Sunday, March 26, 2017


Arrogreatest of All Time?


Sunday at this time of year is always devoted to HorseRaceInsider’s Triple Crown--Road to the Derby coverage, but not today. Not after spending the night-time with a gray racehorse a half-world away on a Saturday afternoon.

And I was so looking forward to the Derby playoffs, too, even if the UAE Derby has underperformed historically in a Kentucky context, and even if it didn’t appear via the PPs that we’d see the second coming of Animal Kingdom in Florence, Ky.

However, it’s true you never really know--and that also applies to what subsequently might step out of a horse van on the backside of Churchill Downs after having made a 1,600 mile road trip from Sunland Park, New Mexico. But the Derby is on hold at the moment.

Because at approximately 1 pm EDT Saturday, the preps and everything else--including the final round of Elite Eight NCAA play--would be rendered moot. Time and belief were suspended when a horse named Arrogate delivered a performance for the ages.

Now, after every big race that features a big performance and a big dramatic ending, I’m as guilty as anyone who makes use of a hyperbole machine. But not today.

This time there are no words to describe what a magnificent gray Thoroughbred did on a rainy, muddy night in the desert. The effort had to be seen to be believed, and maybe not even then. Much blinking was involved.

Then, almost instantly, came visions from the mind’s recesses: I see the letter ‘S’, as in Secretariat, as in Seattle Slew, the most talented horses I’ve ever seen in the flesh.

Those wonder horses now need to move over and make room on the pedestal I built for them back in the 1970s. But I’m not the only one.

As Arrogate was beginning to be geared down by Mike Smith, that’s when race caller Terry Spargo loaned the moment his perspective. To paraphrase:

“ ‘A’ is for Arrogate… ‘A’ is for absolutely awesome… A’ is for anointed… Arrogate, the Man o’ War of the 21st Century.” And while thoughtful, obviously, the words came naturally, excitedly, but unforced.

By now I assume that anyone and everyone who even pretends to be a Thoroughbred lover has seen numerous replays of the Dubai World Cup. Their jaws still might be slackened, even now as they read this. The nuts and bolts are these:

Arrogate was for all intents eliminated at the start when he missed the break badly. Immediately, he was seriously buffeted about by rivals on either side for three long strides, so that he was dozen lengths behind after the first 100 yards.

The colt then raced five wide in the backstretch run, finding his stride naturally beneath Smith as the field was bunching up approaching the final bend. It was there that a pan camera picked him up, seemingly struggling to find his best footing.

Approaching headstretch, Arrogate was deftly guided by Mike Smith--in a short conversation as best money rider ever--between rivals as he passed six horses who were moving well in three blinks of an eye, about a sixteenth of a mile.

Money Mike tipped him out to maintain clearance for the stretch drive, taking the lead with authority and was geared down to defeat the very worthy Gun Runner in the final hundred yards, stopping the clock in 2:02.23 for 2,000 meters, about 1-1/4 miles.

It did appear that the muddy surface compromised that tremendously long, smooth but powerful stride, but nothing stops this behemoth of a race horse.

Secretariat and Slew had no holes in their game--the former running the best Triple Crown in Classics history, and Triple Crown-winning Seattle Slew, showing the world all his greatness the following year, in defeat!

But there were times that these two immortals showed their mortality, that on any given day, stuff could happen to them. That reality doesn’t seem to apply to this colt.

I consulted Thoro-Graph performance figures prior to the Dubai World Cup and noted that when he made the transition from a NX2 allowances winner to the fastest horse ever to run 10 furlongs in the history of Saratoga, he earned a figure of negative-5.

That’s not the kind of huge leap forward that causes horses to “bounce.” It’s the kind of expended energy that often has ended careers in their tracks; too much, too soon. The Travers was, after all, his graded stakes debut and only fifth lifetime start.

Not only did he not regress next time out at Santa Anita, he paired-up in the Classic. Then did it yet again when he returned East for the inaugural running of the Pegasus, establishing that event in the fashion Secretariat launched the legendary Marlboro Cup.

As we tweeted immediately after the event: “Where’s the late, great Jack Buck when you need him most because I can’t believe what I just saw,” followed by “just saw a horse win the ‘World Triple Crown.”

And those were followed by “too bad he can’t whistle-stop across America because we need heroes now,” followed by “has a race horse ever been showered with ticker tape in New York City’s Canyon of Heroes?”

Got a like and a response from Steve Haskin of Bloodhorse who wrote: “I’ll settle for a parade down Broadway in Saratoga.” Point taken.

After the mud settled at Meydan Race Course, Arrogate had become North America’s all-time leading earner as this continent’s first $17-million man.

