Tuesday, March 20, 2018

Glory Days and Hialeah Park

An inescapable factor for those who admit to a passion for Thoroughbred racing, with all its pomp and circumstance, its triumphs and its tragedies, is the wonder of renewal.

Three-year-olds prep in winter for the Classics of Spring, followed by the bookended summer glory of Saratoga and Del Mar, the coming of age in fall, the Breeders’ Cup and crowning of champions.

Immediately after the last glass of Christmas is raised, the future comes into clearer focus with the rekindling of prime time Santa Anita, Gulfstream’s championship session, and regeneration begins in earnest.

Suddenly it’s New Year’s Day: Happy Birthday equine friends, time has come to regroup, renew, rinse and repeat, as the game has for centuries, not only here but all around the world.

Once upon a time, Hialeah Park, a glorious racing cathedral, was a racetrack that provided the kind of high-profile focus the sport needs if it’s to deliver on its promise of endless summers at the races.

The dream that was Hialeah died decades ago. The man who made it possible, John J. Brunetti, passed a fortnight ago. So, now what?

Over a series of three days, I saw racing’s renewal process over the course of a single weekend. It began at a small racetrack on the Redneck Riviera. The Tampa Bay Derby, the new kid on the classics-prep block, was offered for a 38th time.

The voice of the first one, Tom Durkin, was in attendance to cheer on Untamed Domain. As a small part of the West Point syndicate, it was time to see whether the gifted sophomore turfer belonged on the Derby trail. He handled the dirt, not the competition.

The next time I saw the acclaimed race caller, he was hosting a memorial service for Hialeah’s visionary track owner, known to those closest to him as JJB.

“Memorial services, by definition, have a sense of finality,” Durkin began. “…But legacy has nothing to do with finality. Legacy is about the future. And JJB’s legacy is prodigious.”

“…Were it not for Mr. Brunetti,” he continued, “You probably would be seated in a parking lot of come soulless strip mall.

“Instead, solely because of him, solely because of his tenacity, solely because of his unshakable will to do the right thing, today you are in a place of never-to-be-imagined-again beauty and grandeur.

“… Myself, dozens of you, indeed hundreds of you, will come to owe Mr. Brunetti an inexpressible gratitude for the opportunities he has made possible, life changing opportunities.

“I was the track announcer here many years ago. Mr. Brunetti stuck his neck out, laid his own reputation on the line to give a virtual unknown the opportunity to perform on the big stage.

“Believe me, in 1981, Hialeah was a very big stage. There are a hundred JJB stories like mine.”

As I walked through the grandstand into the clubhouse, I thought about the time John Brunetti went out of his way to make his new paddock analyst feel welcome. It was a two-year stint, the first and only racetrack job I had after leaving Newsday.

It was while I was a Newsday racing writer that I first met Durkin. Had to tell him how much I enjoyed his race descriptions, expressing that I didn’t miss a second of the action while I sat with my feet up on the moat that surrounding Citation’s bronze image.

And I also thought of the day I took Toni to Hialeah for the first time to see the storied race course and a magnificent equine called Turkoman. The feature was the six-furlong Tallahassee Handicap and it marked the seasonal debut of the 1986 handicap champion.

The 17-hands beast spotted super-fast Beveled a ton of weight and a 10-length stretch lead, but Turkoman ran him down with giant strides in 1:08 1/5. His momentum was such that he galloped out one mile in 1:32 3/5, two ticks off Dr. Fager’s then world record.

All the moments flashed as I listened to family recollections of Brunetti’s two sons, John Jr. and Stephen, who worked for their father when I was there. Durkin was made an offer by The Meadowlands and moved on, making way for another newcomer, Frank Mirahmadi.

I knew of JJB’s charitable reputation but did not realize Hialeah was Miami University’s main corporate sponsor of their sports programs, or that he founded an organization at St. Thomas University that was one of the first to battle the scourge of human trafficking.

At the conclusion of ceremonies, hundreds of attendees were invited to stand at the clubhouse rail and, after all were gathered, Durkin intoned, as he had done many times before; “ladies and gentlemen, the flight of the flamingos.”

As I looked around it was impossible not to notice all the warts that time has wrought, even as the marble floor of the first-floor clubhouse glistened under foot. Stephen Brunetti’s expressed the hope that the family would keep JJB’s legacy of Red Oak Stable and Hialeah Park alive.

