Sunday, January 03, 2016

Record 2015 Handle Validates Gulfstream’s Elite Status

HALLANDALE BEACH, FL., January 3, 2016—When the “Gulfstream Championship” meet began December 5 with the very successful Claiming Crown program, the winter meet officially began.

But often the calendar is everything. Saturday’s 11-race card featuring five stakes, of which three were graded and three for newly turned 3-year-olds, was the first post-holidays weekend program.

The atmospherics Saturday were different; more people in the building, more energy, more familiar faces. There were pretty women in hats and men in white shorts wearing pink Ralph Lauren shirts.

The Gulfstream “winter meet” is finally officially.

If there was any doubt by the looks of things, it was all too clear when, as the horses returned to be unsaddled following the fourth race, this was heard from the terrace outside Suite 22, a.k.a. the press box:

“Hey jock, you suck.” Yes, apparently some of the Aqueduct crowd were now in the house, too. It made me feel a bit wistful, now that I’m officially a Florida resident.

Parenthetically, whenever anyone asks, my response is always the same: “I’m a New Yorker who happens to live in Florida at the moment.” But enough digression already.

Now, as far as metrics are concerned, betting handle may be old school but will have to do until something better comes along. Gulfstream Park released its handle figures for 2015 on Friday and total live handle was a rounded $1.338 billion, a 14% increase year over year.

Since the sport’s final handle figures for last year are still forthcoming, for comparison’s sake we deducted .084 percent from monies wagered through November, 2015, which included Gulfstream’s live races, and an interesting contrast emerged.

Handle on Gulfstream’s live product represents more than 13% of total U.S. handle from all sources, which includes racing at Gulfstream Park West.

But Gulfstream’s percentage of U.S. handle would be even higher if the money coming through the Hallandale windows from simulcasting venues were included. In all, Gulfstream processed wagers worth $1.625 billion.

The larger point is that now, not just during the winter months, Gulfstream Park has reached the very top echelon of racing venues, the equal of great places like Belmont Park, Santa Anita and Churchill Downs.

And when names like Saratoga or Del Mar or Keeneland are dropped, Gulfstream belongs in that conversation, too.

Everyone knows how this industry is slow adapting to change--and that’s being charitable. Gulfstream still has its detractors mostly because it’s not their father’s Gulfstream.

But that was back in the day when Hialeah Park was still a cathedral and Gulfstream was a post-primetime afterthought, the bridge between South Florida and points north on the good-horse circuit.

It now seems assured there will come a day when the Pletchers, Browns, Motts and Clements will leave 30 head here for the summer as Gulfstream continues to grow in scope and prestige.

If 2015 figures are indicative of anything, it’s that Gulfstream Park is well on its way.

THREE-YEAR-OLD BIAS: Even if there’s not one top-flight newly turned three-year-old in my life, I confess this is my favorite time of year; watching the young ones grow and develop right before my eyes.

Every three-year-old race here Saturday--and we’re throwing in Aqueduct’s Jerome for good measure--was entertaining and informative in different ways as we slouch toward Louisville.

Grade 3 Jerome winner Flexibility looks like a potential classics aspirant, as did Awesome Speed, winner of the listed Mucho Macho Man locally, albeit with more to prove.

But it was G3 Hutcheson winner Awesome Banner who was Saturday’s sophomore star. He was dominating coming off an April layup following the removal of a small knee chip.

Shaking off race-long pressure, Awesome Banner separated himself from the group soon after entering the straight and won by a geared down 4-3/4 lengths in 1:09.57, rocking a final quarter-mile of 24.70.

All three of yesterday’s dirt races for 3-year-olds at Gulfstream were bias aided, and the inside was the place to be.

It’s not so much the bias suited the winner’s speedy style, which it did, but the surface also carried the chasers going all day long; no runner made significant ground late down the center.

Trainer Stanley Gold believes he’ll go on: “Because of his demeanor I don’t think distance will be a problem. He’s sprinting because we’re training him to sprint…certainly we’re going to try to stretch him out.”

The 7-furlong Swale seems like the logical next stop.

Lucy N Ethel was a little less impressive visually but what she accomplished is notable. In stretching her undefeated career to three, she was coming off an unbelievably fast race (“1” on the Thoro-Graph scale), shipped into a warm climate, and coming in off relatively short rest—tough on a filly.

But maybe not, too. “In her second race, she exploded,” explained trainer Ramon Preciado. “This race she was better, and the next time she’s going to be better.”

She’ll get a chance to live up to her trainer’s confidence in the G2 7-furlong Forward Gal, Jan. 30, the same day as the Swale on the Holy Bull undercard.

And that’s where we’re likely to see Saturday’s Mucho Macho Man winner, Awesome Speed. Expected to set the pace, he was bumped from two sides at the break and was forced to take a stalking position.

Approaching the quarter-pole he dispatched the leader, opened ground, then held El Charro--which made a game wide-turn rally--safe in 1:35.97 for a flat mile. The final furlong was 12.85.

“He’ll stretch out to a mile and a sixteenth but I don’t know if he’ll stretch out with good horses,” admitted trainer Alan Goldberg via cell phone. “Before the race I was thinking we would pass the Holy Bull and just try for the Fountain of Youth, but we’ll see.”

The difference maker may be that Mohaymen is pointing toward the Holy Bull but unlikely would run back in the Fountain of Youth prior to the Florida Derby or Wood Memorial.

Speaking of Mohaymen, Flexibility, twice runnerup to the Tapit gray, got a perfect trip behind a three-ply speed battle, inhaled them when ready, and drew off professionally in good time. The connections are deciding whether the G3 Jerome winner will remain in New York or ship south.

: As promised, Gulfstream CEO P.J. Campo met with the stewards concerning the late, untimely jockey switch to Javier Castellano on Marcus Vitali’s Valid who went on to win the Harlan’s Holiday.

The stewards were satisfied with Vitali’s explanation that named rider Matthew Rispoli might have been some feeling ill effects from a recent spill. Rispoli, who rides for Vitali, rode an unplaced Vitali-trained longshot earlier on the card.

Vitali was within his rights, of course, but said that he spoke with the rider well before the races began, possibly a day earlier. Campo explained to Vitali that changes should be made at scratch time.

But that doesn’t account for the fact that the stewards did not have the players back. The players are the ones who put $1.3 billion through the windows in 2015.

Joel Rosario was at his ground-saving, strong-finishing best with five visits to the circle Saturday. He celebrated on Sunday by riding Gustnado to a place finish in the second race then took the rest of the day off…

After he didn’t finish as well as Bob Baffert wanted him Sunday morning, Dortmund will opt for the San Antonio instead of the San Pascual and his anticipated matchup with California Chrome. ‘Chrome’ is headed to the Dubai World Cup following his highly anticipated 5-year-old debut.

Maybe horse and trainer were exhausted watching ‘Chrome’ work six furlongs in 1:10.03 before Saturday’s SA races. Dortmund also had Dubai on his dance card but might just remain in SoCal for the Big ‘Cap. ‘Dubai Bob’ might need a change of nickname; stay tuned.

Written by John Pricci

Comments (19)


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.

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

, Stephanie’s Kitten, Found

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

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

Stellar Wind, I’m a Chatterbox

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

, Rachel’s Valentina, Catch a Glimpse

, 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…

: 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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