Thursday, September 01, 2016
Goodbye to Saratoga; the saddest time of year
There are few things in life more depressing than having to end the annual sojurn to Saratoga. There are signs the luster might be wearing down, due largely to Christopher Kay trying to price a day at the Spa out of the reach of many fans. But the ambiance and racing are still unparralled, so Saratoga hopefully will be able to survive Kay's leadership. While the eyes of the racing world will be mainly focused Saturday on a bonanza of stakes at Saratoga, Kentucky Downs, Del Mar and Parx, it will be worth also checking out the latest run of the sensational Three Rules at Gulfstream.
SARATOGA, Sept. 1--A state trooper with his lights on in your rearview mirror is disturbing. Exit 14 on the New York Northway in your rearview mirror is downright depressing
My fortnight at the Spa is over and I'm in my annual funk. Saratoga isn't perfect but it's still my favorite place on Earth. However, there is a price point at which even the most ardent customers of a product will begin to drift away.
Christopher Kay seems obsessed with finding out what that is at Saratoga and I fear he is moving closer to his goal. No matter what the announced attendance figures are, inflated by season-pass holders being counted even when they are not there, business is not what it used to be.
Vast sections of the grandstand went unoccupied five days a week. This includes the Friday before the Travers and the Sunday after, the biggest weekend of the year. This hasn't been the case since Saratoga was "discovered" by the masses in the late 20th century, largely thanks to super highways.
You used to have to arrive hours before post to have a shot at a picnic table. This past Sunday, 10-15 were available at the Top of the Stretch and more than that in the backyard after the first race. The only people in the last four sections of the grandstand were the security people making sure no one sat down without paying Kay's tariff, which seems to go up every season.
An item in the Racing Form noted Travers Day handle was the fourth highest ever. However, the three higher handles were in 2015, 2014 and 2013. So while it was the fourth highest it was also the lowest in four years.
John Pricci is going to get into these issues in more depth in an upcoming column, so I'll move on to what makes Saratoga still alluring enough to induce a 1600-mile drive and endure the hassles.
Drive around Middle America and you'll see Trump and Clinton placards displayed on lawns. In Saratoga the political statements read, "Whoa Cuomo," protests against what the dictatorial governor is doing to NY racing. Not just a few lawns; it's impossible to go a block anywhere in town without seeing three or four.
Racing matters in Saratoga, like no place else. The summer meeting is front page news in the local papers. In most cities these days, including the Big Apple, racing isn't news at all on the days a Triple crown event isn't being run.
You can turn on the TV in the morning and there are hours of Saratoga horse talk and handicapping. Sponsors go out of their way to tie their products to racing.
Every track has a nearby saloon where you can run into racing people--usually not more than one. At Saratoga, racing is the prime topic of conversation in just about every bar and restaurant in the area. John and I and our wives went to Longfellows, a classy joint a few miles east of the track, one night and we ran into Tom Durkin and several other race-trackers, whose names would not be familiar to most of you. Only a few feet away, acerbic Indian Charlie was swapping tales with friends.
I was dying to ask him why he calls Christophe Clement "the Puerto Rican Frenchman," but I didn't want to run the risk of being ridiculed in the next day's sheet.
Another night we went to a wonderful Italian restaurant, Nove, and ran into Richard Migliore, whose insights into horses warming up are one of the more useful handicapping innovations in recent years.
You can wait in line any night at blue collar Hattie's Chicken Shack and encounter nothing but racing folks.
Then there's the main event, the reason we make our pilgrimage every summer. In the course of our relatively short time there, we saw Songbird continue her Amazon act; Flintshire reconfirm his status as the finest turf horse in North America; Arrogate run faster than any horse in a century and a half and Lady Eli make a storied return to racing even if she fell just short of the winner's circle.
I'm counting down already to next summer.
A colt to watch at Gulfstream
Saturday's national racing agenda will be laden with major stakes, including the Woodward with Frosted at Saratoga, opening day at Kentucky Downs, closing weekend at Del Mar and a bevy of stakes at Parx, featuring Kentucky Oaks champion Cathryn Sophia in a stakes created for her as a way to avoid Songbird while prepping for the Cotillion.
