Wednesday, February 29, 2012

The Look of Eagles

HALLANDALE, FLA., February 28, 2012—Did we all see the Kentucky Derby’s future while watching the performance of Union Rags in his impressive sophomore debut Sunday in the Fasig-Tipton Fountain of Youth Stakes?

Sharp start for Union Rags (7) and Csaba (8) lucky to avoid injury
Photo by: Toni Pricci
Sharp start for Union Rags (7) and Csaba (8) lucky to avoid injury
If we did not, then, let’s assume for the moment that he’s the most gifted 3-year-old on this side of the Mississippi and all that may be left is determining which West Coast Derby prospect is willing to audition for the role of Sunday Silence.

A Baffert trainee to be named later, perhaps?

I promised that I wouldn’t get ahead of myself on this. Since arriving in the land o’ sunshine, I get this a lot: “So, who’s your Derby horse?” Not many accept my answer readily but I tell them the following:

I long since have stopped trying to be the first kid on my block to predict the Derby winner and that, if I knew, I wouldn’t utter a word until I could get a future book bet down. I might have taken a few flyers in Pool 1 for fun and, perhaps, a small windfall.

Either way, life will not change. Besides, the futures are really meant for people with a strong inside opinion who can bet enough to make a half-year’s pay should they be prescient enough to divine a Derby winner. But I digress.

The performance of Union Rags in the Fountain of Youth was a high class exhibition from start to finish. For openers, he entered the ring looking like your run of the mill 4-year-old. He had the creases of conditioning, a gleaming coat, controlled energy. He appeared pluperfectly prepared by trainer Michael Matz.

Then he went out on a surface that was somewhat tiring--probably a bit dried out, even after overnight rains, because of winds that gusted to 35 mph at times, variably from the east and northeast. But he ran to his looks.

Now it might be that the formerly undefeated Discreet Dancer has a future best served by one-turn races up to a mile. And runnerup News Pending, while stoutly bred, had yet to win on dirt in three starts. The four also-rans all had troubled starts. So we need to be a guarded here.
Union Rags in Winners' Circle still with running on his mind
Photo by: Toni Pricci
Union Rags in Winners' Circle still with running on his mind
The colt runs like a 4-year-old, too. If you need speed, he’ll give it to you, like on the first turn Sunday when Julien Leparoux, riding as if he broke him to saddle, asked the colt not to allow Discreet Dancer to establish an easy, uncontested lead. Then he waited for another cue.

When you ask Union Rags for something, he apparently gives it to you instantly. When Leparoux asked him on the second turn, he powered past the leaders effortlessly and with graceful acceleration. When he passes you, he doesn’t hesitate--he sets sail to the finish.

Had he been asked to run to the traditional finish line further down the stretch, the four length winning margin might have been doubled. Leparoux only waved his stick and never used it earnestly. His gallop out was strong; not run-off strong but deliberate and straight.
Gulfstream President Tim Ritvo presents trophy to  Mrs. Wyeth, conversing with her jockey as trainer Michael Matz looks on
Photo by: Toni Pricci
Gulfstream President Tim Ritvo presents trophy to Mrs. Wyeth, conversing with her jockey as trainer Michael Matz looks on
Union Rags has a loyal following; at least he did on this day, greeted by whoops and shouts on his entrance into the winners’ circle. “You showed him who’s the boss,” one yelled, which was precisely right.

Perhaps the most impressive part of all is that he walked into the circle as if he owned it, flicking his ears and peering around, both. His eyes were bright; maybe that’s what the old-time show-horse people meant by “the look of eagles.”

He was heaving a bit as he posed for his close-up, as any horse that had just run a mile and a sixteenth in 1:42.68, with a final sixteenth in a sharp :6.40 He didn’t walk out of the ring as much as he danced his way back to the test barn.
Next stop Florida Derby
Photo by: Toni Pricci
Next stop Florida Derby
The sense was that this isn’t just any horse.

The word special is thrown around a lot these days by owners, trainers and jockeys but it often sounds like it’s more about creating mystique than offering an honest assessment. I don’t know if Union Rags is a special horse; it’s too early to tell.

But if he is one of the ones, he already looks the part.

Written by John Pricci

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Thursday, February 02, 2012

“If Wishes Were Horses”

PLANTATION, Fla., February 2, 2012— I finally caught up with Episode 2 of the HBO horse racing drama series Luck and once again was amazed how it struck just the right racetrack tone, in harmony with a good old-fashioned who-did-what-and-who-will-do-what-to-whom storyline.

It’s the sort of the dark comedy that’s a fact of life on both the front- and the backsides of America’s racetracks; the sort of thing that David Milch did so well in Deadwood only this time incorporating humor along with the darkness.

