Tuesday, December 29, 2015


Kalifornia Karma, a Mixed Bag


HALLANDALE BEACH, FL., December 29, 2015—Southern California racing is much in the news these days, not unexpected since Saturday marked the opening day of Santa Anita’s prestigious winter stand.

Heartening to see that 44,000 warm bodies filled the building, surprising more for the fact that it was 39 degrees in Santa Monica while in New York on Christmas day, forsythia was beginning to bloom—for real, the result of three straight days in the 70s.

The big story was the 75-degree temperature in the Big Apple was the same as July 4th. Meanwhile, it was snowing sideways during the Sun Bowl in El Paso which, of course, is just across the river from Juarez, Mexico.

Climate change? Nah, just more bad science.

Anyway, the atmosphere was energized during and after the day’s events. Handle was said to be good; then maybe not that good. Then there was a Pick Six guarantee--then there wasn’t? Then an $80,000 carryover—then there wasn’t? I’m so confused.

The only thing for certain is that influential leading owners still care more about their individual purse accounts than they do the health of the local industry from which they earn huge purses while exacting a takeout toll at a un-major-venue-like 22.68%.

I was reminded of this because it hit home when, in the Mathis Bros Turf Mile, the 10-2 exacta combining a 6-5 favorite from post nine in a field of 11 with a 23.90-1 shot returned a disappointing $47.60 per $2 wager.

If management there cares to do something about this, they should consider there are more bettors like me who now eschew exactas due to the exorbitant rake, even if sometimes it’s too siren-like because the public’s favorite appears too big to fail.

PSA to management: When I play exotics at bettor-unfriendly venues, I pare my normal unit down to about half. Of course, that’s too bad for all concerned. Had I won a few dollars more, I might have wagered a few dollars more on the La Brea and Malibu.

Sadly, it doesn’t appear that anyone who can do something about this will handle figures will continue to tank like they have been through this decade.

As mentioned in the weekend wrap, racing was top class throughout the entire opening-day card, which came as no surprise to this old scribe who voted for five California-based would-be Eclipse winners, including the Horse of the Year and his trainer.

The karma from the West Coast is likely to remain mixed. Scientists blame the lack of prototypical winter on climate change and the El Nino phenomenon, which could alter the preparation of two protem champions that will celebrate their third birthday on Friday.

Trainer Doug O’Neill has mapped out a tentative schedule for would-be juvenile champion Nyquist that according to several sources includes a season’s debut in the San Vicente in Arcadia followed by a trip here for the Florida Derby, April 2nd.

Jerry Hollendorfer would begin Songbird’s campaign in the Las Virgenes but is keeping his Kentucky Oaks prep options open beyond that, so open, in fact, that a run in the Kentucky Derby has been placed on the table.

Much will depend on how the male season shakes out. But the mitigation is that publicity is the preferred marketing tool of would-be breeder/sellers, and that Songbird’s owner campaigned Eight Belles, euthanized after suffering a fatal injury in the 2011 Derby.

Ultimately, it may be El Nino that determines which way the Triple Crown wind will blow.

FINAL OFFICIAL ECLIPSE BALLOT:
A check of the HRI archives (Dec. 22) will show the thinking process behind our vote for the would-be Eclipse champions of 2015, both equine and human.

My bad was forgetting that three selections also needed to be made in the human categories as well and, mea culpa, I omitted the apprentice category from my original post.

(Hint: Under no circumstances will it be Donald J. Trump. Don’t see further need to Make America Hate Again).

For those not interested in why, and to update the Female Sprint category following the La Brea as promised, my official vote appears below: From the ballot’s bottom, up:

TRAINER: Bob Baffert,
Todd Pletcher, Chad Brown

APPRENTICE JOCKEY: Tyler Gaffalione,
Eric Cancel, Angel Cruz

JOCKEY: Javier Castellano,
Victor Espinoza, Irad Ortiz Jr.

