Friday, January 11, 2008

Fair Grounds, Santa Anita Begin Derby Prep Schedules

A pair of very good Kentucky Derby preps and two excellent racing cards from Fair Grounds and Santa Anita highlight the Saturday schedule. And those one-mile Grade 3 preps, Fair Grounds Lecomte and Santa Anitas San Rafael, each feature some very promising colts. Races like these make it a great time of year for fans of young, developing racehorses.

Saturdays Fair Grounds program, featuring six stakes races, has been billed Kickoff to the Kentucky Derby Saturday. The 11-race program drew 111 entrants; obviously an attractive wagering card.

Although it has no official billing, Santa Anita hosts After The Deluge Saturday which, in addition to the San Rafael, includes the rescheduled San Pasqual and G2 San Fernando. That 11-race card has a special post time of 11:45 a.m. WST and has drawn 108 entries overnight.

But the focus will be on the newly turned three-year-olds and, if you believe this is all about the hype, theres a revealing poll on the Daily Racing Form web-site in which fans were asked to vote on which of last weekends eight stakes races were the most exciting.

Do you think it a coincidence that the Hutcheson and Count Fleet, the only two stakes for Derby-aged runners, finished 1-2, and attracted 32% and 16% of the response, respectively? Me neither.

Parenthetically, it was unknown at posting whether or not the polling had been conducted in the state of New Hampshire.

The Lecomte attracted a field of nine, in which Texas Fever (7-2), Z Fortune (5-1) and Blackberry Road (6-1) figure to reap the most pari-mutuel support.

Texas Fever is a tepid morning line favorite. Leaving from post position one, he was beaten 3- lengths when last seen in the Breeders Cup Juvenile Turf. Previously he won the G3 Kentucky Cup Juvenile at Turfway Park on Polytrack, earning an Equiform performance figure of 69.25, slow on the speed scale.

Making his sixth start, and first in 11 weeks, it will be his dirt debut, which he seems to like if recent workouts are the measure. Four of his last five have been best of the day moves and his five-eighths in 1:00 4/5 on New Years Eve, termed breezing, was best of 58 at the distance.

Hard to tell if Steve Asmussen is simply lowering expectations or is trying to tell us something about the undefeated New York-bred, Z Fortune. He talks about him being long and leggy with lots of developing to do, but his figures belie that assessment.

Z Fortune received a 73 winning his 7-furlong debut, with excellent energy distribution, then earned a soft but good 70.5, winning his two-turn debut and showing improved late energy and strength. That 73 is among the fastest figures in the race and Asmussen has won six of the 10 stakes run at Fair Grounds, four in one day.

Blackberry Road is interesting. In a six-race career his two best efforts have been around two turns, the scenario here, and he has been seasoned by four graded stakes. Following a good third behind Texas Fever at Turfway, he was a fast finishing second behind well regarded Anak Nakal in the G2 Kentucky Jockey Club at Churchill.

His 72.5 last time out was a lifetime best but hes had seven weeks to recover. Trainer David Carroll won with two of his last five Fair Grounds runners and is 4-for-14 at the meet. The colt has gotten stronger with each recent start. Calvin Borel rides.

The big three out west are El Gato Malo, Massive Drama and Indian Sun. Throw in recent impressive maiden-sprint winner Talk Of A Cat for Todd Pletcher and Garrett Gomez and youre likely to get a pretty good show.

El Gato Malos next loss will be his first. After a dazzling open lengths romp in 1:09 on Hollywoods Cushion Track, he shipped north to Golden Gate and was no less effective over the Tapeta track. What really impressed was that El Gato Malo was wrestled back off a slow two-turn pace, made a strong turn move, continued somewhat greenly approaching midstretch before drawing away to win by nearly five.

El Gato Malo ran fast in his debut, obviously, then earned a soft win two-turn figure of 71.5 while going from a pull to a drive, showing improved energy distribution; not easy for a young horse. David Flores replaces suspended Patrick Valenzuela and note trainer Craig Dollase is 40% effective with horses making their second start around two-turns.

Massive Drama is a logical favorite. After winning the G3 Hollywood Prevue, he was a game change-of-pace third in the G1 Cash Call Futurity behind promising Into Mischief and Colonel John. Since the Cash Call, Massive Drama worked yet another bullet five furlongs, in :59 3/5, best of 58 at the distance.

The Bob Baffert colt has the best route figure in the race at 72.75, showing improved late energy. The mini turn-back to a mile figures to help, as does the switch to speed savvy Rafael Bejarano. He does, however, come back a little quickly in three weeks time.

Indian Sun finished well too late from far back in the Cash Call, placing him less than two lengths behind Massive Drama. Considering it was his first start on synthetic dirt following three starts on turf, it was a sneaky good effort. Showing good late energy, he earned a highly competitive performance figure of 72.

Although hes never been two turns with only a maiden sprint win to his credit, Talk Of A Cat has impressed. After finishing third to well regarded Racecar Rhapsody in his debut, he shipped cross country and stopped the timer in 1:14 2/5 at 6- furlongs. Thats rolling, even over the rapid Hollywood Cushion.

