. I let no one else walk him, and started to stretch out our allotted 30 minutes of walking time, just to delay the time when they would hand me a fit monster, like Mugatea.

`How long have you had that horse?’ the groom would ask me after we had been out 45 minutes or so. `15 minutes,’ I would tell him. If I could hose him, and hold him in the tub, some days I could get away with spending two hours or so just on him; me sitting, and him resting his head on my shoulder.

He started two times that year, and was well-beaten in both. My heart was broken sometime thereafter when he was sent over to Wayne Lukas’s barn, and I remember seeing him in the paddock one day before a race. He had grown into a man, and was imposing, and on the muscle...far from the frail baby I recalled.

Upon his retirement from stud yesterday, Airdrie’s Brereton Jones said, “He’s been awfully good to us for a long time, and he’ll continue to live out the rest of his life in the best of care.”

He’s 27 now, and I haven’t seen him in a quarter-century. This November, when I’m in town for the sales, I’ll ask the kind folks at Airdrie if I could come visit, and rest my head on his shoulder this time, and say thanks for that tiny respite each day when my very scary job wasn’t quite so scary.

Second Chances: Maiden Watch Round III

--Steve Sherack

TDN’s Steve Sherack adds three more runners to the maiden watch in the latest installment of Second Chances. Click here to view previous columns.

Stonestreet Stables’s HIERRO (c, 2, Hard Spun--Brief Bliss, by Navarone), a $350,000 OBSMAR graduate (Breeze Video), should move forward nicely following an educational fifth-place finish going seven furlongs in his debut at Saratoga Sept. 3 (TDN Video). Given a 4-1 chance in a salty 10-horse field, the chestnut was the last one to exit the stalls and raced in eighth through an opening quarter in :22.59. With Ramon Dominguez aboard, the Steve Asmussen trainee began to gain some momentum while racing two wide on the turn for home until briefly forcing to check in traffic. Guided to the inside, he showed plenty of immaturity in the stretch, racing greenly down the lane and reporting home 8 3/4 lengths behind impressive Darley homebred firster Alpha (Bernardini). The final time over the fast track was 1:23.97; Hierro received a 65 Beyer Speed Figure. Out of the graded stakes placed mare Brief Bliss, Hierro is a half-brother to Cherokee Triangle (Cherokee Run), MSW & GSP, $330,294. He was bred in Kentucky by Sally Andersen.

PUNCTUAL JEFF (c, 2, More Than Ready--Floating Island, by A.P. Indy) ran a winning race when second-best tackling two turns in his unveiling at odds of 5-1 over the Saratoga spinach Sept. 3 (TDN Video). Trained by Chad Brown, the Paul Pompa Jr. colorbearer was away slowly and trailed the field of 12 through slow early fractions of :24.06 and :49.69. The $230,000 KEESEP yearling purchase began to launch his bid while saving ground beneath Ramon Dominguez on the turn for home, gamely split horses when tipped out at least six wide into the stretch and came flying down the center of the course to just miss 27-1 longshot Kitten’s Kid (Kiten’s Joy) by a neck. The final time for the 1 1/16-mile event over the firm going was 1:44.27. Punctual Jeff, from the extended family of MGISW Devil May Care (Malibu Moon), received a 63 Beyer. He was bred in Kentucky by Forging Oaks LLC.

The Turbulent Descent team of Blinkers On Racing and trainer Mike Puype may have another nice one on their hands in the form of CLEARLY A COWBOY (c, 2, With Distinction--Cowgirl Lucky, by Stephen Got Even). Given a 9-2 chance in his career opener at Del Mar Sept. 4 (TDN Video), the $90,000 OBSAPR juvenile (Breeze Video) chased along the inside in sixth, raced in traffic on the far turn, and battled on nicely along the rail in the stretch to just get up for the show spot over a pair of rivals, finishing 4 3/4 lengths behind the good-looking winner Norm’s Passion (Artie Schiller). The final time for 5 1/2 furlongs over the Polytrack was 1:02.98; Clearly a Cowboy, bred in Kentucky by Robert and Mary Harris, was awarded a very solid 76 Beyer.

