Sunday, December 15, 2013
Between the Fences, 2014 Looks Promising
SOUTH OZONE PARK, NY, December 15, 2013—There’s nothing like an electrifying performance by a 2-year-old to warm the cockles on a snowy, Christmas-is-coming weekend.
But before jumping on any 2014 Kentucky Derby bandwagons, or a 2013 Eclipse Award for juveniles scenario for that matter, a few thoughts. Second things first.
In my view, Shared Belief, as impressive as he was, might be suffering from what likely will prevent Mucho Macho Man from becoming the 2013 Horse of the Year. While the accomplishment is huge, it appears too little too late.
Wise Dan remains the heavy favorite to repeat as best in show by virtue of the fact that Grade 1 scores in the Awesome Again and Breeders’ Cup Classic does not a Horse of the Year championship make.
And you thought the 2013 scenario was vexing?
However, there is a belief shared by virtually everyone who watched the G1 Cash Call Futurity that Jerry Hollendorfer’s colt is—at least, and all other things remaining equal—a serious race horse.
And know that when it comes to Eclipse Award voters, an undefeated 3-for-3 slate is an attractive championship package. What to make of the fact that the victories came on All Weather surfaces will likely be debated sometime in the future.
A mile and a sixteenth in 1:42.16—the final sixteenth in 06:17--is a worthy performance on the clock, and his 5-3/4 length victory margin was inarguably visually impressive.
Sitting off a 131.10-1 leader might be just what the trip doctor’s ordered; the fact that the speedy gelding didn’t NEED the lead is a positive for a horse with potential world class aspirations.
While we’re no fan of All Weather surface racing, Hollywood Park’s Cushion Track was, from Day 1, always the least offensive, acting very much like a dirt surface in almost every way; it doesn’t penalize speed in the manner of Polytrack, and horses actually finish-up, not plod home.
But it isn’t dirt, making it less-than as a Derby barometer. And the Candy Ride-Storm Cat mare, while looking good on paper, doesn’t strike fear into the hearts of mile and a quarter fans.
There were, however, some good colts behind him. Runner-up Candy Boy, who made a wild, mid-race run beneath the extraordinary Gary Stevens, is a promising runner and, unlike the winner, has dirt experience—a good second going long at Santa Anita.
Tamarando and Bond Holder, respectively, third and fourth yesterday, are both Grade 1 winners. And while Tap It Rich and Kobe’s Back are not nearly as accomplished, both are certainly better than they appeared on the day.
Meanwhile, high profile owner Jim Rome has made one hell of a parlay, taking a portion of that $2.7 million he received for the sale of dual Breeders’ Cup Turf Sprint winner Mizdirection and buying into the Shared Belief partnership.
We wish the gelding luck if for no other reason than the publicity could garner for the game in the run-up to Derby 140.
Thank You Willis Horton
Yes, and the game thanks you, too, you and the rest of the Horton family that wants to see certain-to-be three year old champion Will Take Charge back for a four year old campaign.
And, while we’re at it, a belated thanks to Dean and Patti Reeves, Kathy Ritvo and Finn Green for managing the career of this baby huey type whose growth spurts finally have caught up to his considerable scope.
The fact that both of these guys like to hear their feet rattle and have something they’d like to prove in the 2014 Classic, is a happy coincidence.
At least one good thing is coming out of Breeders’ Cup’s Santa Anita three-dux.
There is some unfinished business with respect to WTC’s future, a pending syndication deal that likely will have an effect on the colt’s schedule leading up to the Classic.
But we like the idea that Darrell Wayne is talking Donn Handicap for a possible season’s debut as a prelude to the Big ‘Cap.
Willis noted that while $10 million is a strong temptation, horses always don’t come back all that great after running in the Dubai World Cup, a notion worthy of a papal proclamation.
Lukas also mentioned the Whitney at Saratoga and other traditional prestigious fixtures in what clearly appears to be the road taken to a possible 2014 Horse of the Year title.
The gauntlet has been laid down. It will be interesting to see if the MMM camp picks it up or takes a Wise Dan-type path back to the Classic.
Written by John Pricci
Thursday, December 12, 2013
At the New Meadowlands, Size Does Matter
EAST RUTHERFORD, NJ, December 6, 2013—No matter the catchphrase of the moment, size matters.
The conventional measures usually are summed it up in one of two ways: Bigger Is Better or Less Is More. However, there’s another phrase that might capture the essence of a thing in a third way: Just Right.
And that probably is the most apt description of the New Meadowlands, as it is commonly known. It's amazing what can be done these days for what has become the paltry sum of $92 million.
The New Meadowlands is an example of how less is more works in terms of entertainment, excitement. and utility. Whatever measure horseplayers bring to their wagering experience, chances are they will feel right at home.
Personally, while I enjoy solitude as an aid to handicapping focus, I also appreciate a shot of energy when the brain requires reinvigoration, a respite from the mental gymnastics.
