Monday, December 30, 2013


The Triple Crown Strikes Back


The new year is fast approaching, as they always do, faster with every year. We are riding a turbulent ascent toward May 3rd. This is the second year of the Kentucky Derby Points System. Hard to believe it’s only the second year of this system, controversial as it was and is.

Add to that the New York Racing Association bumped the purse to the Belmont Stakes 50 percent to $1.5 million. An argument can be made that the Triple Crown races are so prestigious that they need no purse increase. Twenty horses will start the Kentucky Derby if they were running for nothing more than two free movie passes.

As it stands, the Derby sits at $2 million, the Preakness at $1.5 million and the Belmont at $1.5 million. That’s all well and good. These three races in five weeks are an ideal narrative building window, or the continuation thereof.

The Triple Crown, in essence, is the middle movie in a blockbuster trilogy. It leaves us with the most uncertainty and, by the end, leaves us gripping the couch cushions saying, “Darth Vadar was once capable of intercourse!”

The first movie is the run up to the Derby, a five-month slow burn where 20 teenagers slowly begin to rise from their foal crops like Oklahoma Training Track fog. They rise from all corners of the country, a true national championship. A win in Kentucky almost assures the colt championship honors. It literally took months for Orb to shake his Derby sheen.

They race in Kentucky, Florida, California, Arkansas, Louisiana, New York and New Mexico for a shot to be the only horse alive to be the 12th Triple Crown winner.

Largely we’re lucky to see big fields in all the Triple Crown races. The money’s nice—there’s only so many $1 million races on a calendar—but the prestige is priceless. What we lack is a continuity between all races, something we actually had an abundance of in 2013, something that fed the greater part of the racing calendar.

In 2013, Orb, Will Take Charge and Oxbow ran in all three Triple Crown races when, as recent precedent has indicated, they had no incentive to run in more than two. So many trainers—at the behest of clients, mind you—throw all their eggs into the porous Derby basket.

It’s no coincidence that the handlers of these three horses—Shug McGaughey and D. Wayne Lukas—are old timers who like to see their racehorses, I don’t know, race. More so with the latter of this pair, for sure.

The Derby got 16.2 million viewers. The Preakness, with a Triple Crown contender on the rise, got 9.7 million sets of eyes. The Belmont, even without a Triple Crown hopeful, got 7.0 million people tuning in. That doesn’t include the 200,000 or so who attended the races. So 32.9 million watched the three-year-olds over that five-week span. Nearly 33 million people saw Orb, Oxbow and Will Take Charge run 31.5 furlongs.

That only made them more interesting as they went about their summer campaigns. Orb would take most of the summer off, but Oxbow made it as far as the Haskell before retiring with an injury. Will Take Charge just got better and better and should be Horse of the Year.

While it’s nice to see the Belmont’s purse jump in value, the real incentive should be on getting more Derby entrants to run in the Preakness, then the more Derby and Preakness entrants to run in the Belmont. That can be a purse incentive like NYRA has for field size with grass races, or two-turn dirt races. To apply it here would mean the more Derby runners in the Preakness, the more dough gets doled out. And with the VLTs subsidizing much of the purse structure in New York, the Belmont’s purse incentives could be—and should be—substantial to a sound horse running in all three legs.

Derby runners get preference to starting spots in the Preakness. Derby and Preakness runners get preference for the Belmont.

With 33 million eyes watched three colts run in all three legs in 2013, that builds an interest in the athlete that makes for a profitable viewing experience as the season heads into Saratoga, fall Belmont and the Breeders’ Cup.

Story lines don’t necessarily pay out at the window, but they get people off their butts and to the track (and, let’s face it, don’t you want some of that “dumb” money pumping dough into underlays?). It’s win win!

Written by Brendan O'Meara

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Wednesday, December 25, 2013


In Memoriam: Summer Bird


On Christmas Day, the Internet is a lot like a Chinese restaurant: Open.

I woke, startled, at 7 AM not by reindeer, not by Santa, not by my snoring spouse, but by the stark realization that Carryover Clause needs to deliver a sleigh full of Christmas invective.

What’s this? Horse racing stands below the mistletoe. Let’s give it a wet smooch, especially to the memory of the too-young Summer Bird.

I joked, and perhaps it was in poor taste, but, hey, it’s kind of how I roll, that Summer Bird kicked it because he couldn’t stomach the idea of a Mine That Bird movie. But then even “stomach” was a tad insensitive since he died of colic, that horrible gastrointestinal disease.

Summer Bird won the Belmont Stakes for Tim Ice, the oft-neglected trainer from 2009. Ice stood in the shadows at Saratoga while Steve Asmussen hosted daily powwows for Rachel Alexandra. Chip Woolley crutched around the grounds and paraded his Derby winner, Mine That Bird, on the track. Meanwhile, all the while, was Ice, prepping his strapping colt for the Haskell and Travers.

He finished a distant second to Rachel in the Haskell and he went on to validate Rachel’s win by kicking tail in the Travers. I remember watching the Travers with Charlie Hayward and Hal Handel. Handel said, “Summer Bird just won the Travers and Rachel Alexandra killed him in the Haskell. How good is Rachel Alexandra!?”

Summer Bird looked like Curlin: A tall, thick chestnut cut from a championship silk. Ice let him graze by the stakes barn while he sipped on an extra large cup of Dunkin’ Donuts coffee, a cigarette blazing from his lips.