Critics might not have been unanimous in their praise with “only” about nine out of 10 loving it. The best news, however, is that the series has been renewed for a second season. There have been nine episodes to date and now 10 more will be added beginning January, 2013.

According to an HBO press release, the series will go back into production by the end of this month.

Of all the reviews we’ve seen, the best entered my inbox earlier this week courtesy of my daughter Linda, who admitted she probably spends too much time on Vulture, the entertainment blog of New York Magazine.

Linda also explained that it was rare when a Vulture recap accentuated the film making aspect of a piece over plot line considerations.

The following excerpt isn’t as much a review as it is a paean to racetrack life, which begs the question: How can it be that a non-racing medium gets what it means to be a racetracker when the industry, including its media, never have figured a way to describe that sensation in order to attract more people to it?

“I don’t know if there is a God working behind the scenes in the universe of Luck, wrote Matt Zoller Seitz, “but the way [Michael] Mann photographs the track and its people, animals, bleachers, sheds, low-hanging clouds and fluttering birds makes it seem as though there are larger, unseen forces at play.

“Whether these forces can be explained via theology or physics is something the pilot never [pretended] to answer, and I doubt Milch or Mann mean to provide them.

“They seem content to watch characters deal with cosmic machinations that they spend their whole lives trying to understand and tap into. When one of these characters has a good day, or a big win, it’s like seeing a flower bloom in a junkyard.”

Damn, wish I wrote that.

Let’s all try to fathom what the reviewer got from one pilot episode bout life on the racetrack, and what he thinks makes this whole scene so fascinating. Clearly, anyone tethered to the racehorse already knows exactly what Seitz is appreciating.

Horse racing and life on the racetrack is a visual medium. Did you ever notice, for instance, that back in the day, and sometimes now, when manufacturers try to sell television sets invariably there’s a horse race going on?

Why? Because racing and the racetrack explodes with color, sights and sounds, and anyone involved in it, either as a principal or bettor/fan, know there are unseen forces at play.

Theology or physics? Exactly; who knows and why.

The results of a horse race divined via the practice of handicapping? Precisely. What is handicapping, exactly, science or art? It’s mostly both, although true fans know that you begin with science and end with art in order to draw the right conclusion.

Horseplayers attempting to “deal with cosmic machinations they spend their whole lives trying to understand and tap into.” Is that not what everyone who tries to figure out the winner of a horse race is attempting to do?

Isn’t that what happens when you land on a horse for no precise reason but you have a “feeling” it will win? Isn’t that feeling really a clue from the subconscious, knowledge that flows from the 10,000 hours of research that makes one, by definition, an expert?

“Seeing a flower bloom in a junkyard” is the precise moment a race develops in reality the way it dopes out on paper; the exact moment your practiced, reasoned selection crosses the finish line first; the instant a champion overcomes all obstacles and does exactly what it was supposed to do.

These are the thoughts and the pictures a horse-playing fan conjures up as he goes through the process of figuring just how a race will be run, selects the winner, walks out to the apron, picks up his binoculars and has a one-on-one relationship with these majestic beasts who were born to compete.

All of this culminates in what the great Hall of Fame horseman and racetrack sage, John Nerud, believes, that “a bad day at the track is better than a good day anywhere else.”

And so it matters not which end of the spectrum one considers when trying to draw a bead on another observation of Seitz’s, who posited that either you think this way of life is “an ancient tradition with a certain beauty and nobility, or a business built on exploitation.”

But that doesn’t matter. To paraphrase the late owner of the Oakland Raiders, Al Davis, in concert with the maxim of Bill Clinton’s political strategist, James Carville, “just sell it, stupid.”

Written by John Pricci

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Wednesday, January 18, 2012

We Are Fam-i-ly

PLANTATION, Fla., January 17, 2012—If you’ve ever tried to explain this game to someone untethered to the race horse, I’m sure you found it difficult to reconcile the fact that despite the intense and often manic competition, Thoroughbred racing is capable of rendering itself down to some equine version of Love Boat.

That was the sense one got while watching the 41st annual Eclipse Award presentation on cable TV Monday night, an evening that in my den would see Dr. Gregory House finish a very distant second to a real life Jeannine Edwards.

I confess that in my four decades of immersion into this passionate pastime, I’ve sat through my share of awards dinners, even hosted a few as a past President of the New York Turf Writers Association back in the day when the NYTWA actually honored those who toiled right in front of our press box eyes. Sadly, that’s a story for another day.

The point is that awards presentations, even those hosted by Ricky Gervais, can be tedious--speaking of which, I was very proud of the fact that on my imaginary Golden Globes ballot for actor in a television series drama appeared the name of Kelsey Grammar who, like George Clooney, found his role of a lifetime. But, I digress.

