Sunday, April 30, 2017

Overview of Kentucky Derby 143 Field Ranked by Qualifying Points

With six days until Kentucky Derby 143, an overview of the field ranked by qualifying points. Infer no handicapping opinion until after the post postion draw Wednesday evening:

1-GIRVIN: Never beaten on dirt, a dual graded stakes winner around two turns, undoubtedly talented colt with a promising future, but a delayed workout schedule necessitated by foot issues that required special shoeing? Interrupted training is the rock; overall inexperience the hard place. Had a fast breeze this weekend but questions linger.

Very pleased to see a champion return to winning form and everything’s gone well from the time he arrived at Winding Oaks straight through the Blue Grass. Has every right to improve but also a right to regress. Of course, the likely public choice can win, but a bet would require an act of faith on looming underlay.

3-GORMLEY: Was not at all impressed by his Sham win, then came Mastery before taking all day to finish off the Santa Anita Derby in glacial final fractions. But the early pace was extraordinary and he did show a new later-run dimension. Have new found respect and love a pointing Shirreffs’ horse. Strong work this weekend with excellent gallop-out.

4-IRAP: Like most, we did not expect his Blue Grass. But on closer inspection there were two graded stakes placings and seven races of experience--uncommon hardiness these days. His figures, from Pricci Energy Ratings, to Thoro-Graph, to BRIS pedigree, to TimeFormUS, are good across all metrics. One-mile breeze from O’Neill sound familiar?

Came out running at 2 and has kept on doing it at 3, improving from pretty fast to damn fast with maturity, his indiscreet Fountain of Youth notwithstanding. Rebounded big-time in New York and Motion has kept him settled in at Fair Hill. Has the class, talent and the figures to escape logjam of tactical-pressure types present Saturday.

6-THUNDER SNOW: Finally, after all the drama, the decision was made to run. Is the idea to take America by storm by keeping a low profile and become the first kid from the other side of the world to get the Dubai-to-Derby job done? Or was it to lower expectations? Either way, comes off three straight victories, including an uber-game UAE Derby win-and-inner. He owns the longest pedigree in the field.

Visually it’s hard to argue that his Florida Derby victory was not the most impressive of 25 U.S. two-turn preps? But his Thoro-Graph figure was a 9-point leap forward. So, how can he NOT regress on Saturday? Then, it you re-consider the manner of his something-in-tank score and his strong 5F breeze and gallop-out this weekend, you start thinking, late-developing “freak?” All will be revealed in six days.

8-GUNNEVERA: Might as well start by stating deep closers win Kentucky Derbys, recent trends be damned. Derby winners score if they’re tough enough, fit enough and classy enough. Let’s not forget this guy owns a devastating turn move [see Delta Jackpot] and can dominate from last [see Fountain of Youth]. And his last was better than it looks [see Florida Derby]. His best figures are as fast as anyone’s. Anymore questions?

9-PRACTICAL JOKE: Agreed, his pedigree is on the light side for 10 furlongs. But not his winning attitude, or a two-prep schedule that should have him at tops for his third start off the layup. He mid-moved prematurely and tired late when second to Gunnevera in 3YO debut and, yes, he had every chance to win the Blue Grass. Well, it’s LAY-3 time for Chad and colt toyed with his workmate in deep stretch on Friday. No more excuses.

10-J BOYS ECHO: Announced his arrival with an authoritative and fast score in the Gotham then got roughed up a bit in his final prep, finishing a better-than-looked fourth in the Blue Grass. Owns comparable tactical speed, can kick on, and is a fine, athletic-looking animal. His works have gotten progressively better since his last and we loved his most recent breeze, followed by an excellent gallop-out.

The only times he’s failed to fire was over yielding turf and on WO’s all-weather. He didn’t win any of his three graded preps but the competition was well aware he was in the fray. Like some others here, he will have 10-furlong questions to answer, and he must guard against a tendency to become a little too fresh early on.

12-TAPWRIT: Didn’t care much for his penutimate workout leading up to this but he looked much stronger this weekend, even if he needed a bit of coaxing to gallop-out strongly. Looked like a potential Derby favorite when he destroyed six rivals in Tampa but not only didn’t he run back to it at Keeneland, he was beaten 11 lengths in a very dull performance. Have no idea what to expect Saturday.

13-HENCE: Was dominant in the rarified air of New Mexico, winning the G3 Sunland Derby from which also-ran Irap emerged to win the Blue Grass. Flashy chestnut comes in six weeks fresh and has been working quickly over a surface where he raced very well at 2, placing gamely after doing the dirty work in a one-turn mile. With grandparents like Street Cry and A.P. Indy, not expecting the distance to stop him.

