Tuesday, November 06, 2012

Breeders’ Cup XXIX: The Good, The Bad and The Mezza Mezza

SARATOGA SPRINGS, NY, November 5, 2012—We say it every year, but only because it’s true. While some editions are better than others, as an event the Breeders’ Cup never fails to fire.

Here are about a dozen things that came to mind over a very long—too long—two days. I mean what does the Breeders’ Cup think it is, the Saratoga race meet? Speaking of which:

Local Boys Make Good

Chad Brown’s career season rolls on. While Awesome Feather’s tendons likely didn’t appreciate the loose surface, the turf horses were just fine, thank you.

Zagora is the very likely Filly and Mare Eclipse champion and finishing second in the Juvenile Fillies Turf behind French invader Flotilla.

Brown also saddled the second and third finishers in the male division with Noble Tune and Balance The Books trailing only George Vancouver at the finish.

It’s not a given, even with the best horses going in, that all your horses will show up on the day. Ask the trainer of Game On Dude.

Then there’s Don Lucarelli from nearby Duanesberg, a prominent member of the Starlight Racing syndicate that owns what should be a unanimous choice for Juvenile champion, undefeated Shanghai Bobby.

And props for Rosie Napravnik, who didn’t panic and get stick happy when ‘Bobby’ wanted to lay down with a quarter-mile remaining after chasing hot early fractions and used a vigorous, in-sync hand ride aboard the winner.

Frankel Wins Another!

No, not the greatest horse that ever lived (this year, anyway); it's the other Frankel, Guillermo, who had 9-year-old Calidoscopio ready to run them all down in the 14th and final furlong of the Marathon. (Great handling from Aaron Gryder, too).

Wise Dan, America's Most Gifted and Accomplished Race Horse

Now that mathematician who has enjoyed success predicting presidential election results would probably find that Wise Dan has about a 92% chance to be crowned 2012 Horse of the Year.

But is should not be a knee-jerk slam dunk, not when he probably shouldn’t be named the champion of what his connections think is his best game: Turf.

Remember, the Classic was an option. Good for them. They rolled the dice, got the money, and really got lucky when Game On Dude was a no-show.

The connections said a month ago that Horse of the Year wasn’t that important because Wise Dan is a gelding. But when asked about Horse of the Year, trainer Charlie Lopresti told NBC “let’s see what Game On Dude does later on.”

Looks like they had their cake and are likely to enjoy a healthy slice of it, too.

Stated previously, we don’t believe Wise Dan’s record is as compelling as Little Mike’s within the turf division. Little Mike has three Grade 1s of his own: Churchill’s Turf Classic at 9 furlongs in the spring, the prestigious Arlington Million over international rivals at 10 furlongs in summer, and the mile and a half Breeders’ Cup Turf in the fall, defeating last year’s defending Turf titlist in the process.

The Biggest Loser

I wouldn’t have a problem if Wise Dan finished third in the voting for Turf champion. Because Point of Entry, with three Grade 1s of his own, at routes and not at a specialized distance, went into the Breeders’ Cup with Horse of the Year aspirations and came out second or third best in his own division. Too bad: As the race was run, he was probably best.

Feline Speed Machine

Also, as mentioned previously, were it not for the fact that there is now an Eclipse for champion sprinting female, Groupie Doll might have won that category, which now will go deservedly to Trinniberg.

Wouldn’t it have been great to see her against males? In her case, that didn’t make sense—we’re not talking Horse of the Year here.

In any case, kudos to the Bradley family, trainer Billy “Buff,” and his dad and breeder, renaissance man Fred Bradley. Great management of a filly that has a chance to be an all-time great sprinter. Looking forward to 2013.

Delta Lady

That would be the speedy Royal Delta, not the one that usually waits until she’s ready to pounce—and then pounces!

Mike Smith jargoned “we caught a flyer out of the gate,” meaning she broke like a rocket. But Smith already was playing the speed bias (see Atigun).

Just for an instant after passing headstretch that a serious challenge would come for Include Me Out, who showed up big time on the big stage—but the big MARE was too much race horse. Her performance was what we come to expect from Bill Mott trainees in the fall.

So, now, Smith is the winningest jockey in Breeders’ Cup history* with 16 victories. The asterisk came into play last year when Smith rode his 15th BC winner, then record holder/analyst Jerry Bailey pointed out there were only seven, not 15, races back in the days he did most of his riding.

