Monday, December 23, 2013

Mine That Bird Rises

When rumors flared that there would be a movie about Mine That Bird, I was at first amused, then angry, then a little hungry, then confused, but ultimately a bit intrigued. Sadly, for the movie, its most famous actor, if you want to call him that, is Calvin Borel, who will be playing the only thing he knows how to play: Himself.

The trailer for “50 to 1”, unlike the great horse racing movies "Seabiscuit" and "Secretariat", puts the emphasis not on the horse but on the wacky bandits who somehow managed to get Shrek’s donkey to the Derby. The trailer shows the transformation of a once-bipedal Chip Woolley triangulate his lower limbs. It shows the meeting of Woolley and Mark Allen, one of the principle owners of Mine That Bird. Allen famously came to Woolley’s aid in a barroom fight. Joy to the world.

Much was made about how Woolley drove Mine That Bird to the Derby himself. This made every reporter’s head explode in the media room after the 2009 Derby. Woolley was getting pretty annoyed by the end. He said he had a nice truck. It wasn’t like he pedaled a rickshaw from New Mexico.

50 to 1 has the makings of a modern-day bromance. The dominant image on the promotional poster isn’t of the horse, but of Woolley. But really, the undercurrent of the whole story is the fate of a sport. Horse racing is a long shot and far from an overlay too. Horse racing is Mine That Bird: 50 to 1 and having a hard time winning another race.

Here’s the description as IMDB would have you read it: A misfit group of New Mexico cowboys find themselves on the journey of a lifetime when their crooked-footed racehorse qualifies for the Kentucky Derby. Based on the inspiriting true story of Mine That Bird, the cowboys face a series of mishaps on their way to Churchill Downs, becoming the ultimate underdogs in a final showdown with the world’s racing elite.

People do love an underdog story. This wasn’t so much an underdog story, but a fluke, but maybe that’s all underdog stories at their core. Do you really expect Average Joe’s to beat Globo Gym in a best of seven series in dodge ball? Let's be real here.

You’ll be hard-pressed to find a recognizable actor in the film. I only knew Skeet Ulrich, who plays the handle-bar-mustachioed Woolley, from “Scream” in 1996. He’s been in 33 other projects as a middling actor. William Devane, playing Leonard Doc Blach, is the most accomplished of the cast, spending most of his time in television, but also playing one mean presidential role in “The Dark Knight Rises”, a man after my heart.

The Mine That Bird story, or, at the very least, the year of the story took place, was a year I was deeply embedded in several narratives. I went to the Derby on my own dime as the paper I was working for told me not to go. Pish posh. I stood in the winner’s circle to watch the Derby and along came this pony-sized horse with 2007’s Derby-winning jockey in the irons with a grin on his face wider than a horse’s rump.

Mine That Bird sneaked through on the fence and, contrary to what Borel later told reporters, he pointed his whip right at my heart, not his fiancées, as he galloped past all the blue bloods. I’d be fired two weeks later and following a filly that would win more than one race after that first weekend in May. I’d also be following Mine That Bird and Summer Bird, neighbors in the Saratoga Stakes Barn, sired by the same Birdstone, but couldn’t look more different. Brothers, sort of.

I witnessed the sneaky exodus of Mine That Bird leaving Saratoga at 2 AM on a warm, star-lit night after the Travers (which he scratched from due to a throat problem). The only sound you could hear was the groaning Brookledge van and Woolley’s crutches clicking down the shedrow with Mine That Bird patiently walking by his side.

“Seabiscuit”, the movie based on the book, had a star cast and drew in $148,336,445 (this on an $87 million budget) at the box office. “Secretariat” ($60,251,371 on a $35 million budget), the movie based loosely on the book, also a star cast, was also a success. You’d think this country has a hunger for all things horse racing. Not a fraction of those people will set foot on a racetrack. Many of those people don’t realized the greater racing world beyond the Derby and that’s one of the great many failures of the horse racing biz.

What’s the over-under on what “50 to 1” brings in? I’d set it $30 million.

Still, somehow, against all odds, horse racing movies keep getting green lit, people keep watching them. I keep watching them. They’re the most immersive horse racing experience. Maybe if the industry can find a way to make the dozens of races a day feel as immersive as a movie, it has the potential to be something worth following and, ultimately, worth gambling on.

But maybe why the movie’s do so well is people get to watch them in the dark, a guilty pleasure, out of the light.

Written by Brendan O'Meara

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Monday, December 16, 2013

Top Moments: The Three-Year-Olds

It’s that time of year when it becomes good fun to fill your favorite pipe with your favorite tobacco, sit around a fire, fix an Old Fashioned and reflect on the year that was.

