Tuesday, August 03, 2010

The Sportsman finally sportsmanlike

Which was the bigger shock? A Jim Dandy-Curlin Stakes double both won by trainer Tony Dutrow or Jess Jackson announcing where his 2009 Horse of the Year Rachel Alexandra will be racing three Wednesdays before entries are due?

Of course the answer is the latter, though the former was quite impressive, but just when your hopes get up, “That earns him a start in the Travers,” said Dutrow of Curlin Stakes winner Winslow Homer. “That’s what we were looking for. He was impressive and scooted away from them, and he loved the distance. We’re hoping he goes into the Travers as well as he did today. He’s bred to go the distance and I think that he proved today that the distance will be a friend.”

Then a condylar fracture to his left front will sideline him for the Travers. Such is life.

Back to Jackson. The wine magnate who wants to rename a Black Mountain to Alexander Mountain in Cali has seen the peaks. For example, when he announced that Curlin would race as a four year old at the Eclipse Awards. Then he sank to the valley when he pulled Rachel out of the Apple Blossom. The Sportsman was suddenly the Sportsman ... so-long-as-it-works-in-my-favor.
Even a year ago (as documented in the hopefully-soon-to-be-published Six Weeks in Saratoga) Jackson had the racing industry on a string. Rachel had been nominated to four races following her body slam-win in the Haskell: the Alabama, the Woodward, the Travers and the, gulp, Pennsylvania Derby won in 2008 by the demonstrative Anak Nakal.

Every week clicked by and the steam in the press box shot from the ears of turf writers, most notably Claire Novak, who was most prominent in her disdain among writers about Jackson’s vagueness.

The brass at the New York Racing Association suffered from impatience as well. Rachel deserved a good show—one being denied her by the short notice. And racing secretary P.J. Campo had trouble filling races since the presence or absence of Rachel determined where a slew of other horses would be running.

Whatever the reason Jackson decided to announce her next race in timely fashion. Perhaps he threw a bone to NYRA to give folks like Neema Ghazi, Dan Silver and Campo a chance to effectively do their jobs.

Also, in so doing, Jackson turned the table on Zenyatta’s owner, Jerry Moss. It was just a few months ago that the Apple Blossom was bumped to $5 million pending the attendance of both Zenyatta and Rachel Alexandra and eight other horses and a partridge and a pare tree.

Moss committed thus putting the pressure on Jackson. Jackson ducked (which, let’s face it, was the right move. Rachel wasn’t fit and she would have been demolished. Would she have hit the board???).

Not since “Charlie’s Angels” have two or more females looked so good together and the time is now. Why? Anything can happen to these athletes. If they are sound and fit, run them against each other now. We can’t bet that they’ll be ready or healthy in November (remember Big Brown v. Curlin?).

Jackson put the pressure where he likes it: on other people. And he put it right on Moss’s nose to bring his mare to New York sans Security Barns.

Meanwhile, Zenyatta’s trainer John Shirreffs readies his alpha mare for the Clement Hirsch.

So NYRA must also ratchet the pressure by making the Personal Ensign a run for $1 million. Should that lure both connections and handful of others, fans may have their dream race.

Too much can happen between now and November. Let us not forget that.

Thanks to Jackson, at least we actually have three weeks instead of three days to think about it.

Brendan O’Meara blogs about horse racing here at HRI and at The Carryover. He also blogs about narrative nonfiction and his book project “Six Weeks in Saratoga” at The Blog Itself. His Web site is http://www.brendanomeara.com.

Written by Brendan O'Meara

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BallHype: hype it up!

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Was It All a Dream?

I saw “Inception.”

I nearly had a seizure when I left the theater—that’s how much I liked it. Was it ALL a dream? And who was the main inception performed upon?

All intense questions for the movie-goer that I hope to answer with greater depth when I see the movie again.

Still, for those who haven’t seen it, the idea of “Inception” the movie, and inception the noun within the movie, is to slip into the unconscious of your target and plant an idea—inception—such that the target believes it was his idea all along, not some invisible hand pushing the target one way or the other.

So, what’s my point?
It was so, so long ago that Rachel Alexandra won the Kentucky Oaks by 20 ¼ lengths and we became so unbelievably mesmerized by her open-length-style of victory. She does, believe me, have a compelling narrative (to be told in the hope-to-be-published-before-I-pass-away Six Weeks in Saratoga).

She then won the Mother Goose by 19, then the Haskell by six, and finally the Woodward by a diminishing neck. Rachel set the bar so high that even when she comes back and wins by 10 ½ lengths in the Fleur de Lis, it wasn’t quite enough. Not smashing. Then she sits nicely off Queen Martha at Monmouth and doesn’t kick clear by 15, rather she wins by only three lengths.

Could somebody have planted the idea that she was better than she is? Could a Dom Cobb have put us to sleep and so majestically orchestrate a dream in our own subconscious that she was too spectacular for reality? It would seem so because since we have awoken from such a sparkling campaign, her 2010 2-for-4 —which would be a pretty nice year for any horse of any caliber—just doesn’t garner enough attention and leaves people saying things such as:

“Let’s see: Four races so far this year. None of them Grade 1s.”

“It certainly didn’t leave me breathless.”

“Mr. Jackson should retire his horse now before her value plummets further. She has absolutely no chance of beating horses in the Classic or the Distaff.
Comments courtesy of The Paulick Report.

The idea, the lore of Rachel Alexandra is dead, along with the lore of Tiger Woods or Alex Rodriguez. The latter two look very human and for Rachel, she looks very equine. It’s not enough for Woods to win a tournament; we want to see him win by 15 strokes as he did at Pebble Beach in 2000. Racing fans expect no less from Rachel Alexandra.

