Tuesday, June 28, 2011

“Six Weeks in Saratoga” Excerpt

The following is the first part in a series of short excerpts of Six Weeks in Saratoga: How Three-Year-Old Filly Rachel Alexandra Beat the Boys and Became Horse of the Year.

The Answer

The Answer waited.

It waited in the dimness of the Four Seasons Beverly
Wilshire in Beverly Hills, California. Horse people in their best evening attire
plucked hors d’oeuvres off of trays, trays that floated around the room. Their
voices hummed. There was talk of the Answer: Who would win the 2009
Horse of the Year? Soon they found their seats and tuned their frequency to
the stage for the start of the 39th Annual Eclipse Awards.
Zenyatta turned what was once unanimous into a debate. The 2009 Horse
of the Year award had already been won—it was already Rachel Alexandra’s
award. Why did Zenyatta have to go and win the 2009 renewal of the Breeders’
Cup Classic against male horses and look positively fantastic while in motion?
She let the boys from America and Europe hold the door open long enough
and unleashed her fury. Zenyatta, for those who don’t know, was the unbeaten
five-year-old mare who ran like a bulldozer on nitro down the middle of
Santa Anita’s synthetic surface to win the Classic. Perhaps race caller Trevor
Denman said it best when Zenyatta struck the front in the Classic when he
yelled, “This. Is. Un. Be. Lievable!”

It was supposed to be concrete.

Rachel Alexandra, the freakishly gifted three-year-old filly, had staved
off older horses in the Woodward Stakes on closing weekend at Saratoga Race
Course. She capped 2009 with her eighth consecutive victory—three against
males, the latest against the older, more accomplished brand. Horse of the
Year was hers. All she had to do was bask and smile for the camera. Then
Zenyatta came running late.

The debating was virulent, the words venomous. Just read some of the
forty-seven comments from Horse Race Insider editor and columnist John
Pricci’s Morning Line column, dated January 13, 2010, about the Rachel
versus Zenyatta thread. Pricci wrote that it was best for Zenyatta fans if she
lost the Horse of the Year vote, reasoning that Zenyatta would come back
with her only loss to date being one handed out on paper, should the voters
elect Rachel Alexandra over her.

Where no avatar was used, the full name has been abbreviated to simply the
first or last name.

Jeff says:

My gut feeling is that RA will be retired if she wins HOT Y and
Zenyatta stays in training. RA can’t hide in restricted 3yo races
this year, and she wants no part of Zenyatta.

Freespirit says:

Nah, I don’t think they will retire RA if she wins. Jackson won’t
do that, I don’t think. However, even though I would love to see
Zenyatta race again, not at the expense of her losing HOY. She so
deserves it. RA is great too, but I think Zenyatta is better.
Anne says:

I do not understand all of you East Coast-voters’ remarks always
against Zenyatta. It is getting to be ridiculous and childish. Did
that wine that Jess Jackson gave voters (that was announced) with
her picture on it cloud your brains? We KNOW it clouded your
votes. Stop it! RA can’t run a 11/4. She beat a bunch of has-beens
in the Woodward.

Zenyatta beat the best we and Europe had to offer in that BC
Classic this year. She ran for the first time and proved she can
handle it. She ran against the best males and beat them (why do
it in 3 when you can beat a field like this in 1 race?). She always
showed up and showed up in a fashion that we will NEVER see
again. She has class, charm and determination (her own, not that
brought on by 20+ whippings).

Give it a rest, Mr. Pricci.

Susan says:

Good Morning John,

I can tell you right now that this loyal Zenyatta fan is not rooting
for her to lose. And if the Mosses are keeping her in training, and
I hope they are, I don’t think her running hinges on the outcome
of HOT Y. Of course she is going to win, BUT either way it appears
that they may very well have a sound, fresh horse who has not
been damaged by the rigors of a gut-wrenching campaign. That is
the beauty and superiority of Zenyatta and ANOT HER testament
to her greatness.