Edwards, easier on the eyes than either Gervais or Hugh Laurie, did fine work, getting out from behind a podium and helping to deflate some of the formal stuffiness of the occasion. I’m not sure everyone understood the sight-gag Tebow homage, and there might have been one too many without-further-ados, but that picks at nits. Edwards’ effort certainly was worthy of an encore performance at the 42nd annual.

The winners from three finalists in every category, except that for Horse of the Year, bore not a single major surprise, and it’s always good when the best, or most accomplished, horse wins. No one looks for value at Eclipse Award time, not even John Doyle, the 2011 Handicapper of the Year. Form has its place.

Even some of the more difficult classifications, that of top three-year-old colt, top steeplechaser, and almost all of the human categories, boasted finalists so worthy that no one could have taken serious umbrage with any of the Eclipse winners so honored.

At evening’s end I was disappointed there was no award for Caleb’s Posse, aced out by Kentucky Derby winner Animal Kingdom for sophomore best-in-show, and by Amazombie in the Sprint category. Both winners were deserving, of course, and, on balance, it’s a good thing when classic and end-of-year championship winners are rewarded in tight races: The Triple Crown and Breeders’ Cup events do so much shining a light on the sport.

Inevitably, awards ceremonies are not without its low-lights. There were audio glitches interspersed throughout the ceremonies and the lighting was described by one television professional I spoke with as funereal. Further, two observers reported that the streaming presentation had many issues.

It was unfortunate, too, that Dr. Kendall Hansen found it necessary to speak so interminably that you could cut the awkwardness with a knife—especially after his eponymous race horse was the first so honored only minutes after Edwards implored, practically begged, that acceptance speeches be limited to one minute.

Martin Schwartz, owner of Eclipse champion turf mare Stacelita, was less overbearing, though it was the first time I’ve ever seen a legal pad used for making ceremonial remarks. Disappointing, too, that owner Barry Irwin and trainer Chad Brown felt it necessary to replicate Woody Allen’s award appearances. I’m sure logical explanations will be offered. Fortunately, the highlights outran the uncomfortable moments.

Given their contributions and passion for the game, tributes to the late Jess Jackson and Mace Siegel hit just the right note at the start of the evening, as did the roll of 2011 champions from races hosted by co-sponsor Breeders’ Cup Ltd. Among other personal favorites, listed chronologically, were:

Steve Asmussen seen smiling [reporters don’t get that much]; Actor John Ortiz deadpanning a silent imitation of trainer Julio Canani; Steeplechase trainer Dermot Ryan’s thoughtful acceptance speech for Black Jack Blues; Award of Merit recipient Cot Campbell’s love of the business; Bill Mott humbly congratulating fellow trainer finalists Todd Pletcher and Bob Baffert and thoughtfully thanking all his assistants. The positives continued:

Handicapper John Doyle looking skyward to tell his dad that, 43 years later, “I’m at the top”; Rapid Redux owner Robert Cole giving “all the credit” to trainer David Wells; trainer Bill Kaplan [Musical Romance] thanking all the “unsung heroes” of the backstretch; the fun had by the SoCal camps of Acclamation and Amazombie—Bud Johnston [Acclamation] saying “the greatest part of the business are the people.”

There was ever classy Ramon Dominguez acknowledging “Javier and Johnny”; and two heartfelt moments as 19-year-old apprentice Kyle Frey, showing both presence and emotion, lifted his Eclipse trophy in the air, saying of his very recently deceased grandfather “this one’s for my grandpa.”

Then came ever ebullient owner Ken Ramsey, thanking four trainers who won Grade 1s for him in 2011 and, most of all, “the original kitten,” wife Sarah, who taught him three things—“to love your family, treat the horses well, and believe in yourself,” before breeder Frank Stronach thanked his wife for not allowing him to sell any of the broodmares.

At last, it was Rick Porter, the owner of Horse of the Year Havre De Grace, who on his second visit to the podium reminded all of “the highest of highs and the lowest of lows” that the game provides, allowing all to know he will never forget Eight Belles.

Porter was effusive in his praise of trainer Larry Jones for giving him, along with a Horse of the Year title, victory “in the Woodward at Saratoga, the most exciting race I’ve ever won.” He then thanked trainer Tony Dutrow for taking such good care of his filly at 2 and 3, before congratulating Jerry Hollendorfer and Blind Luck for helping to create a rivalry.

Jones declined an opportunity to close the evening with some final thoughts but earlier had thanked all his other owners for their patience and allowing him to travel the country with Havre De Grace. It was an evening of celebration, of competition and dreams shared with like-minded people: As Edwards also mentioned several times on Monday night; that’s what the game’s all about.

Written by John Pricci

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