Saturday, December 12, 2009

Top 10 Stakes Races of the Year

I love the end of the year. For one you get great best-of lists like the Top 10 Books of the Year or Best Moments, you name it.

I also love the end of a year because it allows me to wash off the stench of 365 day’s worth of failure. Get out the sandblaster .... Here it is: MY Top 10 Stakes Races of 2009.

No. 10 — Woodbine Mile
Ventura took on the boys in Canada, and, despite the exchange rate, clobbered this field under Garrett Gomez for the late Bobby Frankel. She made a year that was already one for the ladies even more so with this thrilling stretch drive. Inter-sex competition started with Rachel Alexandra and ended with Zenyatta, but Ventura was right there doing her thing.

No. 9 — The Kentucky Oaks
The coming out party for Rachel Alexandra. She was patiently ridden and then opened up so much daylight that three abreast cruise ships could sail through. Her 20 ¼-length win begged the question as to whether she should have run the following day against the boys in the Derby. Patience eager chaps, she will beat you another day.

No. 8 — The Fleur de Lis
Calvin Borel is known for skimming the fence on his way to victory, but even this race redefined what that meant. Turning for home Borel and Miss Isella looked to squeeze through on the rail but were bumped into the fence and bounced off of it. She came out of the hole with a head of steam and with heavy right-hand whipping, Borel took home this Grade 2 at Churchill.

No. 7 — The Vosburgh
Fabulous Strike, the classiest front-end sprinter of all-time, seemed to have yet another sprint locked up at Belmont Park in this four-horse field. Then Kodiak Kowboy, struggling to get his mojo working, finally kicked it into gear and collared Fabulous Strike to win by a head. The Vosburgh proved you don't need a big field to make for an excellent horse race.

No. 6 — The Wood Memorial
Before Zenyatta started her 2009 campaign and before Rachel Alexandra was asked to the prom, I Want Revenge was the talk of the town. After a terrible break in the Wood, Joe Talamo patiently took him back. He would then redefine the word patience when he moved into contention down the lane, then split horses to hit the wire running and solidify himself as the morning-line favorite to win the Kentucky Derby.

He was then scratched with a leg injury and his trainer, Jeff Mullens, was further proof that men with mustaches shouldn’t be trusted ... except for Magnum P.I.

No. 5 — The Preakness Stakes
The only time Rachel Alexandra was ever asked to run on two weeks rest, she did it by breaking from the far outside — Post 13 — against the boys in the Preakness. Calvin Borel said she didn’t like the track and she still took these sophomores to task with Mine That Bird breathing down her neck at the very end.

No. 4 — The Kentucky Derby
Mine That Bird won only one race all year, but he made it a good one on an off-track. The slight son of Birdstone was masterfully ridden by Calvin Borel, highlighting the rail and then skipping right past Join in the Dance for an improbable win over Pioneerof the Nile and Musket Man.

Since that race it was downhill, but because he’s not quite man and not quite woman, we’ll see him again.

No. 3 — The Breeders’ Cup Classic
The undefeated Zenyatta did what she always did, that was win. She’s not pretty when she does it, but she manages to grind it out and get her picture taken. She has never known a race that ended without a trip to the winner’s circle.

She became the first mare to win the Breeders’ Cup Classic and she did it while tackling a new distance and a new sex. She loped through eight furlongs, heated up in the ninth, and kicked clear in the tenth.

Her win here sparked a California-style heat wave over who should win Horse of the Year. She raced from the month of May to the month of November and was 5-for-5.

No. 2 — Woodward Stakes
Rachel Alexandra became the first three-year-old filly to win the Woodward against older males in the history of the race at Saratoga over Closing Weekend. She went straight to the lead and set uncanny, other-worldly fractions of 22 and 4 and 46 and 2. Bulls Bay, the Whitney winner, approached her on the turn and finished 9 ¾ lengths back of her. Past the Point came up to her with a quarter-mile to go and finished 20 ½ lengths back of her. Da’Tara and Cool Coal Man pressed her at one point or another and had no discernible defeat margin.

Rachel buried them and dug in in a race a that may very well have cemented her Horse of the Year, winning her eighth race in eight tries at seven different tracks from the month of February to the month of September.

