Friday, April 16, 2010

Zenyatta Joins Conversation for Best Thoroughbred Ever

SARATOGA SPRINGS, NY, April 15, 2010--Must begin by noting that I expected a little better from some segments of the racing media.

It’s OK for fans to be cheerleaders, but not journalists. The nature of horseracing media is to be opinionated, and that's fine. It’s even permissible to be a fan of one rival and not another.

But to disparage the connections of Rachel Alexandra for not sending their filly to Oaklawn Park to run in the Apple Blossom was not only unfair but showed little real understanding of what‘s required.

“Now it is doubtful any amount of money will lure Rachel Alexandra onto the same racetrack as Zenyatta,” said the paper of record in the aftermath of the Apple Blossom. That’s enough to make you a Rupert Murdoch fan.

Let’s go way back, to the year 2009, and consider which group of connections plotted the more ambitious campaign.

If you respond Zenyatta's because she ran in the Breeders’ Cup Classic then you’re not being fair. Zenyatta ran in the Classic because her stablemate Life Is Sweet was more than capable of winning the Ladies Classic and, more significantly, it was her only chance to win Horse of the Year recognition.

“Even [Steve] Asmussen, who saddled the fifth-place finisher War Echo,” the Times story continued, “seemed awestruck by his close-up view of Zenyatta. ‘That was incredible,’ [Asmussen] said. ‘We were no match’.”

Of course they were no match. Grade 3 fillies don’t match up well with the winner of 16 straight races, winner of nine Grade 1 events, a mare for the ages.

The only way Zenyatta could have won the Apple Blossom easier is if the race were a reprise of Spectacular Bid’s 1980 Woodward.

I’ve seen Zenyatta in person only once, last fall late one Saturday afternoon at Santa Anita. She is the most imposing race mare I’ve ever seen, and I saw all of Shuvee‘s races. If I ever saw Zenyatta in her stall I think I probably wouldn't believe my lyin’ eyes.

I’ve seen many great horses in the flesh: Bid, Secretariat, Seattle Slew, Ruffian. And great horses have a presence. But the show Zenyatta puts on; the bowing, the prancing? To quote Esquire Vincent Gambini: “You were serious about that?”

Never in my life have I seen anything like the show she puts on, and my teeth get longer by the day. I’m sure I’m not the only one who feels this way.

I have been fortunate enough to see other greats, too: Kelso, Forego, John Henry and, yes, Rachel Alexandra. It takes a great filly to accomplish what she did last year.

But given her unique combination of personality and ability, Zenyatta has entered the rarified air normally reserved for the best thoroughbreds ever to walk the planet.

And so the spotlight is clearly Zenyatta's now. As far as the sport is concerned, the balance of the 2010 racing season runs through her, not the 2009 Horse of the Year. Not until they meet, anyway.

It is important to remember that Racel Alexandra was under-prepared while losing for the first time in 16 months on a racetrack, Fair Grounds, that tests physical and mental toughness at once.

Rachel Alexandra wasn’t ready to run in her Apple Blossom prep and it showed. In fact, her uncharacteristic lack of determination made one wonder about her transition to 2010 off the most ambitious campaign ever waged by a three-year-old filly.

And that question will linger until Rachel proves otherwise in compettion.

To run her back at Oaklawn, or to suggest that it was because she was ducking Zenyatta, is irresponsible, unfair to the filly and her fans. Rachel Alexandra has a huge following, too. She owned 2009; Zenyatta owned the Breeders’ Cup Classic.

When she is fit, physically and mentally, she will meet Zenyatta somewhere down the line. The difference is that her crown no longer entitles her to a pass. She must chase Zenyatta as Zenyatta chases history. She is the defending Horse of the Year but Zenyatta clearly has entered another dimension.

But Rachel has earned the luxury of joining the “Zenyatta dance” at the time of her choosing. She won that right between the fences of seven racetracks last year by winning five Grade 1s and beating males thrice, smashing track records and never tasting defeat.