Ron says:

Ah, come on you guys touting RA for HOT Y, can’t you read
a racing form’s past performance or watch a race? Take a look
at the older horses, horses that RA beat in NY. They certainly
weren’t the best or the same class that Zenyatta defeated in the
classic plus the three-year-old-colt crop sure wasn’t the best we
ever had. Not taking anything away from RA —she was definitely
an outstanding filly, but no Zenyatta.

Mike says:

RA is the HOY. Sorry Zenyat-iacs. Beating a few grass horses
on plastic tracks in dumpy bankrupt, fire-ridden California can’t
compare to winning 8 races on 7 tracks. The only thing preventing
RA from HOY honors is the anti-NY media bias.

Sheila says:

I love both horses. That being said, Zenyatta’s race in the BC was
great, a wow moment. Every time Rachel ran this past year was
a WOW moment. You can’t deny it! I think that’s all that needs
to be said!

ThePixiePoet says:

I’m from California, proving this is not an East Coast—West Coast
thing: I think Rachel Alexandra is the better horse. She should
(barring injuries) put a lid on all nay-sayers in this year’s campaign.
When Rachel is given more time to rest, she is a powerhouse. For
example, when Rachel was given 2 months off after the Preakness,
in her next race alone she broke 2 stakes records (time and winning
margin) and came within one second of the track record set by
Secretariat, while being eased!

Mark says:

When you go 14-0 against the best in the world, win 2 Breeders’
Cups and NOT win HOY, explain how there’s NOT an East
Coast bias?

Terlingua says:

The best horse of 2009 is quite simple. It’s not that hard, people.
Question: Who won the most money with less starts?
Answer: Zenyatta.

Anne M. says:

HOY is simple—Rachel Alexandra.
Zenyatta had one really good race the whole year and people
think she should be HOY??? NO WAY.

The room buzzed. Rachel Alexandra, as expected, won Champion Three-Year-
Old Filly. Zenyatta, as expected, won her second consecutive Champion Older
Mare. Then it was on to the big one, the Answer.

The video montage of Rachel Alexandra and Zenyatta’s races called
hairs to an about-face. The announcer recited the select few female horses
that have also won Horse of the Year over the decades. It is a small sorority.
Rachel Alexandra soared through the fog; she launched for the wire.
Zenyatta charged wide off the turns, straightened, and, yes, she somehow
won. Fourteen races, fourteen wins, and fourteen photographs. The video’s
announcer, cognizant of the ongoing debate of who was best, said, “Tonight,
we finally get the answer.” The Answer.

The lights remained dim over the ballroom. Jess Jackson, dressed in
a tuxedo with wide lapels, sat in his chair. Jerry Moss was nearby, equally
dapper, his features sharp, his teeth gleaming, as if shined by Windex. His
wife Ann sat beside him. All three felt confident that their horses would win.
One would lose.

National Thoroughbred Racing Association president Alex Waldrop
shook the envelope in his right hand like a Polaroid picture, drew a breath,
and said, “The Eclipse Award for the 2009 Horse of the Year . . .”

Come back Thursday for another excerpt of Six Weeks in Saratoga. You can order a copy from SUNY Press or from a your favorite bookseller.

"Posted by permission from Six Weeks in Saratoga by Brendan O'Meara, the
State University of New York Press (c)2011, State University of New
York. All rights reserved."

Written by Brendan O'Meara

Comments (3)

BallHype: hype it up!

Saturday, June 18, 2011

The Triple Crown: Awe … wait for it … some

Well, the Triple Crown started with a kick to the face and ended with a fissure to a horse hock. Some folks have lauded it a boring, inconsequential, impossibly frustrating, and altogether worthless Triple Crown. They're wrong.

