Sunday, December 27, 2015

There’s No School Like the Old School

HALLANDALE BEACH, FL., December 27, 2015—Can’t help but feel like Saturday was more like the day after Thanksgiving than Christmas.

Because, family, friends that are family, and presents under the tree notwithstanding, I was thankful to be a horse racing fan Saturday at Gulfstream Park.

It was opening day at Santa Anita, of course, and I’ll be damned if you couldn’t feel the energy emanating from the simulcast monitors at its sister track 3,000 miles away.

That’s what championship racing and performances like Saturday’s will do that for you—for me, anyway.

We’re quite sure that Runhappy, a freak in every sense of that racetrack jargon, will be the horse on everyone’s lips after HIS performance yesterday.

But first a word on the La Brea, as Grade 1-supporting as a Grade 1-supporting feature can get. And that’s thanks to Birdatthewire, Mike Smith and mainly trainer Dale Romans.

Don’t bother trying to compliment him on the outstanding preparation he gave his filly to spring a major La Brea upset. He’ll give you that aw-shucks-I’m-just-a-hillbilly-horse-trainer stuff.

But he’s a lot more than that: Romans is a horseman from the old school.

When we were around him pre- and post-Travers this past summer in Saratoga, where Romans prepared Keen Ice to hand presumptive Horse of the Year American Pharoah his only defeat this year, he regaled us with stories about his idol, H. Allen Jerkens.

About how last winter in South Florida, he would go out to dinner with “the Chief” every chance he got just to listen to the stories.

Those stories begat questions and those questions begat answers. Romans listened and learned from the advice that Jerkens was always willing to share with anyone who asked.

And if the victory of Birdatthewire was not the stuff of giant killers, then there never was such a thing.

Birdatthewire showed signs of being a little out of the ordinary last winter here; winning the G2 Forward Gal, just missing in the G2 Davona Dale, then rebounding in the G2 Gulfstream Park Oaks.

So what’s a Louisvillian to do then? Run in THE Oaks, of course, where Birdatthewire was beaten 5-1/4 lengths by Lovely Maria after breaking from slip 13 of 14 while racing too keenly, wrestling with Irad Ortiz Jr. rather than conserve her energy.

The filly exited the Oaks with some issues so Romans gave her time and pointed for what he hoped would be the first Grade 1 score of her career: The La Brea on opening day at Santa Anita.

The filly would meet either other three-year-old runners that either were tested through a long season successfully or bloomers late to arrive on the stakes scene.

After the six-month layup, Birdatthewire returned in Churchill’s Chilukki and, after a poor start from the pole going a flat mile, she never really settled, tugging hard at Corey Lanerie before tiring herself out: step one.

When she returned 19 days later in the Falls City at 9 furlongs, another Grade 2, she broke slowly again, raced wide thereafter but did manage to beat more than half her nine rivals in what was, on balance, a flat performance.

On Saturday, 30 days after the Falls City, Romans ran her off those two G2 preps, turned her back to the winning distance of the Forward Gal, and engaged the patient Mike Smith for his first ride on the filly.

Birdatthewire was so far back early in the La Brea that the #1 chicklet appeared lost on the monitor. Hot City Girl, seeking to become the heir apparent to retired stablemate La Verdad, set a solid within-herself pace until Smith asked his filly to kick on. Did she ever.

It never appeared through the Arcadia straight that Hot City Girl would be caught, but Birdatthewire was relentless, the conditioning gained from the longer Louisville trips coming into play right at the very end.

The filly made a top grade effort; the ride, and the training, were masterful.

And somewhere Allen Jerkens is smiling.

Through the Stakes Notebook:

Don’t Worry, Run Happy: This is all you need to know about presumptive Sprint Champion’s victory in the G1 Malibu: Beneath Gary Stevens, subbing for injured Edgar Prado, Runhappy won the Malibu by 3-1/2 lengths, going 7 furlongs in 1.21.76, after posting fractions of 22.62, 22.19, 24.27 and 12.70.

