Sunday, January 31, 2016

A Star Is Born

HALLANDALE BEACH, FL., January 31, 2016—It is way, way too early to start making comparisons. After all, one was a homebred, the other a $2.2 million yearling. But at this stage, it’s nice for racing fans to dream a little.

Two “horses of a lifetime” back to back? Of course, it would be foolish to think that Mohaymen would be in the same league as American Pharoah.

Or is it?

Now we’re not comparing one to the other, not at this stage. That would be unreasonable and unfair. But there is one basis for comparison: After their season’s debuts, they remained undefeated at 3 and looked invincible.

After losing his juvenile debut sprinting, American Pharoah took his undefeated record through the Triple Crown all the way to Saratoga, where another modern Triple Crown legend, the mighty Secretariat, got beat.

“Did he take your breath away today?” Rick Nichols, Vice President and General Manager of Shadwell Farm, was asked post-race. Nicholls has been picking out racing prospects for Sheikh Hamdan for three decades.

The look on Nichols’ face was that of a man to whom that thought seemingly never occurred. The manner of victory, perhaps, but never the outcome, Nicholls later admitting to “just chills up and down the back.”

And trainer Kiaran McLaughlin? “When you’re 1-5 ($2.60), you expect to win but yes, he did take my breath away.”

McLaughlin’s and most everyone else’s.
Nichols had a $2 million budget to spend on the gray, athletic son of Tapit, later to be named Mohaymen. “I have to admit when the bidding reached $1.8 million, I looked down at my catalogue to make sure we were bidding on the right horse,” he joked.

“Over the years we’ve bought plenty of horses that didn’t turn out, so it’s nice when your opinion is vindicated.” After the Holy Bull, figure Team Mohaymen has a colt worth double that amount, probably more, when he extended his undefeated career to 4-for-4.

Not that there wasn’t a brief anxious moment. “It looked like on paper that he might break and be on the lead,” said McLaughlin, “but when that didn’t happen I was a little nervous into and around the first turn.”

A relaxed Mohaymen was tardy coming out of the gate but after that hiccup, “all went great. I was real glad to see he did everything right,” McLaughlin said.

“It’s a real pleasure to have such a star in the barn. I’ve trained for Sheikh Hamdan and Shadwell for 23 years, and I trained the mother [Justwhistledixie], so this is pretty special.

And so is the colt; very special, indeed.

Like many babies, Mohaymen’s inexperience showed in his second start at 2 when he was difficult pre-race and balked at being loaded into the gate. But following the Nashua win, he was schooled and was a gentleman when he returned for the Remsen.

Still, yesterday he was fresh and with young horses returning from a layup there’s always some concern. “We had the pony in the paddock just in case,” admitted McLaughlin, but the colt was very composed, almost quiet.

“Yes, he was quiet,” the trainer said, and Mohaymen remained that way as he calmly walked into slip #2. So quiet, in fact, that he came out of there a step slowly.

With no speed on paper, the pace was extremely slow to develop as longshot Perfect Saint walked away on the lead.

Sensing this, Johnny Velazquez, aboard Champagne winner and second favorite Greenpointcrusader, seized the opportunity and joined the leader early and through a glacial half mile in 49.06. Then things got interesting.

Junior Alvarado guided Mohaymen between the leaders: “Johnny left me a little room but sometimes that can be a trap,” Alvarado explained, but his rival “never came inside. I was on the best horse and thinking it’s time to make my own move. After that it was pretty much over.”

Not that observers could tell at that juncture. The two favorites dispatched the leader, racing away approaching the final bend and they raced as a team with Mohaymen on the inside, Velazquez knowing that Greenpointcrusader had to stay with him, which he did.

Until headstretch.

When Alvarado dropped his hands soon after entering the straight, Mohaymen created separation instantly, leaving Greenpointcrusader--and the strong late-running Fellowship--in his 3-1/2 length wake.

“He did the same thing in the Remsen,” McLaughlin observed. “He beat a couple of nice horses in there and finished very strong. We don’t need to see anything different.”

Provided all goes well, McLaughlin and Nicholls will stick with their original plan, providing Sheikh Hamdan approves. “I think he did it pretty much in hand,” the trainer said. “We just think more experience is fine. I don’t think he needs to skip races.”

Translation: the Fountain of Youth. February 27, is probably next.

Speaking of translations, there seems to be some controversy as to the meaning of the Arabic name. Both McLaughlin and Nicholls believe it means dominance or dominating. But according to, Mohaymen means Protector.

When appraised of the difference, Nicholls stood there a moment and said: “It just might mean Derby winner.”

Nicholls just might be right.

BETS N’ PIECES: The trainer of the top two Holy Bull finishers had nothing but praise for each other’s horses.

