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, a columnist for the Illinois Racing News and has written on racing for, 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, June 25, 2007

Queen of the Plate

Etobicoke, Ontario--The force known as girl power made its way up the Hudson, across the width of the Empire State, around the Golden Horseshoe of Ontario and into a suburb of Toronto.

Belmont Stakes champion Rags to Riches isnt the only young lass to distinguish herself against lads. Yesterday, Emma-Jayne Wilson, 25, became the first female jockey to win Canadas main prize. Wilson, aboard 15-1 outsider Mike Fox, won the 164th running of the Queens Plate.

Hers was no easy feat seeing that Jiggs Coz, the favorite, and a trio of American invaders garnered most of the pre-race attention. Moreover, the owner and trainer of Mike Fox hadnt won the Plate either.

British-born Ian Black has been a trainer for only three years. He has plenty experience around horses, having been the manager of Kinghaven Farms for 30 years, but saddling the horses and giving a leg up to jockeys are relatively new to him. I suspected he would run very, very well, the way he trains, said Black, after the race. But Mike Fox had been victorious in three of his seven lifetime starts, so his morning works werent a failsafe barometer.

Wilson promised six years ago when she first started riding that shed make a star in the saddle of herself. In 2006, she captured her second consecutive Woodbine riding title and was voted the Sovereign Award as Apprentice of the Year for the second year running. In 2005, she won a similar Eclipse Award. Her ride aboard Mike Fox in the Plate yesterday confirmed that the voters werent foolish.

Wilson tracked the leaders in third place for most of the race. Allezandro, a High Yield colt with an obviously bright future having raced only twice before Saturday, seemed to be the winner with a mere furlong to go. But then Jiggs Coz started after him. As the two runners approached the finish line, it looked to be either horses race. Then, somehow, miraculously, between them, Mike Fox with Wilson aboard made their presence felt.

Wilson drove the bay son of Giants Causeway through a hole that was the size of a wedding band. The winning margin was three-quarters of a length. The final time, a nondescript 2:05:80 with a final quarter in 28 ticks.

Nobody at Woodbine cared how slowly the winner ran. Everyone was fixated on Wilson, as she plucked flowers from the purple and gold floral blanket and smiled through her long-winded interviews. In the white silks and green sleeves and cap of D. Morgan Firestones racing silks, she became Queen of the Plate, not a Queens Plate jockey.

More than any other racing jurisdiction, Ontario gives women a chance to ride in the afternoons when it counts. Chantal Sutherland, a regular on the New York circuit for several years, came out of Canada. Michelle Rainford is the hottest jock at Woodbine in June.

In all, at least half a dozen women are in the top ranks of Woodbine riders. On Queens Plate day, nobody in the large crowd even noticed that a jockey switch in the first race put a female apprentice in the saddle of the winner. Stephanie Fedora booted home Black Tea in a three-year-old fillies claiming race. It was no feat like Wilsons, but youve got to start someplace.

Written by Vic Zast

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Monday, June 18, 2007

What’s Right for the Horse is Wrong for the Sport

Itll be up to trainer Todd Pletcher and co-owners Derrick Smith and Michael Tabor to determine over the next several weeks when and where we see Rags to Riches under colors again.

But it would be interesting to know now if these men fully comprehend that the course of action they map out for their Belmont Stakes and Kentucky Oaks winner could have a profound effect on horse racings popularity over the next couple of years.

Rags to Riches is a filly most certain to race as a mare and this means that racing would have the ongoing superstar its been looking for. All these years, the sport has been waiting for a Triple Crown winner to rally its fans around. Now, by the slightest of margins in the least suspecting way, Rags to Riches, a filly, not a colt, has become more than that.

Heres hoping that her team doesnt take the easy way out and do the customary whats right for the horse. Whats right for the horse will be wrong for the sport. With a little bit of luck, the trainer and co-owners can be lining their pockets while showcasing a horse for the ages.

Speculation is that Rags to Riches will run next in the Coaching Club of America Oaks at Belmont Park on July 21. According to sources, the Travers Stakes would follow on her schedule. Having the talented miss take the track against Preakness winner Curlin or Kentucky Derby winner Street Sense or both in Saratoga could be the biggest event in recent racing memory. In a sport ever spiraling into off-track participation, running Rags to Riches against males is the one spectacle that might attract people to the racetrack.

