Thursday, October 22, 2009

Zenyatta: Savior of Synthetic Cup II

ELMONT, NY, October 21, 2009--Now is not the time for panic. Fifteen minutes from now, perhaps. Just not at this moment.

But it hasn’t been a fun run-up to the Breeders’ Cup World Championships thus far. In fact, racing’s greatest event never has been under such a microscope.

This event never, ever, has failed to fire. There’s just too much there, there. But at this point it looks like the fireworks are more apt to resemble sparklers than cherry bombs.

Developments began many months ago when everyone found out that thefilly in the "Year of the Filly,” the great three-year-old distaffer Rachel Alexandra, would not race “on the plastic.”

The hue and cry really began before that, two years ago when it was announced that one track, the mighty Santa Anita Park, would become the first venue to stage the event back-to-back.

The storied racetrack is not the heavy in this piece. Its racing surface, an artificial one mandated by California Horse Racing Board, is.

But at least the surface mitigated some of the reluctance on the part of European horsemen to ship their charges into a hot weather venue at the end of an enervating year.

Clearly, the aim was to turn the event into an international Thoroughbred happening. [Read romance the European betting market here].

In that context, and buoyed by the success of these outlanders in last year’s event, Europeans, or American-based foreign connections, will come in even larger droves.

I wrote at the time, and still believe, that last year’s Breeders’ Cup was, from an aesthetic view, one of its best editions ever.

Too bad that since inception it’s been a public relations nightmare, one that eventually ended with a member of the executive hierarchy being forced to witness the 2009 event from the cheap seats.

Then when Sea the Stars, nine-figure future and all, decided to retire after the Arc, the Classic, or Turf, suffered a huge hit.

He might not have been worth 10,000 new fannies, but he certainly would have attracted a good number from among the curious, creating palpable excitement for a grateful segment of the Thoroughbred audience.

But there have been other defections, notable in their own right. Fabulous Strike, the sprint division leader throughout most of the season and his recent conqueror, Kodiak Kowboy, had their names scratched from their Sprint dance cards.

And just as Breeders’ Cup officials were warming to the idea that E. P. Taylor winner Lahaleeb would seek more glory in the Filly & Mare Turf, their connections decided that putting up a $180,000 supplemental fee was a bad bet.

Trainer Michael Channon put it delicately: “…In a sense, Win and You’re In is a bit misleading.” Indeed. They’re headed to the Hong Kong Cup instead, all expenses paid.

Macho Again might not quicken the pulse, but he did come closest to catching Rachel Alexandra. He'll probably go to the Clark now, having established his liking for Churchill Downs by winning the Stephen Foster.

Time was when the Meadowlands Cup winner was a Classic automatic. But the exciting, albeit sparingly raced, Etched, will point to the Clark, trainer Kiaran McLaughlin indicating that his foreign owners are just saying no to Pro Ride.

Last Saturday at Calder, Jackson Bend, the best two-year-old no one’s ever heard of, completed a sweep of the Florida Stallion series with a three-length score in the In Reality despite looking beaten in upper stretch. No artificial surface for him.

Trainer Stanley Gold, like Stanley Hough in New York, who has a serious juvenile colt in Discreetly Mine and a talented filly in Awesome Maria, instead will look ahead to 2010 three-year-old season.

A victory in the Canadian International was not enough to send Champs Elysees out to Santa Anita for the Turf. Instead, the protem 2009 Canadian Horse of the Year will enter stud in the spring.

The Classic took two more hits this week, one from the connections of Rail Trip, the G1 Hollywood Gold Cup winner who’s battling foot issues, and the other from Team Valor, who decided to point Goodwood winner Gitano Hernando to the $10-million Dubai World Cup in March.

They think it makes more sense than running back quickly on the heels of a hard-fought victory, and they probably made the right decision.

Is the Goodwood becoming a West Coast version of the Meadowlands Cup? Maybe both tracks should consider scheduling their events earlier next season. Just a thought.

But the biggest blow would come from a champion that has had the Breeders’ Cup circled since winning a Championship last year. And for the Classic to have any juice for American race fans, it needs Zenyatta against the boys on her hometown track.