BREEDER: Darley Stable, Stonestreet Thoroughbred Holdings, Zayat Stables

OWNER: Zayat Stables
, Stonestreet Stable, Godolphin Racing

STEEPLECHASE: Bob Le Beau, Dawalan, African Oil

FEMALE TURF: Tepin
, Stephanie’s Kitten, Found

MALE TURF: The Pizza Man
, Big Blue Kitten, Flintshire

FEMALE SPRINTER: La Verdad,
Birdatthewire, Wavell Avenue

MALE SPRINTER: Runhappy, Private Zone, Rock Fall

OLDER DIRT FEMALE: Beholder, Sheer Drama, Stopchargingmaria

OLDER DIRT MALE: Tonalist, Honor Code, Liam’s Map

THREE-YEAR-OLD FILLY: Lady Eli,
Stellar Wind, I’m a Chatterbox

THREE-YEAR-OLD MALE: American Pharoah
, Runhappy, Dortmund

TWO-YEAR-OLD FILLY: Songbird
, Rachel’s Valentina, Catch a Glimpse

TWO-YEAR-OLD MALE: Nyquist
, Airoforce, Mohaymen

HORSE OF THE YEAR: American Pharoah,
Beholder, Runhappy

Written by John Pricci

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Sunday, December 27, 2015


There’s No School Like the Old School


HALLANDALE BEACH, FL., December 27, 2015—Can’t help but feel like Saturday was more like the day after Thanksgiving than Christmas.

Because, family, friends that are family, and presents under the tree notwithstanding, I was thankful to be a horse racing fan Saturday at Gulfstream Park.

It was opening day at Santa Anita, of course, and I’ll be damned if you couldn’t feel the energy emanating from the simulcast monitors at its sister track 3,000 miles away.

That’s what championship racing and performances like Saturday’s will do that for you—for me, anyway.

We’re quite sure that Runhappy, a freak in every sense of that racetrack jargon, will be the horse on everyone’s lips after HIS performance yesterday.

But first a word on the La Brea, as Grade 1-supporting as a Grade 1-supporting feature can get. And that’s thanks to Birdatthewire, Mike Smith and mainly trainer Dale Romans.

Don’t bother trying to compliment him on the outstanding preparation he gave his filly to spring a major La Brea upset. He’ll give you that aw-shucks-I’m-just-a-hillbilly-horse-trainer stuff.

But he’s a lot more than that: Romans is a horseman from the old school.

When we were around him pre- and post-Travers this past summer in Saratoga, where Romans prepared Keen Ice to hand presumptive Horse of the Year American Pharoah his only defeat this year, he regaled us with stories about his idol, H. Allen Jerkens.

About how last winter in South Florida, he would go out to dinner with “the Chief” every chance he got just to listen to the stories.

Those stories begat questions and those questions begat answers. Romans listened and learned from the advice that Jerkens was always willing to share with anyone who asked.

And if the victory of Birdatthewire was not the stuff of giant killers, then there never was such a thing.

Birdatthewire showed signs of being a little out of the ordinary last winter here; winning the G2 Forward Gal, just missing in the G2 Davona Dale, then rebounding in the G2 Gulfstream Park Oaks.

So what’s a Louisvillian to do then? Run in THE Oaks, of course, where Birdatthewire was beaten 5-1/4 lengths by Lovely Maria after breaking from slip 13 of 14 while racing too keenly, wrestling with Irad Ortiz Jr. rather than conserve her energy.

The filly exited the Oaks with some issues so Romans gave her time and pointed for what he hoped would be the first Grade 1 score of her career: The La Brea on opening day at Santa Anita.

The filly would meet either other three-year-old runners that either were tested through a long season successfully or bloomers late to arrive on the stakes scene.

After the six-month layup, Birdatthewire returned in Churchill’s Chilukki and, after a poor start from the pole going a flat mile, she never really settled, tugging hard at Corey Lanerie before tiring herself out: step one.

When she returned 19 days later in the Falls City at 9 furlongs, another Grade 2, she broke slowly again, raced wide thereafter but did manage to beat more than half her nine rivals in what was, on balance, a flat performance.

On Saturday, 30 days after the Falls City, Romans ran her off those two G2 preps, turned her back to the winning distance of the Forward Gal, and engaged the patient Mike Smith for his first ride on the filly.

Birdatthewire was so far back early in the La Brea that the #1 chicklet appeared lost on the monitor. Hot City Girl, seeking to become the heir apparent to retired stablemate La Verdad, set a solid within-herself pace until Smith asked his filly to kick on. Did she ever.

It never appeared through the Arcadia straight that Hot City Girl would be caught, but Birdatthewire was relentless, the conditioning gained from the longer Louisville trips coming into play right at the very end.

