Tuesday, December 19, 2017

TRC’s Top 10 50-Year Poll: Toughest Handicapping Test Ever

Before going on record with the HRI Faithful and other interested parties, let me say it was an honor to be invited to participate in a poll to determine which were the Top 10 Horses, Trainers and Jockeys of the last 50 years.

With the soul of a journalist and addled brain of a public handicapper for 48 of those 50 years, and as a serious fan since 1960, I confess that I’m unsure about many of my final choices. It’s not rocket science, but the decisions were conflict laden.

Kudos to Thoroughbred Racing Commentary for creating this wonderful bit of mayhem, and to lead writer Bob Ehalt for his efforts in researching the candidates and chronicling the results. I have no idea how he found the time to effort such an overwhelming task.

However, as I’ve often stated in traffic court, I’m guilty with an explanation. This exercise was one of the hardest “handicapping” puzzles I’ve ever attempted to solve in 57 years as a horse-player and fan. And everything else finishes a bad second.

My first mission was simply; how do I do this? I know the game is built on opinion but there must be some objective standard. In the case of horses, is it their lifetime past performances, charisma, contributions to racing history, transcendence in sports society?

Or is it just unabashed love of how these wonderful creatures and their caretaker practitioners manage to improve the quality of people’s lives; the soulful, love-filled way in which they touch anyone who hold horses near and dear, even the scoundrels in their midst?

In my world, a place in which I seldom err more than eight to 12 times per gambling session, I went about making a mental picture of the very best horses I’ve seen, conjuring whether their ‘A’ game would win out under the most trying of circumstances.

That done, I verified my mind’s eye by consulting lifetime past performances in Daily Racing Form’s extremely worthy compilation, “Champions.”

The trainers were measured on a perceived ‘genius’ scale. Did they have some unique ability to reach the bottom of an individual’s talent, then keep it at tops over a sustained period of time; a year, or even an entire career?

For jockeys it was all about God-given talent; their strength, courage, timing and guile. In the final analysis, could their race-riding genius prove to be the sole difference between victory and defeat?

I’m embarrassed to reveal the names of those who failed to make my personal top 10. But as my late-in-life handicapping mentors, the late, great Cary Fotias, explained: You have to a stand somewhere; even if trying to compare talent from different eras.

Here are some of the names I omitted that could prevent me from receiving any more invitations. With apologies, great horses such as Affirmed, Buckpasser, Cigar, Curlin, Holy Bull and Native Diver were among my top 20, but not the HRI Top 10.

But wait, there’s more: How about the jockeys who didn’t make the cut; all-time greats such as Hall of Famers Eddie Arcaro, Braulio Baeza, Russell Baze, Javier Castellano, Steve Cauthen, Chris McCarron, Gary Stevens, Edgar Prado and Jorge Velasquez. I know…

Finally, trainers who did not make it into HRI Top 10. Which great horsemen? How about Steve Asmussen, Laz Barrera, Chad Brown, Jerry Hollendorfer, Shug McGaughey, John Nerud, Todd Pletcher? I could go on. If you’ve stopped reading, I understand.

Again, I had no idea how difficult this exercise, these “races,” would be. If Thoroughbred racing is like breathing to you, then you know.

I handled all categories by considering what I thought were the attributes of a Top 10 performer should have:

I was looking for horses which, if asked, could fly. I looked for trainers who routinely performed miracles; saw talent in individuals that was invisible to me. And the jockeys?

Did they ride horses like they owned them; both the horse and the racetrack? Did they win races by carrying a horse over the finish line with brutish strength, or by pleading for just more jump, communicating using the softest hands to ever hold a set of reins?

Today, a look at racing’s two-legged practitioners. On Sunday, our Top 10 most worthy Thoroughbreds.

Thoroughbred Racing Commentary: Top 10 Jockeys of the Last 50 Years
--as chosen by a panel of 45 industry stake holders; including jockeys, trainers, owners, racing officials, industry executives and racing media, print and electronic.

