Sunday, January 30, 2011
Tom Braly’s Jewel Races On
Tom Braly used to work as a reporter for the old Los Angeles Mirror, later to be called the Mirror-News. For all I know, Braly might have been one of those ex-reporters who hung out at the bar at the Los Angeles Press Club when the Mirror folded in the 1960s. I was fresh out of college, had heard something Horace Greeley had said about going West, and arrived in Los Angeles, ready for my closeup. My timing stunk. Los Angeles had just gone from a four-newspaper to a two-newspaper town. There were out-of-work reporters at that bar who had been in the news business longer than I'd been alive. But I still got a job in Los Angeles--20 years later.
Just about the time somebody in Los Angeles thought my resume was finally worthy, Tom and Marilyn Braly were buying their first horses. They were dabblers, if spending as much as $200,000 for a horse is considered dabbling. Braly had left the newspaper game, or maybe it left him, and had done well in the mortgage insurance business. But it wasn't until 2009 that the Bralys bought a horse who mattered. They spent $132,500 for an unraced 2-year-old California-bred who became Evening Jewel. The first time Evening Jewel was sold, as a yearling, she brought only $8,000. This is the Evening Jewel who came as close asthis to beating Blind Luck, the division champion, in a couple of races last year.
Like Evening Jewel, Blind Luck is also back on the track this year, but she hasn't won a race since August and may still be feeling the pangs of her 3-year-old campaign. Until the Sunset Millions Distaff, run at Santa Anita, Evening Jewel had also been in a long slump, and one more loss might have been a one-way ticket to a breeding farm. Now, a 4-year-old season seems assured. "I wasn't sure she had her head in it," said her trainer, Jim Cassidy, after his filly had beaten Amazing, a shipper from Florida, by a half-length. "I wouldn't have wanted to cheapen her in any way, and kept running her if she'd had enough, but after this performance, you got to keep running."
Tom Braly wasn't there to see Evening Jewel pad her earnings to almost $1.2 million. A victim of leukemia, Braly, 72, died in September, just a couple of weeks after his filly had won the Del Mar Oaks. "That horse has given me a compelling reason to keep going," he had told the Long Beach Press-Telegram earlier in the summer. Braly ashes were spread at Del Mar and at Keeneland, where Evening Jewel won the Ashland early last year.
Evening Jewel paid $6.40 for $2, and while another of the Sunshine Millions winners, the popular Caracortado, was also chalky, the improbable Amazombie, running in a stakes race for the first time, came home at 11-1 and in 1:07.28 for six furlongs. Time only matters for those behind bars, the sages always say, and fast times over Santa Anita's new dirt track are so routine that this sub-1:08 clocking turned nary a head.
Caracortado, whose name in English means "Scarface" (his mother, Mons Venus, had nothing to do with the naming), was making only his third start since his bubble burst in last year's Preakness. He's a gelding, which assures him of a lengthy career if he can stay sound, and now he's 2 for 2 on grass. His trainer, Mike Machowsky, might have shipped him to Gulfstream Park, where the other Sunshine Millions races were run and where a race $200,000 richer than Santa Anita's was waiting, but Machowsky said there will be time for Caracortado to rack up frequent-flyer miles later in the year. For one thing, a trip to Dubai, more than 8,000 miles away, might be in the offing. His jockey, Joe Talamo, would go along. Talamo did not fare as well in the other two Sunshine Million races, with Cost of Freedom's failure to stay in the Sprint Stakes especially bitter for his backers. Cost of Freedom, who went off at 60 cents on the dollar, turned eight a few weeks ago. He'll have days like that.
Written by Bill Christine
Thursday, January 27, 2011
What About Bob (and Frank)?
A puckish colleague asked a question: "If they hold the Eclipse Awards dinner in Mexico next year, will (Bob) Baffert be there?"
The conversation had been about this year's Eclipse dinner, which was held in Miami Beach. By most accounts, it was fairly well-attended (the drama surrounding Horse of the Year finalists Zenyatta and Blame accounting for 99% of the interest), but not there was Baffert, a Hall of Fame trainer and one of the game's most recognizable figures.
(Time for full disclosure: Baffert and I had a dustup, in front of about 100 people, in a Louisville hotel lobby the morning after Point Given was beaten in the Kentucky Derby. Several months later, there was a rapprochement of a sort, followed later by Baffert objecting to something else I wrote. He told a radio guy that I had been issued a "lifetime ban" from his barn. The last time we spoke was the week of War Emblem's loss in the Belmont).
The Eclipse Awards this month collided with Baffert's Mexican celebration of his 58th birthday. Baffert told the Paulick Report that he never goes to the Eclipses when they're held in Florida, that he hadn't had a vacation in six years and he was concerned about burnout. His fine 3-year-old, Lookin At Lucky, was given an Eclipse Award at the dinner. Baffert himself was a finalist for best trainer, in an Eclipse category won by Todd Pletcher.
"Baffert is a dufus," wrote a blogger on the Paulick Report. "He portrays himself as an industry leader. Industry leaders should be at (racing's) most important awards ceremony."