At a reception after the service, I saw my old boss, Rick Sacco, of the famed New Jersey racing family that he worked for the Brunettis for decades. “So, Rick, do you think the boys will make good on Stephen’s promise?”

“We’re working on it,” said Hialeah’s now General Manager. And so the weekend ended with the hope that one day, Thoroughbred racing’s circle game will be renewed at 2200 E 4th Avenue, hard by recently dubbed John Brunetti Way, in the city of Hialeah.

HIALEAH, FL, March 19, 2018

Written by John Pricci

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Tuesday, March 13, 2018

Little Tampa Bay Puts on Big Time Show

Even if for one day--with Aqueduct staging a Gotham all-stakes Pick 4 and Santa Anita, with its all graded-stakes Pick 3, two G1s and the San Felipe--it was the little track that could, Tampa Bay Downs, which put on the deepest card in the U.S. and best in its history.

There’s no getting away from the fact that two most talented three-year-olds of the weekend; three if Justify’s allowance tour de force on Sunday is included—all appeared in Southern California.

But Tampa Bay’s All-Stakes Pick 5--beginning with the listed Columbia and ending with the Tampa Derby, a stakes sandwich that also included classy, hard-hitting War Story and the G2 Hillsborough, G3 Florida Oaks at 15%, was the day’s best super-exotics fare.

Of course, none of it would have been possible if not for an assist from SoFlo-based runners shipping north to Pinellas County. The high class program began quickly, the early buzz created by the debut of a million-dollar Ocala Breeders’ breeze-up graduate, Ruler of the Nile.
Trained by Todd Pletcher, the Pioneer of the Nile bay was scheduled to debut two weeks ago at Gulfstream Park. However, the colt ran off in the post parade, unseated Johnny Velazquez, was order scratched before finding a 7-furlong sprint to his liking in Oldsmar.

Minding his manners this time, Ruler of the Nile ran off and hid from five rivals by 7-1/4 ridden-out lengths, racing 7 furlongs in 1:23.57. Obviously, the future appears bright…

Nile rules the Riviera

One race later, Sister Sunday, bred at the Steinbrenner family’s Florida-based Kinsman Farm, broke her maiden going 1-1/16 miles on turf in 1:40.03, overcoming a troubled start with an excellent turn of foot into the stretch under expert Leparoux handling.

Christophe Clement’s trainee dispatched a well meant Chad Brown favorite, troubled strong-finishing first-timer Mighty Scarlett, by 4-1/4 lengths. ‘Scarlett’ will not remain a maiden for very long and there appears to be stakes in Sister Sunday’s future.

Pletcher came back to take the Columbia Stakes with a future graded stakes turf performer, Gidu, a gray son of Frankel. He nearly won the G3 Dania Beach previously, beaten a head despite racing way too keenly throughout the running.

Showing high speed early again, this time he rated more kindly, stalking from close range, before taking command after straightening away and kicking clear quickly, holding a very promising group without fear of late danger.

Runnerup Captivating Moon, obstreperous at the gate, raced well back early, tipped wide after entering the straight and finished briskly. Show finisher Smart Remark, between horses virtually throughout, came outside to challenge and stayed very well in a promising season’s debut.

War Story and Irad conquer their Challengers
After War Story’s much-best romp, six-year-old New York-bred mare Fourstar Crook made the last run under Irad Ortiz Jr. a winning one, nailing Proctor’s Ledge and brother Jose in the last jump.

No one in America is riding with more confidence than Irad is at the moment and Brown had his mare spot on for her first run since Woodbine’s G1 soft-course E.P. Taylor.

Behind the top two, in order, came excuse-free La Coronel, Daddys Lil Darling, and Off Limits. Before the race, Ken McPeek offered that the G2 Hillsborough should become a Grade 1 just based on Saturday’s field.

We couldn’t agree with McPeek more, but selection committee politics ultimately will decide. The Hillsborough has been a terrific horse race year after year.

Tom Albertrani is on a roll. After getting Sadler’s Joy to win off the bench at Gulfstream Park, he wisely yanked Andina Del Sur off that speed-kind lawn, shipped her to one of America’s best turf courses, named Leparoux, and won the G3 Florida Oaks. Good job.

Original announcer booth at 16th pole

First Tampa Derby was called by this man
At 19-1, Quip didn’t have many believers going into the Tampa Derby despite a promising if unproven slate. He romped in his two-turn debut at Keeneland following a sprint win first out at Churchill then virtually lost all chance when troubled in the key Jockey Club Stakes to conclude his season, yet still beat half the field.