Considering the Malibu was his sixth start since July 7, including a change-of-pace score over elders in the BC Sprint, his effort was truly extraordinary. Fans can only hope that he remains in good health for 2016…and no decision will be made to retire him…

OmMG: Om made winning the G2 Mathis Bros Mile look easy, outclassing 10 rivals and stretching his undefeated Santa Anita streak to three while 2-for-2 at the trip. Gary Stevens thinks he can go farther as his mount galloped out strongly yet again. He certainly looks like he can develop into a world class turf miler. Om got the trip in 1:35.57 with a final ¼-mile of 23.80…

Danzing Candy was an impressive juvenile maiden breaker for Clifford Sise and Mike Smith, winning by a pressured but never-in-doubt 3-1/4 lengths in 1:22.84 for seven furlongs, a final furlong in 12.64.

Wolfson Filly on Best Behavior: First rate initial graded victory for Best Behavior, taking the G3 Sugar Swirl under pluperfect handling from Johnny Velazquez. Helped when overzealously bet favorite Stonetastic broke flat-footed, the winner stalked the leader and pounced away at headstretch.

Marty Wolfson continues his superior work with fillies. He won the G3 Rampart two weeks ago with late developing Cali Star when Best Behavior finished a one-paced second in her first start since July.

Using an old school tack, Wolfson entered her back in two weeks and shortened her up from one mile to three-quarters. The filly won comfortably, easily holding a rallying Stonetastic safe through the lane…

: There’s a lot of fight in Charming Kitten. After stalking three wide throughout the mile and a half, Charming Kitten engaged War Dancer on the last of three turns, opened the lead but appeared set to be passed by the rapidly surging Kaigun. But he fought off his rival doggedly in the final furlong.

The victory was Johnny’s second graded score of the day, taking the G3 McKnight for vacationing trainer Todd Pletcher.

SPEED IS GOLDEN: Even at 12 furlongs, especially at Gulfstream when you can engineer a soft, uncontested half-mile in 50.35. While the lead and final margin of victory by Goldy Espony was never more than a length and a half in the G3 La Prevoyante, she never appeared in serious danger. Leading rider Javier Castellano was in the boot for winning trainer Chad Brown.

Written by John Pricci

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Tuesday, December 22, 2015

Expect Many Hotly Contested Eclipse Categories

HALLANDALE BEACH, FL, December 22 2015—Here is the dichotomy that was Thoroughbred racing in 2015: Never in the past 37 years has the vote for Horse of the Year been so well defined yet ballots in too many divisions will leave voters worlds apart for clear-cut lack of dominance.

The fact the great American Pharoah will be proclaimed 2015 Horse of the Year notwithstanding, voting in at least six categories, more if human practitioners are included, will spark endless debate among voters who sincerely care about championship legacy.

Confusion reigns not only at the top of many categories but several runners-up also are likely to be in dispute. Given the open nature of balloting in so many divisions, second and third-place votes in 2015 could be pivotal factors.

That said, this is one man’s opinion of which members of the 2015 equine set deserve championship recognition. In candor, I wanted to abstain in many categories where individuals, continually given opportunities to establish their dominance, didn’t.

Per usual, I start at the Grade 1 level and work my way down, acknowledging that not all G1s are created equal. But not even that benchmark was the determinant it normally is; personal opinion weighed more heavily this time around.

Parenthetically, we will await Saturday’s Grade 1 La Brea* before finalizing our official ballot for champion female sprinter.

STEEPLECHASE 4-YEAR-OLD & UP: A two-horse battle between Bob Le Beau and Dawalan, each with a pair of Grade 1s. Each owns a victory over the other but we separated them by rewarding ‘Bob’ who spotted Dawalan eight pounds while beating him in the Lonesome Glory. Battle for third between Overwhelming and African Oil was equally vexing.
1. Bob Le Beau 2. Dawalan 3. Overwhelming.

2-YEAR-OLD MALE CHAMPION: Thank you Nyquist for making this a no-brainer. Impossible to knock perfection: 5-for-5; three G1s, including his remarkable Juvenile score. Airoforce: Sprinting, turf, slop, he treated it all the same. Very talented and eagerly awaiting his 3 YO campaign. Mohaymen: 3-for-3, two Grade 2s, proving in the Remsen that he can get nine furlongs; another exciting prospect.
1. Nyquist. 2. Airoforce. 3. Mohaymen

Another big Southern California thanks to Songbird: 4-for-4, three Grade 1s counting the Juvenile Fillies. Faster than fast. Rachel’s Valentine was no slam dunk for place, not with Catch a Glimpse in the mix. But her placing to Songbird while being taken out of her best settle-in-stride game underscores her class. Including the G1 Juvenile Fillies Turf, she was a dual graded winner.
1. Songbird. 2. Rachel’s Valentina. 3. Catch A Glimpse

