Thursday, May 13, 2010

Preakness 135: Meet the New Boss, Same as the Old Boss

SARATOGA SPRINGS, NY, May 14, 2010--The keys to any successful Triple Crown run are speed, stamina, conditioning and luck. The first two are characteristic of the horse; conditioning is a function of the training regimen and scheduling. Everything must go without a hiccup.

And what member of the 20-horse Derby pack was any luckier than Super Saver? He loves the Churchill surface, is a wet track freak, and was fortunate to be partnered with Calvin Borel.

But here’s the real thing about Super Saver: He makes his own luck. He owns tactical tools and has a good mind, according to his trainer and rider. Borel says he had to learn a few things, such as changing leads correctly.

Little by little, Super Saver learned his lessons. The only instructions given the rider in the Churchill paddock was just make sure he gets to change over to his proper lead, otherwise, “ride him like you own him,” Pletcher told Borel.

The thing about Calvin, at Churchill Downs or anywhere else, is that he’s a very good jockey but a great race rider. Time and again, not just in the Kentucky Derby, he plays it off the break.

No one’s infallible, of course, but every time I watch Calvin Borel ride he gets it right more often than not.

Borel was asked by a reporter this week about whether he knew he could get over to the rail with Super Saver in the Derby. “I have a Plan A, a Plan B and a Plan C. Fortunately I didn’t have to go past Plan A.

Whatever the plan is for Preakness 135, in Super Saver Borel has a partner willing to obey his every command. And how can anyone be sure of that? Because, as the handicappers say, Super Saver remains fresh, fit and dangerous.

The following is a thumb-nail handicapping sketch of Preakness 135:

1-Aikenite (20-1): Keeps running competitively against the division’s best but never in danger of winning anything important as a three-year-old. His Derby Trial was a breakthrough performance on the Equiform scale and was not significantly higher than his top race at 2. Can move forward here if the competition doesn’t prove too steep, but the improvement not likely to be enough to mount a serious winning challenge.

2-Schoolyard Dreams (15-1): Another whose nose defeat--the improbable loss to Odysseus in the Tampa Bay Derby--kept him out of the Derby on earnings. But whatever happens Saturday that could turn out to be a blessing. If the colt’s recent training is a measure then he may be ready for prime time. His performance figures are not up to elite standards but he’s primed to move forward. Inside draw yields money prospects.

3-Pleasant Prince (20-1): Showed potential with a strong effort despite difficult Fountain of Youth circumstances then nailed in the last jump by Ice Box in the Florida Derby, a margin that kept him out of the Derby. Didn’t handle Polytrack then came back with a late-rally third in the Derby Trial. This colt has talent, blew out strongly at Keeneland, gets Julien Leparoux, looming a legitimate longshot threat.

4-Northern Giant (30-1): A little interesting from a performance figure perspective--not that his figures are competitive but he’s poised for a forward move and, just maybe, share in the superfecta. His Lanes End was a breakthrough performance, then he chased a strong pace while racing wide in the Arkansas Derby. But given his pedigree, maybe today’s start is more about carnations than black-eyed susans.

5-Yawanna Twist (30-1): Runnerup behind come-again Illinois Derby winner American Lion following a worthy late-finish placing behind Awesome Act in the Gotham, his two-turn debut. Lightly raced colt with some potential has the right connections but this spot doesn’t figure to do anything to advance his confidence. An extremely tall order.

6-Jackson Bend (12-1): This little guy always tries hard and has a hardy constitution. Did not handle the distance or sloppy conditions very well In Louisville and previously had not shown the kind of development you want to see from 2 to 3. Even if Saturday’s track is to his liking, the distance is still an issue. But Mike Smith asked to ride him back, he worked extremely well for this, and will likely make his presence felt at some point.

7-Lookin At Lucky (3-1): Baffert changed the karma, switching to the talented young Martin Garcia and thus far have proven to be a very productive team in 2010. Amid the bad luck surrounding this colt since turning 3 came a Herculean effort to win the Rebel despite almost falling five furlongs from the wire. Given the two horrendous trips since, he could improve significantly here--enough to win Preakness 135.

