Tuesday, April 16, 2019

The Derby Favorite, Led by Commander Smith, Has Landed

By John Pricci

HOT SPRINGS—The timer had just clicked 23:08 for the opening quarter mile of the 2019 Derby prep-season finale, the last of the points-qualifying hundred-granders.

Staying off the inside, the gummiest part of Oaklawn Park’s biblically wet surface last Saturday, Mike Smith had just cleared the first turn racing three-paths wide of the rail.

But Money Mike wasn’t done thinking; there was more race-riding to do. He played the Arkansas Derby as if it were a match race, which it surely was on paper. Except they don’t run horse races on paper.

When Jose Ortiz, the quiet, thoughtfully aggressive riding star was named on Improbable, Omaha Beach’s match-race rival, a pitched battle would surely follow.

As most handicappers plotted the race, speedy pretenders would lead the early way, Ortiz and Improbable would likely track them, and Smith and Omaha Beach in kind would track Improbable.

But, wait, there’s more.

That’s when Smith did…well…the improbable. As the field straightened away into the backstretch, he shifted Omaha Beach into the four-path and made a middle move to vie for command.

Just after he reached the leader, Smith dropped his hands and his willing, obedient runner was content to stick his neck in front and remain there comfortably. It was a kind of speed duel, yet not really.

With Smith and his talented mount in control, Improbable and Ortiz would be forced to react to them, and not the other way around.

By the time the two rivals reached the half-mile pole, the race within a race began to unfold, snap-your-fingers fast-like. It was on.

In the end, it wasn’t as much of a battle as it was a squirmish. As the two rivals straightened away for home, the most anyone could accuse Smith of doing was “knuckling” on his colt, not quite a statue but mouse-like quiet.

Omaha Beach, a very, very good horse indeed, did the rest. He wouldn’t let Improbable go by. In midstretch, Smith lowered his body and got to urging Omaha Beach.

Alternately showing him a left-handed stick and applying a few encouraging strokes that would have pleased the strictest of new CHRB standards, the Hall of Fame-Mandella trainee reached the line in 1:49.91—racehorse time.

The surface yielded honest times all day. Mitole’s G3 Count Fleet went in 1:09.36. Quip’s G2 Oaklawn Park Handicap, for older horses, was run in 1:50.21, putting Omaha Beach’s effort in context.

Following the 23:08 opening gambit, Omaha Beach surged from fifth to first, offering splits of 24.42, 24.96, 25.07, and 12.38 for the final furlong.

That meant Smith was able to back down the subsequent half-mile to 49.38, rounded a complete turn in 25.07, before posting a final eighth that will win--what, eight or nine out of every 10 races run?

The victory margin was one length. It was another 5-3/4 lengths back to Country House, the only member of nine remaining rivals to attempt making up any ground at all. He was good; the exacta finishers were much better.

In a half-century of race watching, there were two local riding icons that I adored, worthy of lofty qualifications; Angel Cordero Jr. and Jerry Bailey.

Latter day, the Ramon Dominguez rode with that kind of rare dominance, so did Pat Day who, yes, waited a tad too long and failed to reach Sunday Silence in the 1989 “racing epic” Classic.

But like Shoemaker, who I could appreciate only during the twilight of his career and the great Pincay, who I didn’t appreciate enough because it was pre-ubiquitous simulcasting, they were the great horseback whisperers of my time.

With Saturday’s mid-race move--not that he needs my blessing--Mike Smith has made my “all-time” personal pantheon. Daring, controlled, measured, safe and strong race riding separates the very good from the very best.

Having the most willing and most talented winning partner beneath him, Smith, as he has done so often in recent years, again proved the difference.

Smith now has a Derby decision to make. Maybe that was his thinking behind the aggressiveness. He knows and felt the power of Roadster’s turf-like turn of foot but just how many gears does Omaha Beach have anyway? How can I best use them?