The average win pay out for the Triple Crown was $40.83. That ain’t boring money, it’s both celebratory and maddening money for overlooking Animal Kingdom, failing to think Shackleford could hold onto the lead, and skimming over Ruler On Ice because, well, wasn’t Nehro or AK supposed to win!?

It seems impossibly far away that Robby Albarado was kicked in the face by a horse (if you hand’t believed in karma, do you now?) which prompted him to be taken off Animal Kingdom and subbed in for by John R. Velazquez. Albarado showed them by winning a Grade 1 on the Derby undercard, but it mattered little in the end.

Most were introduced to trainer Graham Motion for the first time, whose cool demeanor and gosh-darn-so-freakin’-likeable-you-just-want-to-have-him-over-for-dinner-and-then-throw-on-Ghostbusters charm infected the racing world for five weeks.

Most were introduced to Team Valor president Barry Irwin for the first time and were, at first, put off by him. My God! Is this man offering a contrarian opinion of the status quo! How dare he!? Does he not know who we are? Huffabub frim fram! This guy should be applauded for catching us all from falling out of the rye.

Most were introduced to how Velazquez can look like he’s attending a five-year-old’s ballet recital instead of looking like he won the one race every jockey this side of Mars wants to win (I won’t pretend to know what jockeys want on the other side of Mars. Probably some intergalactic moon crown.)

Most were introduced to Dale Romans, a racetrack lifer who has won some BIG races (Dubai World Cup and gaggles of Grade 1s) but to see this Kentucky boy saddle a Triple Crown-race winner was something to behold. One of these days his mug will be emblazoned on the side of a building in Louisville along with Paul Newman and others.

Hall of Fame trainer Nick Zito saddled the Derby favorite, the second coming of Secretariat. A story by assistant trainer Tim Poole about the first time jockey Julien Leparoux would ride Dialed In:

“Nick asked Julien if he’d ever seen the movie “Secreariat”. Julien said, ‘Yes.’ Nick said, ‘Cuz I’m puttin’ you on ’im.’”

Uh, ooooh. Dialed In clipped off horses in the Derby, clipped them off to finish well back. His trip was, to put it mildly, dirty. The poor colt squinted through a dust bowl and never found his rhythm. On to Baltimore for a shot at $5 million for winning the Magna Crown (Holy Bull, Florida Derby, Preakness Stakes). Nope. Didn’t happen.

Then it’s the longest three weeks in horse racing: when the Belmont Stakes waits for no Triple Crown. But something wonderful happened. Animal Kingdom, the Derby winner and Preakness runner up committed. So too did the Preakness winner Shackleford. Not only that, but the Derby runner up, Nehro, threw his hat into the bullring. Brilliant Speed too, and a no-name out of New Jersey-based Kelly Breen’s barn.

And Tom Durkin, who didn’t renew his Triple Crown contract to call the races for NBC, recited a beautiful Belmont Stakes with turns of phrase and brilliant elocution. It was Ruler On Ice holding off Uncle Mo’s stablemate, Stay Thirsty.

Isn’t He Perfect, a horse of junior varsity talent, came in on Animal Kingdom, made Velazquez lose an iron, and thus the Belmont Stakes. Irwin had a point that certain horses don’t belong in certain races. Guadalcanal came in on Big Brown in the 2008 Belmont. On paper Mine That Bird didn’t belong in the 2009 Derby field. All he did was skip over the mud, skip past Durkin’s often keen eye, and skip under a blanket of roses (never won another race, but you know who else never won another race? Dunkirk.)

And Animal Kingdom was a tad lame, brought on by a bad trip, a back slash in his hock.

On we go into the summer. Bring on the Spa.

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 pre-order at Amazon.com or at SUNY Press. Read about narrative nonfiction at The Blog Itself, more horse racing at The Carryover Classic, read his "Bourbon Underworld" stories at Kentucky Confidential, follow him on Twitter, or "like" his book on Facebook. His website is http://www.brendanomeara.com.

Written by Brendan O'Meara

Comments (3)

BallHype: hype it up!

