Sunday, July 08, 2018

WinStar Has Sport’s Immediate Future in its Hands

HALLANDALE BEACH, FL, July 8, 2018—Justify’s influence on Thoroughbred racing knows no bounds. He’s big, he’s bad, he’s world-wide.

Thanks to America’s 13th Triple Crown winner and despite this country’s horsemen’s reticence to join the rest of the world regarding use of raceday medication, the big chestnut justifiably has had a universal impact on the sport.

According to the Thoroughbred Racing Commentary’s Global Rankings of June 24, jockey Mike Smith is second to only Great Britain’s Ryan Moore in world-wide accomplishments.

That dovetails appropriately with Bob Baffert being ranked just below Aidan O’Brien as the world’s leading trainer.

American based sire, the late Scat Daddy, currently ranks third in the world behind Great Britain’s Galileo and Dubawi, vaulting owner WinStar Farm into sixth place in that category.

WinStar ranks behind three Sheikhs; Hamdan Al Maktoum, plus the Godolphin and Juddmonte operations, with Coolmore Partners at #1 and Australia’s Magic Bloodstock Racing, owners of the mythological and prolific race mare, Winx.

However, when it comes to the power to control the immediate future of racing headlines in this country, WinStar ranks second to none. And on that the die might have been cast a fortnight ago:

WinStar president and CEO Elliott Walden announced that Audible, in which it also has a sizable interest, would not race again this year.

Of course, Audible is the uber talented New York-bred which, after winning Gulfstream Park’s Holy Bull and Florida Derby with authority, finished an excellent third to Justify on May’s first Saturday.

Most observers agree that, going forward, it would have been either Audible or juvenile champion Good Magic, Justify’s staunchest rivals approaching the Kentucky Derby, to emerge the biggest threats to Justify’s career going forward.

The biggest question the day after his historic achievement in the Test of the Champion is, and still remains: “Where and when will Justify run next?” But this week, the word “if” joins that trifecta.

On Saturday’s NBC telecast from Belmont Park on its hugely successful fifth year of presenting the Stars & Stripes Festival--playing to record and handle figures on the day—analysts Jerry Bailey and Randy Moss sounded as if they’ve heard rumors but were unforthcoming.

Seeds of doubt? Planted.

The time has long passed for enjoying the fruits of historic victory, or learning more about how much the Triple Crown campaign tapped Justify’s reserves, or evaluating his worth, currently estimated at $75 million. So, what will it be?

Baffert did use the words Justify and Travers in the same sentence--a good sign. While Justify likely would be challenged by a Haskell-prepped Good Magic in Saratoga, he need not fear Audible, whose new target is 2019.

Walden’s June 30 announcement indicated that trainer Todd Pletcher has been somewhat reluctant to breeze Audible, this coming after the colt was seen by redoubtable equine surgeon Dr. Larry Bramlage of Rood & Riddle Equine Hospital.

Audible clearly has some issue that his connections are dealing with, cautiously and conservatively. After the Bramlage examination that found “a few little things,” Audible returned to Pletcher then quickly re-routed back to WinStar’s Lexington base.

There are two possible conclusions: Audible’s health issues apparently are a bit more serious than a few little things that required a brief post-Derby freshening, eliminating a start in Justify’s Crown-seeking Belmont.

The other possibility is that Justify, should he return, is unlikely to race beyond the Breeders’ Cup Classic, especially since Walden said that WinStar’s other four-year-old is targeting 2019’s Pegasus World Cup and a possible trip to Dubai.

Those targets are at once appealing because there will be the lion’s share of a combined $27 million in purses there for the taking. And the World Cup comes with a built-in excuse; the half-way-around-the-world commute. No downside.

Which brings us full circle to Justify, who has not had a timed workout since the Belmont. And it’s become too late for the Haskell Invitational, a race Baffert won in 2001, 2002, 2005, 2010, 2011, 2012, 2014, and 2015 with American Pharoah.

This year’s Haskell is 21 days from today and Baffert could always train Justify up to the August 26 Travers, or possibly the Pacific Classic eight days earlier--then Baffert is no fan of the kind of turf that meets the surf at old Del Mar.

Like all the world’s top horsemen, Baffert enjoys carte blanche when it comes to targeting future objectives. But considering what’s a stake for a $75 million sire, including the trainer’s share of those future spoils, he might not be calling these shots.

There is a possible third factor for WinStar to consider; taking the Gun Runner path to retirement. After all the history WinStar he made in a Triple Crown campaign like no other, they could consider this:

No consortium of owners has ever started two horses in the Pegasus and finished 1-2. If Justify is healthy, he and Audible could both run in South Florida in late January. That way, racing fans could be winners, too.

Written by John Pricci

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Sunday, June 24, 2018

Death’s Circumstances Bring Disparate Perspectives

The week started promisingly as we looked forward to midweek racing that had such huge implications for the sport and the continued growth of international racing’s popularity.

