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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Monday, October 14, 2013

Rosario: A Case Study for Off-Seasons

You know the old saying: Absence makes the heart grow fonder. That’s an adage from which horse racing can learn a lesson. I’ve beaten that drum far too much. What used to taste like Boston Lager now tastes like Bud Light.

And with the return of Joel Rosario back to the irons, back to the winners circle, and back to the future, his absence made our hearts yearn for the guy who wins million-dollar races as often as Rick Grimes kills a zombie.

Way back in January, Rosario geared up his campaign, a time when Obama began his second term, Colin Kaepernick was the talk of the NFL, and Animal Kingdom was still in the United States.

Rosario had a winter and spring that would make Ramon Dominguez in his prime look like Charlie Brown.

Rosario had Animal Kingdom fall in his lap and rode him to what would be the final win of AK’s impressive career. Ten million Dubai Dollars for passing ‘go.’

He blitzed through the Keeneland Spring Meet breaking the wins record by six with 38 wins. It helps to be the first-call rider for the Ramseys. Their 25 wins on the meet shattered the previous spring record by 13. Sometimes the racing gods shine on you.

Everything Rosario touched turned to roses. After the Florida Derby, a race won by the once-indestructible Orb and formerly ridden by this rich dude, Rosario opened his stocking to find a live, Kentucky Derby favorite. The pace scenario took all the contenders on the front end out of the Derby allowing a mud-caked Rosario to charge to victory. He had two more races to run, but he had already won the Triple Crown. Dubai World Cup. Keeneland. Triple Crown.

Then he didn’t.

The son of Malibu Moon was eclipsed in the Preakness and Belmont.

But Rosario took Saratoga by storm. While Orb went to an all-inclusive resort to decompress, Rosario plundered away. He was set to ride Orb all over again in the Travers Stakes, maybe reassert Orb’s standing among the three-year-olds.

The same racing gods that gave him such a world-conquering spring, dropped a Thor-hammer on his foot. On Aug. 23, Casual Elegance stumbled and dumped Rosario. The result was a broken bone in Rosario’s foot. No Travers. No Saratoga title. He still finished third the standings with 41 wins—still more than a win a day. He had 101 fewer mounts than Javier Castellano, who finished with 66 wins.

Not only was he set to ride Orb in the Travers (Maybe he wins. He knows the horse better than Jose Lezcano. Like how many licks it takes to reach the center of a Tootsie Pop: The World May Never Know.), but he was going to ride Game On Dude, America’s sweetheart, in the Pacific Classic. It’s Murphy’s Law, and horse racing is Murphy’s favorite client: Anything that can go wrong, will go wrong. I’d also call it the Pessimist’s Manifesto.

At last, Rosario made his return to the saddle and won at Belmont Park, just in time for the Breeders’ Cup. It’s an interesting dichotomy with jockeys and athletes in other sports.

Rob Gronkowski, tight end of the New England Patriots, was supposed to play against the Saints this past Sunday. Yet he didn’t. There are conflicting reports, but some say he may be holding out for fear of getting hurt again, for fear of compromising his ability to make a bigger contract.

Derek Rose sat out the entire 2012-2013 NBA season because of a knee injury that didn’t heal to his expectations. I have no issue with either of these two cases. They know their bodies and if they’re not confident in their ability to maximize their physical assets, then, by all means, sit out. Owners and coaches run these guys out to slaughter.

It’s different with jockeys. There’s no incentive to remain on the shelf. Because there’s no off-season, there’s little time to heal and all the time to lose business. An off-season in horse racing would allow jocks to get time off to heal their broken bodies, maybe even have a few months to not incessantly worry about making weight. Maybe have a pizza and a beer.

An off-season would be nice for horses and jocks to mend wounds. An off-season would be nice for people who follow this sport. Because, as we all know, absence makes the heart grow fonder.

Written by Brendan O'Meara

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