Monday, February 06, 2017
LOS ANGELES, February 5, 2017 – The 2016 Breeders’ Cup Classic ended the two-day event on an unprecedented high note with the face-off between Arrogate and California Chrome and extending the thrills generated by the showdown between Beholder and Songbird the previous day.
The best faced the best and all the star performers actually gave their best when asked for it. It was Thoroughbred Theater at its best.
Fans were left thirsting for more of the same and Frank Stronach’s Pegasus stood poised to deliver the remunerative rematch designed to divert would-be stallions from lucrative liaisons.
The confrontation was expected to exhibit not only equine excellence but an entertaining clash of cultures and providing a mixture of motives and machinations among the connections.
Executed in the shadow of the enormous extravagance that enshrines Stronach’s love of all things equine, an enthusiastic elite embraced elevated attendance expenses which begs a question:
Can excessive pricing be expected to rekindle interest in Thoroughbred racing?
The event was well-promoted, albeit narrowly targeted, including a self-financed network telecast. Avid horseplayers anticipated attractive betting opportunities among an ample supply of undercard stakes, including a final Pick Four with 12 horses per leg and preceded by a maiden race with 14 runners to begin a second Pick Five.
Although the weather in the Sunshine State lived up to its billing, the rematch of Eclipse Award winners did not. While the consistent brilliance of Arrogate continued to be confirmed, the familiar quickness and stamina of two-time Horse-of-the Year, California Chrome, failed to materialize in his final on-track appearance.
Post-race reports from Chrome’s connections indicated the horse sustained an injury to its knee.
While some may be willing to write off that result to misfortune, it could be argued that the conditions of the race were indirect contributors given the extraordinary influence of an enormous entry fee and purse to the winner.
As misfortune had it, Chrome was stranded in the outside post in a full field with ample early speed inside him to overcome a position so close to the first turn.
Indeed it would have unfairly penalized any entrant unlucky enough to draw it, with the possible exception of a deep closer.
Under different circumstances the horse might have been scratched to run another day rather than face such a proven obstacle as well as a freakishly talented rival.
But there would be no refund for the million-dollar entry fee so, counter to the animal’s best interests, Chrome started as planned.
We’ll never know for certain how or when the alleged injury occurred. Maybe it was it during the all-or-nothing-at-all run to the first turn but perhaps a predisposing weakness developed earlier, even if his local workouts were counter-indications that nothing was amiss.
Dreams and Schemes and Circus Crowds
With the benefit of 20-20 hindsight, it seems reasonable to challenge the wisdom of Chrome’s paid workout at Los Alamitos against far inferior opposition and ask why he was put in a position to break a track record while extremely wide all the way around.
Why subject the animal’s bones to stress for a winner’s share of $50,000 when the main objective was a share 140 times greater? One possible answer is the increased value of a track record on his stallion resume.
“Thank you Los Al” came off as a hard sell to us.
Personally, the running of the Pegasus World Cup left a familiar bad taste in my mouth. To me, it Big Brown’s Belmont redux, or Looking at Lucky’s Kentucky Derby disaster.
While the heralded co-headliner that was expected to win actually did, I couldn’t shake the feeling that it was Chrome’s connections that compromised him most.
‘To say "I [pick] you" right out loud’
One of the surprises was Neolithic’s third place finish at 23-1 just ahead of his 16-1 stablemate Keen Ice, whom I had considered to be the unintended beneficiary of the former’s early speed as they are owned by separate interests.
Another was Breaking Lucky’s odds of 70-1 following his Grade 1 placing in the Clark compared to 20-1 for his established rival, Shaman Ghost, who had finished third in the same race. The former became my focus but he failed to fire, finishing eighth while the latter finished second for the event’s creator.
“I’ve looked at [luck] from both sides now”
At the end of the day, several developments were clear:
A. The wagering total exceeded $40M with half bet on the PWG.
B. A great horse gave a great performance.
C. The rich got richer.
D. The foolish got fleeced.
E. The event was declared a phenomenal success, at least by the connections of the top two finishers, and -- too often – by a fawning media.
In my opinion, the Pegasus model has yet to prove its viability for the future. It succeeded this year because:
1) The best thoroughbred since Secretariat was able to participate.
2) The most beloved horse in America was able to participate.
3) There were no scheduling conflicts to divert eligible participants.
4) Novelty has its own appeal.
