Monday, January 20, 2014

From Weekend Warrior to TV Warrior

HALLANDALE BEACH, FL., January 19, 2014---Florida Sunshine Million Classic winner Mucho Macho Man wasn’t the only good horse in action over the weekend. A synopsis, beginning with the other five Gulfstream Park features for Florida-breds:

To open the program, Todd Pletcher cross-entered Sweet n Discreet in both the SM Sprint and SM Distaff and, not surprisingly, made the right call choosing the Distaff despite the filly’s inexperience at the distance and a sprint-oriented pedigree.

The win might not have been surprising but the manner of victory was. We expected a stalk-from-close-range or perhaps a front-running tack, as Pletcher in the past often has his jockeys ride aggressively, taking the race to the competition.

Considering the size of the field and race shape, Joe Bravo had the filly very relaxed and well behind a soft early pace outside in a comfortably rhythmic beat. Discreet Cat’s daughter simply was too sharp and too quick for the group and likely will, all being equal, continue her present, if belated, development.

Parranda, meanwhile, really as hit her stride as a five year old—at least in Hallandale--finishing strongly late to take the S M Filly & Mare Turf after having won the Preview prep two starts back. Perfectly ridden by Jose Lezcano, it was her fifth win in 10 starts at Gulfstream. Score another victory for the Horse for Course crowd.

Ullapool’s job in the SM Filly and Mare Sprint got a lot easier after the other speed filly, R Free Roll, threw her head at the break, at once eliminating herself and handing her rival a manageably soft easy lead. Eddie Kenneally’s filly gave Lezcano a natural double.

Star Channel gave Kenneally his natural two-bagger and Lezcano his trifecta with a stout stretch run, surviving a stretch-long bumping match with Old Time Hockey to prevail by a head. The stewards look at it, losing rider Gary Stevens beefed, but the judges decided both were equally at fault—this observation coming from a player who lost the Pick 5 by that narrow margin; ouch.

Jason Servis has done amazing work with Ribo Bobo, a gelded six year old claimed three times last year, twice for $6,250 and once for$ 8,000. Only a half-length defeat at Penn National separated this remarkable speedster from winning 11 straight races dating back to February, 2013. A tip of the cap goes to Joe Orseno, who has runnerup Happy My Way racing in career form.

On the Road Again with the Three Year Olds:

Earlier in the day that his Shared Belief would win Eclipse honors for outstanding juvenile colt, trainer Jerry Hollendorfer was took the California Derby with Exit Stage Left, ultra-game repulsing speed challenges throughout before repulsing perfect-trip favorite Enterprising by a half-length. Like champion stablemate, Exit Stage Left is undefeated after three starts and never has set foot on dirt. Stay tuned.

On the afternoon Ken and Sarah Ramsey would accept their third Eclipse Award for outstanding owners, their Vicar’s in Trouble stalked the pace of Roman Unbridled throughout, kicked in at headstretch, and drew off to a 6-3/4 length score beneath Rosie without so much as a lead. The son of Into Mischief is talented but might prove distance challenged as the races lengthen.

Exit Stage Left may have impressed with his gameness but Unbridled Forever impressed with her class. Spotting Silverbulletday co-favorite Divine Beauty recent conditioning and a soft pace, Unbridled’s Song daughter of Kentucky Oaks winner Lemons Forever, Dallas Stewart’s filly had her rival measured soon after entering in the lane, lengthening stride the closer she got to the wire. Distance will be a non-issue. This is a good filly beneath a confident Robby Albarado.

Bob Baffert-trained runners finished 1-2 in the Strub Stakes for four year olds at Santa Anita. Super-sharp Shakin It Up beat stablemate Governor Charlie by a clever 2-1/4 lengths, the latter making his first time since May, 2013 at Pimlico. Shakin It Up answered any distance doubts with authority, pouncing on his mate soon after entering the straight to win going away with Mike Smith’s stick pointing south. Hollendorfer’s 7-5 favorite was a non-threatening third after stumbling at the break and angling out wide into the lane. Should benefit, and more ground figures to help.

Must See TV? We'll See

The DVR is set for 10 p.m. Tuesday for the debut of “Horseplayers” on the new Esquire Network. I’m hopeful, but I’m fearful, too.