8-Super Saver (5-2): Developmentally, this colt has not taken a backward step since making his 3-year-old debut in March at Tampa Bay Downs. Further, his improvement has been incremental, suggesting there may be more to give on Saturday--or at least as much as what was on display in Louisville. Same story as a fortnight ago: Tactical speed, rate-ability, and pedigree. And did we mention Borel? Todd Pletcher believes the post will give Calvin options in relatively paceless event. Agreed.

9-Caracortado (10): Another horse bitten by the earnings bug which precluded his Derby participation. Was on track developmentally from a figures perspective while winning the Lewis Memorial in February, breaking through his juvenile best. Subsequently, he was seriously compromised by the San Felipe pace and his Santa Anita Derby trip. Worked great on the Pro Ride and owns tactical speed and kick, a formidable Old Hilltop combination.

10-Paddy O'Prado (9-2): His only dirt starts have come on sloppy tracks and he clearly didn’t mind the one at Churchill Downs. Kent Desormeaux thought he had an excuse and should have finished closer in Louisville, galloping out well past the finish. His wet-track races make Saturday’s projected dry conditions unknowable from a form perspective. Clearly very talented, the Derby was a huge lifetime best so a regression here seems highly likely.

11-First Dude (20-1): The Dude will accompany stablemate Paddy O’ Prado into the Preakness gate for trainer Dale Romans. Distance bred son of Stephen Got Even just missed to eventual Dwyer Stakes winner Fly Down in a Gulfstream allowances before making a solid effort in the Florida Derby despite stretch troubles. After that came a good, rough-trip third in the Blue Grass. Nice colt; ambitious spot.

12-Dublin (10-1): His Derby effort in the face of adversity was first rate, making him a deserved contender here despite the wide draw. Lukas a Preakness training legend and Garrett Gomez has extra incentive and focus for today’s challenge. The shorter distance should enhance his late kick, as does the presence of Gomez. His lifetime best effort is one race removed and he has every right to run that well again.

Selections: 1. Super Saver 2. Lookin At Lucky 3. Coracortado

Written by John Pricci

Comments (9)


Friday, May 07, 2010

Jockeys Must Follow Rules of Racing; Stewards Must Punish Those Who Don’t

SARATOGA SPRINGS, May 6, 2010--I’ve known John Veitch for some time. I first met him back in the day through Newsday turf writer Bill Nack. He hung out afternoons in a cottage on the Belmont backstretch with his buddy, David Whiteley.

Our relationship carried on through the Alydar-Affirmed era, he being the trainer of the former, of course, and it continued later when he was holding forth evenings at Lillian’s on Broadway here in Saratoga during race meets.

He doesn’t do that anymore and neither do I. In fact, I’m not sure I know anyone who does. The place is too crowded, as they say, so no one goes there anymore.

That, and the inevitable change of life style fostered by the kind of wisdom that only many spins around the track and resultant maturity can provide. When the teeth grow long, stamina grows short.

Anyone who’s met Veitch, now chief steward for the Commonwealth of Kentucky, is familiar with his level of intelligence. When he first left the backstretch world, he tried to wise everyone up, telling anyone who listened that the trend of breeding for speed and the sales ring instead of the racetrack would have dire consequences.

Nobody listened, of course, but Veitch turned out to be a visionary. Eventually, steroids found their way into the backstretch and equine bloodstreams. They weren’t illegal at the time and had therapeutic uses. Of course, like too much of any good thing, they were abused.

That’s no longer the case as steroids were banned in the aftermath of Eight Belles and Big Brown’s Belmont debacle. So for the most part, two-year-old fillies don’t resemble five year old geldings any longer.

In the main there are two kinds of trainers; those who work for big outfits or have huge public stables, or betting trainers who must survive by their wits, skill and handicapping acumen.

As trainer for Calumet Farm, there never was a need for Veitch to survive via the betting window. Now, of course, as chief steward he can’t bet but it’s a role for which he is suited by dedication and sentiment.

Veitch deals with a strong hand and has unwavering integrity. He was the driving force behind righting L’Affaire Biancone. However, it might have been better for all horseplayers had Veitch been a bettor in the past, an exacta bettor to be precise.

