Tuesday, February 28, 2012


‘Union’s’ inception


Since when is 6-5 a helluva deal at the windows? When it’s Union Rags, the best two-year-old in the country in 2011 when he makes his 2012, sophomore debut.

I watched the replay to the Grade 2 Fountain of Youth and saw a 4-5 favorite on or close to the lead the entire time. I kept thinking, that’s not Union Rags, because he certainly would be the favorite in every race he runs, right? No, there he rated, three to four lengths off Discreet Dancer, that 4-5 favorite.

Union Rags showed why he’s on top of most horseplayer and turf writer Top 10s. He rated, Barbaro style, Big Brown style, Animal style (In-and-Out Burger reference), just off the pace, then Julien Leparoux gave him reign and let the big bay uncork the bubbly.

“I’m just so happy right now,” Matz told Daily Racing Form. “Julien said he didn’t even touch him with the whip. He did everything on his own. And when he said it was ‘time to go’ he [Union Rags] said okay and just went beautifully. He’s such a smart horse, so easy on himself for such a big horse. I didn’t know after four months if he could do this. I couldn’t be more pleased.”

The turn of foot he exhibited vaulted him into a special category of Derby contender, the kind when you can’t wait for their next start. I can’t say that for many horses this year. Hansen intrigues, but nobody thinks he has that classic-style stamina needed to win at 10 furlongs. (I was looking forward to seeing Hansen decked out like a stock car, but NYRA stewards squashed that.)

The Fountain of Youth broke a promise when Holy Bull winner Algorithms scratched with a splint injury to his right front. Can’t fault the horse, though it would’ve been nice to see the two most exciting Derby contenders.

Union Rags proved, in a loss to eventual Champion Juvenile Hansen in the Breeders’ Cup, he was the best of his generation … early on, by traveling approximately 70 feet farther than Hansen en route to losing by a few whiskers. Trips, what can you say?

Union Rags did something Uncle Mo couldn’t do a year ago at this time: inspire a certain measure of awe. Uncle Mo made his three-year-old debut in a tailor-made ungraded stake against Rattlesnake Bridge and a cast other allowance horses that would get laughed off a B-movie set. Union Rags debuted in a Grade 2.

The prep season has yet to warm; it would make the Abominable Snowman reach for a blanket. But I just watched “Inception” for the second time and I have a feeling Union Rags just planted the idea that this year’s Triple Crown may be worth watching after all.
(Sidebar: I think I know what happens with “Inception” now. Might have to watch it a third time and reach deep into the third dream state. The parallels are too perfect. Is this column a projection of my self-conscious? Who’s dream am I in? Yours? Whoa. When does the new “Batman” come out?)

Union Rags has reached Level One of the dream state. He still needs to reach a deeper level of our collective unconsciousness, two, maybe three levels, but he’s there, turning the combination to our safes.

Our totems spin and wobble. Sure, Union Rags can play the leading man, he can be Leonardo Di Caprio. “The Beach” or “Inception”?

He’s diving deep, planting the idea, and I’m beginning to believe.

Brendan O'Meara rocks 140 characters on Twitter.


Written by Brendan O'Meara

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Tuesday, February 21, 2012


Spread the word


I’ve got to say, I was pretty psyched when I received my Maker’s Mark barrel dedication certificate. Barrel No. 804410. And get this: it already has a personality—Well-rounded with a distinct character. Sound like anyone you know? It all comes with the territory of being an ambassador for Maker’s Mark.

And in our endless plight to spread the bounty of a good horse race, the game we either love or indifferently follow, seeks ways to recruit new fans. Always. Night racing? Good idea. Kegasus? Awesome idea. Cameras on the ground? Terrible use of pixels.

The game tries to be its own ambassador and in its inability to empower its electorate it falls somewhere less-than-tall. The sport should consider it a victory if it loses zero fans over the course of a year. Breaking even is a win. So what if it reached out to its die-hards? Its gamblers? Its horse lovers, and give them a big hug? Even give them a sweet barrel dedication certificate and business cards.

I tell you, all I want to do is spread the gospel of good bourbon and all it took was a good buzz and a cool piece of paper I value more than my high school and both college diplomas (with none of the debt!).