5) The driving force behind it, the most influential individual in racing, was able to marshal all the necessary ancillary resources and was given the benefit of the doubt by deep-pocketed, curious risk-takers.
Fundamental flaws in funding and fairness which had been identified beforehand will require correction before the risk-takers ante-up again. Consequently, the distance of the race at Gulfstream Park will likely be expanded to 9.5 furlongs, and the purse distribution more variably tied to order of finish.
If Arrogate remains available for next year’s renewal, doesn’t his presence virtually take the top prize off the table? Will 11 other “investors” still be willing to risk $1 million for possible representation of some other 99-1 shot?
Written by John Pricci
Tuesday, December 06, 2016
Oldies, Goodies and Newbies
LOS ANGELES, December 5, 2016—What do Mike Smith, Bob Baffert, Gary Stevens, Richard Mandella, Bill Mott, Aiden O'Brien, Michael Stoute, and Frankie Dettori have in common?
Well, they're all racing legends that have won multiple Breeders' Cup races for decades--and they did so again in 2016. And none of the winners were the public’s choice.
Like some human recording stars, many of racing's equine stars can be one-hit wonders. Though spectacular first-time successes create cherished memories and visions of sugar plums, stardom is truly bequeathed against proven competition on center stage.
That’s what makes the Breeders' Cup work, and its strength is that it does so multiple times a day across multiple divisions.
What often gets overlooked is the overall performances of jockeys and trainers. Owners choose conditioners proven to have their high-priced horseflesh ready when it counts.
Likewise, trainers want riders known for coolness under pressure by overcoming unexpected obstacles in order to make the most of their preparation without costly error.
Smith's latest Breeders’ Cup win on Arrogate was his third of 2016 and 25th overall. Many were disappointed he didn’t win a fourth event aboard the very popular Songbird, who suffered her lone career defeat in the Distaff.
Instead, it was good friend Gary Stevens who won the Distaff on sentimental favorite and Eclipse champion Beholder for Dick Mandella, snatching victory from defeat’s jaws that was reminiscent of his ride on Victory Gallop denying Real Quiet Triple Crown immortality. It takes a legend to beat one.
But the true golden oldie is Smith, whose (8) 3-3-1 record in this year’s event elevated Money Mike’s achievement to platinum status especially since his other winners, Tamarkuz and Finest City, reported home at 11-1 and 8-1, respectively.
If Smith was heartbroken by the photo decision that went against Songbird, he didn't show it Saturday aboard Arrogate, engineering a close but decisive victory over older male champion California Chrome.
In the Classic, Smith's patience and confidence enabled him to reverse the role he had played in the previous day's feature, happy that he enhanced his mount’s chances of winning three-year old championship, maybe even Horse of the Year.
For his part, it was Travers Day all over again for Bob Baffert, who sent out both Drefong and Arrogate to repeat wins in their respective races.
Baffert, of course, started out as a quarter horse trainer fittingly winning his first Breeders’ Cup race in the 1992 Sprint in 1992, an event he’s won five times, including a back-to-backer with Midnight Lute in 2007-08.
But he also proved once again there’s no better conditioner of 10-furlong Grade I stakes runners. Indeed, Arrogate gave him back-to-back Classic wins as well, joining American Pharoah, Game On Dude, Real Quiet, Silver Charm and War Emblem, underscoring his mastery of mile and a quarter Grade 1s.
Another notable irony was that Baffert's Classic repeat required a reversal in roles for Smith and Victor Espinoza, American Pharoah’s partner.
The Chrome camp, of course, is chomping at the bit for a rematch in the Pegasus World Cup Invitation, but what do Arrogate's connections really gain by meeting California Chrome again at a shorter 9 furlongs, except perhaps getting 7-1 on a million-dollar bet?
Then again, $1.75 million for second and $1 million for third are worthwhile consolations when added to potential sharing of ancillary revenue.
As for the Pegasus, should destiny deposit the desired dozen stars to compete beneath the gaze of Pegasus himself, the ultimate winner should be the Stronach Group.
They had better after establishing new levels of admission and seating pricing that will limit participation in the event to only the deepest of pockets interested in racing.
Perhaps related in some way, Santa Anita recently announced a purse reduction for the "Big Cap," from $1M to $750K. Maybe TSG is considering a bonus-incentivized series that includes the Pegasus, Santa Anita Handicap and another graded stake at one of their properties to be named later.
