Sunday, May 03, 2015


Kentucky Derby Lives Up to Hype…and Then Some


HALLANDALE, FL, May 3, 2015—Despite the negativity surrounding the industry and the efforts of a handful of stakeholders to agree to disagree, the horses and the game’s special events always wind up saving the day.

Aided by great local weather and positive publicity about the talent and depth in the 2015 class of sophomore equines, records for both attendance and handle were shattered.

But in the final analysis, God bless the Thoroughbred.

At the end, four of the most accomplished horses in Kentucky Derby 141 finished ahead of 14 rivals, half of them having some kind of good chance.

And American Pharoah is for real. If he stays healthy, not a given, his talents may be unreal, in a positive sense. He has the brilliance to be in every race. Now we know he’s got guts, too.

As discussed here post-Oaks, the Churchill surface was reminiscent of two things to me. If acted more like Churchill in the fall than the traditional Churchill of spring.

For two of the biggest days of racing in America, the track was speed favoring. You could close successfully but you needed a hot, almost suicidal, pace to come from the clouds, but it worked much better if you were able to save ground.

The outside was deeper; one could see that on the screen. To me it was evocative of Gulfstream Park on Florida Derby day; at once speed favoring and punishing.

The track surface is what made Frosted’s effort so outstanding, finishing the strongest of all at the line. Yes, Materiality finished very well despite trouble at the start and his inexperience. He wasn’t as close to the top three as Frosted, but did well to finish 7-3/4 lengths behind the winner.

One could pick apart trips and there were some obvious incidents, especially approaching the first turn, but we’ll concentrate on those up front, in a manner that much of the other competition didn’t.

And you didn’t have to watch races develop all weekend to know that the track favored speed; you know it because how often to you see a three-speed number in the feature race on May’s first Saturday.

Meanwhile, the riders in this three-speed affair were brilliant. Martin Garcia was able to cojole a half in 47.34. All three managed to steal off with the first three prizes by throwing a third quarter of 23.95 at the group, separating themselves from 15 rivals approaching the far turn.

Gary Stevens rode a great race, no real surprise there, despite being forced to race between a 17-hands rock and a brilliant hard place. He had to keep Dortmund honest while glancing over his shoulder, needing to time a winning move perfectly.

And Derby-repeating Victor Espinoza was brilliant, too. Maybe any rider can get American Pharoah to relax, but there’s no doubt Espinoza can--they really make a good team out there.

Not only that, but Espinoza timed his move perfectly, gaining momentum into the lane while not racing on the fastest part of the track, putting pressure on Stevens, who doubtlessly would have preferred to wait a few more jumps before going after Dortmund in earnest.

Firing Line will be the “trip horse” two weeks from now in Baltimore. He did the dirty work, as the handicappers say, and was re-rallying at the winner, looking for an instant like a possible resurgent winner with a sixteenth of a mile to go.

But this very good colt never was able to change over to his correct, right lead despite Stevens’ insistence. Of course, young horses learn from race to race.

So unless Firing Line’s the second coming of Alydar, he’ll probably get the hang of switching over racing into, or through, the lane.

But the day belonged to American Pharoah and to the Zayats, who definitely had a Derby trophy with their name on it after coming close thrice. It’s a good thing when supporters of the game are rewarded, whatever the politics of any situation.

American Pharoah had something to prove yesterday and he removed any doubt as to his superior class and brilliance. How superior, and how classy he is in a historical context is the only question left to answer.

That, and whether the plate he wears on his left fore to protect his frog eventually catches up with him. Hopefully, it’s something that he will continue to deal with in the future.

There was talk Sunday morning that the top three finishers will do it again in two weeks, and that’s been a long time coming. Baltimore--even as insignificant as the Preakness is in the city’s big picture, certainly could use a boost, too.

Along with the usual array of new shooters, Mark Casse, whose horses ran great all weekend, said he would look at the Preakness. Frosted is most likely to await the Belmont but this is racing, and things change.


BETS ‘N PIECES: If American Pharoah was great, which he was, then Bayern was awful, unable to beat a horse. The quirky surface may or may not have had anything to do with it; which is a good possibility. Probably wasn’t going to handle Private Zone in the Churchill Downs Sprint any event; he’s as hickory as they make’m…Todd Pletcher has made no Preakness plans at this juncture re his three Derby runners; Stanford, withdrawn after entering the Derby, will run in Baltimore… Speaking of Pletcher-trained three year olds, Competitive Edge may be the best of them, winning in the inaugural Pat Day Stakes in electric style; his flat mile in 1:34.18 smashed a decades-old stakes record (formerly run as the Derby Trial)…

