Sunday, December 18, 2016

Ain’t No Mountain High Enough

INDIANTOWN, FL., December 13, 2016—While 4-5 favorite Takaful opened a loose lead curling into the backstretch in Aqueduct’s Remsen Stakes on Thanksgiving weekend, fellow last-out maiden winner Mo Town cruised up from the outside into third, Johnny Velazquez intent on putting the Uncle Mo colt in the race right from the jump.

Then a strange thing happened. Within several more strides, as Takaful began opening a six-length lead between backstretch calls, Velazquez peaked under his left shoulder, even though it appeared on paper that the main competition was directly in front of him.

Leaving the three-quarter pole, just after Takaful widened his advantage, Velazquez decided to step on the gas, putting Mo Town in stalking mode before putting the reins back in his lap. At that point Mo Town switched off, awaiting Velazquez to give him a final cue.

That point came at mid-far-turn. Velazquez asked Mo Town to get closer as the leader once again tried to open his margin as Win With Pride applied pressure to his outside and No Dozing began to rally strongly from the 4-path, appearing to have the best momentum at headstretch.

After straightening away, Mo Town attacked the favorite, who lacked both experience and a victory beyond a maiden-allowance Belmont sprint score, but the battle was over almost as quickly as it was joined. In a repetition of his maiden breaker, Mo Town drew off like a good horse, galloping out well and remaining in front of his nine rivals.

“Johnny thinks he’s a good horse,” said trainer Tony Dutrow at his Payson Park base, “as do I. Right now, neither of us know how good.”

What everyone has seen thus far has been pretty damn good.

Second on his Travers day debut behind a Steve Asmussen-trained second-time starter, Mo Town raced in fifth from his outside position in the 6-furlong sprint, steadied briefly when caught between horses at the turn, knifed between rivals at the five-sixteenths looming a possible winner at headstretch, but could not match strides with the experienced winner despite running his final quarter-mile in just under 24 seconds.

“Mentally he was ready to run,” said Dutrow. “It was late August and it was time to get him started. Fitness-wise, I probably had him at about seventy-five to eighty percent.” The runnerup effort was so good that Dutrow received many inquiries after the race.

“I told everyone that he was not for sale because I felt strongly that he was going to run much better in his next start.”

As advertised, Mo Town takes it easy on himself.

Mo Town’s second race came at one mile at Belmont Park where the colt was first introduced to a racetrack on May 1st, arriving from Ocala after being prepared by Bo Hunt at Starting Point Farm.

The colt’s 3-5 maiden win was a revelation. Breaking professionally from slip #4, he attended the early pace easily, running third outside another rival while under a tight rein, moved into second approaching the half-mile marker and was ready to seize control approaching headstretch.

Under a supremely confident Velazquez, Mo Town took command on his own and, as he began to widen, Velazquez went to a strong hand drive a furlong from home as if he wanted to find out just how much power was left under the hood.

Those reserves were enough to win by 7 widening lengths over the muddy going, racing his final quarter-mile in 24.58 at the end of a mile in 1:37.26.

After that performance, more offers came in earnest and suddenly Team Coolmore became the majority owner, Team D Racing retaining a share in the colt. The price was not disclosed but strongly rumored to be into seven figures. Mo Town was a $200,000 Fall yearling.

And so after three starts, Mo Town has a second and two wins over three different tracks and has handled fast and wet footing equally well. Long and leggy, he is the rare individual that’s professional at the start, owns both tactical and turn-of-foot speed and rates kindly. His best attribute?

“He’s easy on himself,” explained Dutrow. “Before he ran, we worked him in company but we don’t need to do that anymore. He knows what to do and he’ll do whatever we want to do in the morning.”

Dutrow does not want to get him started until late February and currently is mulling his options.

Mo Town looks toward the future.

After winning the Remsen, which has not been a great predictor of Classics success despite its nine furlong distance at the end of the two-year-old season, Dutrow stated the Wood Memorial, given the identical dynamics, likely would be the colt’s major Kentucky Derby prep. Now he’s not so sure.