Based on polling points 10 for #1 and 1 for #10, etc.; first place votes in parentheses:

1. Bill Shoemaker –370 (21)
2. Laffit Pincay Jr. --338 (8)
3. Angel Cordero Jr. --311 (8)
4. Jerry Bailey --202 (1)
5. Chris McCarron --168
6. Mike Smith --162 (3)
7. Bill Hartack –155 (2)
8. Braulio Baeza –134 (1)
9. Pat Day --113
10. John Velazquez –84 (1)

HRI Top 10 with handicapping reference

1. Angel Cordero Jr.: When live, win or lose, owned every race he was in…
2. Laffit Pincay Jr.: Strongest finisher I have ever seen, or will see…
3. Jerry Bailey: Don’t know how he earned la lifetime rail pass; Mr. Perfect Trip…
4. Bill Shoemaker: Magic hands, focus, guile, superb timing, transcendent...
5. John Velasquez: Race reader par excellence; brilliant tactician; timing; strength…
6. Manuel Ycaza: Rough, tough and strong; fierce as he was fearless…
7. Pat Day: Quiet hands and style put horses--and his competition--to sleep…
8. Ramon Dominguez: The Complete Jockey; style, stealth, timing and strength…
9. Mike Smith: Mr. Cool is remarkably poised under the spotlight’s glare…
10. Robert Ussery: Innovator; peerless speed riding technique plus brutal strength…

Thoroughbred Racing Commentary: Top 10 Trainers of the Last 50 Years:
1. Charlie Whittingham -- 357 (15)
2. Woody Stephens --274 (4)
3. Bobby Frankel –262 (4)
4. Bob Baffert –248 (6)
5. D Wayne Lukas –230 (6)
6. H Allen Jerkens –223 (6)
7. Laz Barrera --107
8. Bill Mott --93
9. Frank Whiteley Jr. --91
10. Todd Pletcher –89

HRI Top 10, with handicapping reference:
1. H. Allen Jerkens: The Giant Killer performed miracles as a matter of routine…
2. Charlie Whittingham: I’ll see 8 Big ‘Caps and raise 14 San Juan Capistrano’s…
3. Frank Whiteley Jr: Relentless dogmatic brilliance, never wavered or out-foxed…
4. Bobby Frankel: Centaur of the 20th Century
5. Woody Stephens: King of the Belmont, was the hardest boot of them all...
6. Hirsch Jacobs: Masterful horsemanship that transcended every equine class…
7. Bill Mott: The Development King bulls-eyes most every target…
8. Frank Martin: Underappreciated Form King, had a trick up every sleeve…
9. Bob Baffert: The King of Speed and Stamina…
10. D. Wayne Lukas: Innovative teacher changed course of training history…


Hallandale Beach, FL, December 19, 2017

Written by John Pricci

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Sunday, December 10, 2017

From Coast to Coast: Triumph and Tragedy

For South Florida racing fans, a funny thing happened on their way to and inside of Gulfstream Park on Saturday: They drove to Hallandale Beach expecting to see the environs of a racetrack only to witness a soccer game break out.

Well not quite, but expressions of racing’s internationalism where everywhere on display, between small cadres on fans from different countries from way south of the border to cheering horseplayers standing behind their country’s flags.

If enthusiasm is the measure, then the first ever Clasico Internacional del Caribe program staged in North America was an unqualified success. And it all happened on an afternoon that only can be described charitably as an anything but a Chamber of Commerce day.

Doubtlessly, the intemperate weather and sealed, sloppy conditions contributed to an all-sources decline from $9.4 million to $8.8 million year over year. But that wasn’t the metric of significance to indicate that the inaugural ‘Clasico’ in South Florida was successful:

On-track handle surged from 2016’s $947,000 to Saturday’s $1.4 million. Fans came to party but bet, too, and that was on six juvenile races with many unknowns and five Clasico races void of the kind of detailed past-performances American bettors want.

The event was a far cry from what was unfolding on the opposite side of the country, where horse people were and still are dealing with the remnants of a brushfire that swept through the San Luis Rey training center and claimed the lives of 66 horses.

Huge Crowd on Hand for Inaugural Clasico del Caribe
Images of good news came on TVG, video that showed horsemen reuniting with the horses they once feared had perished. Even now, after three days, the emotions on display remain as raw as it gets.

If there was one shining moment in all the chaos and tragedy it is how when, in times of trouble, the tribal racing industry circles its wagons and helps its own.

And it warmed the heart to see outside help from horse lovers living in the area who are not tethered to Thoroughbreds, but hopped in their vehicles to help look for and attend to horses forced to use their God-given flight-of-fright instincts to survive.

Along with the animals, caretakers and rescuers also suffered. But the good news as of Sunday morning is that kin to famed Thoroughbred racing caricaturist, Martine Bellocq, is out of her medically induced coma.

Bellocq is showing some improvement after suffering severe burns over half her body as she began to shoo frightened horses out of their stalls.

Further, highly respected veteran turf writer Hank Wesch of the San Diego Union-Tribune who went to help out at Del Mar, suffered a heart attack and needed three stents inserted into his heart. They must have been some very large stents, indeed.

