Sunday, November 08, 2015

Mixed Messages and Memories from the Internet

HALLANDALE BEACH, FL., November 8, 2015-I can’t understand why there was notable ire over a curious Hall of Fame ride yesterday at Del Mar when you’d think an alleged ringer that paid over $200 recently would have more of an Internet shelf life.

But it’s early yet and, with respect to the alleged ringer incident, it did happen in a state where other unfortunate incidences occurred in recent years, so I guess it was perceived as just bad business per usual.

I watched video of yesterday’s 4th race at Del Mar in which favorite What a View finished second to longshot Professor Berns, ridden by Brice Blanc. It might never have been noticed at all had the rider been someone other than Kent Desormeaux.

When Desormeaux was riding full time in New York, we wrote extensively about his habit of not riding horses out to the finish. In many of those cases, this habit resulted in costing exacta, trifecta and/or superfecta bettors money.

I watched yesterday’s race many times and the best I could see is that Desormeaux relaxed his body right at the finish line, and his mount unable to hold off a longshot rival that was finishing strongly along the rail.

Desormeaux hit his front-running mount with the whip intermittently about four or five times, alternately throwing crosses in between. There certainly is no doubt that Desormeaux was all out to win.

The problem came in the last few strides when he appeared to turn his stick down—maybe California’s whip rule is a bad one, however well intended—as the wire rapidly approached.

He then appeared to throw another cross but was putting forth no hustle that we could see in that final jump. The reason we’re hesitant is that video screens on ADWs, even in large-screen mode, pushes eye strain to the limit.

Either way, it was a bang-bang play.

I would be inclined to give Desormeaux the benefit of the doubt on this one but for his habitual habit of styling needlessly or finishing in an overconfident manner, in effect misjudging the finish line and the momentum of an onrushing rival.

When are stewards everywhere going to begin heavily fining those jockeys who, in their opinion and when it’s obviously warranted, can’t ride their mounts out to the finish?

This tack also does the horse and his connections a disservice by possibly teaching racehorses bad habits. Will officials ever treat bettors with the kind of respect they deserve?

Honor Who? Liam’s What? ‘Chrome’ and Shared Belief Back in Business

Whenever top horses return, it’s always welcome news. But could the recent returns of California Chrome and Shared Belief have come at a better time?

It was only a 2-furlong breeze—that’s no typo, a quarter-mile in 25 seconds--or 26 2/5 depending on the watch you trust more--with a 3-furlong gallop-out in :37-change, according to trainer Art Sherman. “It was perfect,” said Sherman, adding “God darn it, [the rider] had a handful of horse.” The target in the G2 San Pascual Stakes in January.

On Thursday, meanwhile, Shared Belief had his first jog at Golden Gate Fields, his familiar home base, after coming out of rehab. Shared Belief has not run since fracturing his hip in the Charles Town Classic in April.

“It went perfectly,” said trainer Jerry Hollendorfer. “He’s very happy. It seems like he’s happy to be back.”

No happier than racing fans who are suffering from handicap-division withdrawal after Honor Code and Liam’s Map were sent home following the Breeders’ Cup.

Hollendorfer has not set a timetable for serious training, much less the gelding's five-year-old campaign. “We’re going to go really slowly with him,” Hollendorfer said.

Take your time, boss, we’ve waited this long…

American Pharoah the Best Since Secretariat?

At least in the opinion of my friend and colleague, Steve Davidowitz.

I don’t like to compare horses from different eras as a rule but this is a great topic, so here’s a take:

The only way to defeat a world class speed horse is with another world class speed horse. No member of the 2014 three-year-old class was capable of matching strides with an intent-on-the-lead Pharoah. And to his credit, however, he did beat Derby contemporaries with his class, coming from off the pace.

Two out of a handful of the greatest horses we’ve ever seen were great speed horses, before and after Secretariat. We’re referring to Dr. Fager and Seattle Slew. And here’s the thing about either of those great Thoroughbreds.

I will not compare horses using speed figures--anyone’s speed figures including my own, since there are other mitigating factors: medication; manicured surfaces; atmospherics, etc. So all that remains is the mind’s eye of opinion.