Horseracing is based on a difference of opinion. It’s why one handicapper could look at Super Saver’s Arkansas Derby and see a colt hanging in deep stretch, while another looks at the race and sees a horse showing signs that perhaps it can be rated.

Moments after the Kentucky Derby, NBC showed replays of the stretch run. Moments after that, I was screaming at the high definition picture indicating that, to me, jockey Kent Desormeaux gave third finisher Paddy O’ Prado only intermittent urging in deep stretch.

Intermittent urging normally is reserved for a race winner, a horse clearly out front that is sure to win and needs not to be ridden aggressively in the final strides to do so.

Intermittent urging is commonly associated with the short descriptive comment “won ridden out,” meaning a horse was neither ridden aggressively nor eased late in a dominating performance. It means that the rider is keeping his horse focused while saving a little for next time. Bettors have no problem with this tack.

But not so on Saturday when Desormeaux’s intermittent late handling in all probability cost Paddy O’ Prado’s owners second money and bettors a winning 4-10 exacta. Originally, I wasn’t going to write about the incident because I had a vested interest in the outcome. Then I read a series of newspaper quotes.

“I think he thought he had second locked up,” trainer Dale Romans told Jennie Rees of the Louisville-Courier Journal. “I think if he kept riding harder, we’d have hung on for second.”

Then, perhaps not wanting to lose the talented Desormeaux‘s services, he qualified his remarks by adding: “He's a Hall of Fame jockey. You know you're going to get a good ride from him in the Preakness.”

The official Equibase chart indicated that Paddy O'Prado “hung” in the final sixteenth while Ice Box came roaring up on the outside to secure the place. In my opinion, Paddy O’ Prado did not hang, and apparently it didn’t appear that way to Desormeaux, either.

On Tuesday, continued the Rees story, Desormeaux sent Romans a text saying in part: “Could have won Derby. Let's win the Preakness … Galloped out in front FYI…”

Could have won, but should have been second. Hanging finishers normally don’t gallop out in front.

When I read Veitch’s comments in the story, my face turned devil’s red. “We looked at it and it was very marginal,” he said. “He has a reputation for doing that, but it really didn’t alter the outcome.”

Nearly $22 million was bet in the Derby exacta pool, not counting additional monies wagered in each of three advance betting pools conducted by Churchill Downs. Stewards everywhere need to learn the following: Their first obligation is to the betting public not the horsemen. On that there is no compromise.

Desormeaux’s actions probably did alter the outcome. A review of the replay, available online for review, will show that Desormeaux did not drive his horse strongly to the wire. In the final stages, the rider looked over his right shoulder and probably surmised that he could easily keep Make Music For Me safe, which he did by several lengths.

But Ice Box was rallying widest of all and outside of Make Music For Me. The rider likely never saw that late threat coming. Then, with the wire fast approaching, he like made peripheral contact with Ice Box and went back to scrubbing on ‘Paddy’. Too little and too late.

When a rider loses a race, or a placing, due to overconfidence, it’s usually the result of “styling,” showing the crowd and the connections that he and his horse are in complete control. They are wrong often enough to affect many outcomes. The practice is wrong headed and countermands the rule that jockeys must ride their mounts out to the finish.

Stewards on the other side of the world take this aspect seriously and their actions are transparent. American stewards do not and operate behind closed doors. Maybe they should be allowed to bet if for no other reason than to learn how it feels when their choice is beaten by rider arrogance.

What is really unforgivable here is the admission by Veitch that Desormeaux “has a reputation for doing that.” Then why is he not punished for doing so? Why is he allowed to continue flouting the rules so that he earns a reputation for doing so? This can no longer stand.

If by definition and opinion Desormeaux’s actions were too marginal to alter the order of finish, fine. I don’t agree but I can accept that judgment calls in any sport are part of the game. But when a rider is a member of the Hall of Famer in his sport, shouldn‘t he be a positive role model instead of one with a reputation for breaking the rules?

Maybe if jockeys were suspended and fined, say, the equivalent of the purse they cost the horse’s connections, this practice of not riding horses out to the finish would stop. But for that to happen, stewards everywhere must do their jobs. They are employed to protect the betting public.