The filly made a top grade effort; the ride, and the training, were masterful.

And somewhere Allen Jerkens is smiling.

Through the Stakes Notebook:

Don’t Worry, Run Happy: This is all you need to know about presumptive Sprint Champion’s victory in the G1 Malibu: Beneath Gary Stevens, subbing for injured Edgar Prado, Runhappy won the Malibu by 3-1/2 lengths, going 7 furlongs in 1.21.76, after posting fractions of 22.62, 22.19, 24.27 and 12.70.

Considering the Malibu was his sixth start since July 7, including a change-of-pace score over elders in the BC Sprint, his effort was truly extraordinary. Fans can only hope that he remains in good health for 2016…and no decision will be made to retire him…

OmMG: Om made winning the G2 Mathis Bros Mile look easy, outclassing 10 rivals and stretching his undefeated Santa Anita streak to three while 2-for-2 at the trip. Gary Stevens thinks he can go farther as his mount galloped out strongly yet again. He certainly looks like he can develop into a world class turf miler. Om got the trip in 1:35.57 with a final ¼-mile of 23.80…

Danzing Candy was an impressive juvenile maiden breaker for Clifford Sise and Mike Smith, winning by a pressured but never-in-doubt 3-1/4 lengths in 1:22.84 for seven furlongs, a final furlong in 12.64.

Wolfson Filly on Best Behavior: First rate initial graded victory for Best Behavior, taking the G3 Sugar Swirl under pluperfect handling from Johnny Velazquez. Helped when overzealously bet favorite Stonetastic broke flat-footed, the winner stalked the leader and pounced away at headstretch.

Marty Wolfson continues his superior work with fillies. He won the G3 Rampart two weeks ago with late developing Cali Star when Best Behavior finished a one-paced second in her first start since July.

Using an old school tack, Wolfson entered her back in two weeks and shortened her up from one mile to three-quarters. The filly won comfortably, easily holding a rallying Stonetastic safe through the lane…

WILDCAT KITTEN
: There’s a lot of fight in Charming Kitten. After stalking three wide throughout the mile and a half, Charming Kitten engaged War Dancer on the last of three turns, opened the lead but appeared set to be passed by the rapidly surging Kaigun. But he fought off his rival doggedly in the final furlong.

The victory was Johnny’s second graded score of the day, taking the G3 McKnight for vacationing trainer Todd Pletcher.

SPEED IS GOLDEN: Even at 12 furlongs, especially at Gulfstream when you can engineer a soft, uncontested half-mile in 50.35. While the lead and final margin of victory by Goldy Espony was never more than a length and a half in the G3 La Prevoyante, she never appeared in serious danger. Leading rider Javier Castellano was in the boot for winning trainer Chad Brown.

Written by John Pricci

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Tuesday, December 22, 2015


Expect Many Hotly Contested Eclipse Categories


HALLANDALE BEACH, FL, December 22 2015—Here is the dichotomy that was Thoroughbred racing in 2015: Never in the past 37 years has the vote for Horse of the Year been so well defined yet ballots in too many divisions will leave voters worlds apart for clear-cut lack of dominance.

The fact the great American Pharoah will be proclaimed 2015 Horse of the Year notwithstanding, voting in at least six categories, more if human practitioners are included, will spark endless debate among voters who sincerely care about championship legacy.

Confusion reigns not only at the top of many categories but several runners-up also are likely to be in dispute. Given the open nature of balloting in so many divisions, second and third-place votes in 2015 could be pivotal factors.

That said, this is one man’s opinion of which members of the 2015 equine set deserve championship recognition. In candor, I wanted to abstain in many categories where individuals, continually given opportunities to establish their dominance, didn’t.

Per usual, I start at the Grade 1 level and work my way down, acknowledging that not all G1s are created equal. But not even that benchmark was the determinant it normally is; personal opinion weighed more heavily this time around.

Parenthetically, we will await Saturday’s Grade 1 La Brea* before finalizing our official ballot for champion female sprinter.

STEEPLECHASE 4-YEAR-OLD & UP: A two-horse battle between Bob Le Beau and Dawalan, each with a pair of Grade 1s. Each owns a victory over the other but we separated them by rewarding ‘Bob’ who spotted Dawalan eight pounds while beating him in the Lonesome Glory. Battle for third between Overwhelming and African Oil was equally vexing.
1. Bob Le Beau 2. Dawalan 3. Overwhelming.