“He’s a very, very good three-year-old and looks like the Derby favorite,” said Dominic Schettino, trainer of the runnerup. “He came back great but as I told you last week, we’d keep our options open after the Holy Bull...”

“He ran very well,” said McLaughlin of yesterday’s rival. “He looked great in the paddock; he’s a nice horse.”

Greenpointcrusader, in fact, is a very nice horse, beaten 3-1/2 lengths despite the fact he was forced out of his game by his freshness and lack of pace, Velazquez not taking away his position which came easily.

But the fact is he could not match strides after Alvarado gave the winner his cue….

Dale Romans reserved Cherry Wine from the Holy Bull following that colt’s dominating allowance win here earlier in favor of better spacing going into the Fountain of Youth.

After yesterday, Romans may be sneaking peaks at condition books from the Fair Grounds and Oaklawn Park. Romans, however, always has his sights on the big picture and is not afraid to get beat along the way…

Awesome Banner remained awesome, extending his undefeated career to three, adding the G2 Swale to his G3 score in the Hutcheson earlier this month. This brilliant colt might try two turns next, trainer Stanley Gold keeping an eye on the Fountain of Youth.

“I honestly don’t know what’s next,” Gold said post-race. “Mile and a sixteenth will be no problem for him, a mile and a sixteenth is not a mile and quarter. If you want to think bigger, you have to start going long and getting [Derby] points.”

Two more extremely worthy performances this weekend: Shagaf won a Friday allowances going a mile very impressively for Chad Brown, who said after that the colt needs experience and the Fountain of Youth was under consideration.

But that was 24 hours before the Holy Bull--and both are owned by Shadwell.

An undefeated filly was always impressive yesterday. In going 3-for-3, Cathryn Sophia, broke slowly, was covered up on the fence for the first time in her career, was steered into the 3 path entering the stretch with no urging from Joel Rosario.

When Rosario asked her shortly thereafter, she accelerated dramatically. “She’ll probably break a lot sharper, leave there running next time,” said trainer John Servis.

When asked about the Davona Dale, Feb. 27: “I think she’ll handle a mile well. The way she did it today, she did it like a good filly.”

Sunny Ridge
, winner of the Withers at Aqueduct, never fails to run his race. Stalking a slow pace over a surface more demanding than Gulfstream's, he stalked from close range throughout then showed his class to prevail in a long, hard drive. Dennis Drazin's sophomore is sure to benefit from the effort. Trainer Jason Servis said that the Gotham very likely will be up next.

Written by John Pricci

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Sunday, January 24, 2016

BAFFERT: “Horses Are Like Songs”

HALLANDALE BEACH, January 24, 2016--As a prelude to All-American Pharoah Night at the Eclipse Awards, ThoroFan, a Saratoga-based grassroots organization devoted to present and future racing fans, held its fourth annual party.

For the work ThoroFan--a not-for-profit entity whose mission is to give fans a voice and grow the sport--tries to do, their event should have been better supported.

The lesson here may be that converting casual sports fans into racing fans may be more important than horseplayers realize. The Fan of the Year as recognized by Horse Racing Nation, Erica Harris, is a young Nebraskan who doesn’t gamble.

Harris pays her way to major events all over the country. This year she is planning to attend her 10th Kentucky Derby. Why? Because she loves it; the atmosphere, watching horses get saddled, the warm ups and race.

Imagine that?

The group also recognized Bob Baffert for his support of Thoroughbred aftercare and Tom Durkin for his life’s work, especially appropriate in light of the legendary announcer’s farewell salute to racing fans in his retirement speech at Saratoga Race Course last summer.

Baffert’s quote at the Thoro Fan ceremony reflects the emotion he felt when he first visited his retired dual classics winner, Silver Charm. “You never forget where you were when you hear a certain song; it’s the same with horses. It just sticks with you.”

His observation was one of the best things I’ve ever heard to describe the love that the game conjures up. Interesting, too, how a near death experience and “Grand Slam” moments can shape one’s perspective.

The point in recalling all this is that, even a week later, the warmth of people tethered to Thoroughbreds still resonates when experienced in close quarters. Frankey’s, Stronach’s upscale sports bar on the Gulfstream Park campus, turned out to be an ideal, intimate venue.

A secondary point is that it lifted the spirit of this horseplayer about the state of the game, even if the feeling may be only temporary.

The talent this game attracts; from hands-on practitioners, to owners, to fans who appreciate majesty and enjoy using their brains to make money by solving equine puzzles can be, while not suited to every taste, inspirational.

If only racetrack executives did more to care for all the above by giving those invested in the game a fairer shake; enforcing rules instead of burying the truth about how things really are, instead of scapegoating the few. And taking better of the customer via sensible pricing.

