Monday, October 29, 2007
Reflections On Cup XXIV
Oceanport, NJ--Oct. 29, 2007--
It's over. Time to take a long, reflective breath. Many images come to mind. Like life, not all are good. Next year: Silver Anniversary of Breeders' Cup. Hello Santa Anita!
Back to the Golden State, where it all began.
However, doesn't it seem like the brush fires will never
stop? Hopefully, the Deity pushes this weekend's anticipated Santa Ana winds back where they come from.
Next up: Kentucky Derby, 188 days from this posting. And counting.
Curlin: From Day One, A Champion
Like Jane Schwartz once said of Ruffian, Curlin was burning from the start. Over a long career, we've learned that speed is the game's only absolute truth. It's the one variable that can be measured both objectively and qualitatively.
But we believe it's not how fast you run, but how you run fast. Aside from drifting perceptibly through the stretch in his rapidly run, albeit verdant debut last February at Gulfstream Park, he always knew how to be a racehorse, how to distribute his energy evenly and efficiently.
From maiden winner, to two-turn Grade 3 winner, to 10-length G2 winner, he showed something else in that third start; a tremendous stride, athleticism, and balance. So smooth was his action as he approached the half-mile pole at Oaklawn Park that he did what future great runners do; lower his body and lengthen his stride. So balanced, it appeared one could have placed a glass of water on his back and never spilled a drop.
With little experience and facing a gang of 19 rivals, Curlin was an excellent third in the Derby. Next time he snatched victory from defeat's jaws with a Preakness stretch run for the ages. After a head-bobbing Belmont defeat and an unhappy Haskell third, he humbled the country's best older horse in the Jockey Club Gold Cup before his record-equaling Horse of the Year performance.
Not only did he settle the issue of superiority among the elite sophomore class and the handicap division's best, but he avenged his only disappointing loss in a first ever sloppy-track appearance. In a game that keeps teaching, his effort was illuminating. Apparently, when it comes to an ability to handle certain tracks, slop trumps surface. This time there was no jumping up and down over the Monmouth track, only long, ground devouring strides.
Asmussen: A Nafzger Like Performance
You might think Carl Nafzger spent his entire year--from the 2006 Breeders' Cup Juvenile to the 2007 Classic--training Street Sense toward a Horse of the Year championship. He made it all the way to the quarter-pole at Monmouth Park, where Curlin left those aspirations mired in a sea of slop.
While the media, myself included, spent much of the year god-ding up Nafzger, Asmussen was doled out considerably shorter shrift, perhaps owing to his less than ebullient personality. Sometimes, he was overtly chippy, especially when the subject of his medication suspension was broached. But his work with Curlin was no less impressive than Nafzger's with Street Sense.
He sent him to the Haskell, virtually without a break following the Triple Crown, to give him a taste of the Monmouth ova, which the colt found distasteful that sultry afternoon at the shore. Undeterred, Asmussen tightened the screws at Saratoga's Oklahoma training track, giving Curlin weekly stamina works that had him fit for his first meeting with elders in the Jockey Club Gold Cup. At the five-furlong pole on the wide expanse of the Belmont backstretch, he looked every part the JCGC winner.
Showing confidence, Asmussen forsook Saratoga and shipped Curlin to Keeneland where he had been happy with his colt's Derby preparation. Curlin responded with his most impressive victory, possibly only the Preakness notwithstanding. As far as the 2008 classics are concerned, his two juvenile colts finished second and third to an undefeated champion last Saturday. It appears the prodigious Mr. Asmussen is about to raise a high profile even higher.
Midnight Lute: A Great Sprinter
Until Curlin's Horse of the Year tour de force, the performance of the day irrefutably belonged to Midnight Lute. Huge, we believed this monster would be compromised by his inside draw in a large field, especially while turning back from seven furlongs to six. The dynamics between six and seven furlongs are subtle, but very much real. And we were right about all of it. So what?
Getting away last of 10 from post two, and while I prepared to collect a win wager on Idiot Proof, Midnight Lute began circling the group. He settled into full stride in upper stretch then gobbled up the goo, and Idiot Proof, to win going away like a runaway train. It's a wonder Garrett Gomez was able to pull him up at all.
Calvin: Live By Bo-rail, Die By Bo-Rail
Never would Street Sense have beaten Curlin under any Classic scenario, but horses were tiring on the fence all day. And it became clear midway down the Classic backstretch that winning rider Robby Albarado was keeping a close eye on his close friend and fellow Cajun. When Street Sense began his move on the fence, Curlin matched strides with him all the way to headstretch, where Curlin kept going but Street Sense flattened out.
