Saturday, June 15, 2013
We Are Family
SARATOGA SPRINGS, NY, June 15, 2013—It’s a terrible irony that Ramon Dominguez, one of the game’s great family men, gets to celebrate Father’s Day on the ground when other fathers will be enjoying the races at Belmont Park.
Ordinarily, this would be a normal day for Dominguez, riding in about seven races on the nine race program, five or six of them favorites, half of those the public’s choice just because Dominguez is the jockey.
For fans of the sport in general and Dominguez in particular, Thursday’s announcement was not a major surprise but was as devastating as it was unwelcome. It was what insiders feared. His progress had been steady, but very slow and not good enough.
The brain injury happened at Aqueduct this winter, the result of a spill in which Dominguez was kicked in the head by a trailing horse. How badly was he hit? Hard enough to crack the helmet jockeys wear to protect themselves from serious injuries like this.
Dominguez probably should not have been at Aqueduct at all in January, but filling engagements on the good-horse circuits instead and maybe pick up a winning classics mount.
For all his dominance, he has only a placing in the Derby and Preakness and a show finish in the Belmont in what be any other measure is an astounding career. Fate’s finger is fickle alright, but this clearly was the cruelest cut, one he was fortunate to escape alive.
So there was no Florida or Louisiana for Ramon, riding the best horses on weekends by appointment only. Dominguez always has put family first; otherwise he surely would have moved to New York sooner. His statistics then, and now, are staggering:
He is Saratoga’s all-time meet leading jockey with 66 victories; he’s won three consecutive Eclipse Awards; compiled an across-the-board record of 4,985 wins (19th all-time), 3,855 placings and 3,159 thirds from 21,267 career mounts, earnings of nearly $192 million, (14th all-time), including a single-season mark of $25.6 million set last year.
That’s 11,999 show tickets cashed from 21,267 opportunities, an in-the-money percentage of .564 to accompany his otherworldly career win ratio of 23.4 percent.
Dominguez was the New York Racing Association’s leading rider from 2009-12, winning 20 individual meet titles. His 376 wins on the NYRA circuit four years ago were the most ever by a jockey without an apprentice allowance.
This kind of dominance is not only emblematic of a first-ballot Hall of Fame rider but it earns him inclusion among the sport’s all-time elites.
I never saw Eddie Arcaro in his prime, but saw enough of the celebrated Manuel Ycaza, Bill Shoemaker, Pat Day, Braulio Baeza and Laffit Pincay Jr. to know what greatness on horseback looks like.
Then there were the latter-day greats that I’ve became more familiar with; Angel Cordero Jr., Jerry Bailey, Johnny Velazquez, Ramon Dominguez and now Joel Rosario coming up fast on the outside.
What separates these notables from other talented riders is confidence; the faith to make that split-second move, to wait the extra beat--anticipating, knowing, that the hole to victory will open.
The confidence horseplayers have when they bet their money on great riders is a large part of their winning process, getting a leg up because they know their jockey is going to out-think, out-ride, and out-finish those who would separate them from their money.
From the moment Dominguez moved his tack to New York full-time he gave bettors that confidence. They knew that their horse would almost always save ground, have something left for the finish, the race would shape in their favor and their rider wouldn’t be outfinished.
In a game where jealousy is the rule and not the exception, I never met anyone—anyone—who has anything bad to say about Dominguez.
Ramon Dominguez leaves an indelible mark on Thoroughbred racing and his profession… as demonstrated by the respect he earned from his fellow jockeys,” said Alex Waldrop, NTRA President and CEO.
“He’s a world-class rider but he’s even a better person,” said Steve Rushing, Ramon’s agent for 13 years.
“It’s very sad,” Todd Pletcher, “it shows you how dangerous it is… he’s not only a talented rider but a terrific person.”
“He certainly would be one of the best ambassadors the sport could have,” said trainer David Donk.
“He’s one of the most well-mannered, genuinely nice guys you’ll ever meet,” said jockey Rajiv Maragh, “I was in the room with him every day and he always tried to help his peers.”
Two years ago I had a cup of coffee as a horse owner, had fun and even won a race. That day Ramon rode Dubai Connection as if it were a graded stakes, not a $7,500 claiming race. There’s no feeling like winning a race with a horse you own and Dominguez was the difference.