And different eras notwithstanding, neither Secretariat nor Seattle Slew can make such a claim on history.

TRIPLE CROWN RANKINGS: FROM DESERT TO DERBY?


Could that happen? Could this actually be the year that the UAE Derby produces a very serious Kentucky Derby challenger?

Before dismissing the notion out of hand, think for a moment about how these Derby playoffs have been playing out. Good thing Dubai isn’t numbered among those verboten Middle East nations.

But one-two finishers Thunder Snow and Epicharis ran that well, and third-finishing Master Plan was eating up ground as if the Derby’s added sixteenth fits easily in his wheelhouse. Whether his 20 Derby points makes the cut, as it does now, is problematic.

Alas, nothing we observed at Turfway Park, in the Rushaway or Spiral Stakes, was reminiscent of Animal Kingdom’s impressive Derby-winning prep. The results of today’s Sunland Derby will have an impact—or not—on next week’s HRI Hi-5.

Meanwhile, staff comments landed on the cutting-room floor this week given that Saturday belonged to Arrogate and to racing’s storied history:

Here’s how the HRI Derby staff and contributor consensus shook out this week, points tallied on 6-4-2-1-1 basis points:

1-Gunnervera (18)
2-Tapwrit (17)
3-McCraken (11)
4-Girvin (4)
5-tie: J Boys Echo, One Liner (3)

Also receiving votes:
Empire Classic, Epicharis, Practical Joke, Thunder Snow

HALLANDALE BEACH, FL, March 26, 2017

Written by John Pricci

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Tuesday, March 21, 2017


Hall of Fame Ballot Offers Many--Too Many--Worthy Nominees


The Racing Hall of Fame ballot arrived in the mail last week and it’s quite an eclectic lineup of 11 nominees. However, before we go on public record with our choices, this:

The Hall of Fame voting process historically has been problematic and a reliable source of great debate. Many approaches have been advanced over the years, some better than others, of course.

But the process currently in use, in our view, is not one of them.

Instead of breaking nominees down into categories, equines and humans, i.e. jockeys and trainers, all are lumped into one primary-type voting process.

So, for instance, who do you prefer, Javier Castellano or Goldikova? It might as well be the Pantheon of Apples v Oranges.

But that’s not the poorest feature, however. That distinction belongs to the voting rules themselves. It’s all spelled out in the cover letter:

1. You DO NOT have to vote for a specific number of candidates, human or equine.
2. You are being asked to vote “Yes” for as many or as few candidates as you wish.
3. The top four vote-getters, provided they receive more than 50 percent of the vote, will gain election into the Hall of Fame.

For us the issue is two-fold: the worthiness of an equines v. jockeys and trainers, and the fact that a vote for more than one in each category in effect cancels a voters prime choice.

While it’s way above my pay grade (my tax returns are available in order to dispel any potential emolument violations, or worse) I offer the following suggestion:

How about one vote for equine, trainer, and jockey, and one wild card in categories where voters are torn between two extremely worthy individuals? The Hall of Fame Committee can, as it does now, decide the appropriate percentage to gain admission to the Hall.

Beyond the above qualifications, this is what one ballot looks like, no slights intended. The preferences were based on empirical observation and a great compilation of statistical data provided by Hall of Fame staffers:

The great mare Goldikova is a complete slam dunk. Three consecutive Breeders’ Cup Miles over males is enough right there.

But a four-time winner of the G1 Prix Rothschild, repeat victories in the G1 Prix d’Ispahan, twice voted European Older Horse Champion and 2010 European Horse of the Year. Is this not one of the greatest racing careers of all time?

As for jockey, my first instinct was: Isn’t Javier Castellano a little to au courant? Then you look at the record: 4,612 winners from 25,472 mounts, incredible 18.3% efficiency; 19 race meet titles; eight Breeders’ Cup victories among 351 graded stakes wins.

Unfathomably, there is not a single Triple Crown victory among those 351, but $272 million in rounded career earnings ranks fifth all-time. Mic drop, please.

If personality clash were a consideration, I would have passed on David Whiteley. But after looking at what he achieved in a relatively short period of time, I cannot deny him his due. The early retiree started only 2,068 runners yet saddled 678 winners—that’s 32.7% efficiency without the slightest whiff of impropriety.

The most notable of 16 Grade 1 victories was Coastal’s upset of Spectacular Bid in the 1979 Belmont. Whiteley developed three Eclipse champions, trained Breeders’ Cup titlists and won more prestigious Grade 1s with more G2 and G3 stock than I could conjure up.