Written by John Pricci

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Friday, January 04, 2008

Road to the Kentucky Derby Begins Saturday

Turf writers in desperate search of a story know two things: go see Nick Zito; go see Wayne Lukas, not necessarily in that order. Both, after all, are extremely quotable and each knows the value of keeping their brands in front of the public (read prospective owners).

Turf writers know a third thing. Bereft of storylines when on deadline, think two words: Kentucky Derby.

In that spirit, a forward look at certain-to-be juvenile champion War Pass; Remsen hero Court Vision, a courageous and classy nine-furlong winner, and Denis of Cork, one of the more impressive debut winners ever.
While the measure of dosage index is no longer in vogue as a predictor of Derby form, it still has some merit. So, as an aside, an early look at some dosage profiles as outlined by column contributor Brad Morgan.

Morgan reviewed the dosage profiles of 37 newly turned three-year-olds. Of those, only six had as many as two points in either its Solid or Professional wing. Meaning, according to dosage theory, theyre light on the stamina side of their pedigree.

Considering the current state of the breeding industry, is it any wonder that this small sample of relatively high class individuals reflects that the majority of American racehorses are bred for speed?

Interestingly, three of the six stamina-influenced sophomores are fillies.

Of greater significance, though, were the names of several highly regarded Triple Crown hopefuls, all of which impressed on the racetrack as two-year-olds.

El Gato Malo, undefeated in two starts, including the two-turn Gold Rush at Golden Gate Fields, has a DI of 4.33.

Etched, undefeated in two starts by a combined 13- lengths, including the G3 Nashua, has a dosage index of 4.14.

Gayego, a maiden breaker by three lengths in 1:09 over Hollywoods Cushion Track, has a DI of 4.33.

Pyro, the strong-finish runnerup to War Pass in both the Grade 1 Champagne and Juvenile, has a dosage of 4.14.

Sea of Pleasure, 2-for-2, including a preliminary allowance win in 1:08 3/5 at Hollywood Park, checks in with a 4.33.

And, finally, War Pass, 4-for-4 in high, championship style but with a dosage index of 4.09, slightly over the desired measure of 4.0 or lower.

The knock one hears most often, however, is that he may not be rate-able. Even Zito admitted last year that you have to let him do what he wants to do, when he wants to do it.

But thats where the knocks end. In four starts, he never has taken a backward step on the Equiform performance-figure scale. He came out running fast then came back and ran even faster, earning an Equiform figure of 74.25. He followed that up with a 76.25 in the Champagne, moving up in class and distance, before earning a breathtaking 79.25 in the Juvenile.

Only jinx-busting Street Sense ran that fast at 2 in the modern era, albeit earning his figure over a dry Churchill surface.

Horses that never take a backward step are impossible to knock. But since every rule has an exception, heres one: too much; too soon. Going from a 71.75 to 79.25 in three months is substantial development.

Developmentally, Court Vision did nothing wrong in his four starts, either. His figures improved from start one to start three, coming out running while showing good energy distribution, improving in his second start to break maiden, then went forward again to win the G3 Iroquois mile at Churchill Downs.

But his Remsen was something else altogether. Termed a soft win because the pace and final time were slower than his Iroquois score, his trip and subsequent victory was anything but soft.

Court Vision simply willed his way to victory, bulling and bumping his way through horses in deep stretch despite a slow pace that figured to compromise his late surge. Not many young horses will do that, especially at nine furlongs. Bill Motts Majestic Warrior gets all the publicity for his upside. But its Court Vision thats already a proven commodity.

Denis of Corks maiden win has to be seen to be believed, and maybe not even then (6th race, CD, Nov. 24). The majority of juvenile debut winners speed-pop their rivals right to the finish. Not Denis.

At the first call of the seven-furlong sprint, Denis of Cork had only one of 11 rivals beaten. At the second call. It was three. Then he began a five-wide run rounding the famed Churchill far turn for and was a length behind the leader approaching midstretch.

Denis of Cork finished off the huge rally to finish 3/4s of a length to the good in 1:22 2/5. Calvin Borel rode the colt for trainer David Carroll. Interesting to note that Carl Nafzger had a starter in the race, too.

Denis of Cork earned an Equiform figure of 72.25, a fast--but not too fast--building block. Viewing the effort in context is more revealing. Along the way to his final figure was a four-furlong pace figure of 71 and a two-furlong figure of 63. His internal six furlong figure was 69. Meaning, the farther he went, the faster he went. Stabled at Fair Grounds, he owns a DI of 1.80.

Zitos War Pass is scheduled to make his seasons debut in late February at Gulfstream. No plans have been announced for Court Vision, also stabled in Florida, or for Denis of Cork.

But the road begins tomorrow. Aqueduct will offer the Count Fleet at a mile and 70 yards and features the undefeated, well managed Giant Moon, leaving from the outside in a field a seven with a short run into the first turn.

