Friday, April 11, 2008

Pyro, Asmussen Enjoying Dream Prep Season

SARATOGA SPRINGS, NY, April 10, 2008--With the possible exception of next weekend's Lexington Stakes, the Triple Crown prep season ends Saturday with, in ascending order, the Grade 3 Holy Bull Stakes at Gulfstream Park, the G2 Arkansas Derby at Oaklawn Park, and the storied G1 Blue Grass at Keeneland.

Fitting that in the final Grade 1 of the classics' prep season, Pyro, virtually the consensus Kentucky Derby favorite since his Risen Star tour de force, will make his third start of the year as the even-money favorite in the day‘s biggest three-year-old event.

For trainer Steve Asmussen, things have gone very well under the bright lights of this young racing season. Horse of the Year Curlin won his prep for the Dubai World Cup then confirmed that preparation two weeks ago with the lengthiest victory in the history of the event.

Curlin's performance was so dream-like in fact that, according to published reports, rider Robbie Albarado returned to the winners' circle as if in a trance, the rocking-chair stretch run little more than a pleasant blur to the Cajun riding star.

Things have gone no less swimmingly for Asmussen on this side of the Atlantic. There have been no road blocks along the Derby Trail for Pyro, the certain Blue Grass favorite, and a strong showing in Lexington would in all likelihood earn Pyro Derby favoritism by the time America's traveling equine troupe arrives in Louisville.

For Pyro, a strong showing doesn't necessarily mean a winning one. What is not needed is an enervating effort at nine furlongs for a horse that already has sufficient foundation and experience with only three weeks remaining to the show.

Grade 1 placings as a juvenile and a pair of graded stakes victories at 3 give Pyro the luxury of needing only a workmanlike effort in his final prep, one that doesn't extract any more juice from the lemon than is necessary.

Even if this is his synthetic surface debut, he continues to train very well, including a recent sharp Polytrack blowout over the Blue Grass track. Owning Derby style and demonstrable class, no one will be shocked if he beats his 11 rivals without delivering his 'A' race. He just might be that good.

What Nick Zito's Cool Coal Man lacks in flashiness he makes up for in accomplishment. Another with no experience on synthetic surfaces, the 4-1 Blue Grass second-favorite is the only member of this group owning two nine-furlong wins. Further, he breaks from the rail position that is currently enjoying a two-turn success rate of 24 percent. As he showed at Gulfstream, Cool Coal Man has the tactical tools to take an advantage.

Like Pyro, Cool Coal Man needn't win the Blue Grass, only finish strongly enough to benefit from the effort and advance his Derby conditioning. His allowance win at Churchill Downs last fall also looks better now that runnerup Recapturetheglory has become a late developing Derby player.

Condition notwithstanding, there are talented horses that absolutely need a lion's share of the Blue Grass graded purse to qualify for a spot in the Churchill Downs starting gate. Two, Cowboy Cal and Monba, are trained by Todd Pletcher, who, after nominating a total of 34 horses to this year's Triple Crown, might be down to these two in Louisville.

Cowboy Cal has earned excellent performance figures on grass, a surface that often transfers that form nicely to Polytrack. He owns no dirt victories but earnings come first so the Blue Grass for him is an imperative. While his dirt form is an unknown--as is that of likely Derby third choice Colonel John--his pedigree will relish every inch of the Derby's mile and a quarter.

Stablemate Monba has been living off the promise shown winning a Churchill Downs allowance race last fall and a subsequently troubled, strong-finish fourth and gallop out at the end of the Cash Call Futurity. He was nowhere in the Fountain of Youth when nearly cut down between rivals on the first turn, lucky to escape serious injury. Edgar Prado re-rides the surprising Fountain of Youth favorite.

Another only needing to run well is Big Truck. Some might argue that Atoned's disappointing Illinois Derby exposed him but the New York-bred continues to act like a “good horse.” He finished ahead of eventual Florida Derby runnerup in the Sam F. Davis prior to his Tampa Derby victory and has continued to work bullets since.

In order for Big Truck to run well, he must show some affinity for the nine furlong route. By the speed-oriented sire Hook And Ladder, his distance aptitude to date appears to have come from the influence of his grand-sire, Derby-winning Go for Gin.

Because of Hey Byrn, a mid-moving fourth in the Florida Derby, the Holy Bull will be interesting even if unlikely to produce a serious Derby horse. A victory by the early line favorite would flatter the undefeated Big Brown.

A full field of 14 at Oaklawn Park might produce a prospect or two, the connections of a close-finish contender encouraged by the recent Kentucky Derby success of Arkansas Derby victors. Asmussen will start three of the 14.

But most Derby eyes will be on the Blue Grass and Pyro, and whether his dream prep season will continue to give him star billing for the 90-mile van ride from Lexington. However, one never knows when a pothole could run a well-oiled machine right off the road that leads to Louisville.