There has been considerable back and forth in the racing media as to the merits of a 14th consecutive modern stakes record victory without defeat or an outside chance at a Horse of the Year title.

It’s highly improbable that a Classic victory that pushes Zenyatta past Hall of Famer Personal Ensign will be enough to earn her the ultimate honor. But it’s not impossible.

I live in the real world and acknowledge Rachel’s three victories over males, one in a classic and another over elders, and two tape-measure jobs against her contemporaries, the most ambitious campaign by a filly ever waged.

But voting is a funny thing, and not just in Florida or Illinois. Think college sports, where late season victories take on added significance as voters start circling the provincial wagons.

A Classic victory, giving her a record 14 straight in this country’s most important race for older horses, would demand serious Hose of the Year consideration, even among Rachel’s staunchest supporters.

Never mind that it’s the only confrontation every Thoroughbred fan would love to see.

Plus having the added benefit of helping to preserve a spectacular racing event in a year that, even with the emergence of two all-time great three-year-olds, has done more to damage the psyche of Thoroughbred fans than any other in recent memory.

Written by John Pricci

Comments (18)


Saturday, October 10, 2009

As Breeders’ Cup Prep Races Go, Today’s Super Duper Saturday

SARATOGA SPRINGS, NY, October 9, 2009--With apologies to Belmont Park, this is a real Super Saturday. If you don’t believe me, count the races for yourself.

If the Super Saturday card from Oak Tree weren’t enough, Belmont checks back in with the Champagne and Frizette.

And it’s opening weekend at Keeneland. Think Breeders’ Futurity, First Lady, Spinster, Alcibiades, Shadwell Turf Mile, Phoenix, and many others from all three locales.

But, you know? I shouldn’t give Santa Anita any of this space.


Because as I finish this lead thought--at the moment--it’s 11:37 a.m. Friday--I CAN’T GET A LINE ANYWHERE, not from Equibase, not from anywhere, on Santa Anita’s stakes laden program.

The races were drawn Wednesday. So, let’s just take our own Southern California, laid back, sweet time. Forget that fans might be interested. And God forbid horseplayers might want to get a leg up on their work because they might want to BET this attractive card!

Many racing people just don’t want get it. And, trust me, reaping what you sew is not an idle fear any longer. The most valuable asset Americans have, time, is in very short supply these troubled times.

And this industry treats people, people who are on their side, as if they had all the time in the world. Build it, and they will bet. Well, that doesn’t work anymore. And the industry would like some help from outside sources? Based on what, exactly?

I digress.

There are two headliners appearing at Santa Anita today, Amazon filly beast Zenyatta going for 13 straight in the Lady’s Secret. This 1-1/16th miles has been an uncanny predictor of Distaff/Ladies Classic success, especially on SoCal event days.

In the Goodwood, Kentucky Derby winner Mine That Bird, reuniting with Calvin Borel, will try to get back on winning track. While the race, obviously, is a prep for the Classic, he figures to improve on his recent effort, given the procedure to correct an entrapped epiglottis.

Predicting today’s effort is a tough call, however. While the Goodwood hasn’t been as prodigious as the Lady’s Secret, it’s always had a significant effect on Breeders’ Cup West Coast form. Because of Pro Ride, the Goodwood is the quintessential Classic prep.

Ed. Note: Both races, and the Oak Tree Mile, can be seen on the ESPN family of networks, in and around football games. Check your local listings. Incidentally, just checked with Equibase again, and with the Oak Tree-Santa Anita website. It’s 1:33 p.m. EDT Friday. Still no odds line for Santa Anita.

Once upon a time, the Oak Tree Mile was a harbinger of good Mile form. But that hasn’t been the case in recent years. The last horse to parlay this prep into a Mile victory was Singletary at Lone Star Park five years ago.

From the West, Whatsthescript, and, from the East, Cowboy Cal, might vie for the favorite‘s role. While neither has done a while lot of winning of late, if you believe in classifying on the grass, know they’ve been knocking heads in top class competition most of 2009.

