Tuesday, February 09, 2016

Not So Super

HALLANDALE, BEACH, FL., February, 9, 2016—I don’t usually wander off message, knowing the HRI Faithful doesn’t like it when I do, but even straight-laced Newsday permitted me to write a Super Bowl column as its public-handicapper-in-residence.

Whenever I stray into NFL-speak, I recall what Andrew Beyer once said to me about the Super Bowl. “I consider it my patriotic duty to bet the game,” he said. And that was long before the Air Force buzzed stadiums and mega-stars replaced marching bands at halftime.

From a handicapping perspective, I had no feeling for Sunday’s game and said so last week to the best sports handicappers I know: Trainer John Parisella, HRI’s own Tom Jicha and two New England best-buds, Vin O and Tony P. All liked the Broncos, as did sports maven Marc Lawrence.

But I saw no way the Broncos could outscore the Panthers. And Carolina had a strong defense, too, just not #1: I’ve been a defense-first guy ever since the New York Jets beat the mighty Baltimore Colts in Supe III, the day I married Toni Bresha, January 12, 1969.

I’m embarrassed to admit this but it’s true: I made a token $10 bet on Carolina to win the first half at -3½. I bet sports for entertainment, bragging rights, not for income. If critics want to say I bet this game “like a little bitch,” I’d be defenseless.

Speaking of defense, Denver’s was much faster than I anticipated but neither did I hear too many geniuses observe that beforehand. Then again my TV was set to TVG, not the NFL Network.

Bottom line: The best team on the day won.

But Carolina would win seven or eight of 10 match-ups if the current teams brought their ‘A’ games. So, the best team lost this day. Just like in horse racing, it happens. You accept loss as a fact of life and move on.

Most often, TJ and I agree to disagree. He hates instant replay; I think it’s a must-see TV. The idea is to get the best call possible, in a perfect world, get it right. Well they didn’t get it right on Carolina’s first challenge, a significant turning point in the game.

This observation has nothing to do about whether Carolina would have continued the drive and scored; that’s not knowable. But realizing that the future changes given a pivotal moment is not up for discussion.

How they got it wrong remains unfathomable to me, and I get the meaning of “inconclusive.” But I’m still waiting for the ball to touch the turf. This new “in control” interpretation is what’s inconclusive; I don’t even know what a catch is supposed to look like anymore.

“I agree [it changed the course of the game],” TJ said Monday morning. “If you want to bolster your argument, both Denver touchdowns were on drives of four yards and zero yards.”

That’s why I hang with TJ; when he’s right--i.e. agrees with me--he’s right. But I knew my 10-spot was in trouble before that, pre-anthem in fact. Parenthetically, Lady Gaga’s rendering in today’s language was amazing; awesome.

Loose-as-a-goose Cam Newton appeared very tight on the sidelines; that seemed obvious. I, too, have a breathing technique for relaxing in stressful situations, but Newton’s breathing was labored, his more about exhaustion than exhalation.

I flashed back to the unflappable Derek Jeter fielding grounders in his final Yankee Stadium inning. That’s the good news and bad news when adrenaline meets emotion. This was underscored when Newton’s early passes sailed over the heads of his receivers.

I also think that Newton played hurt, especially late in the game, the reason why he didn't dive for the ball prior to Denver’s second touchdown. Nance and Simms called a good technical game but were not particularly perceptive.

Neither discussed Carolina’s failed first challenge until the second half---after the network’s half-time analysis. Simms mentioned that Newton took a big hit early in the game, reaching for his shoulder as he later approached the scrimmage line.

Aside from Ted Ginn, who has a reputation for fumbling, no one else made plays besides Newton, that long jump-ball reception downfield notwithstanding. It was other players who fumbled; no one stepped up.

There were something like six procedure penalties, how many dropped balls? There was a missed, makeable field goal and no halftime adjustments? However, I’m not sure what Coach could have done; maybe there’s just was no way to game-plan superior speed.

But Ron Rivera never touched the ball; this was a total defeat by his team. The young QB did not have his best game but the seemingly inevitable outcome remained interesting only because of Newton’s unique athletic talent at his position.

We were happy that classy, legendary Peyton Manning went out a winner but also because he is the ultimate team player, one who shows respect for teammates, coaches and rivals alike. And that brings us to Cam Newton’s post-game behavior.