There was the hope, as is the hope every year, that the three winners of Triple Crown races will square off in the Travers. It almost never happens. Someone always gets hurt. That year Mine That Bird had surgery and Rachel wanted to play jail bait to the older horses.

It was a great meet where great horses carried with them the hopes of their previously anonymous handlers.

Summer Bird then handled older horses like Quality Road, Macho Again and Dry Martini. He finished a game fourth in the Breeders’ Cup Classic to the Big Mare, lacking that cracking turn of foot in the final 200 yards to enter immortality or be relegated to history’s footnotes.

Summer Bird was born on April 7, 2006, a late-bloomer by Birdstone, out of Hong Kong Squall. He was in Japan when he came down with colic.

The Ghost of Christmas Past harbors the memories of our horses’ greatest achievements. We spend so much of our time beating down the present day. Much of it is deserved because there’s ineptitude that must bask in the light. T’is the season to do better, to be better.

Largely, where it matters, on the dirt, on the grass, where the Summer Birds of our time go to work, we’re left with the thrill of their violent collisions with the earth, propelling them forward, onward.

Merry something-or-other!


Written by Brendan O'Meara

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Monday, December 23, 2013


Mine That Bird Rises


When rumors flared that there would be a movie about Mine That Bird, I was at first amused, then angry, then a little hungry, then confused, but ultimately a bit intrigued. Sadly, for the movie, its most famous actor, if you want to call him that, is Calvin Borel, who will be playing the only thing he knows how to play: Himself.

The trailer for “50 to 1”, unlike the great horse racing movies "Seabiscuit" and "Secretariat", puts the emphasis not on the horse but on the wacky bandits who somehow managed to get Shrek’s donkey to the Derby. The trailer shows the transformation of a once-bipedal Chip Woolley triangulate his lower limbs. It shows the meeting of Woolley and Mark Allen, one of the principle owners of Mine That Bird. Allen famously came to Woolley’s aid in a barroom fight. Joy to the world.

Much was made about how Woolley drove Mine That Bird to the Derby himself. This made every reporter’s head explode in the media room after the 2009 Derby. Woolley was getting pretty annoyed by the end. He said he had a nice truck. It wasn’t like he pedaled a rickshaw from New Mexico.

50 to 1 has the makings of a modern-day bromance. The dominant image on the promotional poster isn’t of the horse, but of Woolley. But really, the undercurrent of the whole story is the fate of a sport. Horse racing is a long shot and far from an overlay too. Horse racing is Mine That Bird: 50 to 1 and having a hard time winning another race.

Here’s the description as IMDB would have you read it: A misfit group of New Mexico cowboys find themselves on the journey of a lifetime when their crooked-footed racehorse qualifies for the Kentucky Derby. Based on the inspiriting true story of Mine That Bird, the cowboys face a series of mishaps on their way to Churchill Downs, becoming the ultimate underdogs in a final showdown with the world’s racing elite.

People do love an underdog story. This wasn’t so much an underdog story, but a fluke, but maybe that’s all underdog stories at their core. Do you really expect Average Joe’s to beat Globo Gym in a best of seven series in dodge ball? Let's be real here.

You’ll be hard-pressed to find a recognizable actor in the film. I only knew Skeet Ulrich, who plays the handle-bar-mustachioed Woolley, from “Scream” in 1996. He’s been in 33 other projects as a middling actor. William Devane, playing Leonard Doc Blach, is the most accomplished of the cast, spending most of his time in television, but also playing one mean presidential role in “The Dark Knight Rises”, a man after my heart.

The Mine That Bird story, or, at the very least, the year of the story took place, was a year I was deeply embedded in several narratives. I went to the Derby on my own dime as the paper I was working for told me not to go. Pish posh. I stood in the winner’s circle to watch the Derby and along came this pony-sized horse with 2007’s Derby-winning jockey in the irons with a grin on his face wider than a horse’s rump.

Mine That Bird sneaked through on the fence and, contrary to what Borel later told reporters, he pointed his whip right at my heart, not his fiancées, as he galloped past all the blue bloods. I’d be fired two weeks later and following a filly that would win more than one race after that first weekend in May. I’d also be following Mine That Bird and Summer Bird, neighbors in the Saratoga Stakes Barn, sired by the same Birdstone, but couldn’t look more different. Brothers, sort of.

I witnessed the sneaky exodus of Mine That Bird leaving Saratoga at 2 AM on a warm, star-lit night after the Travers (which he scratched from due to a throat problem). The only sound you could hear was the groaning Brookledge van and Woolley’s crutches clicking down the shedrow with Mine That Bird patiently walking by his side.

“Seabiscuit”, the movie based on the book, had a star cast and drew in $148,336,445 (this on an $87 million budget) at the box office. “Secretariat” ($60,251,371 on a $35 million budget), the movie based loosely on the book, also a star cast, was also a success. You’d think this country has a hunger for all things horse racing. Not a fraction of those people will set foot on a racetrack. Many of those people don’t realized the greater racing world beyond the Derby and that’s one of the great many failures of the horse racing biz.

What’s the over-under on what “50 to 1” brings in? I’d set it $30 million.

Still, somehow, against all odds, horse racing movies keep getting green lit, people keep watching them. I keep watching them. They’re the most immersive horse racing experience. Maybe if the industry can find a way to make the dozens of races a day feel as immersive as a movie, it has the potential to be something worth following and, ultimately, worth gambling on.

But maybe why the movie’s do so well is people get to watch them in the dark, a guilty pleasure, out of the light.

Written by Brendan O'Meara

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