To think that either Jess Jackson or Steve Asmussen will shrink from the challenge now is to understand neither man nor acknowledge the level of greatness their filly achieved. You don’t map out a campaign like last year’s then go hide at a bullring somewhere the following season. But she wouod have had zero chance to win the Apple Blossom and the effort likely would have extracted a heavy toll.

John Shirreffs is said to be considering the G1 Stephen Foster vs. males at Churchill Downs in June. That may or may not be too early for Rachel; too soon to know.

The 2009 Horse of the Year needs another race, badly, and she needs to win with authority over strong competition and do it the right way. A soft win over suspect competition at this point won't help her conditioning or her reputation.

The interesting note about the Foster is that it was won last year by Macho Again, the same horse Rachel defeated in the 2009 Woodward, a race that sealed her Horse of the Year deal. Trainers and owners love to point for races they’ve won in the past.

Zenyatta’s connections and fans should relish the challenges to come. Another Vanity win wouldn't prove anything. Been there, done that, and under 129 pounds. And Shirreffs is sounding he would much prefer challenging males to carrying the grandstand.

It also has been written that people such as this Rachel Alexandra voter won’t be satisfied until “[Zenyatta] beats the best possible men and boys on the oldest dirt in the land…And the Beyer number had better be good.”

Really, can we be any more sophomoric?

Before any clash of the titans can occur, Rachel needs to get her mojo back, and that clearly has not been the case. Her trainer has said that. But she might be on her way to getting it back now if this Monday's workout is any measure.

The lengthy move at Churchill Downs was not only fast but it was done the right way, the way it was done in her championship season. It was the first time this year that Asmussen had a reason to think that a great three-year-old will become a great four-year-old.

Rachel will have to be all of that before stepping on the same racetrack with Zenyatta right now. As the great turf writer Charles Hatton once wrote of Secretariat, Zenyatta’s only frame of reference is herself.

Written by John Pricci

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Thursday, April 08, 2010

Modern Game Is No Place for Rough Riding

SARATOGA SPRINGS, NY, April 6, 2010--What happened between Garrett Gomez and Victor Espinoza at Santa Anita last Saturday is likely to happen several times a day at America’s racetracks.

Not the fisticuffs, necessarily, but the rough-housing, and this is too bad, of course. Playing chicken on horseback is never a good idea.

Not only can riders do serious harm to themselves, but what of the owners and trainers and the horses involved? Who has their hindquarters?

Back in the day, a little rough-housing was routine back. As Bill Christine recalled here the day after the incident, it would have been business as usual for all-time great Angel Cordero Jr.

“Papa,” as he was called by friends and fans as a term of respect, was famous for riding more than one horse per race, his and his main rival. And papa always had to be the center of attention.

There was his infamous ride aboard Shake Shake Shake in the 1978 Travers in which the overmatched invader was allowed to drift off the rail beneath Cordero, herding Affirmed with Laffit Pincay Jr. and affording Alydar a fortuitous opportunity.

Alydar, ridden by Cordero’s close friend Jorge Velasquez, shot through along the fence. After Affirmed finally disposed of Shake Shake Shake to reach even terms with Alydar, Pincay responded in kind by dropping over on Alydar, forcing him to check badly.

Alydar finished second was placed first via the disqualification of Affirmed and Pincay. Pincay overreacted to the situation and Affirmed was punished as the result of an incident that Cordero had started.

Trainer Laz Barrera was so angry he threatened never to race Affirmed against Alydar again, all but accusing Cordero and Velasquez of conspiring to beat his horse. “Cordero forced my horse out to let Alydar through,” said Barrera at the time.

Two years later, Cordero’s ride aboard Codex in the 1980 Preakness, in which he rough-rode Kentucky Derby-winning filly Genuine Risk, was so flagrant that the Daily Racing Form took a rare editorial stance decrying Cordero’s actions.

