Monday, November 04, 2013

The Post-Breeders’ Cup Awards

For the second straight year, a small group of friends and I enjoyed the Breeders' Cup from a Hyatt Place in Uncasville, CT (short drive to Mohegan Sun). Normally we're used to feeling like complete and pathetic losers.

Then a 32-1 horse was DQd to first place, which opened up the window for a nice Pick 4. They were alive and when Mizdirection bombed down the lane for her second straight Turf Sprint, they hit the Pick 4 for $2,100. My dinner at Margaritaville was totally free. They also hit 4-of-6 on the Pick 6. They finished second in their losing legs with Sprint and Juvenile. I may have ordered an extra margarita if they hit that.

So, yes, they were winners and will presented with a Carryover Trophy of Honor. Many other connections, horses, trainers, jockeys also deserved a trophy. And the winners are:

Most Valuable Player: Kathy Ritvo

At first this was going to Mucho Macho Man and Gary Stevens, and they're worthy attendants to this. But Kathy Ritvo, trainer to Mucho Macho Man, became the first woman trainer to win the Breeders' Classic Classic.

I loved this horse from start. He was the best and had the right kind of preparation to win this race. No other horse in this field had quite the positive progression he did. Credit that to Ritvo.

Mucho Macho Man rated perfectly in the middle of the pack while Fort Larned, Moreno and Game On Dude battled on the lead. It set up perfectly for Mucho Macho Man, who put a head in front at the top of the lane. Will Take Charge stormed up to challenge and lost by the smallest of margins.

But Ritvo and MMM weren't the only winners. Gary Stevens pulled off the Breeders' Cup Double: Distaff and Classic.

He won the Distaff aboard Beholder and the Classic aboard MMM. This triumvirate of MMM, Ritvo and Stevens are the ultimate champions and the ultimate winners of an epic weekend of horse racing.

Least Valuable Player: Todd Pletcher

It hurts to call the greatest trainer in the game a loser, but he's measured by what happens on the sport's biggest stage, and on said biggest stage he laid an egg. Let's look at the horses he had going this weekend that came up empty:

Princess of Sylmar, likely the Champion Three-Year-Old Filly, she finished last of them all in the Breeders' Cup Distaff behind Beholder, Close Hatches, Authenticity, Royal Delta and Street Girl.

His Havana, the monster two-year-old he trained to a 102-Beyered maiden win and a 93-Beyer win in the Grade 2 Champagne, got caught up in a hot pace and finished second to New Year's Eve.

He had Capo Bastone in the Turf Sprint, and he had Palace Malice in the Classic, who ran a flat race after spilling out of the gate.

The Remember-Me?-Award: Richard Mandella

He’s not the mainstream trainer he once was when he won four Breeders’ Cup races in 2003, or when he had the monster Rock Hard Ten who had a hand in ruining Smarty Jones’ bid for the Triple Crown, but by defeating Royal Delta and Princess of Sylmar with Beholder in the Distaff, Mandella, said, in essence, remember me?

Mandella has won eight Breeders’ Cup races—all at Santa Anita. It’s his home track and when Beholder romped in the Distaff, the world had to say, ‘Oh, yeah, that guy, I remember him.’

Underlay of the Year: Verrazano

This warms my heart. Listen, I don’t openly root against horses, I just love horses who take a ton of money for no reason and have no shot at winning because they choke when it matters.

Verrazano was the undefeated world beater of the Wood Memorial before gagging in the Derby (some may argue he had excuses because of the track and the awful pace scenario, but nuts to the them). He opened a can of Whoop Donkey on foes at Monmouth and the Pegasus and Haskell, but choked again when legacy was on the line in the Travers.

He had a long layoff before attempting a distance more suited to his abilities and proceeded to finish a distant fourth. His trainer, Todd Pletcher, is only left to scratch his head.

Heart Breaker Award: Royal Delta

It all started on the wrong hoof when Bill Mott’s Ron the Greek scratched a few days ago with an abscess. Mott had to feel good because he still had alpha mare Royal Delta in the Distaff and Flat Out in the Classic.

Then, everything fell, a-part, you can count on that, you can count on that …

Royal Delta didn’t get over the track well and finished fourth as the favorite. She won the Distaff the last two years and won several Grade 1s.

Rodney Dangerfield Award:
Groupie Doll

How did this mare go off at 7-2?

She broke from the outside and rated perfectly, calmly, confidently in the four-path around the turn. She traveled smoothly turning for home before putting a head in front. She turned back all challengers and won her second straight Filly and Mare Sprint.

She won her first race of the season on dirt, then turned in two lackluster efforts on synthetic surfaces. She clearly loves dirt and loves Santa Anita and proved she’s the champ of this division.

Best Continent Award: Europe

The Europeans know their wine, cheese, French Kings and horse racing.

