Sunday, June 10, 2007

History Triumphant In “Pointless” Belmont

Elmont, NYYou wanted history? You got it.

The 139th Belmont Stakes was supposed to be dead after the Derby winner went on R & R. But a strange confluence of events occurred and history happened. Thats horse racing. Thats how it works.

It took 102 years for a filly to win the Belmont Stakes and for her trainer seemed almost as long.

The fillys jockey had never won one of these either but he broke through with a move that began in Queens and ended at the Nassau County finish line, a head in front of the by-a-nose winner of the Preakness in a thrilling redux of last months Pimlico show.

History was made by a filly that lived up to her name, first elevating a moribund classic with her presence then etching that name in its record books. Whenever people talk about Rags To Riches, the filly that won the Belmont, one will say shes so tough she shaves.
Rags To Riches spent many mornings this spring working in company with Grade 1 Hopeful and Louisiana Derby winner, Circular Quay, one of Todd Pletchers five Derby colts. Looks like he toughened her up. Maybe it had the opposite effect on him.

She was ready when Curlin, the newest Preakness legend, ran on strongly in another gifted performance. He came back at her for more in the final half-furlong and gave her all she wanted. And she could have, almost should have, given in.

But she shaves. Rags To Riches did three generations of Belmont-winning sires proud by looking a very gifted colt in the eye and staring him down in the shadow of the Belmont wire.

Then Johnny Velazquez was punctuating the air on the gallop-out and Todd Pletcher was as pumped as eyes have ever seen him and somewhere Angel Cordero Jr. was smiling.

Carl Nafzger had better win the Travers now, and maybe the Breeders Cup, too, because all of a sudden a three-year-old filly has four Grade 1 victories with Saratoga still six weeks away and shes the only horse in America this year to pass the Test of a Champion.

This time Curlin was on the inside and the filly outside, out-sprinting him in early stretch then out-staring him deeply into the wire. Everybody thought she was the greatest when she went six wide around both turns Santa Anita to win the Las Vergennes. Guess she just likes it out there.

And maybe it took an upstart named Digger to dig up some enthusiasm for supporting what was a pedestrian five-horse race a week ago. And maybe I owe Larry Roman an apology. Because he must have awakened Patrick Biancone who was in, then out, when Pletcher committed Michael Tabor and Derrick Smiths filly to the race. Then Nick Zito heard the band, began marching and the Belmont came alive.

But no one expected this.

In becoming the first filly to win the Belmont at its current distance, Rags To Riches made history for herself. Good for her, good for racing fans, good for the game and good for Tabor for giving fans a chance to celebrate a Belmont.

But he couldnt do it without help from a man who honed her talents and developed her into a star. Not only did she retire the Eclipse Award trophy for sophomore filly but the most accomplished three-year-old racehorse in America is a girl and she put herself in the conversation for Horse of the Year.

Todd Pletcher, like mentor Wayne Lukas, is extremely deft with young horses, especially fillies. Breeding, talent and opportunity aside, this horse was doing so well he couldnt hold her on the ground, he said. The safer, more prudent Mother Goose was three weeks away. He had to run this feline powder keg before she blew a gasket in the stall.

She stumbled, stumbled, at the start. But Velazquez was Johnny B. Cool. He gathered her, allowed her her head, positioned her where she likes to be and applied pressure ever so slightly when the moderate pace turned glacial.

The dawdling pace actually hurt Hard Spun, stoutly restrained by Garrett Gomez, the regular rider of Rags To Riches, who at that point had his regular mount sitting off his right shoulder. But it wasnt the Hard Spun of the Derby and Preakness Gomez was riding, the colt appearing uncomfortable over the sandy surface.

But Velazquez, regular rider for Pletcher, was now on the filly after his agent, Cordero, spoke with Greg Fox about their agreement to ride Slews Tizzy. And sometimes the game is about more than just money.

Fox agreed to let Velazquez out of his commitment. Gomez honored his, after he agreed to ride Hard Spun while Pletcher was still on the fence with the filly. You couldnt make this up.

Curlin was a very good, troubled third in Louisville, as Street Sense and Calvin Borel stole the show in a dazzling display of firepower. Then Curlin and Street Sense did their thing in Baltimore. Exit gap left Street Sense; enter gap right Rags To Riches. The filly and Curlin then picked up where Street Sense and Curlin left off in Baltimore.

Amazing how disparate results can produce an unforgettable Triple Crown. Who needs a sweep when one winner, at any time, could produce a magical mystery tour that was the 139th Belmont, and the entire series for that matter?

But thats how the game is supposed to work when racing people are sporting enough to try. Jolly good show, eh what?

