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Vic Zast

From the perspective of being an owner, an industry pioneer in corporate sponsorship, a track president and fan, Vic Zast writes the "Destinations" column for The Blood-Horse. His five-star ratings of international events have shed light on racing in all corners of the globe - from England, Australia, Hong Kong, Dubai to Japan.

Vic is a regular contributor to MSNBC.com, a columnist for the Illinois Racing News and has written on racing for ESPN.com, National Public radio and The Age, Australia's leading daily.

Vic makes his home in Chicago and lives in Saratoga Springs in August.

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Monday, April 25, 2011


For Keeping the Triple Crown Easy


(NEW YORK, NY – April 25, 2011) Like a jockey on a pace-setter who gets the jump on a closer by making the first move at the top of the stretch, writing now about why the Triple Crown should stay as it is might dissuade wrong-minded people from recommending that changes are needed.

Trainers, by the way they condition their horses, have unintentionally made sweeping the Triple Crown so easy that some convoluted thinkers are certain to suggest a tweak of the requirements that will make the feat more difficult. Three races in five days is no longer possible for even the best conditioned runners, causing the competition to become so watered down that almost any Kentucky Derby winner, which hasn’t been ground up like hash while attempting to secure his triumph at Churchill Downs, has a decent opportunity at succeeding.

Left-brained logicians believe spreading the trio of Classics out and lengthening the time between each is more likely to create a Triple Crown champion than the rules as they’re written. But these changes would only increase the competition, invite good horses that are now dropping out after running out in Louisville and give more horses a chance who have none. That the Triple Crown hasn’t been worn by a three-year-old in 32 years is no reason to alter its hat size.

There are Triple Crowns in other sports and their winners don’t emerge often, either. The most famous is Major League Baseball’s. A player wears MLB’s Triple Crown when he leads a league in home runs, batting average and runs batted in. Carl Yastrzemski of the Boston Red Sox was the most recent to complete the task in 1967. Affirmed was horse racing’s last Triple Crown winner in 1978.

Baseball has had only two more Triple Crown champions than horse racing. But winning baseball’s Triple Crown has occurred 15 times – Rogers Hornsby of the St. Louis Cardinals and Ted Williams of the Boston Red Sox each accomplished the rare feat twice. If baseball named only Triple Crown winners as a result of their performance across both leagues, there’d be only five players to qualify – the most recent was the New York Yankees’ Mickey Mantle in 1956. Regardless, unlike horse racing, there has been no movement for and little discussion of changing the requirements.

In any case, who in horse racing really cares if there’s ever another Triple Crown champion? Because three champions created excitement for horse racing back in the 1970s doesn’t mean that one could today, given the shift in the culture. Granted, Big Brown had crowds abuzz in 2009 – so did Smarty Jones and Funny Cide in prior years. But these times are different.

Winning a Triple Crown has value only in residual terms. If a horse would win the Triple Crown and then never race again or retire prematurely, there’d be little benefit derived from the development. In addition, the sport offers other means to make heroes. For a stretch of 18 months, Zenyatta captured as much of the public’s imagination as possible. Before her, Rachel Alexandra, in beating the boys in the Preakness, captured hearts. Before her, there was Barbaro.

Never crowning a Triple Crown champion again wouldn’t be a disaster. As a stand-alone event, the Kentucky Derby would be unaffected. As long as there’s beer served, the Preakness will continue to draw crowds, regardless of the Derby winner’s presence. True, the allure of the Belmont Stakes would be dimmed; a swing of 50,000 fans is determined on if the Triple Crown’s on the line. But is de-valuing a 1-1/2 mile stakes that is run at a distance which very few American-trained horses can handle such a bad thing?

Dialed In appears the most likely of this year’s crop to become a Triple Crown champion. His breeding suggests that he has the stamina to stay on in the Belmont when others wilt. Because Nick Zito has raced him lightly, he should have what it takes for the crunch of the schedule. More significantly, the Kentucky Derby Trail has taken its toll already on most horses that were considered atop this generation.