3-YEAR-OLD MALE CHAMPION: All Hail King Pharoah: Six Grade 1s including the first classics sweep in 37 years and racing first “Grand Slam.” Runhappy was 5-for-6, including two Grade 1s with the BC Sprint. No older horse finished ahead of him in four attempts; extraordinary talent. Too bad Dortmund had issues keeping him on the sidelines five months; was 5-for-7 including the G1 Santa Anita Derby and beat elders twice this fall. Frosted, Keen Ice and Upstart had opportunities to raise their games but did not; maybe next year.
1. American Pharoah. 2. Runhappy. 3. Dortmund.

3-YEAR-OLD FILLY CHAMPION: This was going to be one of my abstention categories: Every time it appeared one filly would take charge of the division but that never happened. The best 3-year-old filly I saw in 2015 was Lady Eli. Before going to the sidelines, there was no telling how good--and just because she’s 6-for-6 on grass, 3-for-3 this year, doesn’t mean she can’t do dirt. Stellar Wind was two bad trips from an undefeated 6-for-6 season. As it is she won four graded events including the G1 Santa Anita Oaks and was beaten a neck by older Stopchargingmaria in the Distaff. I’m a Chatterbox finished first in four graded stakes including the G1 CCA Oaks (disqualified) and G1 Cotillion, but only one of the four was beyond 1-1/16 miles.
1. Lady Eli. 2. Stellar Wind. 3. I’m a Chatterbox.

Another category in which at least three horses had opportunities to cement the title but did not. Further, I still don’t know to regard the abbreviated campaigns of Shared Belief and, to a lesser extent, California Chrome. I grudgingly settled on Tonalist [7] 3-2-1 for defending his G1 JCGC title and, after his disastrous-trip Classic clunker, he rebounded to win the G1 Cigar Mile with an impossible late rally. After the G1 Met Mile and Whitney, Honor Code was poised, then lost his last two starts. Had Mike Smith not opened a premature five-length Whitney lead in midstretch, Liam’s Map would have been settled this on BC Saturday. Should Shared Belief win this honor, I would be neither surprised nor disappointed.
1. Tonalist. 2. Honor Code. 3. Liam’s Map

4-YEAR-OLD & UP DIRT FEMALE: Thank you Beholder, a deserving winner of yet another title but again without never having to leave the friendly confines. Runners-up were hard to separate among Sheer Drama, Stopchargingmaria and Wedding Toast. But Sheer Drama scored two Grade 1s, one at 10 furlongs, had a G1 placing and a G2 score while taking her act on the road. Stopchargingmaria was exceedingly well managed in a 3-for-5 campaign culminating with the Distaff following two Grade 3s wins was good but not compelling enough. What Beholder is to SoCal, Wedding Toast is to Belmont Park.
1. Beholder. 2. Sheer Drama. 3. Stopchargingmaria.

Thank you Runhappy and Maria Borell. Private Zone had the title within his reach but could not hold off the exceedingly talented son of Super Saver. Rock Fall also was on the precipice of a championship but then the racing gods are a fickle and cruel lot.
1. Runhappy. 2. Private Zone. 3. Rock Fall.

3-YEAR-OLD & UP FEMALE SPRINT CHAMPION: Potential abstention category, Part 2. The ranking that appears below will change on our official ballot should Cavorting win Saturday’s G1 La Brea. Until then, we are compelled to take dominating New York-bred La Verdad by virtue of finishing first in five graded stakes from her first six starts and a gallant placing behind well managed F & M Sprint winner Wavell Avenue. Too bad her overall record was tarnished somewhat while running her poorest race this year vs. Fall Highweight males. The Grade 3 was her fifth start in 64 days--her third in 33 days-- including a trip to Kentucky in between. Now retired at 5, she won 15 of 24 lifetime starts. Still, it will be Cavorting’s title to lose. Lady Shipman is a turf sprint specialist that compiled a worthy (10) 7-2-1 slate this year, coming within a diminishing neck of defeating males in the BC Turf Sprint.
1. *La Verdad. 2. *Cavorting. 3. Lady Shipman.

