Wednesday, November 14, 2012

Dominguez Speaks Softly but Carries a Big Stick

MIAMI, November 13, 2012—With over $23.7 million in earnings, jockey Ramon Dominguez eclipsed the single-season earnings record set by Hall of Famer Jerry Bailey in 2003.

For those inside the game, it is at once no surprise and totally appropriate that he set the record while finishing second aboard a selling plater last Friday at the Big A.

According to Daily Racing Form statistics, the placing vaulted Dominguez over Bailey by approximately $3,500. By the weekend that margin was approaching a half-million.

When Mike Smith surpassed Bailey as the winningest rider in Breeders’ Cup history a fortnight ago, much was made of the fact that the number of Breeders’ Cup events has more than doubled since Bailey set his mark in a seven-race event.

Similarly, Dominguez has had many more opportunities to set the earnings record, riding in 500 more races, and counting, when compared to the standard Bailey set nearly a decade ago. And note it’s not quite mid-November.

The circumstances surrounding the accomplishments of the two all-time greats are quite different. At that time, Bailey, like Craig Perret a decade earlier, was “riding by appointment,” choosing mounts judiciously from a few of the top outfits in the country.

It is to Bailey’s credit that he was peerless among the “money riders” of his day, much more in demand than any of his peers when rich, prestigious races were on the line.

In that context, Dominguez must battls daily on the New York circuit with Johnny Velazquez and Javier Castellano, who not only are great riders but have huge, powerful outfits behind them.

Bailey was most closely associated with Bill Mott and MacKenzie Miller, but neither of those Hall of Famers were as prolific in number of entrants as are Todd Pletcher and Chad Brown, among others, today.

Every era has its idiosyncrasies, of course, such as today’s inflated purses, especially in New York; it’s no coincidence that Castellano and Velazquez complete America’s Big Three earners. Even Dominguez admits it’s unfair to compare eras.

New York’s Big Three can ride for anyone, of course, but Dominguez actually does ride for everyone. He even rode for, well, me.

Late last year I had a cup of coffee as a Thoroughbred owner. It helped that my trainer had a great working relationship with Dominguez and his agent, Steve Rushing, so he often was given a leg up on our claiming filly, Dubai’s Connection.

One Sunday at Belmont Park last fall, the filly and I both missed the break; I never saw her stumble to her nose at the start until I saw the replay. I spoke with Ramon after the race.

He explained what happened, said that the filly was a real sweetheart, tried very hard and that she might have won had she broken cleanly.

“I hope you will ride her back for us some time,” I said as Dominguez started back to the jock’s room. He turned around and as he walked, smiled and said, “of course, any time…”

It was a humbling experience.

And that is the one word description that best defines one of the sport’s truly all-time greats: Humble.

It’s not the years he spent in Maryland with New York beckoning because he didn’t want to uproot his family, or the fact that until last year, anyway, as far as I know, he drove a Honda. It’s the fact that he gives everyone a chance.

Business aside, the impression Dominguez leaves is that he wants to be, and is, extremely accommodating. And there’s never been a hint of scandal, or acrimony, or any negativity for that matter.

While the numerous opportunities afforded Dominguez have given him a chance to attain “one of those personal accomplishments you dream about,” there also is greatness within those numbers.

According to statistics listed on the Equibase website today, Dominguez has ridden in 1,299 races this year and has finished in-the-money with 733 mounts, or 56% of the time, a figure that leads the nation among the sport’s highest earners.

His 306 victories, a strike rate of 24%, is also the game’s best, all while on his way to leading the nation in earnings for a third straight year.

“Riding a lot is something you get used to,” Dominguez told DRF’s Matt Hegarty. With the exception of a nine-day Christmas break, and the weeks he was sidelined by an injury, Dominguez will ride in New York until year’s end.

And there’s that other thing else that Dominguez has gotten used to; winning, making excellent use of his intelligence, athleticism, daring, superb timing and strength.

Who knows? If he keeps this up, there might even be an Acura in his future.

Written by John Pricci

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Tuesday, November 06, 2012

Breeders’ Cup XXIX: The Good, The Bad and The Mezza Mezza

SARATOGA SPRINGS, NY, November 5, 2012—We say it every year, but only because it’s true. While some editions are better than others, as an event the Breeders’ Cup never fails to fire.

Here are about a dozen things that came to mind over a very long—too long—two days. I mean what does the Breeders’ Cup think it is, the Saratoga race meet? Speaking of which:

Local Boys Make Good

Chad Brown’s career season rolls on. While Awesome Feather’s tendons likely didn’t appreciate the loose surface, the turf horses were just fine, thank you.

Zagora is the very likely Filly and Mare Eclipse champion and finishing second in the Juvenile Fillies Turf behind French invader Flotilla.

Brown also saddled the second and third finishers in the male division with Noble Tune and Balance The Books trailing only George Vancouver at the finish.

It’s not a given, even with the best horses going in, that all your horses will show up on the day. Ask the trainer of Game On Dude.

Then there’s Don Lucarelli from nearby Duanesberg, a prominent member of the Starlight Racing syndicate that owns what should be a unanimous choice for Juvenile champion, undefeated Shanghai Bobby.

