Monday, November 18, 2013

Poor Clark… Poor Cigar…Poor Natonal Racing Schedule

The Breeders’ Cup is over, yet still we roll on.

Listen: For the past 30 years, especially in the past 10 years, the Breeders’ Cup is the unofficial end of the horse racing year. It should be the official end.

Ten complete months of horse racing culminate in the world championships where, largely, the best dirt and some of the best turf horses meet in the relatively climate-controlled locale of Southern California.

Two things should happen: Either the horse racing year must end and take a two-month vacation before racing picks up again in January, or the Breeders’ Cup, if it stays in SoCal permanently, should be moved to December and thus truly end the year.

The running of great races, namely the Clark Handicap and the Cigar Mile, after the Breeders’ Cup is a disservice to the races.

It’s also like a scene in a movie that plays out after the credits have run. Most of the people have left the theater, they’ve already seen Iron Man totally waste a bunch of super soldiers, yet there’s still more after all that emotional investment.

Imagine after the World Series, Detroit and St. Louis decide to play in the hopes that they have a chance to supplant Boston as the best team in the land.

Game On Dude, the spirited big fish in a small pond, may run in the Clark at Churchill Downs, the site of his near-Breeders’ Cup Classic win over, ugh, Drosselmeyer. Game On Dude needs a win in this spot to be remotely considered for Horse of the Year. His effort in the Classic should be proof alone that he’s not as good as his record says he is.

Bill Parcells, owner of a few horses and known most for his coaching of the football, said, “You are what your record says you are.” Game On Dude, winner of five of six starts in 2013, is worse than his record says he is, yet he’s going to be seriously considered by the voters for the big cheese in January.

As the Bowl Championship Series is being squeezed out for a better playoff system in college football, I can’t help but think how a formulaic system of this sort can help people see who the best horses in the country are.

Handicappers already do this. They already evaluate a race by saying, "Who did he beat? Who came out of that race and won, thus validating a previous win?"

Every horse should be fed into a computer and spat out a number that evaluates the efforts of the races. A few criteria:

The race’s grade.

The records of the other horses in the field.

Final time.

Distance with the emphasis give to longer races.

Winning margin.

Successive performances of horses in said race.

Field size.

A unified speed figure, say, for this argument’s sake, the Beyer.

That’s eight variables worth considering—there could be more—that can give a true value to a horse’s performance over the course of a long year.

If Game On Dude wins the Clark, I’d argue it would his best win if horse’s like Bourbon Courage and Golden Ticket join the fray with Will Take Charge.

This Horse Racing Championship Series would answer the question in the Three-Year-Old Filly Division with Beholder and Princess of Sylmar. Beholder won the Distaff over Sylmar and Royal Delta, but Sylmar won the Oaks, Alabama and Beldame. Beholder gets a big bump for the Distaff win, Sylmar’s prior efforts may rank her higher.

But, really, with all this racing after the Breeders’ Cup it all seems to be disorganized and devoid of focus. It devalues the World Championships and trivializes it as just another big weekend of racing where it should be the big weekend in racing that allows us to contextualized the entire year as we get ready for 2014.

Written by Brendan O'Meara

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Wednesday, November 13, 2013

Hoops fans, cry me a river

Tuesday’s onslaught of college basketball led to some spirited discussion on ESPN radio Wednesday morning. All the talk was about the talented freshman, namely Andrew Wiggins of Kansas, Jabari Parker of Duke and Julius Randle of Kentucky.

(You want to barf? They were born in 1994 and 1995, when Go for Gin and Thunder Gulch won the Derby.)

On the radio, Fat and Skinny talked about how dispiriting the state of college basketball is, how the freshman are one-and-done, they’re gone, they don’t stick around long enough to make a lasting impact on their sport.

To that, I said, cry me a river. To that, I said, join me for a year of horse racing.

Parker, Wiggins and Randle are just the latest freakishly gifted teenagers in the 99th percentile of athletic potential who are forced to go to college (David Stern, the NBA’s Commissioner, will say they’re not forced to go to college. They can go to the D-League.). It’s a brilliant stroke by the NBA to effectively send these players to college for a year. They attend high-profile universities, get a ton of press and TV-time from October through March, then go to the NBA as a well-fermented star.

The lesson people are told is to enjoy them while they’re balling in college. Oh, but it’s hard to root for a team when the players are so transient! Mercenaries!

To that, I said, at least you get to watch these mercenaries when they graduate to the next level. Not so in horse racing, sort of.

Unless there’s full-scale legislation to keep horses in training at least through their four-year-old year, brilliant horses will continue to retire at three. See Orb (was he that brilliant?), Big Brown (truly brilliant two-surface star) and Smarty Jones. Until a horse’s stud value isn’t adversely affected by a loss, expect owners to take their ball and go home. You can’t blame them.

Newbies, and even some seasoned pros, still feel crushed when an iconic horse gets ushered off to propagate his breed. I know because I used to feel that disappointment. I remember feeling crushed when Smarty Jones, Street Sense and Hard Spun went away after a year. But I remember being buoyed by Curlin, Zenyatta, Rachel Alexandra and Shackleford sticking around.