After these three nominees, the process personally becomes too equivocating. I had several who could qualify as personal “wildcards” but, as stated earlier, I wanted my preferences to count without compromise.

It’s a worthy class: John Shirreffs’ work was perfect--except for two final jumps. Mark Casse, a member of the Canadian Hall of Fame, is a worthy candidate and he has just now hit his best U.S. stride. He will gain admission, if not this year then soon enough.

Robby Albarado compiled 5,020 winners from 31,658 rides and earned 15 meet titles in the process, albeit all in the Midwest. He also won three Breeders’ Cup races and a Preakness.

Victor Espinoza has had a wonderful career but it wasn’t until California Chrome and American Pharoah came along to thrust him into a Hall of Fame spotlight. His time will come, too.

If it weren’t for personal demons, the late, immensely gifted Garrett Gomez would have compiled more compelling statistics--over and above beyond an incredible 13 Breeders’ Cup victories. He came closest to earning a “wildcard” vote. Maybe next year, God willing.

Admittedly, Kona Gold and Gio Ponti both had several outstanding seasons at the sport’s highest levels but in our view lacked the kind of dominance that should be the benchmark of a true Hall of Fame Thoroughbred.

Tomorrow, the Hall of Fame will announce steeplechase inductees for 2017. That process is done by the Hall’s Steeplechase Review Committee which meets once every four years. Just as well they do so as chasing is the most underappreciated aspect of the sport.

Please note our choices are not predictions of who will enter the Racing Hall of Fame come August. Our three check-marks were for those we deemed most worthy. Kudos to all 2017 nominees


ONLINE EMOTIONS HIGH RE SATURDAY’S AZERI STAKES

Horseplayers owe West Coast activist Andy Asaro respect and gratitude for his tireless, unpaid advocacy for racing fans. It’s a thankless job and no one familiar with his efforts can question his sincerity, especially with respect to his beloved California circuit.

But Asaro was way out of line when he suggested Saturday evening that Irad Ortiz Jr. single-handedly fixed Oaklawn’s $350,000 Grade 2 Azeri Stakes for older fillies and mares.

First, it doesn’t makes sense that Ortiz would jeopardize his position with trainer Steve Asmussen. Last year, both men celebrated their first lifetime victory in the Belmont Stakes with Creator. Horsemen do not forget that kind of milestone.

Further, Ortiz flew to Hot Springs not only to ride Terra Promessa in the Azeri, who never had been defeated at Oaklawn, but Asmussen apparently was seeking to reprise some of that Belmont karma, giving Ortiz the ride on Untrapped in a $900,000 Derby prep.

Ortiz rode Untrapped brilliantly but his colt wasn’t good enough good enough to close the deal, finishing third after losing a three-way place photo but posing no serious threat to the winning Malagacy in the final half-furlong.

However, his ride aboard Terra Promessa was easily the worst of his career since he earned elite status several years ago. Frankly, it was one of the worst exhibitions we’ve seen from an elite rider in a big spot in nearly a half-century of race watching.

Asmussen summed it up perfectly post-race: "That was a debacle. You've got to get along with [Terra Promessa], you just do. Can't fight with her. She knows who she wants to be, and that was not good.”

All Ortiz offered after the race was “she just didn’t show up.” A more appropriate response would have been “sorry, boss, I screwed up, I’ll get it right the next time.”

Well, it’s unlikely there will be a next time because Ortiz wrestled with her to the point that she tired badly inside the final furlong after fighting stout restraint for most of the mile and one-sixteenth.

I agree with Asaro and Asmussen. Not establishing inside position on a speed horse that broke with her field, taking her best weapon away, leading to a series of steadies and checks, checks and steadies, made ugly viewing and is indefensible.

No wonder the filly had nothing to offer in deep stretch, busting out bridge-jumpers looking for nickels on the dollar by betting $348,000 to show, maybe somehow hoping to get some bonus money offered to Oaklawn on-track show bettors this year.

Asaro was correct when he said the stewards need to question Ortiz regarding his tactics, possibly fining him heavily or even a suspension should they deem the punishment appropriate.

“I respect your opinion,” wrote Asaro in a personal email, “but the purpose of my noisemaking is for Oaklawn to investigate it. They need to ask the jockey more than one question.

“They also need to contact outlets like Betfair to see if there was any unusual action against Terra Promessa. Bottom line is that there should be more scrutiny on jockeys who decide to change winning form [by doing] something else. In Asia he would have been fined and suspended...”

Indeed, jockeys need to realize that they have a responsibility to the betting public, not just to the people they ride for.

