Wednesday, October 08, 2008
An Open Letter to Jerome Moss: Make a Date with History
Dear Mr. Moss,
I wish I could take credit for this idea but I can’t. As I walked off the set of Capital Off-Track Betting’s “Handicappers’ Report” Saturday morning, my co-host, a USC graduate who probably knows more about West Coast racing than anyone on this side of the continent, suggested I reach out to you.
First, a question. Did you happen to see the feature race from Longchamp on Sunday? How about that Zarkava? An undefeated three-year-old filly who underscored her greatness by defeating males in Europe’s most prestigious Prix de l’Arc de Triomphe.
I think you know where I'm going with this. I want you to take a page out of Jess Jackson’s book, who brought his horse back at 4 and devoted 2008 to putting his horse’s greatness in a historical context. He’s done that, even if he fails to win the Classic, or decides to remain on the sidelines. Curlin is, after all, America’s first and only “Ten Million Dollar Man.”
For the good of the game, it would be great if you raced your wonderful mare against the boys in the Breeders’ Cup Classic. For your program, your legacy, and the stature of the brilliant Zenyatta, it’s all upside.
Your trainer, John Shirreffs, recently appeared on another Capital OTB show, “Down the Stretch,” and said that Zenyatta would make her final start of the year in the Ladies Distaff, leaving the door open for a possible five-year-old campaign. He said that winning the Distaff over the deepest field of equine females assembled this year would be quite an achievement. And it would.
But how often do events conspire so favorably that affords an opportunity to make history? Zarkava was magnificent winning the Arc, the first filly in 15 years. But a filly winning the Arc is not unique. In fact, fillies won five straight Arcs, from 1979 to 1983, 17 in Arc history. But no filly has ever won the Breeders’ Cup Classic.
While those inside the game and its most knowledgeable fans don’t actively discriminate, great fillies beating other fillies don’t capture the imagination the same way males do. Is that fair? Hardly. But isn’t that the reality?
Anyone around the game longer than five minutes knows that undefeated champion Personal Ensign was truly a great mare. Who could forget the most relentless stretch run in Distaff history in which Personal Ensign beat another filly, Winning Colors, who beat the boys in the Kentucky Derby? And, of course, Personal Ensign beat the boys in the storied Whitney.
But in the public’s perception, was Personal Ensign, rightly or wrongly, the equal of Ruffian? I don‘t think anyone believes that. Fillies have to do something to set them themselves apart.
Ruffian had one style: go, go, go. And it was that style, and the hell-bent-for-leather scenario unique to match racing, that led to her tragic accident. But according to your jockey, Mike Smith, your filly rates herself, saying that she's as comfortable stalking a moderate pace as she is sitting far behind hot fractions.
Smith says, too, that Zenyatta has only recently learned how to run, putting herself into races when she wants, no longer needing urging to do so. And, of course, she has the physical tools, an amazon of a filly.
Of profound significance is the fact that Smith never has gotten to the bottom of her and is beginning to think she might be the best horse of either sex he’s ridden, which includes not only Azeri but males Holy Bull and Skip Away, voted Horse of the Year in 2002, 1994 and 1998, respectively.
That covers as much ground as your filly’s tremendous stride.
Mr. Sherriffs and yourself probably believe it’s poor business to run her against your colt, Tiago, who’s coming up to this Classic off a fine prep race. That's the common wisdom but this is a unique situation.
This is a chance to not only win a Horse of the Year title by becoming the only filly in a quarter-century to win a Classic and place the name Zenyatta in the same conversation with Ruffian. And only a victory over a reigning Horse of the Year and a dual classics Derby winner in the same race can do that if your decision is to send her home after the Breeders' Cup.
In a game where nothing is certain, the stars could not be aligned any better. The two favorites have come 3,000 miles to race on a surface over which neither has run. And as we have all seen, good synthetic workouts do not guarantee good synthetic performance.
All your filly need do is walk across the barn area and into the Santa Anita starting gate. And your rider has said something else: Mike Smith said that of all the synthetic surfaces over which Zenyatta has run, she likes Pro Ride the best.
On the Equiform performance figure scale--which recently drew favorable reviews from Horseplayer magazine--none of the big three are coming up to the Classic better than your filly. Big Brown’s numbers have flattened after earning a lifetime best figure in the Derby. Curlin’s best two figures came in last year’s Preakness and the sloppy-track Classic, his lifetime top.
But your filly is still developing as she grows into her monstrous frame. She peaked winning the Clement Hirsch, virtually matching Big Brown’s and Curlin’s fast-track tops as she continues to move forward. And for this race she’s coming off a “soft win” in the Lady’s Secret, meaning her pace and final figures indicate she won within herself, just the way it looked to the naked eye.
With the filly and mare championship assured with her sound defeat of Ginger Punch in the Apple Blossom, a worthy effort in defeat historically could do for Zenyatta what a remarkable placing in the Jockey Club Gold Cup did for Seattle Slew. But of the big three, Zenyatta is the only one that projects to move forward to a career best. And she need not do so to win.
