Wednesday, April 09, 2014

Slouching Towards Louisville

SOUTH OZONE PARK, NY, April 8, 2014—It is said that you can’t go home again. Despite the inherent wisdom in that adage, I left the warm, sunny climes of South Florida for Queens, the next meaningful Eastern stop on the road to the Kentucky Derby.

I must confess that when I entered the building I didn’t know what I would find. The news emanating from New York to reach Gulfstream Park this winter, both on and off the record, was disturbing but, unfortunately, not totally unexpected.

When I arrived at the press box level of Aqueduct Race Track over the weekend, I discovered newly installed carpet under foot and a fresh coat of paint on the walls leading to the press office and press box.

It was a welcome sight from the blight that had become the norm, the result of an acrimonious relationship between “new NYRA” and the Genting organization that now occupies the swanky part of the building formerly known as the Aqueduct grandstand.

Perhaps not surprising but somewhat amusing was the fact that the new paint job didn’t extend all the way through to the fifth level where the stewards and Equibase chart callers live and where Tom Durkin would later call his penultimate Wood Memorial.

And you thought David Letterman would be the only prominent retiree come 2015?

The incomplete paint job is reminiscent of the scene from “The Sting” where Kid Twist would put the final hook in Doyle Lonnegan with a visit to a makeshift telegraph office that ultimately would provide misleading post-posting information.

You may recall “I said place it on Lucky Dan, that horse is going to finish second!”

After entering the press box my first instinct was to visit with Jerry Bossert. If it weren’t for the Daily News’ Aqueduct “expose” he inspired, I might have been returning to the unhealthy work space I left behind following Holidayfest weekend last fall.

“I had been [privately] complaining about this for months,” Bossert explained.

“Jerry, you did a hell of a paint job,” I would later say, “and my body thanks you for having the hole in the roof repaired and the pigeon droppings scraped off the walls.”

“You can still see some feathers once in a while,” he said.

On occasions such as the Wood Memorial these days, you still can find a press box full of reporters there for the big race. One of those media members was Steven Crist, who was blogging live from Aqueduct.

Editorially, Steven and I often stand at about 180 degrees but a racetrack press box is a lot like the jock’s room; friendly competitors having mutual respect for one another. In our case, it might be more aptly described as friendly parimutuel respect.

Knowing I would find a sympathetic ear, I told Steve about my first losing season in the last four years at Gulfstream Park.

“On one occasion, I mis-punched myself—you know how painful that can be. On another, I committed a horseplayer’s worst sin of all; making an error of omission, not commission. I lost my equilibrium after that and never got it back.”

Steve nodded. We’ve all been there.

I’m sure neither one of us thought that he would need to be rushed to Winthrop University Hospital the following day after he stopped breathing. Daily Racing Form reported him to be in critical but stable condition.

His friends and colleagues are holding a good thought.

Between races, five hours in advance of the 89th Wood, NYRA placing judge Sentell “Sonny” Taylor, surrounded by friends and family, was feted for his half century of service to the association, first as a clocker, then official timer and now as an official.

In the winners’ circle, master of ceremonies Richard Migliore introduced NYRA President Christopher Kay to make the presentation. But first, with Taylor standing there his side, Kay found it necessary to do two commercial minutes.

Kay informed his guests that NYRA had hired Luis Grandison as its new Spanish-language race caller, that NYRA had a new Roku HD channel and that “Longshots,” an attractive, state of the art simulcast facility, was now open for business.

It was like Saratoga 2013 all over again when Kay’s penchant for face time resulted in the late Paul Moran observing at that “the most dangerous place in Saratoga is the eight feet between Kay and a mini-cam.”

Kay finally got around to saluting Taylor on his 50 years of service although, as far as we could see, there were no time pieces to celebrate the occasion--not that the always nattily turned out Taylor was lacking in sartorial accoutrements.

It is no small irony that the ceremony came at the end of a week that saw two NYRA executives resign; Director of Communications Eric Wing and Chief Marketing Officer Rodnell Workman. Workman had been on the job 22 months; Wing was hired last April.