Prepared at Fair Grounds, his connections chose the Tampa for his three-year-old debut and, while it is true that the brilliant World of Trouble didn’t stay, the fact that Quip chased him throughout, wore the leader down and held off Sam Davis hero Flameaway was a tribute to the horse and the confidence displayed by his connects.

After some R & R at Winstar Farm over the winter, newcomer Rodolphe Brisset shipped into Tampa, breezed a sharp half-mile over the surface then handled a seasoned group with prior surface experience. Such youthful confidence is rare. We’re taking a wait-and-see on his Derby viability but it’s that this is a talented son of Distorted Humor.

In all, fans came from miles around to see the Tampa Derby card. The trackside dining room was oversold, with over 300 people sitting in close quarters in a relatively small space.

But there was not a single seat in the entire track unoccupied, One patron who arrived in mid-card told me he parked outside the racetrack exactly one-half mile from the finish line.

Saturday’s was a large, well comported crowd of 10,236 fans who accounted for $821,546 of track handle, the low per capita total by virtue of a family-centric atmosphere replete with youngsters. That is strong, considering there was a major golf tournament and Formula One race in the area this weekend.

But simulcast players sure noticed. Handle from all-sources on 12 races reached $13,234,037, a number that could become routine should the level of quality for its signature event be maintained. And that’s not counting Tampa’s poker room receipts.

Quip: Short on experience, long on ability

Given its success, Tampa could re-invest some of the proceeds. There’s no need to change its welcoming, old school atmosphere but surely some amenities could be added; e.g. more dining space. But the food and service was first rate.

Every employee we encountered could not have been more pleasant, or accommodating. And considering that many of the per diem employees work more than one job there, that’s nothing to take for granted. They helped make it a great day at the races.

OLDSMAR FL, March 12, 2018
Photos by Toni Pricci

Written by John Pricci

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Sunday, March 04, 2018

A Fountain of Promise, Class and Accomplishment

The problem with a day like yesterday at Gulfstream Park is where does one begin to assess everything that happened. Every division may or may not have been something impactful but, whatever it is, there sure was a lot of it. Too much, it can be argued.

What is not in question is that track management succeeded in their goal. The idea at the start of the “Championship Meet” was to celebrate the best in racing on three huge days; Pegasus World Cup, Fountain of Youth Stakes day and Florida Derby.

Two down, one to go.
But we’re hoping this doesn’t mean 15 races on Florida Derby day. That day, sunlight, or lack thereof, won’t be a problem. And neither will handle. The 2018 Fountain of Youth didn’t set any track records but it did set a handle mark, with one more race, of $28.5 million.

Quicker than you can say ho hum, consider the widespread, if sporadic, power outages in the Northeast, thanks to the storm of the same name that wrought windy precipitation. Incredibly, handle could have been higher.

A strong wind in Hallandale Beach on an otherwise Chamber of Commerce afternoon—cloudless sky, temps in high 70s--wreaked havoc with finishing fractions all day, the surface loose and dry on top, producing more than its share of stinging kickback. It played as if it were two seconds slower than par.

Flying So High: GP President Tim Ritvo (4th
on right), helps mark McGaughey milestone.

It was the kind of surface where speed did well because late runners were spinning their wheels over it trying to launch a rally. The two path seemed ideal, but the glibbest part of the dirt appeared to be the outside. Main track winners needed to be dead fit.

We’ll go through the stakes in a flash—all eight graded events--and concentrate on the Fountain of Youth, in which juvenile champion Good Magic made an inauspicious 2018 debut in HRI’s 11th annual Kentucky Derby poll among staffers and contributors later on.

Hardly categorized as a spoiler alert, there was a change at the top, which also probably will be reflected in the national NTRA pool tomorrow evening.

Grade 3 The Very One Stakes: Figure players made Daring Duchess an overbet public choice but Holy Helena, classy going in, proved it coming out and indicating there is more in the tank. The $9.40 mutuel was the quintessence of value.

Ken and Patti Reeves lead GP Sprint
Winner, Classic Rock, into the circle.
After all, if you can beat 12 males in the always hard-fought Canadian-Grade 1 Queens Plate, you should be able to win a Grade 3 in SoFla. She did and that’s two straight on the GP lawn with the promise of more turf stakes to come.