Horse of the Year and household-name status awaits. Zenyatta has earned and deserves this opportunity Mr. Moss. Run your filly in the Classic, making it the race of this or any other year. She'll win. All hail Zenyatta: Toast of the Racing World.
Thanks for your time, Mr. Moss.
Written by John Pricci
Saturday, October 04, 2008
Keeneland: Classy and Fan Friendly
Now, it’s Keeneland’s turn.
The annual prestigious fall meeting began yesterday in Lexington under warm, sunny skies and it would be welcome news for the industry if such a high class session helps reverse spiraling handle trends that have dominated the racing landscape in 2008.
Nine of the 19 stakes at this three-week session will be offered this weekend, eight of them graded. Because of the relatively early running of this year’s Breeders’ Cup Championships, Oct. 24 and 25, the meet has been front-loaded to accommodate horsemen requiring a final prep for the big dance.
Of the nine stakes offered opening weekend, five will be run this afternoon including the G1 Breeders’ Futurity and Shadwell Turf Mile.
The former has been a useful predictor of success in subsequent events and as an indicator of potential three-year-old form. In terms of the Breeders Cup Juvenile, however, perhaps last year’s Futurity as indication of Juvenile form was skewed by the slop of Monmouth Park. While all synthetic tracks are not created equal, the shift from Polytrack to Pro-Ride just might work three weeks hence.
In the vernacular, today’s Breeders’ Futurity is a skull-buster. There are 11 entered, five having a serious chance. Of those, four: Advice (7-2), Terrain (6-1), His Greatness (12-1) and Zion (15-1), are coming off Arlington’s Polytrack. The other, Pioneer of the Nile (5-1), is making the turf-to-synthetic switch.
From a handicapping perspective, Advice and Terrain have an edge despite each having a wide draw in the mile and a sixteenth two-turner. Early favorite Advice comes from top connections, Todd Pletcher saddling the Chapel Royal colt for Winstar Farm.
Following an eight-length maiden breaker at a mile, Advice was beaten a neck in the roughly run G3 Arlington-Washington Futurity at the same distance. While his pedigree is on the short side--from the Hennessey mare, World of Wisdom--his apparent class and synthetic prowess should get him at least this far.
In the wagering, Terrain is the better value. Placed first at Arlington via disqualification in a highly controversial ruling, the Sky Mesa gelding has the benefit of three-race experience and a slightly better pedigree for the route; from the Forty Niner mare, Minery. Owning both tactical speed and kick, he looks to win this for Al Stall and Jamie Theriot.
The Shadwell Turf Mile is even more difficult, so inscrutable, in fact, that we’d only consider wagering on three of the 13 entered: Thorn Song (4-1), Rahy’s Attorney (5-1) and Karelian (20-1).
Highly competitive figures notwithstanding, Thorn Song to this point has not been pointing to the Breeders’ Cup. Additionally, his record at the distance, 2-for-3, over firm and yielding ground, the presence of Robby Albarado and with a cozy inside draw, Dale Romans will have him focused: This is
his Breeders’ Cup.
Of course, many handicappers are anxious to see whether Rahy’s Attorney’s recent victory in the G1 Woodbine Mile was an aberration or a true bill. One thing for certain is that it was very fast on the Equiform performance-figure scale.
Even though, in our view, turf horses have less of a tendency to react negatively to big efforts, his Woodbine figure has bounce written all over it. At early line odds, unlikely at post time, he’d be worth a wager. But at half the price, his wide draw makes him a poor risk.
There are three other added-money events comprising today’s $150,000 guaranteed Pick Six: the G3 Phoenix Sprint Stakes, the listed Woodford Stakes, and the G3 Thoroughbred Club of America, in which formerly undefeated speedster Indyanne (7-2) will try to get back on track beneath new rider Albarado. Wild Gams, last year’s TCA winner, would be better value at anything approaching early line 6-1 odds.
Keeneland, with its two short boutique meets is, of course, a huge force in American thoroughbred racing, the large purses made available by selling some of the world’s best bloodstock out the back door.
Considering that Keeneland was once so stodgy and arrogant to consider racecallers a superfluous extravagance, they’ve certainly come a long way. In fact, Keeneland is among the nation’s leaders in horseplayer service and innovation.
Trakkus is the best system ever invented as an aid to trip-handicapping observers. The organization recently begun special classes to help deal with the vagaries of synthetic track handicapping, and are trying to cultivate new fans via an expansion of fractional wagering, something the entire industry could learn from. Keeneland even experiments with lower takeout rates from time to time. Imagine that.
Enjoy the current meet as a prelude to Breeders’ Cup, betting all the Dime Supers, Fifty-Cent trifectas and Pick Fours--with guarantee provisions attached--and $1 Super Fives you can afford. It’s not often when one can support the proactivity of racetrack management.
