Tuesday, April 2, 2013

Around the (Racing) World in 11 Days

By Barry Weisbord

Unlike Phineas Fogg, who took 80 days to make it around the world, I have just completed a 11-day, racing-inspired trip around the world which featured performances from three champions on two continents: Black Caviar, Pierro and Animal Kingdom. They dazzled their audiences, and I was certainly among the dazzled.

Although each venue and each experience offered the opportunity to see champions race, each experience was so different that I felt it merited comment.

In chronological order:

March 22 – Friday night in Moonee Vallee. Black Caviar. William Reid Stakes.

Entering Moonee Valley, all decorated
for the main attraction.
Moonee Vallee is in a suburb of Melbourne and is known as one of the most unusual major city tracks because of its small size and unusual configuration--an elongated oval with a very short stretch. Black Caviar must be one of the top-known athletes in Australia. Her comings and goings are regularly included on the newscasts, and, of course, her races are major news–not just on the racing or sports pages–but as general-interest news. A crowd of 25,000 jammed into quaint Moonee Vallee for its night racing fixture, with Black Caviar’s event scheduled as the last of 10 races at 9:55 p.m. so that it could be carried on national television at halftime of the opening game of the Australian rules football season--sort of like getting a horse race on during Super Bowl halftime here..

One of the many young Black Caviar fans.
Even though the race took place late at night, the apron crowd was populated by many families with young children dressed in Black Caviar’s colors, wearing Black Caviar hats, and carrying homemade signs.

The racetrack itself was decorated with banners, signs and flags bearing her name, with the theme carrying down to the table decorations in the committee room where I had dinner. I spent time that night with the Victorian Premier (equivalent to a U.S. governor) who also happens to be the Minister of Racing and a trained veterinarian, Dr. Denis Napthine.

There was a one-hour break between the 9th race and the big event due to the football game, which is unusual pacing in Australia, where the races tend to be run in more rapid succession, even on big days, than they are here. They filled the gap with a well-known aging rocker, Daryl Braithwaite, singing a few of his better-known songs, much to the delight of the crowd, on a makeshift stage on the center apron by the winner’s circle.

No objectivity here: the tables in the
dining room clearly showed who was Queen.
The paddock/pre-parade ring at Moonee Valley is very small, with very limited viewing. In order to get a good position, people had to go hours beforehand to secure a spot. The track offers a fantastic jumbo-tron which broadcast Black Caviar’s preparations every step of the way until she hit the track to a great roar from the crowd.

Jockey Luke Nolan trotted her the length of the grandstand in the warmup so the crowd could get a good look and respond. The six-furlong race unfolded with her sitting just off the pace, looming to the front on the turn and galloping away in the short stretch for a facile four-length victory.

The crowd at Moonee Valley
The roar of the crowd was deafening. While the competition might not have been the toughest she has ever faced, the people got what they came for. The performance was scintillating and Nolan again trotted her the length of the stretch to receive her due from the crowd. In the night setting, the jumbo-tron was spectacular–showing her up close and allowing the crowd to enjoy her wherever they were in the building.

While the rest of my trip would be about top-class cards and fashionable racegoers, this night was about seeing an amazing mare go 24-for-24, and the appreciation that her fans showed her.

Saturday, March 23, Sydney, Coolmore Classic Day

After a late-night and early morning flight, I arrive in Sydney on March 24 for the opening day of Sydney’s Autumn Racing Carnival, which alternates between Rosehill and Randwick, two major metropolitan courses, for six weeks from March to April. This year’s opener was at Rosehill.

Rosehill is about 40 minutes outside of the city in a western suburb, while Royal Randwick, which is in the process of a dramatic renovation, is much closer to the city center.

The well-heeled crowd at Rosehill.
At Rosehill, a number of hospitality areas run the length of the stretch, from corporate marquees to apron areas that attract a lot of young people to the reserved seat areas to super-boxes. I was the guest of Racing New South Wales Chairman John Messara, in a box with seating for close to 20 in an indoor/outdoor setting with a buffet lunch served in the box. Because they offer a number of racedays in a short period of time with the racing quality outstanding on all of them, the racing attendance varies greatly from one day to the next. If you’re a casual fan, it’s tough to dance every dance.

There were a good number of 20 to 35-year old men and women dressed up for Ladies Day, bringing to mind a Keeneland or Del Mar Saturday, but a very fashion-forward crowd which is otherwise rare in American racing. The punters enjoy the mix of live and simulcast racing, which is played over the P.A. system. The betting is a big part of what goes on, with wagers made with both bookmakers and the tote, the latter of which does a lot of business.

Finally, there was the industry contingent--a dressed-up, tie-and-jacket crowd. Overall, the crowd was a better turned-out crowd than we see in America, even on the apron.