Doubtlessly, Calvin's ground saving tack cost Street Sense third money to a wide-rally Awesome Gem. Perhaps it even cost him the place. Or perhaps that Tuesday work was a bit too brilliant. Whatever it was, Street Sense didn't finish like he had in every start from last year's Juvenile forward. Most accomplished all season long, Street Sense just wasn't there in his career finale. In that context, he deserved better fortune in the Classic.
Let Him Run, Jess:
No one we can think of has come as far as fast in this game than has Jess Jackson, principal owner of Curlin. The struggle for the 77-year-old Jackson now is weighing his considerable business acumen against his love for the game. And it is unknown what effect the fate of two of the colt's felonious owners or input from Satish Sanan will have on the decision to race Curlin at four.
Right now, Curlin is a very good racehorse, an equine athlete that might be one of the game's all-time legendary performers. But he cannot yet be called great in a classic sense. The body of work is just not there. He didn't even race as a two-year-old. His campaign, the totality of his career, is nine months long. Never out of the money with six career victories, all of them graded, four of them Grade 1, he's run only nine times.
The right business decision is to retire the protem Horse of the Year safe and sound. As he's demonstrated all year, Curlin's bred for speed and power. His insurance premiums probably could feed some third world country. His handlers can demand outrageous stud fees and still fill his book. Jackson has made enough money in business to last several lifetimes. But he and his partners may never get a chance to race one like this again.
Breeders' Cup Bets N' Pieces:
Did the wet conditions skew the results? No, we got two worthy juvenile champions and a legendary sprint performer in the slop. And yes, because Dylan Thomas is much better than that... Shame on Patrick Biancone, a victim "tried and found guilty by the press." But the man who's been found guilty of medication violations on three continents had the nerve to show his face on the Monmouth backstretch, violating the spirit of his plea agreement. Props to Monmouth officials who asked him to leave... To no one's surprise, Breeders' Cup president Greg Avioli termed the two-day event a success. I will say this: After Friday's start, I found my anticipation for Saturday's races heightened.
Horses that prepped in New York won seven of Saturday's eight events. That won't happen in 2008 because of Cushion Track. And look for heightened European interest given that synthetic surface. So how did Polytrack preps play on a Breeders' Cup day? Still don't know, given the sloppy conditions. One word best described the community buzz surrounding New Jersey's first national thoroughbred event: Proud. The Equibase web-site got over a half-million visits on Breeders' Cup Friday and Saturday. Troubled industry, take heart.
Written by John Pricci
Saturday, October 27, 2007
A Championship Season: Breeders’ Cup 2007
Oceanport, New Jersey--Oct. 27, 2007
The idea of sport at its highest level is to win while the whole world is watching. It�s why they play the World Series, the Super Bowl and the NBA Finals. Final Four weekend with its Monday night championship defines our college hoop heroes and why, despite its occasional shortcomings, the BCS bowl format, exists.
Twenty four years ago, the late breeder John Gaines and Hall of Fame horseman Johnny Nerud figured it was about time for racing to jump into the championship pool and thus was the Breeders� Cup foaled. And until horse racing comes up with a point system, ala Nascar, titles will be won via a series of prestigious history rich fixtures culminating with the Breeders� Cup World Championships.
This year, the best American older horse in training book-ended the Saratoga Grade 1 calendar, running the Whitney faster than any horse in history ever had. The three-year-old class was distinguished. The unforgettable Derby winner, one that would win in Midsummer, too, was beaten with an unforgettable run rally by the Preakness winner. A filly won the Belmont and the Preakness winner would return to win the Jockey Club Gold Cup.
It is no wonder that Classic XXIV is in the conversation when the most competitive race of all time, much less Cup history, is referenced. And, once again, a champion was crowned.
All hail Curlin, Horse of the Year 2007. It was to be the glorious celebration of a great day, until George Washington sustained a catastrophic injury and had to be euthanized. Ironically, George Washington was bred by Roy and Gretchen Jackson�s Lael Stables, owners and breeders of the ill-fated Barbaro.
In the race, to paraphrase race caller Trevor Denman, it was all Curlin in the race of the year for the horse of the year.
Hard Spun, as is his custom, assumed command, shadowed closely by Lawyer Ron, who once again was too keen to rate, refusing to settle, chasing the leader around the first turn and into the backstretch. They in turn were chased by Monmouth�s Haskell winner, Any Given Saturday, as favorite Street Sense and Curlin bided their time.
As Hard Spun opened ground approaching the far turn, Cajun riders Robby Albarado and Calvin Borel matched strides with Curlin and Street Sense. Calvin was riding the rails, as is his custom, and Albarado was content to let him do that. Curlin had the momentum, out in the better footing, and his surge carried him past the remarkably fast and tough Hard Spun, and into racing history.