Add to that I’m coming down with a cold after having shoveled hundreds of pounds of snow on Sunday and I’m ready to put together a list of Iconic Three-Year-Old Moments from 2013. I will, no doubt, miss some. Feel free to add your moments in the comments.
10. Itsmyluckyday, indeed

The racing calendar is so long that it’s easy to forget those horses that created such unique buzz in those awful winter months leading up to the Kentucky Derby. Itsmyluckyday was one of those colts, very Musket-Man-in-2009, he shocked the 2012 juvenile champion, Shanghai Bobby.

He’d later finish second in the Florida Derby and second in the Preakness, but I’ll never forget who this horse was when he sprang to life by slaying Todd Pletcher’s champion colt.

9. Shang-Bye Bobby

Like the Sports Illustrated cover curse, winning the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile comes at a cost: You will not win the Derby (the exception in 29 years was, of course, Street Sense). In fact, you probably won’t even have a good three-year-old year. Not including New Year’s Day, the 2013 winner, here are the last 10 winners: Shanghai Bobby, Hansen, Uncle Mo, Vale of York, Midshipman, War Pass, Street Sense, Stevie Wonderboy, Wilko, Action This Day. The bolded horses made it to the Derby. None of them, save Street Sense, made an impact.

8. Palace Malice and Oxbow 1-2

Palace Malice, after setting those blazing fractions in the Derby while wearing blinkers, didn’t get any respect. He went to the lead with Oxbow and had just enough horse as he wobbled home the winner of the 1 ½-mile Belmont Stakes. This marks Todd Pletcher’s best trainer job of the year. The adjustments he made and the patience he exhibited in this colt show that even a trainer of the Industrial Complex is as skilled as any.

Oxbow had just won the Preakness after finishing sixth in the Derby. His trainer, Wayne Lukas, ran him in all three and he hung on bravely when everyone thought he’d run out of fuel. It was a validating runner-up performance.

7. The Travers Field

There were nine horses with a ton of Grade 1-talent. There was Verrazano, winner of the Wood Memorial and the Haskell Invitational. There was Orb, the Kentucky Derby winner, making his first start since the Belmont Stakes. There was Palace Malice, the Belmont Stakes and Jim Dandy winner.

Sadly, Oxbow scratched with an injury, but it was still an exciting, competitive field nearly won by an upstart front-runner in Moreno. The race was won by Will Take Charge, a horse just taking flight toward rarefied air.

6. Goldencents' Amazing Mile

I loved this horse early on. He was my Derby pick [fail] since his Santa Anita Derby was seconds faster than every other horse prepping at the distance. He had Doug O’Neill, his trainer, confident off winning the 2012 Derby with I’ll Have Another. He stunk. But it had more to do with the track and distance. Fast forward to the Breeders’ Cup.

He blew the doors off the field, setting Two-Year-Old-In-Training-Sale fractions and was one of the few three-year-olds to actually beat older horses this year.

5. Oxbow’s Black-eyed Susans

Gary Stevens, you sly dog, you, piloted Oxbow, the tough-as-a-blacksmith colt to the lead and defeated Orb, the horse anointed as the 12th Triple Crown winner. Stevens wasn’t done in 2013, but this win truly brought D. Wayne Lukas back from the dead. Oh, yeah, Lukas wasn’t done yet in 2013 either.

4. Orb’s Final Win

Orb’s final win, remember this one? It was the Kentucky Derby. My, how the mighty fall. He had won the Fountain of Youth and the Florida Derby with such locomotion; his trainer was just understated about him enough, that you began to think Orb may have actually hung the moon.

He had the running style and the attentive hands to give him every shot at greatness. In the end, he won the Derby and will be remembered for that, but he never amounted to anything thereafter. Losses in the Preakness, Belmont, Travers and Jockey Club Gold Cup cemented him as a horse who was just good enough on the one day that matters.

He finished his career, dating back to the Florida Derby, with efforts in six straight Grade 1s, but like Mine That Bird and Super Saver, he never won again.

3. Princess Slays the Queen

Princess of Sylmar was Todd Pletcher’s best horse all year. All she did was show up and when she stepped into the ring in the Beldame, what happened shocked everyone: She beat the world beater Royal Delta. It wouldn’t be the final time they met, but it was the type of signature win that iced the already delicious cake of her wins in the Alabama, Kentucky Oaks, and CCA Oaks.

2. Behold, Beholder!

Beholder showed them all up in the small, but elite field in the Breeders’ Cup Distaff. She defeated Royal Delta and Princess of Sylmar “with authority!” according to Larry Collmus, race caller for NBC’s coverage of the Breeders’ Cup.