Bailey’s not wrong. But even at a young age--when agent Steve Adika had his book--Mike Smith was always a “big-race ridin’ SOB.”

Fort Larned Is No Curlin

No disparagement here—onlyacknowledgment that Fort Larned, the 2012 Older Male Champion favorite, will be the fifth consecutive Classic winner not named Horse of the Year.

That’s not bad news for the game. What it means is that, unlike traditional major sports, the regular season still matters.

It was heartwarming to see Janis Whitham, one of the sport’s pillars, and the low-key race horse developing Ian Wilkes showing class and confidence by keeping young Brain Hernandez in the boot. Happy 27th, young man; $270K is an awful lot of (birthday) cake.

Prime Time a Success; Patient Dies a little

Early reports that TV ratings for Breeders’ Cup 29 were bad were, well, bad. Overnight ratings of 2.2 was nearly double that of last year’s 1.2 (final ratings released November 6). The handle? Not so much.

There was a 5% handle decrease on Friday that about doubled for the two-day event and that’s significant, much of those losses on Saturday’s last three races with an 8:43 p.m. Classic in the East.

Further, this year’s renewal did not boast enough compelling performers. Equine superstars notwithstanding, a significant number of New York and New Jersey horseplayers were knocked out of action by super-storm Sandy.

(As you read this, 20% of Long Island is still without power. Have no idea what those poor Jerseyites are up against--and the gas shortage still looms extremely large in both states).

A Bloody Controversy

Three Lasix-free juveniles bled, one badly, which begs the question how many horses bleed through Lasix on any day at any track in the country? We don’t know because when it comes to medication, the industry would still rather not ask and not tell.

If every horse were scoped after every race, a majority would show some evidence of exercise-induced pulmonary edema. Those that bled did have the option of racing Lasix-free throughout the year but horsemen danced those dances and took their best hold at Santa Anita last weekend.

Two juveniles that raced last weekend that did not use furosemide in their pre-Cup campaigns didn’t bleed and the winners of both juvenile dirt races were coming off Lasix, including the hot-pace chasing, hot-day racing, exhausted Shanghai Bobby.

The grand Lasix-free experiment, in the main, was a failure at the entry box and at the box office. The real test comes in 2013 when all races will be Lasix-free. Horsemen can do one of two things: prepare for that eventuality or leave all that money and prestige on the table.

Written by John Pricci

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Sunday, November 04, 2012

That Breeders’ Cup Championship Season; Some Controversy Guaranteed

SARATOGA SPRINGS, NY, November 3, 2012—From the time this whole thing began cross town from Santa Anita back at a kinder, gentler time, when Big Brother and the international racing world was watching, it was all about championship titles.

In the years since, the number of Breeders’ Cup races have doubled and then some. Fortunately, though, the number of major categories haven’t changed all that much. However, two were added, both for females, one for fast fillies; the other for grass lovers.

On Formerly Filly Friday, three likely champions were crowned and, strangely enough, all were females.

With her front-running victory in the Juvenile Fillies, Beholder, trained by Richard Mandella and ridden by Garrett Gomez, took advantage of a speed-biased racetrack and improved her record to 3-for-5.

The Juvenile Fillies was her first and only Grade 1 but, given her nose defeat in the G1 Del Mar Debutante, her resume is championship enough.

In a division that was very entertaining but without a dominant filly all season, Zagora, adding the Filly and Mare Turf to her resume, improved her record to 5-for-8, good enough for a title even if the F&M Turf was her first G1 of the season.

Zagora was, however, G1 placed in both the Flower Bowl and Diana and won four other graded stakes; three at the G3 level and Saratoga’s G2 Ballston Spa.

For Royal Delta, the repeat winner of the Ladies Classic, not only is a cinch to reprise her Filly & Mare Eclipse title but the victory put her, for the time being at least, in the running for a possible Horse of the Year championship depending on Saturday’s results.

And that's when the scores began to change.

Eclipse Championship Saturday began in earnest with Santa Anita’s fifth race, the Filly & Mare Sprint and, ironically, if this division had not been created, the amazing Groupie Doll likely would have won the open title.