Written by John Pricci

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Friday, March 07, 2008

Asmussen’s Only Fear May Be Himself

SARATOGA SPRINGS, NY, Mar. 7, 2008--Last weekend it was Santa Anita. Tomorrow its the Big Easy, mon cher, otherwise known as Derby Day in New Orleans. The Grade 2 Louisiana Derby has attracted a field of nine, headed by the Risen Star star, Pyro. Its clearly the deepest Kentucky Derby prep so far this year.

Although the race was drawn very early in the week, the linemaker wasted no time installing Steve Asmussens colt the 7-5 early line choice vs. G2 Jockey Club Stakes runnerup Blackberry Road, G2 Belmont Futurity winner Tale Of Ekati, undefeated California Derby winner Yankee Bravo and G1 Hopeful winner Majestic Warrior. And theres an undefeated stablemate named J Be K, among others.

So, is the Louisiana Derby favorite vulnerable?

Yankee Bravo, a colt has no graded earnings, hasnt faced this caliber and will be making his first start on a non-synthetic or turf surface. Trainer Patrick Gallagher has been handling him with extreme care, as if hes something special, and Alex Solis, the only partner Yankee Bravos had since shipping across the pond, comes with the package. Considering the fact hes chasing needed graded earnings, expect him to be wound tightly.

Then theres Blackberry Road, trained by David Carroll, who has the undefeated Denis Of Cork on the Derby Trail as well. But this colt also needs graded cash, mostly because hes been nothing if not unlucky. The deep-stretch runner has had tough trips in his last five starts beginning with last years Arlington Washington Futurity. In the Risen Star, every seam he attempted to split was slammed shut in his face. Robby Albarado, replacing fellow Cajun Calvin Borel, will try to work through the bad karma.

From a class perspective, Tale Of Ekati and Majestic Warrior are known quantities but each is making his seasons debut in a tough spot. While neither figures to be at tops for this, trainers Barclay Tagg and Bill Mott, respectively, know their colts must have a required level of fitness to compete in this company, but without risking future condition by asking their runners for too much, too soon.

To say both have chosen ambitious debut spots would be to understate the case, but each has trained very well at South Florida training centers known for getting horses fit and ready at first asking. Of the two, Tale Of Ekati appears a bit more advanced. The normally reticent Tagg expects his horse to run very well. But trainers, like presidential candidates, are adept at lowering expectations.

Mott is back on the Derby Trail with several candidates, only for the fifth time in his career. But the Hall of Famer knows his way around Louisville, having saddled more winners at Churchill Downs than anyone else. Majestic Warrior, not without bullet workouts in his own equine holster, will attempt to have fans recall the winning show he put on in last years Hopeful before an injury prevented him from doing the same in the Champagne that went to War Pass. By A.P. Indy from a Seeking The Gold mare, a blue-hen-in-training called Dream Supreme, the colt has Derby lineage.

But the Louisiana Derby remains Asmussens race to lose because he has two loaded guns at which to take aim at the $600,000 prize. The mighty Pyro has an uncoupled mate, J Be K, undefeated in two starts and breaking from an ideal position beside his more accomplished mate in the Fair Grounds gate. While his two victories came sprinting and his pedigree is on the short side, rest assured that J Be K is not just some rabbit Asmussens throwing to the pace wolves. This field had better not underestimate the controlling speed of this Louisiana Derby, and that includes Pyro. Whether that lead is easily gained depends on Tale Of Ekatis level of freshness.

Based on his Risen Star alone, Pyro deserves his position at or near the top of most Kentucky Derby polls. He developed so well over the winter, further learning his trade by working with two older stablemates, one being reigning Horse of the Year Curlin. Resultantly, Pyros more relaxed and focused in his training than he was as a youngster. And all of it was on display in his three-year-old debut, a victory that was nothing short of sensational.

There are two more Kentucky Derby preps this weekend worthy of mention, also at a mile and a sixteenth; the G3 Gotham Stakes on the Aqueduct winter track and the G3 El Camino Real Derby at Bay Meadows--even if the latter has been a better predictor of Preakness than Derby form.

The Gotham features undefeated New York-bred Giant Moon. The colt has been allowed to develop virtually on his own, trainer Rick Schosberg never tightening the screws in earnest until now. This will be a big test to determine whether this precocious sophomore can sit off rivals and be as effective, and whether he can handle a forecasted wet track.

The Northern California prep attracted a field of 10 headed by Nikkisgoldensteed and Coast Guard, who ducked Colonel John and El Gato Malo in last Saturdays Sham Stakes in favor of a softer spot at a shorter distance. Nikkisgoldensteed won the Turf Paradise Derby last month by nearly six lengths and is based in SoCal with trainer Robert Hess. Coast Guard, second in the G2 Robert Lewis Memorial last time, is developing beautifully for trainer David Hofmans.