She was the only filly who looked relaxed in this race and Gary Stevens rode her perfectly. Whether this win was enough to give her the championship over Princess of Sylmar is yet to be determined, but not many people saw this one coming.

1. Will’s Late Charge

Will Take Charge ran in all three legs of the Triple Crown, as an also ran, a horse getting worse with each effort. But just like his running style, he made a late-season rush.

He won the Travers, the PA Derby and finished within a whisker of winning the Breeders’ Cup Classic over Mucho Macho Man. That effort alone was worth a break, but his trainer, Wayne Lukas, took one last shot in the Clark Handicap and defeated Game On Dude, a Horse of the Year candidate.

Will Take Charge was the only three-year-old colt to beat older horses at a distance longer than a mile. He stands atop all three-year-olds and may be Horse of the Year.

Written by Brendan O'Meara

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Wednesday, December 11, 2013

Raise High, the Prices, New Executive

There’s been a whole lot of talk, much of it negative, about the price increases that the New York Racing Association plans on implementing for admission. So much of the criticism is so banal, so short sighted, so “in the service of fans”, that people are losing their minds over $2.

Many of you know, but here’s the back story: the price of general admission for Saratoga and Belmont will go from $3 to $5 and the clubhouse prices will go from $5 to $8, barely more than a medium cup of coffee from Dunkin’ Donuts.

Comment writers, media folk, and columnists are about as radioactive on this as Chernobyl. You’d think this price hike was a climb up Everest when it’s barely a walk out to the mailbox.

If $2 makes the choice of whether to come to the track or not, then frankly NYRA doesn’t want that customer anyway. That customer, clamoring over $2, probably doesn’t bet much, probably sits around all day with the concessions they carried in, and is likely the person who complains the most about amenities.

Trim the weeds. Get rid of these folks; that’s the message, that’s the undercurrent. They’re high maintenance at too high a cost. I’ve seen enough un-ironic mullets at the racetrack. Give the college students a table and allow them to bring in beer and all you’ve done is create the most pristine beer pong tournament this side of UMass.

Jeff Scott, the only racing writer for the Saratogian worth reading, cited an email from a patron who said, “With admission, the costly Daily Racing Form, Post Parade and such, the little guy is 20 dollars behind after going through the turnstile."

Admission: $5
Daily Racing Form: Print it at home for $3 per card.
Post Parade: This is stupid and you shouldn’t buy it.

People are so easily insulted these days. Ready to be insulted.

Proven bettors are the ones who deserve a break at the gate. There’s no reason why a NYRA Rewards member can’t be granted free admission, so long as they have a record of actually playing the races. This is an easy solution and won’t alienate the three dozen people still playing the races.

But attendance trended down! How can you possibly expect to grow fans?!

My solution to this is to only race three days a week, up admission 10 times and guarantee, as humanly possible, the safety of the horses. But this would never fly. As for growing fans? Make the ones you have happy. Then they'll recruit from there.

Can you imagine the draw of a three-day racing weekend at Saratoga? Oh, man, my Spidey sense is tingling at the thought. Cut the piddly stuff. Make it Ascot. Make it Meydan. Make it the Breeders’ Cup every weekend. Make it the Saratoga of old. If horse racing has taught us anything in the past 10 to 20 years, it’s that less is more.

It’s no longer special if I can go every day. It’s not special if I can get in for $3. What experience can I expect for $3? Exactly, the one we’re already getting and, subsequently, deserve.

Upping the price of admission is a bold move at a time that screams the opposite. There’s a stance in retail that when you put things on clearance you knock a $50 item down to, say, $30 and see if it leaves. Doesn’t leave? Knock it down to $20. Still there? $10. Customers will hold out when they see this trend. They see you have no respect for the price tag, no respect for the product.

NYRA stands to scrape in $15,000 to $20,000 extra right off the top per day at Saratoga. I’d like to think they’ll use this cash to make the experience a $5-experience, not a $3 one. I’d love to see a dress code. I’d love to see three days of racing with 12 Grade 1s, then four days to recoup to address the facility with improvements for the next weekend. I’d like to see this money broadcast, not paid out as bonuses to the circle of trust.

Christoper Kay, NYRA’s CEO, has held the position for five months. People seem to be raking him over the coals for not improving the guest conditions yet. Give the man some time. Per capita spending is the goal. He’ll take 12,000 people spending $150 each over 25,000 patrons doing nothing but flushing the toilets all day long.

Look on the bright side, when it comes to this game, we really have nowhere to go but up, if only we’d get car’s starter fixed.

Written by Brendan O'Meara

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