Purists will have difficulty understanding this, of course. Paul Moran, a graybeard of a turf writer for Newsday, for one, has already proclaimed that Rags to Riches, a girl, should remain a girl and keep to her own sex on the racetrack. Moran, like everyone left-brained and grounded, bases his opinions, no doubt, on conventional wisdom, not idealistic vision.

Such misogynist leanings are exactly why Pletcher, Smith and Tabor should act otherwise. Like the infamous Billy Jean King and Bobby Riggs encounter, or for that matter, the Ruffian and Foolish Pleasure fiasco, there is inherent interest throughout this sex-divided world whenever a woman takes on a man in anything - to wit, Hilary Clinton. For the good of the sport, let it happen.

Moreover, whenever David beats Goliath, everyone cheers. What, for example, would the story of Seabiscuit be without if he didnt succeed despite bucking the odds? Seeing Rags to Riches dominate her division will bring nothing to the sport. But having her dominate the dominant division, or at least, taking a shot at it, would be crowd pleasing and newsworthy.

It is mind-stretching to remember when an equine had the charisma to draw fans without the benefit of a Triple Crown at stake. Point Given had an attendance-altering effect on the 2001 Travers. Although, other than that, can you think of any other horse that drew people to the grandstands like a Clemens does or a Jordan did?

Most likely, Rags to Riches wont gather greater numbers to Belmont for the Coaching Club of America Oaks, a competition for three-year-old fillies, than any other horse would for any other Saturday stakes. But as a filly that plays from the back tees, she would dwarf Annika Sorenstam in notoriety.

Written by Vic Zast

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Monday, June 11, 2007

Sport of Kings has a Queen

After more than 90 minutes of dreadful television, horse racing fans that were not in the crowd of 46,870 at Belmont Park on Saturday finally got to see why their sport, more than any other, has the capability to delight.

Three-quarters of the way into the gloom and doom of ABC-TVs misguided production of what portended to be an ordinary Belmont Stakes with no Kentucky Derby winner entered, Rags to Riches, a beautiful chestnut lady, wrested attention away from the mundane and became, as can happen in the Sport of Kings, an instant queen.

As the first filly to win the mile and a half classic in 102 years, the sweet-faced daughter of A.P. Indy lived up to the praise of her overseer. Trainer Todd Pletcher said prior to the race, Theres probably not a better bred horse in the world for the Belmont.

Pletcher, the Eclipse Award winning Trainer of the Year for 2004, 2005 and 2006, recorded his first Triple Crown victory in 29 tries. She has a kind eye, but you wouldnt want to mess with her, he warned all doubters who figured a female couldnt better males in the Belmont. Later, the cameras caught Pletcher pumping the air with his fist and hugging his wife until she lost her hat in an embrace - occurrences that are rarer than even a short string of losses for him.

Rags to Riches, a $1.9 million Keeneland yearling purchase by Derrick Smith and Michael Tabor, has the same dam as Jazil, last years Belmont Stakes winner, proving once again that, except for the occasional lightning strike, the rich do get richer in racing, not the other way around. Despite the inappropriate nature of her name, the well-bred distaffer clearly deserved the boatload of money that NYRA track officials presented her owners afterward.

Saturdays Belmont attracted two of the big three three-year-olds of spring. But do not include Hard Spun among them. In his bid to become only the ninth horse to hit the board in all three Triple Crown events, Hard Spun finished fourth. He is a nice horse for stakes like the Pennsylvania Derby, but not one for races against Street Sense, Curlin and Rags to Riches.

Although Rags to Riches paid $10.60 to win, the Belmonts stirring result laid waste to the television commentators reputations as expert handicappers. After that, one had to wonder what, after all, were they good at. Perhaps one or two of the talking heads selected the winner, but the overriding topics of trauma and danger that their producers had them covering negated that.

Brent Musburger, acting too starry-eyed for being a veteran anchorman, opened the Belmont telecast with an over-the-top soliloquy. Jerry Bailey, high on his press clippings for being a good analyst, acted disingenuous and stagy. Jeannine Edwards, whose smile is an endorsement for flossing, should fire the makeup artists who made her eyes look as if they were rolled up into her forehead like a school kid pretending to be a zombie. Grumpy Hank Goldberg, who suffers from gout, couldnt get away from a pained expression.

The Alabama Stakes at Saratoga is next on Rags to Richess agenda, but the same television crew wont be there to capture it. When the new queen of racing takes on Street Sense and Curlin in the Breeders Cup Classic, thats when the tolerance of television viewers will be tested again.

Written by Vic Zast

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