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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Monday, September 30, 2013

The Lover of Horses

Following the New York circuit, and the most of the big stakes nationally, you get used to the same names, to the extent that it’s quite boring. The homogenization of Grade 1-talent goes to the few, a monoculture of sorts. But it makes it all the more refreshing and damn near wonderful when you hear a different name win a graded stake, especially when you know that person, especially when you wrote an unpublished book about that person.

I received a voicemail from Good Ol’ Pete that the winner of the Grade 2 Matron Stakes at Belmont Park was won by a Jump Start filly named Miss Behavior, trained by none other than Phil Schoenthal. I was eager to receive the NYRA release to see what he had to say.

"In this game, you learn to temper your expectations,” said Schoenthal. “I didn't expect her to go to the front like that and open up. When she moved to the lead at the three-eighths pole, I said to myself, 'Don't run out of trainer, don't run out of trainer.' I'm sure we'll try her at two turns at some point, but she's a sprinter right now."

I picture him saying this. I hear him saying it. I hear the inflections. I see the hand motions as if he were riding the horse himself, as he once dreamed as a little boy riding a stick horse around his house in Batavia, Illinois. It wasn’t until much later he realized that jockeys were tiny people with tiny hands that it made sense that he couldn’t be a jockey. His full name is Philip, with one ‘L’, and the Greek translation is philihippos: philein meaning to love, hippos meaning horses, lover of horses. If it wasn’t nonfiction, it would be patently trite and lacking.

I picture him saying “Don’t run out of trainer” with a vibrant laugh, charming and media savvy as the day Glenn Craven and I met him back in 2005. Glenn was the Editor-in-Chief of The Daily Dispatch, a small newspaper in Henderson, North Carolina, close to the Virginia border off I-85. I had been hired just three months prior, likely because I started talking about Smarty Jones and Glenn happened to be the one person in North Carolina who loved horse racing.

We received a release that Colonial Downs in New Kent, Virginia was hosting a media day where we’d be able to meet the leading trainer from the year before, 2004. It was July south of the Mason-Dixon Line, the kind of hot that squeezes all the water from you.

The director of communications asked Glenn and I if we wanted to meet last year’s leading trainer. My impressions of horse racing were narrow at this time, to the extent that I thought every trainer looked like Jack Van Berg, weathered and leathered.

She walked us to a well-manicured barn where a tall, skinny man wearing a bush hat raked his shedrow. He appeared to be the adult version of Calvin from Calvin and Hobbes. He was 26-years-old at the time. Phil Schoenthal. This was his first summer on his own. The last two years he was a private trainer for Mike Gill. Both Mark Shuman and Schoenthal trained Gill’s army of horses, even going to the Breeders’ Cup in 2003 with Forest Music, a filly, a sprinter.

So when Glenn and I met Phil he was happy to give us a tour of his barn, giving us the ins and outs, giving a lecture. It was the type of lecture I’d get dozens of time as he would take me under his wing for 2006 and 2007.

Phil would let me hot walk his horses, but I proved to be so inept that I was more a liability than anything. Horses saw fit to walk me, play tug of war with me, push me into walls, push me into wheelbarrows, bite me, rear up on me. Had I been properly wired and under the supervision of a cardiologist, he or she may think I was suffering from cardiac arrest when the lead shank was put in my hand. I didn’t instill any confidence in these horses, especially the two-year-olds.

Everything I know about horse racing I learned from Phil. I know he likes to buy fillies at auction over colts, because, fillies per pound of talent, are cheaper than colts. It allows you to get a more talented horse for the same price. It helps to pay the bills and it keeps owners happy.

Phil used to rub horses back in the mid 90s for an up-and-coming trainer who had just gone out on his own: Todd Pletcher. Phil beat his former boss in the Matron, eliciting this Pletcherism: “"She ran well. Second best."

Yet Garry Cruise, Miss Behavior’s jockey, said, “"I've always wanted to ride here. What a privilege it is to come to New York, and not only to win a graded stakes but to win for such great people. This is like, I would imagine, like a player coming to Yankee Stadium for the first time. The history of the place. It's an honor to be here today."

You hear in Pletcher’s voice the routine of it. You hear in Phil and Cruise’s voice how special it is. The trainer and jockey combo for this race was your classic who and who?

For most people, but not Good Ol’ Pete, and certainly not me.

Phil always used to tell me in horse racing patience is key. He always said the cream rises to the top, that he had to believe that. And the proof was out there on Big Sandy, a filly by Jump Start, trained by the lover of horses.

Written by Brendan O'Meara

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