No. 1 — Dubai World Cup
Remember this one? Well Armed looked like Spectacular Bid in the 1980 Woodward. The field spotted him daylight out of the gate and he just kept going and going. When they turned for home with 600 meters left, Well Armed widened under little urging. Next thing you know Aaron Gryder starts to hustle him and he wins by a pole. Cigar won the first and Well Armed book-ended Nad Al Sheba for the U.S.A. with his most impressive win.

That is a LOT of Calvin Borel, but what can you say? He was on the best horse in the country and rode in and won some of the most thrilling races of the year.

Let the debate begin.

Written by Brendan O'Meara

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Saturday, November 28, 2009


Some years the turkey comes out dry. Some years the turkey is raw. And for two years worth of Breeders’ Cup racing that turkey came out of the oven gobbling. Naturally we put the BC in the microwave and salvaged the meal. Hold the leftovers, please.

But 2010, now we’re talking. We bought ourselves a deep fryer and we’re not messing around anymore, even if it means burning the house down in a grease fire that Satan would be proud to call his own.

Churchill Downs promises to be a Renaissance, a rebirth of a Breeders’ Cup mired by a medieval serfdom with an inept monarch. Dirt is the Word and along with it will come an enlightened climax.

But the Breeders’ Cup’s locale for 2010 reverberates and ripples the water for the entire calendar year, especially Kentucky Derby weekend. Frankly, the Kentucky Derby could be an afterthought on this weekend with connections looking to get a race on the surface to gauge their Breeders’ Cup aspirations.

For older horses, the Grade 3 Alysheba Stakes, won by eventual Whitney winner, Bulls Bay, will be a proving ground for any number of horses. Possibly Bulls Bay will defend, though he is already proven. For soon-to-be four year olds, we could see Quality Road, Musket Man, Papa Clem and Summer Bird, though for Summer Bird the 1 1/16 will be too short.

The Grade 2 Louisville Distaff — which happened to have Zenyatta entered until the track proved too sloppy — will feature any number of top-rated mares. Alabama winner Careless Jewel and Personal Ensign winner Icon Project, just to name a couple.

Zenyatta was primed to make her 2009 debut in this race, so maybe another champion horse may as well. This is, of course, Rachel Alexandra. She obviously loves Churchill Downs and her rider, Calvin Borel, is the landlord. The beauty of being a dominant female athlete is that there is always the option of running in the female class or male class. Male horses don’t have this luxury, though I’d recommend it to Mine That Bird. At least he has more in common with Rachel than Summer Bird does. You do the math.

The sprint division should have lively entries for the girls and boys. Let’s hope that the classiest front-running sprinter of our time, Fabulous Strike, will be primed for the Churchill Downs Stakes, though seven furlongs is not his strength. This could lure Kodiak Kowboy, Munnings, Vineyard Haven, Capt. Candyman Can, Pyro, or Go Go Shoot.

Sara Louise and Game Face will be viable female sprinters for the Humana Distaff.

And who knows? Perhaps Barbara Banke’s Hot Dixie Chick will win the Kentucky Oaks and be a contender for the BC Ladies’ Classic. Maybe Rachel wins the Breeders’ Cup Classic for her husband, Jess Jackson, and we’ll have the best wedding cake topper this side Life Is Sweet and Zenyatta (hey, it’s California!).

The turf races seem somewhat irrelevant to elaborate on here since the Euro’s will forever be competitive without needing a race over the surface. Wouldn’t it be nice to see Goldikova again? To quote The Simpson’s Groundskeeper Willie, “Goldikova, if it weren’t against God’s law, I’d make ya my wife.”

What all this means is that horse racing will have its names back. North American horse racing is dirt racing and whoever should win important races at Churchill, Saratoga, Belmont, and Gulfstream will not be compromised and will not have excuses for skipping the Breeders’ Cup.

Since the synthetics will be taken out of the equation, many of the traditional dirt tracks — not just Churchill — will benefit. Saratoga lost some good horses to Presque Isle so that horseman could prep a horse over a synthetic to see if they could run in the BC at Santa Anita. Save the fake stuff for inclement and brisk locales like Turfway or Woodbine. Keep it out of southern California, Texas, Kentucky, and, yes, Dubai.