14-FAST AND ACCURATE: We’re stunned by how fast the early and middle fractions of the Spiral Stakes were on Turfway’s all-weather surface, but Hansen gray stuck it out and prevailed in a very game effort. The problem for us is the surface switch, the much tougher competition and final figures that are too slow on all final metrics.

Three-for-three on this ground at 2, won the Sam F. Davis at about 80% fitness, was forced to skip the Tampa Derby with a wrenched ankle before returning with a rank, tough-trip-between-rivals third in the Blue Grass. He’s been training up to Derby the way Ian Wilkes has planned it and his electric turn of foot and surface preference figure to be big factors Saturday. Loved this weekend's relaxed breeze and gallop-out.

16-BATTLE OF MIDWAY: Battled on the hot Santa Anita Derby pace but had to settle for a game second to Gormley. This weekend’s work at Santa Anita was a strong 6 furlongs with a very good gallop-out. Appears to be peaking for Hollandorfer at just the right time moment, but is a little light on 10F pedigree, final figures, and is relatively inexperienced.

17-PATCH: One-eyed colt ran fast while breaking maiden at a mile over 13 Gulfstream rivals before returning with a tough-trip placing to Girvin in the Louisiana Derby. Has had three good company works on a precise time schedule for Todd, but with only three lifetime starts, we don’t see how victory in possible in this deep field.

18-UNTRAPPED: A difficult read. After game second in Girvin’s Risen Star, he made a premature turn move in the Rebel but did not go on with it. Asmussen added blinkers for his third start which turned to out to be the good and bad news. He was too sharp early and unable to save ground at any juncture. Blinkers are removed and he’s back at CD where he broke maiden by five.

19-LOOKIN AT LEE: His final figures are a tad better than one might expect and he’s never taken a backward step in any of his fast-track starts. Third in the G3 Southwest and G1 Arkansas Derby last out, he is only member of today’s field, Thunder Snow notwithstanding, who looks like he can’t wait to go today’s added furlong. Big late kicker.

20-SONNETEER: Broker’s Tip redux? It’s only been 83 years since a maiden won the Derby but one supposes that in this season of Irap, anything’s possible. Again using a 7F prep as a two-turn springboard, Keith Dosormeaux shipped distance-challenged colt into OP and was a good second in Malagacy’s Rebel then came a good-finish late-rally fourth in the Blue Grass. Big-time kick but added ground might mitigate his late power.

Written by John Pricci

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Wednesday, April 19, 2017

The State of Racing’s Union: It Is What It Has Become

As the 143rd Kentucky Derby looms, the state of the game is teetering, fighting to remain popular with even with its staunchest allies while simultaneously efforting to remain relevant to a much wider audience. Like world events, these are worrisome times.

How troublesome? Well, it’s so bothersome that no less than one of the world’s most brilliant comic minds and huge racing fan, Mel Brooks, took to Twitter for the purpose of castigating the Los Angeles Times for “eliminating daily coverage of horse racing.”

At issue is the recently jettisoned daily listing of entries and results. Brooks’ tweet was enough to elicit a comment from his long-time friend and collegial comic genius, Carl Reiner, who replied “anything that upsets my friend Mel upsets me.”

Lamentably, they are not alone, and not everything can be explained away with kneejerk retorts that it’s simply a sign of the times--that encapsulated agate of entries and results has gone the way of classified ads and stock listings.

While comprehensive racing data lends itself well to the endless boundaries of cyberspace, as long as mainstream media and journalistic standards exist, I refuse to acknowledge that mesmerized smartphone habitués can’t learn to appreciate the feel of paper between their digits.

While the world moves forward--whatever your definition of “progress” is--Thoroughbred racing remains frozen in time. Tracks compete with each other at the bottom line and in the equine talent pool, a world that fosters competition, not cooperation.

All in the racing industry agree, e.g., that the perception of drug use, legal and otherwise, is bad yet, owing to the sovereignty of the states in which they are permitted operate, tracks will not unite in agreement that federal oversight is the only true option for reform.

Certainly, no one can blame the industry’s distrust of a centralized federal authority, given the current example of gross incompetence vested in the Executive branch and the intractability of the Legislative branch. This happens when their interests, beholden to obscene-money donors and corporate lobbyists, conflict with the citizens who put them in office.

Even when racing does present a united front—the only way statutes ever gain traction—the process is endless.

What has it been, nearly six years now, before getting a vote on the unfair and arcane taxes on winnings of over $600, needing all that time to make lawmakers understand that not many trifectas that pay off at 300-1 are the result of one-number cold punches?