Zito, meanwhile, will run two in Gulfstreams G2 Hutcheson at seven furlongs: Cool Coal Man, strangled into submission in the Kentucky Jockey Club Stakes last out, and Coal Play, second in Calders What A Pleasure Stakes. Both are owned by Robert Lapenta. Big Truck, Grand Minstrel and Halo Najib are serious contenders in a very competitive renewal.

So let the games, and the quotes, begin.

Written by John Pricci

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Friday, December 28, 2007

On Balance, A Good Year for Thoroughbred Racing

The answer to what kind of year its been depends on what pew youre sitting in.

If you receive a paycheck from the New York Racing Association., are a member of a wagering platform that doesnt handle your favorite track, or born Patrick Biancone, 2007 wasnt so good.

If, however, youre a high class dirt loving three-year-old, own stock in a synthetic surface-manufacturing company, or born Calvin Borel, you made some good memories.

Nationally, synthetic racetracks made a huge and dramatic impact while never scratching the surface (pun intended) of what it means for the future of the sport and its breeding industry. It was the racing story of 2007.

Unless the future of New Yorks racing franchise is settled in favor of thoroughbred racing, the racing story of 2007 might not matter.

Its true that all racing, like politics, is local.

But everyone knows that the NFL, MLB, NBA and NHL does best when the Giants, Yankees, Knicks and Rangers are having winning seasons.

Its no different in the thoroughbred game. The sport benefits in California, Kentucky and Florida when Aqueduct, Belmont and Saratoga are robust.

The popular proliferation of international racing in 2007 was the dominant story for racing worldwide. But like the aforementioned leagues and states, international racing needs a healthy American racing industry.

Without looking at the numbers, figure that national betting handle will remain flat at around $15 billion this year.

But $15 billion doesnt buy what it used to. So, unless America embraces the marriage of Internet technology to more wagering products like betting exchanges and lower takeout, handle will not only stagnate but will flat-line.

In 2007, racing learned that racinos are nothing more than a trendy quick fix. Hopefully racing learned as much, and the remedy is for the physicians of industry to heal themselves.

The problem is that no one in the seat of power listens. In fact no seat even exists.

Indeed, all these troublesome issues are not exclusive to the transition of 2007 into 2008. Going forward, the areas of concern are timeless. Hopefully time for finding needed solutions doesnt run out.

Thankfully, what happened between the fences proved a great distraction both pragmatically and aesthetically.

For me, the success of the greatest Non-Triple Crown series ever helped celebrate the accomplishments of Barbaro in the same manner his death earlier at once inflated and deflated those accomplishments.

It does, after all, begin and end with the race horse.

And, so, a Breeders Cup Juvenile winner finally was stout enough to win a Kentucky Derby. His prep regimen had put one racetrack on the national map and a synthetic one under a microscope. A colt named Street Sense ultimately provided an answer.

His victory led to my personal favorite moment of the year; the horse-back celebration of a jockey in rose colored goggles finding his way to a winners circle he visited many times before but never like this.

Then a Derby rival, a horse that eventually would prove worthy of a Horse of the Year title, re-broke in midstretch to snatch a victory so improbable as to render four decades of Preakness less special. And that includes the ding-dong of 1989.

But instead of a Belmont afterthought, racing witnessed another moment in the very special history of this very special racing series. For the first time in more than a century, a filly would beat the colts with a thisclose finish going a true classic distance.

Im positive Ill never see three individual, albeit in-tandem, performances executed so dramatically again.

In fact, Id bet on it.

The expansion of Breeders Cup, whose 2007 debut, again depending on whether your pew was under cover or exposed to the elements, either failed or succeeded.

Hopeful and reasonably certain, Breeders Cup expansion will be viewed as a success in another 10 years. Lets hope the 2008 renewal dawns bright beneath a warm Southern California sun.

Theres no rule that more must equal less.

What I also hope for 2008 and beyond is that the industry realizes how the continued proliferation of synthetic track racing will change a time-honored game. Dirt is either real or its not. Its either sand and loam or clay, or its not.

Synthetic surfaces adds a third element to a sport in which its participants race. Racing not turf racing and everything else. Not in this country, anyway. Synthetic tracks will change the way stallions are bred to mares, the way common sense could not.

Stamina, like speed, cant be taught. My hope for 2008 and beyond is that racing holds on to the sand and loam and clay and finds a better way to make traditional dirt tracks safer.

The best improvement of the past year is how the industry finally is starting to deal with its number one problem; cheaters using drugs.

Biancone, should he be found guilty in the cobra venom scandal, just might have to be the poster child in the war on illegal drugs. That would be a notorious achievement if he were kicked off a third continent for drug violations.

And so it was a good thing when Kentucky joined California and Mid-Atlantic racetracks in banning the use of anabolic steroids.

It might not appear so but racing took some positive strides in 07. Hopefully that trend continues into 08 and beyond.

Written by John Pricci

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