There will be no races to ride in on Father’s Day. He will not have a Gary Stevens-type moment, and in time he’ll live with that. On Sunday he’ll be home with his wife Sharon and the two boys, Alexander and Matthew. They’ve always been his top priority.
Written by John Pricci
Friday, June 07, 2013
With Malice Aforethought
ELMONT, NY, June 8, 2013--After Wayne Lukas upset the Preakness with Oxbow, the Coach got a lot of credit for teaching his tough colt to get set for his best, relying on old partner Gary Stevens to help him find the hole card.
Stevens promptly put Oxbow to sleep right out of the Arkansas Derby starting gate and they learned something: They learned to let Oxbow use his high cruising speed, a tack that subsequently would work to perfection.
Meanwhile, one of the Coach's brightest pupils, Todd Pletcher, was doing some experimenting and learning of his own. He always thought highly of Palace Malice--and this guy's no cheerleader when it comes to assessing Thoroughbred talent---but the promise of morning never was realized in the afternoon.
When Palace Malice failed to show any speed going two turns in the Risen Star after coming out of a sprint, the effort left him shaking his head, even if the horse was a very willing third.
Pletcher soldiered on to the Louisiana Derby but the colt never had a chance to run, bottled up the entire length of America's longest homestretch.
And he needed graded points to get into the Derby so Pletcher, no big fan of synthetic surfaces, had to run him back in the Blue Grass--not that longtime patron Cot Campbell would mind. He came up a neck short but it was good enough to qualify for the Derby.
The trainer tried something a little unusual in advance of a big race, adding blinkers, hoping the "cheater's badge" and switch to Mike Smith would reach the bottom of the colt's talent. It backfired; the horse a runoff in suicidal fractions. But here's the interesting angle that eluded some observers.
Handicappers were willing to credit Oxbow for not backing down after chasing the scorching pace, finishing sixth, beaten 9-3/4 lengths. But seldom was it mentioned that Palace Malice, the colt committing equine suicide, faded to 12th but only 3-3/4 lengths behind the stubborn Oxbow.
And so the blinkers came off and the subsequent workout "was as good as any I've ever seen." Pletcher is no cheerleader and neither is he given easily to hyperbole. With the lesson learned, Pletcher entered Palace Malice in the Belmont without blinkers, the future Hall of Famer trying to improve on his already worthy 33% win record when removing blinkers.
Lukas stuck with the teacher, Stevens, and the Coach's pupil stuck with teacher Smith. Familiar upset script; familiar result.
Oxbow, again racing closest to a solid pace going a mile and a half, held gamely for place through a very slow final quarter-mile, one in which race favorite Orb finished one-paced after making a big, wide move into contention on the far turn. Unlike in the Preakness, Orb had no excuses this day, failing to pass the Test of the Champion.
So now it will be on to Saratoga for all three, where Normandy Invasion, who led 18 horses into the Kentucky Derby stretch, already awaits.
Shug McGaughey is warming up for the big one. First, Hungry Island, compromised by a hungry pace in the one mile Just A Game, came with a flying finish in the middle of the course. But that's a tough go on yielding ground. Johnny V, on the redoubtable Stephanie's Kitten, was closer than Hungry Island and was saving ground, enabling her to edge passed a very stubborn Better Lucky.
Shug and Johnny then combined to win the Grade 1 Manhattan Handicap as the 124 pound highlight, overcoming a moderate pace on the boggy course, stubbornly reaching the wire in front of Optimizer, who just shows up every time.
Point of Entry might not have the brilliance of Wise Dan, but he demonstrates that he is of a superior class, taking on racing's more serious challenges as the big races choose him, not the other way around. One of America's best race horses.
: It is hoped lessons were learned from yesterday's guaranteed million-dollar pools in the Belmont Stakes Pick 6 and Pick 4 pools. Despite starting the P6 sequence with two heavy favorites: Power Broker (Easy Goer Stakes) and the Fast Bullet entry (True North), and with a third single looming in the Manhattan Handicap with Point of Entry 3-5 on the early line, the P6 with its $2 minimum attracted play worth $1.2 million.