As for those left in the running, Uncle Mo, for example, appears iffy. After winning the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile and entering the Wood Memorial unbeaten, he was viewed as a super horse. Now, there’s talk that he’s sick, he has marks on his leather that indicate surgeries, and he won’t even see the roses, let alone wear them. Should Uncle Mo triumph in Louisville, however, he’d probably triumph in Baltimore, given the competition he’ll run against. Zito will save his horse for New York.

Americans prefer to win and when they can’t, they figure out ways that enable them. Doctors invented gastric bypass surgery to assist people who can’t stop themselves from eating. That’s the crux of the argument for messing with the Triple Crown. On the other hand, imagine Kirstie Alley panting her way through the last refrains of the song that she’s dancing to as you conjure up reasons to bet on any horse with a Triple Crown shot. If the former Weight Watchers spokesperson could run, she could run away with the mirror ball trophy.

The industry has bred hickory out of thoroughbreds the same way baseball has bred the seventh through ninth innings out of pitchers. Ferguson Jenkins, Harvey Haddix and Warren Spahn would be anomalies today, as would $2000 claiming horses that ran every week to provide trainers with per diem income and owners with thrills on a steady basis.

A week ago, horse owner Cot Campbell announced he’d stop honoring unsung heroes with a Dominion Award. “There’s no complicated reason,” the graceful scion of Dogwood Stable said about ending the program. “We think it’s all right to quit doing it,” he said, with refreshing transparency.

Ending the Triple Crown on the low note of never seeing another horse earn one is an okay idea, also – preferred, in every sense, to seeing the standard made harder.

Vic Zast invites yo to read his blogs about driving to the Arctic at http://www.ourlongestdrive.com, and to join him on Facebook and read his tweets at Twitter.


Written by Vic Zast

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Monday, April 18, 2011


Perfume Missing from Roses


(CHICAGO, IL – April 18, 2011) By the chill in the air, you wouldn’t think that there are only three weeks before the Kentucky Derby. Fans were bundled in parkas against the rain and cold at Keeneland. It seemed considerably more temperate in Hot Springs. But neither location gave off a warm feeling for betting any horse in the next Grade 1 race for three-year-olds.

Where are the stars in this year’s crop? “Ouchouchouch” is the how bloodhorse.com’s headline writer chose to present Jack Shinar’s news item that Archarcharch won the Arkansas Derby. In holding off the fast closing Nehro, the son of Arch (duh!) won at 25-1 odds, the fourth straight first-place runner of five Grade 1 Derby preps to upset the apple cart. It would have been five for five if the odds-on Dialed In didn’t reel in the 68-1 Shackleford at the Florida Derby finishing post.

Stars rock the crowds, force hearts to beat faster, create curiosity. An American public that’s been fine-tuned to worship celebrity doesn’t care much for longshots until they win the big one. Fans couldn’t ask for a more furious end to a race than the Blue Grass Stakes’. Nineteen to one, 24-1, 13-1 and 17-1 were the odds on the first four horses. A nose, a head and a length were the margins. But, even a mere 24 hours after the action took place, it’s not easy to remember the names of the runners that made the race's end so exciting.

“The further we venture into the individualized world of high technology, the more important celebrities – for better or worse - will become,” predicted David Robinson, writing about our worship of stars in The American, a journal of the American Enterprise Institute. The country’s ever-increasing demand for diversity “obscures the inevitable importance of common ground in social interactions,” wrote Robinson.

In other words, stars create a community of followers who come together to share knowledge and experiences with another. It’s so much easier for people to communicate when they each are familiar with the topic. When the name of the winner of a major Graded stakes prep escapes you, and you can’t recall what he accomplished in life before winning or who the people are behind him, you retreat to the isolated existence of a niche.

More than anything, horse racing needs people to notice it. The idea that the big horse can be a savior is often ridiculed, but the concept in context to the mean is defensible. Most citizens of many major cities, including Chicago, Boston, Detroit, Denver, San Francisco, Seattle and Houston, where there is no first class horse racing, couldn’t name a Kentucky Derby contender, let alone Super Saver, last year’s winner. As for the country’s top handicap division horses, even the sport’s imbedded fans can’t produce the names of more than a couple.

