Wednesday, March 13, 2013

Guest Post: The Road Through the Kentucky Derby

by Mark Cramer

   The last time that a Kentucky Derby winner was able to come back and win the Breeders’ Cup Classic was in 1990 with Unbridled. The year before, Sunday Silence accomplished the same feat.
The subsequent two-decade absence of Kentucky Derby valedictorians in the BC Classic winners’ circle is not simply a question of age. In France, where 3-year-olds regularly win the Prix de l’Arc de Triomphe, it is very rare that a French Derby winner goes on to win the Arc. Since the year 2000, only one French Derby winner has come back to triumph in the Arc, and that was Dalakhani in 2003.
   Three-year-old BC Classic winners fit in two categories. The first group includes those that bypassed the Kentucky Derby. A.P. Indy was scratched in 1992, while handlers of Concern (1994) and Tiznow (2000) chose not to run in the Derby. The 2008 BC Classic winner, Raven’s Pass, skipped his own 3-year-old derby, the Epsom Derby.
   The second group of 3-year-old BC Classic winners is comprised of horses that were not fully matured for the Kentucky Derby but ran and finished in the money: Cat Thief (1999) and Curlin (2007), both finishing third in the Derby.
   Looking through and past the Kentucky Derby, horses that ran in the Derby but did not win seem to have eclipsed Derby winners as stallions. I admit having difficulty singling out any one of the dazzling array of sire stats, so excuse me if my own reading is slanted. I am considering horses that have run in the Kentucky Derby since the year 2000, or horses that bypassed the Derby as 3-year-olds within the same period.
   The three leading sires among Kentucky Derby winners since 2000 are Street Sense, Smarty Jones and Fusaichi Pegasus. But ahead of them in many of the sire stats that I checked, including the TDN Year-to-Date Earnings General Sire List, are horses that, in retrospect, used the Derby as a prep for their ultimate stallion career. They include:

Tapit (9th 2004 Derby)
Lion Heart (2nd 2004 Derby)
Harlan’s Holiday (7th 2002 Derby)
More Than Ready (4th 2000 Derby)
Hard Spun (2nd 2007 Derby)
Any Given Saturday (8th 2007 Derby) 
Afleet Alex (3rd 2005 Derby)

   To this leading-sire list we can throw in horses whose handlers bypassed the Derby for whatever reasons: Tiznow, Macho Uno and Bernardini.
   I may end with egg on my face over this argument. Street Sense might rally and pass the others, but he has been sent to Japan to stand the 2013 season. I am told that War Emblem, also in Japan, is being bred selectively, so he has no chance to accumulate the earnings of his stallion counterparts.
   But my point is that the Kentucky Derby appears to function like a prep race for later Grade I glory and/or leading sire rankings.
   By all means, point out the flaws in my argument, but at this moment, if they had futures betting for leading stallions, I would play horses that failed to win the Derby over those that won it.
   If my hypothesis proves right, does this take away from TDN’s entertaining Road to the Derby Showdown with Steve Sherack and Brian DiDonato? On the contrary, when the dust settles on the 2013 Kentucky Derby, we will no longer suffer from PDDL--“Post-Dramatic Derby Letdown”--the analysis we have been following will continue to resonate, and the Road To will roll on towards another horizon.         

Monday, March 11, 2013

Guest Post: Racing's Growing Social Media Presence

by Carly Silver

When 2009 Horse of the Year Rachel Alexandra fell ill recently after foaling a Bernardini filly, fans were stricken with worry over her condition. But how could they express their emotions to the horse’s connections and other racing enthusiasts? Through social media, of course.

Rachel’s unofficial Facebook page encouraged fans to post pictures of, and messages of hope to, the Medaglia d’Oro mare. Her owners, Stonestreet Farm, also regularly updated the public on Rachel’s well-being via its website and Facebook and Twitter accounts. When Rachel began to recover, fans commented and Tweeted up a storm in excitement.
Rachel Alexandra has over 12,000 friends on Facebook.

If the industry is going to keep young people interested in horse racing, it has to speak “their language”--social media. For an increasingly Internet-savvy audience, farms and stables have been feeding their fans’ hunger for news about their favorite horses and tracks; they also are seeking out new enthusiasts. Witness The Jockey Club’s presence at upcoming music festival SXSW, the JC’s fan-friendly America’s Best Racing site, and NYRA’s fabulous new website.
Certain figures have embraced that wholeheartedly and opened new avenues for fans to stay in touch with their favorite Derby contenders, trainers, racehorses, and jockeys.

The connections of 2012 champion two-year-old colt Shanghai Bobby have kept fans abreast of the horse’s progress on the Triple Crown trail via Twitter. Written from Bobby’s “perspective,” the account posts pics of Bobby in his stall and his breezing schedule and workout times. The colt also cheers on other contenders, like Overanalyze and Vyjack, by congratulating them on their latest wins.

Leading trainer Bob Baffert--whose Twitter handle is MidnightLute, derived from the 2007 champion sprinter he trained--also provides tantalizing tidbits for fans. On March 5, he Tweeted, “Paynter working in 5 min,” referring to the fan favorite and 2012 Haskell Invitational Handicap
winner whose road to recovery from laminitis and colitis has been miraculous. In doing so, Baffert satisfies the curiosity of those rooting for the colt to make it back to the track. He also hints at future racehorses that might inhabit his stable by posting a picture of an Eskendereya filly he owns.

