Monday, September 23, 2013

Fort Larned Could Win Another Classic and Lose Horse of the Year Crown--Again

Folks who vote for Horse of the Year just had their decision for whoever wins this award made a whole one horse easier when their ballots arrive. With such honors wide open you start to see where trainers place their horses to give them their best shot at winning something iconic, to one day say, as Ra’s Al Ghul so eloquently put it, “I told you I was immortal.”

Which makes it all the more perplexing that Fort Larned, last year’s winner of the Breeders’ Cup Classic, will forego the $1 million Jockey Club Gold Cup for an inaugural stakes race at Churchill Downs, the Homecoming Classic. What’s next? The Prom?

A solid chunk of Horse of the Year candidates will spar in the JCGC, namely Orb, Palace Malice, Cross Traffic and Flat Out. If they put together a win at Belmont and a win in the Breeders’ Cup Classic, they’ll be on the short list. But when Fort Larned faces six—including Golden Ticket, last year’s co-winner of the Travers Stakes—going nine furlongs in an ungraded stake he took himself completely out of consideration even if he wins his next two races.

"Our goal is to try and win the Breeders’ Cup Classic again,” Ian Wilkes said, Fort Larned’s trainer “We want to do what we feel is right for the horse. We keep him here and run him a mile and an eighth. He’s on his track with a one-race ship. Otherwise I’m going to ship to Belmont and ship back again. It just fit into our plans to run him here. If we didn’t have the September Meet and didn’t have this race, we would have gone to the Jockey Club.”

Fort Larned was an impressive winner of the Grade 1 Stephen Foster back in June on his home track of Churchill Downs, his only win of the year. The horse did recently have one of those workouts that had Wilkes say, “He came off the track with authority. He walked off the track like he owned the place. That’s what I liked about it – he’s got that air of confidence about him.”

Still, that’s all the more reason to put him on a van to run for more money and to position him to win the Holy Grail of Eclipse Awards. Trainers don’t often get a chance to train a Horse of the Year candidate. For his troves of Grade 1s and trainer titles across the land, Todd Pletcher has never had a horse win Horse of the Year. So when you have your shot, you take your shot.

Running at Churchill Downs may be nice for a little cache for its “Downs After Dark” (which just sounds like an awful sequel to Johnny Knoxville’s “The Ringer”) program. So what? Fort Larned will run against six out-classed horses who likely won’t be running in anything short of the Clark Handicap by the end of the year. Just hand the older division to Game On Dude now.

Wilkes appears to be making the travel plans easier on Fort Larned. To run at Belmont and then Santa Anita requires only two extra van rides: One to Belmont, one back from Belmont, then fly out to California. Keeping him home only requires the flight, but it’s pennywise and pound foolish. By keeping him home and easing his travel plans he will lose Horse of the Year no matter what happens in SoCal.

A year ago he prepped in the Jockey Club Gold Cup and finished third. He then went on to win the Breeders’ Cup Classic. The formula worked a year ago, though he did get beat out by a grass miler for Horse of the Year. Such is life.

This year has been fluky for this son of E. Dubai. He won his first race at Gulfstream, though he lost his rider. Of course, it was a DNF, but it was proof for jockey haters that they are unnecessary to win a horse race. His next race was the Oaklawn Handicap where he finished fifth. Then he won the Stephen Foster, then finished fifth in the Whitney. This pattern sets up nicely for a win in his next start. That will happen, yes, but it will be in the wrong spot at the right time.

If he runs in the Gold Cup he’d be up against Cross Traffic on the front end and that could lead to a taxing pre-Breedres’ Cup race. Fort Larned would win that battle, but he may lose the war. Cross Traffic will hit a red light at the eighth pole.

The year 2013 didn’t start well for Fort Larned but two 10-furlong Grade 1-wins at the end of the year may have been enough to sway the voters in his direction. Memory is short. Instead, he’s running for less money and less honor. This is like prepping for the Derby at Ellis Park. What the heck is going on here?

Written by Brendan O'Meara

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Monday, September 16, 2013

Smashed and Grabbed

I always love the gut-punch reactions I read on social media sites when an event happens. Most of it is so superfluous and wrought with emotion it turns what can be a serious moment into triviality. Such was my reaction when I heard that five trophies were stolen from the National Racing Museum and Hall of Fame. Ting-a-ling.

My first reaction, however, was this is the ultimate hipster heist. Put on your fedora, chinos and letterman jacket and repeat after me: I mean everybody robs banks and retail stores. I mean, the place I hit, you’ve probably never heard of it. Now pass me my roller skate key.

Let’s face it, the museum was an easy mark because relatively few people outside racing care, save for the Facebookers and a few trustees. There clearly are people who feel disgusted by it but they are only trophies. You can’t steal the memory the trophy commemorates. Make a new one. This isn’t the Declaration of Independence or the Rosetta Stone.

The heist is being called a “smash-and-grab” robbery. I’ve once tried the “get smashed and grab” technique at the bars and left with a black eye. Totally worth it.

As for this latest caper better left to the skill of Fred, Daphne, Velma, Shaggy and Scooby-Doo, it appears to be done by a pro. This man or woman, no doubt, scouted this location and knew exactly where the displays were. The thief bounced in under three minutes. It would’ve been much cooler had Danny Ocean been involved.

A similar heist took place 10 months ago when 14 gold and silver trophies were stolen from the Harness Museum and Hall of Fame in Goshen. One trophy was the 18-karat Memphis Gold Challenge Cup won in 1902 by Lou Dillon.

Lt. John Catone, of the Saratoga Springs Police Department, said, “There are a tremendous amount of similarities. There’s a good possibility they’re linked.”

