Sunday, May 04, 2008

Ecstasy and the Agony, a Personal Account of Derby 134

SARATOGA SPRINGS, NY, May 4, 2008--This game rips your guts out, even in times of triumph, celebration and self satisfaction.

Journalists are not supposed to become part of the story, even in the sometimes sleazy world of corporate media where accountants write in blue pencil.

But not in the modern world, not now, not when the unthinkable becomes commonplace. Journalists who are not part of the story these days just aren’t doing their jobs.

When people ask how it’s going, my reply is always “who’s better than me? I get to write whatever ever I want, play loose with the facts, and create my own headlines. But the new medium sometimes insists that the writer is the story.

And so Kentucky Derby day dawned cold and gray, in one of the two places in this country where the race horse not only is revered but remains very much a part of life‘s fabric.

The other place is bluegrass country, of course, where the day also dawned cold and gray. But as the horses for the first race of the day paraded postward, they began to cast shadows, not sharp ones, but enough to tell that blue skies were coming on like Forego.

Within two hours, the Churchill Downs track went from a sea of sealed slop to fast--still drying, but fast. The surface in Louisville and its superintendent, Butch Lehr, surely were a match made in heaven. And they’ve been married a long time.

The major storylines of Derby week involved two of its most high profile participants. First, the saga of Big Brown, his feet, his inexperience, his post position and his new front bandages. Was he the craziest of all 134 Derby favorites?

And should the filly Eight Belles run on Friday or Saturday? Her Derby presence could have meant that the eventual show finisher could have watched the race from his barn for lack of sufficient earnings. Stall TV.

I made the drive south from the Spa City with my wife Toni to the Albany Teletheater, the flagship of the Capital District Off-Track Betting Corporation, for which I occasionally do handicapping analysis on its cable television network.

The other 46 weeks of the year, when live racing is not conducted, almost literally, a stone’s throw from my door, the Teletheater becomes my home away from Saratoga Raceway, my second home when I‘m not sitting on the front porch.

Of course, yesterday was a high holiday, to be spent in battle with the iron men, a.k.a. parimutuel machines.

Churchill had assembled a great program, per usual, and I was having a bit of my way with the iron men. Even if I had overbet the Derby--my patriotic duty--and lost, I had won enough to guarantee a small profit. Life is good.

On Oaks day I went to Spa Harness and played a 2x2 Oaks-Derby Double; Proud Spell and Golden Doc A with Big Brown and Tale Of Ekati. Both events were wide open with an unusually high degree of uncertainty. I reasoned that either I had it right, or not. I could have spread 5x12 with no assurance of success.

I had my bases covered nicely; an acceptable $37 payout with Big Brown and a travel-agent-calling $312 with Tale Of Ekati.

With the live doubles making win wagers superfluous, I optimized my position upon arrival in Albany, keying Big Brown over Tale Of Ekati, Court Vision, Colonel John and Denis Of Cork in the superfecta.

Additionally, I made a trifecta key of Tale Of Ekati with the four superfecta horses second, those four again for third, with four more horses, also in the third position.

Eight Belles appeared on no tickets; she lacked prior experience vs. males and never faced more than seven rivals in any one race.

After the Woodford Reserve Turf Classic official, and with an hour remaining to the Derby, I decided to make a few saver wagers.

Shortly before the turf race, researcher Vin O’Connell called to remind me that never in the history of his compiling his own unique historical profiles, since the early 90s, had a Derby contender survive without a single knock.

Until Eight Belles.

I still didn’t believe she could win, but $4 could buy me piece of mind. I decided to use the filly to block, as the wiseguys say, second beneath Big Brown in trifectas, with the four superfecta horses for third.

The self service machine I was using froze. “Communicating with Data Room,” the message blinked over and over. But it wasn’t just my terminal. The entire Capital District OTB network was unable to book bets for the hour between the ninth and 10th races.

Worse, because Capital was a hub for all wagers in the western part of the state, no betting could be conducted at Finger Lakes Racetrack, Tioga Park or Vernon Downs. The large Teletheater crowd was becoming a bit restless but there were no incidents as they waited for the betting windows to reopen.

Just as the Derby horses were leaving the paddock, the local crowd readied for the playing of what the jockeys call “that song,” the video from the track was interrupted, too. The giant blue screen warned “no authorization.”