And props for Rosie Napravnik, who didn’t panic and get stick happy when ‘Bobby’ wanted to lay down with a quarter-mile remaining after chasing hot early fractions and used a vigorous, in-sync hand ride aboard the winner.

Frankel Wins Another!

No, not the greatest horse that ever lived (this year, anyway); it's the other Frankel, Guillermo, who had 9-year-old Calidoscopio ready to run them all down in the 14th and final furlong of the Marathon. (Great handling from Aaron Gryder, too).

Wise Dan, America's Most Gifted and Accomplished Race Horse

Now that mathematician who has enjoyed success predicting presidential election results would probably find that Wise Dan has about a 92% chance to be crowned 2012 Horse of the Year.

But is should not be a knee-jerk slam dunk, not when he probably shouldn’t be named the champion of what his connections think is his best game: Turf.

Remember, the Classic was an option. Good for them. They rolled the dice, got the money, and really got lucky when Game On Dude was a no-show.

The connections said a month ago that Horse of the Year wasn’t that important because Wise Dan is a gelding. But when asked about Horse of the Year, trainer Charlie Lopresti told NBC “let’s see what Game On Dude does later on.”

Looks like they had their cake and are likely to enjoy a healthy slice of it, too.

Stated previously, we don’t believe Wise Dan’s record is as compelling as Little Mike’s within the turf division. Little Mike has three Grade 1s of his own: Churchill’s Turf Classic at 9 furlongs in the spring, the prestigious Arlington Million over international rivals at 10 furlongs in summer, and the mile and a half Breeders’ Cup Turf in the fall, defeating last year’s defending Turf titlist in the process.

The Biggest Loser

I wouldn’t have a problem if Wise Dan finished third in the voting for Turf champion. Because Point of Entry, with three Grade 1s of his own, at routes and not at a specialized distance, went into the Breeders’ Cup with Horse of the Year aspirations and came out second or third best in his own division. Too bad: As the race was run, he was probably best.

Feline Speed Machine

Also, as mentioned previously, were it not for the fact that there is now an Eclipse for champion sprinting female, Groupie Doll might have won that category, which now will go deservedly to Trinniberg.

Wouldn’t it have been great to see her against males? In her case, that didn’t make sense—we’re not talking Horse of the Year here.

In any case, kudos to the Bradley family, trainer Billy “Buff,” and his dad and breeder, renaissance man Fred Bradley. Great management of a filly that has a chance to be an all-time great sprinter. Looking forward to 2013.

Delta Lady

That would be the speedy Royal Delta, not the one that usually waits until she’s ready to pounce—and then pounces!

Mike Smith jargoned “we caught a flyer out of the gate,” meaning she broke like a rocket. But Smith already was playing the speed bias (see Atigun).

Just for an instant after passing headstretch that a serious challenge would come for Include Me Out, who showed up big time on the big stage—but the big MARE was too much race horse. Her performance was what we come to expect from Bill Mott trainees in the fall.

So, now, Smith is the winningest jockey in Breeders’ Cup history* with 16 victories. The asterisk came into play last year when Smith rode his 15th BC winner, then record holder/analyst Jerry Bailey pointed out there were only seven, not 15, races back in the days he did most of his riding.

Bailey’s not wrong. But even at a young age--when agent Steve Adika had his book--Mike Smith was always a “big-race ridin’ SOB.”

Fort Larned Is No Curlin

No disparagement here—onlyacknowledgment that Fort Larned, the 2012 Older Male Champion favorite, will be the fifth consecutive Classic winner not named Horse of the Year.

That’s not bad news for the game. What it means is that, unlike traditional major sports, the regular season still matters.

It was heartwarming to see Janis Whitham, one of the sport’s pillars, and the low-key race horse developing Ian Wilkes showing class and confidence by keeping young Brain Hernandez in the boot. Happy 27th, young man; $270K is an awful lot of (birthday) cake.

Prime Time a Success; Patient Dies a little

Early reports that TV ratings for Breeders’ Cup 29 were bad were, well, bad. Overnight ratings of 2.2 was nearly double that of last year’s 1.2 (final ratings released November 6). The handle? Not so much.

There was a 5% handle decrease on Friday that about doubled for the two-day event and that’s significant, much of those losses on Saturday’s last three races with an 8:43 p.m. Classic in the East.

Further, this year’s renewal did not boast enough compelling performers. Equine superstars notwithstanding, a significant number of New York and New Jersey horseplayers were knocked out of action by super-storm Sandy.

(As you read this, 20% of Long Island is still without power. Have no idea what those poor Jerseyites are up against--and the gas shortage still looms extremely large in both states).

A Bloody Controversy

Three Lasix-free juveniles bled, one badly, which begs the question how many horses bleed through Lasix on any day at any track in the country? We don’t know because when it comes to medication, the industry would still rather not ask and not tell.

If every horse were scoped after every race, a majority would show some evidence of exercise-induced pulmonary edema. Those that bled did have the option of racing Lasix-free throughout the year but horsemen danced those dances and took their best hold at Santa Anita last weekend.