Written by John Pricci
Tuesday, September 30, 2008
At Once, Cross-Country Preps Clear and Muddle Breeders’ Cup Picture
Elmont, NY, Sept. 29, 2008--There were three quotes that came within earshot last Saturday during the running of the Jockey Club Gold Cup program, each having a significant ring to it. One came from the winning trainer after the Grade 1 Vosburgh; the second was from a press box colleague as we watched Curlin being led down Grade 1 lane into a wet Belmont Park winners’ circle. And, finally, a third, the words coming from the other side of the continent over a media speaker-phone from the owner of the reigning Horse of the Year.
It was humid and dank on Saturday at Belmont Park, the kind of day local press box wags commonly refer to as an Aqueduct day, an occasion for which the Sun Gods need not apply. “I’ve got news for you,” offered the writer upon not being asked. “The few people who still come out for days like this really love this,” his comment accompanying the whoops and hollers of fans as Curlin’s handler gave him a final turn of the ring before the huge chestnut settled into picture-taking repose.
The people who lined the ring were among those 8,500 who showed up to see Belmont's five Grade 1 events, about half as many as the count registered at Santa Anita. By definition, these races are championship events but, as everyone knows, all Grade 1s, like synthetic tracks, are not created equal.
That same handful likely were the ones who 20 minutes earlier stood in the drizzle around the walking ring, following the horses as they were led around prior to the 90th Jockey Club Gold Cup. The appreciative group greeted Curlin in waves of adulation as he circled the paddock before Robby Albarado got a leg up from Steve Asmussen, the colt not only seeking a defense of his Jockey Club title but to earn a singular achievement, that of becoming the world’s richest thoroughbred ever.
Tom Durkin tried to make the quest more exciting than it eventually turned out to be, observers never getting a sense that winning the race for Curlin was little more than a perfunctory exercise, a fait accompli. At least that was our feeling when--despite the fact that the slop-loving speedster Wanderin Boy, who makes a habit of finishing second to wonder horses, was setting his own, unpressured pace--Albarado, with six furlongs remaining, reached up and took another hold of his champion. Call it disdainful confidence.
Apparently, the rider had a plan. Opting to ride the champion, but having ridden Mambo in Seattle to a second place Travers finish--a race he “still can’t believe we lost”--Albarado waited for the three-year-old Jockey Club second choice to make his move before asking Curlin to jump into the fray. That point came leaving the five-furlong pole as Mambo in Seattle scooted up the inside, as Curlin now was beginning to unwind from the middle of Belmont's expansive far turn.,
But the sophomore couldn’t sustain his run. Wanderin Boy remained on the lead as Merchant Marine, Allen Jerkens attempting to slay yet another giant, crept closer to the leader. Curlin, in full stride approaching headstretch, straightened out into the stretch six horses wide of the rail. In midstretch, Curlin at once drew even and began to pull away, the eventual second and third finishers struggling to keep pace, and doing just that, courageously. But a final half-mile over the sand and loam in 48 seconds, easily within Curlin’s scope, was enough to convince his two closest rivals to await another day.
On the other side of America, meanwhile, Santa Anita, site of the silver anniversary edition of Breeders’ Cup, was in the midst of its six Grade 1s program--the first time that’s ever happened on a non-Breeders’ Cup card. Cost of Freedom was taking the Ancient Title as one of his West Coast sprint brethren, Black Seventeen, took Belmont’s Vosburgh in the slop because, according to Santa Anita-based trainer Brain Koriner--catch this--”didn’t know the kind of track we would be running over.”
That would be a fast Pro Ride surface, sir, 87 percent dirt and 13 percent whatever, which apparently, like the old Polytrack at old Del Mar, is a different surface in the afternoon than it is for training in the morning. Apparently Koriner preferred to take his chances over a wet Eastern dirt track than a melting West Coast synthetic surface currently having issues.
Trainers would not speak for the record to Daily Racing Form reporter Brad Free for fear of losing stalls, some said. But jockey Rafael Bejarano told his agent that he never “felt this hot” in his whole life. (Isn’t he from South America?) Garrett Gomez, to his credit unafraid to speak his mind, said the difference was like, well, day and night.
GG said, too, that it was his experience that nearly half the horses racing in the afternoon were not getting over the surface well, and those that were winning or money-placed did so because they tolerated it better. Gomez said that if a horse was running one-paced and gradually gained momentum that that was OK, but if you tried to “squeeze them” they’d fall apart.
Track management commented they were satisfied with horse safety concerns and that they would continue to tweak the surface to deal with the afternoon heat which, on the day before the six-Grade 1 card, reached 97 degrees. Of course, it’s hot and dry in SoCal in October, too, a.k.a. brushfire season.
Finally, not long after saying that he would protect Curlin because “the gene pool needs a horse like this,“ word came that Curlin would be on a plane Sunday morning bound for Santa Anita where he will train for a presumed meeting with Big Brown; the synthetic specialist and Goodwood winner Well Armed, and possibly European sensation Duke of Marmalade, among a bevy of other Grade 1 performers that could make this Classic one of the deepest in its history. Obviously, it’s a matchup of the Big Two that racing wants, er, needs, to see.
Written by John Pricci