Probably the two most famous incidents involving rough riding was the legendary “Fighting Finish” whipping battle between Don Meade and Herb Fisher in the 1933 Derby, the photo making the front page of every newspaper in the country.

Meade won the race on Brokers Tip--the only race that horse would ever win and the only horse to earn that particular distinction. Despite the obvious disregard for the rules, the result was allowed to stand, adding another layer to the Derby’s legendary fabric.

In the 1942 Cowdin Stakes, another legend, jockey Eddie Arcaro, almost lost his license as the result of a severe bumping match he had with jockey Vincent Nodarse that ended with Arcaro putting Nodarse over the fence. He was suspended for a year.

Of course, the Santa Anita Derby incident was nothing like the above cases, but then neither was the punishment. A three-day suspension for Espinoza is light considering the circumstances, and a $750 fine for Gomez for fighting is almost an embarrassing joke.

Three days is what you should get for careless riding, putting another horse and rider in harm’s way without premeditation, which might not have been the case here.

Not with a back-story involving Espinoza and his mounts on Bob Baffert’s horses, or lack of same, exacerbated by his lost mount on Big ‘Cap winner Misremembered. It might have been Baffert, not Gomez, that was the intended recipient of Espinoza’s frustration.

It would seem that if any rider needing replacing it would be Gomez on Lookin At Lucky. I didn’t have a big problem with his Rebel ride as others did, but he put him in close enough quarters that he clipped heels and nearly fell.

It was the colt’s three-year-old debut and his first on dirt, so if Gomez wanted to play it a little cozy, it was understandable.

But given that the whole purpose of the Santa Anita Derby was to sharpen the mind and hone the body, a good strong finish while in the clear was the way to go, not rushing up precariously on the fence with an odds-on favorite.

Indeed, Gomez was boxed in by his heady rivals. But he should not have been where he was in the first place and everyone knows it. To his credit, it was Baffert who took the heat. He left the rider to his own devices and it didn’t work. In fact, it was “horrendous.”

Meanwhile, if Garrett Gomez is the Garrett Gomez he can be and wins the Derby, all will be forgotten. But the relationship between Gomez and Espinoza is another matter. Cooler heads must be made to prevail. The sport is dangerous enough as it is.

Written by John Pricci

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Thursday, April 01, 2010

The First Thing You Notice When Arrive in New Orleans Is…

NEW ORLEANS, March 30, 2010 .…That as you walk into Fair Grounds Race Course and Slots, you believe you’re walking into a real racetrack. With all the racinos in this country, that are more about casinos than racing, that’s no given.

Most racinos are sterile. The atmosphere is decidedly bland if it were not for all the clanging and whirring noises. Worse is the fact that many act ashamed there’s actual horse racing going on there. Sometimes just knowing where to go to see the races is an adventure in itself.

Not so in the Crescent City, where tradition not only counts but where references to the city’s history are as much a part of the landscape as are monuments to General Jackson, General Beauregard and Joan of Arc. On horseback, of course.

I was never to the old Fair Grounds, of which there were two, one destroyed by fire and the other by Hurricane Katrina. But give their corporate owners, Churchill Downs Inc., credit for this: They left well enough alone and seemingly enhanced what was there.

As you walk into the clubhouse through the glass doors of the valet entrance, you immediately notice about 100 feet in front of you is another set of glass doors that open out to the paddock area, located about 10 feet away.

To the left as you walk in is a newsstand where you can buy a Racing Form or a handy pocket program. Sized to slip into a back pocket, the pocket program has four lines of abbreviated past performances per horse.

It’s not a comprehensive handicapping tool by any means but if you’ve done your homework there’s just enough information to jar your memory about what you liked about a some horse in the first place; company lines, race shapes, etc., etc.

In front and to the left of the door leading to the paddock is a Will Call and Customer Service desk staffed by knowledgeable and friendly people. It is New Orleans, remember.

