Friday, March 07, 2008

Asmussen’s Only Fear May Be Himself

SARATOGA SPRINGS, NY, Mar. 7, 2008--Last weekend it was Santa Anita. Tomorrow its the Big Easy, mon cher, otherwise known as Derby Day in New Orleans. The Grade 2 Louisiana Derby has attracted a field of nine, headed by the Risen Star star, Pyro. Its clearly the deepest Kentucky Derby prep so far this year.

Although the race was drawn very early in the week, the linemaker wasted no time installing Steve Asmussens colt the 7-5 early line choice vs. G2 Jockey Club Stakes runnerup Blackberry Road, G2 Belmont Futurity winner Tale Of Ekati, undefeated California Derby winner Yankee Bravo and G1 Hopeful winner Majestic Warrior. And theres an undefeated stablemate named J Be K, among others.

So, is the Louisiana Derby favorite vulnerable?

Yankee Bravo, a colt has no graded earnings, hasnt faced this caliber and will be making his first start on a non-synthetic or turf surface. Trainer Patrick Gallagher has been handling him with extreme care, as if hes something special, and Alex Solis, the only partner Yankee Bravos had since shipping across the pond, comes with the package. Considering the fact hes chasing needed graded earnings, expect him to be wound tightly.

Then theres Blackberry Road, trained by David Carroll, who has the undefeated Denis Of Cork on the Derby Trail as well. But this colt also needs graded cash, mostly because hes been nothing if not unlucky. The deep-stretch runner has had tough trips in his last five starts beginning with last years Arlington Washington Futurity. In the Risen Star, every seam he attempted to split was slammed shut in his face. Robby Albarado, replacing fellow Cajun Calvin Borel, will try to work through the bad karma.

From a class perspective, Tale Of Ekati and Majestic Warrior are known quantities but each is making his seasons debut in a tough spot. While neither figures to be at tops for this, trainers Barclay Tagg and Bill Mott, respectively, know their colts must have a required level of fitness to compete in this company, but without risking future condition by asking their runners for too much, too soon.

To say both have chosen ambitious debut spots would be to understate the case, but each has trained very well at South Florida training centers known for getting horses fit and ready at first asking. Of the two, Tale Of Ekati appears a bit more advanced. The normally reticent Tagg expects his horse to run very well. But trainers, like presidential candidates, are adept at lowering expectations.

Mott is back on the Derby Trail with several candidates, only for the fifth time in his career. But the Hall of Famer knows his way around Louisville, having saddled more winners at Churchill Downs than anyone else. Majestic Warrior, not without bullet workouts in his own equine holster, will attempt to have fans recall the winning show he put on in last years Hopeful before an injury prevented him from doing the same in the Champagne that went to War Pass. By A.P. Indy from a Seeking The Gold mare, a blue-hen-in-training called Dream Supreme, the colt has Derby lineage.

But the Louisiana Derby remains Asmussens race to lose because he has two loaded guns at which to take aim at the $600,000 prize. The mighty Pyro has an uncoupled mate, J Be K, undefeated in two starts and breaking from an ideal position beside his more accomplished mate in the Fair Grounds gate. While his two victories came sprinting and his pedigree is on the short side, rest assured that J Be K is not just some rabbit Asmussens throwing to the pace wolves. This field had better not underestimate the controlling speed of this Louisiana Derby, and that includes Pyro. Whether that lead is easily gained depends on Tale Of Ekatis level of freshness.

Based on his Risen Star alone, Pyro deserves his position at or near the top of most Kentucky Derby polls. He developed so well over the winter, further learning his trade by working with two older stablemates, one being reigning Horse of the Year Curlin. Resultantly, Pyros more relaxed and focused in his training than he was as a youngster. And all of it was on display in his three-year-old debut, a victory that was nothing short of sensational.

There are two more Kentucky Derby preps this weekend worthy of mention, also at a mile and a sixteenth; the G3 Gotham Stakes on the Aqueduct winter track and the G3 El Camino Real Derby at Bay Meadows--even if the latter has been a better predictor of Preakness than Derby form.

The Gotham features undefeated New York-bred Giant Moon. The colt has been allowed to develop virtually on his own, trainer Rick Schosberg never tightening the screws in earnest until now. This will be a big test to determine whether this precocious sophomore can sit off rivals and be as effective, and whether he can handle a forecasted wet track.

The Northern California prep attracted a field of 10 headed by Nikkisgoldensteed and Coast Guard, who ducked Colonel John and El Gato Malo in last Saturdays Sham Stakes in favor of a softer spot at a shorter distance. Nikkisgoldensteed won the Turf Paradise Derby last month by nearly six lengths and is based in SoCal with trainer Robert Hess. Coast Guard, second in the G2 Robert Lewis Memorial last time, is developing beautifully for trainer David Hofmans.

But theres no mistaking that the main event will take place in the Crescent City, where the only thing Steve Asmussen may have to fear is himself.