Not only are they more stylish, possess more culture and history, they also had a day in the Breeders’ Cup. It's almost enough to forget that Napoleon Bonaparte tried to take over the world and failed miserably fighting a Russian winter, getting exiled to Elba before coming back to get slaughtered at Waterloo.

They won the Marathon with London Bridge; they won the Turf with Magician; they won the Juvenile Turf with Outstrip; they won the Filly and Mare Turf with Dank. Even Declaration of War hung on for third in the Classic. Five wins in America's World Championships, that's what you call "Winner, winner lobster dinner."

Celebrity Winner Award: Jim Rome

Two years in a row Mizdirection, a filly, beat the boys in the Turf Sprint. I thought the outside post was going to hurt her. I thought she'd lose too much ground over the course of the entire race. Her finishing kick gives you an idea of just how talented she is.

The Jungle will be roaring when Jim Rome goes on the air today.

The This-Is-The-Life-You-Signed-Up-For Award: John Velazquez

Sadly, this is life as a jockey in horse racing.

John Velazquez, Hall of Fame jockey, winner of thousands of horse races, suffered a day-ending injury Saturday. His horse, Secret Compass, broke down, dumping Velazquez and ending his day. To keep things in perspective, Secret Compass had to be euthanized, a sad truism in horse racing.

Velazquez's injury cost him his mount on Havana, the freakish two-year-old colt who finished second in the Juvenile as a heavy favorite. He also lost the mount on Wise Dan, winner of the $2 million Mile. He also lost mounts on Point of Entry and Justin Phillip. A door closes for the injured jockey, and opens for others in the jock's room.

No one understands this more than Velazquez. In 2011, an injury to Robby Albarado opened up the mount on Animal Kingdom in the Kentucky Derby. This happened.

King of the World Award:
Wise Dan

What can you say? Wise Dan was absolutely brilliant in the Mile (sorry, Johnny Velazquez). He probably won't win Horse of the Year, but his effort in the Mile was a sight to see.

He ran a relative clunker at Keeneland in the Shadwell "Turf" Mile, the quotization marks are because it got rained off the grass and thrown onto the awful monstrosity that is Polytrack.
Wise Dan won this race a year ago, and he was a deserving favorite. He tracked the field in mid-pack while the front end set brutal, Wise Dan-friendly fractions. Turning for home, Jose Lezcano straightened him out, and he blitzed for the lead like the champion he is.

The win keeps him in contention for Horse of the Year honors, but no matter what, he lived up to his immense talent, a true headliner.

The Skin-Crawling-Awkward Award:
Kristen Chenoweth

I was seriously ready to reserve this slot for a horse that disappointed during the Classic ... but ... Kristen Chenoweth stood in the winner's circle and sang The Best is Yet to Come.

For some folks, perhaps this was a charming warm up for the Breeders' Classic, the greatest race on American soil (yeah, take that Kentucky Derby!). It was irritating. It was, dare I say, out of place, disconcerting and unsettling.

All right, the subtext makes sense: The best is yet to come. I get it. The meaning of the song is implicit and the Classic is befitting of a song that tells it how it is. But when four guys in a hotel room simultaneously recoil at the sight of Chenoweth, that's a telling review. The only thing that bailed her out was the sun setting on the San Gabriel mountains.

Written by Brendan O'Meara

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Wednesday, October 30, 2013

From Grit to Glory

I was talking with a friend of mine a few years ago about race calls, specifically Tom Durkin. He asked, “Have you heard the 1987 Breeders’ Cup call?”

No, I hadn’t.

“Oh, you have to listen to that one! ‘The two Derby winners, HIT the wire together!’ It’s good stuff.’

One of those Derby winners was Ferdinand and the other was Alysheba, trained by Jack Van Berg.

I never knew who Jack Van Berg was until a few months ago. Sad, I know, but I received a galley of Van Berg’s Jack: From Grit to Glory, by Chris Kotulak, and had a chance to interview Kotulak for Saratoga Wire.

About a month after that, Van Berg was on a Breeders’ Cup Experience teleconference as he will be promoting the whole experience—as well as the book—at this weekend’s World Championships.

“I’m going to be talking to the club, signing books, answering questions and talking to people,” Van Berg said. “It’s the greatest experience people can have. It’s the super Bowl, Stanley Cup and World Series rolled into one. You have the greatest jockeys the greatest horses, the beauty of the animal, beautiful full fields of horses.”

A wonderful thing about being involved in this sport, even as a writer, is you get to talk to these people. You get access to legends. Van Berg is like Earl Weaver and Vince Lombardi. Van Berg’s tree branches canopy decades of horse racing. His work ethic and his gruff exterior were inherited from his father, Marion. Van Berg not so much on a book tour as he is acting as a Secretary of State in the foreign affairs of horse racing.

I’ve read most of the book, mainly in pieces, and it is a gripping read.