Going a one-turn mile, with its long run to the turn and a distance long enough for top class to significantly factor in the outcome, I can’t conjure up Pharoah looking either Fager or Slew in the eye and out-finishing either of them.

I would feel the same way at nine or 10 furlongs, but believe that a mile, also a highly revered distance in Europe, would be a true test of raw speed and character. As they say, that’s one other man’s opinion.

Which of Those Three Would Be the Morning Line Favorite?

I have absolutely no idea, but I'm confident that Don LaPlace, who passed away this week at 85, would have figured it out.

La Place was the first racetrack oddsmaker I got to know well. He labored during racing’s “glory years,” a time when Triple Crowns were toted around like so many nickels and dimes.

Donald taught me a lot about the nuances of his craft and he was extremely well respected by all. And how do we know that?

We know this because line-makers, like umpires and referees, only get noticed when they make egregious errors. I’m sure LaPlace made the kind of mistakes that go with the territory but none that I can recall.

He knew something about handicapping and crafting an odds line because he knew a lot about horses. He got his first job with the legendary Hirsch Jacobs the usual way, mucking stalls and walking hots as a youngster.

Eventually LaPlace became an exercise rider which led to a riding career; one season was the leading apprentice at old Jamaica Racetrack. When weight became an issue, he galloped horses in the mornings and helped prepare a couple of horses named Stymie and Shuvee for the races.

Not a bad career for a very good man who, with his wife, Joan, successfully bred and showed Jack Russell Terriers. The first time I heard the expression “go to ground,” it was from Mr. LaPlace.

So dedicated was he that he often commuted from his home in Schuylerville to Aqueduct and Belmont Park. Never let it be said that Don LaPlace couldn’t get the trip.

Written by John Pricci

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Tuesday, November 03, 2015

Over and Over, Breeders’ Cup Never Fails to Fire

HALLANDALE BEACH, Nov. 3, 2015—It comes as absolutely no surprise that inaugural Grand Slam winner American Pharoah was the unanimous #1 choice among National Turf Writers and Broadcasters voters, capturing all 44 votes cast.

Beholder, widely expected to complete that exacta, did, if she again it turns out she never stepped outside her native California to do so—and that’s no knock on our California equine brethren who once again showed that they can flaunt their speed when they sojourn East and Midwest.

The final NTRA Top 10 poll of 2015 was completed, in ranked order by: Liam’s Map; Runhappy; Tepin; Honor Code; Songbird; Nyquist; Private Zone and Shared Belief.

For the record, our ballot was slightly different, ranking Honor Code in front of Liam’s Map (see Met Mile and Whitney), Nyquist ahead of Songbird (conceding Songbird was the more dominating of the two juveniles).

We ranked Runhappy 7th (completely arbitrary since I could have placed him ahead of either of the babies), Lady Eli (instead of Private Zone), but also with Shared Belief rounding out the Top 10.

The way the poll is structured lends itself to arbitrary selections. The idea when the Top 10 was created and explained was to rank possible Horse of the Year contenders at year’s end.

After the Kentucky Derby, no one ever challenged American Pharoah for the honor of being ranked on top, just as Saturday’s Classic was a foregone conclusion 100 yards away of the barrier.

Through a Breeders’ Cup Notebook:

We were right about Florent Geroux when we wrote pre-race that he was already an elite rider and possible heir apparent to Johnny Velazquez, something he proved over the two-day event, but were 1000% wrong about Nyquist. Parenthetically, we ranked Juvenile runner-up Swipe ahead of him at the windows, given the huge odds disparity. But once again he failed to catch his nemesis.

Note to Doug Bredar:
Doug, bring your jock (Geroux) to South Florida this winter. Of course, you can go to the Fair Grounds, where it’s also warm, and take your share of stakes mounts all around the country on weekends if you wish.

But since your wife is likely to be at Gulfstream all winter (TV’s Caton Bredar), that would be a nice perk, we would think, and the chances are you are more likely to find a Derby colt here.

Note to Florent Geroux: Planes fly out of here, too, so you could still ship out weekends if purses are greener elsewhere. Turf trainers would wear out a path to your condo. Yes, the Crescent City has Bourbon Street, but with the Express lanes on 95, you could be in South Beach in 30 minutes.