Written by John Pricci

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Friday, February 29, 2008

Breeders’ Cup: Celebrating Gender or Widening the Gap?

SARATOGA SPRINGS, NY, Feb 28, 2008--

More than ever, it seems, its dangerous to generalize along gender lines, so let me be specific about my feelings on the subject: Viva La Difference!

Am I the only non-evangelical-nutlog left who feels this way? Is it wrong for me to quicken stride so that I can be first to open a door for a female companion? Or is it because I think theyre too weak to do it for themselves?

Conversely, is it reasonable to expect that Tara Nott Cunningham would out-bench-press fellow Olympian Oscar Chaplin III? More to the point, is it unreasonable to conclude that the five-pound sex allowance Rags to Riches got from the boys in last years Belmont Stakes wasnt the head difference between the filly and eventual Horse of the Year Curlin?

And so what if women generally are not as big or strong as men? So what if they tend to be more emotional? Does it make them inferior? You could look at it another way. You could conjure up the image of men giving birth. Or males reacting to social subtext in the same fashion women do? Does that somehow make males less than?
Can we all stop trying to react so sensitively? I'll admit to a social perception Ive inferred from watching this years Democratic debates between Hillary Rodham Clinton and Barack Hussein Obama. I think its been harder for Hillary to overcome the gender gap than it has been for Obama to cross Americas great racial divide.

Just like American voters who now appear ready to embrace their social and cultural differences, wouldnt it be better if all of us engaged in racing either as a business or a sporting and cultural pastime hold our differences closer?

I bring this up because of a simmering undercurrent created almost instantly by Breeders Cups decision to create an all female racing program on Day 1 of its World Championships this fall at Santa Anita.

In the interest of full disclosure, I admit that women are the first thing that leaps to mind whenever I consider the possibility of a Southern California sojourn. Is that sexist? By strict definition, yes. Misogynistic? Now that might be a little strong.

To those who took offense to changing the name of the Distaff to Ladies Classic, I offer this challenge: What kind of response do you think youd get from the average person under age 40 if you went Jaywalking like Leno and asked them to define the word distaff? Whatever the guess, Ill take under. In Breeders Cup terms, the marriage of Classic to Ladies, or Filly & Mare Classic, elevates the race in the eyes of casual fans.

Depending on who you ask, the Friday program of the inaugural two-day Breeders Cup at Monmouth Park was either moderately successful or a complete disaster. Personally, I think the unbelievably foul weather rendered all opinions moot.

The benefit of hindsight has not changed that opinion: When compared to Saturday, Friday, in terms of the anticipation for, and coverage of, was pre-climactic. The races were non-graded, non-defining and off message. What they were were great betting races, and that seems to be the focus now: generating revenue, like any other business.

With their Ladies Day concept, Breeders Cup has gone back to the future as a marketing tool for the sport. In doing so it has put the spotlight on a vastly underappreciated segment of the racing business: women.

To that end, the organization promises to develop a series of festivities promoting cause-related womens health programs, on-site initiatives, and consumer promotions, all good ideas.

But there better be a story featuring the achievements of trainer Helen Pitts, the extraordinary success of female exercise riders, and the countless hot-walking, horse-grooming moms that raise families despite a 365-day work schedule. And maybe a tribute to executive Stella Thayer, breeder Penny Tweedy, or late racing exemplar Martha Gerry.

One area where women are appreciated is as handicappers and analysts is broadcasting. At least they have benefited from the media notion that sex sells. It might be the only racetrack instance where they have an edge.

On the racetrack, gender and excellence are not mutually exclusive. But for equines its a little different between the fences. Fillies dont excite most players the same way colts do. Only in Kentucky is an Oaks day celebrated, and maybe thats what the Breeders Cup people eventually hope to accomplish here.

But unless its a Winning Colors or Personal Ensign, an Azeri or Ladys Secret, fillies just dont create buzz. It becomes different only when they prove to be equal to, or better than, males. Would the early days of Breeders Cup been as special without Pebbles winning the Turf, without Miesque going back to back in the Mile?

The Breeders Cup people have had a shaky year. They missed an opportunity to bring European races into the Win and Youre In mix. They acted hastily in awarding Santa Anita a second consecutive series in 2009 when less than a week later the NYRA franchise issue was resolved.

The Santa Anita scenario runs the real risk of discouraging European participation because of climate and turf course circumference considerations. The only foreseeable upsides are great Southern California fall weather and a gorgeous backdrop for television. That, and the chance that Fridays races could be presented in prime time, free of World Series competition.

So let the women have their day on a national stage that all can celebrate. And the best of the equines, the Grade 1 types, can give Breeders Cup Friday the buzz it lacked last fall at Monmouth Park. Can we all agree its better to have loved and lost?