Check out the latest updates on 2010 Horse of the Year Zenyatta on the Facebook page
of the aforementioned America’s Best Racing. There, readers can also enter their snapshots in monthly fan photo contests, catch up with old heroes like Silver Charm, and send happy birthday messages to jockeys. ABR also boasts a stellar Pinterest page.

Farms, like Kentucky nursery Lane’s End, also keep up on the social media front. On Facebook, Lane’s End posts charming photos of stallions’ progeny, like a Twirling Candy foal with his dam. If
breeders inspecting this page like what they see, why, they can just go breed to Lane’s End stallions like Twirling Candy. Lane’s End also updates fans on major winners by their fam stallions, another incentive for social media-breeders who are looking for stallions to breed their mares to in 2014.

On Twitter, Adena Springs Farm updates fans on their favorite stallions’ progeny. For example, a recent post notified followers that 2004 Horse of the Year Ghostzapper has five horses running in stakes races on Saturday, March 9.

WinStar Farms runs the Stablemates program, which boasts its own Facebook-esque social network. There, fans can join groups to post news and opinions about farm stallions, the 2013 Kentucky Derby, and more. Over in the Stallion Barn, check out Stallion Barn cams--if you have a
paid account--or ask the horses’ grooms questions. In the
Foaling Barn, see the latest WinStar babies--and future track superstars.

These small efforts go a long way in involving fans by using the very tools that they know best.
Enthusiasts can comment and favorite photos of up-and-coming horses, keep an eye on Triple Crown contenders, and find out a jockey’s latest favorite mount. Here’s to you, racing game, for keeping it modern.

Wednesday, March 6, 2013

Guest Post: Dying, but Still Alive in the Double

by Mark Cramer

   Philosopher Daniel Klein paraphrases Aristotle in his book, Travels with Epicurus: "As Aristotle mercilessly noted, there is absolutely nothing to look forward to in old, old age."
   Back to the 1980s--I taught a class at Los Angeles City College called "Probability Theory as Applied to Horse Race Handicapping." Many of my students knew more than I did, so this course became a dialogue centered around past performances. My only distinction was having been able to convince the administration to schedule a non-credit class of this irreverence.
   Students would often register for the class semester after semester. One of those regulars was named Jim. At one point he began to not show up and eventually I learned that he had a terminal form of cancer. The students took turns visiting him, discussing the card and taking out his bets to Santa Anita or Hollywood Park (there were no outlets for phone or on-line betting at the time).
   I once asked Jim if this was all too much for him. Perhaps we were being too intrusive and we should let him rest.
   "On the contrary," he said, "this gives me something to look forward to each day!"
   It wasn't the action itself that kept him going in those terrible days, but rather, being able to read the past performances, and then make intelligent projections on uncertain events. Even when immobile, this gave him a chance to remain active.
   Since then I've known a few other guys who played the horses until their death. Other forms of entertainment had lost meaning to them. Seeing a movie, for example, made no sense because the ending of a film is already determined. But with a horse race, the ending is undetermined and we, the players, can get involved in predicting what will happen. This is not passively entertainment. We're actively involved.
   A couple of years ago, I "worked" with a betting partner in Oklahoma. We researched handicapping methodologies and searched for the elusive automatic bet. I had designed a computer methodology that involved art as much as science, but it had bugs. Ken helped work out the bugs, dialoguing with the software specialist, and urging for changes here and there, based on his at-the-track tests. Together, long-distance, we played the method. 
   Ken was then hit by a particularly virulent form of cancer. During the period of his illness, I would ask him to be honest with me and let me know if this was too much effort for him to continue.
   "Are you kidding?" he said. "This is what gives me energy to hang on."
   On days when it got too painful, Ken's loving wife drove to Remington to put in his bets. The uncertainty of each racing day was an antidote for the certainty of his nearing death. I suppose we could call this "therapeutic uncertainty."
   Before he died, he sent me some spreadsheets of our bets, showing that we had profits in both our win plays and the exactas. We were not winning enough to brag about it, but hell, these were automatic wagers, which, according to the experts, must inevitably fail. Ken and I were both thrilled with our defiance. 
   Ken soon passed away. I have not been able to go back to that method. We had worked so intensely on it that no other partner could take his place. 
   You might ask whether this horse play is all good for the family of the terminally ill person. I can only say that when a life-ending illness eventually descends upon me, my wife, children and friends will find me much less grumpy if I can still have a chance every day to feel alive with anticipation.    
   I used to visit Canterbury Park each summer and I got to know Dave the Bartender, who gleefully shared the intellectual stimulation he derived from the day's or evening's race card. Dave was a true student of the game. When he came down with terminal cancer, it did not stop him from handicapping the races. 
   I wrote an obituary for Dave and his daughter sent me a thank you note:
   "You wrote about his optimism, his love of being at the track, and his respect for the game as a whole. You couldn't have been more right. I wanted to let you know that his respect for the game included his respect for the players"
   Later she added, "We are planning to have a portion of my dad's ashes spread on the finish line at Canterbury. Can you think of anything more perfect?"
   From these experiences I reckon that "being alive in the double" might be more than a simple metaphor.