To the right, adjacent to an escalator that carries you to a second floor viewing stand that overlooks the paddock, where the horses seem close enough to touch, is a large floor-to-ceiling glass partition behind which are the slot machines.

I didn’t walk into the slots area as I prefer my iron men to dispense mutuel tickets and not chits or coins. But what I liked was that the machines and floor layout was reminiscent of a Las Vegas casino. The sense was that the players arrived by car, not by the bus-load.

If I didn’t hate the word, I’d describe the paddock as cute. Cute as a button, as a matter of fact. So let’s go with quaint; attractive. The paddock area is a wide semi-circle around which are assembled horsemen and horseplayers. Enclosed saddling stalls are on the opposite side of the viewing area.

It’s all a bit claustrophobic at first, probably owing to three more floors that rim around that same semi-circle. Gulfstream-light might be more apt.

Walk another 150 feet around the paddock and out onto the apron. In front of the glass enclosed grandstand housing five floors of boxes, trackside restaurants and parterres are tiered benches providing a good view of the long Fair Grounds straight.

Interesting that the length is not its only distinguishing feature, but the width of the homestretch, too. Belmont Park it’s not. What the whole thing is is pretty damn cool. A publicist would call it racing as it was meant to be. And he would be right.

* * *

….That as soon as you de-plane there’s a vibe, not one that can be explained but, by definition, must be felt. No one’s in a hurry here and everyone seems like they want to help. Strangers stop you on the street and begin a conversation, some of a quite personal nature.

A tall, craggy-faced older black man tapped me on the shoulder on Decatur Street, just outside Jackson Square to be precise, and asked “Is that your wife? Man, she’s really good lookin’. You know what that makes you, don’t it?”

I played along. “No, what?” “That makes you a lucky man,” he said. I said that I guess it does. Then he said: “Man, she’s so good lookin’ she makes medicine look sick.”

He laughed aloud, extended a hand and we fist-bumped, laughing together. “See y’all again, have a good time,” he said, then continued walking his way, we our’s, smiling.

* * *

….That despite the laid back atmosphere and slow southern pace, most drivers on I-10 would have little problem finding work as New York City cabdrivers. I normally would number myself among those, as I was bred top and bottom for impatience, but being unfamiliar I was right lane-ing it most of the time.

Not an easy city to learn, with all the neighborhoods sectioned off in square grids. To make it tougher, every street had a name. But I-10 provides access to almost anywhere in the city and driving slowly gives visitors a chance to look around.

I saw two classic billboards. One was a big black and gold sign, one you couldn’t miss as you drove east on I-10 towards downtown. It read: “Aints, 1969-2009, Rest In Peace.”

The other gives hope to every lonely men who either lives in New Orleans or is just passing through. The billboard was an advertisement for a Gentlemen’s Club which essentially gave every customer a chance to get lucky. “Come In and See Us,” it read. “We’ve got a dozen gorgeous women, and three ugly ones.”

* * *

….I explained to one of the locals that I was a journalist interested in seeing any of the horrible remnants in the wake of Hurricane Katrina. Upon his advise, we drove east on I-10 from our hotel in Metairie and exited Carrollton Ave. which I presumed was a gateway to the infamous Ninth Ward* so devastated by the storm.

After driving a mile, maybe a bit more, we came upon N. Rampart St. and made a left turn and drove a few blocks. There was sporadic damage, construction everywhere, and about three real estate signs per block. “We Pay Top Dollar.”

Toni thought she saw something of interest to shoot and so we pulled over. After about five minutes, I saw her motioning through the rear view to come outside. I walked up the block and she introduced me to Don Ryan and later his wife, Robin.

He had just returned home, driving all night from Mobile following some weekend gigs. Don’s a musician, a.k.a. “the Blue Max,” with a CD coming out soon. Ryan toured with Willie Nelson back in the day, gets work as a studio musician and is now striking out on his own with a few songs he’s written.

The conversation was immediate and warm, the usual where-you-from and what-do-you-do, when Robin walked through the screen door and joined the conversation.

