Friday, March 14, 2008

On Dark Days, Horsemen Really Gamble

OCALA, Fla.--March 13, 2008

No Racing Today.

No problem.

On a day that started out crisp and sunny but would begin to melt into a late morning sun, the drive 80 miles north from Tampa on Interstate 75 was a hell of a way to spend a dark day at Tampa Bay Downs, where on Saturday, undefeated juvenile champion War Pass will take a sixth step toward his date with destiny.

The word from the racing secretary’s office was that the entries were filling slowly, including a handful of six-horse fields. The local publicists call Saturday, the afternoon of the Tampa Bay Derby, Festival Day, where there also will be a handful of stakes races as the little track that could hopes to make hay out of its day on the national stage.

But those few anxious moments turned out to be exactly that, a few anxious moments. With the exception of the Derby, that drew six rivals for War Pass, and the six-horse Hillsborough, 127 entrants will compete in 13 events, an average of just under 10 per race. Is there a track anywhere in the country that wouldn’t sign that bottom line for their one day in the sun?

The two-year-old-in-training sales, a.k.a. breeze-up sales, presented by the Ocala Breeders’ Sales company, features fast horses and sexy pedigrees. It’s why they’re called select sales. It’s not easy on young horses when the faster they breeze the more money they bring at auction. But that topic’s for another day. As Jimmy the Gent would tell you: It is what it is.

But this is the business the modern breeding industry has chosen. It was how Justin Casse, a second generation horseman, son of prominent Florida breeder and prolific gambler, Norman, and his brother Mark, a trainer, the Prince of Toronto, wanted to spend his life, as a bloodstock agent. His mother Linda, a former commentator and handicapper for the Capital Off-Track Betting television network, is, of course, very proud.

Justin, still in his 20s, had a breakout year in 2007, selling two horses for a half-million dollars each. He has seven head in the sale that takes place next Tuesday and Wednesday. “I haven’t had any that have worked lights out,” he said outside Barn 9, a football field away from the sales pavilion, “but I have a filly I think you’ll really like.”

“All my horses were probably a work away from their best, and this filly wasn’t going to work fast anyway. She’ll probably want a mile and an eighth.”

The filly is Hip#316, a daughter of Candy Ride, a champion miler in Argentina, twice a Group 1 winner in his native country before coming to America and winning, among other graded races, the G1 Pacific Classic in track record time.

Two years ago Candy Ride was bred to Fortune’s Favour, an unraced daughter of Sir Ivor that produced five winners from nine foals to race, which makes #316 a half-sister to multiple stakes-winning Rapunzel Runz. “She’s all class but probably will be a little slow to come around, she’s a May 14 foal. You should probably put her in your stable mail.

For the time that I was there, trainer Steve Klesaris wore out a path between barns 9 and 8, closely inspecting about a dozen babies. “Hey Steve. What happened with Roman Emperor in the Gotham? Thought he was sitting nicely tucked up when they came out of the fog at the quarter pole, but he didn’t go on with it.”

“He fought the jock all the way. Jeremy [Rose] tried to get him to settle but couldn’t. He said he couldn’t even see out there. When he finally settled, he was done.”

I asked how the rest of his winter was going. “Well, I’m not down here this year, only for the sales. I’m at Fair Hill [training center] all the time. I saw the Gulfstream book, the kind of races they were writing, and decided to stay where I was.”

Buzz Chace, a man with a great eye for a racehorse, had just arrived on the red eye from Southern California where he was working the Barretts Sales. Alongside was Terry Finley, the president of West Point Thoroughbreds, in town to buy some babies recommended by Chace and to cheer for his G1 winning filly Lure’s Princess in tomorrow’s G3 Hillsborough.

I wanted to know how Saratoga Russell, the beaten Gotham favorite, was doing after his disappointing effort. “He shut down, but he’ll be fine,” assured Finley, in reference to an entrapped epiglottis, a problem easily corrected by a minor procedure.

“Run good and come back good,” was my wish for Lure’s Princess as I backed away from their lunch table. “And don’t let Dreaming Of Anna get away easy,” he said, this time referencing his filly’s nose defeat to the 2006 juvenile champion in the Endeavour Stakes last month, when the speedy Anna got loose on an easy lead.

As I walked back to the car for the return ride to Tampa, Klesaris stopped in for a bit of lunch, and Chace and Finley walked back to the yards, looking for their next Grade 1 winner. Maybe they’ll find another Lure’s Princess. As an OBS graduate, she’s another reason why it’s called a select sale.

Written by John Pricci

Accompanying Photo Gallery to "Racing to the Kentucky Derby".
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