3-YEAR-OLD & UP MALE TURF CHAMPION: Near abstention, Part 3. The best turf performance we witnessed all year was Flintshire’s course record G1 Sword Dancer. However, it only landed him show honors on our ballot. Never believing it were possible until we mulled over the Eclipse PPs, our #1 choice is The Pizza Man. A winner of 4 of 6 over different courses and disparate conditions, he took the G1 Arlington Million and was a jump shy of catching perfect-tripping Grand Arch in the G1 Shadwell. Following a very wide journey in the BC Turf, he rebounded by shipping to Del Mar and took the G2 Hollywood Turf Cup; not many BC horses win their subsequent start. Big Blue Kitten deserves props for winning half of his six starts, including two G1s.
1. The Pizza Man. 2. Big Blue Kitten. 3. Flintshire.

3-YEAR-OLD & UP FEMALE TURF CHAMPION: Not an abstention category but close only because I could have put my head on the pillow restfully after having taken one of three different directions. I voted for Tepin. Her (7) 5-2-0 record includes three G1s, with the BC Mile over males and a nose defeat in the G1 Diana. Stephanie’s Kitten won half her six starts with the BC F&M Turf. Found accomplished a lot in defeating course-compromised Golden Horn in the BC Turf. It was her lone qualifying U.S. start. And not to forget she was European Group 1 placed four times, two of those also vs. older males.
1. Tepin. 2. Stephanie’s Kitten. 3. Found

OUTSTANDING TRAINER: How can I not vote for Chad Brown, or Kiaran McLaughlin, coming off career years, or the redoubtable money machine, Todd Pletcher? But while I have my issues with Mr. Baffert, it’s one thing to have best horse but another to train one in such audacious fashion. Baffert got American Pharoah ready for a successful assault on history off a compressed prep regimen. He got the colt to give his most inspiring effort in his lone defeat when he would have preferred to keep him in the barn. Then to recycle and ready him for Classic gave testimony to the best horse we’ve seen in decades, all while under the pressure to maintain an uncommon level of excellence.
Bob Baffert

OUTSTANDING JOCKEY: Much like Baffert, it is one thing to ride the best dirt horse in the world and another to not make a mistake. Victor Espinoza never panicked; the Travers defeat coming as a result of circumstances and tactics, not through any fault of the rider. But it was Javier Castellano who dominated between the fences in 2016, the absolute difference on so many occasions--even if he does take a little too much the best of it at times. He wins with with every manner of racehorse. No one dominated race meetings the way Castellano did virtually throughout the entire year.
Javier Castellano

OUTSTANDING OWNER: For their unparalleled sportsmanship, this was a one-owner race.
Zayat Stable

OUTSTANDING BREEDER: The Zayats, of course, put together the mating of American Pharoah. Adena Springs and the Ramseys had wonderful seasons per usual but Darley achieved lofty heights with statistics not impacted by one particular horse or stallion. Darley-bred runners made 751 starts through Dec. 13, compiling an across-the-board record of 140-101-104. They were one of six breeders not named Zayat to win three or more Grade 1s; breeding the most G2 winners with four, and they placed third in earnings with $8.9 million, less than $400K behind the Zayats.
Darley Stable

HORSE OF THE YEAR 2016 was Thoroughbred racing’s 12th Triple Crown winner and inaugural Grand Slam champion.
American Pharoah

Written by John Pricci

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Sunday, December 20, 2015

Campo To Discuss Harlan’s Holiday Incident with Gulfstream Stewards

HALLANDALE BEACH, FL., December 20, 2015—As was promised late last week, we caught up with Gulfstream Park President P.J. Campo before the races on Saturday. We discussed areas of interest to two members of the HRI Faithful:

The first was the extremely-late rider change announcement involving leading rider Javier Castellano, who replaced Matthew Rispoli on the winning Valid prior to last weekend’s Harlan’s Holiday. Denny wanted to know if Gulfstream had any reaction.

Roger’s reference was to his first-hand eyewitness account of an “almost 30 minute delay” before an announcement was made that a turf race would be rescheduled to the main track after multi-race betting had begun. Both are regular posters.

With regard to the late surface-switch announcement, Campo denied that the delay took that long. “We have a protocol that we follow,” Campo said. “After we decide [a race will be rescheduled], calls are made to the horsemen, stewards, and mutuels so that ‘turf’ tickets wouldn’t be sold on that race.”