“I’ve had three complaints,” Van Berg said. “I’ve had three different people tell me they were up all night reading it. They couldn’t put it down. It’s been a great thing.”

Van Berg, a man who has, quite literally, seen it all, I asked him about his stance on more strict drug testing, a topic he eludes to toward the end of the book.

“I don’t think they have the greatest testing equipment,” he said. “Each state has a different place. When you test Olympic athletes they have the best equipment. I think they should put more money, small minute percent out of mutuel funds and have three labs—one in the West, the East, and the Midwest—have the funding for it, the best there is. Tests comes up bad, send the split to the other labs, then you take your penalty.”

And, as he sees it, the penalties are too lenient. After the appeals process, so many trainers keep on working.

“That’s the thing. It’s not been done,” he said. “They talk about it, then they do a little thing, they have a ruling, they slap someone on the hand. When you sign a stall application, if you have the strictest test, you have a bad test, you lose your stalls.”

Van Berg has resumed training out West, but he’ll be moving his operation back to the Midwest where he got his start decades ago. He’ll be at the Breeders’ Cup and he’ll be there telling stories, but also hearing the stories people have of him.

“They all want to tell Jack their Van Berg story,” Kotulak said. “Working for Jack, or their father working for Jack, or their fathers working for Jack’s father.”

I also asked Van Berg where his optimism lies.

“I think they can get it turned around,” Van Berg said. “Here’s what happened: They had the only game in town for all these years so they never did anything to it. Pro football got bigger, hockey, baseball, all got bigger. Racing stood on its own self and didn’t do anything about it. We’ve still go the greatest sport there is. When you talk about the Breeders’ Cup Experience, seeing it, you’re getting the Stanley Cup, the Jockey Club and World Series all in one for two days.”

Written by Brendan O'Meara

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Monday, October 28, 2013

Great Reward at the Great Race Place

At last, we’ve reached the Breeders’ Cup, the opiate for a long year of racing. It’s the perfect weekend, especially when it’s gift wrapped beneath the San Gabriel mountains.

Yes, it’s the perfect weekend: Big, curvy, non-surgically-enhanced fields, long odds on live horses, and big money to attract all the big swingers.

And, really, there are no surprises--except that Arcangues happened at the same track in 1993.

There may be some upsets in store, but, let’s face it, horses running in the Breeders’ Cup are nice horses. If a 15-1 horse wins the Classic, can it really be called an upset?

I think back to the New England Patriots defeating the St. Louis Rams in Super Bowl XXXVI. The Rams were huge favorites on the line in Vegas, something like 13 or 14 points. New England won. It was shocking, yes, but New England went 12-4 that year and made it to the Super Bowl, albeit with a little luck.

Thus, it wasn't that surprising: The team was one of two left standing and happened to win, sparking a modern-day dynasty the likes of which the NFL specifically engineers against.

Same thing with the Breeders’ Cup. All these horses, in some form or another, belong on the stakes to graded-stakes stage. They are classy and they are fast. As written in the Antepost, there’s no shortage of succulent morsels for the passerby and the bar’s regulars.

It was nice to see Conan O’Brien try his luck in the booth calling a race the same way Bobby Flay did at Saratoga. Frankly, I’d rather see Triumph the Insult Comic Dog call the race. Whether it brings Coco-ites into the fringe of horse racing is up for argument, but the crossover is nice to be worthy of his celebrity.

The Breeders' Cup is, in many ways, the yearbook for a given year. We see these faces, we’ve seen them for the entire year. Now we get to look back on replays from January, June, September; see the development, see the triumphs, see the flubs, and string together the beads of this year’s narrative.

The titans who were with us on January, namely Royal Delta, Game On Dude, and Wise Dan are still here, still sound. Others have fallen, namely Orb and, unsettlingly so, Points Offthebench. Almost as unsettling as Dan Illman’s Stage 1 mullet. Another month and he’ll be full-on Joe Dirt.

We get two sighs of relief over the course of 12 months of horse racing and they come at relative times of fatigue: The Derby and the Breeders’ Cup. The Derby prep season lasts for five to six months, depending on when you start your stopwatch. By the time the Derby rolls around we’re ready for it. We need the Derby because we’ve earned it. Just give us the damn roses and Tom Hammond!

In many ways, the rest of the year is a prep for the Breeders’ Cup, on a large scale that is. Our colts and fillies at Parx and Laurel don’t delude themselves with dreams of yellow and purple garlands, but everything else points right to Friday and Saturday.

The season is reverse engineered for peak performance on the World Championships in four to six week chunks. We saw Fort Larned win his way right out of Horse of the Year talk and we saw Mucho Macho Man get reacquainted with SoCal for Kathy Ritvo (I like him. I really do. What does that mean? Stay away, people, stay away.).

It’s a long time coming; we’ve earned it. Let’s hit it hard so we can do it all over again and wonder why the heck it took so long.

Written by Brendan O'Meara

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