Friday, September 2, 2011

Spa Watch: Closing Weekend

--Brian DiDonato


Race 1 - Paris Opera S., f+m, 3yo/up, 1mT
   Unbridled Essence (Essence of Dubai) gets a bit of class relief coming off three consecutive Grade III tries against solid groups, including a narrow loss in the Violet S. at Monmouth in May. She was bumped at the break last out in defense of her GIII Matchmaker S. title July 31, and never got uncorked after that over a course that appeared to be favoring speed slightly. The 5-year-old should get some pace to run at here, and will be completely ignored in the wagering--her 10-1 morning line seems on the low side.

Race 2 - MSW, 2yo, 1 1/16mT
   Three horses caught my eye in this very interesting event, but Scandalicious (Giant's Causeway) is the one I'll bet to win, mostly because of his expected price. It's tough to get a read on his debut--he was dead last early in a race completely dominated by a frontrunner, but the Flying Zee colorbearer flew home late in the slop to get up for second with a lowly 47 Beyer Speed Figure (TDN Video). It's very possible that nobody besides the winner did any running and Scandalicious' second was no great accomplishment, but trainer Carlos Martin very rarely has a firster cranked up for his/her best and Scandalicious was up against things from a dynamics standpoint. The $150,000 KEESEP yearling's dam Salty You (Salt Lake) was a Grade I-winning 2-year-old in the slop--both a positive and negative in this case--and she was graded stakes-placed and a multiple winner over the sod. Salty You is a half to a pair of runners with turf black-type, and she hails from the family of European champion Moorestyle (GB). Another intriguing horse is Super Saturday (Any Given Saturday), owned by a savvy partnership of TYB Stable, Jerry Dilger and trainer Mike Trombetta. The grey is out of a turf stakes winner who produced Chopinina (Lear Fan), GSW and GISP on turf; Karra Kul (Strawberry Road {Aus}), SW and GSP on turf; and Despite the Odds (Speightstown), winner of the sloppy GIII Hill Prince S. for Trombetta in 2009. Trombetta is 4-for-8 with a $5.05 ROI over the past five seasons with firsters going long on the grass*. O'Prado Again (El Prado {Ire}) was named for Donegal Racing's superstar Paddy O'Prado and, like his predecessor, his future is clearly on grass. The $350,000 KEESEP yearling is very likely to move up on the surface switch off a debut sixth-place finish sprinting in the slop at Churchill Downs, but demand a square price if considering a win bet--Dale Romans' young turfers, like Paddy O'Prado and GII With Anticipation S. show horse Dullahan (Even The Score), sometimes require several starts before finding their rhythm.

Race 9 - GI Forego S., 3yo/up, 7f
   Rule by Night (Malibu Moon) probably isn't the most likely winner of this race, but he's going to be a major overlay. The Steve Asmussen pupil finished off last year with a monster performance in the Groovy S. at Aqueduct, romping by 9 1/4 lengths while earning a 108 Beyer Speed Figure that seems accurate when compared to what the also rans from that heat ran before and after. Rule by Night had some physical issues over the winter, and didn't make it back to the races until the May 11 Waldoboro S. at Belmont. That was a strangely run race that featured a very loose leader who was overmatched (TDN Video), and Rule by Night's third-place finish to Trappe Shot (Tapit) was better than it looks on paper considering the dynamics. He was subsequently scratched from the GII True North H., and resurfaced to finish a disappointing eighth in the Teddy Drone S. at Monmouth July 31. That performance was too bad to be believed, and may have been due to the way the track played that day (Haskell Day)--it strongly favored horses positioned out wide--he was glued to the rail throughout. Rule by Night worked five furlongs in company with GISW Haynesfield (Speightstown) last week, and Asmussen must like how the colt is doing to bypass Thursday's Island Whirl S. for this spot.

