Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Course Corrections

When Saratoga ends, it’s a bit like the morning after a good party: beer cans crushed on the floor, toppled Solo cups rest under the futon, a chicken clucks in the kitchen, and who is that vagrant on the couch? It’s like a night in Vegas. Now we try to pick up the pieces and make sense of what happened the night before.

Take three Aleve, a Glacier Freeze Gatorade, and some Sonic tator tots, we’ve got some work to do.

It’s less than two months to the greatest betting weekend in horse racing. We’ve already won, and we’re in. Except, of course, we’ll lose. Let’s not fool ourselves. You’re not as good of a handicapper as you think you are. In fact you’re worse. Trust me on this one, as the champion of bad handicapping. I feel your pain, just come on out and admit that you’re in denial. (How about that all-grade 1 Pick 4 for Jockey Club Gold Cup Day? Did I say we sucked? We’re AWESOME! Let’s roll!)

One of the more interesting horses that will undoubtedly run in the wrong race come Breeders’ Cup is the Dale Romans-trained Shackleford. He’ll run in the Classic, but he should take on Twirling Candy and Uncle Mo in the Dirt Mile.

Shackleford has just one win in his last five starts. Granted they were all Grade 1s (Florida Derby, Kentucky Derby, Preakness Stakes, Haskell Invitational, and Travers Stakes), but let’s look at the facts.

The Florida Derby he came in fresh and unknown and nearly stole it from Dialed In. He then set a friendly pace in the Kentucky Derby, dug in with guts but faded to fourth. The Forestry colt then does the same in the Preakness Stakes, only this time he hangs on, head low, to beat a tired Animal Kingdom. The Belmont Stakes watched him finish fifth.

Into the summer he ran, rated kindly in the Haskell, but was collared by then-golden boy Coil at the wire. Could it be that nine furlongs felt long to Shackleford? Maybe at this time of year with all those races, nine furlongs feels more like the Dirt Marathon. Let’s run 200 yards farther ...

He gets swallowed up bad in the Travers, practically backed up and had Romans scratching his noodle. Shackleford looked worse than Matthew Fox.

There are three three-year-olds who will finish ahead of him in the Breeders’ Cup Classic right now. Why take that chance? As it stands, now there is doubt about his ability to get the distance. If you retire him from races over a mile, you have the benefit of the doubt that he could always get it. After all, he won the Preakness and beat the Derby winner. The problem is that he followed up those efforts with a fifth, second, and eighth place effort in races of 12, nine, and 10 furlongs. His resume is looking worse than A.J. Burnett’s.

If his connections dialed him back to a mile they could use that high cruising speed to outlast his competition. He’d be running against Uncle Mo, who ran hard in the King’s Bishop, but will likely be making his third start of a long layoff, assuming he comes out of the Kelso in good order.

Options for Shackleford to prep for the Breeders’ Cup are not in his favor unless his connections choose to turn him back. His options going long are the Goodwood out in California (why ship?). Or to Belmont for the Jockey Club Gold Cup where he will only dig himself into a deeper hole against Stay Thirsty and company at ten furlongs, which, we can all agree, is at least a furlong too long, maybe longer.

The Kelso against Uncle Mo would be a smashing return for this classy animal and maybe a stepping stone to things longer, or, as is the case here, possibly right on the nose.

There is time to make corrections and follow in the line of the great Preakness winners of the past eight years (Funny Cide, Smarty Jones, Afleet Alex, Bernardini, Curlin, Big Brown, Rachel Alexandra, and Lookin At Lucky). That’s good company. His correction will put him right in line.

Brendan O'Meara is the author of "Six Weeks in Saratoga: How Three-Year-Old Filly Rachel Alexandra Beat the Boys and Became Horse of the Year". It is available wherever books are sold or by its gracious publisher, SUNY Press.

Written by Brendan O'Meara

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Tuesday, August 30, 2011

No mo, Mo?

The much-anticipated return of Uncle Mo from a five-month layoff to come within a betting ticket’s length of winning the Grade 1 King’s Bishop validated trainer Todd Pletcher’s ability as a horseman (as if there were any doubt) and Uncle Mo as a champion colt (as if there were any doubt).

The only other athlete to put his liver through such distress and live to talk about it was Mickey Mantle.

The race set up wonderfully for Uncle Mo. Three horses blitzed through a half-mile in—gulp—44 4/5 seconds. Uncle Mo took command and bore in at a 45-degree angle that undoubtedly cost him the nose it would’ve taken to fend off Caleb’s Posse.

And what an effort. Let’s think about what happened here. Let’s go to the timeline:
November 6, 2010

Uncle Mo rates with Classic-style poise and draws clear of Boys of Tosconova to win by daylight. Mike Repole, at once, tells us that he’s going to get so drunk on vodka and Vitamin Water and, honestly, we all did. Okay, my friends and I did ... Okay, I did.

Uncle Mo’s already arrived. Now it was Repole’s turn to show us his personality, his kissing of Pletcher on the cheek, his knocking-down-the-doors-of-convention-and-refusing-to-wipe-his-boots-on-the-doormat attitude.

“Hi, everybody!”

“Hi, Mike!”

March 12, 2011

Gulfstream Park carded a race that, upon retrospect, produced at least one nice horse not named Uncle Mo. Rattlesnake Bridge finished second to Mo that day and would later finish second to another Repole-owned horse in Stay Thirsty in the Travers Stakes.

Uncle Mo looked ready to hold up his end of the deal and follow in the mighty path of Street Sense as the only other horse to pull the Juvenile-Derby Double.

