Monday, December 02, 2013

Taking Charge of Destiny

I’ve spent the past few weeks railing against the racing schedule post-Breeders’ Cup. It appears to be a movement, ala Post Modernism. But if there was ever a weekend that justified racing after the Breeders’ Cup it was this past one. And it made one heck of an argument.

Up until Saturday Will Take Charge was likely on the short list for Champion Three-Year-Old. A loss would’ve made him a footnote in the race for an Eclipse. A win cemented it

Connections have little reason to run after the Breeders’ Cup, especially if the horses ran well. Will Take Charge ran 11 times in 2013 going all the way back to January 21 when he won the Smarty Jones Stakes at Oaklawn.

He finished sixth in the Southwest and, four weeks later, won the Rebel. His trainer, D. Wayne Lukas, did what in hindsight, won his colt an Eclipse: He rested WTC for seven weeks leading up to the Kentucky Derby.

During that time, from Mar. 16 to May 4, many horses ran at least one more race. But even at the time, it didn’t look like a brilliant program. WTC ran in all the Triple Crown races finishing eighth, seventh and 10th in Louisville, Baltimore and New York. That rest appeared to have backfired.

But some horses need time to grow and the Triple Crown strengthened Will Take Charge. He’d never finish worse than second the rest of the way. Second to Palace Malice in the Jim Dandy. Second to Mucho Macho Man in the Classic. Won the Travers. Won the PA Derby. Won the Clark.

“A damn good horse … ” Lukas said after the race. “(As a 2-year-old) he was a big, rangy horse that was still trying to find himself. We did the right thing. We had him pointed to the Kentucky Derby and I’ll go to my grave believing that we could have won the Kentucky Derby. After that, it set him back a little – that little trip in the Derby didn’t equate very good to the Preakness and the Belmont, which came up bang-bang. But then we had a little time to get him right again. I’d like to run the Kentucky Derby over again. With all respect to Shug (McGaughey) and Orb and Stuart (Janney) and Dinny (Phipps) but I really think we had a great shot at it that day.”

As we’ve seen a horse doesn’t have to be the best to win the Derby, he just has to be good enough that day, not to mention lucky. See Orb, Super Saver and Mine That Bird. Nobody confuses any of these horses with elite three-year-olds. Sometimes a true champ wins the Derby, but more often than not champion three-year-old is awarded to the rolling boil, not a flash in the pan.

What made Will Take Charge’s run to champion three-year-old special is this: He never won a Triple Crown race. You’d have to go back to Tiznow in 2000 to find the last three-year-old to win the Eclipse without winning a Triple Crown race. On that list, there are only six Derby winners. Of those six Derby winners, five won the Derby and Preakness (I’ll Have Another, Big Brown, Smarty Jones, Funny Cide and War Emblem). Tiznow never ran in the Triple Crown at all.

Prior to Tiznow, there’s Charismatic, Silver charm, Real Quiet and Holy Bull, all horses who won at least one Triple Crown race. Skip Away and Tiznow mark the only two dating back 1996 that won the Eclipse without winning roses, susans, or carnations.

Will Take Charge—like Skip Away before him—had to shed the weight of having lost all three Triple Crown races (no small task given how heavy the voters lean on those classics).

It appears he has Champion Three-Year-Old locked up and he’s tied for second with Game On Dude for the second most wins in 2013—five. And WTC has beaten Game On Dude twice head-to-head. In the Horse of the Year running, only Wise Dan and Princess of Sylmar have more wins than Will Take Charge with six.

Were it not for racing after the Breeders’ Cup, Will Take Charge may have been empty-handed come Eclipse time. Thanks to his owner and his trainer, he may leave with two pieces of hardware.

They saw their destiny was in their hands and they ran with it. Boy, did they.

Written by Brendan O'Meara

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Wednesday, November 27, 2013

Evolution of a Game

The past couple of weeks there has been no shortage of complaints on the grid iron. When Ahmad Brown, a 49ers linebacker, was flagged for a personal foul by hitting Drew Brees, New Orleans’ quarterback, you might have thought a supernova went off.

NFL analysts, namely Ray Lewis and Teddy Bruschi, flew off the handle saying they’d pay half of Brown’s fine, should there be one. Many radio hosts spoke about how the football they once knew is no longer recognizable with the game they see today. And that’s the point.

The NFL focuses on player safety so players aren’t drooling with dementia at age 50. The NFL paid out nearly $800 million to former players (a bargain, really) to show its commitment to head injuries and the beatings its players take and have taken.

Football is different. The fanatics will watch no matter what and complain from Sunday to Thursday. The NFL wants to grow. It runs the risk of losing fans when the next Junior Seau puts a shotgun to his chest.

Mike Greenberg, co-host of Mike & Mike in the Morning, said that boxing, baseball and horse racing used to be king in this country. Those three sports have changed little over the years, have failed to evolve. Fan bases erode either by lack of interest or death. There’s no longer a foundation on which to build a base.

The Leaning Tower of Pisa is popular for its colossal mistake.

Baseball, at last, is starting to evolve with instant replay, and as it gets with the times and cleans up its game, it will come around with fresh blood. Fathers and sons will always play catch. I'm writing a memoir about it.

What has horse racing failed to do? Well, you see, the original 95 Thesis Martin Luther nailed to the door of the All Saints Church were about his problems with horse racing. And you thought it was about the kick start of the Protestant Reformation. Or, since we know the sport has its inconsistencies and issues with customer service, what would be the true way to attract new fans, or, at the very least, not lose the few it has? Just like the NFL, it’s all about athlete safety.