I’m not sure what the producers and writers ultimately will be going for here. Is it following a bunch of colorful characters as they walk the simulcast plank or more of a look of the entire horseplaying experience a la poker programming?

Will a light shine on the hours of homework, the research needed to find winning angles that work today but not necessarily tomorrow? Or will it about the psychology of gambling, the W’s and L’s associated with making bets that could put a gambler on tilt?

Will it teach the uninformed that every time they see a horseplayer lose two of every three bets he makes that they're witnessing genius in action? Indeed, it should promote the idea that playing the races is fun, even when losing makes a player grumpy and fills him with self-doubt; Losing money has this effect on people..

Making the horseplaying experience enticing will in itself be easier said than done. Becoming proficient, never mind successful, requires dedication, patience and an open mind. Know a lot of people like that? For the most part, America loves its game shows and mindless reality series. Here's hoping that the cerebral aspects of handicapping will be presented and perceived as a rewarding aspect in and of itself.

I hope the producers are not looking to create latter day Damon Runyon characters. Even in the age when something like Duck Dynasty is popular, programming, lowest common denominator thinking won't create lifelong fans. Only love can do that. Some intellectual aspects of the handicapping process, among other storylines, set a pitch-perfect tone in the abbreviated HBO series, “Luck.” It’s what the demise of the show so very unfortunate.

Written by John Pricci

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Sunday, January 19, 2014

A Macho Man by Day, a Wise Dan by Night

HALLANDALE BEACH, FL, January 18, 2014—Who would have thought that the period spanning 2004 to 2007 would, in Breeders’ Cup Classic/Horse of the Year terms, be regarded as the good old days?

Dean and Patti Reeves
Photo by Toni Pricci
Dean and Patti Reeves have much to smile about
At that time, it was possible to secure racing’s ultimate prize by parlaying a Classic win into a Horse of the Year title. After all, the achievement was good enough for Ghostzapper, Saint Liam, Invasor and Curlin, the last horse to win consecutive Horse of the Year championships.

But sorry, Raven’s Pass, your Classic score wasn’t good enough, even though you beat eventual Horse of the Year Curlin and avenged your only 2008 defeat to Henrythenavigator at Santa Anita. And the G2 score before that? Small potatoes, apparently.

Zenyatta? The Classic belonged to the behemoth filly but the year belonged to Rachel Alexandra. Blame? Sorry, again, but the voters apparently felt that they owed Zenyatta one.

Drosselmeyer? Even though he won the Belmont Stakes and the Classic, I’m not sure I know anyone who marked their Horse of the Year ballot that way.

Fort Larned? Ever hear of girl power? How soon we can forget a filly named Havre De Grace.

Mucho Macho Man? Sorry, but where’s your turf resume?

Should the Breeders’ Cup folks scrap the 2014 Classic due to a lack of respect?

Of course, Wise Dan had a deserving Horse of Year resume, limited and turf specific as it was, But in repeating last year's feat, he became only the sixth horse Eclipse history to win consecutive Best In Show titles, the seventh to win multiple Horse of the Year championships.

Wise Dan was also honored with older male and turf championships, the only horse to win three championships in consecutive years. This year, Wise Dan might shoot for the three-peat, especially if a very humble Morton Fink successfully can convince his trainer, Charlie LoPresti, "to run on dirt and to run long," first reminding those in the audience and watching on HRTV that 'Dan' owns a track record at nine furlongs.

Two words, Mr. Fink: Whitney and Woodward.

As far as the Florida Millions feature was concerned, it was as if the Macho Man know that the Sunshine Millions Classic would be the only prize he would win this day, so off he went to obliterate five seriously overmatched rivals by 14 lengths with partner Gary Stevens appearing not the least bit interested in running up the score.

The Big Hoss is back
Photo by: Toni Pricci
The Big Hoss is back
How do you like me now, the proud six year old might have thought? When the first poll for America’s leading horse is released in March, Mucho Macho Man’s should top that list off his Millions Classic performance.

Winner of the 2013 Vox Populi Award as America’s most popular race horse, an appreciative crowd followed the gigantic colt’s every move around the walking ring and out on to the fast Gulfstream Park surface.