It was good to see the Big A’s press box, my first, filled with media, some who were lamenting the recent loss of 167 non-union jobs at the venerable Newark Star-Ledger. Its newsroom lost 40 of its 156 staffers.

“The one good thing about getting old is that there’s no longer a future in the newspaper business,” cracked DRF’s Mike Watchmaker.

Nonetheless, all of it made a press box old-schooler smile on Wood day 2014 when, after the official sign had been posted, the son of a Giant Killer stood in the winners’ circle fielding question after his horse upset more highly regarded rivals in the day’s big race.

Written by John Pricci

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Monday, April 07, 2014

HRI Derby Power 10: Sparkling in the California Sun

SOUTH OZONE PARK, NY, April 6, 2014—“You knock him, you just don’t like anything in life,” was the reaction of Hall of Famer Mike Smith, who finished second to California Chrome aboard Hopportunity in Saturday’s Santa Anita Derby.

And if they were being honest, PETA would tell you that they like him, too.

I know I like living too much to dare say something negative. The new California Comet was awesome on the day and I’ll wait until after the post draw to concern myself with any potential Louisville first-turn speed jams.

As all know, Santa Anita Park is a fast surface. But nine furlongs in 1:47.52 is racehorse time on anyone's racetrack. Efforts take their toll, no matter how facile the victory, But it certainly appeared, as Victor Espinoza said, that they haven’t gotten to the bottom of him yet.

They very likely will in four weeks time.

Hopportunity, needing no qualifying points, got a useful prep behind the current divisional leader. On balance, he had an easy time of it, but not so show finisher Candy Boy.

Clearly, Gary Stevens wanted to put some pressure on California Chrome to chase longshot Dublin Up in earnest, but the Santa Anita Derby favorite settled in comfortably off the leader's flank instead as Candy Boy remained parked in the three-path beneath Stevens' long pull.

When California Chrome cruised up alongside Dublin Up, Stevens put his mount in a drive even if he probably would have preferred to wait. The move forced him untenably wider into the stretch, but it wouldn't have mattered. By then the Comet had streaked away.

Candy Boy’s gallop-out was good and he is sure to benefit from Saturday’s run, especially coming off a 55-day absence. All the screws will be bolted down by May 3rd.

Wicked Strong peaked at exactly the right moment. His style and race dynamics gave him very little chance in two starts at Gulfstream Park, and he clearly enjoyed not hearing his feet rattle Saturday at Aqueduct.

He was comfortably into the bridle throughout and deftly guided around the course by Rajiv Maragh. It’s one thing to get a perfect trip; it’s another to take advantage of it. He should only move forward again and perhaps will have a bit more stretch focus in four weeks. Not to worry; Jimmy Jerkens has learned his lessons very well.

If Rick Violette is right about Samraat and his theory that tough races bring out the best in the best horses, then surely his colt's trip in the Wood will do him good. It certainly couldn’t hurt and he deserves the respect of a solid Derby contender.

The place photo lost by Social Inclusion is a blessing in disguise. The Derby is a unique test which would have proven to be too much, too soon for the lightly raced speedster. He did all the Wood dirty work but he lived to tell the tale.

Social Inclusion even briefly appeared to be a winner soon after entering the stretch before tiring, understandably. But to his credit he never stopped trying. Now back home in South Florida, he’ll be trading stone crabs for hard crabs in six weeks.

Intending no disrespect to the class of 2014 and unknown Kentucky Derby results notwithstanding, wouldn’t it be interesting to see the Florida Flash vs. the California Comet in Baltimore? Damn right it would.

Derby qualifying points aside, don’t know what I could possibly learn from Saturday’s upcoming Blue Grass Stakes. It certainly can have an effect on bubble horses such as Social Inclusion, Cairo Prince, etc. But while the Arkansas Derby is coming up light in number of potential entrants, there will be no dearth of talent in Hot Springs this weekend.

Six runners from a possible seven runners, as of early Monday morning, can make a serious impact in Louisville four weeks hence: Bayern, Commissioner, Conquest Titan, Ride On Curlin, Strong Mandate and Tapiture are all deserving of merit at this juncture.