It appears the SSPD might have missed its chance. But don’t slap a horse on the behind while walking down Caroline Street. No fewer than three officers will tackle you, cuff and arrest you for “attempted murder of an animal” before finally, three months later, issuing you a parking ticket. But that’s another story.

The end game for this thief or thieves could be to melt the solid gooooold and silver and, presumably, make three rings for the Elven-kings, seven for the Dwarf-lords, nine for Mortal Men and One for the Dark Lord:

One Ring to rule them all. One Ring to find them,
One Ring to bring the all and in the darkness bind them.
In the Lad of Mordor where the Shadows lie.

The race, as they say, is against the clock. Our cat burglar, no doubt, has his own Mt. Doom by which he can forge these precious metals into unrecognizable, impersonal blocks (or the previously mentioned Rings of Power).

So when Christopher Dragone, director of the museum and Hall of Fame said, “These trophies are irreplaceable. We are saddened by this unfortunate event and hopeful that the investigation leads to the apprehension of the individual or individuals who committed this crime and the return of the trophies,” we feel for him.

At this point, four days removed from this writing, the trophies are gone, forged and melted by the fire. Hopefully something can be made from the security footage because these senseless acts of violence are hurtful no matter how few people are affected by it, a sad reminder of the times we live in.

The museum will need to revamp its security, a purely reactive measure, but necessary nonetheless.

Odds are the worst is behind the museum and no thief will strike the same place twice, but it should be a lesson that nobody is safe, not even a shrine to a sport decades past its prime.

Written by Brendan O'Meara

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Sunday, September 08, 2013

Summer of George, Autumn of Orb

For all that’s made about Saratoga in the summer, Belmont Park in the fall can hold its own. I’ve only been to Belmont Park a few times (2008 Belmont Week for Big Brown, 2008 Jockey Club Gold Cup Day for Curlin, and 2009 Belmont Day where I drew up a Pick 3 ticket on my blog that cost $18 and paid $1,300. No, I didn’t play it.).

Too far a drive for this guy, but you better believe the Orb will be making the trip, this year’s winner of the Breeders’ Cup Classic. But we’re getting ahead of ourselves.

Three-year-olds coming into their skin in the fall are every bit as exciting as the ones getting used to their skin in the spring. There’s this collective feeling that we’ve seen them grow up. It’s the ultimate compression in sports. In so many other sports, take football for instance, we watched Peyton Manning have an iconic career at Tennessee, be the No. 1 pick, struggle with Colts, excel with the Colts, have his neck torn open, have his neck sewed back together, miss a year in his prime, get cut from the Colts, sign with Broncos, fail in the playoffs thanks to a fluke bomb, and now throw seven (!) touchdown passes to open the troubled NFL season.

(Mrs. Carryover let out a blood curdling yell this morning, think William Wallace after the Battle of Stirling. Mrs. Carryover has Manning and Demaryius Thomas on her fantasy team, The Spaceman Spiffs. She’s winning 88-0.)

But with horses, their “college” career may be the tail-end of their two-year-old year. Their prime, for most of them, is their three-year-old year and we watch them cram all that triumph and failure into six to eight races. Then they retire.

What we’ve seen with Orb is nothing short of a Manning-like arc. A promising early career, giving up a loss to Violence (the same way Manning could never beat Florida), followed by “regular-season” triumphs in the pros with wins in the Fountain of Youth and Florida Derby, and a Super Bowl win in the Derby. (Three-year-olds get two Super Bowls: the Derby and Breeders’ Cup Classic.)

Since the Derby, Orb has had a Manning-esque post-season flounder. The fourth in the Preakness and the third in the Belmont were sub-Orb efforts. His trainer, Shug McGaughey, sent him to time out in Maryland.

Orb returned in the Travers and made a winning run between the 3/8ths pole and the quarter pole. He held on for third, but that move he made—and his inability to sustain it—simply proved he wasn’t race fit. How could he? He hadn’t raced in over two months then dived right into a 10-furlong race against a strong field of proven sophomores.

If Palace Malice breaks well and Mike Smith doesn’t have 2010-Zenyatta-In-The-Breeders’-Cup-Classic flashback, maybe Palace Malice wins and Orb finishes fourth. Fourth, third, it didn’t matter. Shug sees the forest while others see the trees, which is why the Jockey Club Gold Cup will be a sweet time to cash a fat win bet on Orb at about 3-1

Three-year-olds have fared well in this race over the past decade. Three times since 2003 a three-year-old has won. Summer Bird in 2009, Curlin in 2007, and Bernardini in 2006. Only Curlin won the Breeeders’ Cup Classic that year. Bernardini was the best horse in 2006, was pretty rank in the Classic, and still almost beat Invasor.

Still, you have to go back to 1997 to see the only other horse complete the JCGC-BCC double. That was Skip Away as a four-year-old. Curlin was the only three-year-old in the history of both races to pull off that double. I think Orb will be the second.

Here’s the deal: when Curlin pulled off the great post-Triple Crown run this was his schedule post-Belmont Stakes (where, for all intents and purposes, he won): Haskell, JCGC, Breeders’ Cup Classic. Three post-Triple Crown races. His other rivals had four (namely Hard Spun and Street Sense).

Orb, if all goes according to plan, will only have two post-Triple Crown races: Travers, JCGC, Breeders’ Cup Classic. He will come into both of these races fresher than anyone. The Travers was his second-half-of-the-year Fountain of Youth, a prep. The JCGC will be huge, setting the table for fireworks in Santa Anita.

A star is always brightest before it burns out

Written by Brendan O'Meara

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