I would be very surprised if Mike Smith did not stick with Omaha Beach. Accepting the best mounts is about winning and loyalty. But, like Jordan, the Derby has different rules. Trainers know that all Derby mount bets are off.

Every rider wants to win every Derby; it’s just that simple. And Smith probably could have first call on every stakes horse Bob Baffert has at his disposal.

But how can one ever forget the trainer who provided his first ever Triple Crown champion? Then again, that was way back in 2018.

[Ed.Note]: After this was posted, Richard Mandella confirmed that Mike Smith would ride Omaha Beach and Bob Baffert has engaged Florent Geroux to partner with Roadster


I came to Hot Springs because seeing the Arkansas Derby and the “Racing Festival of the South” live were on my racing bucket list. I liked Hot Springs so much that I will return and, unlike Macarthur, it won’t take four years, God willing.

I was with a group of fans who rented a private infield tent. Then the rains came. And while Saturday’s event has become influential enough to be granted Grade 1 status, Oaklawn Park on this day was not ready for many of its fans.

It was not entirely Oaklawn’s fault; that problem lies at the doorstep of Intents Party Rentals, a company that bills itself as “Arkansas’ Finest Tent and Party Rental Company.”

The Arkansas Derby is the best excuse the Razorback State has to throw itself a party. The vibe comes replete with a New Orleans quintet that plays at the pleasure of the revelers, plastic cups in hand, adult beverages within.

While it is true that no one can control the weather, the track can control the environment. The 10-day forecast warned that torrents were expected and that calculation never changed. There was due diligence to be done. It wasn’t.

With 40 minutes until first post on Derby day, the tent TV sputtered, off, on, then off again from the moment we arrived. The tent was three-sided, the backside not staked down in place. Want to guess in which direction the wind was blowing?

There were three tables, all lacking table-cloths; two of them were soaked, including half the folding chairs, many of which were piled atop the tables. With temperatures hovering around 50 degrees, it was as cold as it was wet: Your basic nightmare.

Jennifer Hoyt and her media staffers could not have been kinder, providing Toni and I with shelter from the storm. I had press credentials but didn’t request press box work space since I write second-day stories, not unlike this one.

Our hosts, Chris and Donna Robbins--he the newest member of the HRI team--cried uncle the moment Mitole held off two-time defending Count Fleet champion Whitmore, texting they were uber-ing their way back home. We joined them shortly thereafter.

Not long after we left, all tents on the backside of the infield were empty.

After they were apprised the situation, and to their credit, the Intents Company offered our hosts either a full, unconditional refund, or a free tent for the 2020 Arkansas Derby, also known as doing the right thing.

Toward that end, a four-sided tent of clear plastic should be made available next year to go along with plans to raise the sightlines and add woodchips as an alternative to walking on wet, slippery grass that lead to the tents.

Heretofore, so should track management do all it can to enhance the fan experience. There appeared to be no quality control and they had more than enough warning of what was in store.

Oaklawn’s model works, and it works big time. They are on their way to new records, even without the extended meet that runs through Kentucky Derby day. It’s a betting product that the public has embraced.

On the drawing board are plans for a nine-figure hotel complex to be erected in the immediate future at the far end of the track’s expansive grounds on the south side of the grounds.

Oaklawn Park is poised to become a monster in this game, and that’s great. But when it comes to the infield fan experience, they need to order their priorities.

©John Pricci, HorseRaceInsider, April 16, 2019

Written by John Pricci

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Wednesday, January 30, 2019

Chris Kay Will Be Missed: Discuss

January 30, 2019--In the wake of Chris Kay’s “resignation” from the New York Racing Association last week, an Internet poll was conducted asking: “Should extensive racing knowledge be a prerequisite for being CEO of a major racetrack or association?”

The results were not in the least bit surprising but the margin of disparity was an eye-opener: Four of every five respondents indicated that a deep knowledge of racing was needed to do the job.

Perhaps the margin shouldn’t be all that surprising and is really typical of racing’s stakeholders; breeders, owners, trainers, jockeys, fans of every stripe and horseplayers big or small.