The picture was back on line just as the 20 horses approached the starting gate, a few minutes late, the delay perhaps the result of communication between the Churchill tote room and officials from the four New York simulcasters.

Kentucky Derby is Christmas for bet-takers. OTB president John Signor, who worked the phones for an hour during the delay to no avail, estimated the United Tote mishap cost OTB $1.5-million. OTB is insured against loss of this type, based on Derby handle from previous years. Bettors, like many other citizens, don’t have insurance.

The horses were finally loaded into the gate and the race was on. With less than six of the Derby’s 10 furlongs remaining, Kent Desormeaux still had Big Brown on the outside, clear, about five paths wide of the rail.

At the five furlong marker, Desormeaux still had a firm hold and in that instant my confidence in Big Brown began to waver. Either the rider was showing as much hubris as Rick Dutrow at the post draw, or he was empty.

After blowing the Kentucky Derby wide open, just like he had five weeks earlier in Hallandale Beach, the only horse running at him in the final furlong was the filly. It was a remarkably generous flurry, too. It carried her to within 4-¾ lengths of the still undefeated Derby champion and was another 3-½ lengths back to Denis Of Cork.

I collected my winnings from the Oaks-Derby Double but did not share in half the proceeds from a Derby trifecta that returned $3,445.60. But that’s OK. My opinion of Big Brown was validated. It was special watching the colt and Desormeaux return to collect the roses. I can collect a saver wager some other day. Like rust, racing never sleeps.

But the Derby is something else. It’s about America and bragging rights--the way the sport is about waiting to see the next great horse. It was a most memorable Derby performance by Big Brown and deft execution by his rider, now a thrice winning Derby jockey.

When Toni and I arrived back in Saratoga, parked in front of a pub that beckoned with the promise of cold ones and fish and chips, the cell phone rang. It was my daughter Jennifer to console us about what took place about a quarter mile from the finish of America’s greatest racing spectacle. We had no idea what she was talking about.

Written by John Pricci

Accompanying Photo Gallery to "Racing to the Kentucky Derby".
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Friday, May 02, 2008

Handicapping Minds: Profiling Kentucky Derby 134

OUTER LOUISVILLE, NY, May 1, 2008--Post time for the Kentucky Derby is 6:04 PM on May 3, the first Saturday of the month.

Is the indomitable Big Brown, who in an all too brief career vanquished 24 rivals by an aggregate 29 lengths, you know, domitable? He can’t be this good, can he?

Will Pyro Recapturetheglory? Do Blue Grass results mean anything anymore? Is Court Vision finally going to run fast? Does the filly really belong?

Is Colonel John more than a synthetic wunderkind? Is Adriano? Cowboy Cal? Will Gayego make it all the way from Southern California to Arkansas to post 19 to winner’s circle?

These and all questions relative to America’s greatest horseracing spectacle will be known with certitude at 6:06 and some change. Until then, consider the profile of the 20 equine athletes set to compete in Kentucky Derby 134.

1-Cool Coal Man: Unfairly maligned when a perfect trip Fountain of Youth winner, colt has excellent turn of foot that gets him into contention quickly. He’ll need to from the pole position. Finished badly unplaced in the Blue Grass but at least did some running, tiring after chasing the pace, a common Polytrack occurrence. Best performance figure earned at two came at Churchill, thus he figures to run a much better Saturday. Nick Zito‘s horses often rebound off poor efforts; seems a cut below very top class. Bettable odds: 25-1.

2-Tale Of Ekati: Deserves much credit for winning hot-paced Wood Memorial off limited conditioning. Loses winning jockey Edgar Prado to Adriano, but replacement Eibar Coa 2-for-3 lifetime on the colt. Five-furlong workout at Keeneland visually extraordinary; completely on his own while under a loose rein, galloping out energetically in full stride. Maintenance work over track was perfect. Will benefit from the Wood. A fighter in close quarters, won two races on the rail. With luck, inside draw might work quite well. Bettable odds: 12-1.

3-Anak Nakal: After declaring War Pass, Hall of Famer Nick Zito was due some good fortune, and might have gotten some with this colt’s bullet workout at Churchill Downs, where he won the Kentucky Jockey Club Stakes at two. After two terrible efforts, his third start was a better-than-it-looked fifth in the Wood Memorial, finally showing some kick with blinkers added; today they’re off. Gets very talented and Churchill-wise Rafael Bejarano, but his very best would not be enough. Bettable odds: 50-1.