“The downgrading of that race is a consideration and we’re looking at other options. The fact that neither New York nor Kentucky has a Grade 1 for three-year-olds in the spring doesn’t make sense. The Wood and Blue Grass have a rich history and are the kind of races the sport needs.”

Another consideration could be that the Grade 3 Gotham, which fits Dutrow’s schedule as well as a logical bridge to the Wood Memorial, had its purse lowered from $400,000 to $300,000 this year.

Parenthetically, that’s another factor that could have a negative effect on the Wood’s ability to regain its Grade 1 status.

Tony Dutrow contemplates his next move.

At this point Dutrow is mulling Fair Grounds’ Risen Star on Feb. 25 or Gulfstream’s Fountain of Youth a week later, opposite the Gotham on Mar. 4. Both spots also are being considered for protem champion Classic Empire. Recent Delta Jackpot winner Gunnevera is another targeting the Fountain of Youth.

As far as other starting points, Dutrow said he doesn’t know enough about Tampa Bay Downs, host of the 50-point Derby qualifier Tampa Bay Derby Mar. 11 but a run in the Risen Star, also a 50 pointer, is a useful five-week bridge to either the 100-point Louisiana Derby or Florida Derby, Apr. 1.

“There have been no soundness issues with him, knock wood, and I know we have not seen anything near his best yet,” Dutrow sounding like a man who’s very eager to find out. On that, he has a lot of interested company.

Photos by Toni Pricci

Written by John Pricci

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Sunday, December 11, 2016

Racing’s History and Tradition Matters

HALLANDALE BEACH, FL., December 10, 2016—Given the decline in horse racing’s popularity as a sport and business with the sporting public at large, there has been much hand wringing about how the game should be marketed.

Is it a sport? Is it a gambling game, in which skill most often decides the difference between the thrill of victory and the agony of emptied wallets?

I personally believe there’s room for both, accentuating the fact that horse racing--even more than handicapping and gambling on mainstream sports--is a thinking person’s game if for no other reason there are more than two sides to every puzzle.

So what does all this have to do with the recent downgrading of both the storied Blue Grass and Wood Memorial Stakes and, to a lesser extent the Mother Goose distaff for racing’s three-year-old glamour division?

Before considering the current status of these events we agree with those who certified the uplifting of the Pennsylvania Derby to Grade 1. As the HorseRaceInsider faithful are well aware, Mr. Jicha and I have been calling for such a move for several years.

However, the elevation of the race that has attracted high profile talent is the result of factors beyond the prestige normally associated with a Grade 1 designation.

Equi-distant from both the Travers and Breeders’ Cup Classic, it is the only opportunity for three-year-olds to run for a cool million and a Grade 1 title in their own division.

The Pennsylvania Derby is at once a chance for late developers to throw their hooves into the championship ring with the potential of defeating a Triple Crown, Travers or Haskell hero because the connections of those events get $50,000 for just showing up.

Most horsemen and other industry stakeholders agree that money, Grade 1 status, and good spacing is a powerful trifecta.

But here’s what bothers me about the downgrading of two major three-year-old events that in the modern era are considered--unfairly in our view--mere preps, albeit major and lucrative ones for the world’s most famous horse race run on May’s first Saturday.

Thoroughbred racing deserves the criticism it gets for living in the past when it comes to course correction for the future. But there’s absolutely nothing wrong with its past, a foundation that has given well rounded sports fans a lifetime of passionate memories.

Add in color, pageantry and love for a majestic animal in a sporting context, it’s not difficult to fall in love with horse racing whether equine athletes win money for you or not--though winning is so much better.

Horse racing is nothing less than American history itself. And if people don’t understand that premise, buy them a copy of Laura Hillenbrand’s “Seabiscuit” or rent them the video for family viewing around their new smart TVs at Christmas time.

But what’s really bothersome about the downgrading of the Blue Grass and Wood Memorial is two-fold:

The Blue Grass takes place in the Thoroughbred nursery to the world and New York--despite the state’s thumb that acts like it would love to crush it into dust--is still this country’s most famous circuit and its betting volume leader.