Oh No, Not Him Again:
The racing gods were cruel when fate placed Frosted in the starting slip right alongside American Pharoah. As a consequence, Frosted failed to break on time, perhaps keeping himself as far away from Pharoah as possible.

The Answer Is: Jim Brown, Barry Sanders and Liam’s Map

The question was: Which athletes retired at the top of their game, something Liam’s Map did following his Dirt Mile victory.

Given energy-distribution dynamics, the best horse, didn’t-deserve-to-lose Whitney runner-up, and a dominant winner of the Woodward, saved his best for last.

Liam’s Map was the are-you-kidding-me? winner of the Dirt Mile. At no point until the sixteenth point did he ever look the part of a winner. Once again, energy distribution played a pivotal role.

Reprising Liam’s Map’s Whitney effort, it was Lea forcing the speed issue throughout and looked like at certain winner leaving the three-sixteenths. But then his stride began to shorten a furlong from home which is where Liam’s Map became ultra-resolute.

Despite fighting Javier Castellano between rivals throughout following a tardy break that was severely compromising given his style. Liam’s Map had enough class and energy in reserve to handle the assignment.

Credit Castellano for never panicking and remaining patient; credit Todd Pletcher for bringing him up to the race fresh, fit and sharp, and the colt for showing extreme class under the circumstances.

Given his retirement, we now know why the connections chose the Dirt Mile over the Classic. The West Point Thoroughbreds group recently bought into the Liam’s Map ownership group. So, what to do?

Win a Grade 1 Breeders’ Cup event at “the breeder’s distance,” get a fast, lucrative return on investment, and go home with prestigious, consecutive G1 titles in tow. Nicely played by all, however much it might suck for racing fans.

More Honors for America’s Horse…or the Brits Must Be Choking on This One:
Ratings posted expert Sam Walker, noted handicapper of the foreign-based Racing Post, made American Pharoah the highest-rated US horse in that publication’s history.

Pre-Breeders’ Cup, European champion-elect Golden Horn was rated one pound better than America’s best race horse, 132 to 131 on the RPR handicapping scale. After Saturday, American Pharoah ended his career with a rating of 138, more than Cigar and Ghostzapper at 135.

Since 1988, only two horses ranked higher: Frankel (143) and Dubai Millennium, both rating achieved following their 4-year-old season. Who knows what heights Pharoah would have achieved at 4--he asks rhetorically.

Other notable winning performances for the weekend per Racing Post Ratings were Liam’s Map at 124 and Runhappy at 123.

BETS N’ PIECES The Keeneland turf, soft, then yielding, then good, was a strange one. Anthony Oppenheim, owner of Golden Horn, said, before the Turf that the course was “loose on top,” which is exactly how it played, in our view—not so much deep as it was slippery…

Honor Code ran a great race to be third, given those splits. He will be missed, as will Lea, who never really recovered after his monstrous effort at Gulfstream Park a few years back…

Found is a real good filly who should get better. It could have been the ground she preferred, but still, for a 3YO filly to do what she did was extraordinary. Hope she comes back to defend, although next year it will have to be on the pool table, a.k.a. the Santa Anita turf course.

please accept my apology, you are much better than I thought. When Swipe reached even terms on the gallop-out, you still wouldn’t let him by…Meanwhile, Songbird was faster at every split, including the last one; wow!

Would never have imagined that Lady Shipman or Runhappy could be that effective coming from just off the pace. New dimensions for both and should serve them well with maturity--bad news for members of their respective divisions.

Fully realize that the Runhappy trainer situation could be a she said-she said affair, but it left a bad taste. Relations of owners, as opposed to trainers, making horsemanship decisions, cannot be a good thing--and Mattress Mack has a reputation that precedes him.

Expect that Todd Pletcher, and more and more trainers, will be bringing fresh horses to the Breeders’ Cup.

The display of race-riding by Javier Castellano is nothing new. Remember that controversial non-DQ at Gulfstream last winter? No one has pushed the envelope like him since the great Angel Cordero Jr. Should the filly’s name be changed to Stopfloatingmaria, and shifting to BC Marathons past, think Calvin Borel is still out of his mind?

