Saturday, May 24, 2014

Short-Breeze Pattern Historical Challenge for California Chrome

SARATOGA SPRINGS, NY, April 14, 2014—In the lull between waiting for the next shoe to drop and Monday’s potential for biggest Jackpot payoff in the history of Thoroughbred racing , I decided to delve deeply into the Belmont Stakes past performances to see if I might be a witness to history a fortnight from now.

Tried as I might, and I tried hard, I looked for holes in the form of California Chrome. Could he be vulnerable if a rival rider got overly aggressive early, in the manner that Jerry Bailey aboard Eddington a decade ago never allowed Smarty Jones a moment’s peace.

The field was approaching the six furlong marker, Stewart Elliott was attempting to secure a comfortable stalking position from the 3-path sitting off dueling leaders but Bailey moved four wide across the track, forcing Elliott’s hand.

If Smarty Jones and Elliott were to hold their position, they would have to clear the two inside horses, similar to the way Victor Esposito had to step on the gas when Luis Contreras attacked California Chrome from the outside at mid-far turn. “It was the longest [California Chrome] had even been in a drive,” said Art Sherman post-Preakness.

Now committed to the lead, Elliott went on the with it, and Smarty Jones opened a six length lead around the far turn and appeared to the 120,000 screaming fans that he was home free as he entered the stretch. The rest is history as Smarty tired perceptibly in deep stretch and “Birdstone wins the Belmont Stakes.”

All else being equal, California Chrome has the early pace figures to out-foot his rivals, he has the sustaining speed to thwart the mid-race movers, possible kamikaze missions notwithstanding, and the class to and turn out foot to blow races open before the competition knows what hit them. Espinoza usually arrives at the wire with stick down.

But a mile and a half is a different animal entirely. Billy Turner, the only trainer to win the Belmont with an undefeated Triple Crown champion, said at the time that a horse has to be able to make three runs if he wants to get all 12 furlongs and arrive at the finish ahead of the competition. Turner knew what he was talking about and Sherman has pulled every correct strong imaginable.

But there is a variable that Sherman might not be have thought through completely: To my knowledge, nor to anyone else’s I’ve spoken to this week, no Belmont ever has been won with a series of long gallops and a single half-mile breeze in the three weeks between the Preakness and Belmont.

No one knows their horse better than Art and Alan Sherman. And, of course, as this is posted he’s just about the fittest horse in North America: Three races in six weeks, nine furlongs being the shortest in duration, guarantees that.

But this is Big Sandy; this is a mile and a half; this is a quality laden field from top to button with seven top quality rivals by my count among those considered Belmont probables. And if Sherman and Espinoza believe that his rivals ran relays at him in Baltimore, it’s not called New York, New York for no reason. Nothing comes easy here.

As series of long, slow two mile gallops certainly will retain his fitness and hopefully help him to maintain his energy level. So far, so good; but anything unforeseen can happen in the next two weeks.

There’s nothing at all wrong with a half-mile in 49 seconds; keeping your speed edge is certainly important at Belmont Spark no matter how big its circumference. But did we mention that this race is run at a mile and a half?

Isn’t something such as a ‘Chief-like’ mile breeze in something like 1:54, with a final furlong in roughly 13 seconds and low change accomplish what Sherman has in mind while getting him a little closer to the bottom. He’s going to need all the air he can get. It’s not a whimsical exercise by racing historians to refer to the race as ‘Test of the Champion’.

Written by John Pricci

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Tuesday, May 20, 2014

Alas, Common Sense Prevails in L’Affaire Strip

SARATOGA SPRINGS, NY, May 19, 2014—When it comes to nasal strips, New York State’s Thoroughbred Rule 4033.8, stating “only equipment specifically approved by the stewards shall be worn or carried by a jockey or a horse in a race” no more longer applies.

Finally, a victory of sensible thinking over politically autocratic overkill.

In a way it’s a little too bad that officials caved in so quickly on the will-he-or-won’t-he-run controversy. Had officials waited another day or two, it might have gotten people outside the game who watch three races a year fired up, providing enhanced interest in the proceedings.

It actually might have created some new racing fans, those that have fallen in love with a charismatic, handsome Thoroughbred with the cool name of California Chrome. Let’s face it; how many other concerted efforts by the industry to grow the base succeeded?

On the flip side, the New York Gaming Commission should be their props for stepping up so quickly and not pass the buck on to the stewards, who would have been under unreasonably inordinate pressure to do something they refused to do two years ago.