4-Court Vision: Underscoring his preference for Churchill, the surface on which he earned his best performance figure at two, he’s had two excellent works locally after Hall of Famer Bill Mott added blinkers. Undeservedly criticized for a pair of strong-finish thirds in preps, he’s poised for a huge forward move. Garrett Gomez is in the conversation for “America’s best money rider.” Peaking at the right moment, he owns perhaps the best turn of foot among the late-rally types. Cannot be eliminated for longshot consideration on connections and pedigree. If only he were faster. Bettable odds: 20-1.

5-Eight Belles (f): In a year when the majority of colts have earned only modest performance figures, she’s faster than more than half this field, is a strong finisher, and trainer Larry Jones believes she can run all day long. While she has good size for a filly, she’s not the athlete Genuine Risk was, nor a tom-boy like Winning Colors. Both those Derby-winning fillies were tested against males first, and she’s never run against more than seven career rivals. Not a judicious spot. Bettable odds: 40-1.

6-Z Fortune: Consistent New York-bred with three victories and two seconds in six starts including wide-trip placing in rapidly run Arkansas Derby, he has impressed observers with his size, disposition and energy. His last was a lifetime top figure and that looms problematical. Returning on relatively short rest--always an issue off Herculean efforts--he does, however, benefit from Robbie Albarado’s gaining familiarity with him in Hot Springs. A money finish would take another huge effort. Bettable odds: 25-1.

7-Big Truck: Considered the lesser of Barclay Tagg’s entrants, he kicked on nicely to win the Tampa Bay Derby, but that prep doesn’t figure to help propel him to a Derby win, unlike Street Sense. He finished behind Pyro, and not too many 11th place Blue Grass finishers have come back to smell the roses. Tagg is a worthy 25% efficient in graded stakes but he doesn’t figure to pad that stat here. Bettable odds: 60-1.

8-Visionaire: What he lacks in classic pedigree he makes up for in ability and determination. Undeterred by poor post positions, he overcame that adversity to win the Gotham and acquitted himself well in the Blue Grass, beating more than half the field with a 10-wide rally. Trainer Michael Matz was here with Barbaro and young Jose Lezcano looks like a rising saddle star. He’s the energizer horse that keeps coming, has won on three different tracks and is a live longshot. Bettable odds: 30-1

9-Pyro: From top contender to enigma, all in one race, his Blue Grass was that bad. He’s had two company works since the Keeneland debacle, indicating he got nothing from his final prep and only start at nine furlongs. Need to go back a century to find a winner who placed as far back as Pyro in a final prep. Despite two visually impressive victories this year, his performance figures indicate a lack of development from his juvenile season. On his very best, projects for only an in-the-money finish. Bettable odds: 15-1.

10-Colonel John: Eoin Harty has fastened the screws and is as fit as hands can make him, the racetrackers say. Scintillating :57.61 over the track last Sunday, reminiscent of Hard Spun, allows ample time to recharge the batteries. Santa Anita Derby winner has had perfect prep season with two nine furlong wins. Has Derby-winning style, is stretch-tested, and is suited to the always-lively Derby pace. Santa Anita horses have done well in the Midwest this spring. Has pedigree and logic on his side. Bettable odds: 4-1.

11-Z Humor: At this point, the lesser Mott trainee is not very accomplished, winning only a deservingly maligned Delta Jackpot at two. But this colt is coming at the right time, has experience and top connections. Was a good-finish third in the Illinois Derby despite some loss of ground and a hungry pace vs. a quality frontrunning opponent. Probably will be making up ground but to no avail. Bettable odds: 50-1.

12-Smooth Air: Heartwarming story of 70-year-old trainer Bennie Stutts Jr. making his Derby debut. Horseman did an excellent job stretching out his sprint-meant colt to a gritty runnerup finish to Big Brown in year’s fastest prep. But a 10th furlong is another matter, and a slight temperature requiring antibiotic treatment that forced two days of missed training is devastating timing. Storybook ending extremely unlikely. Bettable odds: 50-1.