Written by John Pricci

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Friday, February 22, 2008

David Carroll’s Patience Paying Off for Kentucky Derby Hopeful

SARATOGA SPRINGS, NY, Feb. 21, 2008--If you like what youve seen from the undefeated Kentucky Derby prospect Denis Of Cork so far, my best advice would be to wait a little longer. You might only have seen the tip of this leggy, long-bodied, athletic iceberg of a racehorse.

Its not as if the colt didnt show ability from the start. He did, but there were issues that needed attention before his 48-year-old Irish-bred trainer, David Carroll, had him where he wanted him. Carroll knows how to get the best from a good horse. Working six years for Hall of Fame trainer Shug McGaughey, Carroll was the regular exercise rider of Easy Goer among other Phipps family notables.

Denis Of Cork is a Florida-bred son of Harlans Holiday, from the Unbridled mare, Unbridled Girl, and was a $250,000 two-year-old purchase by Mr. and Mrs. William Warren last March. But Denis emerged from the breeze-up sale with bucked shins, a common two-year-old ailment that responds best to time, and thats what Carroll gave him.

Not only did he take a long time to come around but our [Churchill] barn was under quarantine after one of our horses came out of Keeneland sick, said Carroll. We were shut down but that probably didnt matter. We wouldnt have run [Denis] any sooner, anyway.

When Carroll began preparing the colt, he worked him in company with an established stablemate, Blackberry Road, and Denis more than held his own. Finally, the colt was ready and Denis debuted on the final Saturday of the Churchill meet. He won that 7-furlong debut in dramatically impressive fashion.

Yes, I was surprised by his performance. Im not the kind that has to win first time out. I told Calvin [Borel] just let him break, settle, and then finish up with him.

But when I saw him make that [5-path sweeping] move on the turn, I thought he was going to run big. He really got to running and was very impressive. Ian [Wilkes, assistant to Carl Nafzger] came up to me afterwards and said he was surprised, too.

When Churchill closed, Carroll shipped his horses to Fair Grounds, a surface the trainer holds in high regard, but Denis had lost his way, the trainer said. He took a while to settle in and I had to give him time to regroup. Fortunately, Mr. Warren is very patient, always wants to do whats best for the horse.

Finally, after five weeks, the colt began to pick his head up, was doing well, but not as good as immediately before the debut. So, while not at the very top of his game, he made a second start, his first around two turns, in an allowance race on a sloppy track.

He never trained well on an off track, Carroll said. Calvin later said he was slippin and slidin all over the place during the warmup. Before the race I told Calvin just keep him out of trouble, keep him in a rhythm.

Borel kept Denis out of trouble, way out in the middle of the Fair Grounds backstretch. But in order to get first run, Borel moved sooner than he wanted, and the colt struggled even more, but they won anyway. Throw this race out, Borel told Carroll.

He wasnt even blowing when he came back, Carroll explained. It was like he was saying Ill do next time what I didnt do today. And he came out of the race a monster, ready to move forward.

Borel couldnt commit to Denis Of Cork for his next start, the Southwest Stakes. But Robby Albarado came to the barn, worked the colt, and Carroll did the Cajun two-step, replacing Borel with Albarado for Mondays Grade 3. Denis Of Cork might have been 2-for-2 but had no graded earnings, commonly needed to enter the Derby starting gate.

Denis was ready to run, but was he ready to ship again, to a new track and a new surface? He slept well, ate well, settled into his surroundings and I thought hes growing up right in front of my eyes, Carroll said.

Our game plan was simple, I told Robby it looked like there was a lot of speed so just settle and get him in his rhythm.

But I was so mad going down the backstretch, recalled Carroll. The leader ran off with Julien [Leparoux] and I wanted a contested pace. Fortunately, and surprisingly, Denis Of Cork jumped into the race early, racing closer to the pace than expected.

He was there, the rider told the trainer afterward, and not because of me.

At the end of the Southwest, nothing had changed. Denis Of Cork was still undefeated, only this time he finished first twice. One mile races at Oaklawn Park end at the sixteenth pole, but when Denis reached the true finish line no one passed him.

So, is Denis Of Cork good enough to win the Derby?

All a trainer can do is put him in a position, physically and mentally, said Carroll. I only have 22 horses so I have time to observe him, his disposition, his walk, the way he puts his head in the feed tub. He looks to have an air of confidence about him now, and hes put on some weight. Hopefully hes stays healthy, keeps improving.

Hes like a big, tall, high school kid and I think his best races and more improvement are ahead of him, the trainer said. Theres still a couple of things we need to work on, Albarado advised.

Hes so lightly raced, he needs experience, said the trainer who also guides the Derby destiny of a talented, albeit unlucky, Blackberry Road. Well run [Blackberry Road] back in the Louisiana Derby and Robby will ride him, replacing Borel. We just want to change the luck up a little bit.

But [Denis Of Cork] will run in the Rebel and well keep our options open after that. Ive done my babying with him. Now hes going to have to go out and run, be a racehorse.

Written by John Pricci

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