Thursday, March 13, 2008

O’Connell’s Local Hero Takes On Zito’s Star

OLDSMAR, FLA., Mar. 12, 2008---Tampa Bay Downs, the little track that could, is laying in wait three more days for the Festival Day star to arrive.

When Street Sense shipped here last year, followed very closely by Any Given Saturday, the Tampa Bay Derby, the centerpiece of this quaint country track on the West Coast of Florida, was raised to a higher level.

This year its the same, only different. Last year everyone knew that Street Sense was a very good horse. Indeed, he, too, was a champion juvenile champion, coming to town to prep for the Derby thats run in Louisville early each May.

But with such a sharp, proven rival in tow, no one knew what to expect of Street Sense. It was the champs first start of the year, and his trainer, Carl Nafzger, is the master of pointing to an ultimate goal to be named later.

So, was he 80 percent ready? Was it more, less? And if it were more, was that some guarantee that he would win?

This year its the same, only different. The star of this Festival, like any celebrity, will arrive fashionably late. Juvenile champion War Pass is coming to town with something to prove. Hes in town for a mini-coronation, confirming to all that he, not Pyro, is at the head of this class.

At barn 25 on the Tampa backstretch, trainer Kathleen OConnell and Cigar Man are also awaiting the star, but there is no sense of awe. Like everyone in racing, OConnell learned the game the hard way, from the ground up, while working for trainer Frank Seremba at her hometown track, Detroit Race Course.

A member of the National Honor Society, OConnell, the daughter of a Detroit policeman, tried to enroll in veterinary school and was denied. But she wanted horses to be a major part of the rest of her life, so she walked hots, groomed, repaired tack and exercised racehorses, gaining experience for the latter as a show-horse rider.

She was just great, Seremba said, and she could tack with any man, her former mentor said, simultaneously giving OConnell a hug. OConnell smiled at the notion, accepting Serembas comment for the compliment it was meant to be.

After getting a license, her early years in South Florida were tough. She couldnt get stalls at Calder so she bedded her horses down at Tampa and shipped her better stock to South Florida, a 10-hour van ride away. She remembers making 36 trips in one year.

OConnell may not be a major player on the national stage but she knows her craft very well. She is best known for her work with Blazing Sword, a winner of two divisions of the Florida Stallion Stakes as a 1996 juvenile.

After a stomach ailment nearly took the horses life that winter, OConnell nursed him back to health and subsequently won the Calder Derby before finishing second to Pulpit in the Fountain of Youth Stakes. She kept Blazing Sword going and he won the Washington Park Handicap at age six to become an equine millionaire. In 1999, OConnell was Tampas leading trainer and last May saddled career victory 1,000.

Today OConnell has 58 horses in training, 30 here and 28 in South Florida. After having lost stakes-winning Check It Twice via private sale earlier this year, Cigar Man is the best horse in her barn, though she has some highly promising two-year-olds.

But her current focus is Saturday and she knows that defeating War Pass wont be easy. Its tough finding a one other than for your horse and I dont want to go to turf with him yet. Weve got no other place to go right now. Sometimes youve got to step up to the plate and see where theyre at.

Cigar Mans two best races were a placing to Wise Answer in the In Reality division of the Florida Stallion Stakes and a close-up fourth after making the lead in the Ocala Breeders Championship behind talented Halo Najib. Following that effort, OConnell and owner Charles Spence were expecting big things from Cigar Man on Feb. 26, his Tampa debut.

There were only six horses and we were sure that someone would go to the lead, but when that didnt happen, we were in front after breaking sharply. The race didnt unfold like we thought it would. We were all devastated when we got beat, OConnell said.

And by no means is she conceding Saturdays race to Zitos champion.

War Pass is a very good looking horse, OConnell admitted. They were lucky to have the race go and he sure got a good confidence builder. And the strategy for taking War Pass on? Theres not much we can do. [Cigar Man] needs to stalk and make one run.

Will that be effective against a colt some observers have mentioned in the same sentence with Seattle Slew?

At this point, that might be a little premature. Spoken like the daughter of a Detroit cop.

Written by John Pricci

Accompanying Photo Gallery to "Racing to the Kentucky Derby".
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Wednesday, March 12, 2008

Racetrack Armies Travel on their Stomachs

TAMPA, March 11, 2008--More than ever in the age of simulcasting, horseplayers appreciate the importance of being prompt. A matter of seconds can be the difference between winning and losing a bet. And you seldom get shut out on a loser.

God loves to toy with horseplayers emotions. Dealing with the highs and lows the game creates affects ones character. And gamblers know this about character: Keeping your head when all about you are losing theirs forges character; becoming unglued at the seams exposes it.