That’s how special the Royal Ascot is for so many racing fans and punters. Indeed, I had hopes that I might actually do the bucket-list Ascot thing this year but it was not to be. Maybe 2019, God willing.

But this disappointment paled in comparison to losing a friend and a personal piece of Saratoga history. Undeniably Judge Larry LaBelle lived a full and rich life until he passed this week at age 90.

I learned another life lesson from his passing, that longevity does not make loss less painful.

When “The Judge” died this week, a little bit of Saratoga--at least as far as interlopers John and Toni are concerned--expired along with him.

Our first visit to Saratoga came very early in our dating life, during the tumultuous American summer of 1968.

Among other horrific events, violent anti-Vietnam War protests fueled the country’s rage, as did the assassination of Dr. King that spring.

But the American songbook ultimately died for us and millions of others in June when Robert F. Kennedy succumbed to yet another assassin’s bullet.

I took Toni to Saratoga for the first time two months after that, and as we drove east on Lincoln Ave. toward the racetrack, we passed iconic, pastoral Greenridge Cemetery. She turned to me and said:

“When my time comes, I’d like to be buried there.” Of course, I was stunned.

I explained that gravesites there were gone long ago but her wishes spoke loudly and eloquently to the fact that Saratoga is more than just a quaint town in upstate New York.

Saratoga is a feeling inside, a state of mind, a place filled with energy yet peaceful, good for the soul.

A decade later, I was a horse racing columnist and handicapper for Newsday. I had a seat in the Saratoga press box for four glorious weeks a year, a meet that ended only after the Hopeful and Spinaway were contested.

And for 24 days of the 24-day race meet, in walked Judge LaBelle with a big smile and big hello for everyone, dressed in the brightest colors this side of South Beach. He owned sport jackets that would have made Haywood Hale Broun blush.

Toni and I knew we had arrived after we received our first invitation to his annual dark-day party during Travers week.

Social events, like Royal Ascot this week, were, and still are, a large part of Saratoga’s racing and communal atmosphere. More than fun, which it always was, Larry and Cheryl’s pool party provided us with a sense of belonging.

Trainers, jockeys, racing officials, gamblers and turf writers were all in attendance at some point, filing in and out throughout the day and into the evening. It was a privilege to be numbered among them.

The Judge loved racetrackers and would go out of his way to help them when they ran afoul of the law. Indeed, he once kept a press box co-worker—not a writer nor NYRA staffer—out of the slammer for a sustained period.

It was not too egregious a crime, depending on how you feel about entering the Northway at exit 14 at about 3 am—the one that leads traffic off the highway, not on to it.

I can celebrate Larry’s life but I have not earned the right to celebrate the shocking loss of a racetracker on Friday.

I do not know jockey Corey Lanerie personally and never have met his wife Shantel, who passed that afternoon because of “complications.” Shantel was 42 and the mother of a 10-year-old daughter, Brittlyn.

Two things about her passing were gut-wrenching. To survive Stage 1 breast cancer only to succumb to sepsis at such a young age is unspeakably tragic.

The outpouring of love and sympathy for the Laneries on Twitter yesterday was the best of what social media can be.

Moments of silence observed in the winner’s circle at Churchill Downs, where her husband earned 15 riding titles, and Belmont Park, were touching tributes to the couple’s life together.

You don’t have to know a person to feel empathy, especially in light of the circumstances. This year my wife became a Stage 1 breast cancer survivor but health battles apparently never cease.

The clichéd wisdom states that God does not give you more than you can handle. I have no idea what Corey Lanerie, his friends and family are feeling this morning.

But I feel a sense of loss for someone who was as beloved as she by my fellow racetrackers. You would think that living in America these days would provide all the perspective one needs, until life lessons hit closer to home.

Although it seems very logical, I cannot reconcile the fact that I want to celebrate Larry LaBelle’s life and times but feel I must mourn someone I never met.

Yes, it’s probably because of the tragic circumstances surrounding Shantel Lanerie’s death, her love for the game and the good people in it whose lives she touched that never will be the same.

Written by John Pricci

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Sunday, June 17, 2018

The Justify Triple Crown Tour Is On

Yes Virginia, and Kentucky and New York and Maryland and California, there very much is racing life beyond the Triple Crown.

But the burning question that remains is where will Justify run next? The sub-text promoted by cynics was whether he would ever run again.

On the NBCSN telecast from Churchill Downs Saturday night, Bob Baffert told the hosting trio that there definitely are plans for Justify to keep racing.

The two-time Triple Crown-winning Hall of Famer appeared certain if just a tad hesitant before answering--at least that’s what his body language was suggesting.

As to the when, that was a lot trickier. He wants to get the colt back home to Santa Anita for further evaluation. He said all was well with Justify this week but wanted more time.