The outpouring of love and concern from the community has been emotional to see. Volunteers from Sea World and dog rescue organizations also came to the Del Mar rescue staging area to help in any way they could.

More than a half million dollars has been raised at http://www.gofundme.com/thoroughbredcare and still growing—so please keep giving. Even racing activist Andy Asaro has taken time away from his harping to post about the items needed for continuing the relief efforts.

Jockey Rajiv Maragh has pledged to donate 5% of his purse earnings through Dec. 17 to help pay for feed, water buckets, etc. But of greater significance his dollars will go toward housing and every-day items for grooms and hotwalkers whose racetrack dorms were completely destroyed.

Connections Celebrate Win by Mexico's Jala Jala
Then, following her impressive victory in the Grade 1 Starlet at Los Al, aptly named Phoenix Thoroughbreds, owners of Dream Tree, tweeted that it would donate a major portion of the winning purse from the Starlet to the Lilac fire relief efforts.
While this tragic story continued to unfold, Gulfstream was playing host to one of the most eclectic racing cards ever staged: 11 stakes; six for two-year-olds and five international races by way of South America.

It’s not often at a racetrack when horseplayers witness anthem singing, cheering, colors waving and drum circles, a grandstand apron crowd that many people compared to Florida Derby day.

The second Pegasus crowd should be as welcoming, loud and as enthusiastic as Saturday’s.

After eye-catching performances from Mark Casse-trained juvenile filly Miss Mo Mentum, who delivered a second straight dominating performance, and Todd Pletcher’s Bal Harbour, who showed his promise following recent disappointing efforts, the Clasico program began with the seventh of 11 carded races.

Two American riders dominated the inaugural with Irad Ortiz Jr. winning three of the events and Johnny Velazquez the other two.

Venezuelan Fans Cheer On Their Favorites
Owner Cabernet Racing, the nom-de-race of former jockey Rene Douglas and partners, turned their Ontario-bred 6-year-old over to trainer Juan Arias this summer. Arias later won a Panamanian Grade 1 before shipping here to take yesterday’s Invitational Cup Stakes.

But the Clasico training star was Fausto Gutierrez who dominated the first event, the Lady Caribbean Cup Stakes, with Mexico’s Juguaryu by 7-3/4 lengths, and also won the centerpiece finale, Caribbean Classic Stakes, with fellow Mexican Jala Jala by 9 lengths.

Panama won the Confraternity Caribbean Cup Stakes with El Tigre Mono, trained by Carlos Espino, the first of Johnny’s natural double, followed by Venezuela’s Master Supreme in the Caribbean Cup Speed for trainer Ernesto Ochoa.

The comradery of horse lovers in California, coupled with the celebration of international racing in South Florida, made for one of the most unusual and complex Saturday afternoons of racing, the likes of which was something we’ve never seen.

HALLANDALE BEACH, FL., December 10, 2017
Photos by Mason Kelley

Written by John Pricci

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Sunday, December 03, 2017

Star Filly, Paco, and Shippers Rule Gulfstream; Sharp Azteca Ends NYRA Season in Style

It was quite the Saturday in the bonded territories of South Florida and New York. In the Big Apple, Breeders’ Cup performers dominated the Cigar Mile, sweeping the first three positions.

In the Remsen Stakes, Catholic Boy showed that he has a future on any surface and Demoiselle winner Wonder Gadot got the good trip she lacked in the Juvenile Fillies.

In Hallandale Beach, the best of the sport’s blue collar horses put on a great, competitive show with a mix of predictable favorites and many challenging price shots in a dizzying display of what the game is all about—a little something for everyone.

Horses ship into Hallandale Beach from the north all the time, but rarely from Northern California where Mended, in order to get to Gulfstream Park, first had to endure an eight hour van ride to LAX, and a layover, before finally making the long cross country trek.

She might have won by more than 6-3/4 lengths had she had a little time to catch her breath.
Before taking the track for the aptly named Glass Slipper, the equine Cinderella was saddled away from the other horses--Gunnevera style--and was the last filly to join the post parade despite a post position in the middle of the 14-filly event.

Claimed by John Martin for $12,500 in January after owner Troy Onorato picked her from three horses Martin recommended, the trainer had his work cut out when she arrived in the barn with a sore foot.

After nursing her back to health, Martin entered her back at the same distance on Feb. 19, at the same level of claim, and promptly won. It was the beginning of a 10-race winning streak that might surpass another Northern California equine legend.

