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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Monday, October 21, 2013

Getting charged up for the Breeders’ Cup

I was in a press box at Corinth High School covering a football game between Hoosick Falls and Corinth. Not that his has anything to do with anything, but it was one of those perfect Friday nights: The community all came out, the 50-50 raffle was over $1,000, the lights were on, helmets smashed. There’s hardly a better way to spend a Friday night.

In said press box I ran into a colleague of mine who also is tightly associated with horse racing. During half time he asked me if I was excited for the Breeders’ Cup. My default answer was, yes, I was, but then I got to thinking that there isn’t as much buzz around with this year’s renewal. He felt the same. He couldn’t point to a race, besides the Classic, that incited the fervor.

Aside from Wise Dan, there’s no real exciting turf horse, if the turf is ever worth getting excited about this side of the Atlantic. Little Mike is nice, but he’s no English Channel vs. Dylan Thomas. Even Wise Dan, as turf miler, is no Goldikova.

The juvenile division, I suppose, is what it is. It’s a Pletcher Industrial Complex showcase. The juvenile division is the Little League World Series of the Breeders’ Cup. The winners can shave at an early age, but usually peter out when the rest of the gang gets a hold of their own Gillette Fusion razors. Would you rather be Sean Burroughs or I’ll Have Another? (Burroughs, it must be said, has had what you may consider a nice, little career in the Bigs. He’s currently in the Dodgers organization but hasn’t broken through. Given the pressure mounted on this guy, a guy I admired watching the LLWS as a 12-year-old, since we’re the same age, and I because I had similar aspirations, it’s amazing he stayed clean and is still going. But he’s no Street Sense.)

The Distaff has risen to be a great headliner to Friday’s card with the addition of Princess of Sylmar. Yet another feat to commend both the owner and the trainer: They planned on skipping the Breeders’ Cup. How tempting a mistress must the Breeders’ Cup be? Then again, maybe it’s less tempting when you have such a good horse, you figure you can get your money over the course of another year versus burning her out in one race. It’s probably more tempting to have a marginally talented horse and run in the Breeders’ Cup more to say you did rather than have a legitimate shot.

But, it appears, PofS will square off against Royal Delta again. Royal Delta, who was at one time, pointed toward the Classic, will run against her own gender. A year ago, I wanted her to run against the boys because, a year later, how can you be sure she’ll be in any shape or form to run a year in the future? You can’t forecast ahead four weeks in this sport, let alone a year. In the end it works.

The Classic, as usual, is worth the wait the entire weekend whether or not the opening acts fire or not. With the Mile setting the stage for the Classic, and Game On Dude presumably being a heavy favorite, you could ALL-ALL-Wise Dan-Game On Dude your way to Paunch Burger.

My friend from the press box likes Golden Ticket, likes him as a bomb. Palace Malice is, without question, very live. But our hero Joel Rosario chose to ride Flat Out in the Classic. Flat Out runs like Orb. That can be construed as an insult at this point, but the running styles are similar and Rosario is as quiet as a librarian.

Game On Dude, if nothing else, is the type of horse who always runs his race. Being a front runner, he’s going to bring his game, his style, to the track. There’s no secret with him. He’s like Fabulous Strike or Ghostzapper. It’s always his race to lose and this year he hasn’t lost at all.

The last time he lost was the Classic. At Santa Anita. Against many of the horses he’ll face in two weeks.

Game on, dudes.

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Written by Brendan O'Meara

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Wednesday, October 16, 2013

A Bridge (and horse) to Remember

So Verrazano, Master of Nine Furlongs, turned in what was dubbed a “bullet” workout as he readies for the Dirt Mile.

The time was only 1:01.08 and was called a “bullet.” 1:01 seems slow to be dubbed a bullet, but it was the fastest of 14 works, so I suppose it’s all relative. After explosive wins at Monmouth in the Pegasus and Haskell, he was handed a win in the Travers. But, as some people thought, 10 furlongs was always too much for this son of More Than Ready. Fail.

Verrazano, if he sticks around for another year, could be similar in running style and fan fare to Shackleford. Shackleford was able to win, in dramatic fashion, a race of considerable distance in the Preakness. But after that he was relegated to sprints and miles, right in his wheelhouse. Verrazano could be that.

Verrazano is a bear. Watching his race in the Wood, he looms a dark shadow before overcoming and overmatching this field.

Shackleford had charisma, a big, white blaze, and a gutsy head-lunging running style that gives him the added look of a horse running his heart out. There was a lot of Rocky in Shack. He was also trained by Dale Romans, a trainer who is more cuddly than Todd Pletcher.

It’s not Pletcher’s style to let people get acquainted with his horses the way others do. Perhaps that has more to do with the fact that after their three-year-old year they’re gone.

Shackleford had groupies. Verrazano can only hope to avoid Groupie Doll.

There’s no reason why Verrazano can’t become an iconic horse to watch, except for retirement. He’s already a proven multiple Grade 1 winner at two turns and a millionaire. Verrazano could be as exciting to watch as Wise Dan, Groupie Doll and Fabulous Strike (maybe the greatest front-end sprinter of all time).

Pletcher horses are more like Nazgul horses. They don’t seem huggable. They appear to carry Ring Wraiths. That’s likely by design. When was the last Fan Favorite Pletcher Horse? Rags to Riches? And that was only because she was a filly who ran just one more time after she defeated Curlin the 2007 Belmont Stakes. That’s as close as we got to a cuddly Pletcher horse. But that’s how he rolls.

English Channel might have had a chance, but he was a turf router, maybe the only thing less popular than a turf miler. I’d love to be able to see the age breakdown (poor word choice?) of Pletcher’s horses. Every other sport, especially baseball, has stats for everything. WHIP, anyone?

Horse racing has great handicapping data, but would it be nice to see at a glance who a trainer performs with two-year-olds, three-year-olds, and four-year-olds? I’d love to know how many of each age each trainer has. It's like a following a football coach and not knowing his full roster.

I’d like to see how a trainer performs with older horses, a testament to keeping horses sound and healthy for more than just a flash in the pan.

My point is, Verrazano could be an exciting animal to watch race for six or seven times next year. He could be a top sprinter and the type of industry horse that would please the people already wedded to this game. Just like Curlin. Just like Shack.

But, like many Pletcher horses, they’re gone after three. That’s no knock on him. His brand is two- and three-year-olds. Hopefully we see more of Verrazano and he doesn’t become a forgotten bridge like these from The Dark Knight Rises (minute 2:30).

Written by Brendan O'Meara

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