Jimmy Jerkens returned in a half hour later to win the listed Sand Springs with Team of Teams with an able assist from Johnny Velazquez, who completely undressed his rivals by gaining the softest of leads before sprinting to the finish. Improving filly; top horsemanship.

Odds-on favorite Celestine, now 6, has lost a step to time but, given the dynamics, even on her best day she may not have had the turn of foot needed to run down Team of Teams who re-broke after straightening away and flew home. Improving filly; great horsemanship.

Lots of lessons learned in the G3 Palm Beach. First, Speed Franco reacted to his most recent win in G3 Dania Beach; he’s better than that.

Crowd went overboard (5-2) on the very promising Hawkish, still green, a little too keen early, then made a balcony move on turn into hottest part of the pace before tiring. We don’t believe at this stage that he wants to be tactical: Take back and make one run.

Maraud was better than I suspected, and that’s my bad. A troubled-start third in G3 Pilgrim at 2; he was third in his GP debut before returning to win an optional allowances at Saturday’s trip. Got a great inside-position trip from Johnny—duh!

Mitchell Leparoux, with Proud Papa Julien,
celebrating victory of Sadler's Joy

Graham Motion might as well just leave G3-winning Thewayjam here. The Herecomesthebride heroine won her third straight and second graded stakes at the meet. Jose Ortiz gave her a great trip, bursting through inside before drawing off as much the best.

Flying So High gave Hall of Famer Shug McGaughey a milestone victory; career win 2000. And talk about much the best! Forced to race wide throughout the flat mile, she won with a trip that doesn’t win at Gulfstream. And she still opened ground late to win by 3!

Ortiz cautiously dismounted the filly on far turn and she was vanned off. But she cooled out well Saturday night and, of greater significance, on Sunday morning. She’s everything McGaughey believes she is and, in our view, will be better around two turns.

Hogy is on his way to becoming a “people’s horse.” Now, under Mike Maker’s care, Hogy might be even better than his lifetime (49) 18-13-5 slate indicates. Career victory 19 was his first start beyond true sprint distances and he’s now 1-for-1 going a mile.

This field was no match for him when the running started through the lane and he was one of five winners for Irad Ortiz, which included the Fountain of Youth winner. Parenthetically, younger brother Jose had three.

One of those came in a high quality maiden race in which Bill Mott was at his best; getting Hofburg to win off a 182-day layup while making his two turn debut.

From post 11, Hofburg raced four-to five-deep throughout and still won, contextually even better than Flying So High’s ground-losing effort. Mott’s Belmont horse?

Classic Rock showed a dimension I didn’t know he had, the ability to overcome some adversity from off the pace. Fortunate to find a lane inside a drifting leader, he had an excellent turn of foot to separate himself from his G3 Gulfstream Park Sprint rivals.

Chad Brown had reason to be concerned
HRI has learned that he’s right on time for his ultimate summer goal, the June 30 G3 Smile on the Summit of Speed program.

Even though he broke through with his first career Grade 1 win in Saratoga’s Sword Dancer last year, 2018 could be Sadler’s Joy’s year.

In winning the G2 Mac Diarmida in his 5-year-old debut, he was a Grade-1 type vs. many Grade 2 types, coming from last with a tremendous turn of late foot beneath Julien Leparoux--who could not have timed in better. It was an excellent performance.

The late spring goal is Belmont’s G1 Sword Dancer but there could be a dance in between, such as the G2 Pan American on the Florida Derby undercard, MAR 31. He looked great in the ring, a job very well done by Tom Albertrani, who had him conditioned and sharp.

Irad Ortiz Jr., live for five, fulfills that promise
We will have much more on the Fountain of Youth in HRI’s Top 10 Derby Poll, which will be posted later Monday a.m., but I will leave you with this: Short horses can run good or run bad in doing so. In our view of Good Magic’s effort was the latter.

This does not mean he won’t win his second prep of the season, presumably Keeneland’s Blue Grass, but it doesn’t mean he will win, either.

Even though I loved Good Magic’s two company works and his solo blowout visually, they clearly weren’t enough to give him the fitness he needed for Saturday’s tiring, cuppy surface.

And that’s on me. Chad Brown stated he wanted Good Magic at tops for May’s first Saturday, not March’s. I should have given that more consideration. Obviously, he was being candid and not just lowering expectations

Photos by Toni Pricci


Written by John Pricci

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