The headline sponsored race, the Coolmore Classic, was won by Darley’s Appearance (Aus) (Command {Aus}) in a thrilling renewal and a near triple dead heat with the winner getting up by a nose. It gave me a chance to appreciate their instantaneous photo finish, via super slo-mo video. Even in a triple dead heat, the video replay clearly showed the Darley filly had won. Prices are posted before the jockeys have weighed in, but not paid off until after the race is made official. I liked that element, as it let you know where you stood in terms of your bets.

The star of the day was the depth of the card which also featured Pierro (Aus) (Lonhro {Aus}) in a tremendous performance against More Joyous (Aus) (More Than Ready), colt and filly preps for the Golden Slipper with the filly prep won in extremely impressive fashion by Overreach (Aus) (Exceed and Excel {Aus}).

As the kickoff of this six-week festival, which offers 49 group races in the six weeks, I saw a fast-paced great card of racing. This was only one of six Saturdays of the festival, but it would be hard to find a day of American racing with as much quality: eight races, all Listed and above, with the minimum purse $100,000, featuring six Group races, with three Group 1s and three Group 2s. Total purses on the day were $2.5 million.

The only part of the racing experience done better elsewhere is the paddock or pre-parade ring. The horses go from a pre-parade area into an area in front of the track where they circle around. Because it’s small, they keep the people out and don’t have the paddock scene the rest of the world offer. They say the new Randwick will correct this with their `Theater of the Horse’ experience.

Saturday, March 30, Dubai World Cup Day
Back onto the plane for the second of three 14-hour-plus flights over a 10-day period.

The Meydan paddock on DWC night.
Dubai has changed a lot since I started coming here eight years ago. The ups and downs of their prosperity have been well documented. A few years ago, I wrote that I felt we were getting a bit of a biased, negative view from our media, and I continue to feel the same way. However, Dubai is no longer a landscape filled with half-completed buildings and out-of-use cranes, as it was a few years ago. I booked my hotel at the last minute, having decided to go rather late. I tried the last four places I have stayed, all on the beach, only to find that all of them were full. I ended up at a Westin on the beach near the base of the Palm that was a spectacular hotel, and also fully booked.

The hotel was filled with families, many from Russia or former members of the Soviet Union, which have embraced Dubai as a vacation destination for the reliable weather, good hotels, great attractions, shopping and safety. In some respects, I think this has become at one point what Las Vegas was thinking it wanted to become--a great family destination. Every time I return, I find a new amusement park, water park, or other family-based attraction. It may have been particularly crowded this year as the race fell during Saudi schools’ spring break.

The fourth year in the new Meydan revealed the unfinished look of prior visits to be a thing of the past. It’s an amazing structure, and almost unique in racetracks around the world in that all of the premium dining offers trackside views. Of course, it’s built taller than any racecourse around the world, offering not only trackside views, but stunning trackside views. I watched much of the night in a fifth-floor suite and a second floor large-group area, both of which had great sight lines, as they have outdoor stadium seating in front of all of the enclosed and air-conditioned dining areas.

Coolmore's Tom Magnier congratulates
Darley's Henry Plumbtre.
The crowd was as elegant and well-dressed as at any racecourse I’ve ever been to–tens of thousands of smartly dressed men and women in ties and jackets and beautiful outfits. With no betting, it felt like a real event crowd as within the region and the city it’s known as a great night out. There are a lot of people working in Dubai from all over the world, not involved in the industry who are not even racing fans who come out because it’s a great event for the locals. Various companies offer corporate hospitality. Everybody is familiar with the $27 million worth of purses, and the quality of the eight races, but I can’t imagine there’s a race meeting in the world with more Grade 1 winners per race or more countries represented. They have become the most international race meet.

With no betting, they offer raffles and contests. There was a Pick Seven contest with a prize of one million Skywards Miles on Emirates air, a raffle for a Bentley, a Land Rover, and others, all to benefit charitable causes.

The 72 luxury suites offer an array of food not found anywhere else. Meydan has become famous for their halftime shows, but also offered intermezzo shows with opera-type attractions. The main attraction offered a light show, floats, visual elements on the jumbo tron, and the ubiquitous fireworks. Seal sang at the conclusion of the card.

Meydan's halftime show was quite the spectacular.
But the night will be remembered for the dominating sensation of Animal Kingdom, particularly moving to me as my son, Brad, is COO at Team Valor. There had been a lot of whispering in the crowd that shipping from America would make winning impossible, or that running without Lasix would be too much of a hindrance. Of course, the amazing performance of Animal Kingdom silenced all doubters. To ship and run that kind of race over that kind of testing surface while only making his third start in a year was magnificent.

Although I was primarily there on Trakus business, I was able to attend three venues and see three great performances that reminded me why I consider myself so lucky to have spent my life in this great industry.

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