RACING’S SECOND SEASON BEGINS: Saturday is Stephen Foster day at Churchill Downs, a glorious and interesting program that features the American four-year-old debut of 2007 Horse of the Year Curlin.
The 3-5 early line favorite carries top weight of 128 pounds in the handicap honoring the “My Old Kentucky Home” author, spotting nine rivals from 10 to 15 pounds. Steve Asmussen thinks the impost too high, citing the assignment itself and its relation to the competition. He harrumphed that he may not run the colt, then figured what the hell, saying he didn’t want to disappoint the fans.
Never mind that the purse was raised to sweeten the pot and ensure his participation. Never mind that the chestnut behemoth won the $6 million Dubai World Cup in a laugher over 11 of the planet’s best horses by 7-¾ geared-down lengths toting 126.
Never mind that the only recent Grade 1 winner he will face is Einstein, a dual G1 winner this year--on grass. Although we should note, too, that Jonesboro and Grasshopper each won G3s this season at a mile and a sixteenth.
And never mind that Curlin prepped for the World Cup under 132 pounds in his first start this year. In fairness to Asmussen, the trainer was only doing his job, like Phil Jackson who hoped to get a few calls go the other way in Game 2 of the NBA finals. “The owners didn’t put him back in training to debate weights,” he said.
Remember when horsemen used to consider accepting a highweight assignment as an honor? Remember when racing used to be a sport?
HEDGE FUND, ANYONE? Or, I’ll see your Dutrow, and raise you a Baffert, Lukas and Zito. The brain-child of three Lexington-based horsemen, according to a Bloomberg.com report, the hedge fund will raise $75 million to buy yearlings, to be selected and trained by the three horsemen.
Known as the “Thoroughbred Legends Racing Stable,” the idea is to “buy the Big Browns before they become Big Brown,” according to Baffert. “We don’t want to pay the premium for a ready-made race horse.”
That’s another way of saying we don’t want to get into bidding wars with the ground-breaking IEAH group for promising stock, or with Sheikh Mohammed of Dubai for that matter. “We don’t see them as competitors,” said fund co-founder Olin Gentry.
The hedge fund will charge a 2 percent management fee and retain 20 percent of the profits. The three thoroughbred legends have 26 Triple Crown victories, winning 15 of 18 races during one six-year span.
With that much cash and brain power, coming up with a Big Brown or two should be a snap.
COME BACK TO US, ALEX: It’s clear to fair-minded observers that NTRA chief executive Alex Waldrop owns the management and political skills for the job and appears to have the best intentions of serving the racing fan. He’s worked hard trying to have the repressive IRS tax on exotic wagers repealed, has expanded national television coverage on ESPN--even if racing is often relegated to ESPN2 status--understands that handicapping is an untapped marketing resource and, most significantly, has taken a lead role in trying to rid the sport of anabolic steroids.
Waldrop writes a blog on the NTRA website, a laudable effort to reach racing’s fans. But recent comments indicate he might need to fix his spin cycle. He wrote that fans should be happy about three things as the summer racing season begins: that all sources Belmont Stakes handle was up 32 percent, that television ratings improved nearly three times, and that the legacy of Big Brown will be the end of the steroid era in racing.
On average, one out of three ain’t bad, about the rate of winning favorites. But that’s if you exclude the fact he hasn’t mentioned corticosteroids--with its performance enhancing properties--in the same breath with the anabolic brew.
Why should racing fans care about how much was wagered on Belmont day? Besides, most people bet on Big Brown, the 3-10 favorite. Nearly $10 million, about 10 percent of all monies wagered, was lost on Big Brown in straight wagering alone. Add in exactas, trifectas, superfectas, doubles, Pick 3s, Pick 4s and Pick 6s and that figure is much higher.
Why should fans feel happy about losing money on a “sure thing“? And higher television ratings are in the best interests of fans how? Higher ratings are important to the industry and NTRA, not fans. Fans make the ratings, not vice versa. I would have been more impressed had Big Brown, despite 94-degree temperatures, put more fannies in the seats.
Saturday’s crowd was 25,000 less than were there for Smarty Jones. What bettors really care about, on Belmont and every racing day, is service at a fair price, good food, clean restrooms--with adequate plumbing--and a lower parimutuel takeout. And if racing only did that, they’d be helping themselves, too.
But maybe the disappointing live Belmont crowd says more about the hangover from the losses of Barbaro and Eight Belles than the sport dares realize.
KIEREN FALLON TO RIDE AT SARATOGA IN 2009? Why not? Bring us your tired, poor and huddled masses… your alleged race fixers, recovering substance abusers… your great race riders. Outside the gates, six-time English riding champion and three-time winner of the Epsom Derby, Kieren Fallon hasn’t been as fortunate as he’s been between the fences.
A recovering alcoholic, Fallon currently is serving an 18-month suspension for abusing cocaine a second time, the ban scheduled to end next summer. Fallon’s current suspension came shortly after he was acquitted for alleged race fixing when a judge threw the case out of court. Fallon was charged with conspiring to hold back horses for a betting ring who wagered on horses to lose through betting exchanges. Fallon’s lawyer was able to establish the rider won about one third of the races he allegedly fixed.
Fallon will be 45 when he attempts his latest comeback and has said that he’d like to ride in America. When comparing their careers, parallels to the late Chris Antley quickly leap to mind. One of life’s saddest happenstances is wasted talent. Hopefully, Fallon can conquer his demons and display his considerable talents over here prior to hanging his tack up for good. I don't know Mr. Fallon personally, I should add, but wish him the best on and off the racetrack.