Written by John Pricci

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Friday, April 30, 2010

HRI Executive Editor John Pricci with a Handicapping Perspective of Kentucky Derby 136

One handicapper’s look at the 136th renewal of the Kentucky Derby:

1. Lookin At Lucky 3-1 Hasn’t been luckiest three-year-old with two terrible trips and the post draw. Now back on dirt, he projects to run a lifetime best performance figure which would be plenty good enough to win. The juvenile champion is classy and tenacious--he wants to beat you--he fits the speedy shape of this race, and has trained well at Churchill Downs. Criticism of Garrett Gomez has uber talented rider re-focused.

2. Ice Box 10-1 Graduates of Handicapping 101 understand that the race dynamics fit perfectly in this colt’s wheelhouse. His three starts at nine furlongs provide excellent conditioning and route-racing experience. His Grade 1 Florida Derby figure was first rate, he owns enough pedigree and has Derby-winning connections. Liked his final speed work for this. Hasn’t raced in six weeks, which could be problematical.

3. Noble’s Promise 12-1 Derby favorite seems to have this guy psyched out and a mile and a quarter doesn’t figure to help his cause. But he’s classy, battled tested, and resilient. More than getting nicked up in what was, for him, a roughhouse Arkansas Derby, it’s his recent respiratory issues that are the greater concern, especially at the distance. Will probably get back to his Rebel effort here but it’s unlikely to be enough.

4. Super Saver 15-1 Loves Churchill Downs, where he earned a lifetime best performance figure at 2, and broke through that figure incrementally, a good sign, when third in strongly run Arkansas Derby. The Oaklawn race suggests that he may be learning to distribute his energy more efficiently, another good sign. He’s had a very good two weeks since getting back on his favorite surface, has Calvin Borel from good position and he handles any footing. Likely middle mover has the pedigree to hold on.

5. Line of David 30-1 Undefeated since adding blinkers, his Arkansas Derby score was first rate. But it was so good that it sets him up for a regression here. He has not trained particularly well at Churchill, which might or might not be the result of the recent wet conditions. Speed type will be pressured by classier rivals and the distance doesn‘t help.

6. Stately Victor 30-1 Upset winner of the Blue Grass earned a life’s best performance figure and his trainer Michael Maker is 30 percent efficient with repeaters and 35 percent to the good when his horses switch from synthetic surfaces to dirt. But to now ask for another five-length improvement off a lifetime best, against his toughest competition ever, is a whole lot to ask.

7. American Lion 30-1 Trainer Eoin Harty pulled the right string getting his speedster off the Pro Ride carpet and on the dirt, where he won the Illinois Derby in a gutsy performance. Further, it was an incremental breakthrough performance and all indications are that he likes the Churchill track as least as much as he liked Hawthorne’s. His soft-pace strong-finish Cicero win hints he might be able to rally effectively off a brisk early pace.

8. Dean’s Kitten 50-1 Has had 11 races and still seems to be improving. Much has been made of the fact that his lone dirt attempt was terrible. But how much can a juvenile be punished for making his first dirt start from the rail out of the Belmont chute on a sealed wet racetrack that routinely favors speed? If he improves the way other horses have in their first start on “fast” dirt, he could collect some late Derby pieces at a huge price. Picking up Robby Albarado this week didn’t hurt. Possible super-exotic factor.

9. Make Music For Me 50-1 Terrible what happened to Sunland Derby hero Endorsement and trainer Shannon Ritter, but a good thing for Alexis Barba. The last horse to draw in, he will need to be declared from Friday’s American Turf. Fortunate to get SoCal riding sensation Joel Rosario, this colt has finished close behind Lookin At Lucky twice. Would not be the biggest upset in Kentucky Derby history, but close.

10. Paddy O’Prado 20-1 Looked live in the Blue Grass and did not disappoint with an excellent placing behind Stately Victor. Has been one of a handful of Derby training stars at Churchill, and he’s eligible to move forward further should he get fast footing Saturday. Kent Desormeaux, seeking his fourth Derby, takes the re-ride. For a horse that broke its maiden in March on turf, he’s accomplished a lot just to get here.