But like a bad opening act, Santa Anita bored the crowd and ran over a puppy — a cute one too — so it will be up to the headliner riding its coat tails to do something about it. Ladies and Gentlemen … Churchill Downs.

Nick Zito won’t have to lay his horses up after Saratoga and North America will have its horse racing back.

Now get off the couch and make yourself a leftover-turkey sandwich. You’ve earned it, sport.

Written by Brendan O'Meara

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BallHype: hype it up!

Saturday, November 14, 2009

Ladies Day Breeders’ Cup Diary

LAKE PLACID, NY — So this is it, Breeders’ Cup Weekend, where all our hopes and dreams will be realized. What a pitifully hopeful statement. Unfortunately for those of us who have no job and whose unemployment runs out in two weeks, it makes this BC Weekend deeply unsettling (and yes, I’ve applied to many jobs to no avail). Especially those of us who have a gambling itch like Seinfeld’s Cosmo Kramer in the Diplomats Club at JFK.
That’s what it comes down to: a weekend with a few buddies and a keg of bad beer, mulling around scattered OTB tickets of which I have no investment.
There’s Pete, Jeff, Tommy, Tiny, Corporal, and Troy ironing out Pick 3s and Pick 4s, dirty bastards. Without further delay, it is time to relive the Breeders’ Cup Weekend without any of that stuffed up negativity.

3:35 ... Just like when Homer Simpson went sober, he found how terribly boring baseball was without beer. Such revelations are alive here, just replace beer with currency, and baseball with horse racing. Wow, this sport can be boring without the benjies. But you know, getting to see the best horses in the world compete is pretty cool in and of itself.
I have this friend (not present), Mike, and he was drinking a pumpkin ale at The Local in the art district of Saratoga Springs. His boss was with us at the time, someone who Mike apes like a child worshipping an older sibling. His boss also had a pumpkin ale, but thought it unfit for his palate. So what does Mike say? ‘I don’t like it either. It’s not perfect enough for me.’ I just about lost it. Lost it.
And that has been the overall BC sentiment with regards to Santa Anita. You know what? I took a swig of that pumpkin ale (backwash and all), it was not only good, but perfect enough for me. So too is this BC. Let’s get it on Marathon!
Yes, listen to the Pro-Ride hit the hoof, sounds so, so, natural, the way waves in a waterbed sound every bit as soothing as the Cape Cod surf.
Check out that L.A. smog too, gotta be good for the horses. This race is boring, you’re boring, Marathon, stop being boring. And there goes Man of Iron! What a start to the Ladies Day ... with a win for the men. Hmmm ...

3:38 ... Oh, no, Jeff, a 260-pound former catcher in the Blue Jays farm system is doing a keg stand. Didn’t we outgrow this? Oh, no.
What this party needs is a little Jeannine Edwards. Oh, there she is, talking horse safety and the ‘rigorous physical examination process.’ Amen, my fair lady. And there’s the token European reporter, accent and everything. ESPN left nothing to chance.

3:45 ... Starting to look over PP’s that litter Good Ol’ Pete’s apartment. Like leaving an alcoholic an open bottle of Jim Beam.

3:58 ... And what’s this? Zenyatta is even money tomorrow. Off the board, that’s what I say. And that’s my lllllock of the weekend. I’ve never surer of anything in my life.

4:08 ... Time for the Juvenile Filly Turf and, from what Good Ol’ Pete told me, USA Today’s Tom Pedulla said that Maram will be back to defend her crown in the Juvvy filly turf. This is the most impressive feat of the weekend. Forget Zenyatta taking on the boys tomorrow. Forget that. Maram has found a way to go back in time and compete against a new set of juvvy turfers. Wait a tick, she withdrew, I only hope Pedulla made that statement tongue-in-cheek, that Maram was in this race only to withdraw. Man, I hope.

4:10 ... Tapitsfly keeps my gambling friends alive in a monster Pick 3. I love to vicariously live through people who have the presence of mind to avoid the arts.
The guys need either Connie and Michael or Beautician to hit the Pick 3 and send them into a frenzy the likes of which are reserved only for winners and chronic dope users.

4:50 ... Oh ... no, She Be Wild gets there in the BC Juvenile Fillies with that little Frenchy Julien Leparoux. It’s been quite a while since I’ve heard such a string of expletives.
But it’s onto the Filly and Mare Turf where Maram has shown up. Look at her! Not only did she try to defend her BC Juv. Filly Turf, but she’s going up against Forever Together. This. Is. Drama.

