Thursday, April 18, 2013

To Gulfstream and Back

by Christina Bossinakis
   For those who may not have noticed (I’m sure there are plenty of you out there) I took a 4 1/2-month hiatus from my regular post as Senior Editor at the TDN to take on the task of handicapper and on-air host during this past winter’s Gulfstream Park meet. And it started with a bang. My co-host, John DeSantis, and I weren’t given much time to settle into our new roles and find our footing before facing opening weekend’s featured event, the Florida Claiming Crown. Yeah, maybe it’s not Florida Derby Day, but trust me, it’s big business down there. I think John would agree with me that it wasn’t really great TV (VERY green down the stretch), but it would eventually get better. And by the end of the meet, infinitely better, if I do say so myself.

   As I continued to work out the kinks, I enjoyed some really amazing events held at the track. In addition to the fete on New Year’s eve, I attended all of the paddock parties hosted by Gulfstream throughout the meet (as you can all tell, I was a complete wall flower while I was down in Florida!), and trust me when I say, they were very well orchestrated. Gulfstream’s paddock area features beautiful Greco/Roman (note the Greco comes first) architecture and a lovely water fountain which is set off by the spectacular lighting, which is lit up after nightfall. In my opinion, Gulfstream offers one of the best venues for a party that I’ve ever seen at a racetrack, bar none. One side note: I stayed in town for the Christmas holidays, the trek to Canada seemed like such a monumental task given all the weather and travel considerations, and I was sincerely touched by the kindness and generosity of trainer Rick Violette Jr. and his lovely family for hosting, entertaining and feeding me on Christmas day. And for those of you who might not be aware, Rick is an absolutely fabulous cook. Move over Bobby Flay!

   Over the course of the meet, I learned several things. First, John was able to mispronounce more trainer’s names than I ever thought humanly possible. Among those he pummeled were Kiaran McLaughlin (you have to hear it to appreciate it), Christophe Clement (think ‘Clement’ Hirsch), Guiseppe Iadisernia (that was a tough one for those unfamiliar with the local scene), and my personal favorite, Eddie Kenneally (he always put the accent on the first part of his last name). He actually had a great sense of humor about it and was always the first one to poke fun at himself for those gaffs.
The ultra-schooler, Frac Daddy, coming over to the set to say hello
   Second, I found my calling as the ‘paddock lady.’ (Yes, people actually called me that) I realized that I had a knack for looking at the horses in the paddock prior to a race, shouting out a couple of those ‘paddock horses’ to our viewers and listeners, and wouldn’t you know it, I gave out a fair amount of winners, both favorites and horses at a price. I have always been a big proponent of looking at horses before I bet them, but this experience really underscored just how important body language is before a race. And that goes for the horses--and their trainers (And I’m only half kidding about the trainers..)
   Something else I deduced during my Florida stint was that, like anyone else who has ever made a bet with any type of regularity, I found there were certain trainers, and horses, that I could ‘catch’ on a regular basis and others that I couldn’t. The trainers I seemed to have a good ‘feel’ for: David Fawkes (for those who don’t know him, one of the nicest guys you’ll meet), Ralph Nicks, Eddie Kenneally and Michael Matz. In fact, I would probably have to crown Matz ‘my man’ of the meet since I seemed to be able to catch him with an unusual frequency, which was made even more interesting since most of those we connected on weren’t favorites. In fact, my biggest success with him was an 18-1 shot named Helluva Hunch, who was a filly by Tapit going long for the first time.. But of course! Standing in stark contrast, the trainers that I couldn’t get a solid handle on included Christophe Clement (for those who are paddock watchers like myself, he appears to sponge/hose ALL off before the race which makes it harder to gage who is a nervous type and might have the propensity to melt down or who might be beginning to wash out) and Todd Pletcher. Yes, you heard right, I did say Todd Pletcher. I can already hear the whispers asking how can I fail to consistently connect with a trainer that hits at a 30% clip. Believe me, I’ve asked myself this very same question. His horses always looked spectacular in the paddock, so that effectively neutralized my most effective weapon--my eyes. In the end, I came to a simple conclusion: the key was figuring out when he had a vulnerable favorite, because let’s face it, they all got bet. So, it was that easy. Or was it? The reality is, if he had something live in there, it was a Sisyphean task (you know, that whole rock up the hill thing?) to try and bet against him. Coming from someone who had to put their picks out there day in and day out, he posed the biggest problem because if you chose a Pletcher favorite and the horse won, you were a chalk eating weasel, and if you didn’t have it, you were an idiot. You get my point.
   With the meet in full swing and having finally worked through my nerves, I had encountered early in the meet, the final month and a half offered some pretty awesome days of racing. I was able to witness horses like champions Royal Delta and Animal Kingdom, the very classy Point of Entry, not to mention rising stars Verrazano, Orb, Dreaming of Julia and Close Hatches. Those horses are worthy of a separate blog in themselves, so I’ll be sure to jot something down in the near future, so stay tuned.
Johnny DeSantis & Christina Bossinakis, Florida Derby Day
   Throughout the meet, I was very fortunate to have the opportunity to work alongside several top notch people, including the Media Department’s Dave Joseph (this man is a rock star in my opinion), Ed Gray, Jack Will, Ron Nicoletti, Nicki Bernstein, and Mike Welsch, who is actually with the Daily Racing Form, but was there day in and day out and is as much a fixture at Gulfstream as is anyone else. I already mentioned John, and I’ll sum this whole thing up by saying one thing about my co-host and regular partner in crime. Known by many as Johnny D, John is as unique as he is sharp. We didn’t always agree on everything since he is a hard core handicapper while I am very much and industry girl (believe me, there were plenty of spirited debates, on and off air!), but I think we ultimately reached a middle ground that as a result, offered a broad band of information that seemed to appeal to a wider range of bettors. I can honestly say people didn’t always get to see the best of John on air. He can tell a story like nobody’s business (I was present for one such story where he has a room filled to capacity doubled over and in tears) and he has a wickedly sharp sense of humor that is not always meant for public consumption. I can’t tell you how many time we came back on air and I was still cracking up over some silly comment or random observation. Great guy and somebody who I can now call a friend.
   It has been an interesting adjustment trying get back to my life as a writer now that I am back at the TDN offices, not to mention that I don’t need to worry about what I will wear, how my hair will look after a day of intense wind and humidity (ladies, you can probably appreciate this) and who my selection will be in the sixth on the card! It was hell of a ride, that’s for sure, I consider myself much richer for the experience.

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