Two juveniles that raced last weekend that did not use furosemide in their pre-Cup campaigns didn’t bleed and the winners of both juvenile dirt races were coming off Lasix, including the hot-pace chasing, hot-day racing, exhausted Shanghai Bobby.

The grand Lasix-free experiment, in the main, was a failure at the entry box and at the box office. The real test comes in 2013 when all races will be Lasix-free. Horsemen can do one of two things: prepare for that eventuality or leave all that money and prestige on the table.

Written by John Pricci

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Sunday, November 04, 2012

That Breeders’ Cup Championship Season; Some Controversy Guaranteed

SARATOGA SPRINGS, NY, November 3, 2012—From the time this whole thing began cross town from Santa Anita back at a kinder, gentler time, when Big Brother and the international racing world was watching, it was all about championship titles.

In the years since, the number of Breeders’ Cup races have doubled and then some. Fortunately, though, the number of major categories haven’t changed all that much. However, two were added, both for females, one for fast fillies; the other for grass lovers.

On Formerly Filly Friday, three likely champions were crowned and, strangely enough, all were females.

With her front-running victory in the Juvenile Fillies, Beholder, trained by Richard Mandella and ridden by Garrett Gomez, took advantage of a speed-biased racetrack and improved her record to 3-for-5.

The Juvenile Fillies was her first and only Grade 1 but, given her nose defeat in the G1 Del Mar Debutante, her resume is championship enough.

In a division that was very entertaining but without a dominant filly all season, Zagora, adding the Filly and Mare Turf to her resume, improved her record to 5-for-8, good enough for a title even if the F&M Turf was her first G1 of the season.

Zagora was, however, G1 placed in both the Flower Bowl and Diana and won four other graded stakes; three at the G3 level and Saratoga’s G2 Ballston Spa.

For Royal Delta, the repeat winner of the Ladies Classic, not only is a cinch to reprise her Filly & Mare Eclipse title but the victory put her, for the time being at least, in the running for a possible Horse of the Year championship depending on Saturday’s results.

And that's when the scores began to change.

Eclipse Championship Saturday began in earnest with Santa Anita’s fifth race, the Filly & Mare Sprint and, ironically, if this division had not been created, the amazing Groupie Doll likely would have won the open title.

Never out of the money in eight starts, the Filly & Mare Sprint was her fifth consecutive score, adding a third G1 to her G2 victories.

And she did it by tearing the bias to shreds, confidently and patiently handled by Rajiv Maragh, as he looped the speedsters on the way to a dominant victory.

After the filly Mizdirection won the Breeders’ Cup Turf Sprint off the longest layoff in the history of the event for King of the Jungle Jim Rome et al, Shanghai Bobby not only nailed down a championship but did so with perhaps the gamest performance in the history of the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile.

He did it chasing suicidal fractions from close range after having his training schedule interrupted by Hurricane Sandy, did it on a hot day 3,000 miles from home and—oh, yes—overcame it all without the benefit of Lasix, just as Beholder had on Friday.

In winning the race, Shanghai Bobby extended his undefeated record to five, adding the Juvenile to the Champagne his second G1 title.

An hour later, the three-year-old Trinniberg, extended his record to 4-for-8 for the year by taking the championship-defining Sprint. Will voters consider that enough? Since filly sprinters have their own category, what happens here?

The result of the Breeders’ Cup Turf turned out to be amazingly complex result. Point Of Entry, on the cusp of a possible Horse of the Year championship, now might finish third—in his own division.

How do you deny the winner, Little Mike, who won his third G1 of the year including the Turf and Arlington Million, two of the most prestigious, if not the most prestigious grass races in the country?

Then along comes Wise Dan--who most believe is the best older horse in the country--to win his third consecutive G1 in a specialized category (in this country, anyway) a turf miler. The bigger deal is that he did it while the whole world was watching.

Coupled with his narrow defeat in the G1 Stephen Foster, and Game On Dude’s no-show performance in the Classic, his credentials make him a leader in the Horse of the Year clubhouse.

Expect controversy.

Will voters punish him for not going for the whole enchilada by running in the Classic, a race which is, on balance, far more valuable to a potential Horse of the Year titlist than any number of one mile victories on grass?

Wise Dan is the Horse of the Year favorite, no doubt, odds-on to be ranked first in the final NTRA Poll on, coincidentally, election day. He was his usually uber impressive self.

But having made his bones in three Grade 1 turf miles, is that greater than Little Mike's three G1s--at a mile and an eighth, a mile and a quarter, and a mile and a half, two of those against international competition?

Of course, Fort Larned, expertly prepared, won the big dance, the Classic, riding a bias that wouldn't allow Mucho Macho Man to catch up. Is the Classic and the Whitney a good enough Horse of the Year resume?

Now consider this: Is any of the above greater than a 4-for-4 American dirt season that includes three Grade 1s, a Grade 2, and two classics?

It is a question that will be argued ad infinitum until all the votes are counted at year’s end. It might even turn out to be closer than the result of Tuesday’s other election.

Written by John Pricci

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