“I’m gonna’ need a friggin’ ladder to get up on this guy one day,” Stevens, more passenger than pilot, quipped as he dismounted in the winners’ circle after guiding ‘Macho’ through nine furlongs in a snappy 1:48.76, a bit more than a second off the track record.

A fourteen-length smile from trainer Kathy Ritvo
Photo by: Toni Pricci
A fourteen-length smile from trainer Kathy Ritvo
But if the day belonged to Mucho Macho Man, the night, and the 2013 racing season, belonged to three-time champion Wise Dan; Javier Castellano, whose $26-million in earnings and win percentage of 22 was good enough to eclipse the remarkable comeback of co-finalist Gary Stevens.

Castellano’s acceptance speech, honoring the forcibly retired Ramon Dominguez, was perhaps touching moment of the night, followed closely by Pletcher’s emotional tribute to his parents and tragically injured barn favorite, Caixa Electronica.

And, of course, there were the characteristically upbeat words of “the coach,” Merit Award winner Wayne Lukas and his owner, Willis Horton, whose unforgettable speech went on longer than Jacqueline Bisset’s at the Golden Globes but no one seemed to mind. In fact, the crowd loved it.

The saga of the Comeback Kid continues
Photo by: Toni Pricci
The saga of the Comeback Kid continues
Congratulations to all remaining winning practitioners; Pletcher, who stands alone as the sport’s only six-time Eclipse-winning trainer; Castellano; the Ramsey’s, the sport’s outstanding owners and breeding; and apprentice Victor Carrasco.

Juveniles Shared Belief, undefeated in three starts with nary a win on dirt or turf, and She’s A Tiger, who compiled the most comprehensive among the juvenile fillies; Beholder, who stepped up on the big stage, narrowly defeating a filly who compiled an impressively diverse body of work, Princess Of Sylmar.

Of course, there was Royal Delta who did more than enough before tailing off at season’s end, winning an Eclipse for the a third straight year, and kudos to sprinters Points Offthebench and the filly, Groupie Doll; Dank, the best turf mare seen in action in America in 2013, and steeplechase champion Divine Fortune.

But the most memorable campaign waged in 2013 perhaps belonged to a horse that closes like the wind; on the racetrack and in his peer group. It took Will Take Charge virtually an entire year to get his act together but, when he did, the results were extraordinary. The top three year old of 2013 was the 25th Eclipse champion coached by Darrell Wayne Lukas who warned his younger rivals that he’s coming after them in 2014.

Written by John Pricci

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Monday, January 13, 2014

Gulfstream Sport’s Best Long-Running Race Meet

HALLANDALE BEACH, FL, January 12, 2014—The timing could not have been better. The escape from New York was delayed but went along as planned. After a few miserable weeks in the Northeast, golden sunshine proved good for the soul.

So is being back on the “good horse circuit” and, in that context, our arrival in South Florida could not have been better-timed. I found this out when Phil Janack, formerly of the Schenectady Gazette and now a member of Gulfstream’s publicity staff, informed me that Saturday's card was the best card of the season.

Christophe Clement
Photo by Toni Pricci
Christophe Clement reminds Joe Bravo that Summer Front needs patient handling
Janack was not making use of hyperbole here, just simply telling it like it is and proved to be. Special-weight maidens were everywhere, going long on turf, going short on dirt, including a not-so-secret Todd Pletcher first-timer.

There were allowance races galore, two graded stakes, one on each surface, and a NW3 allowances featuring the 4-year-old debuts of two 2013 Kentucky Derby runners, including also-ran Falling Sky show and show finisher Revolutionary, the latter earning his way to the big dance via scores in the Withers and Louisiana Derby.

They ran 1-2, Revolutionary’s win more impressive than his half-length winning margin suggests. And either he was showing his freshness or he's a lot handier now than he was on the 2013 Triple Crown trail. If that’s the case, the War Pass colt will be a tough out in the G1 Donn next month.

Two races later, after the Ramsey’s Charming Kitten, equipped with his new blinkers, made his successful 4-year-old debut, Pletcher completed a personal Pick 3 with the highly touted newcomer Constitution, owned by the WinStar people of Revolutionary fame, along with Twin Creeks Racing.

