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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Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Movie Night

At long last, I finally watched “Secretariat.”

It was great. It’s the kind of movie that invokes that latent reason why you got infected by horse racing. I get chills every time I hear Secretariat called a “tremendous machine.” It’s movies like this that the racing fan needs to recharge his or her battery after the constant beatings of stories like this.

ESPN’s Bill Finley notes, “They did it again. At the very instant the field for Saturday's Grade 1 Beverly D. at Arlington Park was crossing the finish line in Chicago the horses for the Grade 1 Sword Dancer at Saratoga were leaving the gate. These were two huge racing events and they happened virtually at the same time, forcing the horseplayer to concentrate on and, likely, bet on one but not both.”

How hard can this be? Apparently, very hard. As Finley goes on to say, it’s a matter of delaying the post time of the most malleable race, in this case, Arlington over Saratoga.

But, alas, when you’re undoubtedly exhausted by this sort of subject, you need look no further than the great cameos by the great Bill Nack, seated next to the actor playing the young Bill Nack, in the movie “Secretariat” and Penny Chenery. That must have been a mind-bend for Nack. The press conference scenes are some of the most colorful and show how Frank “Pancho” Martin was portrayed as a most antagonizing figure. I doubt he was really like this. Trainers don’t call out other horses and connections like that, do they?

And then there are the tales of suicide brought to you by ESPN’s Paul Moran, “Beyond the Hudson, dark clouds line the sport's horizon. Racing's current cocktail of choice, equal parts arrogance and myopia, has taken hold, an intoxicant with potentially frightening consequence. Arrogance is provided in steaming heaps by the Breeders' Cup, its leaders having abdicated every virtue and purpose inspired by the event's founding fathers. Myopia is delivered by those -- including those who guide the Breeders' Cup, happily in double jeopardy of bringing the game to its knees -- who have taken up the cause of eliminating the use of Lasix for racing.

Sit back and watch a sport, an industry and a way of life die in its own noose.”

Moran’s image is raw. After playing up New York’s promise at the prospect of slot money ready to flood the barren and fallow fields, he paints a cryptic picture of the dim-lighted tomorrow. Moran also has a fluidity with words that goes, in my opinion, unrivaled.

“Since 2005, the last year in which a Breeders' Cup has been staged in the greatest city in the world, three will have been awarded to Santa Anita and three more to Churchill Downs, worthy venues but certainly cities that do not merit the award to the exclusion of New York City.”

Poor New York ... and poor Sham. There’s undoubtedly been thousands of words written about this horse and how, if it weren’t for Secretariat, may be revered as the greatest horse who ever ran. And he is certainly one of them.

That’s the problem with not having control of your birth date. Andy Roddick may have had himself a fine, fine career, but Mr. and Mrs. Roddick successfully conceived their son around the same time Mr. and Mrs. Federer. One has won 16 majors. The other? One. Secretariat and Sham, indeed. Wait, that’s an insult to Sham. Withdrawn, your Honor.

I’m no horseman, but watching the actor who played Secretariat run was like watching Tim Robbins pitch convincingly in “Bull Durham.” You mean we’re supposed to believe that “God came down and gave him a thunder bolt for an arm” when he looked like a nine-inning dry heave? This would be like having Webster play Usain Bolt.

As Moran continued to pull no punches, he eloquently riffed how New York could, if had the “chutzpah”, threaten the Breeders’ Cup by realigning its cosmic fall races onto the same card.

“If not, disaster (the endgame) awaits. The alignment of these stars is indeed perilous and when an accident is waiting to happen, it generally does.”

“Seabiscuit”, anyone?

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." "Like" it on Facebook or buy a copy here.

Written by Brendan O'Meara

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Tuesday, August 09, 2011

Close, but nooooo cigar …

When you failed worse than France in World War II to get Zenyatta and Rachel Alexandra together, the next best thing must be a pair of jockeys who were once engaged, right?

No, there has to be other avenues with which to promote your sport, get people to the track and bet a few bucks without completely feeling debased by the ever-present HOLLYWOOD sign?

Oh, wait, nope, there was actually a race that paired two jockeys who were once engaged: Chantel Sutherland and Hall of Famer Mike Smith. Not exactly Seabiscuit-War Admiral, but, hey, we’re dealing with Joker Face and Parable here. David vs. David.

Smith bolted Joker Face for the front and stayed there.

"Even though I didn't win, it was fun. It was exciting," Sutherland told the Press-Enterprise. "When we went onto the backside and there was just the two of us, that was really neat. Never had that one before."

This is the kind of move that on its surface seems like a good idea, but ultimately makes you look like you’re trying too hard.

There must be, on some level, people scrambling like an egg to take the beautiful Sutherland and thrust her into things. I feel like we’re just a sleazy mustache away from a women-in-lingerie race around the oval. Give it time. It is Southern California.

Whatever happened to good horses running against one another? People do turn out to the track to see that. Don’t believe it? You need look no further than Grade 1 race days. Who cares about who rides who? The answer, to anyone who follows the equine star, is nobody. The only jockey rivalry worth watching is Calvin Borel vs. Javier Castellano and even that seems dastardly one-sided.

Maybe losing Zenyatta’s last race unraveled Smith. That DUI a couple weeks ago stinks and then to stoop to this flaccid attempt at raceday marketing seems, I don’t know, icky.

My friend Glenn Craven wrote a blog post over at his Fugue for Tinhorns site when Nicanor—the falsely anointed heir to Barbaro (see King’s Speech)—was ready to race. Let’s revisit this zirconia-in-the-rough headline: “OMG! Nicanor Scratched Due to Leg Injury.”

Craven goes on to write, “OMG? ... OMG! You’re the Blood-Horse for heaven’s sake! Not LOLcats.”


If I might paraphrase Craven, “OMG? ... OMG! You’re Del Mar for heaven’s sake!” A stunt like this makes New York Racing Association President and CEO Charlie Hayward’s words, and I’m paraphrasing from “Six Weeks in Saratoga”, that Del Mar is Saratoga’s Triple A affiliate ring truer than a canary on the stand.

It’s the kind of stooping and slumming that would never find the time of day in other sports. Can you imagine Saratoga with sumo wrestling suits? (Hold on, that might actually be kind of fun ... )

Pedro Martinez? Let’s have you slow-pitch to Don Zimmer. Peyton Manning? I’m sensing spelling bee with Mike Vanderjagt. Stephen Hawking? Blood bath with RoboCop. And what about an Optimus Prime/Megatron reality show? Actually all these ideas are better than what Del Mar threw in the sauté pan.

That said, and this will seem like I’m back peddling, I admire the effort. I think they understand as well as anyone that if they yell loud enough, dance silly enough, and dress down Sutherland enough, that the adults will at least have to scold them.

Inside the box thinking would be to emulate the other major sports. Outside the box thinking would be to embrace your niche, hammer it hard, and let people follow you for a change.

Fail and fail hard. It’s great they tried. But let’s keep roasting more marshmallows in the meantime.

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." Available now!

Written by Brendan O'Meara

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BallHype: hype it up!

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