Saturday, November 06, 2010

Looking for Blame

LOUISVILLE, KY., November 6, 2010--When storybook endings don’t turn out the way you want them to, you start looking for someone or something to blame.

An emotional Mike Smith, with his face mud-speckled and chin quivering, was the first racing luminary to arrive at the press conference following one of the most memorable stretch runs in Breeders’ Cup Classic, or any other race’s, history.

A few minutes after explaining his trip, one that took place before 72,000 fans who had come to historic Churchill Downs to see once and future history, Smith, now choking on his emotions, put it all on his own shoulders.

“If I had to blame anyone, it would be me,” Smith said. “It’s my fault, now choking on his words, and hesitant, before adding, “she should have won.”

Smith cupped his hands over his face and broke into tears. “I just wish I would have been in the race a little earlier. Without a doubt I’m disappointed. She’s my everything.”

And an eerie silence fell over the press box, before Smith began seeking even more answers.

“I was just having a rough time of it going underneath the white wire the first time. She just wasn’t leveling out like I wanted to. The dirt hitting her in the face was a lot of it. She just wasn’t used to that part.

“I just left her with too much to do. I truly believe I was on the best horse today.”

And anyone who watched two days of main track racing could empathize. Many of the contestants simply didn’t handle the cuppy surface well, the loose ground breaking away beneath their hooves. It’s the way Churchill can get in the fall.

Consequently, there might be some who would put the blame on trainer John Shirreffs, who didn’t give his mare very much experience on dirt. She only had two runs on the natural stuff.

And that came on one track, Oaklawn Park, where the horses that do well are said to sometimes “hear their feet rattle.”

Maybe there’s something to that. And maybe if it weren’t for Shirreffs’ judicious horsemanship, the racing world would not have had Zenyatta for as long as it did, perfect as she was, before falling a short head behind a late developing, totally professional, gritty four-year-old colt named Blame.

The irony escaped no one.

The first thing a sports journalist learns is that the loser is not the story; that only does a disservice to the winner.

But editors who teach that can't be racing fans. “This game rips your heart out,” said Dick Jerardi of the Philadelphia Daily News. “And that’s why we show up.”

When I offered that all Zenyatta lost Saturday was a horse race, and that a long-nose defeat while in search of perfection is the kind of poetic injustice that so often happens in this game--that it might even add to her legend, when the honored Bill Nack added, “like Seattle Slew in the Gold Cup.”

Considering the moments leading up to the Classic, the result didn't make sense. It was the Queen’s show right from the start.

When she made the long walk from the stable area, one that fans have seen a million times before the big race that’s run here every May, Perry Gastis, private clocker for new racing website, followed her through binoculars as she made the walk over.

“I saw her gallop twice this week. Each time she came out to train, she did so in routine fashion. Today she danced all the way over. She knows. She really knows.”

And then all the horses were led into the paddock and Zenyatta walked in. She made the bend, taking a few goose steps before entering her stall to be saddled.

She walked out of the slip, made a half circumference as the field was being led post-ward and began dancing again. In the parade, she swished her tail for a moment, not usually a good portend for horses on their way to the starting gate.

But this is Zenyatta, who followed up the tail swishing with a kind of back-leg rumba step. It was the damndest thing you ever saw.

The tote board was showing 2 MIN now, and she was perhaps several hundred yards from the starting gate when she began pawing with her right fore. Not being from California, I assume she had saved her entire repertoire for last.

Now all have seen Zenyatta lonesome last before but this was different.

She was not reaching out, so much so that race caller Trevor Denman, as she straightened away into the backstretch, informed the crowd that Smith was urging her to get a little closer now.

She did, but while getting closer it didn’t appear she was making up ground. It was unsettling.

Then as the field entered the final turn, Smith asked in earnest, cutting the corner some and she as beginning to roll.

The fact that she would be brought outside for her rally surprised no one, and she began to pick it up as the furlong pole approached. She was running, trying hard, but not lengthening the way she normally does.

Meanwhile, Garrett Gomez, who began his weekend lying on the turf course following a Thursday spill; prepped for the biggest victory of his career with two Breeders’ Cup wins, one on the day and one on Filly Friday and engineered a beautiful ground saving trip on the surface loving winner.

Go Go won it when he angled Blame off the inside--dead both days--into the five path and into the breach, Blame gamely and with class shouldered his way between rivals, opened a clear seemingly insurmountable advantage at the sixteenth pole and lasted by a gut wrenching margin that ripped the heart out of the whole place.