The New York circuit also happens to be the home of one of America’s Top 10 sports venues and the Wood the defining race of the spring racing season conducted in “the greatest city in the world.”

So do 11 people have a right to throw the racing history made in Lexington Kentucky and New York City into the trash bin of antiquity? Don’t these regions deserve to host a Grade 1 event for three-year-olds in the spring?

Recent editions of the Blue Grass and Wood have left much to be desired, obviously. All know this. But between the major competition these races face and modern training programs, something had to give. Who’s to say this just isn’t be a bad cycle? Consider:

How many more winners would these races have produced in eight, 10 or 12-horse Kentucky Derby fields? How many more winners would they have produced had racetracks in Arkansas and Louisiana not thrown a million dollars at their state’s Derby?

Southern California’s 4-out-of-5-year Kentucky Derby hot streak notwithstanding, where would all those East and Midwestern-based three-year-olds raced in the past? Would Lexington be in that mix? Would New York?

What would happen if Keeneland and Aqueduct raise the purse of the Blue Grass and Wood to $1,500,000? I’ll tell you what would happen: Bob Baffert would ship his horses further east.

Or what if Keeneland and NYRA decide to declare war on Gulfstream Park and move their races back a week so that horsemen would have a choice of three 35-days-to-Derby preps? I’ll tell you what would happen: All three would suffer.

The Blue Grass and Wood problem is more about money and scheduling than races suddenly deemed less-than by panel decree. There’s too much Grade 1 blacktype, too much money, in too many places and in all divisions given smaller foal crops.

Simply stated, the thought of Lexington and New York not hosting a Grade 1 three-year-old prep and traditional spring racing event is on its face preposterous. Racing tradition is more important than the fate of a geographical accidental tourist.

From an earlier Wood Memorial era, notable Derby losers included champions and super studs such as Tapit, Empire Maker, Unbridled’s Song, Easy Goer and Slew o’ Gold.

From the Blue Grass came Derby defeated Thoroughbred legends Pulpit, Skip Away, Holy Bull, Alydar and Round Table.

This is not only about the Kentucky Derby and their latter-day “preps.” Even in this era, all racing history matters.

Bad Weather, Good Day for Gulfstream’s Showcase Juveniles, Especially Pletcher’s

He didn’t win them all but did take four of the five races he entered. Todd Pletcher came away with sprint wins for Bode’s Dream, undefeated in three starts, and Sonic Mule, now 3-for-4 sprinting. Both will remain at shorter distances in the near future.

But his other two winners, plus one runnerup, highly likely will get their opportunities to see whether they belong with the soon-to-be three-year-old elites.

Main Track Only entrant Fact Check took advantage of the off-turf conditions and an outside draw, as did Tapwrit, to win their one-turn miles very well.

Tapwrit must have been a looker at auction. Even though a son of the remarkable Tapit, his $1.2 million purchase price was twice that of the average Tapit offspring, a big number considering there’s not a lot of stamina on the bottom side of Tapwrit’s pedigree.

Of Appealing Zophie’s four other foals to race, only two won and yesterday’s $75,000 listed race was the mare’s first offspring to win a race with a name attached to it.

As good as Tapwrit ran, his runnerup stablemate impressed more favorably. Master Plan, also boasting a sprinter/miler’s pedigree, finished strongly late, whittling down the winner’s 5-length midstretch margin to a length with a final quarter-mile in: 24 2/5.

But the best of the quartet was Fact Finding, a $523,000 two-year-old purchase who extended his undefeated record to three, winning the Smooth Aire by 7 widening lengths in 1:36.92--solid time in the sloppy conditions--after being hounded throughout by co-favorite Basha.

“He showed us today that he should be able to handle the stretch-out from a mile,” said the trainer seeking his 14th Gulfstream title. “The time stacked up favorable for the day; it was a quality effort.”