As if this bears repeating, I’m old school; tolerant of but incapable of embracing playing-field celebrations, smack talking, et al. I understand it; different times, different generations, different cultures. But I don’t have to like it.

Being hypocritical is never acceptable. Marshall Faulk said that he too lost a Super Bowl and knows how sick Cam Newton felt inside, but that he owes it to the game to sit there and field questions. But Faulk was older, more mature when he lost the big game.

And I’m sure he’s never tried to interview Charlie Whittingham or Tom Proctor or Frank Whiteley Jr. or Steve Asmussen after a tough beat. Under those circumstances, Faulk would have been fortunate if all they did was walk away.

And the chutzpah of fellow NFL Network analysts Deion Sanders and Michael Irvin to chime in as if they were choir boys in their playing days. Where’s the perspective guys? I’m not condoning what Newton did, I’m only saying I‘m empathic and that young people make mistakes.

Speaking for myself, I don’t know how I might have reacted were I were a 26-year-old black man who, after being named the NFL’s Most Valuable Player 24 hours earlier failed everyone including himself on his sport’s biggest stage.

Cam Newton appeared angry with how game events unfolded and didn’t make locker room thoughts public in the heat of the moment. He looked into the abyss and found no one staring back except people with microphones and notepads, incapable of staying out of the void.

Newton looked into one of sport’s brightest spotlights and blinked. It happens. You acknowledge it, rededicate yourself, and move on.


PILLOWS OF INTEGRITY: The New York Gaming Commission puts on a Belmont Stakes/Travers dog-and-pony, over-the-top, photo-op of what heightened security looks like, decries practices that put horses and riders at risk, then last week adopts a rule eliminating universal post-race testing of claimed horses, suggesting instead that new owners request a post-race test on Claim Forms at $150 per exam.

Claimant’s fees would be waved in the event a claimed horse is already subject to mandatory testing but horsemen requesting post-race tests should have funds available on account when their request is made. Here’s an idea: Since state racing officials are paid from parimutuel takeout, why not pay those workers out of the state’s budget, already subsidized in part by horseplayers, and take the $150 fee from the rake? That way horseplayers would know where the money is going.

BYK FIRESTORM BETTER LATE: Interesting that many racing fans are just beginning to learn what kind of industry flack Sirius Radio’s Steve Byk is. Byk recently has attacked Dinny Phipps, a stance popular with leaders of the New York Thoroughbred Horsemen’s Association, the basis of which is, of course, Lasix-related.

Byk also condemned Water, Hay and Oats Association in thinly veiled fashion, explaining that influential owners force horsemen into taking positions the trainers know are wrong and, my personal favorite, how the industry should organize a sustained attack campaign on perceived negative media types, bloggers and horseplayer activists.

But there’s no need for any of the industry’s alphabet groups to concern themselves with all this, not when they already have someone like Byk cheerfully doing their bidding.

Written by John Pricci

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Sunday, February 07, 2016

A Jim Donn-dy of a Weekend

HALLANDALE BEACH, FL., February 7, 2016—Saturday at Gulfstream Park, a horse called Mshawish beat everything thrown his way.

• He beat the handicapper who assigned him a pound less than a stablemate who has never come close to winning a career Grade 1.

• He beat Keen Ice, the only horse to defeat the 2015 Horse of a Lifetime, the field’s only other Grade 1 titlist.

• He beat the odds of becoming one of those rare animals to earn Grade 1 status on both turf and dirt, like he's some kind of 21st Century John Henry or something.

• He beat the bettors, including this one, who disrespected him at a dismissive 9-2, as if Pletcher and Velazquez were strangers to the bright lights.

• In taking command in the shadow of the high-beam lighting at the finish line, he even beat the darkness, winning the last event on a 13-race program in what his trainer thought was the performance of the six-year-old's lifetime.

Anyone familiar with Todd Pletcher understands that he knows his horses and the competition very well, and when talking about either he’s quite correct, politically and otherwise.

But even Pletcher somewhat lowered expectations this week on one the barn’s stable leaders, which made yesterday’s nine furlong Donn score in 1:47.89 so gratifying:

"I loved the way he finished up at a mile and an eighth," Pletcher said. "That was the one thing we were looking to prove--that he could stay a mile and an eighth on the dirt. I actually thought he ran the best race of his career, really.”