FAKE NEWS:
As bad, albeit not as egregious, is the fact that BloodHorse.com had no quotes from Asmussen, nor was the sizable minus show pool mentioned, or any meaningful race description vis a vis the odds-on favorite in the post-race coverage we read.

The article reported across-the-board prices Streamline of $26.20, $9.40 and $19.60 as a matter of fact, as if payouts like these happen every day. But this is what can be expected when industry organizations control the message.

SANTA ANITA BOYCOTT, GAME ON:
From March 23 to March 26, without backing from the leadership of the Horseplayers Association of North America which for some unknown reason is content to continue waiting on the stalled tactics of track and regulatory officials re the jackpot-carryover provision of the 20-Cent Perfect Six, players will boycott Santa Anita’s races.

The boycott does have the support of many of whales who were alerted to the situation by activist Asaro two weeks ago.

This website does not believe in “punishing racetracks” without justification; the game, particularly in California, has enough problems. But we’re willing to make an exception in this case.

In its cumulative actions, California racing consistently has shown blatant disregard for the interests of the betting public. Tim Ritvo, COO of the Stronach Group, told us at Gulfstream several weeks ago will be addressing Santa Anita’s myriad problems upon his arrival in SoCal.

Given the highly charged and elite-influenced political atmosphere, the result of the actions and non-actions of the California Horse Racing Board and the Thoroughbred Owners of California members, we wish Ritvo well. It’s hard to fathom that Santa Anita is part of the same group that owns highly successful Gulfstream and resurgent Laurel Park.

HALLANDALE BEACH, March 21, 2017

Written by John Pricci

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Tuesday, March 07, 2017


Weekend’s Past and Prologue


Now that the dust along the Triple Crown trail has settled following last weekend’s Xpressbet Fountain of Youth and Gotham Stakes, future plans are coming into clearer focus—or not. The road to Louisville is long and winding.

Graham Motion is going to play the wait-and-see, he-will-tell-us, game with the trounced Fountain of Youth favorite, Irish War Cry. But he shouldn’t blame himself.

“Maybe I should have told Joel [Rosario] to take him back.” Maybe so, but then he shouldn’t have had to.

Personally, I’m a big Rosario fan, both for his God-given ability and my ability to cash more often than not on some of his mounts. Actually, I’m a fan of all great riders, with due respect for all who ply this dangerous trade.

But Rosario should not have had to be told to sit off Three Rules’ hip and not get into a pitched pace battle with a very gifted Florida-bred speed merchant.

For all Rosario’s gifts, which often prove the difference between victory and defeat, he can be wildly inconsistent.

It’s hard to believe that this was the Rosario who was so egregiously overconfident aboard the 2016 Woodward favorite, Frosted, yet so recklessly speed-abandoned on Saturday’s over-bet favorite.

Motion also believed that his colt regressed from his previous effort, which he clearly did given his awful finish, but we disagree that his Holy Bull was the huge move that caused it.

On both the Thoro-Graph and Pricci Rating scales, his figure-lines were tight, not huge leaps forward. All his races have been fast and that, too, takes its toll. With rare exceptions, big efforts catch up eventually.

While saying it’s easy to Monday-morning-quarterback his decision to run, the colt was telling him that he was doing very well, that there was no reason not to run. “Run them when they’re good,” said Woody Stephens, as would any old-school Hall of Famer.

The problem for Motion and his colt is what to do next. Motion is thinking that the Florida Derby is close, less than four weeks away, and he knows either the Wood or Blue Grass would give him an extra week’s recovery.

Meanwhile, Antonio Sano, new to the Triple Crown trail but not success, given over 3,000 victories in his native Venezuela, said via Twitter Tuesday morning that Gunnevera will run in the Florida Derby “in preparation for the Kentucky Derby.” Woody would agree.

When Sano was asked in the winners’ circle if the Kentucky Derby was important in Venezuela, and what winning it would mean to him, he said the Derby means something in South America’s horse culture before becoming too emotion to complete his thoughts. An interesting moment, to be sure.

Chad Brown and company has yet to decide what’s up with Saturday’s runnerup, Practical Joke. The colt raced very well over the Hallandale strip and there’s no good reason not to make his second start of the year on April’s first Saturday.

Practical Joke’s Fountain of Youth was a great effort to build on and he likes the surface, just as has proven throughout his career he doesn’t need any particular track to carry around with him.

As for the gifted Three Rules, we’re not saying nine furlongs or farther is beyond his scope, but given his style and the depth of competition at the top of the sophomore class, he could opt for the beaucoup bucks available on the Minor Derby trail; a tricky call.

Five days hence, two meaningful preps will be staged; one 4-1/2 hours north of here via Alligator Alley, the other about as long via airplane.