Constitution broke very slowly from the gate, pulled Javier Castellano through the field, lucky to get through unencumbered by traffic while moving up on the fence. But then things got tougher as he engaged a fast, experienced Juba that gave no quarter, keeping Constitution in close quarters through the long stretch run.

The final time of 1:23.36 was very solid off a half-mile in :44.82, the final eighth in an understandably pedestrian :13.65. But the takeaway was that he impressed by passing the eyeball test, showing class in the process.

Three races later, another 2013 Triple Crown trail-er, Elnaawi, made a successful 4-year-old debut against a field of preliminary allowance types, setting a controlled pace beneath Joel Rosario before coming away with a 1-1/4 length win that can be described as a useful return for To Honor And Serve’s half-brother.

Parenthetically, this gave Kiaran McLaughlin a very good day, who also saddled promising turf runner Macaroon to victory, all after 3-year-old Cairo Prince had an excellent company work with an older horse. It was his second consecutive five-eighths in :59.80. A soft half-mile breeze next weekend should have him set for the following week’s Holy Bull.

Summer Front proudly returns
Photo by: Toni Pricci
Summer Front proudly returns to Gulfstream winner's circle
Christophe Clement had Summer Front ready for his 5-year-old debut after suffering a nose defeat in Hollywood’s G2 Citation last tine out. Joe Bravo gave him the patient, covered-up handling to show his best as he won the G2 Ft. Lauderdale.

Meanwhile, in his first start for Bill Mott, Lea was a revelation in taking the G3 Hal’s Hope, attending the pace of defending Hal’s Hope champion Csaba, opening ground quickly beneath Luis Saez soon after entering the straight, separating himself from the competition in what should be an ideal prep for he and several of his rivals, notably tough-tripping third Neck n’ Neck and wide-tripping fourth, Uncaptured.

Last year, we wrote glowingly of Saez after it was learned the Calder regular would switch his tack to New York. Saez gained national prominence as the partner of certain-to-be 2013 3-year-old champion Will Take Charge and took the Hal’s Hope occasion to annex career win #1,000. Fittingly, former Calder president Ken Dunn was on hand to present the trophy to the accomplished 21-year-old.

Lea's first graded dirt win
Photo by: Toni Pricci
Lea's first graded dirt win and Luis Saez's career win 1,000
GULFSTREAM RETURN SOMETHING OF A MIXED BAG: With apologies to Saratoga, Del Mar and Keeneland, Gulfstream Park in recent years has emerged from winter capital of East Coast racing to the best sustained Thoroughbred meet in the country at any time of the year.

Wags will quickly note that now one must include the remaining year-round dates before making that observation, but we don’t think so. Their decision to race year-round was straight economics based gaining on a bigger share of off-season simulcast revenue, at that time the exclusive province of Calder Race Course.

Tampa Bay Downs also added to its schedule last year toward that same simulcast end. To us, prime time Florida racing begins when juveniles become 3-year-olds on New Year’s Day and ends when the last Florida Derby entrant crosses the finish line.

To accommodate this schedule--while having the added benefit of attracting horses away from the track in Miami Lakes--Gulfstream built two full-size barns to handle the equine overload. It’s no wonder that, poor early-week weather notwithstanding, there were no fewer than 211 horses on Saturday’s work tab. That’s the good news.

The not-so-good news is that the new barns obstruct from view the start of races out of the 7-furlong and mile chutes. In order to see the break from the gate, fans must watch the track’s closed-circuit monitors. However, present camera angles do not provide pan views.

Hall of Famer Bill Mott
Photo by: Toni Pricci
Hall of Famer Bill Mott's excited about new pupil Lea's future
The start of the one-turn mile is viewed head on, great for seeing the occasional stumble or rough-and-tumble start of colliding equines, but poor for establishing depth perception. Did your horse break 2-lengths or 4-lengths slowly away from the barrier? This makes answering the question very difficult if not impossible.

The 7-furlong view is a bit better with a quasi-head-on view that provides some pan context. But in both cases there is an abrupt switch to the traditional view. Horses race more than a furlong out of the mile chute before traditional sightlines become available.

Thus far, veteran observers have taken the transition in stride but newcomers—on any given day there are many at the popular destination venue--doubtlessly are scratching their heads. Hopefully, some new technology, short of binoculars that can see through walls, eventually will correct the problem.

Written by John Pricci

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