So here, in the Year of the Baker’s Dozen--and also the Year of the Snake (draw your own conclusions)-- are the Top 13 Buzzes of Year.
At least, this is what I’m hearing from the HRI faithful, racetrack sources, and the gamblers and fans assembled at Gulfstream Park this winter:
1. The Rainbow 6: Don’t care if you love it, hate it, whether the takeout is robbing you blind or there’s so much “free money:” and leverage for a Dime you’ve just got to play it. (C’mon critics, you know who you are)!
With the racing product improving as Gulfstream enters prime time, the emergence of better horses and a continued procession of Todd Pletcher-trained favorites should produce, theoretically, formful results.
Not even the obligatory $6,250 claimer at a flat mile or the $35,000 maiden claimers s on turf that end every racing day—Special Weight maidens on Saturday, woo-hoo--there could be plenty of gold at the end of this Rainbow.
As long as there is more than one winning ticket each day, I’ve heard estimates that put the carryover as high as $20 million by meet’s end, the Friday after Florida Derby. In any event, it might be the biggest P6 pool this country has ever seen.
2. Derby Point System: Love it or hate it, like the Rainbow Six, it’s working and it will get better over time. Churchill spokesman Darren Rogers has even said that the parameters need a little tweaking and that “there are some good ideas out there.
We’ve had only two from the get-go: Bury the hatchet with Hawthorne Race Course; the Chicago market deserves Derby prep. [BTW: Hawthorne moving its prep back to two weeks before the one in Louisville can make the Illinois Derby a quintessential Preakness prep; good thinking.
And, of course, the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile winner or Juvenile Eclipse champion should be an automatic Derby seed. The fact that it isn’t is absurd. The politics don’t even make sense. Sometimes business must suffer for the greater good.
3. Paynter: Back in training? Really? The reports were so dire, it was if we all had to live through Barbaro’s lengthy recovery and eventual demise all over again. Unbelievable story. Utterly remarkable. There are no words…
4. Rachel Alexandra: The street fightin' filly that's seemingly defying the odds again. The Internet support for the great filly warms the heart for sure.
5. Kentucky Derby Futures: Steven Crist has it right, something needs to be done. Confusion over the new points system or not, the pool on America’s great race never has grown. Because of the dreaded “all other 3-year-olds,” bettors land on a half dozen buzz horses, mainly based on early season or juvenile form that has little bearing on eligibility.
Make it attractive by lowering takeout, raising the prices on ALL nominees. A parimutuel pool is the only way. See some of the prices being offered in Las Vegas? Those people act like they’re scared to death of any exposure to insider horse knowledge.
A decade-old computer programming issue? Please don’t embarrass yourself or insult the intelligence of bettors. This isn’t the lottery or slots. Playing the races is the study of form; it’s called handicapping. It would be nice if track managers tried it. It’s a worthwhile pastime, even if the best practitioner gets it wrong two out of every three.
6. NYRA: Is the big investigative report on the Takeout Flap over yet? Will the Association ever get a new president? Inquiring minds keep asking. There are some great people working at NYRA. Too bad there’s no one to give them any direction.
7 Permissive Medication: So California trainers and others are not-so-subtly trying to pressure Breeders’ Cup to rescind its Lasix ban on this year’s event. Then how about this? How about if Breeders’ Cup does not cave on this so the world can see how many trainers are willing to become horsemen and not remain horse trainers?
Yes, like everything else, racing is a business, but I would love to know just how many trainers who say they love the game turn out to be no different than those Wall Street guys and are in it just for the Benjamins. Filled your gas tank lately, speculators?
8. Gary Stevens: Is this guy kidding? Apparently not. The first time I saw him a few weeks ago on HRTV since he returned from his Northwest Territory boot camp, he was decidedly leaner and healthier.
I didn’t see the middle leg of his three recent stakes wins but the first and third were classics, especially the one on Slim Shady. To return after a long absence at 49 is one thing; to return at such a high level remarkable. This Hall of Famer is a true renaissance man. Somehow I don’t think his story will end when he ultimately decides to hang it up for good. Jockey as inspirational leader; who knew?
9. Animal Kingdom: HRI’s Tom Jicha will get into this more at week’s end but it’s been a long time since anyone saw a horse not named Zenyatta or Rachel Alexandra showered with the kind of admiration before a race than 2011 Kentucky Derby winner received prior to the Gulfstream Park Turf Handicap, just wave after wave of cheers and applause followed him around the walking ring. It brought to mind a flashback of the 70s when Big Red and the Black Stallion graced the stage of America’s racetracks.
10. The Pletcher 3-Year Olds: Love him, hate him, admire or jealous of him, I’m not sure another horseman, given the new Derby eligibility rules, the sheer number of talented runners and the disparate, influential people he trains for could juggle it all.
In four decades of cruising the backstretch of more racetrack than I can remember, I’ve never seen as operation as large as this—if there WERE any as large as this—run so efficiently. I keep looking but there seems some to be an undotted I’s or uncrossed T anywhere. You know that somehow he’ll figure it all out.
11. Bill Mott: In 40 years of training and a member of Racing’s Hall of Fame, there probably have been runs like the one Mott’s currently on but I don’t remember any. There were the Cigar years, the Saratoga meets he dominated the turf course the way Chad Brown did last year, and championship fall seasons like the one two years ago at Churchill Downs when he won not one but two Classics.
But this winter at Gulfstream he’s even winning with first time starters, forgodsakes, and is doing some of his best work ever. “I hope I don’t trip over a brick,” Mott told Daily Racing Form’s Mike Welsch before sweeping three stakes last weekend. If he had tripped, he likely would have landed on his feet, anyway.
12. SA Low-Takeout Pick 5/On-Track P6 Bonus: At least the SoCal tracks are trying very hard despite the rancorous political climate. Thanks to initial efforts by Jack Liebau of Betfair Hollywood Park who gave the “Players Pick 5” with low takeout a chance, the bet that has proven extremely successful at all three major venues. Liebau continues to be a proponent of low takeout and now handle is climbing at his crosstown rival, too. Rising tides, as opposed to trickle downs, work.
13. Eblouisante: The name says it all; “brilliant, remarkable.” Indeed, in that she is a run-alike, style-alike and big-alike sister of the mighty Zenyatta, providing another are-you-kidding-me Moment of the Young Year. Of course, she could not be in better hands than John Shirreffs’.