Eclipse weekend was a delightful respite from the day-to-day tedium, from myopic, bottom-line-centric backside-coverers who populate this industry. Of course, it’s only corporate life in America where companies who provide livelihoods are considered boardroom failures if profits down grow year over every year. The energy Eclipse weekend was palpably upbeat--and that was nice for a change.

Celebration is not just chest-thumping; it’s important. It inspires hope in a game of tremendous highs and lows. That was a prominent theme when Jim Rome spoke at the Ownerview conference during Eclipse Week.

Rome referenced the joy that he and his partners experienced by sharing the exploits of the amazing Shared Belief, in training one day and gone the next.

I can’t imagine still being so upbeat in light of that kind of tragedy. Yet the sportscaster still had it right when he said that in this game the highs are higher than the lows are low. I’m sure every true racetracker agrees, the reason we all keep coming back for more.

As for the Eclipses themselves, the three voting organizations awarded Eclipse statuettes to the most deserving. I voted for a few who didn’t make the grade but that’s beside the point: “The wisdom of the many” won out.

While running very long, the ceremony was not insufferable, even as some presenters took as long or longer than some of the awardees for whom last Saturday night was intended.

The tone of the night was pitch perfect, with humorous, entertaining and poignant video presentations, packaged in a nicely produced program. If only racing could raise its profile once again, the show might one day make worthy television fare.

The racing presented at Gulfstream Park and elsewhere last Saturday was first rate. Florida-breds went after it all afternoon long looking for a large slice of a seven-figure pie. Per usual, the Sunshine Millions program provided grist for fans and bettors alike.

One truly outstanding performance stuck out, that of the brilliant gelding X Y Jet. If he keeps developing like he has this winter, there could be lots of fireworks when/if he hooks up with Sprint champion Runhappy.

But to return to run as impressively or better than he did winning the Grade 3 Mr. Prospector Dec. 19--off shorter rest and after being challenged from the barrier by bullet-like El Botas to win as much the best--was jaw dropping.

Mexikoma deserves some props, too, taking the Sunshine Millions Classic in dramatic style over talented and speedy Mr Jordan in 1:48.19 despite getting caught in close between rivals on the first turn. Thanks to Johnny Velasquez’s quick reflexes, potential disaster was avoided.

BETS ‘N PIECES: Charming Kitten won the H. Allen Jerkens two-mile marathon yesterday; it was a repeat win for Todd Pletcher, who won the inaugural last year. Jimmy Jerkens presented the trophy to Ken and Sarah Ramsey… Did anyone note the irony in the fact that a practicing attorney, who also is a registered pharmacist, will become the Florida HBPA’s new executive director on Feb. 15? Just askin'.

Written by John Pricci

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Sunday, January 17, 2016

La Verdad Earns Prima Status

HALLANDALE BEACH, FL., January 17, 2016—Before La Verdad, Sheila Rosenblum thought she had done it all; studying ballet under Ballanchine, performing in “Swan Lake,” had won her share of Dressage ribbons 47 miles from Gulfstream in toney Wellington, some modeling and even a little acting.

But until La Verdad, she had never seen a Breeders’ Cup race live, never dreamed that in five years in the horse business she’d not only see her first Eclipse ceremony up close and personal but that her mare would become a champion.

Sitting alongside family, syndicate members and trainer Linda Rice, La Verdad beat her Filly and Mare Sprint conqueror Wavell Avenue when it mattered most by the slimmest margin in 2015’s balloting process--98 points to 90.

And so the Eclipse Award for champion female in the sprint category went to La Verdad.

“It was euphoric,” Lady Sheila Rosenblum said of the moment by phone later. “The euphoria was like the birth of my children, like performing in Swan Lake. I feel like I just won an Academy Award.”

The mare that received 90 votes and considered a slight favorite to win the championship was Breeders’ Cup titlist Wavell Avenue. However, the voters decided that the overall body of work was the most compelling factor.

“Congratulations,” Wavell Avenue’s owner Michael Dubb said to Rosenblum after the Lady Sheila Stable picked up its trophy. “Your filly deserved the award,” Dubb told her.

And so it was the brilliant New York-bred filly that started her 2016 campaign the same way she began her championship run, with a victory. The score in Aqueduct’s Interborough Stakes was her 16th victory in 25 career starts.

Rosenblum was born in Switzerland but before she could celebrate her fifth birthday the family had moved to Miami, where they lived five years in advance of relocating to New York City where the arts beconed a precocious young lady.

By age 10 Sheila answered ballet’s siren call, a 5-to-7-days-a-week discipline that would last a decade. Her goal was the stuff of dreams; to become a prima ballerina.