Ultimately, the stewards are racing’s final arbiters. Just ask the bettor who lost over a million bucks when his horse was disqualified in the final race of the day this winter at Gulfstream Park.

Like it or not, decisions such as these are the rightful purview of racing’s trained officials--with transparency and accountability, of course.

The use of nasal strips, permitted in harness racing but heretofore banned in New York’s Thoroughbred game, was no big deal and way overblown in the first place.

Ultimately, the stewards acted on the sane rationale of the New York State Gaming Commission’s Equine Medical Director Scott Palmer, DVM, who explained what everyone had surmised; that the use of nasal strips was not performance enhancing.

A nasal strip simply helps a horse breathe a little easier, and improper application of it does not impede its performance.

Additionally, nasal strips may decrease the amount of bleeding associated with exercised induced pulmonary edema without need of a syringe, unlike Lasix which proponents say is needed to control EIPH but is more commonly used as a performance enhancer and potential masking agent.

It is said that raceday Lasix levels an uneven playing field which, in and of itself, is a veiled admission that those who do not administer it somehow are at a competitive disadvantage. So, which one is it?

Clearly, yesterday’s decision by the New York stewards this was more policy change than simple, pragmatic decision making. Now, according to Palmer, equine nasal strips can be classified in the same category as tongue-ties.

Had common sense not prevailed, the precedent cited would have been the I’ll Have Another case of 2012. That dual classics winner was scratched on the eve of the Belmont due to injury but had been denied permission to use a nasal strip.

While the current Triple Crown connections arrive on Long Island all squeaky clean, I’ll Have Another’s trainer, Doug O’Neill, brought some unwelcome baggage into Belmont Park.

It may be that the nasal strip denial had as much do with O’Neill’s admission that he used Shockwave Therapy on I’ll Have Another to treat the colt’s aching back.

But the use of Shockwave Therapy in horses is highly controversial and rightly so. An overzealous horseman could use it to promote faster healing of soft tissue injuries, which more correctly responds to R & R than anything else.

Further, the back issue didn’t ring true with several experts at that time. In addition, there is not universal agreement on the lead time needed between treatment and a return to racing or serious training.

History notwithstanding, it is good that pragmatism prevailed here. If not, strict rules constructionists might have been uncomfortable rolling the dice with people who during the Triple Crown season have shown themselves to act in a principled manner.

If a partial-sale meant that Art Sherman no longer would be the colt’s trainer; it was no sale. If Churchill Downs wasn’t accommodating enough to Perry Martin and his family, there was no reason to move on to Pimlico, however misguided that decision might have been.

It is not inconceivable, then, that Team California Chrome might have elected to stay home. The Belmont will be, after all, his fourth race in nine weeks. And, of course, it’s a mile and a half long.

To ask the colt to perform in any manner that might diminish the capacity to be at his best could have been enough reason to pull the plug on history.

Indeed, a Triple Crown victory conservatively could double his value, guesstimated by some to currently stand in the $15 million range given his recent invincibility. A loss could have a negative impact on his value in the future.

California Chrome is handsome and he’s fast. He’s already a rock star that would have any major track in America stumbling over itself to attract the dual classics winner to its venue.

Strange, too, if you consider this: Ask the ordinary sports fan or casual racing fan to name all 11 Triple Crown winners and they would be very hard pressed to do so.

But ask them five years from now to name the horse that had a chance to win the Triple Crown and stayed home on a matter of principle, they’d blurt out his name in 22-and-44.

Would that decision be unfair to the horse? Undoubtedly, yes. But while California Chrome may be handsome and fast, I’m not sure his feelings wouldn’t be hurt as long as part owner Steve Coburn keeps feeding him those cookies.

Written by John Pricci

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Sunday, May 18, 2014

California Dreamin’: Safe and Warm in Baltimore

SARATOGA SPRINGS, May 17, 2014--For horse racing fans and bettors, dreamers one and all, it doesn’t get any better than what happened Saturday at America’s second oldest racetrack.

California Chrome was second to none.

In the Derby, there were more than a few skeptics but California Chrome proved to be the best horse, flashing that push-button acceleration of his, making the doubters look like a bunch of dumb asses.

And, of course, because of the serendipitous nature of dreams, literal and figurative, he became America’s Horse, winning the Derby for the 99 percenters.

On the third Saturday in May at “Old Hilltop,” the story got even larger. By Saturday night the Chromies were beside themselves, having to scrunch over to make way for a gang of band-wagon fans.