And this is the kind of progress that summonses industry celebration?

The all-encompassing success of the Kentucky Derby notwithstanding, the only member of a ‘Big Three’ that includes the New York Racing Association and Churchill Downs Inc., only The Stronach Group is setting positive trends. But they have come at some cost.

The TSG is top-class winter racing, but its’ venue on the Left Coast is in dire need of a fix. Emblematic of the greed, arrogance and power wielded by a triad of owners, horsemen and racing governance, Santa Anita has become the poster child for bad publicity.

Until some form of reconciliation is made, Santa Anita’s currently muddied reputation is deserved.

But perhaps the best example of good news-bad news worthiness is the recently concluded “championship meet” at Gulfstream Park. And try as they might, critics cannot argue with Gulfstream’s trend-busting success.

Nitpickers will always find chinks, but the inaugural running of the Pegasus World Cup Invitational was a triumphant sensation by every measure. For one glorious afternoon in South Florida, racing was great again, a sporting event worthy of kings.

Pegasus Day:
Linchpin of Gulfstream's 2017
Championship Meet

And it is odds-on to continue attracting every great five-year-old-and-up champion before it’s ushered off to the breeding shed, just as it did this year, luring a great “people’s champion” vs. a younger champion that would become the world’s leading Thoroughbred.

The momentum that began in late January was the first stop on the road to record earnings by early April—handle figures that would continue to eclipse previous meetings on a year-over-year basis, on the meet’s biggest mega-stakes event days.

Finally, the 2016-17 championship stand culminated with the emergence of a conceivable Kentucky Derby favorite, the result of a well-structured three-year-old racing program that attracted, to date, this year’s best sophomore runners.

Arrogate, Latter day Pegasus
But all this came at a price when operations are factored in. In what arguably has grown into the most successful circuit for racing on a year-round basis, it has had its share of embarrassments among racing’s most ardent supporters; loyal bettors and fans.

The one trend the track should lament was the creation of the post-dragging trend that has spread nationwide. What was consistently a tolerable four-minute delay in advance of huge jackpot carryovers and sophomoric guarantees was tacitly accepted.

But you know things are bad when an industry-organ staffer chides the track after an 11-minute Rainbow 6 drag and a 9-minute delay on a guaranteed late Pick 4 on the same program, resulting in conflicting simulcast feature races.

Saturday race-days often lasted more than six hours became extremely tedious for fans and track employees that came into the building in support of live racing.

When playing the long game, some acknowledgment must be made that wagering dollars are finite at every level. At some point, a toll will be extracted for carding 10 or 11 races on weekday programs.

For handicappers of every stripe, time is the game’s only absolute truth. Butt far too often, running times at Gulfstream Park were seriously questioned, breeding distrust where none should exist. These errors manifest themselves when handicapping future races.

The track must provide a fail-safe. Atmospherics will only get worse with unstoppable and unpreventable new technologies, a further intrusion on the method by which Trakus compiles timing data. Only a trained official with a stopwatch can provide fail-safe verification.

Gulfstream’s spring-summer meet has recently begun and common sense dictates this session will top 2016’s. The racing office has shored up quality by attracting a handful of mega-outfits from the Southeast and Midwest and top New York stables have left small divisions behind.

Gulfstream must realize that a thin line exists between overarching success and embarrassing overreach that can harm the huge strides already made by the brand.

BOUTIQUE MEETS: Since Saratoga and Del Mar have seen their seasons extended over the years, the term boutique seems a little less applicable.

On balance, and given overall quality, the sport at both tracks is not quite up to the lofty reputations earned by both, though their brands remain extremely strong.

Considering that top echelon outfits point their best horses to traditional features at both venues, each will maintain its top-class status, especially Saratoga: History, health, and horses is a cold trifecta if there ever was one.

But there is no race meet on the planet that can compare--save Ascot perhaps for its deep, rich and storied events—with Keeneland Spring. It’s fitting that some of the world’s best nurseries are but a long stone’s-throw from such a picaresque environment.

Fourteen days of racing indeed encapsulates the meaning of boutique when it comes to horse racing. We don’t know with certitude that the stars are aligned perfectly these days, then neither do we know that we’ve ever seen 14 days of such sustained quality.

Good weather has helped keep programs intact, but the races themselves? Keeneland’s low-level claimers are better than your average claiming fare anywhere.

As for depth, Wednesday’s Keeneland feature was a NX3 allowances, a race that hardly ever fills in the modern era. But that’s what happens when the quality lives on the backside and the racing office often opts for the best eight-race programs when the need arises.

If only such civility were present everywhere, programs would be more balanced and entertaining for bettors and fans from California to New York, from South Florida to Canada and all the stops in between.