I’d like to see the Patron Saint of Horse Racing, Jess Jackson, enter his filly in the Personal Ensign. Then, awaiting his trump card, Jerry Moss throws down the hammer and chases Rachel in a race where Zenyatta will be the overwhelming favorite. Jackson will have nowhere to turn and no excuse: the training is right, she will be entered and her withdrawal will be solely on the gutless act of a spoiled child taking his ball and going back to the vineyard.

A year ago we saw a freakishly talented filly take on very ordinary colts and fillies her own age. Then came the Woodward where Rachel ran into multiple Grade 1 winners. The Woodward was her Dubai.

Curlin, Rachel’s future backpack, was still a monster but, let’s be honest, not the same horse he was when he left the United States. He grinded out victories in the Woodward and the Jockey Club Gold Cup. They lacked the shock-and-awe of his 2007 Breeders’ Cup Classic and his 2008 Dubai World Cup wins when his turn of foot was as swift as Baryshnikov.

To the best of my knowledge nobody knocked Curlin the way people knock Rachel. It’s her turn to have to grind out victories and get it done. Gone are the days when she would win by so much daylight you could drive a cruise ship between her and the second place horse.

Gone are those days ... or were they ever there.

Was it all just a dream?

Brendan O’Meara blogs about horse racing here at HRI and at The Carryover. He also blogs about narrative nonfiction and his book project “Six Weeks in Saratoga” at The Blog Itself. His Web site is http://www.brendanomeara.com.

Written by Brendan O'Meara

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BallHype: hype it up!

Friday, July 16, 2010

Fat or Muscle?

It’s old versus new.

One meet added four days to its meet, the other took four days off a week.

Saratoga starts its 142nd racing meet in six days and it will be interesting to see which model will win out.

Monmouth is halfway through its major experiment of cutting back its racing days. It’s as if Monmouth put a tooth under their pillow only to find a gold brick resting there in the morning.

According to a story in The Blood-Horse, average attendance is 10,572 and on-track handle is $752,718 — that’s about $72 per person. That’s not entirely impressive per cap, but total handle is up 118 percent to $7,672,255.
“Everyone at the Sports Authority had high hopes for this bold experiment,” said Dennis R. Robinson, president and CEO of the New Jersey Sports & Exposition Authority. “To say at the midway point that this meet has been a success is an understatement. We’re cautiously optimistic that the second half of the Elite Summer Meet will continue to exceed all expectations.”

For the following seven weeks, Monmouth will be competing with Saratoga for the betting dollar. As it stands, the track by the shore had an edge: it has got a beefed up racing product with no major competition. Saratoga, now, is major competition.

Saratoga’s first weekend, which kicks off on Friday, July 23, has the Schuylerville, the Betfair TVG Coaching Club American Oaks and the Sanford. The following weekend will have the Diana, the Jim Dandy, the Ruffian and the Fourstardave.

Saratoga’s second weekend butts up against Monmouth’s $1 million Haskell Invitational, which, given its convenient four-week spacing, marks itself as a more lucrative prep for the Travers than the $500,000 Jim Dandy. More clams for everyone.

Monmouth plans to use the 2009 Horse of the Year, Rachel Alexandra, on July 24, to steal away attention from Saratoga’s first-of-seven Saturdays in the Lady’s Secret Stakes.

I’m curious to see just how much that $7 million bet on Monmouth gets slashed when Saratoga opens its gates. It’s like a pie: There’s only so many slices and I don’t see enough betting dollars around to keep Monmouth’s roller coaster turning corkscrews.

Saratoga’s handle is monstrous and its per cap betting is always in the neighborhood of $150 on-track. But when it matters — on the weekends — is where we’ll see which model rules. Will people tune into Monmouth’s stakes-heavy weekend like the seven it has carded for Sunday, August 1? Or will Saratoga’s traditional card of two strong stakes, allowance races and claiming races win out?

If Monmouth takes a significant betting dollar on the weekends then that is proof that the product on the track matters. That will prove that horse players (some, not all) still want to put their money on the best athletes in the sport.

For my money, that’s where I go because 1. I don’t have much and 2. It’s more exciting than nickel claimers. It just is.

I’m just as excited to see how both will fare against one another. For decades it’s been the same old thing. Now it looks like Monmouth has been in the gym developing this beautiful body in secret. Monmouth is making heads turn now, no doubt about that, a horse racing ugly duckling story.

No matter the outcome or the victor, the winner is the game of horse racing. Summer 2010 could be the best summer of racing any fan or horse player has seen in a long, long time.

The Belmont Stakes winner, Drosselmeyer, is out, but Super Saver and Lookin’ At Lucky are primed to meet in the Haskell. Rachel Alexandra returns to the scene of her smashing Haskell victory from a year ago. Zenyatta still makes monster strides out west and Quality Road looms a tremendous threat. Mine That Bird will look to reclaim some of that luster from a year ago. Like a good tomato or watermelon, summer time brings with it great seasonal varietals.

Monmouth looks pretty good these days. We’ll soon see whose model reigns supreme.

Still, Saratoga is Saratoga and even though it gained a few pounds to the tune of those four racing days, the jury is out as to whether it’s fat or muscle.

Brendan O’Meara blogs about horse racing here at HRI and at The Carryover. He also blogs about narrative nonfiction and his book project “Six Weeks in Saratoga” at The Blog Itself. His Web site is http://www.brendanomeara.com.

Written by Brendan O'Meara

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BallHype: hype it up!

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