2-YEAR-OLD MALE CHAMPION: Thank you Nyquist for making this a no-brainer. Impossible to knock perfection: 5-for-5; three G1s, including his remarkable Juvenile score. Airoforce: Sprinting, turf, slop, he treated it all the same. Very talented and eagerly awaiting his 3 YO campaign. Mohaymen: 3-for-3, two Grade 2s, proving in the Remsen that he can get nine furlongs; another exciting prospect.
1. Nyquist. 2. Airoforce. 3. Mohaymen

2-YEAR-OLD FILLY CHAMPION:
Another big Southern California thanks to Songbird: 4-for-4, three Grade 1s counting the Juvenile Fillies. Faster than fast. Rachel’s Valentine was no slam dunk for place, not with Catch a Glimpse in the mix. But her placing to Songbird while being taken out of her best settle-in-stride game underscores her class. Including the G1 Juvenile Fillies Turf, she was a dual graded winner.
1. Songbird. 2. Rachel’s Valentina. 3. Catch A Glimpse


3-YEAR-OLD MALE CHAMPION: All Hail King Pharoah: Six Grade 1s including the first classics sweep in 37 years and racing first “Grand Slam.” Runhappy was 5-for-6, including two Grade 1s with the BC Sprint. No older horse finished ahead of him in four attempts; extraordinary talent. Too bad Dortmund had issues keeping him on the sidelines five months; was 5-for-7 including the G1 Santa Anita Derby and beat elders twice this fall. Frosted, Keen Ice and Upstart had opportunities to raise their games but did not; maybe next year.
1. American Pharoah. 2. Runhappy. 3. Dortmund.

3-YEAR-OLD FILLY CHAMPION: This was going to be one of my abstention categories: Every time it appeared one filly would take charge of the division but that never happened. The best 3-year-old filly I saw in 2015 was Lady Eli. Before going to the sidelines, there was no telling how good--and just because she’s 6-for-6 on grass, 3-for-3 this year, doesn’t mean she can’t do dirt. Stellar Wind was two bad trips from an undefeated 6-for-6 season. As it is she won four graded events including the G1 Santa Anita Oaks and was beaten a neck by older Stopchargingmaria in the Distaff. I’m a Chatterbox finished first in four graded stakes including the G1 CCA Oaks (disqualified) and G1 Cotillion, but only one of the four was beyond 1-1/16 miles.
1. Lady Eli. 2. Stellar Wind. 3. I’m a Chatterbox.

4-YEAR-OLD & UP DIRT MALE:
Another category in which at least three horses had opportunities to cement the title but did not. Further, I still don’t know to regard the abbreviated campaigns of Shared Belief and, to a lesser extent, California Chrome. I grudgingly settled on Tonalist [7] 3-2-1 for defending his G1 JCGC title and, after his disastrous-trip Classic clunker, he rebounded to win the G1 Cigar Mile with an impossible late rally. After the G1 Met Mile and Whitney, Honor Code was poised, then lost his last two starts. Had Mike Smith not opened a premature five-length Whitney lead in midstretch, Liam’s Map would have been settled this on BC Saturday. Should Shared Belief win this honor, I would be neither surprised nor disappointed.
1. Tonalist. 2. Honor Code. 3. Liam’s Map

4-YEAR-OLD & UP DIRT FEMALE: Thank you Beholder, a deserving winner of yet another title but again without never having to leave the friendly confines. Runners-up were hard to separate among Sheer Drama, Stopchargingmaria and Wedding Toast. But Sheer Drama scored two Grade 1s, one at 10 furlongs, had a G1 placing and a G2 score while taking her act on the road. Stopchargingmaria was exceedingly well managed in a 3-for-5 campaign culminating with the Distaff following two Grade 3s wins was good but not compelling enough. What Beholder is to SoCal, Wedding Toast is to Belmont Park.
1. Beholder. 2. Sheer Drama. 3. Stopchargingmaria.

3-YEAR-OLD & UP SPRINT CHAMPION:
Thank you Runhappy and Maria Borell. Private Zone had the title within his reach but could not hold off the exceedingly talented son of Super Saver. Rock Fall also was on the precipice of a championship but then the racing gods are a fickle and cruel lot.
1. Runhappy. 2. Private Zone. 3. Rock Fall.