In the last several years, at least a few outsiders, lured in by the sheer magic of her record, came to know the once-beaten Zenyatta. Charismatic champions like the mare (or Barbaro) beget widespread notice. Competent Breeders’ Cup winners like Blame disappear. One would have an impossible task to connect the 62,000 people at Oaklawn Park yesterday to the phenomenon Zenyatta caused (she raced there twice in her career). But the horse with no-name is a horse on the receiving end, and the horses that give back to the sport with their fame are the horses that contribute to its sustenance. What she gave to the sport has residual value.

A large crowd turned out in Arkansas yesterday, in large part, because The Factor – Saturday morning’s pro tem, albeit temporary, morning line favorite for the Run for the Roses, was racing. A good field, contentious and deep but lacking a well-known Derby contender (and dreadful weather), kept the crowds down at Keeneland. The publicists have a little more than a fortnight to bestow star power on Dialed In. It’s not too late for Kelly Wietsma to resurrect a buzz for Uncle Mo.

In the course of the next several weeks, the turf writers will write plenty about all the horses on the earnings-eligible list – a sorry roll call that includes the likes of Pants on Fire, Midnight Interlude, Animal Kingdom, Twice the Appeal and Decisive Moment. Where are you Jaycito when we need you? Lest you worry, however, that 2011 has failed to produce a memorable three-year-old, consider that the Derby’s outcome has celebrity-birthing abilities.

The New York-bred Funny Cide had zero notoriety before winning in 2004; then his fame exploded – to the point that he ended his career in a made-up stakes at Finger Lakes before an overflow throng. Mine That Bird didn’t become a fan favorite despite being a Canadian two-year-old champion until winning in 2009. When the bright lights of television began to focus on Chip Woolley, Jr., his motorcycle, and the slow-talking hayseeds that owned him, the diminutive gelding ascended in status. People often make the horse; that’s been proved.

Mucho Macho Man has the same mojo that Smarty Jones had – a catchy name and a key person in his entourage with an interesting health history. Bouffant Baffert and Earth-to-Nick Zito are capable of conducting crowd-pleasing interviews – one for making a joke out of everything and the other for genuflecting each time he speaks a sentence. Then, too, there is Calvin Borel. Is it possible?

If Robinson was a horse racing fan, the serious-minded managing editor would affix his imprimatur to a Kentucky Derby with only two or three well-known contenders, a Triple Crown winner every June and competition beyond adolescence for the sport’s most accomplished participants. The aggregation of knowledge around a single source promotes expansion of thought through discussion.

Having a field of many runners with a reasonable chance to prosper at Churchill Downs won’t produce the lasting bouquet that the sport needs. What the Derby needs is a crowd-pleasing favorite to win it – there have been only four in the last 31 years. Horticulturists aren’t alone in removing the perfume from roses.

Vic Zast invites you to http://www.ourlongestdrive.com. In addition, he has a facebook page and tweets daily on twittercom.

Written by Vic Zast

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Monday, April 11, 2011


Making the Grade


(CHICAGO, IL – April 11, 2011) The last few days have caused quite the upheaval in thoroughbred racing’s three-year-old ranks. The five Grade I stakes at the end of the Kentucky Derby trail are meant to clarify matters. Instead, they are muddling them. Surprise results on the racetrack aren’t the only things causing confusion. The injury flu, which appears every April, has come on like pollen.

Sizable audiences of horse racing fans turned out at Aqueduct and Santa Anita on Saturday. They seemed not to be discouraged that Uncle Mo was installed the 1-9 favorite to lord over his hopeless rivals in the Wood Memorial or that Premier Pegasus and Jaycito, the two West Coast horses predicted to have chances of winning in Louisville, were both scratched from the Santa Anita Derby starting gate. Elephants could have run, and some did, and the crowds would have been satisfied. At last report, no refunds were given.

Premier Pegasus is gone for good, headed to the hospital for surgery. Jaycito could have run, but his trainer didn’t want to apply a bar shoe. Bob Baffert, in whom Jaycito’s future rests, ultimately won the Santa Anita Derby with Midnight Interlude at 12-1 and said he’d have Jaycito ready to run in the Lexington Stakes. That Grade 2 race will be run on Keeneland’s synthetic racing surface on April 20.