Despite the fact that about 95% of the above mostly lose money, 81% of the population believes that they have a 100% solution to an important industry issue; the game’s management.

In the poll’s comment section, a former NYRA executive--not without his share of controversy--had it right when, after some self-serving observations, noted: “In reality, it is an impossible job! How do you marry horsemen, politicians, executives, handicappers and fans?”

In New York State, the current answer is you can’t, such is the nature of politics. And recall that Governor Andrew Cuomo, who routinely turns his back on racing, recently released a budget that actually suggested divorcing horse racing from OTBs.

As with anything, there are two sides to every story. On the con side, Kay did appear to have a measure of jerk in him. He never failed to see an opportunity to promote himself but, most notably, asked company employees to do private work at his home.

I never have spoken with Kay. My first public glimpse was a press box observation of a winners’ circle ceremony at Saratoga celebrating 50 years of service to the association by lifelong racetracker Sentell “Sonny” Taylor, NYRA’s Official Timer.

Richard Migliore was the master of ceremonies and after the introduction, gave Kay the microphone which the CEO accepted without acknowledging Migliore, a moment that at best was a little cringe-worthy, at worst, rude and self-aggrandizing.

Kay spoke for about five minutes citing, in what can now be categorized as Trumpian style, all the accomplishments his administration made since the prior Saratoga race meet. Afterward, Kay presented Taylor with a gift for his long and meritorious service.

If he acknowledged Taylor by name, I never heard it. Funny how it’s the little things you notice about a man.

So there’s that and the unpopular significantly-higher prices that, in latter day corporate-speak, was meant to “enhance the guest experience.” Then you look at the other side, at what was accomplished during a tenure that began in 2013.

Kay gave subordinates the tools for growth. On his watch NYRA created horse racing’s best closed-circuit TV signal, featuring a deeper talent pool for producers to utilize. With that came many more broadcasts of NYRA racing on Fox Sports 2 into 2020.

Coupled with TV exposure came the significant growth of NYRABets into a world class ADW betting platform that stressed Mobile wagering, racing’s wave into the future.

Kay greenlighted the resurfacing of the Aqueduct main track, lending a big-time veneer to NYRA’s image-busting winter product.

The year after Kay took the helm, thanks to cost cutting and increased revenue, NYRA finished in the black for the first time in over a decade. Indeed, the NYRA has shown a profit from racing operations for all five years of his tenure.

The emergence of a couple of steeds named American Pharoah and Justify certainly didn’t hurt.

In recognition of the Triple Crown’s final leg and event oriented, the NYRA racing office created the three-day Belmont Stakes Racing Festival weekend. The festival theme was replicated on or about Independence Day with a two-day Stars N Stripes Racing Festival, a largely turf-centric theme featuring international invitees.

Kay never got the chance to work on his vision of night racing at Belmont Park, a complete renovation of Elmont’s main track and turf courses, including the installation of a synthetic track for winter racing in anticipation of the future shuttering of Aqueduct Race Track.

Additionally, Kay had hoped to make capital improvements at Belmont in the manner of changes that is reshaping Saratoga, an accomplishment that has played to mixed reviews.

Horseplayers, like Wall Street gamblers, don’t easily embrace change, especially if it comes at an added cost, choosing instead to not look at the sports world and entertainment landscape that surrounds them. To wit:

While in no way comparing the two sports, the average pre-scalper price of a ticket to Sunday’s Super Bowl LIII ranged from $2,500 and $3,000. America’s middle class has long since been priced out of live sporting events.

By comparison, Saratoga racing, even at inflated prices, remains a bargain.

While Kay’s past as chief executive at Toys R Us has been a constant source of critical amusement, his executive time at Universal Parks and Recreation might have created the vision that helped enhance NYRA’s bottom line, his mandate when he accepted the post.

Taking shots at “Mr. Toys R Us” was the low hanging fruit of racetrack executive ridicule. Kay never was a popular CEO but he made the difficult out-of-box decisions needed to move NYRA forward. He deserves credit for that, even if he benefitted him financially.