Racetrack downsizing began in essence at the “New Gulfstream Park,” a symbol of Frank Stronach’s vision of the racetrack of the future, not a lynchpin for upscale shopping but rather a more intimate horse racing experience.
The new Gulfstream, which does not charge for admission or parking, still has detractors--nothing that hasn’t been heard before: “Too small…Too expensive…No traditional paddock setting in which to enjoy the sunshine…” etc., etc.
But while it still might suffer from perception problems, it is how all future tracks will be constructed, i.e., to accommodate smaller crowds. With the exception of event days, success is now measured by the handle metric anyway and not bodies in the building.
The guess is that last Friday’s bad weather, combined with holiday shopping, was responsible for an attendance I guesstimated at about 2,000. But the energy was palpable; the vibe, positive.
Large, traditional venues are no longer needed and feel out of step. Big racetracks these days more often resemble depressing monuments to the past that come alive only when people bother to show up.
The new reality is betting in pajamas, especially now that alternative forms of wagering are an online reality that continues growing by the day. What today’s tracks must provide is a lively, entertaining atmosphere. The unfettered days of horse betting exclusivity are over.
The size of the New Meadowlands is sensible in this era. It can handle crowds of 3,000 comfortably and easily, but estimates indicate it can handle five times that amount on Hambo Day or on Meadowlands Pace night.
The smaller facility is spacious, in a modern casino sort of way. "It's critical [that] a track seems crowded," owner Jeff Gural said recently.
"You can't expect people to come to empty racetracks. I think the industry has to promote itself. [Racinos] need to use some of that slot machine money for marketing or it has no future."
Despite its size, there is no shortage of bars or restaurants, from a large sports bar space featuring enough huge screens to follow many tracks or sporting events simultaneously, to a three-tiered trackside restaurant called Pink which was filled to capacity despite the windy and rainy atmospherics.
On that same floor—both available via a centrally located escalator and elevators—is a private area called Trotters, dedicated to owners. The equivalent of a Thoroughbred Turf and Field Club, membership costs $2,500 per year.
In addition to leather chair seating overlooking the track, Trotters offers tables for upscale buffet dining with reasonable tiered pricing. The public is also welcome depending on availability. The food is first rate.
While I cannot attest to the quality of the fare at traditional racetrack food stands, posted prices were also reasonable, including, from memory, $2 soft drinks; name brand splits of wine for $6 and fresh sandwiches for $7.95.
On the first floor I counted three simulcast areas, one free, albeit on the small size, a more exclusive section for $3 with large personal monitors in a traditional simulcast setting, and an exclusive VIP section.
No matter where you were, there was easy access to the track apron. There was space devoted to photo opportunities and contest areas and no shortage of customer service sections with employees typical of the kind of service Meadowlands customers have come to expect.
Without casino revenue, the New Meadowlands must survive on betting handle and sales from betting services, food and beverages. Gural, a harness racing lover and horseplaying-handicapper, believes the new venue could not survive if it had to maintain a backstretch area.
Resultantly, sheds were razed and a modern holding barn about the size of a small airplane hangar was erected, large enough to house 10 horses per race on the typical 13-race program. All horses ship in from farms and racetracks in New Jersey and surrounding areas.
The original building is closed and, before demolition, has been taken over by the NFL for its “NFL Experience” exhibition. This season’s Super Bowl will be played next door at Met Life Stadium. The new facility also will be closed to help provide space for the event.
Fans, just as they did three decades ago, can still get on the property from either from an entrance on Paterson Plank Road, Route 3, or the famed Exit 16W of the Jersey Turnpike.
It should be recalled that the original New Jersey Sports and Exposition Authority, under the stewardship of super-agent and theater impresario Sonny Werblin and the respected racetrack executive, Bob Quigley, paid for the original Giants Stadium on the backs of horseplayers.
The New Meadowlands has followed the example of the original facility that understood how to cater to its customers. It gave grandstand and clubhouse fans separate floors, a break from the traditional half-and-half racetrack delineation.
The Meadowlands defined what an upscale racetrack restaurant should be when it created “Pegasus.” That kind of luxury is still available, now in the form of private suits and sky boxes. And the Meadowlands is proud of its racing heritage.
Last Friday was the fourth night of racing at the new facility and it honored part of its past by celebrating a visit from vacationing NYRA announcer Tom Durkin, who called Meadowlands races for eight years and helped put the track on the national radar.
Durkin was interviewed by host Ken Warkentin in an open TV studio located not far from the track’s entrance. The conversation included two memorable harness calls; Nihilator’s then otherworldly 1:50 3/5 pacing mile and the “too-close-to-call” dead heat between Park Avenue Joe and Probe in the 1989 Hambletonian.
Following the interview, fans came by to shake hands, many taking selfies with the race caller on their smartphones.
And so on a night not fit for man, beast, or the Cross Bronx Expressway, time stopped as tradition met the future head on. It was the night’s second dead heat.