That is certainly fair in terms of taking the best care of the horse that he can. But that didn’t square with Justify’s body language last night, according to Baffert himself.

The Tour began in Louisville last night and next Saturday, at Santa Anita, there will be another parade and more feting, as there should be for a hometown hero:

A Triple Crown in five weeks; six victories without defeat in a span of 16 weeks. Indeed, a party is warranted.

But if you believe this kind of spacing and travel is not unusual, consider what Brad Cox, who won two stakes on Saturday night’s loaded Churchill program, reacted after Mr. Misunderstood’s Wise Dan victory:

“I think we may have rushed him a bit getting back from the Maker’s 46 at Keeneland. He ran well but I think the three weeks between races was a bit too much...”

Or of shipping, after Ax Man’s defeat at 1-2, Baffert explained the colt’s intemperate pre-race antics: “He’s not a horse that travels well, so he should be better when he gets back home [to Santa Anita].”

Ax Man was making his third start in 69 days after pairing very fast, lifetime- best performances.

I admit to being a bit dubious as to whether there have yet to be any conversations between Baffert and Winstar principal owner Kenny Troutt and CEO/President Elliott Walden regarding Justify’s future.

“There’s a lot of pressure,” said Baffert when asked where and when Justify would run next. Justify’s worth was estimated at $75 million after his history-making feat.

I wouldn’t want to pay those insurance premiums.

A look at the calendar indicates that there are 49 days between the Belmont Stakes and Monmouth’s Haskell, July 29. (I haven’t heard or read any rumors about a $5 million bonus to run at The Shore track).

That’s a ton of money for a struggling venue, even with a new sports betting revenue stream which doesn’t figure to be an immediate economic home run despite reported long lines at the sports-bet queues.

Analyst Randy Moss said to Baffert: “I know where I’ll see you next…I’ll see you at The Shore.” Baffert nodded, but didn’t say who he might be bringing with him.

It certainly won’t be Ax Man. And note that McKinzie is reported back in training. When Baffert announced April 4 that McKinzie would miss the classics, he said "but he'll be ready for the summer."

There are 74 days between the Belmont Stakes and Travers. In terms of potential quality, the Travers is potentially more talent-laden than the Kentucky Derby. Fewer horses but high quality, and late developers, too.

Off the top, if Audible makes the race, and with the Chad Brown duo of Gronkowski and Good Magic, that would guarantee drama will be high.

If Justify comes to Saratoga, it’s unlikely he would create the midweek traffic jam that American Pharoah did three years ago, but one never knows. Certainly the NYRA and the town will pull out all the stops.

Another consideration. In addition to his considerable gifts as a horseman, we know this about Baffert: He hates the rail, can get horses to peak off long layups, and is superstitious.

He’s won the Haskell eight times and the Travers three: Point Given in 2001 and the last two with Arrogate and West Coast. One that got away was the Triple Crown winner of 2015.

Last night at Churchill Downs, Ax Man was defeated at 1-2 while the Dale Romans horses, King Zachary and Tiz Mischief, finished 1-2 in the Matt Winn.

So the 2018 Saratoga question is: Will we see America’s best race horse of any age give Baffert a third straight Travers, or another Romans upset of a Triple Crown winner, or sweet Triple Crown revenge for Brown or Todd Pletcher?

Justify will race again, but the question of when and where probably won’t come for another week or two.

Baffert said last night that when he led Justify around the ring at Churchill Downs last night, the horse acted “like he was waiting for me to put a saddle on him,” that he seemed ready to go.

Justify has demonstrated amazing recuperative powers to match his considerable talent. We’re sure he’s captured the imagination of mainstream sports fans who are waiting to see him do it again.

Lots of pressure, indeed.

The Road to the Breeders’ Cup Has Begun

To date, 14 horses have qualified for the 2018 Breeders’ Cup on the first Saturday in November, including Saturday’s Fleur de Lis and Stephen Foster winners, Blue Prize and Pavel, respectively.

Four more WAYI races are on tap this week at the highly anticipated Royal Ascot race meet, to wit:

The Queen Anne for turf milers on Tuesday; Wednesday’s Prince of Wales for The Turf; Thursday’s Norfolk Stakes for the newly created Juvenile Turf Sprint, and Saturday's Diamond Jubilee for older turf sprinters.

Coverage from Royal Ascot begins Tuesday, through Friday, on the NBCSN network beginning at 8:30 a.m.

Where’s Bobby?

The Breeders' Cup announced Friday that 20 individuals have won election to serve as Breeders' Cup members, 10 are returning members. But the name Bobby Flay did not appear on the list published by Bloodhorse Daily.

Earlier this year, Flay suggested the creation of a new event, the Breeders’ Cup Derby, and for Breeders’ Cup to move its signature event to December so as to escape competition from college football.

The chatter surrounding those proposals was that the ideas were not warmly received.

Written by John Pricci

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