3-YEAR-OLD & UP FEMALE SPRINT CHAMPION: Potential abstention category, Part 2. The ranking that appears below will change on our official ballot should Cavorting win Saturday’s G1 La Brea. Until then, we are compelled to take dominating New York-bred La Verdad by virtue of finishing first in five graded stakes from her first six starts and a gallant placing behind well managed F & M Sprint winner Wavell Avenue. Too bad her overall record was tarnished somewhat while running her poorest race this year vs. Fall Highweight males. The Grade 3 was her fifth start in 64 days--her third in 33 days-- including a trip to Kentucky in between. Now retired at 5, she won 15 of 24 lifetime starts. Still, it will be Cavorting’s title to lose. Lady Shipman is a turf sprint specialist that compiled a worthy (10) 7-2-1 slate this year, coming within a diminishing neck of defeating males in the BC Turf Sprint.
1. *La Verdad. 2. *Cavorting. 3. Lady Shipman.

3-YEAR-OLD & UP MALE TURF CHAMPION: Near abstention, Part 3. The best turf performance we witnessed all year was Flintshire’s course record G1 Sword Dancer. However, it only landed him show honors on our ballot. Never believing it were possible until we mulled over the Eclipse PPs, our #1 choice is The Pizza Man. A winner of 4 of 6 over different courses and disparate conditions, he took the G1 Arlington Million and was a jump shy of catching perfect-tripping Grand Arch in the G1 Shadwell. Following a very wide journey in the BC Turf, he rebounded by shipping to Del Mar and took the G2 Hollywood Turf Cup; not many BC horses win their subsequent start. Big Blue Kitten deserves props for winning half of his six starts, including two G1s.
1. The Pizza Man. 2. Big Blue Kitten. 3. Flintshire.

3-YEAR-OLD & UP FEMALE TURF CHAMPION: Not an abstention category but close only because I could have put my head on the pillow restfully after having taken one of three different directions. I voted for Tepin. Her (7) 5-2-0 record includes three G1s, with the BC Mile over males and a nose defeat in the G1 Diana. Stephanie’s Kitten won half her six starts with the BC F&M Turf. Found accomplished a lot in defeating course-compromised Golden Horn in the BC Turf. It was her lone qualifying U.S. start. And not to forget she was European Group 1 placed four times, two of those also vs. older males.
1. Tepin. 2. Stephanie’s Kitten. 3. Found

OUTSTANDING TRAINER: How can I not vote for Chad Brown, or Kiaran McLaughlin, coming off career years, or the redoubtable money machine, Todd Pletcher? But while I have my issues with Mr. Baffert, it’s one thing to have best horse but another to train one in such audacious fashion. Baffert got American Pharoah ready for a successful assault on history off a compressed prep regimen. He got the colt to give his most inspiring effort in his lone defeat when he would have preferred to keep him in the barn. Then to recycle and ready him for Classic gave testimony to the best horse we’ve seen in decades, all while under the pressure to maintain an uncommon level of excellence.
Bob Baffert

OUTSTANDING JOCKEY: Much like Baffert, it is one thing to ride the best dirt horse in the world and another to not make a mistake. Victor Espinoza never panicked; the Travers defeat coming as a result of circumstances and tactics, not through any fault of the rider. But it was Javier Castellano who dominated between the fences in 2016, the absolute difference on so many occasions--even if he does take a little too much the best of it at times. He wins with with every manner of racehorse. No one dominated race meetings the way Castellano did virtually throughout the entire year.
Javier Castellano

OUTSTANDING OWNER: For their unparalleled sportsmanship, this was a one-owner race.
Zayat Stable

OUTSTANDING BREEDER: The Zayats, of course, put together the mating of American Pharoah. Adena Springs and the Ramseys had wonderful seasons per usual but Darley achieved lofty heights with statistics not impacted by one particular horse or stallion. Darley-bred runners made 751 starts through Dec. 13, compiling an across-the-board record of 140-101-104. They were one of six breeders not named Zayat to win three or more Grade 1s; breeding the most G2 winners with four, and they placed third in earnings with $8.9 million, less than $400K behind the Zayats.
Darley Stable

HORSE OF THE YEAR 2016 was Thoroughbred racing’s 12th Triple Crown winner and inaugural Grand Slam champion.
American Pharoah















Written by John Pricci

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