Street Sense floundered in third, remaining on the rail through the stretch, and was passed by eventual third finisher Awesome Gem in the shadow of the wire.
Seldom do performances equal the hype. But a 4-1/2 length victory in 2:00.59 when everything's on the line vindicates hyperbole. It was a good time for Steve Asmussen and Albarado to break their Breeders' Cup maidens. Both trainer and jockey made a memory in Classic XXIV, one they'll never forget.
It didn�t take long to crown a champion. Indian Blessing flaunted her noted speed, laying down the gauntlet and daring any challengers to test her. Break? She didn�t even bend. A To The Croft tried another tack, the late running filly chasing the pace on this day. Indian Blessing broke her spirit, leaving the entire field in her wake midway of the second turn.
Formerly undefeated Proud Spell led the second wave and she did better than �Croft.� Surging into second at headstretch, she continued very gamely but could not serious threaten. Backseat Rhythm, second to the winner in the Frizette, was a good third. The serious contenders breaking from outside posts were compromised. The victory was the fourth for Bob Baffert in the Breeders� Cup and was the third for jockey Garrett Gomez. One major event down, seven more to go.
Different sex; same result. A second champion was crowned when War Pass, taking a page from his own book as well as that of the Juvenile Fillies winner, led throughout under thrice winning Breeders� Cup rider Cornelio Velasquez to give trainer Nick Zito his second Breeders� Cup victory, his first in this race. Now, War Pass, undefeated in four starts, is certain to be named juvenile champion and--as of this minute--is the early favorite for the 2008 Kentucky Derby. Pyro finished second to War Pass for the third consecutive time, daylight in front of stablemate Kodiak Kowboy, who gamely withstood the late stretch challenge for third from Futurity winner Tale of Ekati. Seven in front at the eighth pole, War Pass cruised under the line by 4-� lengths in 1:42.76. By comparison, the fillies ran the same distance in 1:44.73, Indian Blessing�s winning margin was 3-� lengths.
FILLY & MARE TURF:
You�d think that these older turf horses would know better than to act like two-year-olds! But not Simply Perfect. It was the second, not the third turn, that took her by surprise. she bolted beneath John Murtagh and Arravale and Precious Kitten followed suit, effectively eliminating all three. The damage done, Simply Perfect was pulled up out of the race as Arravale and Precious Kitten got back into it, or tried to, anyway. While this nonsense was taking place, Argentina was leading the pack closely stalked by Lahudood. Briefly split by Timarwa at mid-turn, suddenly Passage of Time was appearing on the scene. But Lahudood found more, opening two lengths in midstretch before reaching the wire in 2:22.75 for the 11 furlongs. It was the first Breeders� Cup victory for young Alan Garcia, threatening to join the ranks of elite riders this year and did so here with his first ever Breeders� Cup ride. Kairan McLaughlin got his second. He trained a horse called Invasor to a Horse of the Year championship in last year�s Classic.
Bullet Bob on a roll! And now I know this. I had some concerns about his horse in the Sprint: too big I thought; drawn inside not a good thing I reason. Now I know something else: Midnight Lute, Super Beast. Yes, I was aware that he won the Grade 1 Forego at Saratoga as easily as horses win races. How could I miss that? I live across the street. But he�s more seven-eighths than three-quarters. Truth is, he�s everything he wants to be. He had no chance in midstretch. I was about to cash my first win ticket on Idiot Proof. Midnight Lute took the lead from the middle of the sloppy track with about 100 yards to go. Amazing that he won by nearly five! Midnight Lute, Super Beast. Bullet Bob, victory number two on the day; Gomez, ditto. Idiot Proof held second over a very game, hot-pace setting Talent Search. The winner�s margin was 4-� lengths, getting the distance in 1:09.18. All hail Midnight Lute, Super Beast; Sprint division champion of 2007!
Trips make the difference in turf races, as most fans know. But you knew it would be critical in the always contentious Mile--especially on soft ground. It�s just too tough to come from far off the pace--especially from post position 13 on a seven-furlong turf course. More than anything, it was position and trip that beat the Mile favorite, Excellent Art, and position and trip that won it for arguably America�s most accomplished miler, Kip Deville, who loved the soft ground. You thought maybe Rick Dutrow would get shut out at Monmouth Park on the big day? Or, for that matter, that Cornelio Velasquez would get his double? (Just kidding, wanted to see if you were paying attention). But you know something, he gave Kipper the perfect journey, getting the jump on the talented European favorite. Meanwhile, Johnny Velazquez, rode Nobiz Like Shobiz because Cornelio didn�t go down to Delaware to ride him in the Kent Stakes. (JV attempted a five-wide sweep on the soft, narrow course; never a good idea). For his part, Dutrow just keeps adding to his favorable Breeders� Cup mark; now 3-for-7. Enviable, indeed.