Whatever track you're keying on, it's worth making it a point to turn your attention to the screens carrying Gulfstream's signal when Three Rules goes to the post in the Affirmed, the second stage of the Florida Sire Stakes series. You might be watching the best juvenile in the country to this point.
The son of Gone Astray has already rung up a couple of stakes, the open Birdonthewire and the Dr. Fager division of the Sire Stakes. But the race that really points him out is his career debut in an MSW. He blew away Gunnevera by 3 1/2 lengths going five furlongs. It was no one-shot fluke. Three Rules encored by beating Gunnevera again in the 5 1/2 furlong Birdonthewire, which he won by 5 1/2.
Out of Three Rules shadow, Gunnevera broke his maiden in his next start then shipped to Saratoga and ran away with the Saratoga Special. What does that tell you about Three Rules?
Extended to six furlongs, Three Rules set a track record in a seven-length romp in the Dr. Fager. So the farther he has been asked to run, the greater Three Rules victory margin has been. The stretch-out to seven furlongs should be right in his wheelhouse.
Astonishingly, his trainer Jose Pinchin said the colt was recovering from a popped abcess in his foot in the Dr. Fager. The foot is completely healed, according to Pinchin, so it should be interesting to see what kind of show Three Rules puts on. It's definitely worth taking a look.
Written by Tom Jicha
Wednesday, August 24, 2016
Travers Day: A Veritable Feast for Everyone
Saratoga Springs, Aug. 25, 2016--Horse players are a tough crowd. Making them all happy is well nigh impossible.
(If you don't think so, read from the comments section of this site.)
However, Saturday's Travers might be able to turn the trick. The Midsummer Derby is loaded with star power for people who still get turned on by the sport. Every 3-year-old of consequence, save Kentucky Derby winner Nyquist, who is undergoing a "growth spurt," will be here.
That so many horses have the credentials to win will make it a super betting race for those who reduce champion thoroughbreds to "the two horse" or "the six horse."
Preakness winner Exaggerator, off a smashing win in the Haskell, is the 3-1 morning line favorite. In spite of his lustrous credentials, that price probably will be available when the 14-horse field is loaded.
If beating the favorite is your game, you could be handsomely rewarded. The winners of the Belmont Stakes, Jim Dandy, Tampa Bay Derby and Louisiana Derby are all double digits on the opening line.
How about 15-1 on Belmont Stakes champion Creator? His Jim Dandy was dull but that wasn't the goal and he might appreciate the 10 furlongs as much as anyone in the field.
Laoban, who broke his maiden with elan in the Jim Dandy, is also 15-1.
Todd Pletcher, chasing a loose on the lead Chad Brown in the trainer's derby, has Belmont runnerup Destin at 10-1. Gun Runner, third in the Kentucky Derby, also opens at 10-1.
Brown has a pair of contenders in Connect and Gift Box, the 1-2 finishers in the Curlin. Connect is an underlaid 4-1. Gift Box, who had a tougher go of it than his stablemate in the Curlin, is an enticing proposition.
The legendary Joe Hirsch used to say he didn't root for a particular horse in a big race, he pulled for the best story. What could be a better story than Bob Baffert, a year after the American Pharoah heartbreak, getting his second Travers with either American Freedom or Arrogate. The former is the shorter price at 6-1 off his second in the Haskell.
However, Arrogate, at 10-1, is the one who interests me most of anyone in the field. He's never run in a stakes but the stylish way he has won all three of his two-turn races, the most recent at 1-20, suggests still untapped brilliance.
Statistically, Arrogate mirrors the career of American Pharoah. He got beat in his sprint debut but he's been untouchable since. He's no American Pharoah but he won't be 35 cents on the dollar, either.
Speaking of great stories
, no matter what happens in the Travers, it takes second position if Lady Eli makes a successful return to the races in the Ballston Spa. This is the stuff of big screen Hollywood movies.