The improbable run included a one mile victory on turf, a two-turn mile score on Del Mar’s quirky dirt surface, followed by a 1 mile-70 yard trip at Pleasanton, before winning her Golden Gate finale on Oct. 22 before shipping to South Florida.

After getting away a bit tardily, Mended was hustled to the lead by regular partner Ricardo Gonzalez, was pressed on the one-turn mile pace throughout, was hard ridden to open ground approaching midstretch and won geared down by continuing to widen in 1:36.42.

Mended Gets Her Perfect 10 Geared Down
The owner had to talk Martin into shipping in for her toughest test, the trainer admitting he was choosing the softest spots he could find to protect a winning streak that has lasted 11 months.

Her 10th straight victory matched the feat of another Golden Gate legend, Lost in the Fog, the Sprint Champion of 2005, until his streak was snapped in the Breeders’ Cup Sprint. Prior to that he won 10 straight, including nine stakes. The late speedster is buried in the Golden Gate infield alongside the legendary stretch runner, Silky Sullivan.

Martin wants to make it to 12 straight and said he will do everything in his power to see that it happens. Wonder what Onorato will think about future spots now that his filly has conquered the Claiming Crown, parlaying a $12,500 investment into nearly $200K.


Paco Lopez brought down the curtain on the 19th annual event with a wire victory in the Claiming Crown Jewel from post 12, believed to be the first horse since Big Brown to win a nine furlong race from that slip. And he got there in a hurry, too: 1.48.76.

The gelded four year old was claimed for $20,000 by Jorge Navarro at Monmouth Park July 21. Rating kindly for Lopez throughout, he held off Flashy Jewel, an $80,000 claim at Saratoga August 23.

Unlike Mended, 2-1 favorite Gigantic Breeze was unable to make the synth-to-dirt transition and never lifted a leg, second from last of 12 runners.

Lopez also won with the Distaff Dash with Blue Bahia, a $30,000 claim on April 7 and the Tiara with Martini Glass, second in the G1 Spinster last out after starting her season in a $16,000 optional claimer at Tampa Bay Downs, March 12.

Favorites had a rough day—a Claiming Crown tradition—as did the locals. Only two winners of the nine Claiming Crown events raced in South Florida last time out, including turf sprint course record holder, Pay Any Price.
Paco Lopez Completes
Claiming Crown Trifecta


Five horses that raced in the Breeders’ Cup on the first weekend in November returned on the first weekend in December and swept both Grade 2s for two year olds and completed the trifecta in the Cigar Mile.

Wonder Gadot, a troubled sixth in the Juvenile Fillies, rebounded in a big way, confidently handled for the first time in her five race career by Johnny Velazquez, who stalked a soft pace set by second favorite Daisy until ready and headstretch.

She separated herself from the group through the lane and, like Mended at Gulfstream, proved that she can win on dirt, turf or synthetic surfaces.

Catholic Boy, the ‘wise guy’ horse of the Juvenile Turf after winning Saratoga’s G3 With Anticipation, raced exceedingly well in his dirt debut, drawing off impressively to win the Remsen, increasing his margin in deep stretch and galloping out well after the finish.

The More Than Ready colt from the Bernardini mare, Song of Bernadette, was well handled by Manuel Franco, who has enjoyed a breakthrough season in 2017.

The rangy bay has enjoyed excellent management from Jonathan Thomas, the young trainer whose winning at a 31% clip since in his first full campaign since going out on his own after leaving his role as one of Todd Pletcher’s long time assistants.

But the star of the show was the thoroughly comprehensive victory of Sharp Azteca, who rated off a fast, contested pace for Javier Castellano, aboard for the first time. The 125 pound highweight spotted runnerup Mind Your Biscuits three pounds and third finisher Practical Joke five.

In winning his first Grade 1, Sharp Azteca, a complete picture in the paddock pre-race, made an otherwise dullish surface seem normal, stopping the timer in 1:35.17. The winning margin was 5-1/4 lengths.

With their connections seriously considering a run in the Pegasus, the front end scenario with Sharp Azteca and Gun Runner should be quite interesting, yes?


With the Cigar Mile card pushed back to the first weekend in December, with good weather and reconstituted turf course, NYRA had a big day with handle of over $11.8 million.

But Gulfstream Park appears bullet proof. With one more race, the Claiming Crown handled more than $11.9 million. Handle on the event has grown every year since it made it South Florida debut in 2012.

The Claiming Crown card topped $11 million for the first time in 2016 and increased this year by more than 7 percent.
Getting Gulfstream 2018 in Preparedness

HALLANDALE BEACH, FL., December 3, 2017
Photos by Toni Pricci

Written by John Pricci

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