But all Zenyatta lost yesterday was a horse race, nothing more, because, yes, they all get beat. Only the truly great ones lose in a manner that racing’s best audience would never forget.


Right Church, Wrong Pew

The European turf runners continued to dominate the Americans as expected in the Breeders’ Cup Turf. But it wasn’t the horse most handicappers were expecting.

With clear aim and a huge opening on the rail, troubled Arc de Triomphe fourth Bekhabad burst through burst through to challenge but hung when the real running began.

Dangerous Midge, with blinkers added and the legendary Frankie Dettoriin the boot, won down Champ Pegasus in the final strides to win going away. The latter led throughout under extremely clever rating from Joel Rosario, nearly stealing the 12 furlong marathon.

The brilliant young California won the Dirt Mile with longshot Dakota Phone a half hour earlier, catching the very game Morning Line in the final jump, the three-year-old running too good to lose. It was yet another agonizingly narrow loss for trainer Nick Zito in 2010.

The winner’s only previous stakes win came in the G3 Arc Trial in September. It was trainer Brien Meehan’s second Turf win, having won with Red Rocks four years ago. It was Dettori's 10th Breeders' Cup victory, second only to Mike Smith, who desperately wants to win the upcoming race, the centerpiece Classic.

One More for a Baker's Dozen

The great European turf miler Goldikova threw her hat into the 2010 Horse of the Year ring with a commanding and historic victory in the Breeders’ Cup Mile, becoming the first horse of either sex to win three consecutive Breeders’ Cup events.

Indeed, the great Goldikova is one of the more accomplished horses ever regardless of sex. The Mile was her 15th victory in 21 career starts, 12 of those Group or Grade 1, eight of those against males.

And her third Mile might have been her best. Clearly, it was against the toughest competition she’s faced in her three trips over. Either way, she is extremely special, the victory an emotional one for her trainer, Freddie Head, who, as a jockey, became the first rider to repeat in a Breeders’ Cup race with the great Miesque, over the same course as today’s.

“My English is not good enough,” said the French horseman. “I was feeling so many things. Winning a third time at Churchill Downs after Miesque repeated here. I’ve been thinking about this so long that it doesn’t seem real. I must be a very lucky person.”

As this is posted, it’s less than an hour until the Breeders’ Cup Classic. If history is made again in that race, Breeders’ Cup 27 would rank as the best of all time. Racing fans can hardly wait.

All Shook Up

A star is born. Uncle Mo, under supremely confident handling from Johnny Velazquez, was content to stalk the early pace of longshot Riveting Reason, engaged the leading with three eighths of a mile remaining, took command entering the stretch and opened up on Boys At Tosconova and all the rest, securing the juvenile Eclipse championship.

Boys At Tosconova was expected to provide the undefeated colt his greatest challenge, and that’s the way Ramon Dominguez played it, keeping the competition in his sights, moving on the turn as Uncle Mo was asserting himself for the lead.

For an instant it appeared a battle would be joined as the two straightened away into the stretch. But approaching the eighth pole, Uncle Mo found another gear and powered away, opening an insurmountable advantage.

Boys At Tosconova finished well for place but was overmatched. Rogue Romance, well regarded while making his dirt debut after two strong turf victories and bet down from 30-1 morning line to 8-1, finished well for third in a promising effort.

It might turn out that the son of Officer might have distance limitations come Kentucky Derby time but that didn’t seem to be the case yesterday, not in the slightest. It just might be that he’s one of nature’s equine freaks.

“I usually don’t get too excited when I watch my horses race. Johnny’s won a lot of races for me and when I saw him look around, I got a lot of confidence ,” said trainer Todd Pletcher. “I actually started shaking, that’s not really happened to me before.

“To have a horse with this kind of natural ability with the kind of mind he has is exciting, it’s the whole package. He’s already running fast enough to win some three-year-old preps.

“All I need to do is keep him happy. We’ll take him down to Palm Meadows in a couple of weeks, hopefully to prepare him for a run at the Derby.” Pletcher won three of the four juvenile races this weekend.

After making the middle move, Uncle Mo reached the lead after six furlongs in 1:11.92. After reaching the sixteenth pole with a mile in 1:36.33, he ran his final sixteenth of a mile in :06.27, stopping the timer in 1:42.60.

Only 182 days remain until May’s first Saturday.

Today, the industry wasn’t so lucky.

