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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Tuesday, October 09, 2012

Quick Hits From the Big Weekend

SARATOGA SPRINGS, NY, October 9, 2012—Back home for a bit so it’s time to catch up with a couple of quick takes on what’s been happening during one of the racing’s busiest time of the year:

Dan’s #1…Dan’s #1: And it would be unwise to think that positions on the NTRA National Poll will change until Nov. 5, a.k.a. Election Eve. Wise Dan, despite returning on unaccustomed-for-him short rest, dominated the Shadwell Turf Mile.

That’s three straight Mile wins on turf and 4-of-5 under those conditions dating back to July 4, 2011. But I agree with the Racing Post writer who recently stated Wise Dan should run in the Classic.

We believe that for two reasons: While trainer Charlie Lopresti and owner Morton Fink say publicly that a Horse of the Year title for their gelding is not all that crucial, then why--money notwithstanding--are you in the horse business?

Further, a look at his Equiform figures as he approaches Breeders’ Cup weekend, tell the same story they did before the Shadwell; Wise Dan owns better Energy Figures on both dirt and synthetic surfaces. If the Santa Anita dirt surface tightens up significantly, the connections could change their minds. That’s a big if.

SoCal, By Way of Shanghai: Kudos to the connections of protem Juvenile champion Shanghai Bobby for deciding on a go in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile, after first planting seeds of doubt following his Champagne tour de force.

Whether it’s because last year’s Juvenile turned out to be a good Kentucky Derby barometer--in terms of participation in the 2012 Derby, or because they believe their colt had done enough, or feared no-show voter reprisals, or worried that a Lasix-less ‘Bobby’ would somehow be less than in the warm and sunny Arcadia environment, doesn’t matter now.

Starlight Racing is doing the game a good turn. And to be favored to earn the winner’s share of a $2 million pot ain’t so bad, either. Good for them.

Vote Your Conscience: My colleague Steve Haskin of had it right Saturday afternoon at Belmont Park. If you want to make a statement and leave I’ll Have Another off your NTRA or Eclipse ballot for whatever reason, fine.

But if you rank him somewhere in the Top 10, how could he be anything other than the leading Horse of the Year candidate at this juncture. His 2012 slate: (4) 4-0-0, including a Grade 2, the G1 Santa Anita Derby and, of course, a Dual Classics winner. Until Nov. 3, anyway, it’s the sport’s most compelling resume.

A Mulligan For All My Friends: With apologies to Bukowski, I have awarded Breeders’ Cup do-overs to Ron The Greek, To Honor And Serve, and now Dullahan and St. Nicholas Abbey. Wherever you think they belong in racing’s pecking order is fine.

But each is better—much better—than their Jockey Club Gold Cup, Kelso, Jamaica and Arc say that they are. Not saying they will win at this juncture, only that they cannot be dismissed out of hand.

Now defending champion Amazombie has run well off poor efforts in the past, but he may be a Sprint throw-out this time. Have to think about this guy for a while; stay tuned.

Yes or No Answer, Please: Should Keeneland runner-up Exothermic, mistakenly administered Lasix on last Friday’s opening day program, have run for “purse money only?”

Absolutely. It was the right—and only fair thing---to do. This way, no one gets hurt.

Did Christophe Soumillon move too soon in the Arc? It certainly looked that way. Star Japanese filly Orfevre swept to command into the straight at Longchamp Sunday and appeared on her way to certain victory when Solemia, beneath Olivier Peslier, re-rallied and nailed Orfevre in the final strides. Taking nothing away from the victress, Orfevre ran too good to lose.

Will Todd Pletcher Be the Most Prolific Earner Ever? It certainly looks that way. Only 16 years ago, Pletcher saddled his first winner. Over the weekend, he became the second all-time leading trainer in money won, surpassing the late Hall of Famer Bobby Frankel.

What your attitude towards Pletcher, earnings of nearly a quarter-billion dollars (yes, with a b) in 16 years is an amazing achievement. Latest figures have him trailing his mentor, D. Wayne Lukas, by approximately $32 million, after saddling about half the number of runners. As of last Saturday, $228 million and climbing.

Was Groupie Doll More Dominating than Wise Dan? In her fashion, yes. Rajiv Maragh rode her with arrogant confidence, believing all he needed was running room and a dream.

Despite mid-post position, Maragh decided to save ground and entering the stretch was fortunate to find daylight between rivals. He knuckled on her and she was gone, powering away effortlessly. And like Dan, she doesn’t have to carry her surface around with her.

Name That Tune: Facing winners for the first time off a single start, Noble Tune, just as he had in his debut, was most impressive, demonstrating a turn of foot uncommon with juveniles, especially over yielding ground, a grass star in the making.

Racing sixth as the Pilgrim horses entered the far turn, Ramon Dominguez elected to shift inside toward the hedge, angled outside approaching headstretch with push button acceleration, blew the race open, and then was idled down late. Surface notwithstanding, was every bit as impressive as Shanghai Bobby.

Written by John Pricci

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