He got his job done, on two weeks rest and in racehorse time. What will happen on Long Island three weeks hence is for another day—on other days and for weeks to come.

But this time there was no told-you-so from the highly visible partner-breeder and 99 percenter Steve Coburn. There was only gratitude, humility and tears of joy, thanking everyone within hailing distance.

How many people have ever stood on a cupola at a Triple Crown track thanking their grooms after a race?

Sometimes it sounds a little trite when the TV guys say it but horse racing is the most democratic of all sports.

A decade ago, it was a fun bunch of high school pals with a horse born virtually in their backyards in upstate New York. Now it’s the Left Coast’s turn for two guys who had $10,000 and a dream.

As for the whole Triple Crown enchilada, there will be plenty of time, plenty of workouts, plenty of rumors—all of it to ponder.

But first, an over-the-shoulder look back at Preakness 139, in the order they went to the post:

1-Dynamic Impact was a gutty, tenacious winner of the Illinois Derby but made no impression whatsoever in the Preakness, the very brief flurry approaching the far turn notwithstanding.

2-General A Rod If you analyze the trips of Derby-Preakness horses not named California Chrome, General A Rod was far unluckier than Ride On Curlin. Javier Castellano engineered perfect position, steering ‘A Rod’ off the rail, at the ready to go after the favorite when it was time. But time stood still when the recklessly managed filly Ria Antonia stopped in his face soon after curling into the far turn--and continued her stopping all the way round the bend. Entering headstretch, ‘A Rod’ was inside with no chance to win. Angled out by Castellano at the three-sixteenths pole, he finished with a flourish after altering course again, only slightly, to the inside of a drifting Ring Weekend. Still, he almost ran down Social Inclusion for third. Ring Weekend had five lengths on A Rod at headstretch but A Rod was 4-1/4 ahead of him at the wire.

3-California Chrome is a remarkable racehorse. If he was tiring at the end of 1-3/16s miles, his action belied that fact. He stayed in rhythm beneath a “perfect” Victor Espinoza, his stick down in the last 40 yards. His course never wavered through the stretch as fatigued or lesser horses would. He makes his own perfect trip every time he runs. Victor’s brother, Jose, for years one of the most under-appreciated riders in New York and told he could never ride again, did a pretty good job getting his brother home Saturday. Here’s hoping miracles happen. This is the California Chrome saga we’re talking about here, so nothing's impossible.

4-Ring Weekend completed a big two weeks for the West Pointers, first Commanding Curve, now this guy, who likely got very little out of his Calder Derby placing, then caught a cold, then made a very representative run in the Triple Crown’s second leg. Coming out at the start and exchanging bumps that virtually eliminated Bayern, he made a nice run up the fence down the backside and on the turn in the spot vacated by ‘A Rod’ and continued running well into the lane, but tired in mid-stretch. It was a damn good try for a horse that had missed some training.

5-Bayern was eliminated at the break. He’s not the type, even if 1-3/16 miles were within his scope, which is suspect. to overcome that kind of buffeting about at the start of a race.

6-Ria Antonia was the subject of a rumor back at the stakes barn after the race that the filly was looking for a new owner. Unfortunately we were unable to confirm the report before posting this column.

7-Kid Cruz was never involved, racing as if he were empty all the way.

8-Social Inclusion washed out badly, as he is prone to do, was obstreperous in the gate, but was the only entrant to actually bring the race to California Comet, Luis Contreras did the only thing he could if he hoped to upset the Preakness. Once again this inexperienced colt acquitted himself very well. It was heartening to see that loyalty is rewarded, albeit to a lesser degree, twice in the same race.

9-Pablo Del Monte was a worthy pace presence but he surely is going to miss the Keeneland Polytrack.

10-Ride On Curlin was perfectly ridden behind a solid, but not especially enervating, pace and gave his all in an excellent run. Everyone in his camp wanted a clear shot at a brass ring and Joel Rosario gave that to the colt and his connections. He ran on very well for second but, from what we could see, the best horse would not let him by even on the gallop-out.

While we’re on this subject, we think that NBCSports is having a good Triple Crown season. But, please, can we stay on the horses just a tad longer before we go to the hero/reaction shots?

I fully realize the network is playing to a different audience, and I’m romantic enough to enjoy all the featured human storylines. That is what makes the sporting aspect of horse racing unique.

But cutting away from the horses too soon after the finish does all viewers a disservice. The aerial shot had the view, but that even was needlessly truncated.

Written by John Pricci

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