Written by John Pricci

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Saturday, June 09, 2007

In This Belmont, Speed Kills

Elmont, NYIts like Larry Jones, the trainer of Hard Spun, says: At the end of the year, we might all be hailing [Curlin] as a superhorse.

Certainly he looked like a superhorse winning the Preakness in what only could be described as a singular performance. I never saw anything like his re-rally win in four decades of watching races.

Curlin is a deserving early line favorite at 6-5, more likely 4-5 by late Saturday afternoon. But Ill be betting against him. Heres a look at the field for Belmont 139 in alphabetical order, with post position and early line odds in parentheses:

#4 C P West (12-1): Nick Zito was adamant moments after the Preakness that there would be Belmont for this colt but here he is. And why not? He ran his way into the Belmont with a breakthrough performance in Baltimore. Until three weeks ago, he gave no indication he made the transition from precocious juvenile to classics performer. It was a good prep, but not perfect, because it was too good, too fast. Further, one could argue that Hard Spun wasnt the only horse who might have moved prematurely. The colt deserves this chance and will make his presence felt, but not likely in the top spot. Money prospects.

#3 Curlin (6-5): Certainly needs no introduction. Hell be the one wearing a black hat. Curlins a very good horse, perhaps even great, but winning the Belmont is not a given for the legendary Preakness performer. His extremely impressive Equiform performance figure at Pimlico represented a 3-point forward move. Regression is virtually assured making his fourth start in eight weeks off an enervating race against fresher rivals at a distance for which he is unsuited by pedigree. Without the benefit of a two-year-old foundation, all his rapid development figures to catch up with him somewhere along the line. What better time than at a mile and a half?

#6 Hard Spun (5-2): The first lesson taught in Handicapping 101 is this: Speed is always dangerous. The most important thing to learn about speed is that its the element that cant be learned; either you have it or you dont. Its a racehorses best weapon and is effective at any distance, including this one. A video review of Hard Spuns Derby and Preakness indicates he didnt race as some kind of rank run-off. He was fairly handy and amenable to rating. Much has been made of the fillys pedigree to handle the distance, justifiably. But this is the best bred horse for the Belmont distance. So, as the presumed leader reaches the Belmont halfway mark and the timer indicates something around 1:12, there should be enough left in this tank to make it the rest of the way home. Upset call.

#1 Imawildandcrazyguy (20-1): Hard to believe but this colt came from farther back than Street Sense in the Derby. From last of 20 to fourth is no small feat. He was finishing with gusto, not just out-plodding tired rivals to the finish. Bill Kaplan said hes been pointing for the Belmont since January. This stayer is a grinder type who just keeps finishing up his races, a rare commodity in the modern thoroughbred. Grinders win the Belmont over middling competition. The big three here are anything but middle of the road. For trifecta and superfecta players only.

#7 Rags To Riches (3-1): Win or lose, this filly is a most welcome Belmont addition and all her connections should be celebrated for stepping up to take on colts at a mile and half. Bred for the distance is one thing and doing it is another, but this filly can win the Belmont. On performance figure projections, shed be maybe four to six lengths behind the top males here. But her five pound sex allowance is significant. Rags To Riches gains three lengths from her weight advantage and that puts her in the picture with the big boys. Her three Grade 1 victories this year are more than the field has won combined and she has six Belmont winners in her first three generations. Class, pedigree and speed are a handicapping holy trinity. She can become the first filly in a century to do this. Drawn next to Hard Spun, watching the battle into the first turn between Garrett Gomez [Hard Spun] and Johnny Velazquez alone is worth the admission price. Very dangerous rival.

#5 Slews Tizzy (20-1): At early line odds this colt would be an underlay. He was classy enough to win a Grade 2 and Grade 3 recently but these are decidedly different animals, at a decidedly different distance. But if Rafael Bejarano picked up the phone to personal hustle the mount after Velazquez asked out of his commitment to ride the filly, then that talented rider might want to make his presence felt somewhere along the way. No where remotely close to the top of the ticket. Rank outsider.

#2 Tiago (10-1): Trainer John Sherriffs and Mike Smith began making their Belmont plans before Tiago was cooled out after the Derby. He won the Grade 1 Santa Anita Derby over moderate rivals then ran well in the Derby despite encountering some traffic and, of greater significantly, racing greenly. He has trained strongly since then and continues to develop the right way. The problem is that he lacks the performance figures to compete with the big three, but he has all the rest of the tools to indicate he more than belongs. We see his participation as another step in his development, but he might prove a boon to trifecta and superfecta players. Strong money prospects.