File Photos: Toni Pricci

April 19, 2017

Written by John Pricci

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Sunday, April 16, 2017

New Wrinkle Meets Old School in Arkansas

The King Lives! Long Live the King!

It is only fitting that in this topsy-turvy runnerup to the 2017 Kentucky Derby everyone tethered to the Thoroughbred had to await until the last hurdle was cleared to find some clarity.

And we hope that we have seen the last of the impending-danger type drama that has accompanied this winter-racing season and that pre-Derby workouts, good and bad, all go without major incident.

There are no remaining prep races in the three weeks until reaching post time for Derby. But in the next two weekends, morning trials are needed to solidify what has been, to say the least, one of the more baffling playoffs season for three-year-olds ever.

Before examining the nuts and bolts of Saturday’s Arkansas Derby, a word about the team that surrounds the 2016 juvenile champion.

We’ve known trainer Mark Casse, the son of legendary horseman Norman Casse, for nearly four decades, when he first went out on his own with the Calumet horses, back in the day when they were festooned in the devil’s red and blue.

At my age, this gives me the right to say I’m very proud of the work he’s done with Classic Empire, without throwing shade on any other horseman I know and respect as they slouch their way towards Louisville, efforting to win nothing less than “America’s Race.”

However the future of this sport plays out, that tradition will continue. Many eyes will fill 10 minutes to post when a country hears “that song,” as the jockeys refer to the Stephen Foster classic ode to days gone by.

It takes creativity and confidence to deal with the never-before-seen circumstances that arise in this most unusual of pastimes, this unusual way to make a living. It also takes balls.

To send Classic Empire off to the tranquility of a farm to get better physically and to get the colt’s mind right was a masterstroke of old school horsemanship. And, of course, it helps when the equine you’re dealing with has all the tools.

In preparing to make an Arkansas Derby choice, we went back and reviewed the video of its major participants. Alas, it was unnecessary.

All that was needed was belief in the words Casse expressed on an NTRA conference call last week and a tape of the 2016 Breeders’ Cup Juvenile in which he defeated, in our view, the most talented challenger he has faced, the ill-fated Not This Time.

Not having raced since the Holy Bull, an event which saw him fall apart in the walking ring and balk badly pre-loading, Casse’s words rang true yesterday when he spoke of his colt’s courage. “He gave us no indication he was hurting [until 10 minutes prior to post time].”

The layup also had him very fresh, showing speed from the jump, forcing Julien Leparoux--who was a brilliant as his colt in Hot Springs--to wrangle him a bit from close quarters entering the lower turn before settling him between horses into the backstretch run.

The trip he had in the Arkansas Derby clearly would have defeated a lesser racehorse. Stoutly restrained while remaining three paths wide, surrounded on all sides, he remarkably stayed in the bridle throughout.

And then finally, after all that, once brought out into the clear at headstretch, to lower his body and run down an improving and formerly undefeated rival was the mark of a very good colt, perhaps the very best of his generation.

But that’s the thing about this game; you need to go out and prove it every time.

Whether or not coming back in three weeks off an enervating effort will took a toll in that final, unknown furlong is consideration for another day. But as for now, we will take the connections at the word:

The trainer said he was a bit concerned: "I was questioning his fitness down the lane…but he kept running.” Said the jockey: “I think maybe he wasn’t one-hundred percent ready for today…”

The cliché is that things happen for a reason, and a missed opportunity can turn out to be a blessing. If indeed he wasn’t wound as tightly as possible, his 19 rivals will find him the one to beat three weeks hence.

Alas, Malagacy didn’t stay the trip and according to a Tweet from the Antonio Sano barn, Javier Castellano, who has ridden Gunnevera since his two-year-old Delta Jackpot finally, will stay aboard the SoFla-based colt. Castellano rode Malagacy to his Arkansas Derby showing… Lookin at Lee did a pretty good Creator imitation yesterday and clearly is peaking. Stablemate Untrapped no longer appears on the come, still not-yet-ready for prime time—but he clearly didn’t save any ground, did he?

As a review of the G3 Lexington Stakes video indicates, it certainly appeared that runnerup West Coast was probably best. Losing ground much of the way from his extreme outside slip, Flavien Prat was compelled to make a wide and premature move on the far turn lest the race get away from him. We’re not sure he was nailed by relentless finisher Senior Investment because he was dead tired, lost focus, or both. We expect the Bob Baffert trainee to join the Triple Crown parade in Baltimore.

The final installment of HRI’s Triple Crown Rankings will appear later this afternoon. Happy Easter and Passover to all!

Written by John Pricci

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