5:25 ... Jeff is crying for a Mexican Flag dinner at the Downhill Grill here in Lake Placid. It’s three enchiladas — one cheese, one beef, one chicken — layered with red, green, and white sauce to make the perfect Mexican flag. For the vegetarian it’s just another thing that is out of reach, like a job, success, and paternal approval.

5:26 ... But it looks like Midday just shot up the rail to win the 10-furlong turf test in a time of 1:59.14. Forever Together just didn’t get a good shot at it, poor gal.

5:30 ... Starting to wish I had placed some bets despite this stench of failure that is in the room.

6:02 ... Pete is worried that there won’t be any pace in the F&M Sprint. He is worried that Informed Decision will get an easy lead and not look back. Oh, and there she goes, like Flo-Jo, an easy lead, an easy win. Looks like Johnny Sheppard got some redemption after Forever Together’s dud. Pete calls for 3G’s on Game Face. Things that make you go hmmmm.
This whole USA vs. Europe thing is pretty lame. The Ryder Cup of horse racing! That is until it goes back to dirt and the Euros will be relegated to a Parisian bistro and a bad nightclub. I love when networks try to make something that isn’t interesting interesting. For instance, this USA vs. Europe rivalry is not even worth the effort since the U.S. has more entrants than Shawn Kemp has illegitimate children. Or the Randy Moss EXACT-O-MATIC. Watching him smash his finger on the screen to drag over an icon is humorous. If he doesn’t watch it, his index finger may become lamnitic.
The only thing better is the B-List celebrity. Like Charlie O’Connell, the less attractive brother to Jerry O’Connell. Take what you can get. Not all of us can get Ben Affleck and Jennifer Garner. Hell, I’d take Shakira and her wonderful, wonderful curves. Hey, this is Ladies Day.

6:30 ... So this is the Zenyatta-less Ladies Classic and this is the spot I wanted to see Zenyatta run for fear that she will lose tomorrow. Then again, this is a strong field and perhaps her best shot is tomorrow. There’s Careless Jewel, who, if she gets a relaxed lead, could do some damage. There’s Music Note, who is like Yo-Yo Ma — straight nasty — who should win this thing. Life Is Sweet is interesting as a John Shirreffs trainee.
C’mon, gimme John Shirreffs on the fence, show me that blue-collar ball cap. Show me what love is, yes! There he is. In touch with the low-life commoners spitting and drooling behind him. Life Is Sweet at 8-1. Good Ol’ Pete is happy with that and loves Mushka underneath.

6:43 ... I love The Onion and Humor is right up my alley. If I worked for The Onion (please, oh, please) I might write a headline like, Zenyatta: Urges track super to move outside rail in to encourage Mike Smith from going 14-wide. Or, Report: Horses turning to other sports for entertainment. Or, Grasshopper confused by own name.

6:45 ... And Away They Go ... Part of me, ok, all of me loves Careless Jewel. I’m a sucker for Alabama winners. I am. Proud Spell, were it not for simple evolutionary biology, might be in foal to me and not Indian Charlie. Fact: She loves candy apple martinis.
And Trevor Denman just said that Careless Jewel’s stride is shortening up. This is bad, this is real bad. Who is that coming down the center of the track? It’s Life Is Sweet, though, I must disagree with that name. Life Is Bitter. Too predictable. Life Is Battery Acid. Now we’re talkin’.
Good Ol’ Pete, strangely, kept his clothes on as Mushka rounded out the exacta. An 8-1 to over a 16-1? Says Pete, “That’ll easily pay $200-300.” What’s that? It pays $80.
Awwwww! Sorry, buddy.

7:00 ... Gambling glands are salivating. I haven’t placed a bet since Travers Day and I’m thinking that I’m going to have to throw my hat in the ring. There’s a crumpled Hamilton in my pocket. I mean you only live once, right? You only die once too, but that’s another conversation.
I mean, you don’t lose money in Vegas, you make money. And, and, gambling is the greatest thing a man do IF he’s good at it.
Stay tuned for Saturday’s Diary.

Written by Brendan O'Meara

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BallHype: hype it up!

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