The overarching question is not whether the more experienced Gormley is good enough to beat season-debuting Mastery but whether Mastery is indeed all that. In his races and morning trials, he certainly appears to be. Then you have to go out and run.

The outcome in Southern California could prove a profound barometer on what we might expect to see two months from now in Kentucky.

As of Monday, seven sophomores, including the close runners-up in the Sam F Davis Memorial; Tapwrit, State of Honor and Wild Shot, will return for the Tampa Bay Derby, along with major disappointment, No Dozing.

Beasley, scratched from the Fountain of Youth, will join this group, along with Third Day and Tale of Silence. We’ll take over the total of 7-1/2 when entries are drawn Wednesday.

Speaking of disappointing favorites, a battery of three veterinarians inspected failed Risen Star choice Mo Town and pronounced him 100%. Having lost his action in midstretch, it certainly appears that he simply would not extend himself over the Fair Grounds strip.

Mo Town works Wednesday at his Payson Park base and the targets trainer Tony Dutrow is considering at the moment are the Florida Derby or Wood Memorial--the colt certainly loves the sand and loam of the Big A.

And speaking of Gotham, J Boys Echo finally put it all together, taking advantage of very favorable dynamics as El Areeb and True Timber pulled no punches on the front end.

"It was a pretty good move, and he saved a little more for the next spot,” said winning trainer Dale Romans. “He's coming around at the right time, and the right way.”

The late developer could return for the Wood Memorial but is more likely headed to the Blue Grass. Either way, the pressure’s off. He just needs to be going in the right direction at the finish.

BETS ‘N PIECES:
“Championship Meet” business continues to boom. Last Saturday’s stakes-ridden program set a handle record for the day of $26.6-million. The previous mark of $24.2-million was set last year… Julien Leparoux, pictured above with trainer In Wilkes, put a cherry on top of a terrific winter season with four winners Saturday, including three graded stakes. With the confidence he’s displayed, his good fortune is likely to continue at least through Florida Derby, April 1…

Heart to Heart was much the best in his repeat G3 Canadian Turf victory. He broke running and was in command throughout, albeit on a slightly pressured pace. It was his fourth win in five Gulfstream turf starts. Credit Leparoux and his trainer, Brian Lynch…

As disappointing as Joel Rosario was aboard Irish War Cry, he was as brilliant guiding three-year-old Ticonderoga to victory in the G3 Palm Beach for Chad Brown. Last time out he was an excellent fourth in the BC Juvenile Turf from a wide post. Again breaking from the extreme outside in a field of nine, Rosario had his mount comfortably gliding in the 2-path as the field rounded the first turn.

After swinging wide into the stretch, Ticonderoga flashed an excellent turn of foot to get his job done. “If he can go a mile and a quarter, [the Belmont Derby] is what we want to do,” Brown said. With further development, there does appear to be a Grade 1 in his future somewhere.

Juddmonte Farms' Suffused was an impressive winner in the G3 The Very One beneath Jose Ortiz, also having a great meet. “I wanted to see how she would do at this trip because it gives us some options up the road,” said trainer Bill Mott of possible long-range targets. “I’d like to think she is good enough for a race like the Beverly D or the Diana...” Saturday’s Suffused would be good enough for either of those Grade 1 events…

image
Marylou Whitney’s maturing Bird Song keeps progressing for Ian Wilkes, gamely staving off stretch bids from stablemates Realm and Tale of S’avall to take the G3 Fred W. Hooper going a flat mile. “He’s a Grade 3 winner and that’s a start, said Wilkes. The goal is to get a Grade 1 for [Marylou Whitney]. She’s a special lady.” All of Saratoga agrees.

Two excellent three-year-old turf fillies hooked up in the G3 Herecomesthebride and put on a great show, too, as John C. Oxley’s Dream Dancing rallied to catch the gallant favorite, Coasted, at the line. Covered up and looking hopelessly trapped, Leparoux found an inside seam in deep stretch and got up to win by a neck. “It cost her some momentum,” said Mark Casse. “She has turned out to be a pretty good horse; I think the further the better.”

Celestine
won her seasonal debut for new connections with a classy performance in the $100,000 Sand Springs. Ortiz set the pace in the one-mile turf route and won by two lengths over classy returnee Catch a Glimpse. “She’s a top-class mare,” said trainer Christophe Clement. “She came to me in very good condition and trained very well. When you get a five-year-old from Billy Mott, you know you’re going to be OK.”

Photo by Toni Pricci

HALLANDALE BEACH, FL, March 7, 2017

Written by John Pricci

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