Meanwhile, at Gulfstream’s sister track out West, an undefeated champion with nothing to prove, Songbird, was devastating in her three-year-old debut, winning the one mile Las Virgenes by 6-1/2 eased lengths after first opening 10 at the top of the lane. And jockey Mike Smith never once sat down in the irons.

To answer the burning question on the mind of most fans, owner Rick Porter said: “It would be nice to win the Kentucky Derby, but I'd like to do it with a nice colt... I don't like the point system. We'd have to run in the Santa Anita Derby… I think it'd be great for your ego, but the smart move is to stay on the path we're on to the [Kentucky] Oaks."

"At least now we got a race in her and we can try to make some more plans. We want to run here at Santa Anita.” trainer Jerry Hollendorfer said. "What we do in between now and the Santa Anita Oaks, I don't know."

Rightfully, that answer is anything that Hollendorfer wants his filly to do.

But, of course, there’s another reason why there will be no Derby run for Songbird. The elephant in Porter's shedrow is Eight Belles.

Immediately after the Las Virgenes, HRI colleague Tom Jicha put Songbird’s performance in proper perspective. “Three of the fillies behind her are now pointing for the Kentucky Derby.”

Nothing that happened elsewhere in her division Saturday turned heads as G1-winnng Nickname, one of the better East/Midwest-based fillies, was upset in the Martha Washington, albeit in a strong debut performance.

Upsetter Marquee Miss is a nicely developing filly that benefited from a perfect trip and very confident handling from Channing Hill. Third finisher Doradansa lengthened stride very nicely at the end following a troubled break and, like all three, rates to improve.

However, as the legendary Charles Hatton once wrote of Secretariat, as far as Songbird is concerned, her only frame of reference is herself.

Songbird's victory in advance of the Donn began quite a day for her sire, Medaglia d’Oro, whose get also finished 1-2 in the Donn as the durably gutsy runnerup, Valid, gave yet another hickory hard effort.

What Mshawish has done from 5 to 6 is go from very good to extraordinary. "We'll go to Dubai and make a decision but hopefully it will be the World Cup," said Pletcher. For that, Mshawish will have to step it up again; Frosted and California Chrome are already there, waiting.

"The speed was holding pretty good today," explained Javier Castellano of the vanquished 121-pound highweighted favorite who earned the ‘honor’ by virtue of his Grade 1 Travers defeat of American Pharoah.

"But I liked the way he [ran] today. He passed the wire galloping out strong and passed the other horses. I couldn't pull him up. A mile and a quarter will be good for him."

Not to mention that Keen Ice spotted the competition a tad more than five lengths while trying to run down rivals that ran a final five furlongs in under a minute. After spotting the leaders an easy pace, Keen Ice ran his final five furlongs in 58 4/5.

Widely circulated that the Donn was intended as a World Cup prep, Dale Romans reinforced the notion that a trainer’s win percentage is far less important than hitting the intended mark. Keen Ice will be joining Mshawish in Dubai providing both exit their races well.

Some of the uncertainty regarding Mshawish’s next start, in the World Cup or Dubai Turf, doubtlessly involves the competition as the waters will get a lot deeper on March 26.

Frosted set a track record in his four-year-old debut in Thursday’s prep at Meydan Race Course beneath a new rider, William Buick, and without the benefit of performance enhancing Lasix.

Then, too, there’s the highly anticipated season’s debut of California Chrome, last year’s World Cup runner-up. The handsome chestnut is looking and training extraordinarily well for his return.

Mor Spirit made excellent three-year-old debut, winning the Robert B. Lewis Memorial by a measured-off 1-1/2 lengths in 1:43.21 beneath an ice chilly Gary Stevens, defeating a very game, stalking-throughout Uncle Lino The win was Bob Baffert's sixth in the Lewis…

The first three finishers in the G2 San Antonio ran very well. Hoppertunity stalked three wide outside a rival throughout, rallied very wide into the stretch, and was being out-finished by Imperative who tipped wide after straightening into the stretch only to re-rally to get up by a nose between rivals.