In other Showcase races, Lirica stretched her speed a mile to win the Hut Hut with authority for trainer Antonio Sano and Party Boat got up in the finale strides for Graham Motion, the juvenile filly’s third straight victory but first on dirt. Very nice filly.

Good News, Bad News for Baffert at Los Al

Mastery extended his undefeated record to three, winning the G1 Cash Call Futurity in his first start around two turns after re-adding blinkers. The win was his second at the graded level [B3 Bob Hope], Baffert’s ninth in the race. Mastery’s now won at every track in Southern California.

American Gal didn’t fare as well in the G1 Starlet, suffering a second consecutive ultra-wide journey going two turns, even if Saturday’s run was less eventful than her third place Juvenile Fillies finish. She seemed to have it in hand by tired in the final 100 yards.

But take nothing away from Abel Tasman, a winner of three straight herself, her second rounding two turns. Simon Callaghan’s filly finished very strongly under a confident Joe Talamo and had reserves in the tank at the end of the 1-1/16 miles.

“We decided to supplement her [$10,000] because she was getting good at the right time,” said Callaghan. “I thought she had the stamina for this race.”

Abel Tasman’s victory was good for 10 points towards an appearance in the Kentucky Oaks which is, of course, a sixteenth of a mile farther. “I think the distance is the key for this filly,” Callaghan added. The Quality Road filly underscored his opinion Saturday.

Written by John Pricci

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Sunday, December 04, 2016

An Event and a Meet You Can Bet On

HALLANDALE BEACH, FL., December 4, 2016—There is something about an opening day at any racetrack that you have to love. Don’t know whether it’s the kind of energy that only excitement brings or if it’s just a different kind of vibe entirely

But the feeling is palpable, something you can sense when you walk around the building. That’s if you love being at the races, that is.

If you’re a local Gulfstream Park regular, it wasn’t as if such a long absence makes a heart grow fonder, beat faster.

The track has been open for simulcasting since the summer meet ended while the South racing went on eight miles to the west at GP West, which colleague Tom Jicha has aptly described as a demolition site with racetrack attached.

Reports about the state of “Calder” these days have been uniformly depressing. With no simulcasting available, the 25 minutes between races is interminable before you can make a bet. A special line had to be installed for the two days of Breeders’ Cup.

In all, there are two walk-around tellers and four standing SAM machines for the public. The two machines in the horseman’s lounge probably out-handle the other six. It’s no wonder parent Gulfstream prefers fans to wager at Gulfstream during the hiatus. But not on Saturday.

It was racing as usual at what correctly is being billed as a historic meet with the advent of the Pegasus World Cup Invitational. And it’s evident that the track is getting in preparedness for the Jan. 28th event, one week after it again plays host to Eclipse Award ceremonies.

Fresh coats of paint are evident; a re-designed dining room taking shape; new chandeliers and paintings decorate the third floor where Christine Lee’s lives, and new couches and mirrors to line the plushy carpeted halls outside the pay-for-play suites are in transit.

On other opening days, the usual topics were discussed. Does Chad Brown now have the ammunition to dethrone Todd Pletcher’s stranglehold on this meet, will Javier Castellano do it again, and will Ken Ramsey?

And while discussion of soon-to-be three-year-olds never got out of style—and this year’s South Florida collection is particularly deep, no one talks about who’s going to run in the Donn, but the Pegasus?

There’s no ducking that topic as the event looms over this meet just as the world’s largest winged horse of mythology looms over the building a ¼-mile away on the northwest corner of the property.

Pegasus at the Gates of Gulfstream Opener

Will there be a Breeders’ Cup Classic rematch the racing world clamors for happen, will the uniquely bazaar event be an aesthetic and financial success? Hell, will fans that have never paid admission to see live racing pony up a C-note just to enter the building?

Maybe the vibe is different this year because a little anxiety was adding to the excitement level. There is one certainty, however. This will be different.

And before you can say nay, think about all the people who lost their money betting against Frank Stronach in the past.