Strangely, when a horse races longer than its four-year-old year, there’s a sense they’ve overstayed their welcome. What more can we see? What more can they do? No matter how sound they are there’s that looming specter of a fatal bad step or a fluke wall kick.

Wise Dan has given us innumerable thrills and if he runs again next year, which it appears he will, what more can he provide that we haven’t already seen? His purpose, for readers of this site, is a confident single in a multi-race ticket.

The appeal of the horse running at four is to see how he or she develops and grows as they reach their athletic prime. The appeal extends to some of the historically great races and to see them beat or become defeated by upstart three-year-olds. Maybe even a mare or two. By their five- or six-year-old year, unless they’re going for a three-peat in the Jockey Club Gold Cup or the Breeders’ Cup Mile, it’s a gamble with life more than a gamble with stud value.

It is my feeling that if horses were mandated to run through their four-year-old year, it would satiate the flash-in-the-pan haters and those who want to capitalize while their star while still burns bright.

These are tent-pole horses, the horses that hold up the entire year and the entire sport, towering peaks with valleys of near-unbearable competition. They just do. They bring thousands of extra people to the track. Just watch what Groupie Doll will do to Cigar Mile Day.

Players like Parker, Wiggins and Randle, sure they ditch the college game, but we can enjoy their athleticism for 10 or 15 years in the NBA. In horse racing, the best we can hope for is to root for our heroes’ progeny. Not quite as fulfilling.

So haters of the one-and-doners in college hoops, cry me a river and come over to horse racing where you’ll need a dam to hold back the flood.

Written by Brendan O'Meara

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Monday, November 11, 2013

The Great Parallel: Horses and Veterans

I recently finished the J.D. Salinger biography, “Salinger” by David Shields and Shane Salerno. Great read, documentary style (thought that was a touch irritating). The Catcher in the Rye was the first book I truly loved. I and a 147 million others.

What struck me as particularly poignant was that Catcher was, in essence, a post-traumatic stress disorder book, a World War II book. This was before PTSD was commonly acknowledged. Forget commonly, even acknowledged is more accurate.

Salinger saw the worst of World War II. He, a counter intelligence officer and part of the 12 Infantry Regiment, landed on Utah Beach on D-Day. He saw his regiment start with 3,100 soldiers and, in just a few weeks, saw that number reduced by 2,500. They got picked apart in the hedgerows of Normandy, and slaughtered in the Hurtgen Forest and at the Battle of the Bulge. If that weren’t enough, he walked into Kaufering IV, a subcamp of Dachau, to heaps and rows of emaciated and burned corpses.

Today is Veterans Day, the holiday formerly known as Armistice Day. Of course this day only further infuriated and disenfranchised Germany leading to World War II two decades later. We humans and our wars …

And, as Salinger proved, the war never ended. It never ended in his head and it has become imperative to treat the scars within the synapses of the brain. We need look no further than the horse.

Saratoga WarHorse, an organization started by Bob Nevins, who served as a medevac pilot in Vietnam and also served in the New York National Guard, pairs retired horses with war veterans suffering from PTSD.

My friend in letters, Marilyn Lane, director of thoroughbred industry relations and development, plays a fundamental role in bringing horses and soldiers together as well. (Whenever I feel down about the horse business (which, sorry to say, is far too often), I think of Marilyn and her love of the animal and racing. People like her need to be on your mind when it comes to this game.)

The parallels between the racehorses and the soldiers make them a perfect match. Horses, while in training, live cloistered lives, regimented lives. There is immense boredom and inaction followed by bursts of action so intense it breaks blood vessels in their lungs. They live under the stress of training and racing.

When a horse is allowed to retire, it takes time for it to come down. By now the horse has spent so much of its time in a stall, in a ring, in the gate, on the track. Fences everywhere.

Soldiers lead structured lives, endure long bouts of inaction followed by a few moments of terror. The stress, especially the warfare waged in city blocks of Iraq, or the uncertainty of each step they take not knowing if an IED will blow them and a plume of desert dirt 30 feet into the air.

Soldiers need to come down from that just as the horses do. They share more than they know.

Saratoga WarHorse flies in soldiers with PTSD, soldiers who have come home to suicidal thoughts and spousal abuse.

Veterans walk the horses, whisper and talk to the horses, brush them, lean on them, bond with them.

The veterans find comfort and relaxation with the horses. I know this because I saw it two summers ago. I saw them reach what looked like deep meditative states. Peaceful may be the better word.

Saratoga WarHorse doesn’t promise to fix anyone. The program doesn’t even purport to be therapy, rather it offers, “a once-in-a-lifetime experience that has the ability to get your life back on track again.The impact our connection process has on soldiers is not easily put into words. The experience is definitive and profound, and it will change something in you that will stay with you long after you’ve passed through the Saratoga WarHorse program.” Sounds theraputic.

The horses deserve a great life after racing, like Web Gem, a horse gifted to Saratoga WarHorse by Nick and Kim Zito. He earned $331,105 and is in training for his “new role as a Connection horse.”

Veterans Day, Armistice Day, whatever you call it, should be a sobering day of remembrance. Also, just a few weeks prior to Thanksgiving, a day to pay gratitude to those in uniform, past, present, future.

Written by Brendan O'Meara

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