As it was run, Donworth, making his four-year-old debut for new trainer Doug O’Neill might have been best, stalking a loose leader through then held very gamely to the finish, beaten two noses. He re-broke after the finish and was in front again on the gallop-out by mid-clubhouse turn…

Lady Shipman was impressive as usual, making her four-year-old debut for new trainer Kiaran McLaughlin. Rated inside by Irad Ortiz Jr. while going head to head down the backstretch over ground that had a good amount of cut to it, she opened the lead with authority in the stretch and drew. Next stop, Dubai for last year’s Eclipse Sprint finalist…

Tommy Macho gave a dazzling performance with a monstrous mid-to-late move, winning the G3 Hal’s Hope in 1:33.53. Next Stop? Wherever Todd Pletcher decides, most likely the Gulfstream Park Handicap next month. Pletcher’s Stanford did most of the dirt work in his season’s debut and was an excellent second; great race to build on…

After Joel Rosario negotiated a laughably half-mile of 48.35 over the good turf, Tammy the Torpedo finished up with five furlongs in 59.70 to win the G3 Suwannee River over season’s debuting Rainha Da Bateria, sure to benefit from the run. Chad Brown trained winner looks like a Grade 1 filly waiting to happen…

It’s about time that the crowd, author included, recognized that Lukes Alley, gaining his first Grade 1 victory at 6, is a very good horse. Hadn’t realized that the Josie Carroll trained Gulfstream Park Turf winner, given perfect handling by Paco Lopez, has not finished worse than second since Oct. 26, 2013. The winner was getting five pounds from the seasonal debuting 122-pound highweight, The Pizza Man, absolutely needing of a run.

Written by John Pricci

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Sunday, January 31, 2016

A Star Is Born

HALLANDALE BEACH, FL., January 31, 2016—It is way, way too early to start making comparisons. After all, one was a homebred, the other a $2.2 million yearling. But at this stage, it’s nice for racing fans to dream a little.

Two “horses of a lifetime” back to back? Of course, it would be foolish to think that Mohaymen would be in the same league as American Pharoah.

Or is it?

Now we’re not comparing one to the other, not at this stage. That would be unreasonable and unfair. But there is one basis for comparison: After their season’s debuts, they remained undefeated at 3 and looked invincible.

After losing his juvenile debut sprinting, American Pharoah took his undefeated record through the Triple Crown all the way to Saratoga, where another modern Triple Crown legend, the mighty Secretariat, got beat.

“Did he take your breath away today?” Rick Nichols, Vice President and General Manager of Shadwell Farm, was asked post-race. Nicholls has been picking out racing prospects for Sheikh Hamdan for three decades.

The look on Nichols’ face was that of a man to whom that thought seemingly never occurred. The manner of victory, perhaps, but never the outcome, Nicholls later admitting to “just chills up and down the back.”

And trainer Kiaran McLaughlin? “When you’re 1-5 ($2.60), you expect to win but yes, he did take my breath away.”

McLaughlin’s and most everyone else’s.
Nichols had a $2 million budget to spend on the gray, athletic son of Tapit, later to be named Mohaymen. “I have to admit when the bidding reached $1.8 million, I looked down at my catalogue to make sure we were bidding on the right horse,” he joked.

“Over the years we’ve bought plenty of horses that didn’t turn out, so it’s nice when your opinion is vindicated.” After the Holy Bull, figure Team Mohaymen has a colt worth double that amount, probably more, when he extended his undefeated career to 4-for-4.

Not that there wasn’t a brief anxious moment. “It looked like on paper that he might break and be on the lead,” said McLaughlin, “but when that didn’t happen I was a little nervous into and around the first turn.”

A relaxed Mohaymen was tardy coming out of the gate but after that hiccup, “all went great. I was real glad to see he did everything right,” McLaughlin said.

“It’s a real pleasure to have such a star in the barn. I’ve trained for Sheikh Hamdan and Shadwell for 23 years, and I trained the mother [Justwhistledixie], so this is pretty special.

And so is the colt; very special, indeed.

Like many babies, Mohaymen’s inexperience showed in his second start at 2 when he was difficult pre-race and balked at being loaded into the gate. But following the Nashua win, he was schooled and was a gentleman when he returned for the Remsen.

Still, yesterday he was fresh and with young horses returning from a layup there’s always some concern. “We had the pony in the paddock just in case,” admitted McLaughlin, but the colt was very composed, almost quiet.

“Yes, he was quiet,” the trainer said, and Mohaymen remained that way as he calmly walked into slip #2. So quiet, in fact, that he came out of there a step slowly.