In this classic, it wasn�t so much post position as it was the going. Ginger Punch and Lear�s Princess closed as co-favorites at exactly 4.50-1. Ginger Punch loved the going, otherwise she wouldn�t have come again on the inside to outfight Hystericalady to the finish. Lear�s Princess hated it; dropping back with high climbing action first time by the stands. She was done before they had gone a quarter of a mile. But not Ginger Punch, who would not have run here if she had won the Beldame for her third consecutive Grade 1 score. It would have given her the championship. So Bobby Frankel rolled the dice, entered Ginger Punch, and it came up all good. Hystericalady was a game rival, battling the winner--actually bumping with the winner before getting bumped back--all the way to the line. Octave had the most difficult trip, coming from far back with a strong rally for third, eventually running out of racetrack. For Frankel, it was his fifth Breeders� Cup win. Rafael Bejarano was winning his second Cup race, both of them for the trainer of Ginger Punch.
Think English Channel likes the Monmouth course? Think Dylan Thomas, the only odds-on favorite on the day, hated the ground and doesn�t like to ship? That would be The Turf trifecta. Very seldom are 12-furlong races virtually over before the leader negotiates a half mile, but that was the case here. Tucked in neatly behind dueling leaders with Johnny Velazquez taking a strong hold, it was a matter of when the winner of the Grade 1 United Nations in his only two prior Monmouth starts would make his run. It came in earnest on the third turn of the marathon as he opened ground willingly into the stretch and never was in serious danger. Arc winner Dylan Thomas raced one-paced throughout in a poor performance that was not altogether unanticipated. A notorious poor shipper, he wants firm ground and an oval wider than seven furlongs. His effort extended Aidan O�Brien�s futile Breeders� Cup record to 3-for-43. Shamdinan was a remarkably game and surprising runnerup, holding off last year�s Turf winner, Red Rocks. The victory broke an 0-for-34 horse losing streak for Todd Pletcher. It was his first victory since he won with Ashado and Speightstown in 2004. English Channel, a 7-length winner of the 24th Turf, is certain to be voted champion turf horse at season�s end.
Written by John Pricci
Friday, October 26, 2007
Street Sense To Give Nafzger Derby-Classic Repeat
Oceanport, New Jersey--Oct. 26, 2007
Monmouth Park is one of America�s finest racetracks, and the $30 million fronted by the state looks good on her. Have to admit, though, it looks better in sunshine.
As this is written, it�s not raining, not yet, anyway. The chances that we�ll see precipitation is 70 percent today, 90 percent tomorrow.
Some horsemen probably won�t mind. Those whose horses move up in the wet conditions, and those whose horses don�t. The slop and a soft turf course are built-in excuses.
Carl Nafzger was saying the other day that all the horses in the race that will determine the 2007 Horse of the Year should handle the conditions; it�s a question of which of them it moves up.
This, of course, makes a difficult handicapping exercise nearly impossible. According to my projections using Equiform performance data, that top five horses in the Classic; Lawyer Ron, Street Sense, Curlin, Hard Spun and Any Given Saturday are separated by 1-� points.
Topping this extremely tight affair is a dead heat between Lawyer Ron and Street Sense. They earned figures of 81.25. The lowest was Hard Spun at 80.
Guess who figures to move up most in the wet conditions? Right, Hard Spun. An impossibly tight race got even tighter.
Here�s a look at Breeders� Cup Classic XXIV, in inverted post position order, 9 through 1:
He fits the historical profile for a three-year-old beautifully. The book says look for a late developing type that has been toughened up through the Triple Crown series. That suit fits perfectly, in fact. Defeated a respectable10 lengths in the Kentucky Derby after winning the Santa Anita Derby previously, he was an excellent third, cutting the Derby margin in half. After returning home to California to win the Swaps, he defeated older horses in the Grade 1 Goodwood. On figures, however, there�s just too much ground to make up.
8. Hard Spun:
One of several feel good stories in this wonderful three-year-old class, he�s fast, runs hard each and every time--except when Garrett Gomez didn�t allow him to on Long Island--he�s repeating his Polytrack to dirt pattern that worked so well in Kentucky when he finished in front of 18 rivals, all but Street Sense. He avenged that defeat in his Kentucky Cup Classic prep when allowed the easiest of leads. That shouldn�t be the case here, unless the riders of the four horses that figure to handle the 10 furlong route best allows him to. They had best keep their eyes on him, especially in wet footing.