13-Bob Black Jack: Game Santa Anita Derby runnerup got into field when Cowboy Larry’s other filly, Proud Spell, opted for the Oaks. Has quality based on his narrow loss to Colonel John and third-place finish to sidelined Georgie Boy. The bad news is that he will be part of the strong Derby pace and the average winning distance of his progeny’s offspring is 5.8 furlongs and 6.5 furlongs, respectively. Not the stuff of Derby dreams. Bettable odds: 50-1

14-Monba: With his back to the wall and his horse coming off a troubled season‘s debut with bumps and bruises, Todd Pletcher trained him up to a winning effort in the Grade 1 Blue Grass. Prado off this one, too, but the great Ramon Dominguez more than a capable replacement. Made a successful transition from Polytrack to Churchill at two, and repeats that pattern here. But the Derby waters are considerably deeper. Neutral post position for likely mid-pack racer. Bettable odds: 20-1.

15-Adriano: New Hall of Famer Edgar Prado, in the conversation with Gomez for America’s best money rider, lands here, ultimately convincing trainer Graham Motion that his colt is more than a turf/synthetic phenom. Has developed very well at three and finishing nicely in workmanlike morning trials, Motion’s style, but his action is a little turfy. Visually impressive winning the Lane’s End handily, looking for more at the finish. Excellent pedigree for both dirt and distance. Has huge upside, but money finish more likely than brass ring. Bettable odds: 20-1.

16-Denis Of Cork: Debut maiden over Derby track was an effort to behold. He subsequently showed class to win on a wet track he hated, then raised his game with a competitive-figure effort to win the Rebel stylishly. Then came two critical mistakes by his connections. Misreading the “bounce theory,” they altered the colt’s schedule, nearly forcing his exclusion here then, when given a choice, took the 16 post instead of the 2, begging the question; why choose Calvin Bo-rail? His sharp Derby blowout, talent and love for the surface make him a sensible longshot play. Bettable odds: 30-1.

17-Cowboy Cal: Extremely game Blue Grass runnerup to stablemate Monba, he’s been a very consistent performer in a group that often has lacked that quality. Been performing at a relatively high level throughout his career, so we might have seen his best for now. Then there’s the matter of how he handles dirt, a huge question for him. His running style puts him close to the hottest pace he will have seen. Unlike Adriano, his future seems best limited to turf and synthetic tracks. Bettable odds: 25-1.

18-Recapturetheglory: Literally and figuratively earned his way here with a comprehensive daylight victory in Obamaland. While the performance figure was excellent, it was earned in a race that more closely resembled a harness event: The Illinois Derby field virtually raced in single file and positions never changed. The pace will be a lot hotter, the competition tougher, and the wide draw, while inside two other speeds, still hurts. Nice colt lacks stout pedigree and local work was a little disappointing. Good story, bad spot. Bettable odds: 40-1.

19-Gayego: One of the “now” horses, he was hurt by the draw. Earned a lifetime best performance figure winning the Arkansas Derby and distributed his energy efficiently, stalking a strong pace and finishing gamely. Obviously talented but with issues here: He will be tested in stronger fractions by better stock, and his close-up speed/presser style could find him between a rock and a hard pace. Has top connections and excellent Churchill workout but seriously lacking in 10-furlong pedigree. Bettable odds: 15-1.

20-Big Brown: With Florida Derby sensation’s foot problems behind him for now, his final serious work sent trainer Rick Dutrow over the moon. He‘s unbeaten and the fastest horse by far. What’s not to like is his well documented inexperience and how he might handle a head-to-head battle. But it’s not his fault that no one has gotten close yet. He’s a boom or bust colt at short odds. Won from the 12 at Gulfstream, why not the 20 here? The difference between Big Brown and Curlin is that BB raced at 2. If he runs his “A” race, as Dutrow has boasted, he’ll win. Bettable odds: 3-1.

Most Likely Winner: Big Brown

Best Win Value: Tale Of Ekati

Most Likely Money Finisher: Colonel John

Best Longshot: Denis Of Cork

Written by John Pricci

Accompanying Photo Gallery to "Racing to the Kentucky Derby".
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Wednesday, April 30, 2008

Time to Change Kentucky Derby Eligibility Rules

Win, lose or post position draw, this should be the final year that Kentucky Derby eligibility is determined by earnings, graded or otherwise.

