Wednesday, April 30, 2008
Another Mountain To Climb
A rule of thumb in handicapping the Kentucky Derby is to never let post positions influence your selections. The truth is, Derby winners come from anywhere (in 1982, Gato Del Sol started just this side of Central Avenue), and while the best horse doesn't always win, seldom does a beaten horse's post come up in Sunday morning rehashes. As the man once said, there are 999 other ways to blow a horse race.
Having said this, it now comes to pass that if the undefeated Big Brown is to win Saturday's Derby, he will not have to do it from Central Avenue, but from Indiana. Gato Del Sol won from the 18 hole; Big Brown will break from No. 20 in the 20-horse field. If Big Brown turns right leaving the gate, his jockey, Kent Desormeaux, will have a generous helping of Kentucky burgoo in one hand, and a half-finished mint julep in the other.
The immediate post-draw rumor was that Rick Dutrow, Big Brown's cocksure trainer, will lower his win bet on his horse, from $200,000 to $180,000. Dutrow sometimes bets that kind of money on his horses (see Saint Liam, Breeders' Cup Classic, 2005). "We took the 20 to assure him of a clean trip," Dutrow said. "By the time it got to us, we only had so many choices. He should pop right out of there, and be able to gain position."
Under the two-tier draw system, Dutrow was fifth-last in the selection order, and the spots left were 1 and 2 and 18 through 20. In Big Brown's only stakes race, the Florida Derby, he drew outside in a 12-horse field, exploded from the gate and wrested command by the time the field hit the first turn. Twelve isn't 20, but you get the idea.
Much will be made, between now and post time, about Big Brown trying to become the first Derby winner from the 20th post since Clyde Van Dusen in 1929, but this is a phony stat. First of all, there have been only a dozen runnings with 20 or more horses since then, and many of the horses breaking from the far outside were no-hopers like Flashy Bull, who ran 14th in 2006. Flashy Bull had only a win against maidens in nine starts prior to the Derby. The best spot in the gate, wherever that is, wouldn't have helped.
You have to go all the way back to 1974, the 100th anniversary Derby, for a running in which the post mattered. Judger had won the Blue Grass and the Florida Derby, and his trainer, Woody Stephens, could smell the roses. But Judger, who liked to run from just off the pace, drew the 22nd post in a 23-horse field and was squeezed by horses on both sides at the break. He was ahead of only two horses after six furlongs and finished eighth. Stephens cried all the way to the bank. His Cannonade, Judger's lightly regarded stablemate--but a colt who owned Churchill--won the race.
None of the putative drawbacks to Big Brown prevented Mike Battaglia, the Churchill Downs linemaker, from installing Dutrow's colt as the 3-1 favorite. By now, most of you know the litany: Three career starts, only two starts this year, no prep race since March, suspect feet, and bloodlines that don't necessarily cry out a mile and a quarter. The only concession Battaglia made after the draw was to lower Colonel John, the second choice, from 5-1 to 4-1 because of his No. 10 post, and to jack up Gayego, the Arkansas Derby winner, from 10-1 or 12-1 to 15-1 because of his No. 19 draw. I liked Colonel John before the draw, and I still like him.
In a race that was begging for a third choice, Battaglia pegged Pyro for that dubious honor, at 6-1. Pyro was 10th in his last start, the Blue Grass, and by rights ought to be double digits, but Battaglia, who had to make third choice out of someone, was forced to side with Pyro's resolute trainer, Steve Asmussen, who is not likely to be making a Polytrack endorsement anytime soon. "He accomplished a lot on dirt prior to the Blue Grass," Asmussen said. "The Blue Grass was disappointing, but now that he's back on dirt, we're hoping that he's ready to run the race of his life."
After Big Brown, Colonel John and Pyro, Battaglia, in effect, treated the other 17 entrants as though they were field horses. He lumped together five of them, including the filly Eight Belles, at 15-1, and had a 20-1 grouping reserved for eight others. Only four horses are 30-1 and up. One of the 30-1s, Adriano, will likely drift down because he has been characterized as the so-called wise-guy horse. There are so many horses like Adriano in this field that there aren't enough wise guys to go around.
Written by Bill Christine
Thursday, April 24, 2008
Hooray for Hollyweird
If the rest of the Hollywood Park season plays like it did the first two days, the stewards have my sympathies. Paraphrasing Bette Davis, fasten your seatbelts, it's going to be a bumpy meet.
This might be Hollywood's last spring-summer stand, and it began with a disqualification in the first race. Seismometer, a 2-year-old gelding running for the second time, won by a nose as the 7-5 favorite, but his number came down after he turned left leaving the gate and clobbered the two horses inside him.
Thus Jack Flash, who was not involved in the rough start, got his first win in his first start. Seismometer (a well-named son of Richter Scale) was moved down to last, which in this case was fifth place. It does not bode well for Hollywood that eight races could rouse only 67 horses.
By the way, Seismometer, with a time of :51.45, broke the track record, such as it is, for 4 1/2 furlongs. More like it, that's the fastest time Hollywood's had for that odd distance since the track converted to the Cushion Track surface in 2006.