7. Diamond Stripes:
Sometimes, the horse touts you. Trainer Rick Dutrow, and just about everyone else, thought this late developing four-year-old (8) 5-0-3 was very well suited to the newly created Dirt Mile. But after his final five-furlong workout at Aqueduct of :59 1/5, termed breezing, Dutrow said he wasn�t going to duck anyone with $5-million up for grabs. In our view, we�ll stay with the racetrack adage that you never duck one horse. I have no problem with ducking two. Ducking five is a bit much no matter how well you think your horse is doing.
6. Awesome Gem:
Nice horse. Second by a nose to Tiago in his Goodwood prep, he also finished second to Student Council in the Pacific Classic and Sun Boat in the San Diego Handicap, his last three starts. I try not to be too dogmatic about these things, but I do have one rule: A nice horse doesn�t beat a good horse.
5. George Washington:
A sensational European three-year-old, he was retired prematurely to stud, but there was a problem. He didn�t like the work. Since returning to his day job, he�s been beaten an aggregate 4-� lengths in Group 1 company, a schedule designed by Aidan O�Brien to bring him up to this as fresh as possible. O�Brien is no fool. He knows how to win a Breeders� Cup race and he knows what he�s up against here. But he also trains for high profile connections that want to play the international stage. Before you dismiss him out of hand, know that he was beaten 7 lengths by eventual Horse of the Year Invasor in this race last year.
Time to cut to the chase and take a stand. I loved his Jockey Club Gold Cup. He was monstrous despite the fact he was coming off a dull effort in his previous start. But he trained well for the JCGC and outfinished a multiple Grade 1-winning older horse to the finish. That horse, Lawyer Ron, is today�s early favorite. The problem with Curlin is that the dull effort came over the Monmouth strip, one which he had difficulty handling. Normally a smooth, long striding horse, his action was high and not as fluid. In a race where there is zero margin for error, it seems unwise to think his recent familiarity with the course will help him negotiate it any better. And as for the wet track�
3. Any Given Saturday:
Talk about late developing three-year-olds. No? Then how about a horse for a course? In this colt, you get both. After a foot bruise contributed to his 10 length loss in the Derby, he was recycled by Todd Pletcher and came back to win the Dwyer explosively in very fast time. He proved it was no aberration and that he had raised his game when he shipped into Monmouth and emerged with a decisive Haskell victory at the direct expense of Hard Spun and Curlin. His Brooklyn victory over older horses is hard to read. The race developed in a strange way with longshot Tasteyville stealing off to a long lead, Garrett Gomez seemingly confused as whether to chased the leader or take back. He seemed to do a little of both. How that sets him up for today is unclear but his prior Monmouth victory could prove a huge plus.
2. Street Sense:
On Monday, I whittled this impossible Classic down to two horses, this one and Lawyer Ron. On Tuesday, after this colt worked, I jumped off the fence and on to his bandwagon. If his five furlong breeze in 1:01 1/5 over the track wasn�t the BEST workout I�ve ever seen, it�s in the conversation. His super-strong finish was accomplished while Calvin Borel sat absolutely still. He galloped out seven furlongs in 1:25 and change and a mile in less than 1:39. It was extraordinary. Upon dismounting, Borel said to a smiling Nafzger: �He got over this track like he gets over Churchill.� Case closed. He�s been superbly managed. Nafzger�s work this colt would have been enough for his inclusion into the Hall of Fame even if there weren�t an Unbridled. Street Sense runs turns extremely well and Borel rides him accordingly. The pace will be solid and 10 furlongs is this colt�s best game. He deserves to go home a champion.
1. Lawyer Ron:
Any Given Saturday is not Pletcher�s only late developer in this Classic. The best older horse in training bolted to prominence by running nine furlongs in Saratoga faster than any horse ever had. For emphasis, he returned in the Woodward and, in it�s way, that effort was even more impressive. Finding an explosive second gear in midstretch, he left his competition reeling. He was more than 8 lengths in front at the finish. His JCGC was clearly no disgrace. Ridden a bit indecisively, he alternated on the lead in moderate fractions, allowing his rivals to jump into the fray. The wide expanse of Belmont Park and the 10-furlong distance, perfect for Curlin, compromised this high-speed cruiser. Two turns will suit him better here and he�s 2-for-2 when the track is wet. Street Sense and the other classy sophomores will have their work cut out.
Selection: 1. Street Sense 2. Lawyer Ron 3. Any Given Saturday. 4. Curlin
Best Of The Best: Lear's Princess (Distaff)
Written by John Pricci