Is there any doubt that Divisidero, winner of the American Turf Stakes, is a budding three year old turf star? Divisidero vs. Bolo; would pay to see that one…A Lot got late in the shadow of the wire, as if in need of the race; stakes win coming soon, mark it down…Judy The Beauty spotted Dame Dorothy three pounds and conditioning, beaten only a neck in the G1 Humana Distaff; excellent return performance. Fourth finisher Sweet Reason loomed boldly but was one-paced in the final furlong; will benefit, mark that one down, too…

Tonalist finished great winning the Westchester at Belmont Park, where he’s never lost in four starts Equipped with "cheater" blinkers, he was sharp and strong…

Would love to have been a fly on the wall during the Ken Ramsey-Chad Brown confrontation over Stephanie’s Kitten, resulting in a program scratch from the Woodford Reserve Turf Stakes. Brown, meanwhile, was at Belmont Park saddling Rosalind to win the Sheepshead Bay. Did he prefer to be in New York, or was the decision made after the disagreement?

Written by John Pricci

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Monday, April 27, 2015


If Baffert Runs 1-2 in Derby 141, What Then?


PLANTATION, FL., APRIL 27, 2015—Here we are, Derby Week 141, and I still can’t conjure up a field with more brilliance, potential greatness, this rich in talent. There are five days remaining now so no defections, please.

One or more of these colts, headed by American Pharoah, might be one of the ones of history, but I do not deign to call any one of them a special horse. All Thoroughbreds are special.

And, besides, any trainer who stands in front of a microphone or notepad this week will say that his horse is special, whether he is or not: There are owners to cajole, after all.

It is almost universally acknowledged by anyone who has seen him race that American Pharoah could be a “freak,” a crude term for the highest accolade in this sport of paupers and kings.

Many observers believe they saw what they needed to when American Pharoah rated comfortably in second before effortlessly—no hyperbole, just fact—sweeping to command and blowing the Arkansas Derby wide open at headstretch.

There are two things related to his style that are missing from completing the equation. The leader was quarter-horsed from the first jump in a catch-me-if-you-can gambit. If you can’t say rabbit-like, I can.

Further, as was mentioned, and the hope of all rival trainers, no one knows whether or not he will pass an eyeball-to-eyeball, fetlock-to-fetlock confrontation, and that includes Bob Baffert.

But there are two saving graces about that: The race shape/trip might not require as much and none of his 19 rivals will be capable of pushing him to that degree, if so, they’ll make that commitment at their peril..

How this all shakes out depends on two more things; post-position draw, of course, and the break from the gate. Variables such as crowd noise and field size add to the puzzle.

I freely admit that I don’t know what to expect. I’ve spoken with two horsemen on the subject this week, world famous Mike De Kock and recently unretired Brooklyn legend John Parisella.

On last week’s NTRA conference call, and on my cell later that afternoon, I asked both men the same question: “Is there anything about American Pharoah’s constitution, demeanor, action or running style that could compromise his chances?”

They had the exact same answer: “No weakness.”

Elsewhere, Steve Cauthen used the word "freak" to describe American Pharoah's ability. "Super horse" is what Todd Pletcher called him; "lengths ahead of Dortmund" was how Wayne Lukas put it.

Of course, words like these have been used to describe many Derby wunderkinds--but that's why races are run between wooden fences on dirt, not on paper.

I've never bothered to ask about Baffert’s “other horse,” an inappropriate description considering all he’s done is win six races in which he’s run, including one over the Churchill surface.

I’ve seen all of Dortmund’s races, as have many of you. I can’t find fault with any of them, nor with him; so agile for a horse of 17 hands, one that can beat you in so many ways.

Speaking of paper, will it be long before some enterprising sports book sets a price on a winning Baffert Derby quinella?

Shortly after last Tuesday’s call, a colleague called to ask this hypothetical question:

“What if the Baffert horses were to finish 1-2? The winner obviously goes on to Baltimore; would he then skip the Preakness with the other one..?

“..Now let’s say he runs them both in the Preakness and they finish 1-2 again? Does he not run the runner-up in the Belmont, concerned he could cost himself the Triple Crown..?

“..What do you think he will do?”

“Can’t trick me,” I said. “That’s three questions.”

But very good questions, indeed.

First, assuming continued good health for both colts and coming out of their races well, the fact they are owed by separate interests deliciously complicates matters.

A few scenarios, then:

American Pharoah pulls a Point Given: Whether it be lack of stout conditioning, pilot error, whatever, he finishes second or worse in Kentucky but showed he truly belongs. He might have been trip compromised and was quite probably best on the day… but his stablemate wins.

I’d figure that both American Pharoah and Dortmund run back in the Preakness. Clearly, the Derby winner goes to Baltimore. However, if Dortmund loses, he skips Baltimore and ships to Long Island.

Now, if they should they finish 1-2 again, with American Pharoah winning, the Belmont wicket gets really sticky. With a Triple Crown on the line, and with Dortmund appearing the more likely to handle 12 furlongs, what then? Does he derail his and Shah’s Triple Crown dreams?