It is true that Kay never met a photo op that he didn’t like, and made one very stupid decision that came at a very high price—his job.

Let’s see what the geniuses on the NYRA Board of Directors, and the state’s chief executive officer, has in mind going forward. It’s extremely unlikely that any new appointee will accomplish in the next five years what Kay achieved in that same time frame.

Written by John Pricci

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Monday, January 21, 2019

Racing’s Waiting for Gadot

January 21, 2019--As international racing fans await Saturday’s Pegasus World Cup and Pegasus Turf, both to be drawn Tuesday and, of course, the big Horse of the Year reveal, this weekend provided a glimpse back at a defending Sprint champion and a look forward on the classics trail. Going round and round in the circle game:

AQUEDUCT: SoCal speed—and now a SoCal closer—came East to dominate his rivals when Solid Wager, happy to make the mini-stretch to his preferred 7 furlong distance, roared home in deep stretch under a well-judged ride from Jose Lezcano.

In taking the G3 Toboggan and improving his record at the trip to (11) 6-1-0, the gelded 8-year-old ran well enough to stick around for the Tom Fool, next up on NYRA’s graded sprint calendar, according to trainer Chris Englehart, who was happy to act as Peter Miller’s New York deputy. Speaking of Miller…

It was welcome back, champ, and this just might be Roy H’s year to take Dubai’s Golden Shaheen. There will be no Mind Your Biscuits to run him down this time, nor might there be a sudden X Y Jet to chase, certainly not the version that showed up in Gulfstream’s Sunshine Millions Sprint earlier.

Roy H, last seen winning the Breeders’ Cup Sprint back to back last November, showed absolutely no rust off the layup, tracking mate Conquest Tsunami through a half mile in 44.35, took over when ready entering headstretch, and galloped through the lane, stopping the timer in 1:08.89 eased up beneath Paco Lopez. “He’s a bullet,” said Lopez. “He’s the LeBron James of sprinters,” said Miller, closer to truth than hyperbole.

Earlier, Bob Baffert debuted a 2019 version of Justify called Dessman. Now that might be hyperbole but make no mistake, this Forego-sized 3-year-old can run. Yes, it is one race at 6 furlongs but after breaking flat-footed, he cruised up to the leaders, put them away, then drew out by 7-1/2 lengths, Flavien Prat more passenger than pilot. Stable mail, please.

GULFSTREAM PARK: …Speaking of the Sunshine Millions Sprint, the ever-dangerous Midwest Thoroughbreds outfit picked up all the pieces for trainer Georgina Baxter and Irad Ortiz Jr. when Quijote launched through the stretch after X Y Jet and Ray’swarrior committed pace suicide with splits of 21.09 and 43.54. Not even the perfect trip winner could keep up that pace, needing 1:09.98 to get 6 furlongs.

Javier Castellano showed why he is one of the world’s best grass riders, taking Sunshine Millions Turf with gelded 7-year-old Big Changes and Sunshine Millions Filly Turf with Gulfstream turf grass machine, Starship Jubilee.

With Big Changes (Brad Cox), he kept the race favorite in the clear throughout, set him down with vigorous urging to pass main rival Class and Cash on his outside and drifted a few paths thereafter to intimidate and show his mount that there was more left to do.

But the Starship Jubilee (Kevin Attard) ride was magical. It has to be when he start from the 13 slip with a short run to the first turn. He sent him early, decided to back off but was caught five-wide and between horses mid-turn then curled into the backstretch in the 3 or 4 path, the best that could be achieved under the conditions. After straightening away, the filly devastated her state-bred rivals.

Not to be outdone, Johnny Velazquez was tactically brilliant to take the Sunshine Millions Classic astride Souper Tapit for Mark Casse, who enjoyed quite the Saturday...more on that later.