Race 10 - GI Woodward S., 3yo/up, 1 1/8m
   Havre de Grace (Saint Liam) is the type of horse who gets drastically overbet, and her presence will create some overlays on other runners. Flat Out (Flatter) is by far the most likely winner of the Woodward, and he must be used on every ticket. Giant Oak (Giant's Causeway) is the value play, however. The accomplished veteran is no stranger to horseplayers and racing fans--he's pretty good at his best, but needs the proper pace set-up to threaten late. He didn't get his trip last time in the GI Whitney Invitational H.--a race in which it seemed nobody wanted to lead--but the 5-year-old came home quickly on the outside to get up for third. It's not like there are a number of need-the-lead types signed on this time, but Rule (Roman Ruler) and Mambo Meister (King Cugat) should keep things honest enough up front with several others close up in the second flight. With a little more pace, and a fair price guaranteed, its worth taking a flyer and hoping the good Giant Oak shows up.

Race 12 - MSW, 2yo, NYB, 7f
   Down Broadway (Grand Slam), a $30,000 FTNAUG yearling turned $90,000 FTMMAY 2-year-old, closed well to be third in a good state-bred maiden race at Belmont July 14. Beyers for the race came back extremely slow, but the three winners and two runner-ups to return from that event all improved their figures dramatically next out. Down Broadway is faster than his 38 figure would lead you to believe, and he ran on debut like one who might appreciate this extra furlong.

Bonus Pick: GI Del Mar Debutante - Emerald Gold (War Front) was extremely visually impressive breaking her maiden while closing off a slow pace over the track (TDN Video). Her 5-1 morning line seems a bit on the low side, and she should offer good value in the 6-1 to 8-1 range.


Race 6 - MSW, f, 2yo, 1 1/16mT
   There isn't much to like about Zultanite (El Corredor) based on her debut or her pedigree, but note that trainer David Donk entered her in the P.G. Johnson S. Wednesday before opting to scratch and run here--that's a hint that her connections think pretty highly of her. The dark bay broke slowly and only made up a tiny bit of ground sprinting here Aug. 7 on a track that may have been favoring speed, but it's highly unlikely that she was well-meant for that effort. She was ignored as the 37-1 longest shot on the board, and was looking to become just Donk's second 2-year-old debut winner over the past five years from nearly 70 tries. He has won with six juveniles in their second career starts, including two while switching to grass. Watch to see if Zultanite takes more play here, and pull the trigger if she drifts up to 10-1+.

Race 7 - MSW, f, 2yo, 7f  
   Refining (Malibu Moon) was fourth on debut in one of the hottest maiden races for juvenile fillies to be run here this year. Winner My Miss Aurelia (Smart Strike) came back to win the GII Adirondack S. with a 91 Beyer; show horse Stopshoppingmaria (More Than Ready) romped by 9 3/4 lengths next out with a 101 Beyer; and the three other horses to run back hit the board in subsequent efforts. Refining did some late running in her unveiling after losing contact early, and conditioner Bill Mott's patience with young horses is well-documented. Mott maidens do much better with a start under their belt--he's 27% with 2-year-old maiden second timers in dirt sprints at the Spa over the past five years with a $2.52 ROI. Fellow Vegso homebred Come a Callin (Dixie Union), who broke her maiden on closing day here last year at 6-1 for Mott, was making the same move from 5 1/2 furlongs to seven when she graduated.

Race 10 - GI Spinaway S., f, 2yo, 7f  
   I tried to talk myself off of Vukovar (Forest Wildcat) here, but was unsuccessful. I was very high on her before the GIII Schuyverville S., and she made me feel very smart for about two furlongs before making me feel not-so-smart for the next four. The speed she showed in the first quarter mile of that race was off the charts--the :21.38 clocking was good for a Moss Pace Figure of 100--15 points above par for the level, but it's unclear what happened after that. She stopped so quickly that it seems likely she either displaced or bled, and it was surprising to see her back on the worktab just a week and change after her opening day debacle. I still wouldn't have thought much of her future, but if trainer Eric Guillot sees fit to run her off three sharp-looking works, I'll take a small shot at what is sure to be an astronomical price. Note that Guillot has connected with 44-1, 39-1 and 36-1 winners on this circuit over the past two years. Despite losing the hood, Vukovar should have no problem getting the early advantage here--it's just a question of how long she'll have it for. . .

*All trainer stats courtesy of DRF Formulator.