Friday, January 18, 2008

About More Than Money in Las Vegas

Next weekend in Las Vegas, the week between the conference finals and Super Bowl, there will be two national thoroughbred handicapping championship tournaments.

For an entire weekend, Las Vegas will be the handicapping capital of the world, playing host to the worlds best horseplayers. A horseplayer that would be king or, perhaps, a queen. Elvis would be proud, as would Priscilla.

On one corner; the Coast Casinos Horseplayer World Series at the Orleans. On another; the DRF/NTRA National Handicapping Championships.

A little reminiscent of the old NFL and AFL. But those championships werent played the same weekend. Wheres Joe Willie when you really need him?
One way to look at it is that thoroughbred racing had a chance to dominate the Las Vegas storyline for an entire weekend but decided to step on its own toes. Again.

Would someone please get me the racing commissioner on the phone?

This will be the fourth year of the HWS. The Orleans will host over 800 qualifiers at their big dance, using three ballrooms in its convention center. This years contest dates were scheduled in 2005.

A handful of talented handicappers qualified for both contests. Because of the scheduling conflict, the HWS for the first time will allow proxy contestants, qualifiers sending representatives while they play in the NHC.

Not as glitzy as some other venues, the Orleans has a reputation for being horseplayer friendly. Having spent a long weekend there in 2006, it occurred to me at the time that their reputation for horseplayer hospitality was deserved.

Im looking forward to visiting the new Red Rock Resort & Casino, too, and hearing an explanation from DRF/NTRA sources as to why they didnt choose another weekend to avoid a dates conflict.

One spin has the NHC choosing the weekend of the 26th to coincide with the popular Sunshine Millions program run concurrently at Santa Anita Park and Gulfstream Park, one of the few Magna bright spots.

Ironically, the Santa Anita portion of the program might have to be rescheduled at Golden Gate Fields, the Magna track in Northern California, should heavy rains wreck more havoc with synthetic Cushion Track.

The real reasons might be that with so many DRF and NTRA people in Los Angeles for Mondays Eclipse Awards festivities, theyre just a short helicopter jump over to Sin City. That, and because the NHC just might want to kick down the HWS barn door.

In a Thursday press release, the NTRA announced the creation of a satellite program patterned in a fashion after the Breeders Cup special stakes program, a series of traditional races to which Breeders Cup lends its prestige and promotional support.

The NHC Tour is a year-long series of qualifying contests offering prize money and seeding into the finals. The Tour is opened only to registered contestants for a $125 annual fee. Contestants earn points based on a Top 20 finish in the qualifying rounds.

There are cash awards for the Top 50 finishers. The winner gets $100,000; the fifth-place finisher $5,000. The Top 3 gain entrance into the finals. Should the Tour winner also win the finals, he or she would earn a $2-million bonus.

The most significant aspect of the NHC Tour might have nothing to do with winning money. Registered contestants are automatically enrolled in a group called the Horseplayers Coalition. Still in its formative stage, the group would support the NTRAs lobbying efforts at the federal level.

Ironic how lobbyist has become a dirty name during this primary season of change, just as horseplayers may be finding their voice. Like the old joke: theyre off, you lose.

The Horseplayers Coalition can support NTRA initiatives that seek to find legislative and regulatory remedies to tax and business issues that impact pari-mutuel racetracks and their customers. Might turn out to be a futile exercise. But it cant hurt, and its promising that industry people of good will are bringing horseplayers kicking and screaming into the Halls of Congress.

Cmon Anybody!

I must admit to a certain amount of contest bias. Resident HorseRaceInsider handicapper Cary Fotias of Equiform is one of 278 players chasing a million dollars in the NHC next weekend. He qualified last year in New York, when racing was still a given on a daily basis.

But theres a hand I want to shake, a man I want to thank for his service. An 11-year Army veteran, Sgt. Chris Lavezza, qualified for the NHC on-line while stationed in Kabul, Afghanistan.

On Wednesday, hell fly from Frankfurt, Germany to Atlanta, connect with his dad and brother, head for Las Vegas, where his mom and his sister will join them at a dinner reunion Friday. Lavezza, the NTRA release said, will stay up all night to handicap if he has to. Ill be ready for day two he promised.

So it seems theres something happening here. What it is aint exactly clear.

Written by John Pricci

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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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