Upon further inspection it was learned that Rough Sailing suffered a fracture humerus, an injury Dr. C Wayne McIlraithe described as “not repairable.”

“The owner requested euthanasia. It’s been done.”

Rough Sailing fell heavily after slipping on the turf entering the clubhouse turn during the running of the Juvenile Turf. McIlwraithe explained he wasn’t sure at this point how the injury occurred and that there would not be a determination until an autopsy was performed. Consequently, it is unknown whether the fall was the cause of the injury or the other way around.

In the Sprint, won convincingly in wire to wire fashion by Big Drama, giving jockey Eibar Coa his first Breeders’ Cup score after 18 rides and trainer David Fawkes with his very first Cup entrant, Atta Boy Roy sustained suspensory damage in the right fore. The injury is not life threatening and it is probable that Atta Boy Roy would race again.

“Calvin [Borel] felt some sensitivity in the right fore leg upon returning and jumped off the horse. At this point, the injury appears very minor and that’s all good news.”

Here Comes Chamberlain Bridge

Right down the center of the course. And to think he was troubled with physical isuues causing him to skip a final planned workout last weekend.

But he showed his affinity for the sand-based Churchill turf course, winning his fourth race in five starts with one placing, running down a very speed, and very game Central City, the pacesetter who re-rallied but could not hold the winner safe.

It was the second Breeders’ Cup victory of the weekend for trainer Bret Calhoun and local product Jamie Theriot, who broke his Breeders’ Cup maiden aboard Dubai Majesty in yesterday’s Filly & Mare Sprint. The time was :56.53, no threat to the course record of :55.45 for the 5 furlongs.

It Was Rough Sailing Alright

And so another offspring of More Than Ready, another juvenile that prepped at Woodbine for the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile races, trained by the same Todd Pletcher, ridden by the same Garrett, and a pair of youngsters that trained together at Churchill for the big day, got the job done.

And it wasn’t easy. “Another time you stumble and go to your nose at the start then have to go around a fallen horse on the first turn, you have to be the best horse,” Pletcher explained.

The fallen horse, Rough Sailing, went down of his own doing entering the clubhouse turn, seeking to lose his action and sliding to a stop after falling and unseating jockey Anna Napravnik.

“It was an injury to his right fore,” explained Dr. C. Wayne McIlwraithe. “The horse has had trouble extending his leg. He’s been taken back to the barn to undergo further testing.

“The injury has not been localized, we don’t know if it’s a bone or ligament injury at this point.” Napravnik walked off under her own power.

Just as he had done with a wide draw aboard while riding More Than Real to victory in the Juvenile Fillies Turf, Gomez came strongly from off the early pace to win going away with Pluck, a son of More Than Ready, one of the first good horses Pletcher trained after striking out on his own.

“I talked with Rosie (Napravnik), she’s fine,” said Rough Sailing’s trainer Michael Stidham. “She said his hind leg just slipped.”

Pletcher trains the winner for Team Valor.

Timing Is Everything

I knew I should have taken the 9:20 shuttle from downtown out to the track. Missed all the fun, Ed Fountaine of the New York Post told me:

“We were passing one of the old broken down watering holes downtown. Out in front, five Hell’s Angels were sitting on their bikes. All of them were wearing Zenyatta sweatshirts. Couldn’t get my cell out fast enough to take a picture.”

“Glad I wasn’t there.” “Why? Fountaine asked.

“Because I’da stuck my head out the window and yelled: “ ‘Hey, I voted for Rachel. Screw you.’ ”

* * *

They’ve run two undercard races and the rail is still not the place to be at the Downs. Worth watching that develop throughout the day. Speed, on the other hand, is holding very well. Looks like they tightened up the surface a bit.

Want some old school handicapping philosophy? Speed in routes; closers going two turns.


* * *

It Could Have Been Much Worse

“I’ve said it before,” Todd Pletcher said. “You stay in the game long enough and you see everything happen,” referencing the controversial incident involving Ladies Classic second favorite Life At Ten, who failed to officially finish the race.

“She kind of basically had a typical ‘tie-up’ episode (severe cramping) after the race where she was just cramped up.”

This scenario was played out before a national television audience. Jockey Johnny Velazquez said in a remote interview with analyst Jerry Bailey.

“Is she warming up any better, Johnny?” Bailey asked. “Ah, no, not really.”

The speedy Life At Ten walked out of the starting gate and Velazquez immediately wrapped up on her. The industry dodged a major bullet yesterday.

Written by John Pricci - Comments (13)


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