For those unfamiliar with her story, the undefeated filly stepped on a nail returning from her sixth straight triumph in last year's Belmont Oaks. She developed often fatal laminitis and was a long price to survive, let alone race again.
But she beat the odds under the TLC of Chad Brown, who has patiently nursed her back to what everyone hopes will be her old self. You don't have to make a bet to root like crazy for her.
Brown isn't giving her one. Earlier this week he announced he is entering Sympathy as a rabbit for Lady Eli. You don't do that unless you're pushing all your chips to the center of the table.
It's a curious tactic. Sympathy has been on the pace only once in five U.S. starts, in a low level optional claimer, whose half went in 51 and change. But second-guessing the white hot Brown is a low percentage play.
Lady Eli isn't getting a layup. Among her challengers is Sentiero Italia, two-for-two over the Saratoga lawn, including a huge 2016 debut on opening day, and Miss Temple City, who beat the boys in the Grade 1 Maker's Mark at Keeneland.
The loaded afternoon also includes
the Kings Bishop, the year's premier sprint for 3-year-olds. This is the race that introduced Runhappy to racing's big leagues last season. Kiaran McLaughlin is hoping this year's renewal reintroduces Mohaymen to the sports' top level.
Mohaymen must be perplexing to McLaughlin. He was a lot of people's favorite for the Kentucky Derby when he ran his record to five-for-five with winter wins in the Holy Bull and Fountain of Youth. He went off the 4-5 favorite against Nyquist in the Florida Derby, where it inexplicably all went bad.
Getting beat by the then still undefeated Nyquist was not a badge of dishonor. However, he also finished well in arrears of Majesto and Fellowship, solid horses but not among the top echelon. Fourths in the Kentucky Derby and Jim Dandy followed.
The latter led McLaughlin to call an audible. Mohaymen came to the Spa with the Travers his target but he lands Saturday in the seven-furlong Kings Bishop, his first sprint since breaking his maiden at six furlongs. If the turnback doesn't help restore his reputation, the only thing left is turf.
The Kings Bishop is typically loaded. Fish Trappe Road and Economic Model, 1-2 in the Dwyer, will go at it again from the disadvantageous one and two posts. Summer Revolution has won his two starts for Rudy Rodriguez by more than 10. Bob Baffert is bringing in Southern California speedballs Drefong, who has won his last three by 19, and Jazzy Times off a 6 1/2 length romp at Del Mar.
Mohaymen could run his A-race and not get the money.
The King's Bishop, the eighth race, kicks off one of two all-stakes pick fours (a third pick four starts with race two). The Travers, race 11, is in both.
An argument could be made that each has been reduced to a pick three, since Flintshire, the best grasser on this side of the Atlantic--perhaps an unnecessary qualifier--is in both. He's close to a free space in the Sword Dancer, race 10, the start of the late pick four and the penultimate race of the first one.
Even as a pick 3, hitting one of the four packs won't be easy. The ninth race, the Forego, has a dozen crack sprinters headed by A.P. Indian.
Lady Eli's return has been reserved for the race after the Travers. This is a strange decision since the thinking of carding a couple of races after the main event is to let the crowd gradually winnow out. You're not a fan of horses if you can walk out before the return of Lady Eli.
Written by Tom Jicha
Wednesday, August 17, 2016
Lost: A Racetrack and Probably Some Fans
SARATOGA SPRINGS, Aug. 18--What a relief. In the midst of my 1600-mile drive to Saratoga, I began reading stories that said the track at Saratoga had been lost on Saturday. My immediate thought was, how could people be wasting time looking for Pokemon when the most famous race track in America is missing?
Thankfully, this turned out to be hyperbole. The lost track, as described by Johnny Velazquez, turned out to be justification for the jockeys to refuse to ride the last six races of the card.
I was on the road, so I have no idea how extreme conditions were at the Spa. But I do know I have been there many times when it was raining when I woke up in the morning, never stopped all day, yet a complete program was run.