The Pick 4, meanwhile, starting with a very competitive renewal of the G1 Just A Game, handled a record $2.9 million with its 50-Cent minimum. The lower minimum speaks to bankroll flexibility and proof that you don't need to populate the four races with the worst horses on the grounds. The P4 was considered a P3 with some wise guys because of the presence of Point of Entry, win or lose.
So, please, consider this example when setting the races in the future: Short price horses often attract larger handle than in those sequences when "spreading" is the percentage option. It's good business to keep your customers liquid.
: Just prior to the running of the Easy Goer, won impressively by Power Broker who took all the heat then drew off, the track was harrowed and while there still is moisture in the surface, it played like a fast track. As long as predicted showers stay away, and they have so far, we could be looking at a legit fast track at post time for the Belmont.
First race official and the muddy track is honest: Cay to Pomeroy battled for the lead throughout from along the rail, staying gamely for place, as winning Dehere of the Cat stormed down the middle of the track in the 6-path. As the track dries, let's see if this trend holds.
Demise of New York Post Coverage an Inconceivable Reality
I arrived early at Belmont Park looking to get passed the heightened security and have my press box seat upgraded, now that the New York Post has put horse racing in its rear view and no longer will cover the sport, starting today.
This morning's edition of the Post carried Rich Rosenblatt's Associated Press story. It's conceivable that Rosenblatt someday will be America's only turf writer in mainstream media--if there is a mainstream media.
: My friends and erstwhile professionals; Ed Fontaine, John DaSilva and Anthony Affrunti, unceremoniously were fired Friday when they arrived at the paper and were told to report to human resources. They are among 13 full time employees fired by the Post in order to make the paper more attractive to a potential buyer as News Corp. possibly looks to divest some of its properties. The company already had been restructured last year.
To say that horse racing in the big city belonged to the Post, and its rival Daily News, before Newsday began covering the sport in earnest when Bill Nack was moved from his crime reporter position on the night desk in Suffolk County to the backstretch in Nassau County's Belmont Park, would be to understate the case.
The Post and News owned racing's tabloid world, the Post, who brought fans uplifting commentary of Bill Rudy, racing writer and columnist. Before long, Ike Gellis, from the city's famed hot dog family and Post sports editor who loved cashing tickets, hired Mannie Kalish, who offered his spot plays daily.
Even when 20,000 fans routinely showed up at the racetrack on a weekday, the first flash on the tote board always made the Kalish pick the favorite on the opening flash. Gellis would show up in the Aqueduct press box in mid-card and Kalish would advise the boss on which way to go.
It was hard to tell boss from employee. If Gellis won, he shared the proceeds with Kalish after the races.
John Piesen was the Post's public handicapper and Jenny Kellner its racing writer during my early years at Newsday and then, when Rupert Murdock took over, he brought with him from Down Under turf columnist Ray Kerrison. Kerrison was such an influential thorn in NYRA's side that a horse, Crusader Ray K, was named for him. Racing, gone from Gotham, is still part of the fabric in Australia and New Zealand.
Kerrison almost singlehandedly changed the tone of racing coverage, because a fan and bettor's advocate, replacing some of the old racing guard in the city that had become very adept at rewriting press releases. Every race story began the same way: Today at Belmont Park before a crowd of 18,491 fans...
Attendance figures don't lead the racing coverage anymore because the crowds stopped coming. The idiots that run the industry weren't smart enough to count heads at the OTBs from the beginning, numbering them as part of racing's core audience. The point of purchase was changing permanently
Who knows? In 10 years, 90 percent of the wagers will be placed online and there will be fewer tracks and fewer racing days. And you'll have to go online to get all your racing news. Jerry Bossert, the NY Daily News racing writer, has been writing a well received blog for the past two weeks.
Horse racing in New York without the Post was, and still is, inconceivable. On Belmont Stakes morning, it's a reality. It couldn't wait until Monday?
Orb to Rebound
: How you determine whether Orb will rebound in Belmont 145 depends on how you view his Preakness. Or even his Derby, for that matter, since the effort was apparently so enervating as to rob him of any chance he might have had to win the whole thing.
I am of a mind that he deserves a mulligan because horses make liars of us all; dedicated handicappers and even someone as talented, dedicated and inciteful as his Hall of Fame trainer, Shug McGaughey.
Because that pre-Preakness blowout that looked so good at the time was not a true bill as to how the colt would react to competition. When it comes to stress, a race is many, many times more demanding than any workout.