Hard work and perseverance are paramount but no guarantor of goals realized, even for a 12-year-old who was offered three dance scholarships including the Joffrey Ballet before opting for the School of American Ballet of Ballanchine instead.

At 15, it was off to England for two years of study at the Royal Ballet School of London but, due to citizenship restrictions, she was forced to shift her tack and ballet slippers back to Gotham’s New York City School of Ballet.

While not realizing her goal to become a prima, Rosenblum did get to perform in Romeo and Juliet in addition to Swan Lake. The discipline she learned from ballet is what helped to become a successful horse owner.

At 20, when the rigors of dance had become overwhelming, Rosenblum gave fashion modeling a go and became a member of the Ford Agency. But as is heard so often in the theatre district, “sorry, wrong type,” Rosenblum packed her tack again, joining the Wilhemina agency.

During all this there was a marriage to a soap opera star and a brief acting career. Because her passion for horses never wavered, she began riding them in her early 30s. Highly competitive, she got into Dressage—“ballet on horses” she says—enjoying success but she “never reached those wonderful levels.”

Sheila Rosenblum
From ballet to backstretch

Sheila Rosenblum views all horses through the prism of ballet: “They’re beautiful, graceful, powerful, yet delicate. My husband wanted to buy me a jumper, a Grand Prix School Master. I thought about it, then I said ”rather than ride and compete, I’d like to own a race horse.”

“I got two horses at first and a number of yearlings. I wanted to learn, wanted to ask a lot of questions, be hands-on. And I did everything horrendously wrong at the outset.

“If I didn’t have the fortitude that ballet gave me, I would have gotten out [of racing] a million times.”

Her fortunes changed dramatically three years ago when she brought several horses over to Rice’s barn, horses she believed had a future. Rice suggested that she leave the horses for a few days and she would evaluate them.

What followed after was a sobering conversation, Rosenblum learning that her horses were “adequate,” but not a prima among them. “Linda placed them where they belonged and they all won. I had the excitement of winning. I was proud. It gave me a deeper love for the game.

“I’m not a feminist and I hired Linda despite the fact she’s a woman, not because of it.” However, her syndicate partners are all women, motivated to become horse owners themselves because of Rosenblum’s energy and enthusiasm.

“It started as a hobby until one day I saw the cover of ‘New York Breeders’ magazine and thought ‘that looks like my filly’.”

That filly, La Verdad, will go home after her career finale in Laurel’s Barbara Fritchie next month and be bred to Medaglia d’Oro. La Verdad will board at Vivien Malloy’s Edition Farm in New York.

“She’s a New York story…a New York love story. I want to be a New York breeder and, like everyone in this business, I want to win the Kentucky Derby.”

Trying to accomplish that goal, Rosenblum and her syndicate spent $840,000 for a Pioneerofthenile two-year-old--to the consternation of the colt’s under-bidder, Bob Baffert.

That unnamed juvenile is now called Champion of the Nile, a name suggested by Victor Espinoza when the two met at a party during Belmont Stakes week. “He did incredibly well the first time then was second in the New York Breeders Futurity.

“We have another colt, Matt King Cole, who ran the fastest Beyer by any two-year-old last year. After he won I decided to bring the partners in. We had tough luck with two other horses; I thought it was the right thing to do.”

Matt King Cole has had three starts, a third, second and a win, respectively, and was being pointed for the Jerome but spiked a fever and was declared from New York’s first Kentucky Derby prep of 2016.

“We’ve been taking it really slowly with these two, but ‘Matty’ will come back soon in something important. He’s on the Triple Crown trail.”

The Eclipse ceremonies ran longer than expected but was entertaining and very well produced. Rosenblum clearly was excited when she heard the news but was composed and elegant enough to invite Rice to share the moment with her on stage.

Rice, also making an Eclipse debut, gracefully acknowledged the other finalists and Cavorting, too, who’s connections risked their divisional lead in the Grade 1 La Brea and finished third, ironically losing the place to Hot City Girl, La Verdad’s kid sister.

For her part, Rosenblum thanked about everyone in the room, including her “great trainer” and said at the start and at the end of her remarks that “I want to bring more women into racing.”

Ahmed Zayat, who picked up most of the hardware all evening including the big one by becoming the sport’s ground-breaking winner of the “Grand Slam” with American Pharoah, thanked Rosenblum for her contributions to the game as did Dubb, NYRA Board member and owner of La Verdad’s principal Eclipse rival.

As she left the stage, Rosenblum was approached by one of the youngest members of the audience. “I’d love to go into business with you,” Anna Zayat said to the Lady Sheila Stable founder.

It appears Sheila Rosenbum is poised to start out on another journey.

Written by John Pricci

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