Saturday, May 28, 2011

One win, three legs, no problem

Friday's confirmation that the Kentucky Derby winner, Animal Kingdom, will run in the $1 million Belmont Stakes is a big, big deal.

He's not packing up his tack and going home. He's not going to be that kid with the awesome new soccer ball complaining that he's not getting enough touches and that his ball is getting all scuffed up. He lost, but he’s not a loser.

Street Sense took his folding chair out after losing to Curlin by a nose in 2007, and, as a result, won zero end-of-year honors. Curlin took two that year. Super Saver proved just willing after he tried the Preakness and left after Calvin Borel’s Triple Crown-guarantee. Even Lookin' At Lucky could've booned the Belmont but instead got sick (don't tell Michael Jordan).

No, what Animal Kingdom is doing is good for a number of reasons, here's the best reason:

1. The "He's Now Officially Good for the Breed" Reason

Just because Animal Kingdom won the Derby doesn’t mean he “got a mile and a quarter.” (Though, it must be said, he was accelerating in that final sixteenth.)

Someone has to win that race, someone, and just because he wins doesn’t equal the stamina that’s good for the breed. If Mine That Bird were not gelded he’d make a better sire-prospect than Super Saver.

Even if Animal Kingdom loses the Belmont, say he finishes fourth, third, second, even fifth, you know what he did? He not only won the Derby, placed in the Preakness, but he ran three grueling two-turn races in five weeks and lived to talk about it. And THAT is what is good for the breed.

Curlin ran third in the Derby, won the Preakness and was nosed in the Belmont. He’s good for the breed (and we will soon see his babies run). Mine That Bird would’ve been good: first, second, third, in that order in the Classics.

This year we have at least two in Preakness winner Shackleford and Animal Kingdom and no matter where they fall in the Belmont, they will be better for the breed.

2. The “Recognizability of Horses in an Otherwise Meaningless Race” Reason

Animal Kingdom won the Derby in front of 14.5 million viewers. That’s 14.5 million people who will likely recognize the name Animal Kingdom if you told them he won the Derby.

He then went to the Preakness where 8.8 million viewers watched him lose to the gritty champ Shackleford. Bottom line is that people are starting to know who he is, and what will that say of a sport when on its biggest platform—the Triple Crown—he’d be absent?

3. The “Barry Irwin Can Use All the Good Press” Reason

By now Team Valor president Barry Irwin has cleared his name from the inflammatory remarks he made post-Derby. He was emotionally vulnerable and he’s stood up to it like a gentleman.

There will be no Triple Crown winner for the 33rd straight year and he’s sitting on the front-runner to win an Eclipse Award for Champion Three-Year-Old Colt and, possibly, Horse of the Year (who else is there, really?), so what’s the incentive to run him when there’s no such history at stake? Because there’s 12 furlongs, a whole lot of dough and when Irwin runs Animal Kingdom in a spot with a tired horse with every reason NOT to run him, it makes him and Team Valor look like gamesmen, players, men who trade paint, duke it out, and say boo to all the phonies and secret slobs of the world.

You’d have to go back to 1995 and Thunder Gulch for the last Derby-Belmont double winner. And Animal Kingdom will be in stellar company should he pull it off with the likes of Swale, Bold Forbes and Riva Ridge.

Lately, horses get outta town when they no longer can accomplish transcendent-style history. In this case, trainer Graham Motion and Irwin are saying, contrary to what Holden Caulfield said, that certain things shouldn’t stay they way they are.

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 pre-order at Amazon.com or at SUNY Press's website. Read about narrative nonfiction at The Blog Itself, more horse racing at The Carryover Classic, read his "Bourbon Underworld" stories at Kentucky Confidential, follow him on Twitter, or friend him on Facebook. His website is http://www.brendanomeara.com.

Written by Brendan O'Meara

Comments (5)

BallHype: hype it up!

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