The Yellow Ribbon, for fillies and mares on the turf, has proven to be a key prep, i.e., a negative key prep. Top contenders have emerged from this race at relatively short prices but didn’t extend their Yellow Ribbon form beyond Arcadia.

This year is interesting because Magical Fantasy is an emerging four-year-old star who comes into the 10 furlong route in top form. I’m curious to see how she handles today’s trip, keeping in mind that the F&M Turf is at the same distance. She’s being managed like a top horse.

When Belmont’s Champagne Stakes colts run back in the Juvenile, they fare pretty well--except for those run at Santa Anita. It’s a pretty good roster of young horses that never made the transition out West. The latest failure was Munnings, although it’s hard to know whether the two-turn route or the Pro Ride surface was the bugaboo.

Meanwhile, it’s impossible not to be impressed by Hopeful Stakes winner Dublin. An imposing individual, yet light on his feet, he has a big engine to push him home and certainly appears to be, anyway, any kind of racehorse. His new rider is Ramon Dominguez.

First, however, there’s the matter of winning the Champagne and whether the unlucky Aspire, who chased Dublin home with an authoritative late burst in Saratoga, will fare better with a cleaner trip and added ground.

Discreetly Mine, who split the top two in the Hopeful is back for another go. The leading colt from the Eastern bloc, this instant, is the open-lengths winner of the Belmont Futurity, D’Funnybone, who Rick Dutrow will train up to the Breeders’ Cup.

The early line favorite for the G1 Frizette is Awesome Maria, who looks promising, multi-dimensional filly. She broke her maiden by nearly nine lengths in her second start, then came back to win the G2 Matron on today’s track.

It doesn’t appear that added distance will be a problem for Awesome Maria, a daughter of Alabama winner Pretty Discreet. Interesting, however, that trainer Stanley Hough told NYRA press staffers that he would think about the Breeders’ Cup but would rather put her away with a three-year-old campaign in mind. But if she wins, figure she’s in.

Ed. Note: This is the last time I’m checking this prior to filing this piece on deadline. It’s 3:16 p.m. EDT. Still no line for Santa Anita BC prep card! Pitiful, really.

Written by John Pricci

Comments (8)


Saturday, October 03, 2009

Raising Your Simulcast Voice: Last Call

ELMONT, NY, October 3, 2009--Those with designs on making a score on Breeders' Cup weekend will be keeping their eyes on the 38 graded stakes contested during the next two weeks, an astounding 20 of the Grade 1 variety. As we said earlier this week, this is a great time of year to be a racing fan.

But today will be the last opportunity you'll have to raise your voice when the Thoroughbred Racing Associations and Harness Tracks of America hold their simulcasting conference two weeks hence in Saratoga. And that's why we have this back on the HRI lead page. Your input is important. Trust me, the wheels of progress are beginning to grind forward. Slowly, but in the right direction.

In return for taking the time to respond, I promise to tell your story. The response has been strong but I'd love to have as many of your ideas as possible when suggesting how the industry might improve its simulcast presentation. And with nine of every 10 dollars wagered off-track, the need for a better product is more important than ever.

So, please, if you haven't done so, post a line or two. No need to be long-winded if you don't wish to be. Just list your top two or three preferences, I'll grade them, and pass them along.

We'll tabulate the HRI poll results to form a consensus, promising not to take refuge behind it. Consensus doesn’t settle debate; it’s often a way to avoid it. All I can promise is that your voices will be heard.

In case you missed this post first time around, your choices should be based on standard television production values. How does the picture look? Is the message and the information--scratches, post times, etc.--presented in a clear and comprehensive fashion?

Are graphics legible and meaningful and not just unwanted window dressing? How was the camera work; too many cut-aways, not enough? Were simulcast hosts appealing and informative, or verbose and arrogant? How useful was the quality of betting information? What about the paddock and post parade presentations?

Those are some of the values I value to serve my wagering needs. And these are some of the issues I'd like you to consider. So, please, let's see those 1-2-3s. Thanks.

This Is Final TIme This Post Will Appear on the HRI Lead Page

Written by John Pricci

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