Written by John Pricci
Saturday, November 30, 2013
The Weekend That Was
SOUTH OZONE PARK, NY, November 30, 2013—For racing fans, those stationed at Churchill Downs with the rest tethered to their video monitors, it was anything but a Black Friday.
Put another way, Will Take Charge and Game On Dude set the bar pretty high for the Cigar horses and all those babies, the ones in New York and Kentucky.
Interesting how Thanksgiving weekend has become a player in the special events section that racetracks everywhere have acknowledged, turning good races into top class events. This is one thing that works—big time.
And, so, in the final strides Will take Charge did to Game On Dude what Mucho Macho Man did to him four weeks earlier; a photo finish that didn’t deserve a loser.
Indeed, the Clark was going to be a tough act to follow, but with so many actors on the final big racing stage of 2013, it just had to happen. So which was the more impressive?
Was it the fact that there was a three-horse battle in the Demoiselle stretch with the issue still in doubt with a furlong to go?
Was it Wedding Toast holding off Toasting, when she appeared beaten with less than a sixteenth left in the Comely, giving Javier Castellano his fourth win on the day?
Maybe it was the Bill Mott frequent flyer magic show--from Santa Anita to Payson Park to South Ozone Park with the 7 year old Flat Out, a dual Jockey Club Gold Cup winner that now boasts a worthy 3-2-1 slate in six starts at a mile?
But if you’re a Kentucky Derby fan then it had to be Honor Code snatching victory from defeat’s jaws with two Remsen jumps left, giving Castellano his fifth and Shug McGaughey a leg up on a second straight Derby score.
Not that Churchill Downs should be left out of the mix, with a vexatious result in the Golden Rod if you backed favored Stonetastic as Little Al Stall got the money with, well, a filly named Vexed.
Then came the Jockey Club Stakes for juvenile colts which when thrown together with the Remsen the wise guys would call negative key races as intended Derby barometers.
Ricardo Santana confidently rode Tapiture as if he won on the best horse, then went out and proved it to trainer Steve Asmussen.
Parenthetically, I’m not sure about that, but it does seem the winners of these two juvenile fixtures should do a lot better on May’s first Saturday.
So, qualitatively, what do we have? After Saturday, we know for sure that Stopshoppingmaria is classy and game, but the feeling is she will be found lacking when the brilliance meter is turned up a notch or two.
Then, who knows, Saturday’s Aqueduct surface was very dull, you might even say dead, a combination of a few factors.
When Wednesday’s races were cancelled due to high winds, the temperature was warm and it rained hard. Then the temps dropped like a stone. Thursday’s main track was good, rated fast Friday and Saturday. That’s “fast” in name only.
It took a lot of bottom from the horses that ran well to ultimately get their jobs done on Saturday. The atmospherics gave them a chance to show their heart is inside those beautiful bodies. So perhaps we should not rush to judgment, but I digress.
In the Cigar, Breeders’ Cup Dirt Mile winner Goldencents was made a 3-1 favorite in the open contest. Instead, it was Doug O’Neill’s uncoupled Private Zone that nearly stole the show at 32.50-to-1.
In fact, the race wasn’t even on Goldencents’ dance card until O’Neill learned that the purse would be worth $1 million had his horse or Filly & Mare Distaff winner Groupie Doll won the incentivized purse.
Winning Flat Out got himself a bonus as a prior Grade 1 winner. The speedy Private Zone did the dirty work but Flat Out, under a perfectly timed finish beneath Junior Alvarado, ran him down inside the final furlong.
The time of 1:34.68 on Saturday’s racetrack was first rate.
The Remsen, meanwhile, could have been timed with a hour glass, as the saying goes, but the running time must be taken in an atmospherics context.
Without being choked down on the lead, pacesetting Master Lightning laid down splits of 25.84, 52.74, 1:17.56 and a mile in 1:41.13. In that perspective, a final time of 1:52.92 showed Honor Code’s courageous determination.
This was a colt that came from 22 lengths behind in its 7 furlong debut at Saratoga and won going away. Yesterday, he was in hand stalking the slow pace, a new dimension.
A final furlong in 11.79 will win plenty of two-turn races, pace notwithstanding. The impressive aspect is that Honor Code was taken out of his demonstrated best game and still won.
“When the leader went that slow, we went on and engaged him,” said McGaughey. “He got down on the inside of [Cairo Prince] and he got by him. He showed a lot of guts. I think [Cairo Prince] is a nice horse. It was a peculiar race.”
“That was a tough beat,” said the runner-up’s trainer, Kiaran McLaughlin. “The winner is a good horse but that was a tough won. I thought we had it won.”
And they did, until the last jump. Both horses, if all goes well, will have lots to say about the 2014 classics. Third finisher Wicked Strong also appears to have a good future.
“Any time they finish strong, it’s good,” said trainer Jimmy Jerkens. “With the slow pace, everyone was in the same boat.”
Next stop for all three--and Flat Out, too--is South Florida.
Written by John Pricci