Never out of the money in eight starts, the Filly & Mare Sprint was her fifth consecutive score, adding a third G1 to her G2 victories.

And she did it by tearing the bias to shreds, confidently and patiently handled by Rajiv Maragh, as he looped the speedsters on the way to a dominant victory.

After the filly Mizdirection won the Breeders’ Cup Turf Sprint off the longest layoff in the history of the event for King of the Jungle Jim Rome et al, Shanghai Bobby not only nailed down a championship but did so with perhaps the gamest performance in the history of the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile.

He did it chasing suicidal fractions from close range after having his training schedule interrupted by Hurricane Sandy, did it on a hot day 3,000 miles from home and—oh, yes—overcame it all without the benefit of Lasix, just as Beholder had on Friday.

In winning the race, Shanghai Bobby extended his undefeated record to five, adding the Juvenile to the Champagne his second G1 title.

An hour later, the three-year-old Trinniberg, extended his record to 4-for-8 for the year by taking the championship-defining Sprint. Will voters consider that enough? Since filly sprinters have their own category, what happens here?

The result of the Breeders’ Cup Turf turned out to be amazingly complex result. Point Of Entry, on the cusp of a possible Horse of the Year championship, now might finish third—in his own division.

How do you deny the winner, Little Mike, who won his third G1 of the year including the Turf and Arlington Million, two of the most prestigious, if not the most prestigious grass races in the country?

Then along comes Wise Dan--who most believe is the best older horse in the country--to win his third consecutive G1 in a specialized category (in this country, anyway) a turf miler. The bigger deal is that he did it while the whole world was watching.

Coupled with his narrow defeat in the G1 Stephen Foster, and Game On Dude’s no-show performance in the Classic, his credentials make him a leader in the Horse of the Year clubhouse.

Expect controversy.

Will voters punish him for not going for the whole enchilada by running in the Classic, a race which is, on balance, far more valuable to a potential Horse of the Year titlist than any number of one mile victories on grass?

Wise Dan is the Horse of the Year favorite, no doubt, odds-on to be ranked first in the final NTRA Poll on, coincidentally, election day. He was his usually uber impressive self.

But having made his bones in three Grade 1 turf miles, is that greater than Little Mike's three G1s--at a mile and an eighth, a mile and a quarter, and a mile and a half, two of those against international competition?

Of course, Fort Larned, expertly prepared, won the big dance, the Classic, riding a bias that wouldn't allow Mucho Macho Man to catch up. Is the Classic and the Whitney a good enough Horse of the Year resume?

Now consider this: Is any of the above greater than a 4-for-4 American dirt season that includes three Grade 1s, a Grade 2, and two classics?

It is a question that will be argued ad infinitum until all the votes are counted at year’s end. It might even turn out to be closer than the result of Tuesday’s other election.

Written by John Pricci

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Friday, November 02, 2012

Breeders’ Cup: Keeping It In Perspective

SARATOGA SPRINGS, NY, November 2, 2012—I wasn’t supposed to be at this dateline but you play the hand you’re dealt.

And, truthfully, I didn’t feel much like playing.

A quasi-political junkie in my spare time, the 2012 Presidential Election campaign has worn me out. That can happen if you’ve been immersed in it since 2010. Clearly, my bad.

My plan was to leave for SoCal from JFK. I live here, but Albany International doesn’t speak Jet Blue, hence the visit to Long Island.

But health issues intervened, and the new plan was to watch and wager on the Breeders’ Cup in South Florida; Calder on Friday, Gulfstream Park on Saturday.

That’s called being loyal and supporting the advertisers that support you and yours.

Enter Sandy, as cruel a storm as I’ve ever witnessed up close and personal, exacerbated by the fact that my oldest, Jennifer Lee, lives in Atlantic Highlands on the Jersey Shore.

It’s been nearly a half century—I must be having fun because it can’t be that long, can it?—since I listened to a transistor radio. But that’s what happens when the lights and the Internet go out. Power is still out for 9 of every 10 Islanders.

Who knows when it might return?

Thank God for keeping family, and extended family, safe. I arrived back here early Thursday morning, wiped out physically and mentally.

I managed to do one radio show out of two I was responsible for, got out the Equiform and Pick 4 products by phone, after my wife Toni read me the post positions, morning line odds, and jockey assignments over the phone.