Also missing in Florida was the Stronach family, whose Adena Springs farm won an Eclipse for the fifth time in the last six years. That Frank Stronach and his wife and son weren't there is really more egregious than Baffert's absence. Stronach's Gulfstream Park was just down the street from the Eclipse dinner, but then again Stronach seems to go out of his way these days to miss important racing events. He didn't attend opening days at either Gulfstream or Santa Anita, another of his many properties, and hasn't seen a race at Santa Anita all season. Traditionally, the meet openers at these tracks are the gala kickoffs to the racing year in Florida and California
Baffert going to the Eclipse dinner isn't going to sell one extra ticket, save the one he buys for himself. But his presence would have been welcome window dressing for an evening that was like watching an empty flagpole until Zenyatta's name was called out at the end. As for Stronach, his comments from the stage on behalf of Adena Springs have usually been trite and forgettable (and his attempts at humor just as regrettable), but what does it say about an industry that holds its equivalent of the Oscars and can't get its most prominent track owner to show up?
Baffert's elliptical remarks and Stronach's hackneyed observations are usually cause for pause and little else. But this year the Eclipses didn't even get that. It's a good thing there was an envelope with Zenyatta's name in it, or the snoring would have been heard all the way to Tallahassee.
Written by Bill Christine
Sunday, January 23, 2011
Freddie & Hootie, Off Into the Sunset
I knew that if I wore my Zenyatta baseball cap on the street long enough, it would pay off. For months, during my daily three-mile walks, I wore the cap with virtually no reaction--one time a passing man and his two daughters made a comment, but that was all. I complained about Zenyatta being off the radar away from the race track. But then the Friday after Zenyatta was named Horse of the Year, it happened. "Zenyatta!" a man walking in the opposite direction shouted a few steps past me. We were near the post office. I turned around and there was Freddie Wilson. We were both wearing Zenyatta caps, but were hardly mirror images. His was all black, with a circled white "Z" in the center; mine was Hollywood Park-issue, black with the stable colors of green and pink. The wearer of the other cap had been Zenyatta's pony boy, and in Wilson's case, never was that term more of a misnomer. Freddie was on his way to a bus stop, I was en route to the post office, to check out the rumor that there was a sale on the 44s.
The next day I called Wilson, whose face resembles a relief map of the Himalayas. I asked him how old he was, and when he said 69, I almost dropped my pen. But then later I read someplace where Steve Willard, Zenyatta's exercise rider, said that Wilson "has been 69 for some time." I was relieved.
Freddie and Hootie, Hootie and Freddie, the pony boy and the stable pony, they were inseparable during the morning training hours of the heady Zenyatta years. "We're both retired now," Wilson said. "Hootie's 20, and I got emphysema real bad." Hootie, a sorrel quarter horse, escorted Zenyatta to the track so often in the mornings that Wilson can't begin to count. Hootie came to John Shirreffs' barn from another trainer, Carla Gaines. The pony that Wilson had before Hootie was a kicking fool. No one was safe, especially Zenyatta. "He's a little scary and a little hard to ride," Gaines said of Hootie, "but he won't kick."
In the early days, before Zenyatta made her first start about five weeks before she turned four, Wilson got on her a few times. He remembers the time he was to dismount her after he had ridden her into her stall at Hollywood Park. "I jumped off," he said, "and there was a slick spot that made the straw unlevel underneath me. It was like grease. I slid out like I was going to hit the wall. I held the saddle when I dismounted after that. It made it a little easier."
Wilson's retirement, no matter what his real age, marks at least 60 years in the game. When he was nine, he was riding match races in Culver City, where they also made a lot of movies. Wilson moved on to a number of bush tracks, where they didn't keep records and payouts were made just as soon as you dismounted past the finish line. He grew in all directions, taking the option of becoming a full-fledged jockey away from him, but never left the track. He was training a small string of horses before joining the Zenyatta band.
He watched on TV as Zenyatta's outvoting of Blame was announced at the Horse of the Year soiree. "It was about time," Wilson said. "She got robbed of it, the previous year. I've been out there 60 years, and I'm extra prejudiced, but she's the greatest I've ever thrown a leg over, and during my time I'd say I've galloped half the good horses in California."
Wilson remembers Zenyatta as being big from the beginning. She might have come to Shirreffs a $60,000 auction buy, a piddling price in the scheme of things, but her appearance presaged greatness. "You could tell that she could be something special," Wilson said. "It was just a question of holding her together. Big horses like that, usually their legs can't stand the pounding, with all the weight. Remember Forli? Forli (the sire of Forego) came from Argentina, already a champion, but he was also a monster. You could only race him a few times a year. John Shirreffs was so patient with Zenyatta. He deserves all the credit. It's going to be a long time before we see anything like her."
There are at least six different Zenyatta caps, and Wilson has them all. "What's happened to Hootie?" I asked him.
"(A horse rescue group) has him," Wilson said. "Up near Carmel. I talked to the woman there just the other day. He's got a great view of the ocean. It must be beautiful. I'm sure he'll be quite happy. I wish now that they had taken me instead."
Written by Bill Christine