What to do, what to do. Russ Hudak, Hollywood Park's timer, told the Daily Racing Form's Steve Andersen that Seismometer's record will stay on the books. So you have a horse who's still a maiden holding the track record. Adam Kitchingman, who trains Seismometer, may not be that unhappy. Kitchingman was showcasing the horse, for a horses-in-training sale in May, and a track record next to his name, although it will take some explaining, is bound to be a boost.
The second day was even woollier. Bel Air Sizzle, a filly trained by Barry Abrams, was the morning-line favorite in the fifth race, a $53,000 allowance. Bel Air Sizzle was also entered in Sunday's $200,000 Melair Stakes. That's part of the Cal National Gold Rush card, 10 races worth $1.3 million for California-breds.
Abrams said later that Bel Air Sizzle was mistakenly entered for the Melair. The horse from his barn who was supposed to run was Lethal Heat, who's undefeated.
Abrams reportedly tried to scratch Bel Air Sizzle from the cheaper race, but since this was another five-horse field, the stewards wouldn't let him. Bel Air Sizzle, who paid $3, won ridden out, and Abrams said that he might run her back in the stake. That could be something at that level, two wins in four days.
Bel Air Sizzle was what used to be known as a "stuck" horse. I don't know if they use that term anymore. At one time, there was a movement by a scattering of horseplayers that would force the stewards to announce stuck horses to the public. Full disclosure, etc., etc. An argument not to designate such horses was also made. "What if they told the crowd that a horse was stuck, and he won by the length of the grandstand?" one of the deep thinkers said. "They'd tear the place down." Abrams' filly practically fit that example. She won by almost three lengths, in a workout with pay. There wasn't a big enough crowd to tear the place down.
(Update: Bel Air Sizzle did complete the four-day double, winning the Melair, although she needed the disqualification of another horse to do so. "We got lucky," Barry Abrams said. In more ways than one.)
Whether Hollywood Park's 70th anniversary also brings its final meets remains to be seen. When the Bay Meadows Land Co. bought the joint from Churchill Downs, for almost $260 million in 2005, it promised a minimum of three years of racing before the redevelopment machinery moved in, and that promise ends with the running of the abbreviated fall meet late this year.
"We were given the dates, and we're going to run them," Jack Liebau, Hollywood Park's president, told the California Horse Racing Board this week. But Liebau is no swami. "As for 2009," he said, "I don't know, and I don't know if anybody knows. At some point in time, we've got to fish or cut bait. If the board pushes us, the answer becomes difficult. If the board pushed us (right away), we'd make no commitment, and then no dates would be issued."
Richard Shapiro, chairman of the racing board, bought everything Liebau said.
"I think Hollywood Park's being as forthcoming as it can be," Shapiro said. "I believe they really don't know."
At Bay Meadows, Hollywood Park's sister track near San Francisco, the party's almost over. The last day--the really last day--in Bay Meadows' existence will be May 11. There's a two-week fair meet at Bay Meadows in August, but that doesn't count. Down the road, Northern California racing will be concentrated at Golden Gate Fields, the Magna track, and there might possibly be eight weeks instead of two at Pleasanton, heretofore only a fair meet. Skeptics doubt that the expansion of dates at Pleasanton will ever happen. Financing to remodel the track is still up in the air, and horsemen might not flock there, anyway. Hundred-degree temperatures are not uncommon. This is what one segment of California racing has forlornly become.
The main concern in Southern California is what to do with the 1,900 horses that now take up stalls at Hollywood Park. The survivors are Santa Anita; Del Mar; Fairplex Park, the fair track in Pomona; San Luis Rey Downs, a training center close to Del Mar; and Los Alamitos, which runs mostly quarter horses.
"We've not had a dirty, bloody fight over who gets what, because we don't want to see who gets the spoils," said Craig Fravel, a Del Mar official. "Between Fairplex, San Luis Rey and Del Mar, we could make up the (Hollywood Park training) deficit, but that's not an ideal (shipping) situation. It's not as good a solution as Hollywood Park staying open another two years."
One of the ironies about all this is that Hollywood Park was the first track to heed the racing board's mandate to install a synthetic surface, and that Cushion Track surface there has been miles better than the Polytrack at Del Mar and the hodge-podge at Santa Anita. Santa Anita still hasn't made up its mind about what kind of surface it will have by the time the Breeders' Cup rolls into town on Oct. 24-25. If I were the Breeders' Cup panjandrums, I'd be getting a little tight around the collar.
Written by Bill Christine
Friday, April 18, 2008
The Derby-Oaks Conundrum
Rick Porter, who owns Eight Belles, one of the best 3-year-old fillies in the country, may cross-enter her in the Kentucky Oaks and the Kentucky Derby. If he does, Eight Belles will preclude one of the colts, a victim of Churchill Downs' money rule, from running in the Derby.
Anticipating a groundswell of criticism, Porter has already launched a defense on his Website at Fox Hill Farms. "This is within the rules and not poor sportsmanship," he posted recently. "It would be prohibited by racing officials if they didn't want it to happen. . . I feel very fair about doing this."