Selections: 1. Hard Spun 2. Rags To Riches 3. Curlin 4. Tiago

Wagers: Hard Spun to win at 5-2 or greater. Exacta box with Rags To Riches.

Written by John Pricci

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Thursday, May 31, 2007

Not Changing Triple Crown Makes For No Sense

Saratoga Springs, NY--You knew that Carl Nafzger would make the right decision and the Belmont Stakes would have to live with it. Cant argue with Nafzgers success in this countrys most important races either. Hes fashioned a career that will take him all the way to Union Avenue and the Racing Hall of Fame. Thats guaranteed someday, and deserved.

But here we are again, stuck on the corner of Disheartened and Disenchanted, because when racing reaches a crossroads it blinks and wrings its hands. In the name of tradition the sport does nothing but lament its fate then refuses to do anything about it.

The Triple Crown can be changed for the better, just like other sports that changed with the times. I, too, mourn the loss of superb execution that can result in a dynasty: Bradshaws Steelers. The Canadiens of Richard and Beliveau and Geoffrion and Plante. The Yankees, from DiMaggio to Mantle. Michaels Bulls. The Celtics of Russell and Cousy and Havlicek. I only rooted for one, but loved watching them all.

However, I cant argue that parity through expansion and salary caps and free agency and extended playoff seasons has kept fans of the major sports engaged. The problem is that mediocrity is marketable and everyone worships at the altar of the bottom line.

But racing can change its showcase event and make it better, not weaken quality the way the other sports have. Racing need only embrace a new philosophy and not be afraid to gamble that lengthening the series would at once do the best thing for the modern horse and place a greater emphasis on horsemanship.

I would argue that it is easier for a superior three-year-old to dominate his rivals over five weeks than it would be for the same horse to extend that dominance over a greater number of stronger rivals for a longer period of time.

Todays thoroughbred is sleek, not stout, and often inherently unsound because thats the price paid for decades of medication-infused bloodlines. Gone are the days when old-school horsemen can routinely get to the bottom of their stock to attain total fitness. They still can reach bottom, of course, but the recovery time takes longer.

Speed in the stallion and his offspring is the element horsemen covet most. Speed cannot be taught, like height on a basketball court. Without equivocation the measure of speed defines class and is the games only absolute truth. But it comes at the expense of stamina, the price paid for growing sales ring receipts.

Degrees of unsoundness, permissive medication, speedy pedigree, lack of stoutness and todays harder, faster surfaces compel modern horsemen with an understanding of form-cycle analysis to race todays thoroughbred far less frequently. This is a fact of racing life at every racetrack every racing day, not just the demanding Triple Crown.

The classics as presently constructed is nothing if not anachronistic. It follows that for the health of the horse, the silencing of critics who argue for racings abolition, and to promote the game in a more meaningful fashion, the Triple Crown needs to be tweaked. And it needs to happen now.

Without question, a Triple Crown of longer duration makes sense. First and foremost, it would better serve todays thoroughbred. And makes promotional sense by keeping the series alive into early summer. To wit:

The distances and venues should remain the same--if thats possible given the current state of Maryland racing. And the Derby has secured its traditional place on the first Saturday in May. Because of its distance, place on the calendar, and field size, the Kentucky Derby remains the most difficult of the three to win. Americas Race needs to stay right where it is.

Run the Preakness on the first Saturday in June, lending it added identity and giving the Derby horses an extra two weeks to recover. By adding two weeks, the race likely would attract more Derby runners while providing extra time for late developers and non-Derby qualifiers to join the chase. This does right by still maturing 3-year-olds and makes the challenge for horsemen more daunting.

And what could be a more appropriate date to conclude this unique American series than the 4th of July? This would make the Belmont an instant classic for the general sports fan, a national TV holiday event run sometime between the barbecue and the fireworks. Further, it makes the race less dependent on a Triple Crown quest.

This schedule would give promoters nine weeks to bang the drum instead of five. And wouldnt the accomplishment be even greater if the Derby and/or Preakness winner had to defeat a larger number of series rivals?

Find a sponsor to bring back the participation and winners bonus and increase the purses of the final two legs. All this would upset none of the traditional Derby prep schedules and allow horsemen more time to develop their maturing stock. The lesser Derbies would still have their place and there would be no need for Monmouth Park and Saratoga to alter the dates of their Haskell and Travers.

A longer Triple Crown season simultaneously increases and decreases the degree of difficulty, brightens the spotlight, creates and sustains added interest, produces bigger and better wagering events, all while doing whats best for the animal. When will the time come for enlightened self interest?

Written by John Pricci

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