I also know that no matter how hard it might have been raining, it likely didn't exceed the Biblical downpours at Gulfstream a couple of times a week during summer. Nevertheless there hasn't been a rain cancellation in my memory.
When it's really bad or lightning is in the area, horses are held in the paddock until conditions become more tolerable. Even on the gloomiest of days, there is sufficient natural light during to run until 7 p.m. and beyond. NYRA called it quits not much after 3 p.m.
NYRA certainly didn't want to lose a Saturday at Saratoga. However, you have to wonder how much effort was made to save the cancelled races. You also have to wonder how much consideration was given to the potential long term repercussions to Saratoga and the Adirondacks tourism industry.
Saratoga probably draws a greater percentage of fans from in excess of 100 miles away than any other racetrack in America, especially on a Saturday. Fans last Saturday are likely to think twice the next time they consider the marathon drive if there is even a hint of a storm.
Also, fans pay $200 or more a night in area hotels and motels to spend a day or two at the Spa. Speaking from first-hand knowledge, a lot of these reservations are made weeks or months in advance. There also is sure to be hesitation on the part of many to making this commitment next year.
Change for better but not bettor
Drugs are a scourge of the sport and a turnoff to fans. But so are shenanigans like the one in Wednesday's tenth race.
Jackie Davis was listed on the program as the rider of Greyjoy. Just before the seventh race, after Pick 6 betting had closed and Pick 4 betting was well in progress, Larry Collmus announced a late rider change. Irad Ortiz was taking over the mount.
Jackie Davis was 0-17 at the meeting and five percent for the year. Irad Ortiz is a multiple riding champion and is hitting at better than 20 percent, his norm.
It's a matter of conjecture how many fans, especially at simulcast venues where sound is turned off, were unaware of the switch. But Graybar, despite dropping from a second for $30K claiming to a $20K claimer paid $13.60.
With a winless Jackie Davis this would be understandable. With a champion rider, not so much.
It shouldn't be allowed to happen.
More games riders play
Florent Geroux drew a three-day suspension for a ride at Del Mar on July 23. Instead of doing his time, Geroux did what comes naturally for riders. He appealed.
After winning four stakes at Arlington, including the rich Beverly D and Secretariat, on Million Day, Geroux withdrew the appeal and will serve the penalty Saturday, Sunday and Wednesday, well ahead of the big Travers Stakes weekend.
When rules can be manipulated without consequences, there is no point in having them.
Stakes losing their grade
The American Graded Stakes Committee has come to a conclusion long obvious to everyone in racing: there are too many graded stakes. The clincher might have been all the four-, five- and six-horse stakes this summer at the premier Saratoga and Del Mar meetings.
Supposedly there will be a thorough review before the 2017 graded stakes roster is unveiled with the goal being a significant reduction in graded stakes.
I have a couple of suggestions. There should be no graded juvenile stakes until the Hopeful at Saratoga and Futurity at Del Mar. This was underlined last weekend when the Best Pal out West and the Saratoga Special each went to the post with six entrants in what were glorified one-other-thans, as most 2-year-old stakes are until the fall.
Both had Grade 2 status, a sham when you consider the quality and tradition of many other Grade 2 stakes for 3-year-olds and up, which are held to a higher standard by the committee.
Along these lines, another way to cull the graded stakes roster is to downgrade any stakes that goes to the post with fewer than six entrants for two consecutive seasons. What stronger argument is there than four and five-horse fields that there are too many graded stakes.
A Grade 1 would fall to Grade 2, a Grade 2 would become a Grade 3 and a Grade 3 would drop to listed. The higher grade could be regained after the stakes had two consecutive years of at least six entrants.
The two-year qualifier is so that a stakes wouldn't suffer from one monster, such as Songbird, scaring away the opposition. A fringe benefit would be this would probably cause a consolidation of stakes, which theoretically would increase field size while absolutely reducing the number of stakes.
This winnowing down of graded stakes will not come without protest. Breeders are likely to strenuously object. Grades are their marketing tools, however misleading they may be and they are unlikely to give them up without a fight.
Written by Tom Jicha