Reading the comments from the reprint of Paul Moran’s Nightmare in the Daytime, there are a few who cannot watch a stretch drive again. How many fans at Saratoga lost their lunch and gained a new distaste for this game when Charmed Hour was a dead horse hobbling this summer? I escorted three of those people home that day.

We all know that horses will break down the same way football players will still get concussions.

Horses and jockeys need more protection, more oversight. Horses should run less, not more (we’re already used to this with the elite horses). Should they run no more than 12 times a year? About once a month? No more than three breezes a month? It sounds preposterous to suggest horses run less, but maybe they'll run better. And maybe without the hustle to fill a card with tired horses and five-horse fields, maybe running less will lead to larger fields and better wagering opps.

More stringent and tighter reins could help the health of the horses and, as a result, the jockeys. A safer sport attracts people. And when horses are involved, those people will likely be women. Even the NFL knows how to attract young women (who will be mothers and who will have to make the choice whether they want their children playing this violent game).

Things to think about over Thanksgiving.

Track Life, great over coffee

Here’s a little review of Juliet Harrison’s Track Life: Images and Words. Harrison is an equine photographer and shoots largely in the black and white. She’s more of a pure artist and with her latest coffee table book, published by Paper Trail Press, she paired up words to her images.

That’s right, words, then images. She enlisted a stable of writers to craft a mirco-essay. She then paired an image to that essay.

I have essay in the book, the lead essay, as it were (I think this is because I was the first to make deadline.). It’s titled “The Athlete”. My one issue, if there is one, is the image paired with my piece. Mine is about the swift athleticism of this horse I witnessed and Harrison paired my essay with a horse walking the shedrow. Maybe she wanted to get a sense of the horse cooling out? I’m not sure, but it’s a wonderful book with stories from Marion Altieri, Marylou Whitney, Tad Richards and many, many more.

Written by Brendan O'Meara

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Monday, November 25, 2013

Verrazano’s Odd-yssey

SARATOGA SPRINGS, NY, November, 25, 20`3--In trying to buff a shine on the weeks following the Breeders’ Cup, perhaps a logical way of assessing these end times of 2013 is to neither call it an epilogue, nor coda, but more of a stud’s last stand. Let’s call it The Verrazano Redemption.

The Cigar Mile looks as fun and interesting as any race on the entire 2013 calendar. Shame it’s after the Breeders’ Cup, but that’s a shame and an advantage these days. A shame because a race of this magnitude deserves better billing in the playoff picture leading up to the BC. An advantage because, despite running four weeks after the Super Bowl of Horse Racing, it provides a well-attended field to an otherwise time of year when you may ask why-should-I-even-watch-horse-racing-at-this-time-of-year?

For a casual fan, not many will care. For racing media, numbered as it is, it’s some extra log for the fire. For owners, it’s one last stab at proving their horse is worth selling out. This is Verrazano’s Last Stand.

Sadly for him it’ll be like Custer,s Last Stand, so aptly sketched by Gary Larson, creator of Far Side.

Verrazano is and will always be a two-turn fraud. He’s big. He’s imposing. But he’s also like a flashy wide receiver who only runs deep posts, won’t run over the middle and dogs it when it matters (no horse truly “dogs” it; it’s what I love about horses, that they always run their hardest).

This is a race for black type and Verrazano needs it more than anyone in this field. Verrazano fit the Todd Pletcher Profile of Three-Year-Olds. He was precocious and unbeaten—and un-raced—heading into his sophomore year.

This last note, to me, is the stamp Pletcher wants to have on his legacy, that he can win a Derby with a horse that didn’t race at two. The Sheiks want to win a Derby training their way in Dubai, then ship. Pletcher’s mentor, Wayne Lukas, changed horse racing forever by shipping his horses all over the country. Pletcher must be looking for his stamp and trying to win a Derby with horses debuting at three may be his. It’s never happened.

Verrazano won his maiden special weight on New Year’s Day. A month later he won an allowance and in start No. 3 he won the Tampa Bay Derby. He handled the Wood Memorial too, where he circumvented a very slow pace. All Verrazano did was win horse races—and lure horse players into taking their money.

Looking back, given his precocity, the owners must be thinking they could’ve done something special with him as a two-year-old, maybe banked a couple million with a Champagne, a Juvy, maybe even a Remsen since he would like Aqueduct enough. But we don’t choose these things; they choose us.

Verrazano was 4-0 heading into the Derby. He had those fresh legs that only a horse that hadn’t run at two can boast. Then he finished 16th.
Then we didn’t see him for a while. The Derby was his Iliad; he was lost, beaten, separated from his herd, captured by seductive nymphs. Seriously, how did the Greeks lose? What with Achilles and all? (Is Pletcher Achilles? All powerful, but with one weakness: An immense and ungodly amount of sensitivity located specifically below his soleus and above his heal?)

How would Verrazano come back from it? Where would his odyssey take him? He found micro-tests in Monmouth where he meddled with a cast of creatures like the Cyclops Polyphemus, blinding him, but in so doing pissing off Poseidon (10 furlong races?) who then destroyed his ship (any chance at an Eclipse?).

A win in the Cigar Mile may be a small triumph over Calyspo (Groupie Doll?), in a race home (Kentucky?) to Penelope (mare, after mare, after mare?).

Here we were knockin’ on Verrazano. He’s had it figured out from Day 1.

Written by Brendan O'Meara

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