With Jay’s Way setting a controlled but pressured pace, Velazquez established a comfortable 3-wide stalking trip but, more importantly, kept the dangerous Dalmore and Irad Ortiz boxed in on the fence a long way, long enough to get the jump at headstretch while Ortiz waited for room.

Dalmore could not sustain his rally after tipping outside but Jay’s Way was a tiger on the fence, coming again to loom a late threat. But Souper Tapit dug in to secure the win in a good horse race.

Don’t know how fast the Oldsmar surface was yesterday but a pair of sprinting 3-year-olds, one of each sex, sure made it look that way with visually impressive scores at 7 furlongs in the Pasco and Gasparilla Stakes, respectively.

Michael Trombetta-trained colt Win Win Win is fast fast fast. After breaking slowly from the No. 2 post, Win Win Win was taken in hand, allowed a fast pace to develop in front of him,

On the turn Win Win Win gathered momentum beneath Julian Pimentel, was in full stride at headstretch and absolutely powered home in 1:20.89, final three furlongs in 36.37, winning by 7-1/4 lengths in track record time. It’s very likely that the G3 Sam F. Davis at 1-1/16th miles is up next.

After Molto Bella raced virtually head-and-head during the early stages in swift fractions of 22.61 seconds for the ¼-mile and 45.12 for the half, it seemed unrealistic that either would make it to the wire without a pit-stop. Then there was Molto Bella.

A Grade I winner, she sustained and recorded a 6-1/2 length win over Into Trouble. Her time of 1:22.20 broke the former five year old stakes mark of 1:22.41 Ian Wilkes, currently racing on three fronts, was the winning trainer, Luca Panici coming up Alligator Alley from Hallandale for the ride.

Tapa Tapa Tapa
won the Wayward Lass by five in yet another stakes record performance, this one on turf, stopping the timer in 1:43.27 for 1-1/16 miles beneath Antonio Gallardo, who bagged a triple on the day.

It appears that a recent maiden graduate likely has zoomed into everyone’s Kentucky Derby Top 10, such was the commanding victory by War of Will in the one mile, 70-yard Lecomte, the Mark Casse trainee’s stakes debut.

After breaking sharply from mid-gate in the huge field, Tyler Gaffalione kept his mount out in the clear, the 4-path throughout and possibly wider on turns, and his words rang true when he said he was in command throughout.

"I was just worried about moving too soon." Gaffalione said. "He was carrying me so well. He's something special. You just put him wherever and he handles the rest." Casse said it another way in a post-race TV interview after checking the video.

“I was telling some friends that I think I have the Kentucky Derby this year--and I never say things like that.”

Parenthetically, I have known Casse for perhaps 40 years, from the time he was the young trainer for Calumet Farm in New York. I’ve never heard him utter a hyperbolic word, so I wouldn’t categorize this as the usual trainer-speak.

Of course, Derby questions remain: Dirt in his face; getting jostled about between rivals; continued development; peaking too soon. But the ability to handle 10 furlongs shouldn’t be one of them.

While his two-sided pedigree screams turf: War Front from the Sadler’s Wells mare, Visions of Clarity, the average winning distance for the offspring of this mating is 7.3 furlongs and 10.7, respectively. After four grass races to begin his career, including CAN G1 Summer Stakes, he’s two-for-two going long on dirt.

Needs Supervision
also won her stakes debut, taking Silverbulletday Stakes for trainer Jeremiah O’Dwyer, holding off a strong-rally late finishing Eres Tu beneath Joe Rocco Jr. "I more or less stayed out of her way," said Rocco Jr. "She stumbled leaving the gate and I was a little worried, but she picked herself up right away and put us in a good spot."

Of note: Victories by First Premio in the Col Bradley under hot-riding Brian Hernandez Jr., giving Casse a stakes double; Dubara in the Krantz Memorial beneath visiting fireman Jamie Spencer, and well-named Wynn Time in oft-entertaining Kenner under Marcelino Pedroza. The gelded 5-year-old improved his lifetime mark to (11) 8-2-1.

Written by John Pricci

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