Tuesday, February 7, 2012

Reflections on the Big A

--by Christina Bossinakis

   Still fairly fresh off a whirlwind trip to Australia which featured sales, racing and farm visits to blow your mind, the natural progression from that, of course, would call for a trip to one of America’s jewels in racing, Aqueduct Racetrack, situated in Ozone Park, New York. Ok, that’s probably a little exaggeration (read as a HUGE exaggeration). In any case, I was excited at the prospect of heading to Queens to get my first look at the Big A, since its latest facelift and addition of the Casino. Featured on Saturday’s card was the GIII Toboggan H. and the GIII Withers S. The latter was of particular interest to me, because it is one of the early tests for newly turned 3-year-olds, some of whom might continue on the Triple Crown trail over the next few months.
   Upon my arrival, I was greeted by a well patronized parking lot as well as a couple of guys, one of whom uttered to the other as they walked by, “ 'These' women sure like to gamble.” This statement entertained me endlessly, with my laughter carrying me right up to the front door. It was very apparent to me that these hardcore New Yorkers thought I was going to the casino and not the racetrack. If they only knew.
   I took a trip over to some of the racetrack/media offices in the basement of the facility, including a run over to the New York Thoroughbred Horsemen’s Association office to check in on a former TDNer, and current NYTHA media stalwart, Andy Belfiore. We headed over to the paddock to take a look at the Tobbogan field, and quite frankly, the winner (at least on appearances) was Mike Repole’s Calibrachoa. He is one handsome son-of-a-gun (still talking about Calibrachoa; no offense Mike). The big man himself, trainer Todd Pletcher, was in the house to oversee the 5-year-old’s facile victory, and for the record, he was back at Gulfstream to saddle a pair of inspiring 3-year-old winners Sunday afternoon; Ender Knievel and Wait Til Dawn. I'd swear the man is super human.

Adam Coglianese Photo

   The equine beauty pageant carried through to the Withers itself, and Alpha, by Bernardini, definitely made an impact on those in attendence. Trainer Kiaran McLaughlin, who also calls Southern Florida his winter home, was onhand to saddle the lovely and ultra-refined colt, who on first glance, is not very reminiscent of his sire. Bernardini was without a doubt a powerfully built horse, while this colt is so much lighter in bone and body. However, the one thing that both father and son possess in spades is class and quality. Not only did that quality come through with Alpha’s impressive 3 1/4 length victory, but it really gave the impression that this Godolphin runner should get better with time and distance. A couple of side notes: Speightscity (by Speightstown), who was runner-up at 44-1, also caught my eye in the paddock prior to the race. Trained by Gary Contessa, he might be one that will come in under the radar and jump up for a big win later in the season. Definitely keep an eye on him. In my opinion, however, the individual offering the most intrigue was third-place finisher Tiger Walk, a son of Tale of the Cat. The Sagamore team was out in force Saturday, including the trouser-clad bloodstock advisor Bob Feld (minus the shorts and baseball cap--I almost didn’t recognize him!). The colt, who has a bit of a reputation for being keen and pretty headstrong, became a little hot in the saddling enclosure, but he appeared to relax a bit by the time he set foot on the track. Well back and eager in the early going of the race, he rallied late to get third. His connections were very pleased with the effort, and this colt could be poised for bigger and better things if Ignacio Correas can get him to relax and rate.

   Soon after the day’s feature, the focus, at least on my part, shifted to California racing. Much to my surprise, and chagrin, I was informed that there wasn’t a single TV showing horse racing in the casino (really???). In an effort to find something similar to Gulfstream’s upstairs bars (you can be sure to find me up there late in the card whenever I’m at the Hallandale oval), Andy and I (accompanied by NYTHA’s long-time office manager Dionne {aka Dee} Johnson), found our way to the Big A’s version, tucked away on the second floor of the clubhouse. Let me clear up any misunderstandings up front, this bar is nothing like any of those at Gulfstream. I must admit, I usually enjoy and appreciate any place that offers some local ‘flavor’, however, Aqueduct’s version is very outdated (it supposedly used to be a dining room) and the atmosphere is reminiscent of a cafeteria rather than a lounge or sports bar. Ripping up the carpeting, changing the lighting and adding some appropriate seating would be a cheap and easy fix for an area that is in all likelihood has not reached anywhere near its maximum earning potential. Over drinks, Dee and I realized we share a birthday (if you happen to stop by or call the NYTHA office on the 9th be sure to give Dee a shout out!), and after polishing off our sole cocktail (it was a slow day), the bar issued its final call and was fully shuttered by 6p.m. With some really good racing still going on at other tracks across the country, this was just another example of how racing often fails to adopt a more global view of its product and clientele. Because the bottom line is, when promoting other venues and racing events, individual tracks help support their own fundamental products--horse racing and wagering.

   For anybody visiting Aqueduct for the first time since its latest renovation, I would also suggest a brief run through the new casino. The new facility, which was bigger than I had originally imagined, had a pretty healthy-sized crowd (roughly 2/3 of the slots were occupied) and featured a very impressive central bar (you see a pattern here?). The ambiance around the enormous circular bar, quite honestly, screams nightclub rather than casino. Four tele-theater screens headed the bar area, creating plenty of bling to an already flashy setup. Now, if they can only get some horse racing playing on one of those jumbo TVs, we’d be all set..

   My trip to Ozone Park concluded with dinner at the well-known ltalian restaurant, Don Pepe’s, situated right around the corner from Aqueduct. For those of you who have never been there, be warned, the wait is a killer. We arrived there a little after six and ended up having to wait an hour for a table, although it appeared from my perspective that having some connections would really expedite the process. The local Italian community was out in full force Saturday night, and it seemed like we might be the only non-paysans in the entire establishment until we saw Hall of Fame jockey Jorge Velasquez walk in. The place is family style, so the bigger the group, the better. And don’t go looking for menus--it’s just a menu board at the far end of the dining room, so bring your reading glasses! Other things to note: hats are not permitted (Can somebody please notify John Fort and Kelly Breen?) and forget your credit cards; cash is king here. Despite the less than warm service (these guys don’t seem to have the time for patience or niceties), the food was worth it and very reasonably priced at that. Parting words of advice: just be decisive and assertive but never rude, and you’ll be Ok.

   At the end of the day, it wasn’t the day of racing in summertime Australia I enjoyed less than a month ago, but it is an integral part of the framework that makes up our local racing industry, so I genuinely appreciated it nonetheless.
   Next stop on the line, sunny Florida for the Feb. 26 Fountain of Youth S. at Gulfstream Park. Hope to see some of you there!

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