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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Tuesday, August 02, 2011

Incentives and Haskells

Last week I was on my local alternative radio affiliate, WAMC, to promote “Six Weeks in Saratoga”. The wonderful people at the station put together a nice show about the track that day and I was asked about more trend-related stuff than I thought I’d be. You can listen to it here.

The host, Joe Donahue, (who I think is the best interviewer on the air anywhere, just listen to how natural he is), prompted the discussion that horses don’t run as much as they used to. To which I quickly added that Rachel Alexandra’s three-year-old year was more of a throwback since she ran eight times (has it really come to that that eight times is considered a “throwback”?)

I didn’t get to say what I’ve always thought about this on the air, so I’ll write it here: the incentive structure needs an overhaul.

As it stands, we’re not so much rewarding horses for winning, but penalizing them for losing. Think if the incentive structure stuck to the positive: reward winning. That’s it. Do you think Sham is a mule? Alydar? In fact, Alydar proved the better sire than his rival Affirmed; this from a “loser."

All it takes is to change this and the chances of an owner competing against the best heighten. Say what you will, big equine stars matter. There will undoubtedly be connections that will dodge a monster, but it will be on the condition that their horse simply wasn’t good enough or fit enough.

What it will also encourage is more races, more of a track record (pardon the pun), to see how well the animal is holding up to a race schedule loaded with physical demands. If he or she comes out of an eight, nine, ten-race year its suspensorys intact and hooves crack free, you have yourself a durable horse, one that can further propagate a sound species capable of captivating a crowd.

I’m not suggesting grinding the animal to the ground for the sake of it, but with the careful horsemanship exhibited by most trainers there’s no reason why the best can’t square off again, again, and again.

Haskell Day

I visited Monmouth Park for the first time and loved how swanky-old it felt, yet still peppered with youth and commotion. It’s racetrack USA. I met a woman who said, “Doesn’t she look great?” I had to agree.

It was a 14-race card with the Haskell Invitational sitting chilly in the twelfth spot. It had the Preakness winner, Shackleford. It had the Belmont winner, Ruler on Ice. The field was incredibly accomplished and a win by either Shackleford or Ruler on Ice would have vaulted them to the top of the three-year-old division.

Then along came the Bob Baffert-trained Coil.

Coil catapulted down the center of the track and looked to be heading to a 6-length win, but Shackleford battled back only to lose by a neck. Ruler on Ice took third.

Baffert won his record fifth Haskell having won it with Point Given (2001), War Emblem (2002), Roman Ruler (2005), and Lookin at Lucky (2010).

The top three contenders from the Haskell are likely Travers starters. These sophomores need to show up at the big races. If they don’t, they might lose an Eclipse Award come the end of the year.

Stay Thirsty’s romp in the Jim Dandy gives him some juice and if Uncle Mo comes back in impressive fashion in the King’s Bishop he’ll be in the conversation depending on how the rest of the year unfolds.

The Travers could have a big field with no horse lower than 3-1.

Mid-Summer Derby, indeed.

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 for at SUNY Press. Read about narrative nonfiction at The Blog Itself, more horse racing at The Carryover Classic, follow him on Twitter, or "like" his book on Facebook. His website is http://www.brendanomeara.com.

Written by Brendan O'Meara

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BallHype: hype it up!

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