The system has outlived its utility and no longer makes sense. Twenty Derby starters is the modern rule, not the exception. And it matters not whether that this year’s draw involving the filly Eight Belles went smoothly. Using any criteria, she earned her way in.

Admission based on earnings is fraught with inequities to the existing prep process too numerous to mention, and in the future it’s bound to get worse because any track could artificially inflate the importance of its prep race by throwing money at it. That might be good for business but it’s bad for the Derby.

Racing is what it is; a game built on opinion backed by dollars. Having a lot of either doesn’t guarantee a quality product. All reasonable people acknowledge the Derby as “America’s Race.” As such it should feature the best three-year-olds based on one criterion; performance.

Why shouldn’t the best 20 thoroughbreds be loaded into the Churchill Downs gate, getting in the way aspiring titlists earn their awards; by accomplishment on the racetrack, ideally in one of the game’s time-honored preps.

There are only two ways to look at a horse race; before and after the fact. Post race, any argument can be made with certitude but still might not provide the best course for the future. Like the opinion that says the graded-earnings system works. With Eight Belles getting a fortuitous Derby post position Wednesday, a potentially ugly sidebar was avoided.

With two days until this country’s most celebrated race, a challenge: To make a serious case for Z Humor’s participation other than his dead-heat victory in a racino-fueled million-dollar race for two-year-olds at Delta Downs.

As John McEnroe might say to any Handicapping 101 graduate; you can’t be serious!

This thesis is late in coming while waiting to gauge the latest fan, media, and industry reaction to the 2008 pre-race draw scenario. Two ideas, one from a fan, the other from a well respected journalist, not only was the most practical but had added benefits. To wit:

Create heightened interest and anticipation during the prep run-up period; boost the bottom line at racetracks already hosting widely recognized preps, and to help horsemen make the best decisions by knowing exactly what is to be gained from successful participation in any particular event.

While the establishment of two-year-old form is important for aspiring classicists from a developmental perspective, both physically and mentally, it’s meaningless if the individual fails to make the often difficult transition from two to three. Juvenile form is just that, juvenile form.

Precocity is an unreliable predictor of classics form. The fact that Street Sense is the only individual to make a successful leap from Juvenile to Derby winner is not coincidental. Derby talk should start January 1, not on the last Saturday of October.

There are twenty spots in the gate and, fortuitously, 20 established Derby prep races. A regional breakdown of traditionally accepted preps, graded or otherwise:

The Sam F. Davis and Tampa Bay Derby; the Risen Star and Louisiana Derby; the Lane’s End; the Gotham and Wood Memorial, the Illinois Derby; the Fountain of Youth, Florida Derby and Holy Bull; the San Felipe, Robert Lewis Memorial, Sham and Santa Anita Derby, the Southwest, Rebel and Arkansas Derby; the Blue Grass and Coolmore Lexington.

By region, this covers the West Coast of Florida (2), South Florida (3), Louisiana (2), New York (2), Illinois (1), Southern California (4), Arkansas (3) and Kentucky (3).

The ultimate goal is to have your horse peak in bluegrass country on the first Saturday of May. Instead of “win and you’re in,” points earned from in-the-money finishes in 20 modern and traditionally accepted preps, and you’re in.

In this manner, three-year-old form and the ability to handle two turns at meaningful distances is the best measure of worthiness. By assigning points to place and show finishers, it allows horseman an additional safety valve, able to gain experience and/or conditioning while not leaving your Derby race at the finish line of the final prep.

A too-late, fast-finish second or third in the Wood, Blue Grass or Santa Anita Derby-- often a predictor of winning Derby form--sometimes is the best way to arrive in Louisville near tops. A graduating point scale of 3-2-1 for the first three finishers in a Grade 3, a 6-4-2 scale at the Grade 2 level, and 9-6-3 score for Grade 1 money finishes seems a fair weight-to-grade ratio.

Among these 20 races, only the Sam F Davis is ungraded and easily remedied. If there remains insistence to include juvenile form, the only races included should be the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile, Remsen, Kentucky Jockey Club Stakes and Cash Call Futurity. Two Grade 2s, two Grade 1s, all around two turns.

Twenty preps for 20 stalls. What could be more impartial, obliging, or easier to understand?

Written by John Pricci

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