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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Sunday, April 19, 2015

Triumph and Near Tragedy at Charles Town

HALLANDALE BEACH, FL., April 19, 2015—Wish I could celebrate Moreno’s record-setting victory in Saturday’s Charles Town Classic but I really can’t, for obvious reasons.

We’re happy, of course, early indications are that Shared Belief’s stifle injury, likely the product of his troubled start, is not career threatening.

We wrote in advance of the Classic about how it was a prep for a far more prestigious event against tougher competition than those he faced at Charles Town.

Clearly, we underrated Moreno, ideally suited by the bull ring’s tight turns and speedy nature of Saturday’s surface.

But we were correct about something else--our being the possible bacio della morte notwithstanding--stating: “You never want to get too far ahead of yourself in this game.”

Maybe that’s what Shared Belief had in mind in Charles Town, West Virginia; let’s get out of this gate as fast as possible and get this thing over with.

“He just seemed to slip in behind,” was Hall of Famer Mike Smith’s observation. We’ll take him at his word.

Trainer Jerry Hollendorfer indicated Sunday that the gelding will undergo a nuclear scan to determine the extent of the hind-end injury, reporting that Shared Belief was walking sound Sunday morning.

In any case it was a stutter-step start, hopping instead of striding out in those first early jumps and, just like that, he was about three lengths behind the group and seriously compromised.

Then, almost immediately, came the first of three turns, which was more problematic for Shared Belief than usual, considering the circumstances.

The champ, his connections and the public that made him their 3-to-10 choice, certainly deserved a better fate.

For his part, Moreno ran his race, and usually does. He doesn’t get there as often as he finishes second and third.

But the win on Saturday pushed his earnings over the $2.9 million mark, the three-turn time of 1:48.81 was exceptional and a future that includes the Stephen Foster, Whitney and Breeders’ Cup Classic certainly doesn’t get much more demanding.

It was an excellent job by the loquacious, if sometimes injudicious, Eric Guillot.

Hopefully, Shared Belief’s injury is manageable and he will recover quickly. But the Met Mile likely has lost its star attraction.

However, should he recover quickly and fully, it is hoped that Saturday’s accident doesn’t keep the champ locked up in California until the Keeneland fall meet.

Charles Town Management: Dollar Wise but Penny Foolish

I lost a few dollars on the Charles Town Classic after the unfortunate gate incident but I could have lost a few more if track management hadn’t been so greedy.

Since Dime Supers were available, I intended to key Share Belief over five horses, three of which finished 1-2-3. But the horse I wished to use to anchor the wager in the second and third positions, General A Rod, finished unplaced, which made the bet a loser.

My intention was to play each of those $1.20 multiples five times, making it a 50-Cent super by the time the bet was complete. But I couldn’t do that.

Charles Town informed the ADWs, mine and presumable all others, that each bet sequence submitted must total at least $2 per submission. My total super play would have cost $24.

Because I couldn’t make the wager the way I wished, and because 50-Cent trifectas were unavailable, only $1 increments, I refused to spend twice what I intended to bet.

Instead, my only wager was a cold Shared Belief-General A Rod exacta which lost, obviously.

Whenever these unreasonable and senseless rules prevent me from wagering the way I want, I pass. I could have increased Charles Town’s record handle by $24.

Maybe this doesn’t matter to Charles Town, or any other track that won’t institute bettor friendly fractional wagers.

On the subject of thoughtless greed, we had to take Mike Smith’s word about the start because Charles Town doesn’t invest in head-on camera technology either.

Spend millions on owners and trainers to bring “the big hoss” to town but don’t allow fans to participate because of capricious bet-price minimums, or see what happens during the running of a race from an always informative straight-on view.

Ironically, if there were a 20-Cent Super option, that would have satisfied the $2 track minimum per super-exotics bet type. The Charles Town website indicated Dime Supers were available but there was no mention of a two-dollar minimum total on fractional super-exotics.

Charles Town’s myopic thinking took me out of two additional wagers. I bet I'm probably not alone in this.

Of course, uniform minimums should be the rule everywhere but aren’t because tracks in this country can’t collectively agree to do something that makes sense by allowing everyone in, especially those newbies racing says it covets so much.

Saturday, it was Charles Town. But it could have been virtually at Anytrack USA. Lip service instead of customer service. All too often, that’s racing’s creed.

BETS N’ PIECES: Looks like Bob Baffert can do no wrong. On the day it was learned that he lost One Lucky Dane to the Derby wars, he finds a possible major stakes runner in Whiskey Ticket, who won Saturday’s Illinois Derby in his second career start in game style...

Dating back to Thursday, 13 possible Derby starters had timed workouts, including 11 on Saturday. The only one available at this posting was Dortmund; effortlessly dominant…

Hootenanny might not have had much to beat in Saturday's 3YO debut, but was nothing short of awesome. You’d expect to see excellent turn of foot from many turf runners, but sprinting home at 5-1/2 furlongs, with ears straight up? Wow!

Big ups to trainer Gerald Aschinger, jockey Joe Bravo and Dramedy for an uncommon pace-duel victory going a mile and a half in the Elkhorn, forcing the issue throughout from outside and coming the final quarter mile in 25-and-change. Good job! Parenthetically, if only Unitarian could have gotten up for the place—ouch!

Written by John Pricci

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