After finishing third in the Grade 1 Florida Derby won by Dialed In a week ago, To Honor and Serve became less of a pick than he was before then. It matters not what you might think of his chances. He, too, has been put on the shelf with a boo-boo. Dialed In will rise to the top of the class in the myriad forecasts that turf writers compile. In the upcoming weeks, Top Ten Derby Horse lists might be re-written as Top Three Derby Horse lists.

There was another Kentucky Derby prep race run Saturday, but for horses supposedly of more questionable quality. The $300,000 Grade 3 Illinois Derby at Hawthorne offered a purse that was $700,000 shy of the bloated pots that the Wood and the Santa Anita Derby offered. The Illinois Derby was won by Jo Vann, who wasn’t anywhere to be found on anybody’s list before winning. Traditionally, the Kentucky Derby winner has prepped in – not won, mind you - the Florida Derby, Wood Memorial, Santa Anita Derby, Blue Grass Stakes or the Arkansas Derby.

In the last 60 years, and probably a few decades more, every Kentucky Derby winner but four – Mine That Bird in 2009, War Emblem in 2002, Spend A Buck in 1985 and Canonero II in 1971 – has competed in one of these five Grade 1 races. Even the Derby-winning fillies – Winning Colors in 1988 (first in the Santa Anita Derby) and Genuine Risk in 1980 (third in the Wood) - followed the same dependable path. Since 1940, only five Kentucky Derby-winning horses – Giacomo in the 2005 Santa Anita Derby, Sea Hero in the 1993 Blue Grass Stakes, Gato Del Sol in the 1982 Santa Anita Derby, Count Turf in the 1951 Wood and Gallahadion in the 1940 Santa Anita Derby – ran unplaced in these key preps.

Given the history, at this point in time, one would have to grant the first spot on the Kentucky Derby leader’s board to Dialed In. In the decade, Kentucky Derby winners Monarchos, Barbaro and Big Brown have won the Florida Derby, which Dialed In won impressively. Shackleford, the horse that Dialed in caught at the wire, fought gamely. But he may not make the Kentucky Derby starting gate because of the earnings requirement. Even if he did, would you bet him?

The Wood Memorial was to have crowned Uncle Mo, making him the next in a line of 11 Wood winners to wear roses. It’s possible that Toby’s Corner is Angle Light, who defeated Secretariat in the 1973 Wood – merely a minor impediment to a losing favorite’s greatness. Yet, only one Wood winner has won the Derby since 2001 and before him (Fusaichi Pegasus) one must look back to 1981, the year of Pleasant Colony, to find another. Saturday’s winner doesn’t appear likely to threaten that drought. Uncle Mo will, in contrast, go from being the next possible Triple Crown champion to a horse that can’t get the distance.

As for the 13-1 Midnight Interlude, no winner of the Santa Anita Derby has won the Kentucky Derby since Sunday Silence in 1989; he won’t either. Despite recording a faster 1-1/8 mile score by more than a second than Toby's Corner or Jo Vann, Midnight Interlude is light on seasoning. The inexperienced bay colt by War Chant made his first career start on January 29 – a month into his three-year-old season, which is a bigger Kentucky Derby jinx than the rest.

One week hence, the last two of the five Grade 1 Kentucky Derby preparatory stakes will be contested. Because horses with Triple Crown success like Kentucky Derby winner Super Saver (second in 2010), Preakness and Belmont Stakes winners Curlin (first in 2007) and Afleet Alex (first in 2005) and Kentucky Derby and Preakness winner Smarty Jones (first in 2004) have used Oaklawn’s showpiece event to advantage, it has become the prep du jour. Meanwhile, Keeneland’s Blue Grass Stakes, has suffered without a horse that could take it and the Derby since 1991 (Strike the Gold).

Perhaps The Factor will indicate he can carry his speed over a distance of ground in Arkansas and rise up to become a horse to be taken seriously. Maybe Newsdad will be to To Honor and Serve what Swale was to Devil’s Bag in Kentucky. Regardless, what is (practically) certain is that this year’s Kentucky Derby will be far less historic than it was thought to be several weeks ago; that won’t make the race less appealing. Just don’t expect a horse for the ages to emerge from it – just the winner from one of five Grade 1 races.

Vic Zast is on Facebook and Twitter.

Written by Vic Zast

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