The family that wagers together stays together.

Many thanks to the neighbors; George, Rosemary and Barbara Doran, siblings who had the prescience to install a gas generator many years ago for just such emergencies. It kept my cell phone and laptop alive and they showed an Italian what Gaelic spaghetti and meatballs taste like. The only thing better than the food was the company.

Obviously, even though they sit on the other side of the aisle from me, unlike their candidate, they believe in climate change. Not my words; Mayor Bloomberg’s.

I heard about the wind shear that ripped the façade clear off an apartment building somewhere below 39th Street; the devastation in Breezy Point; the carnage in Spring Lake, Barnegat, Seaside Heights, even inland, in Moonachie, New Jersey.

But after arriving in the Capital District, mercifully spared Sandy’s wrath, the video brought the thousands of radio words, well, home. “We’re safe, daddy, but Ocean Avenue is under three feet of sand. My town, it’s gone.”

I must have written this a million times on a blackboard: The Derby is my favorite race but the Breeders’ Cup is my favorite event. But yesterday, Breeders’ Cup Friday eve, I could not find motivation. The event seemed a lot farther than 3,000 miles away.

Anyway, the cupboard was bare, and I went shopping for necessities. I turned on Fox Sports 980--the button for which is on the HRI lead page if you care to stream in—and Jim Rome was talking Breeders’ Cup.

He was explaining to his “clones” why his attitude toward Thoroughbred racing changed, believing for so long that the game was a gambling vehicle, and gambling vehicle only.

But then he became friendly with Billy Koch, founder of the Little Redfeather Racing syndicate, and bought into shares of a few horses, enjoying few highs and many lows, but he stayed with it because of the aura of backstretch life.

Old schoolers may not care for Rome’s style, but he’s a brilliant communicator on radio. Despite those talents, he was having difficulty explaining why he now cares to much for the game.

So he played a tape of the interview he had earlier this week with celebrity chef Bobby Flay, who was introduced to Todd Pletcher and got into the game. Together, they won a Breeders’ Cup with a juvenile turf filly named More Than Real.

“Aside from the birth of my child,” Flay said in that interview, “it was the most exhilarating moment of my life.

“When [I think it was Pletcher—brackets mine] tapped me on the shoulder when the field reached the quarter pole and said ‘you’ve got horse,’ well…”

Rome and Flay are now kindred racing spirits, falling prey to what trainer Howie Tesher calls “the Manure Syndrome.” Once that smell reaches your brain…

The next thing Rome said was that he was humbled to have a horse good enough to race in the this year’s Breeders’ Cup.

The filly is called Mizdirection, a 20-1 chance that’s racing against males in the Breeders’ Cup Turf Sprint, down the hill at Santa Anita going 6-1/2 furlongs. Arguably, it’s the most interesting configuration for a horse race anywhere in this country.

Rome then explained to his mostly non-racing audience that his trainer, Mike Puype, is very good bringing horses back from a layoff. Mizdirection hasn’t raced since May 27.

Twice recently she has come off layups, winning off a February to April break and the time before, last fall, when she came off another layup to be beaten 3/4s of a length in Keeneland’s Grade 2 Raven Run.

“I can’t tell you to bet on her clones, she’s in very tough. But she’s training great and we wouldn’t run unless we thought we had a chance…It’s an honor to run in this race.

“I can’t wait for Saturday. I’m going to pound it. If we win, we’ll be celebrating for days.”

Well, Romey, here’s some A-B-C type information. The Equiform Energy Figures I’ve been using for close to a decade tell me she has more than a puncher’s chance.

Both of her lifetime best figures were earned on this course, at this unique, hybrid distance. She might not be as “fast” as some of her male rivals, but the course is a great equalizer. She’s getting a three-pound sex allowance.

My Equiform Breeders’ Cup partners, Cary Fotias, the author of these figures, and European maven Nick Mordin, well respected professional horseplayers, are taking a swing. So am I.

Thanks for getting a stormed-out, political and Thoroughbred racing junkie pumped up again for Breeders’ Cup. Tragedy makes for informed perspective but, like electricity, and life itself, we should never take our inner compass for granted.

* * *

We’ll be back throughout Breeders’ Cup Friday and Saturday programs with developing storylines and handicapping updates

Written by John Pricci

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