11. Devil May Care 10-1 An 11th hour Todd Pletcher starter after Eskendereya was declared, the field’s lone filly earned a performance figure in the Bonnie Miss that, despite racing greenly, makes her competitive here. Since adding blinkers for today’s race, she’s been more aggressive, focused, and well behaved. Deserves upgrading should Derby track come up wet. Her last workout in blinkers over the Churchill slop appeared little more than an open gallop. Find the replay online and see for yourself.

12. Conveyance 12-1 Sunland Derby placing the only blemish on this speedball’s record. Has had a very good two weeks in Kentucky but has not been tested in serious Grade 1 competition. The potential speed of the Derby speed, he will have Sidney’s Candy sitting off his right flank around the first turn, with Line Of David also in the early mix. Those dynamics plus a short pedigree do not augur well with another furlong to negotiate.

13. Jackson Bend 15-1 The Derby poster child for consistency with five wins and four seconds from nine lifetime starts. Second in the Holy Bull in his three-year-old debut, he matched that effort in the Fountain of Youth and Wood Memorial--the latter races behind divisional leading Eskendereya. He’s tough, well drawn, has worked well at Churchill and, stalking, would insure a strong, pressured pace for stablemate Ice Box.

14. Mission Impazible 20-1 Hasn’t shown the kind of ability that likely will be required to win, but the late developer keeps improving with experience and added distance. He has more than enough pedigree to handle 10 furlongs, a budding riding star in Rajiv Maragh, and he’s thrived at Churchill Downs. But he will need to run farther and significantly faster against much better rivals. Still remains a viable price shot.

15. Discreetly Mine 30-1 Has run thrice this year and moved forward with each start, even in his disappointing Louisiana Derby as the favorite. Another with more than enough pedigree for the trip, he doesn’t appear to have enough kick and ability to keep up with the fastest members of his generation. But he’s better than his Louisiana Derby suggests. However, that doesn’t figure to be enough.

16. Awesome Act 10-1 After winning the Gotham impressively, took substantial grief for not passing Jackson Bend for place in Eskendereya’s Wood. But there were mitigating circumstances. Losing a shoe at the start unnerved him, according to Julien Leparoux, and he did appear to have difficulty getting him to settle into a rhythmic beat of the slow pace. That won’t be a problem here. Owns the best turn of foot in the group. Whether that’s good enough will be known at around 6:26 p.m. Saturday.

17. Dublin 12-1 Obviously, D. Wayne Lukas knows how to win the Kentucky Derby. However, his colt has had an enigmatic prep season. The handsome, accomplished colt gave a teasingly strong performance in the Southwest, only to disappoint in the Rebel and Arkansas Derby, albeit a little less Worse is his bearing out in back-to-back Churchill trials. This race is hard enough to win even when things go perfectly.

18. Backtalk 50-1 His backward step in the Hawthorne Derby is legitimately attributable to a pre-race six furlong workout in 1:09 and change. No wonder he gave a flat performance. Even though he appears to love Churchill, he’s too lightly seasoned having had only two races since October. Besides, he’s always impressed as a stretch-running sprinter/miler type.

19. Homeboykris 50-1 Developing very nicely but looks impossibly slow on the Equiform performance figure scale, and he hasn’t raced since Feb. 27. Picked up future Hall of Famer Ramon Dominguez but even the wide draw works against this guy. Hopefully Louie, Rick, and the boys are enjoying their week in the bluegrass.

20. Sidney’s Candy 5-1 Any speed horse that can big-kick late is a loaded gun anywhere, anytime. Worked brilliantly at Churchill, then not so much, making his preparation a bit of a question mark. On ability and potential, he might be “the best horse.” If he can chase the speed from out here, withstand the mid-race movers, then hold the closers safe, he would be the worthiest Derby winner since, well, Big Brown.

Selections: 1. Super Saver 2. Awesome Act 3. Lookin At Lucky 4. American Lion

Tomorrow, wagering strategies for attacking America's Race, the best betting race of the year

Written by John Pricci

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