Porter, who has been described as a semi-retired automobile dealer, and I have never met, or never worked together before, and I agree with his strategy. If he wants to put up the money--nonrefundable fees of $25,000 to enter in the Derby, $2,500 for the Oaks--he's entitled to broaden his options. I don't see any potentital Derby winners lingering on the purse-list bubble. Porter will probably be doing a Derby horse a favor, keeping him out of the race.
Cross-entering Eight Belles is not some coy ploy by a devious horseman intent on monkey-wrenching the Derby. To borrow a cliche, all Porter is doing is thinking about his horse. Eight Belles is a well-known bad actor in the gate--she hopped in the air before winning the Fantasy at Oaklawn Park in her last start--and Porter wants to make sure she draws well in at least one of the Churchill races.
"If she got an outside post position, our chances of doing well would be severely compromised," Porter said. "If (trainer Larry Jones) tells me she likes the track surface and is training forwardly, I have decided I will enter the Oaks and the Derby. If we draw a decent post position in the Derby, she will run there. If we draw a bad post position in our opinion, she will run in the Oaks. It is quite a gamble to enter the Derby to see what your post position is, unless you really want to run."
Regret, the first of the three fillies to win the Derby, in 1915, didn't run often, but with one exception she always ran well. In 10 of her 11 overall starts, she had nine wins and was beaten by a nose by Borrow, who was a stablemate. The other female Derby winners were foaled in the right year. Genuine Risk, who won in 1980, caught a mediocre crop. Her trainer, LeRoy Jolley, had to be dragged into the race. In 1988, Winning Colors ran in a Derby that was an anomaly, devoid of speed. Combined, Genuine Risk and Winning Colors won two of 15 stakes starts after their Derby wins.
Jones, the trainer of Eight Belles, is in a tough spot. He also trains Proud Spell for Brereton Jones (no relation). Proud Spell, second in the Breeders' Cup Juvenile Fillies and winner of the Fair Grounds Oaks, could be the favorite in the Kentucky Oaks. What does Jones tell Porter, when asked which race Eight Belles should go in? Larry Jones might be getting the same question from Brereton Jones, who in an interview with the Thoroughbred Times left a crack in the Derby door for Proud Spell.
Porter seems already convinced of how good Eight Belles is. "She fits right in with the top three or four 3-year-olds in America," he said.
This is a better Derby than the one Genuine Risk ran in (but maybe only marginally), and has a hundred times the speed that Winning Colors faced. The best horse, Big Brown, is being asked to do something no horse has done since Regret, win the Derby off just three lifetime starts (all three of Regret's races came the year before). Colonel John will be running on dirt for the first time. After those two, bettors will be hard-pressed to figure out whom the third choice will be. The average $2 win payoff for the last 20 Derby winners has been $26, and the median payoff has been $18.80. Running a filly this year is not an outlandish thought.
While Porter is in store for some heat should he double-enter Derby week, it will not compare to some of the upsmanship from Derbies past. In 1981, owner Carl Lizza entered Noble Nashua in the Derby and his filly, Wayward Lass, in both races. Wayward Lass' entry knocked Flying Nashua, who was 21st on the money list, out of the Derby. There were reports, denied by Lizza to this day, that he double-entered his filly to keep Angel Cordero from riding in the Derby. Cordero, who had been riding Noble Nashua for Lizza, jumped to Flying Nashua for the Derby. Wayward Lass ran in the Oaks (finishing third), but since there is no also-eligible list for the Derby, Flying Nashua was still shut out. One of Flying Nashua's owners found a lawyer who found a loophole in Churchill Downs' eligibility rules. The afternoon before the Derby, a Louisville judge listened to all the arguments. "The Most Exciting Two Minutes in Sports" had turned into "The Most Exciting Two Minutes in Torts," to stretch a rhyme.
The judge not only ruled in favor of Flying Nashua, but what shook down was a way for Mythical Ruler, 22nd on the money list, to also run. I remember being in the same restaurant as the Mythical Ruler crew the night before the Derby. They celebrated as though they had won the race, not merely qualified to run. This was Pleasant Colony's year, and none of the horses involved in the hubbub--Flying Nashua, Noble Nashua, Mythical Ruler--finished better than eighth.
In 2002, the owners of Windward Passage, who had dead-heated for third in the Arkansas Derby, were led to believe by Churchill officials that they would be able to run in the Derby. They secured airline tickets, reserved hotel rooms and bought tickets for the race. A few of them even arrived in Louisville on Wednesday, for the post-position draw. At the draw, trainer Bob Baffert tossed the name of Danthebluegrassman, the last-place finisher in the Santa Anita Derby, into the entry box and Windward Passage dropped to the fatal No. 21 on the money list.
"I was surprised to see that we even brought the horse to Churchill," said Mike Pegram, the owner of Danthebluegrassman. "But I won't apologize for running. You play the hand you're dealt with."
Baffert won the race, but with War Emblem. His other horse, Danthebluegrassman, was said to have muscle cramps and was scratched on the morning of the Derby. Eyes rolled.
Written by Bill Christine