Add to the regression, indecisive handling from the leading Eclipse Award jockey candidate of 2013, Joel Rosario, the aversion he may have for racing inside rivals--we're not totally convinced of that yet--and the quagmire he was forced to negotiate for just about the entire mile and three-sixteenths of the extremely loose Pimlico strip.
On paper, the pace will be sufficient andOrbe should have an excellent chance to make amends, proving he is the colt seen in Kentucky, not Maryland.
The Peter Pan winner, Freedom Child, has a license to upset; Revolutionary will be suited by the conditions, and Palace Malice will improve dramatically with the removal of blinkers that had him wound much too tightly at Churchill Downs.
The filly Unlimited Budget will announce her presence prominently at some point in the race, most likely entering the far turn, and could scare off all the boys if her Valid Appeal side doesn't stop her first.
The pleasant surprise, especially if the sun makes an appearance, will be that for all the apparent chaos on paper, we expect a formful 2013 Belmont Stakes result.
So, enjoy, and, in case you're interested, we laid out some plays in the Feature Race Analysis section. May our horses, and yours, all come back safely.
Written by John Pricci
Wednesday, June 05, 2013
Belmont 145, Put Another Way
ELMONT, NY, June 5, 2013--And so a baker's dozen, plus one, were entered in the 145th Belmont Stakes this morning and I for one didn't care that half the field is eligible for secondary allowances.
That's the price paid for the way the modern Thoroughbred is trained, and that racing's glamour divisions are populated by young horses. Put another way, "it's the money, stupid."
The draw was a pleasant exercise, no news made beyond the starting positions and Eric Donovan's morning line odds.
Put another way, "I’m more concerned about who is around me, and what they’re going to do, than what gate we got,” said the trainer who's won more Triple Crown events than anyone, Darrel Wayne Lukas.
Can I get an 'amen'?
There were a few take-aways for me from the quotes I heard: "If there isn’t [a realistic pace], and they’re going in :49 and some change," said Shug McGaughey "then [Orb] can be laying up there. I just hope he has some place to go when the time comes.” Put another way: There are a couple in here that don't belong.
"I don’t know if he’s the kind of horse that wants to be behind horses," said Tom Albertrani, "because he’s got a free-running style. He’ll probably want to find himself clear into the first turn..."
Put another way: "His best races have been on the lead and we drew the 2 hole. What choice do I have but to send him?"
Kiaran McLaughlin on Incognito: “I’m just happy there’s 14 in there and I’m one of them. I don’t have any worries about the post (#6). He’s battle-tested, so we’ll hope for the best and hope that his pedigree kicks in at the quarter pole.”
Put another way: "This is the Belmont and goofy things happen at a mile and a half. I know my horse can go this far; some of the others might need a van.
More Lukas: "Will Take Charge [had a very rough trip] in the Derby. He's a big horse, 17 hands, you can't start and stop on him, he's not very nifty. He'll be a price and you might want to use him in your supers.
Put another way: "How many times do I have to do this before you guys learn your lesson. You think the Preakness was my comeback? Wait until Saturday."
Todd Pletcher, when asked about the three Rapole starters: "We actually talked about some other horses..." smiling when he said it. Put another way: "How do you think Micromanage got his name?"
Also from Todd: "I think Palace Malice, maybe, will show some speed, so we’re happy to be outside of Freedom Child and Oxbow.” Put another way: "I'm going to run relays at them. It will be like Charlie Whittingham in the San Juan Capistrano; the race is over as soon as one of my horses is in front in the homestretch"
Orb is a deserving early line favorite at 3-1 and might not be much shorter than that at post time, thinking 5-2... Some eyebrows lifted when 8-1 was quoted on filly Unlimited Budget, the same price as Freedom Child, the blowout winner of the Peter Pan. Don't know when it all changed, but morning lines today are meant to predict how the public will bet the race.
Back in the day, linemakers gave estimates on what they believedwas the right price for each horse, a consumer advocate for bettors. But it's different--not better, just different now--and Donovan clearly weighed the filly factor heavily into the equation.
Don't know how the two will compare at post time--Freedom Child deserves to be shorter--but convinced that Unlimited Budget will be an underlay ante post.
Written by John Pricci