--Local trainer Jena Antonucci said it best in the days leading up to Saturday’s Claiming Crown program: “I think it’s great to be able to showcase these horses. They’re the backbone of the industry.

“Every trainer would love to have a barn full of stakes horses but that’s nearly impossible. Something like this allows the backbone of the industry to have their moment to be in the headlines.” To wit, some highlights:

: A modern-day Stymie? Maybe, maybe not. But when it comes to racing 9 furlongs, especially rounding two turns, place him squarely in that conversation. It what did not appear to be his ‘A’ race, In winning the Claiming Crown Jewel in consecutive seasons, Royal Posse improved his career slate to (34) 11-10-0, his ninth at the distance in 12 tries.

“I wasn’t worried. I know when he’s outside, he’s a grinder,” trainer Rudy Rodriguez said. “Luis [Saez] said as soon as he took him outside, he started grinding and grinding. That’s what he does most of the time.”

With yesterday’s winning share of the purse, the New York-bred five-year-old became racing’s newest millionaire. Not too shabby for a $20,000 claim in May of 2015.

Gallant New York Bred and His Posse

: It took a photo finish in the program finale to do it by Ken Ramsey won his 15th Claiming Crown event when Keystoneforvictory narrowly won the Emerald Stakes beneath Jose Ortiz, down from New York for the ride on the Mike Maker charge.

Ramsey has won at least one Claiming Crown race in seven of the last nine years. The victory was the third of the day for Ortiz, who won five races at Aqueduct Friday, and his second of the day for Ramsey, winning the open with maiden allowance juvenile filly Gentle Kitten, who looks like another nice turf prospect by Kitten’s Joy.

There’s just no quit in any sprinter trained by Jorge Navarro. The Delaware Valley-based trainer won the CC Rapid Transit wire to wire by 6-3/4 widening lengths with Shaft of Light and the CC Express with Defer Heaven under clever handling from Emisael Jaramillo.

The excitement in their faces was palpable when Stronach Group paddock analyst Gabby Gaudet interviewed her sister, Lacey, after the latter saddled Marabea to victory in the CC Tiara.


Haltered by Gaudet for $25,000 at Saratoga, the four-year-old filly won a win-and-you’re-in starter allowances at Laurel and repeated in the $125,000 turf route under a perfectly timed late run engineered by Jose Lezcano.

“I was nervous,” Gaudet admitted. “I thought she was going to [get] in trouble but you’ve got to be confident with a rider like Lezcano. He put her in the spot where he knew she need to be and he figured out the right moment and got there in time. He did a great job.”
As did Gaudet.

: Jockey Nik Juarez rode the hair off Super Spender for Jane Cibelli to take the CC Canterbury, knifing his way between runners in midstretch before exploding home for the score. Coming off a career best prior, this clearly is a late developing gelded four-year-old turf sprinter…

Chepstow might have had a tactical edge with his noted early speed and pole position to win the CC Iron Horse in the short-stretched 1-1/16 miles but in no way did that or the narrow victory margin diminish his effort. Quarter-horsed by Edgard Zayas after a flat-footed start, he was hustled to the front, took pressure, and gamely resurged to defeat a perfect-tripping runnerup…

After a good trip for the first half of the CC Distaff Dash, Ortiz got himself out of a jackpot, made his way between rivals and was striding away late with Spectacular Me for familiar New York connections, Winning Move Stable and trainer Steve Klesaris. The winner was bred by the University of Kentucky.

It is approximately 24 hours after the fact and there’s still no way to see $6,250 claim Tomenta de Oro for owner/trainer Patrick Marcondes. The $91.80 winner of the aptly named CC Glass Slipper was the only highlight for Gators fans on SEC Championship day. The four-year-old daughter of Benny the Bull was bred by the University of Florida. What’s that, a gazillion-to-one parlay?

Last year, Gulfstream Park set a record Claiming Crown handle of $10.3 million. This year, and for the fifth consecutive year since Gulfstream began hosting the event, handle rose again, reaching $11.1 million on the 11-race program.

Photos by Toni Pricci

Written by John Pricci

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