But theres no mistaking that the main event will take place in the Crescent City, where the only thing Steve Asmussen may have to fear is himself.

Written by John Pricci

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Friday, February 29, 2008

Breeders’ Cup: Celebrating Gender or Widening the Gap?

SARATOGA SPRINGS, NY, Feb 28, 2008--

More than ever, it seems, its dangerous to generalize along gender lines, so let me be specific about my feelings on the subject: Viva La Difference!

Am I the only non-evangelical-nutlog left who feels this way? Is it wrong for me to quicken stride so that I can be first to open a door for a female companion? Or is it because I think theyre too weak to do it for themselves?

Conversely, is it reasonable to expect that Tara Nott Cunningham would out-bench-press fellow Olympian Oscar Chaplin III? More to the point, is it unreasonable to conclude that the five-pound sex allowance Rags to Riches got from the boys in last years Belmont Stakes wasnt the head difference between the filly and eventual Horse of the Year Curlin?

And so what if women generally are not as big or strong as men? So what if they tend to be more emotional? Does it make them inferior? You could look at it another way. You could conjure up the image of men giving birth. Or males reacting to social subtext in the same fashion women do? Does that somehow make males less than?
Can we all stop trying to react so sensitively? I'll admit to a social perception Ive inferred from watching this years Democratic debates between Hillary Rodham Clinton and Barack Hussein Obama. I think its been harder for Hillary to overcome the gender gap than it has been for Obama to cross Americas great racial divide.

Just like American voters who now appear ready to embrace their social and cultural differences, wouldnt it be better if all of us engaged in racing either as a business or a sporting and cultural pastime hold our differences closer?

I bring this up because of a simmering undercurrent created almost instantly by Breeders Cups decision to create an all female racing program on Day 1 of its World Championships this fall at Santa Anita.

In the interest of full disclosure, I admit that women are the first thing that leaps to mind whenever I consider the possibility of a Southern California sojourn. Is that sexist? By strict definition, yes. Misogynistic? Now that might be a little strong.

To those who took offense to changing the name of the Distaff to Ladies Classic, I offer this challenge: What kind of response do you think youd get from the average person under age 40 if you went Jaywalking like Leno and asked them to define the word distaff? Whatever the guess, Ill take under. In Breeders Cup terms, the marriage of Classic to Ladies, or Filly & Mare Classic, elevates the race in the eyes of casual fans.

Depending on who you ask, the Friday program of the inaugural two-day Breeders Cup at Monmouth Park was either moderately successful or a complete disaster. Personally, I think the unbelievably foul weather rendered all opinions moot.

The benefit of hindsight has not changed that opinion: When compared to Saturday, Friday, in terms of the anticipation for, and coverage of, was pre-climactic. The races were non-graded, non-defining and off message. What they were were great betting races, and that seems to be the focus now: generating revenue, like any other business.

With their Ladies Day concept, Breeders Cup has gone back to the future as a marketing tool for the sport. In doing so it has put the spotlight on a vastly underappreciated segment of the racing business: women.

To that end, the organization promises to develop a series of festivities promoting cause-related womens health programs, on-site initiatives, and consumer promotions, all good ideas.

But there better be a story featuring the achievements of trainer Helen Pitts, the extraordinary success of female exercise riders, and the countless hot-walking, horse-grooming moms that raise families despite a 365-day work schedule. And maybe a tribute to executive Stella Thayer, breeder Penny Tweedy, or late racing exemplar Martha Gerry.

One area where women are appreciated is as handicappers and analysts is broadcasting. At least they have benefited from the media notion that sex sells. It might be the only racetrack instance where they have an edge.

On the racetrack, gender and excellence are not mutually exclusive. But for equines its a little different between the fences. Fillies dont excite most players the same way colts do. Only in Kentucky is an Oaks day celebrated, and maybe thats what the Breeders Cup people eventually hope to accomplish here.

But unless its a Winning Colors or Personal Ensign, an Azeri or Ladys Secret, fillies just dont create buzz. It becomes different only when they prove to be equal to, or better than, males. Would the early days of Breeders Cup been as special without Pebbles winning the Turf, without Miesque going back to back in the Mile?

The Breeders Cup people have had a shaky year. They missed an opportunity to bring European races into the Win and Youre In mix. They acted hastily in awarding Santa Anita a second consecutive series in 2009 when less than a week later the NYRA franchise issue was resolved.

The Santa Anita scenario runs the real risk of discouraging European participation because of climate and turf course circumference considerations. The only foreseeable upsides are great Southern California fall weather and a gorgeous backdrop for television. That, and the chance that Fridays races could be presented in prime time, free of World Series competition.

So let the women have their day on a national stage that all can celebrate. And the best of the equines, the Grade 1 types, can give Breeders Cup Friday the buzz it lacked last fall at Monmouth Park. Can we all agree its better to have loved and lost?

Written by John Pricci

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