We’ve been mentioning all spring how the HRI Kentucky Derby Power 10 is an amalgam of accomplishment and promise. Given the current final round of Derby preps, opinion is beginning to weigh more heavily on staff and contributors.

The HRI Derby Power 10, Week 7:

1. California Chrome (30)
2. Constitution (26)
3. Wicked Strong (24)
4. Candy Boy (18)
5. Tapiture (15)
6. tie-Samraat (12)
6. tie-Vicar’s In Trouble (12)
8. Hopportunity (9)
9. Intense Holiday (8)
10. Golden A Rod (7)

Written by John Pricci

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Sunday, March 30, 2014

Shakeup at the Top of HRI Power 10

Hallandale Beach, Fla., March 30, 2014—For one brief moment, it appeared that once Cairo Prince showed his turn of foot three furlongs from home, his Florida Derby rivals were in trouble. As it turned out, it was Cairo Prince that was in trouble.

“Maybe the nine weeks [layoff] was telling on him,” Kiaran McLaughlin said post-race. [Luis Saez] said he got there and flattened out…”

The 10 points Cairo Prince earned for finish fourth Saturday gives him 24 qualifying points, putting him on the Derby bubble. “If 24 don’t get us in, then we don’t go to Kentucky.” Cairo Prince is currently tied at 16th.

For the first time since the HRI Power 10 was published six weeks ago, Cairo Prince not only dropped from the top slot but out of the top 10 completely, such was the extent of Saturday’s results here and in New Orleans.

The scores might really change in the next two weeks with the Wood Memorial and Santa Anita Derby on Saturday and the Arkansas Derby and Blue Grass the following weekend.

The Blue Grass hasn’t been the loyal predictor of Derby form that it was prior to the installation of Polytrack but the hundred-pointer still might produce a Derby starter or two and knock out bubble horses such as Cairo Prince.

Before anyone bemoans the points system that been in effect since last year, the playing field is level for everyone going in.

Whether or not Wildcat Red gets a mile and a quarter five weeks from now, it will do nothing to diminish his popularity with fans/bettors and the respect of rival horsemen. People love this horse.

Meanwhile, Vicar’s In Trouble received a brilliant ride for Rosie Napravnik, staying off the rail with her frontrunner in an effort to have him relax before opening an insurmountable lead into the stretch.

Despite never changing to his correct right lead, Vicar’s In Trouble, who trained at Gulfstream Park for Mike Maker, the Louisiana Derby issue was never in doubt.

Runner-up Intense Holiday also remained on his left lead, switching over very late, after drifting in badly when set down by Mike Smith. He easily held the place in a better-than-looked effort.

Forced to steady between horses a half-mile from home after being tip-toed into contention—not his best game—he continued on at the finish, an effort that should move him forward, all else being equal.

Third finisher Commanding Curve, unheralded going into the race, finished crisply for third after getting wiped out at the start and might be getting good at the right time. Currently, with his 20 points, Commanding Curve is tied for 18th.

After the weekend, three ‘C’ horses are perched at the top, fittingly two of the three are from California. #1 Candy Boy meets #3 California Chrome in Saturday’s Santa Anita Derby.

In New York, #8 Samraat will try to remain undefeated by winning the Wood Memorial. Nemesis Uncle Sigh, with the slightly tougher Gotham trip, will try to turn the tables.

Or will the brilliant Social “I Don’t Need Your Stinking Five Million At The Moment” Inclusion prove to be the freak many think he is by winning his third straight without defeat, this time going nine furlongs.

We fully expect the Power 10 to be shaken up again next weekend, and the week after that. This Derby chase is really getting chaotic.

HRI Power 10, Week 6:

1. Candy Boy (29)

2. Constitution (28)

3. California Chrome (24)

4. Tapiture (18)

5. Vicar's In Trouble (16)

6-tie Intense Holiday (14)

6-tie Hoppertunuity (14)

8. Samraat (11)

9. Wildcat Red (6)

10-tie Chitu (5)

10-tie Uncle Sigh (5)

Written by John Pricci

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