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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Thursday, March 19, 2015

H Allen Jerkens: Humble Greatness

HALLANDALE BEACH, Fla., March 20, 2015—The news that The Chief passed away yesterday was not unexpected. I asked his son how his dad was doing when I saw him in the Gulfstream paddock last Saturday. “He’s in rough shape,” Jimmy Jerkens said.

Infections at the age of 85 are not trifling things, and while he died in a hospital in South Florida, it could not have been more appropriate that the news was broken to me via a New York Racing Association press release.

He loved New York and he loved New York racing. Oh, he spent his winters in South Florida but most years, the glory years, he came for the season and not a reason. He knew the horses needed some down time. So do legendary horsemen.

Then, when he returned to New York in the spring, his horses would run right off the television screen.

You likely will read this everywhere so you might as well read it here, too. The sport will never see his kind again.

The Charleys, the Woodys, and now the Chief; they’re all gone. They’re part of racing’s past, a legacy that will not be shared someday by the successful corporate trainers that dominate today’s national stage.

Losing the Chief is more than the end of an era. A sport struggling to maintain its relevancy lost more than that yesterday. This wasn’t death by a thousand tiny cuts, something the game has struggled with; this is one giant loss.

Better still, the loss of a giant.

The Chief was a giant in ways that fans and bettors could never know no matter how many glowing words were written. It’s about how one feels when in the presence of dignity, of humble greatness.

At once, Jerkens appreciated the adulation for all his hard work and dedication, but he was uncomfortable in spotlights.

Everyone knows that he did not abide by the term Giant Killer, a paean to all those upsets his horses pulled, beating great horses with good ones; developing good horses into great ones.

As a young reporter, I was one of the privileged, after having been given a tip by a legendary turf writer who it was my pleasure to work with and learn from.

“If you’re ever in Allen’s barn at feed time, stick around, you’re going to see a show,” Bill Nack told me.

One morning I got that chance and the image is as alive now as it was back in the day. The mash that the Chief cooked up smelled so sweet you wanted to dive into the tub right along with the horses.

All sheds come alive at feed time. But the Chief’s horses acted like they were at some equine rock concert, practically running through the webbing to get at that feed tub. If they could, and if smoking were allowed, they would have flicked their Bics and hope for an encore.

Allen enjoyed nothing more than watching his horses satiate themselves or just enjoy acting like horses. “Why is that horse in that round pen next to the barn?” a naïve city-bred reporter asked.

“Because they need to have some fun, too, relax, roll over on their backs, expend some feel-good energy, just be horses.”

The reporter never asked why his Belmont barn was round, but eventually he figured it out. It was because on very cold or otherwise intemperate mornings, the horses could get some exercise jogging around safely inside the barn.

For the Chief, it was always about the horses, but he was a friend to every manner of racetracker.

A good friend, Jack Shelley, loved horses and loved The Chief, hanging around Jerkens’ barn whenever he had the chance as a teenager. He might not have invented the nickname but Jack was the first one I ever heard refer to H. Allen Jerkens as The Chief.

One morning I got a glimpse into how the Chief spent his down time. Never one to fuss, Allen’s idea of a good time was spending time with his friend Adolph Schultz, “Shultzie” as he called him.

When the barn work was done on Sunday mornings, the Chief went over to Schultz’s who would fix breakfast for the trainer and his “fourth son,” Jack, who brought a reporter along one morning.

The only rule was that breakfast had to be over in time to watch “Honeymooners” re-runs. He knew the dialogue the way some people recite from “the Godfather.” As familiar as he was with it, he laughed every time Art Carney spoke. Not long after he would take a nap.

The Chief and Liz attending Hall of Fame ceremonies in 2008

Jack and Shultzie had a horse or two with the Chief and once I broke from professional decorum, run down to the winners’ circle, and get into the picture with a friend.

The Chief was as proud of those moments as he was when he twice beat Secretariat with Onion that summer in Saratoga, or that fall at Belmont Park with Prove Out or any race he won for Jack Dreyfus.

And maybe those three times he beat the mighty five-time Horse of the Year, Kelso, with Beau Purple.

But he always seemed to take a special pride in his sprinters, horses like Kelly Kip, Duck Dance, the filly Classy Mirage.

Then Beau Purple was a speedball, too, and Never Bow was a fast horse; won Hialeah’s Widener on one of my first trips to Florida. Onion was a fast horse, of course. The Chief used demon speed to slay all those giants.

I once told him a story about how he made me a hero one day at Bishop Loughlin High School in Brooklyn.

“Chief, remember when you won the Interborough with Red Belle?” The Chief just smiled a knowing smile. I told how I feigned illness, collected about $40 at lunch time, then took two subway lines and a bus to the spanking new Aqueduct by the bay.

The filly went wire to wire--what else?--and paid $7 to win. I spread the winnings around the cafeteria the next afternoon. If only that small score had come prior to school elections; I might have had a whole different career courtesy of the Chief.

As it turns out, I’ve had fun and got to meet an idol. As all racetrackers can attest, you marveled at his displays in horsemanship but, of greater significance, how he took his trade but never himself seriously.

The Chief was a friend of the little guy, and other little guys who couldn’t secure a winning mount, and the Chief would always save a live one for a jock that needed a payday or a head start. He always put you “on the lead,” as the racetrackers say.

I wonder if he ever appreciated how fitting it was that he had such a deft hand with speed horses which often led the way to some of the greatest upsets the turf has ever known.

Thanks for the kindness and the great memories, Mr. Jerkens. You are loved by more people than you’ll ever know.

File Photo by Toni Pricci

Written by John Pricci

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