Then came April Showers.

April 9, 2011

Mo sprinted to the front and set the pace in the Wood Memorial. Tom Durkin trumpeted that, pun intended, “The MO-ment of truth,” at the top of the stretch. Mo dug in on the fence. Arthur’s Tale and Toby’s Corner overtook Mo by a length at the wire. It wasn’t like Mo spit the freakin’ bit, but it caused momentary panic. Little did we know the havoc wreaked deep within his abdomen.

He wouldn’t race again until ...

August 27, 2011

Uncle Mo’s defeat wasn’t a loss. Think about what this horse overcame. This colt’s liver disorder could’ve killed him but he pulled a Lance Armstrong and hit the ground running. Most horses “need a race” after a layoff and if the race Uncle Mo “needed” was the Grade 1 King’s Bishop, then Churchill Downs better make a blanket of yellow and purple flowers for this son of Indian Charlie in the Dirt Mile or BC Sprint.

The disturbing moment came not from elation, but from a particularly weak moment from Repole. That nose at the wire made him tell Tom Pedulla of USA Today, “We're going to take our time. We're going to regroup," he said. "I wouldn't be shocked if this was his last race.”

Makes you wonder if he planned on pulling a John Elway or a Michel Jordan (the second time) if Uncle Mo returned to Grade 1 form off this layoff. Repole referred to this race as a “lower low” but something tells me that he’d like to have those words back. He finished second to a great horse in a Saratoga Grade 1 off a near five-month layoff.

The devastating low is far lower than placing in that spot. Just ask Larry Jones.

I’d hate to see Uncle Mo’s story end now. He’s got a chance to keep writing his history. Return him to the site of his Juvenile triumph. He deserves one more shot.

Though, if he's done, Mo will say so. Some horses don’t have to go out a winner to be victorious.

Brendan O'Meara is the author of "Six Weeks in Saratoga: How Three-Year-Old Filly Rachel Alexandra Beat the Boys and Became Horse of the Year." You can buy it here. "LIKE" the book here.

Written by Brendan O'Meara

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Wednesday, August 24, 2011

The price can, at times, be right

This year’s three-year-olds are just so nice, so polite, so courteous. “No, you take the lead.” “Ah, what a pal, I’d feel so much better if you were in front.” What better manners would you want to see from your children when a major guest of honor plans on arriving to watch you compete?

Tatiana Echevarria did what all we school boys dreamed of doing on half days and sick days: she went on The Price is Right. We all dreamed of playing Cliff Hangers, Dice Game, Hole in One (or Two), and, of course, Plinko.

We’d scream at the television, “It’s only 50 cents for a bar of Ivory soap, you idiot!” Or, “Look at this bozo spinning the wheel like we have all day to listen to it beep.” Or, “Stop looking to the damn audience for an answer! Make a decision!”

Yes, Echevarria won a Showcase Showdown that puts her at Saratoga Race Course for Travers Day. Should she care, she’s in for quite a display. I mean, just listen to Saratoga Springs mayor Scott Johnson:

“The city of Saratoga Springs is excited to have participated in the Price Is Right Showcase offering us a unique opportunity to showcase the wonderful things that Saratoga Springs has to offer - from the summer excitement of Saratoga Race Course to the full fall foliage all the way to a winter wonderland of fun. As the mayor of Saratoga Springs, I am pleased on behalf of all Saratogians to welcome Tatiana Echevarria to our city, where the ‘price’ is always right.”

Waaaait a minute. Did he really say that the price is always right in Saratoga? Sure, if $345 a night at the Holiday Inn is your idea of a “right” price, well, then, “Come on down!”

The price will not, however, be right on Shackleford. This son of Forestry will be the likely favorite (though DRF thinks Stay Thirsty will be) for the Travers Stakes as someone, please, someone, will take the lead in the race for Champion Three-Year-Old Male. By this point in the season, the horses have all, in a matter of speaking, gotten through their pimply-faced puberties. They’re shaving regularly, getting into R-rated movies, buying cigars, trying to fool Pakistani convenience store workers they’re old enough to buy beer, slow dancing with girls, filling out FAFSA forms. Physically, the playing field has leveled. Now it’s about ability.

Though Shackleford is a lock to be this year’s First Dude, it would seem that Coil may be the best male in the country if he keeps proving to be a fraction as good as his father Point Given.

Coil is lightly raced and showed an explosive turn of foot to win the Haskell Invitational against the most-accomplished field of sophomores in years at Monmouth Park. He has a tendency to hang, however, just watch the replay when he pulls up to Shackleford.

What Shackleford has against him is that darn Triple Crown. He went to the front in every one of those races, not just two, and ran his guts out. That’s what this colt does. He lowers his chestnut head, levels it out, and spills his heart onto the homestretch. He’s tremendous fun to watch, but these efforts have a way of adding up, especially in the final furlong where he slows down just enough to get beat. The exception, of course, being the 9.5-furlong Preakness.

Whatever happens, Tatiana Echevarria spun the wheel, got on the Showcase Showdown and won a dream package to come to Saratoga Springs and watch the Travers Stakes in person.

As nice as the three-year-olds have been to each other, they’d better get down-right rude and anoint a new leader to the division heading into the fall.

Brendan O'Meara is the author of "Six Weeks in Saratoga: How Three-Year-Old Filly Rachel Alexandra Beat the Boys and Became Horse of the Year." You can buy it here.

Written by Brendan O'Meara

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BallHype: hype it up!

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