August 26, 2010

Dear Diary,

Today was the 69th running of the New York Turf Writers Cup Handicap at 2-3/8 miles over hurdles which do not, of course, come close to resembling the real steeplechase fences used in Europe.

That’s OK. Rightfully or not, it’s a speed game that we play in American Thoroughbred racing. If you need to jump higher, it follows that you won’t be able to run faster.

American horses often jump through the hedges instead of over them. But if you think that somehow would compromise the amount of horsemanship needed to be a successful practitioner of the steeplechasing, you’d be missing the point.

Steeplechasing is the least understood and most underappreciated segment in American Thoroughbred racing. It’s amazes sometimes how the “wise guys” who make the game go with copious amounts of handle won’t place a bet on a horse because “it leaves the ground.”

But maybe the wise guys aren’t so wise after all. I once researched the results of American steeplechase races over a five-year period only to discover that favorites won nearly 50 percent of the races.

And it wasn’t like they were all odds-on, either.

Can you think of another segment of the game that can boast such a success rate over a long, sustained period? Don’t give it a second thought; there isn’t one.

So why do the game’s “best players” avoid a part of the sport that routinely draws crowds of 25,000 or more to places such as Fair Hills, New Jersey or Camden, South Carolina despite having little or no financial interest in the outcome? Beats me, too.

And neither can I understand why a popular segment that it attracts entire families, when combined with the success rate of “the best horse” as determined by the tote board, cannot produce the kind of synergy that could work for the good of all.

It’s easy to point fingers, of course, but it seems that the marketers are not spreading the gospel far and wide and the wise guys just might not be that wise after all.

Instead of not wanting to bet on horses that leave the ground, wise guys should adhere to the other “rule” that dominates most steeplechase outcomes, the principle stating that “good jumpers don’t fall.”

And who doesn’t like a good tailgate party, anyway?

Once upon a time there were a lot more jump races in Saratoga but the New York Racing Association held the low handle figures against them. The NYRA allowed the tradition to continue, using the disappointing handle to justify adding a 10th race.

To their credit, the NYRA is still committed to steeplechasing as an integral part of the Saratoga scene. Eventually jumpers were moved to the first race on the card and out of the Pick 6--which now gets a liberal dousing of first-time starting maidens, turf sprinters, or both.

Yesterday’s opener was the fourth steeplechase event of the meet. There was supposed to be a fifth but the race didn’t fill. Just as well since the owner-trainer team of William Pape and Jonathan Sheppard probably would have won that one, too, just like they did the other four.

Adam Coglianese
Today‘s New York Turf Writers‘ winner, Sermon of Love, gave the legendary Hall of Famer his 13th training victory in the Grade 1 event, more than twice as many as rival Tommy Voss’s six.

Sheppard, it should be recalled here, is only the second horseman in the history of the sport--Sidney Watters Jr. is the other--to train a champion over jumps and on the flat.

The most well celebrated of Sheppard’s steeplechase champions was the great Flatterer. His champion on the flat the filly Informed Decision, who happens to be the 5-2 early line favorite for Saturday’s Grade 1 Ballerina on the Travers undercard.

The victory by Sermon of Love was termed a team effort by Sheppard. Jockey Brian Crowley was winning his third of four races for Team Sheppard but it was assistant trainer Danielle Hodsdon, rider of Turf Writers’ fourth Divine Fortune, who might be most responsible for Sheppard’s 13th.

“The blinkers were her idea,” added to the 7-year-old’s equipment prior to his victory earlier in the meet. “It was her own idea that might have gotten her beat, but Danielle’s a real team player,” Sheppard said of Hodsdon, who rode the one winner not ridden by Crowley.

Hodsdon, Sheppard’s top assistant, is an accomplished rider and, not unlike her boss, has a singular achievement on her own resume, having won a race over the jumps and on the flat at last year’s Saratoga meet.

The Sheppard outfit has not only been on a roll but has some new shooters he’s aiming toward the championship races this fall. “A couple of years ago they were saying Sheppard’s jumpers aren’t what they used to be,” he remembered.

Those players must have been thinking of races other than the New York Turf Writers’ Cup Handicap. No matter. With practitioners like Sheppard representing steeplechasing, it’s a wonder that more bettors haven’t caught on to a winning trend staring them right in the face.