Yesterday, when prompt was important, I never had a anxious moment. Thats because my ride to JFK, a.k.a. Clip-Board, is always reliable and usually prompt. It comes from being a knowledgeable horseplaying lifer. He got the nickname because he can always be found beneath one of the tracks closed-circuit monitors charting the exacta and double will-pays.

Clip-Board follows the money. He writes the probables into a template propped up by a legal-sized board, the paper held securely in place by a clip at the top of the board. Jimmy discovered early that, for him, the absence of a clip-board at the racetrack was not an option. A worker needs the right tools.

But I was surprised to see Sal, a.k.a. Eggplant, was making the drive with him. I dont know Sal as well as I know Jimmy, but Im sure theres a good reason why hes named for a vegetable best served fried with tomato sauce and mozzarella cheese, a.k.a. eggplant parmigiana.

But if it were eggplant siciliana a la Toni, wed be talking a whole other ballgame..

First, find a glass dish 3-4 inches deep. Peel the eggplant and cut into half-inch slices. Prepare an egg wash, beating a dash of sea salt and cracked black pepper into the mixture for dredging. And make your own breadcrumbs. Start with Tuscan bread and add parsley, parmesan cheese and a dash of ginger, a digestive aid, to the breadcrumbs.

Dip the eggplant slices into the egg wash and directly into the breadcrumbs, coating evenly but not too heavily. Fry them in olive oil, not too dark, as that could make them bitter and theres more cooking involved, too.

While the eggplant is cooling, saut enough beef for a meat sauce. Not talking Sloppy Joes here. (We prefer ground round; a little fatty, but good). Stir beef into tomato sauce. Next, hard boil a dozen eggs.

Line the bottom of the glass pan with a very thin layer of meat sauce. Cover sauce with eggplant evenly to form a layer. Add a layer of sliced hard boiled eggs over the eggplant, then another layer of meat sauce, then a layer of mozzarella on top of the meat sauce.

Repeat the process, making a complete second layer. Place in a 350-degree oven until the bottom layer of sauce is bubbling and the top layer of mozzarella is a crispy brown. Set aside for a few hours, allowing it to settle. Optimally, serve at room temperature. (If you can wait that long, its better the next day).

The drive south from Saratoga Springs to Gotham City began with a bacon, egg and cheese on hard roll with a blend of Green Mountain high test coffee, half breakfast blend combined with half Vermont Country.

Three hours and 15 minutes later we were at Nathans in Oceanside. It wasnt Coney Island but still one of the original world famous hot dog stands. The french fries had just come out of the deep fryer and were perfect; dark crispy outside, soft white inside. Washed down real nice with a Cherry Coke.

Finally arrived at my Atlantic Beach destination where Clip-Board had left the key in the mail box the day before.

Like I said; reliable.

The rest of Monday evening was spent researching and writing the HRI Derby Power Ratings. All that remained was to await the Equiform figures from Cary on the Louisiana Derby and Gotham..

So I turned on the TV and all over the cable news was the saga of Client-9. Apparently, the IRS noticed a non-personal bank account that appeared to have a political or governmental link, it was later reported in the New York Post, before dropping a dime to the FBI.

Apparently, Joe doesnt get mad, he gets even. But enough of this nonsense. There will be racing in New York State for the next 25 years so who cares? Time for dinner.

Toni and I drove down Ocean about eight or 10 miles to the Lido Beach Deli. Decided on something a little more wholesome, like chicken in the pot, matzoh balls and noodles notwithstanding.

The next morning we arrived at Terminal 6 at JFK stress free with plenty of time to spare. About four hours later, our captain was saying well be touching down in approximately 20 minutes. The temperature in Tampa is 69 degrees.

Life is good. I wonder if I can book a reservation for Berns steak house?

Written by John Pricci

Accompanying Photo Gallery to "Racing to the Kentucky Derby".
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Wednesday, February 20, 2008

Racing to the Kentucky Derby

Like the artist formerly known as Cat Stevens, I'm leaving my happy home to see what I can find out.

But this search will be limited to finding out what makes some of this year's leading Kentucky Derby hopefuls, and their connections, think they can win America's Race on May's first Saturday.

And so, from Tampa Bay Downs, the little track that could, and did, successfully launch Street Sense's road to Derby stardom,; to Gulfstream Park, a traditional winter home of Derby champions; to Aqueduct Race Track, where the storied Wood Memorial is positioned perfectly to launch the division's best toward the coveted prize that awaits four weeks thereafter, HorseRaceInsider will put you at the epicenter of all things Derby.

How many horses will Nick Zito have to run in this year's Derby? And what about Bill Mott's talented crew? You think you'll ever see another Derby in the first quarter of this century without a starter from the Todd Pletcher shedow? Will Steve Asmussen pick up where Curlin left off?

And so, on and on I will go, the seconds tick the time out, there's so much left to know, and I'm on the road to find out.

Written by John Pricci

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