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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Monday, October 07, 2013

Of Hondas and Horse Racing

The Japanese simply do things better than us. They make better cars. They make way better samurais. And they make better horse racing.

In a story by CNN, it reports on the superiority of horse racing in the Land of the Rising Punt. There was a time when horse racing had a seedy reputation, was muscled by organized crime bosses and harbored no public trust.

American sport fans can relate. Horse racing’s reputation as a horse butchering industry precedes it with many people. Even among the few horse players remaining, the trust among them with the racetrack organizations is jaded and frayed. Yet Japan is thriving.

We can all agree there are too many race dates. We can all agree that it waters down race cards. Winter horse racing in this country rarely has large, bettor-friendly fields. Even in the summer with Saratoga going 40 days and six days a week has watered its product down. Now get a load of what the Japanese do.
Instead of having week-long meets, they race on Saturday’s and Sundays. It effectively turns every weekend into our Breeders’ Cup weekend: Big money, huge fields, great competition, and salty payouts.

Not only that, but trainers condition a maximum of 30 horses. Call it a Horse Cap. This has a resonant effect of showcasing the amount of talent among horseman all over the country. Think of all the trainers in America who wallow in squalor because they fail to recruit the owners willing to buy better athletes. The playing field is not equal.

There’s two paths for a trainer to break through in this country. One, the trainers grinds away on his/her own and hopes to get lucky with a random horse that propels them to fame. Akin to winning the lottery. Two, be an assistant trainer to “the machine”, go out on your own and take some decent stock with you. Then hope you can carry that momentum. Not a slam dunk either, just look at Seth Benzel. And, according to Equibase, Benzel is no longer training horses.

In the CNN piece, Ed Dunlop, a foreign trainer in Japan, said, "It's enormous compared to what we're used to. Horses have huge followings and jockeys too. You'll see posters of them out there, which you'd never see in the UK for a second. At the Japan Cup (the biggest race on the calendar), there's 100,000 people there. The atmosphere is like nothing I've heard before. The noise is genuinely unbelievable."

We see posters of horses and jockeys at the racetracks, but this is merely decorative. Here all you’re doing is advertising to people who already go to the track, few as they are. What about an Orb banner in Times Square leading up to the Jockey Club Gold Cup? (Sure, you would’ve witnessed a dud, but, hey, you would’ve witnessed it.) The horse is imposing in person, so throw him up against the biggest athletes in Times Square. Show the world our best athletes are the ones with four legs. That would have to bring in some people.

I’m using arbitrary numbers here, but they’re not too far off. Racing five days a week, nine races a day with average fields of seven horses, makes for 315 entries. Racing two days a week, for 10 races a day with 14 horses in each field is 280 entries of better racing and better betting. The purses are higher and so too is the competition.

I, for one, would love a sport that gave us a week leading up to a full day of Super Saturday-style racing every week. There could be an Graded Stakes Pick 5 every Saturday and Sunday. Or Friday and Saturday so as not to butt up against the other sport that plays once a week and is the most popular watch in the country.

There’s a reason I’ve driven a Honda since 1998, a reason why I pass the Karaoke mike, and a reason I learned from them how to deal with tyrannical dinosaurs: The Japanese do things better than we do.

Written by Brendan O'Meara

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Wednesday, October 02, 2013

The Fall of Orb

The Jockey Club Gold Cup likely had, what, a third of the Breeders’ Cup Classic field in a month’s time? That was a nice, hard-knockin’ kind of field. What as the bigger shock? Ron the Greek almost running off the screen, or Orb, the Kentucky Derby winner, finishing last?

I wrote not too long ago that I thought this would be The Autumn of Orb, turns out it’s going to be The Fall of Orb. I don’t see how he bounces out of this race and runs back to the form that made him the scariest threat to win the Triple Crown since Big Brown. At least Big Brown won the Preakness.

Orb looked like he was galloping for 10 furlongs without the slightest sense of urgency. The thing is, Orb never gave his connections any indication, so they say, that he’d run no faster than a pig at the county fair.

"Going over [to saddle for the Jockey Club Gold Cup], I think we were all very, very confident, and it was disappointing, to say the least,” said Buzz Tenney, assistant to Orb’s trainer, Shug McGaughey.

Leading up to and through the Triple Crown, we were all wearing Shug Goggles when it came to Orb. Because of the care he takes with his horses, the stock on Orb was higher than it should have been. But maybe, more poignantly, winning the Derby doesn’t necessarily mean you’re a good horse.

The Derby is probably won, first and foremost, by the luckiest horse. The horse, by most accounts, still has to have some talent, but by and large the luckiest horse wins.

War Emblem, in 2002, won the Derby and Preakness, but didn’t do much after that. Funny Cide won the Derby and Preakness, but didn’t do much until his four-year-old year. Giacomo, in 2005, won the Derby, but took a year to win another race. Mine That Bird, in 2009, never won again. Super Saver, in 2010, never won again. If we remove our Shug Goggles, maybe Orb is just another horse who was plenty nice enough to win the Derby and, well, nothing else.

Orb may have been lucky that Palace Malice had blinkers on in the Derby taking him out of his game, setting brutal fractions and taking several other contenders right out of the race. Palace Malice has proven to be the cream of the three-year-old crop (Go, Curlin!).

No thanks to several trainers following the Kentucky Derby, the fall of Orb burns all the more because he was handed the Triple Crown. So many folks are starving for a Triple Crown winner and Orb was it. If the Darkness nearly won it 2008, then the lightness was set to restore balance this year.

So Orb finished fourth in the Preakness. Then third in the Belmont. Then third in the Travers. Then last in the Jockey Club Gold Cup.

His move on the turn in the Travers was so strong that it appeared to be the type of move that wins two-turn races. With some extra conditioning, he could sustain it the way he did in Kentucky. He’d already raced at Belmont, a respectable third, so it appeared that 10 furlongs at Big Sandy would be a recipe for great things. I know I wasn’t alone in thinking he’d win.

Orb is down at Fair Hill, the same resort he visited after the Belmont Stakes. Frankly, he shouldn’t be so fatigued that he needs to be holed up like Howard Hughes, putting his hooves in tissue boxes.

After this he must fly across the country to tackle the likes of Game On Dude, Palace Malice, Ron the Greek (bounce?), Flat Out and Royal Delta (maybe?).

The fall of Orb stings all the more since his heights were once so unspeakably tall.

Written by Brendan O'Meara

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