If there were no Triple Crown on the line for American Pharoah, it’s Haskell Invitational here we come. After all, Baffert’s only won seven of those, four times in the past five years.

As of right now, however, only Saturday matters.

When deciding between divergent paths, Baffert, like most horse trainers, will opt on the side of cash. But these are Triple Crown races, the most coveted prize for any owner. For Baffert, it would be a nice dilemma to have.

Written by John Pricci

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Saturday, April 25, 2015


2015 Hall of Fame Voters Rate an A+


PLANTATION, FL, April 24, 2015—Looking at the roster of 2015 Hall of Fame inductees, which includes the late Chris Antley, trainer King Leatherbury and the exception runners Xtra Heat and Lava Man, makes me all warm and fuzzy within.

Where to start? Since neither a top jockey nor trainer can get the job done without the assistance of a winning Thoroughbred, let’s begin there:

On a personal level, I’ve been placing a check mark next to Xtra Heat’s name since she first appeared on my Hall of Fame ballot.

Now I fully realize that at a time when buying two-year-olds at auction was not de rigueur, $5,000 was a pittance for such brilliance and uncommon consistency, even back 2000. And what a bargain she proved to be.

Competing at the game’s highest levels, Xtra Heat won 26 of 35 lifetime starts and completed five exactas, off the board only twice in her Hall of Fame career.

Of those 26 victories, 25 came in stakes—and they didn’t write nearly as many of those ersatz overnight stakes as is done today.

Eleven of her added money wins were graded, often winning as the highweight, four scores coming in New York, including a stakes record run in the G1 Prioress; 1:08.26. Recognition for her considerable achievements has been long overdue.

Indeed, we’re well aware that Lava Man was a California-bred, but that never troubled him, nor was it a problem for 2014 Horse of the Year California Chrome.

We’re not fond of compilers, preferring dominance in our Hall of Famer performers. But $5.2 million is a lot of compiling; the only other Cal-breds to earn more are brother Hall of Famers Tiznow, Best Pal and California Chrome.

If that statistic doesn’t make him a real Hall of Fame deal, then maybe three straight Hollywood Gold Cup victories and back-to-back Big Cap scores speaks to his genuine class.

His charm, however, was that he is one of those rare Thoroughbreds best termed as “the people’s horse.” They may come along far more often than do the freaks, but it’s still rare when a horse can warm the crossover hearts of latter-day sports fans.

People who will attend the Racing Museum and Hall of Fame on Union Avenue deserve to read a plaque that honors the racing memories he created.

Chris Antley was, as a modern day athlete, the whole package; charismatic, handsome, with a soft, quick smile. And let’s not forget naturally gifted, especially on the grass?

But like many modern athletes, he too had addiction demons which, in his case, led to his death at the unseemly age of 34.

His death was officially categorized as a drug overdose, but the Los Angeles police department called it something else; a homicide, beaten to death from “severe trauma to the head.”

Sad doesn’t begin to describe his fate; profoundly tragic is more like it.

Rightfully, the Hall will celebrate his achievement between the fences. In 17 years, the “Ant Man” won nearly 3,500 races, including two Kentucky Derbies and a Preakness. He was the country’s leading rider in 1985, led all New York riders four years later, and was the Saratoga riding champion in 1990.

But I’ll remember him for two most unusual feats. In 1989, he won nine races in a single day; four at Aqueduct and five at the Meadowlands. During that period he won at least one race a day for 64 consecutive days.

Joe DiMaggio never did that.

Like Xtra Heat, King Leatherbury’s inclusion into racing’s pantheon was long delayed. Through last week, his 6,454 career victories ranks him 4th in wins all-time, and among those number 52 individual training titles in Maryland; 26 at Pimlico, 26 at Laurel.

He also won four training titles at Delaware Park, twice leading the nation in total victories. An innovator, Leatherbury was among the first trainer, if not the first, to recognize the critical importance of form cycles, using Sheets figures to acquire a wealth of profitable new acquisitions.

While claimers were his stock and trade, “the King” also showed a deft hand with quality stakes runners, including Taking Risks, Thirty Eight Pace, Ah Day and the mare, Catatonic, Belmont Park’s Grade 1 Hempstead winner in 1987.

However, contemporary fans recognize his brilliant handling of a prolific turf sprinter, a “people’s horse” named Ben’s Cat, which Leatherbury also bred and owns. The hard-hitting gelding has earned $2.3 million the hard way, winning 22 stakes, four of them graded.

And, so, 180 panel members got the 2015 Hall of Fame vote absolutely right. Good for them, and good for these worthy honorees and their connections, with thanks for providing lots of victories and memorable moments along the way.

Written by John Pricci

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