I will happily pass out my Maker’s Mark business cards and tell party goers Maker’s uses walnut bungs. Many other distillers use a soft bung, but no, not Maker’s. Soft bungs can “swell up and when wet can only be removed by cutting them out, making any sampling of the bourbon difficult at best.” Enough about bung.

Horse racing needs to adopt a similar program that empowers its loyal followers. Make them happy and they will spread the word. My friend who got me into racing back in 2002 merely stumbled upon Saratoga. Where would we be had he not found this diamond in a haystack? Had he not we’d likely be successful business tycoons cut from the mold of Barney Stinson. But instead we traveled down less awesome paths … or did we? We’ll explore this in another column.

Ambassadors will get two dozen complimentary past performances and vouchers for each newbie they bring to the track. They will receive honorary diplomas for the preservation of the game they love. They will be honored with exclusive parties. They will be made to feel like the Kings and Queens they are because without ambassadors, without people waving the pride banner, where will the sport be?

The answer is painfully clear: it will continue to lose its base and a sport with its base cannot stand.

Now, where’s that red wax-dipped bottle? It’s about that time for some charred American white oak-colored brownest of the brown. To quote Homer Simpson from when the “Simpsons” was actually funny, “They looked deep within my soul and assigned me a number based on the order in which I joined.”

That’s all from Ambassador 762,589.

Brendan O'Meara is the author of Six Weeks in Saratoga and he totally gets his tweet on.

Written by Brendan O'Meara

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Tuesday, February 14, 2012


Let ‘Luck’ Live


"Luck" is about the only thing interesting in the racing biz these days, and sadly, I can't watch it. I don't have HBO … and it airs past my bedtime. The Derby trail is about as interesting as talking about who will win next year's Super Bowl. Too soon to tell.

I love the reaction of the industry insiders to the show. Some spout how great it is, just read Daily Racing Form's Andrew Beyer's review from a few weeks ago. In it he glows that it's "authentic." From what I hear, I agree. His perspective is that of a horse player and that's how he opens his piece, diving headlong into a live Pick 6 ticket. Whatever that's like, I'll never know, but there's a magnet we're all attracted to and the horse player has his Pick 6.

Then there's the other side, the folks who don't like it. The folks would be insulted by the way horse racing is depicted on the screen. Enter the legendary syndicate maven, Dogwood's Cot Campbell. His fear, and looking at the view from his chair, is understandable, but I feel a bit unreasonable. His fear is that the subtext, jargon, and depiction of "Luck's" horse racing culture is far too abrasive to bring in new fans.

"Thoroughbred racing is certainly in need of exposure - other than Derby time - but I cannot drum up any enthusiasm for the material that is being provided by this new Sunday night cable series," he writes. "Heavily reviewed and promoted, it is being seen by a great many people. And, if I were a novice, and got a glimpse of Luck, I would not want to go anywhere near a racetrack. And, also, if I were a novice, I would also not know what the hell the characters were talking about."

The show's creator, David Milch, has loved the racetrack his whole life and sees it for what it is: a cross section of character. It's even a little racy, a little dodgy, a bit unwholesome. Heck, Mount Doom was no picnic for Frodo, but every hamlet needs a shadow.

Mr. Campbell proceeds, “Dogwood Stable through the years has brought about 1,200 new people into racing. But, if these people had been exposed to the HBO series Luck, that number would not have totaled 200.”

Since Dogwood’s founding in 1969—a span of 43 years—it has brought a total of 27.9 new owners to the sport every year. Impressive. But I doubt “Luck” will have any influence over new skin buying into a share of the next big stud. There’s something to be said of the person who has enough scratch to buy a horse: they’ll buy one no matter what. It’s ego, even if it is a transparent cry for attention.

Everybody is always trying to fix the sport. But it needs to embrace its menial place in the landscape of American popularity. The people who already like it will pass it on. They are your ambassadors. Embrace them and the sport will float on inches above the ground.

In life there are winners and there are losers. Losing is okay; it's the only way to measure winning. Horse racing puts food on the tables of a few very wealthy folks, but for everyone else it’s as seedy as “Luck” presumably makes it out to be.

Still, doesn’t the bad boy always get the girl?

Just sayin’.

Brendan O'Meara tweets.

Written by Brendan O'Meara

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