I suggested that track announcer Larry Collmus should be higher on the call list so that the public would be informed of the change as quickly as possible. Obviously, a surface switch profoundly alters the handicapping/betting process.

As for the Harlan’s Holiday, the Valid incident was placed at the feet of trainer Marcus Vitali. “We weren’t told about the rider change until much later,” said Campo.

I informed Campo that a post-race press release referred to a conversation between Vitali and Rispoli. Said Vitali: “…I had talked to Matt yesterday or the day before. Nothing personal, it was a business decision. He’s a great kid and he still rides for me, and we move forward.”

My argument was since betting was conducted and had been finalized in at least four multi-race pools, that if the stewards were not notified in a timely manner of the change then they should mandated that Rispoli ride as named or that Valid be scratched.

A rule exists that in stakes races a trainer has up until 45 minutes to scratch his horse. It is not specified whether that rule also extends to rider changes. If that is the case then the rule needs to be altered or scrapped entirely.

Perceptions notwithstanding, horseplayers are reasonable people. If a hellacious storm results in a track condition change or surface switch, a trainer should be allowed to scratch in the best interests of the horse, owner and, by extension, the betting public.

Absent that, it should be the responsibility of the stewards to protect the public. Unfortunately, racing officials are politically loathe to lord over horsemen.

All understand the business implications involved with regard to scratches, especially in jurisdictions where more than one steward is paid by the racing association.

Absent this, horsemen, whose purses are made possible by the betting public, have an obligation to the people who are betting those dollars.

The Valid incident is not over as per my conversation with Campo, who promised that he would have a conversation with the stewards about the issue.

Had the public been informed when daily changes are announced in advance of the card, all would have had a chance to view the Harlan’s Holiday from a different handicapping perspective; they were denied the necessary information.

Reasonable people will agree that what’s done is done. But this incident should never be repeated. The incident was totally unnecessary had Vitali made his intentions known to Gulfstream officials in a timely fashion after his conversation with Rispoli.

Guess the only reason Bob Baffert wasn’t winning his 10th Futurity Saturday is because American Pharoah was injured at this time last year and would not have been able to make the race.

Despite racing somewhat greenly, Baffert’s Mor Chances finished very well to defeat uncoupled mate Toews On Ice, who did all the dirty via a protracted pace battle; he didn’t deserve to lose. Time of 1:43.54 solid for 1-1/16 miles, final sixteenth in 06.56. Reverse the trips and…

XY Jet is a star in the making, taking the G3 Mr. Prospector by double-digits in 1:08.56. And, on the gallop-out, he didn’t look any more tired than those who chased him home. Three-year-old has come into his own and protem Sprint Champion Runhappy will have some big-time competition should both remain healthy in 2016.

If yesterday’s results mean anything, it won’t be long before the Tropical Park Oaks and Derby become graded events. Both were great betting races, full of quality and quality potential. Both races produced unbelievably thrilling finishes. Indeed, one blanket would have been enough to cover the first four finishers in both races!

Most interesting is that the leaders in each race remained right there at the end. Solemn Tribute hung on tenaciously to win the Tropical Derby and Celestine was beaten in the final few strides by Tammy the Torpedo.

Both had to battle northwest crosswinds that at times gusted to 35 mph. With trips too numerous to mention; checking video replays of both events is advised.

There were pair of entertaining baby races at Tampa Bay Downs. We don’t know that victories by Hidden Treat in the Sandpiper and Ishaq in the Inaugural will translate into scores in the Tampa Bay Oaks and Tampa Derby, respectively, but they can’t hurt.

Hidden Treat had to chase a very quick SoFla invader, Kandoo, before putting her away before holding off the ralliers. Considering she is by Lemon Drop Kid out a Medaglia D’Oro mare, Arnaud Delacour trainee certainly has a license to go longer.

The very fast Ishaq validated his huge-figure maiden score but was all out to do so over legitimate overlay Royal Summation in the Inaugural. By Harlan’s Holiday, he, too, should go on, but his style would seem to work against him.

The human stars in NoFla were Eoin Harty and Delacour. The latter, also saddled impressive debut winner Armoire, going a mile on the turf in solid time to win by 5. Harty, not known for winning with debut types, did it twice with a pair of Godolphin juveniles.

Written by John Pricci

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