Hit It a Bomb and Catch a Glimpse are terrific turf juveniles in their respective divisions and can’t wait to see them at 3. And speaking of turf fillies, happy to see Mark Casse off the Breeders’ Cup duck, given his work with the latter, and Tepin vs males on Saturday.

Written by John Pricci

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Sunday, November 01, 2015

American Pharoah Fulfilled the Dreams of Racing Fans Worldwide

HALLANDALE BEACH, FL., October 31, 2015—In the end, American Pharoah, the sport’s 12th Triple Crown winner, took longer to get back to the winners’ circle than it did for him to dispatch the best field of runners the world could assemble to defeat him, a lot longer.

Of course, this promenade allowed the multitude on hand at Keeneland to see him, embrace him for one last shining moment, to etch his appearance in the minds’ eye forever.

Victor Espinoza seized this instant to showcase an equine animal that put catapulted his rider into the bright lights normally reserved for those capable of achieving true significance.

Just as he had at Belmont Park, Espinoza gave a world-wide audience a one-horse post parade, time enough to consider his mount’s presence on one of Thoroughbred racing’s great stages. But American Pharoah gave racing more than just great victories.

There were mornings on the Jersey Shore this summer when fans were well-advised to ride the backstreets into Monmouth Park. We’ve been blessed to see our share of early morning workouts and gallops, but never in the company of about 2,500 fans on a Friday.

On another morning, in Saratoga during Travers week, when his expected appearance for a leg-stretching gallop snarled traffic for 20 minutes, even for those who live diagonally across the street from the race course on Union Avenue.

In late afternoon of June 6, on a magical spring day in New York, American Pharoah transported Belmont Park fans 37 years back in time and the realization they might never experience this moment again; memories haunted by many unrealized moments past.

There was an equally bright afternoon at Monmouth Park when the colt literally, totally and unexpectedly, reduced veteran observers to tears as they would truly appreciate greatness, perhaps for the first time. Old school standards take time and they die hard.

Of great personal significance, there were the videos of his timed pre-and-post Triple Crown workouts, too numerous to mention but noted here many times, in which American Pharoah rendered seeing disbelieving, straining the credulity of digits on a stopwatch.

His action, flawless and faulting of all others by comparison, made every morning trial seem wondrous, occasions unto themselves. His trainer, who this day would underscore his own Hall of Fame legacy, said it best early this week: “No horse can move like that.”

But American Pharoah’s best attribute is a demeanor that belies the aggressive attitude of so many exceptional horses which are incapable of allowing their competitive fire to remain submerged beneath the surface. He is kind, obedient, quizzical and playfully attentive.

Those attributes alone makes him one of the ones; a singular talent and the horse of a lifetime.

Fans often note how many of the great ones have noble names to match? Man o’ War, Secretariat, Seattle Slew, Spectacular Bid, Ruffian, to name just a few.

And now we have a son of Pioneer of the Nile who truly has earned the right to be called “America’s Horse,” more than in name only: American Pharoah, equine ruler, indeed.

In a world equally divided by politics and prejudice, the colt brought a measure of civility, bonding the diverse worlds of racing and sports world together, however briefly, to share and celebrate one of life’s special moments, one for all and all for one.

In the gloaming of Keeneland Race Course on a Saturday evening in October, the feelings were no different than when on the eve of American Pharoah’s triumphant farewell, a stadium full of baseball fans swayed arm-in-arm singing in celebration of one of its heroes.

As I watched American Pharoah saunter ever so slowly back to the winners’ circle for the final time of his magnificent career, the moments I cosmically shared with a race horse on a video screen provided an indelible memory to a lifelong racing fan.

At once, I was happy for the racing family who shared their priceless possession with the sport they love and risked it all after their colt’s place in racing history was assured, and I was sad for all people who just don’t get it about Thoroughbred racing.

Ahmed Zayat said it best before the race, a chance he need not have taken: It’s not about the money or the glory, he said, it’s about defining greatness which, in addition to tolerance and understanding, is currently in very short supply.

The sport owes the Zayat family and the horsemanship of Bob Baffert a debt of gratitude, one it can never fully repay.

Written by John Pricci

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