With no speed on paper, the pace was extremely slow to develop as longshot Perfect Saint walked away on the lead.

Sensing this, Johnny Velazquez, aboard Champagne winner and second favorite Greenpointcrusader, seized the opportunity and joined the leader early and through a glacial half mile in 49.06. Then things got interesting.

Junior Alvarado guided Mohaymen between the leaders: “Johnny left me a little room but sometimes that can be a trap,” Alvarado explained, but his rival “never came inside. I was on the best horse and thinking it’s time to make my own move. After that it was pretty much over.”

Not that observers could tell at that juncture. The two favorites dispatched the leader, racing away approaching the final bend and they raced as a team with Mohaymen on the inside, Velazquez knowing that Greenpointcrusader had to stay with him, which he did.

Until headstretch.

When Alvarado dropped his hands soon after entering the straight, Mohaymen created separation instantly, leaving Greenpointcrusader--and the strong late-running Fellowship--in his 3-1/2 length wake.

“He did the same thing in the Remsen,” McLaughlin observed. “He beat a couple of nice horses in there and finished very strong. We don’t need to see anything different.”

Provided all goes well, McLaughlin and Nicholls will stick with their original plan, providing Sheikh Hamdan approves. “I think he did it pretty much in hand,” the trainer said. “We just think more experience is fine. I don’t think he needs to skip races.”

Translation: the Fountain of Youth. February 27, is probably next.

Speaking of translations, there seems to be some controversy as to the meaning of the Arabic name. Both McLaughlin and Nicholls believe it means dominance or dominating. But according to NamepediA.org, Mohaymen means Protector.

When appraised of the difference, Nicholls stood there a moment and said: “It just might mean Derby winner.”

Nicholls just might be right.

BETS N’ PIECES: The trainer of the top two Holy Bull finishers had nothing but praise for each other’s horses.

“He’s a very, very good three-year-old and looks like the Derby favorite,” said Dominic Schettino, trainer of the runnerup. “He came back great but as I told you last week, we’d keep our options open after the Holy Bull...”

“He ran very well,” said McLaughlin of yesterday’s rival. “He looked great in the paddock; he’s a nice horse.”

Greenpointcrusader, in fact, is a very nice horse, beaten 3-1/2 lengths despite the fact he was forced out of his game by his freshness and lack of pace, Velazquez not taking away his position which came easily.

But the fact is he could not match strides after Alvarado gave the winner his cue….

Dale Romans reserved Cherry Wine from the Holy Bull following that colt’s dominating allowance win here earlier in favor of better spacing going into the Fountain of Youth.

After yesterday, Romans may be sneaking peaks at condition books from the Fair Grounds and Oaklawn Park. Romans, however, always has his sights on the big picture and is not afraid to get beat along the way…

Awesome Banner remained awesome, extending his undefeated career to three, adding the G2 Swale to his G3 score in the Hutcheson earlier this month. This brilliant colt might try two turns next, trainer Stanley Gold keeping an eye on the Fountain of Youth.

“I honestly don’t know what’s next,” Gold said post-race. “Mile and a sixteenth will be no problem for him, a mile and a sixteenth is not a mile and quarter. If you want to think bigger, you have to start going long and getting [Derby] points.”

Two more extremely worthy performances this weekend: Shagaf won a Friday allowances going a mile very impressively for Chad Brown, who said after that the colt needs experience and the Fountain of Youth was under consideration.

But that was 24 hours before the Holy Bull--and both are owned by Shadwell.

An undefeated filly was always impressive yesterday. In going 3-for-3, Cathryn Sophia, broke slowly, was covered up on the fence for the first time in her career, was steered into the 3 path entering the stretch with no urging from Joel Rosario.

When Rosario asked her shortly thereafter, she accelerated dramatically. “She’ll probably break a lot sharper, leave there running next time,” said trainer John Servis.

When asked about the Davona Dale, Feb. 27: “I think she’ll handle a mile well. The way she did it today, she did it like a good filly.”

Sunny Ridge
, winner of the Withers at Aqueduct, never fails to run his race. Stalking a slow pace over a surface more demanding than Gulfstream's, he stalked from close range throughout then showed his class to prevail in a long, hard drive. Dennis Drazin's sophomore is sure to benefit from the effort. Trainer Jason Servis said that the Gotham very likely will be up next.

Written by John Pricci

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