Friday, November 16, 2012

Horse of the Year Not Over Till It’s Over

MIAMI, November 15, 2012—Soon after the completion of the 2012 Breeders’ Cup, I acknowledged, along with the overwhelming majority of published turf writers, that Wise Dan not only is a bona fide Horse of the Year candidate but the most probable winner of the honor.

But I believed then as I do now that it shouldn’t be a slam dunk since--divisional vote-splitting notwithstanding—it’s not incontrovertible that a thrice winning turf miler is the accomplished equal of the 2012 turf campaign staged by the laudably versatile Little Mike.

The accepted wisdom is that Wise Dan’s record in Grade 1 competition is more compelling than Grade 1 victories at nine, 10 and 12 furlongs, including two of America’s most prestigious events; the Arlington Million and Breeders’ Cup Turf.

We have stated often that we are from the Horse of the Year school of legendary turf writer Joe Hirsch who believed that this country’s top horse, replete with a proper, deserving resume, can be anything from America’s fastest sprinter to its stoutest stayer on any surface.

In that context, it can also be the one Thoroughbred that gets the heart and imagination, well, racing.

And I also believe that a Horse of the Year component should include the rewarding of connections that take their Thoroughbred out of its comfort zone, demanding that it take on, within reason, the biggest challenge possible.

If a horse can step out of its element and succeed, his or her owners deserve recognition beyond an Eclipse in the owners category because they played the game the way it was originally intended by its pioneers to be: a sport.

This week a funny thing happened to certain-to-be-named Filly & Mare Sprint champion Groupie Doll on her way to the farm for a little R & R after she completely dominated her peers this season whether the surface was dirt or the synthetic stuff.

It seems that while being paraded at Churchill Downs on November 11, a ceremony meant to honor a handful of Louisville-based 2012 Breeders’ Cup champions, the filly herself turned into a handful.

"When we took her over for the parade she was dragging them around," said Bill “Biff” Bradley, the filly’s co-owner and trainer. "She's so good right now we’re thinking about [running in the Cigar Mile.]”

Nice spot. For one thing it’s a mile race--on the dirt—a race that’s never easily won: In its 23 runnings, 10 of its winners had to run a sub-1:34 mile to get the job done.

For another, and most significantly, it’s a Grade 1 open to males, a race that was roundly accepted as an instant classic since Woody Stephens won the inaugural NYRA Mile with Forty Niner in 1988.

Should Groupie Doll take on males and defeat them, she will have earned my Horse of the Year vote. Let’s look at the record:

After three straight in-the-money efforts at Gulfstream Park, in which she finished close behind crack male sprinter/miler Boys At Tosconova, multiple Grade 1 millionaire Awesome Maria, and two champions, Royal Delta and Musical Romance, she’s won five straight, two Grade 2s and three Grade 1s.

Bradley co-owns the filly with his father, Fred, Carl Hurst and Brent Burns. The team is seriously considering running in the November 24 Grade 1 at Aqueduct’s HolidayFest program.

The Cigar is a handicap and the group has said the weight assignment will be the determining factor. Weights are scheduled to be released on Sunday, November 18.

"If the [weights] look all right, we'll probably go," Bradley said. Of course, Groupie Doll is entitled to receive a sex allowance and the ultimate assignment is not necessarily the deciding factor. Rather it will be the spread between the filly and her chief rivals.

With To Honor And Serve recently retired, the competition, her main competition figures to come from a list that includes the 2010 Cigar winner Jersey Town, scheduled to make his final career start.

Other major contenders are the 2012 Jockey Club Gold Cup runnerup and 2011 Travers winner, Stay Thirsty, and possibly 2011 Preakness and 2012 Met Mile winner, Shackleford.

Should Team Groupie Doll ultimately accept the challenge, only two questions would remain: Is the four-year-old filly up to such a challenge, and where’s Wise Dan?

A victory in the Cigar would give Groupie Doll four Grade 1s, more than any major American horse this year, and it would give her an all-important victory over males.

Do I think Groupie Doll would beat Wise Dan going a mile on dirt, everything being equal? No, but that’s not the point.

The issue is the record; a record of singular achievement; of sportsmanship, not taking a path of lesser resistance.

The connections of Wise Dan said pre-Breeders’ Cup that a Horse of the Year title wasn’t all that important to them because Wise Dan is a gelding. A Horse of the Year title should also be about one more thing: Want to.

Written by John Pricci

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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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