Robin retired from the Air Force and subsequently got her doctorate, doing her thesis on the effect John Ford’s propaganda film, made at the behest of the U.S. government, has had on the way Pearl Harbor has been perceived in this country ever since.

Robin said she just bought the house last year and how she owns both sides of this typical New Orleans quasi-row house. I say quasi because in four days I might have seen only two or three examples of like structures standing side-by-side.

All houses in New Orleans are different colors and styles. In the French Quarter, e.g., you can paint your house any one of 18 different colors, the most popular being pink, according to “Big John,” our guide. I saw the brightest shade of chartreuse I’ve ever seen anywhere, much less covering a house.

Don and Robin’s house was typical of New Orleans, about as wide as a good-sized room but long enough to extend nearly a half block. The house was done in early 70s motif; festooned with guitars, scarves and boas that extended to a back porch, its yard sitting hard by the back of Peter and Paul Church.

When it comes to churches, Brooklyn has nothing on New Orleans. They’re ubiquitous. Not a particularly religious man, Don described his surroundings as “my little piece of heaven where I can kick back before I have to get back on the road.”

Don’s friend Scott showed up, enjoying a day off. He was in with a construction crew from Alabama, helping to construct turbines for use in the area. “They need all the kilowatts they can get,” Scott said.

“We were lucky here,” Don said. “This block is on higher ground. We hardly had any flooding at all.”

It was time for us to get back on the road but not before Don and Robin provided “go cups,” standard procedure in New Orleans. They can be filled with whatever, so we took those, and were given a couple of necks-full of beads. “Just some throws to take with you.”

“My agent is lining up some New York gigs,” said Don. “I may be up there in July.”

I explained that I was pretty busy during July and August. “Do you play the horses?” I asked. “Actually, I own one, but my brother takes care of it. I gave him the papers and he’s been racing it this year.”

We left the conversation right there, promising to look him up the next time we’re in town.”

* * *

…..That wherever you come from food is, well, a matter of taste. On balance, however, nowhere is it any better or as unique tasting as it is here. No matter what the fare, the variation is always New Orleans.

Our first night, we went to Bozo’s, a very informal spot popular with the locals. We knew we were in the right place because Robby Albarado and Donna Brothers were doing a feature at the Oyster Bar on the Cajun rider’s favorite New culinary haunts for NBC’s “Road to the Kentucky Derby” telecast.

My tout was right on; it was the best fried food on the planet. No egg wash, no batter, just a light dredging of corn meal and cottonseed oil. No napkins necessary. The fried oysters, catfish, Redfish and stuffed crab cake were amazing.

The secret, according to our waiter and horseplayer, Ray, is that the oil is cleared of remnants from the previous cooking, and is changed completely after every eight to 10 meals. If the story was apocryphal, it sure didn’t taste that way.

The next night we played dress-up and went to Brigtsen’s, a charming, award-winning white linen establishment far from the madding crowd on Dante Street.

We were greeted by Maura Brigsten, wife of the owner and head chef, Frank. Following the Fair Grounds Oaks, we beat him back to the restaurant. He was alive in the late Pick 4; we weren’t.

Eat anything Frank wants to put in front of you, I was told. But if you can start with the Pumpkin Lobster Bisque, with just enough heat to meld with the sweet creaminess. If not, go for the Oyster, Spinach and Brie soup. It’s to die for. Then say goodnight with their signature Pecan Pie. Their love for their city and for making people happy is as obvious as Secretariat in the Belmont.

After the races Saturday, with the original tout coming from Dallas Stewart--whose late developing Seeking the Title bears watching in the Kentucky Oaks--we ended up at Mandina’s which, according to Bob Fortus of the Times-Picayune and Jennie Rees of the Louisville Courier-Journal, is “never a bad idea.:

It wasn’t. Start with the Turtle Soup, with a drop of Sherry, and go from there. That’s never a bad idea, either.

* Correction made on 040210

Written by John Pricci

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