Incrementalizing the purses of any subsequent legs for each starting Pegasus performer couldn't hurt potential Pegasus participation.
It also might be worth some discussion that rewards trainers and jockeys independent of the horses involved, perhaps another aspect of the promotion sure to come.
Mike Smith, while certainly one of the very best, isn’t the only money rider around, right?
Written by Indulto
Tuesday, October 25, 2016
A Strange Twist: Classic as a Lose-And-They’re-In Pegasus Event?
LOS ANGELES, October 24, 2016—If California Chrome can win both the Breeders’ Cup Classic and Pegasus World Cup he not only will become Thoroughbred racing’s first Win-Your Way/Buy-Your-Way-In winner but also would be the first to sweep all three legs of a bonus-incentivized series that included two Win-And-Your-In roads to the Classic.
Win or lose, it will be interesting to see which approach produces the more competitive of the two races. But should he lose the Classic, what then?
‘Chrome’ would not be the only dual WAYI winner forced to waste a free ride earned on the racetrack. Frosted has a ticket to the Dirt Mile to complement the one he earned for the Classic and, after deliberations, he’s headed to the latter.
Exaggerator’s recent retirement leaves only two possibilities among the six horses that have won seven "Classic Challenge" events: Hopportunity and Melatonin.
But as for Exaggerator, like Belmont winning Creator, Preakness winning Exaggerator will compete for dates with the sexiest broodmares in Lexington. Creator will due his suiting in the Far East.
As for Nyquist, plans are for him to compete in the Classic despite disconcerting defeats in the Preakness, Haskell and Pennsylvania Derby. Then no one knows Nyquist better than the brothers O’Neill.
One clear and present danger to Chrome’s ambitions appears to be another three-year-old, Arrogate, whose 13-1/2 length sub-two-minute Travers victory fuels the fantasy of a latter-day Jaipur-Ridan matchup.
It would be great theater to see two California-based speedsters racing head to head all the way around, even though it’s doubtful that “money riders” Victor Espinoza or Mike Smith would fall into a speed trap.
Besides, Art Sherman believes that Chrome’s at his best when he has a target to run at and said so following a recent workout.
But should a hot pace bring this dynamic duo back to the field, Arrogate’s uncoupled stablemate, the nicely prepped Hopportunity, just might pick up the pieces for Hall of Famer Bob Baffert. We’re sure Kiaran McLaughlin’s hoping for something that for Frosted, a likely stalk-a-pouncer in this lineup.
Interesting to note that Baffert could play still another card and add Travers runner-up American Freedom to the Classic mix. That colt is a tactical speedster that’s comfortable either setting or sitting just off the pace. We'll stop guessing when Breeders' Cup pre-entries are announced Wednesday.
The 2016 Classic could, in fact, boast the greatest number of uncoupled entries in its history.
The improving Shaman Ghost and sometimes enigmatic Effinex, unsuccessful in three Chrome-less WAYI races but nonetheless always brings his game, will represent the Junior Giant Killer Jimmy Jerkens' outfit.
Recall that Shaman Ghost nosed out over-confidently handled Frosted in the Woodward while Effinex was worn down by a tighter Hopportunity in Belmont’s Jockey Club Gold Cup.
With Dortmund headed to the Dirt Mile, along with Pa Derby runnerup Gun Runner, his conqueror, Connect, will sit on the sidelines.
It’s difficult to conjure up at this juncture where 12 Pegasus starters might come from. But how about Great Britain?
This weekend, trainer Aidan O’Brien indicated he would enter last year’s Turf heroine Found to the Classic lineup. The four-year-old filly will be cross-entered in the Turf but the connections want to “take a look.” Window shopping doesn't cost a dime.
Win The Space, third in the San Diego Handicap, Pacific Classic and Awesome Again, is expected to be pre-entered tomorrow with along with a fresh, fast-working early-season high-profile divisional player, Melatonin.
And just last week, the owner of 2015 Travers winner Keen Ice, Jerry Crawford, said he wants in, figuring all the Classic speed and its mile and a quarter distance suits his late finisher very well. It does, but then the competition might not.
Trainer Todd Pletcher backed Crawford's play re the pace and distance scenarios but unless the Classic falls apart completely it’s difficult to figure them making a case for trying nine furlongs at Gulfstream Park in late January, which brings us back to the Pegasus.
So the question remains which dozen horses will fill the Pegasus starting gate? One of Exaggerator’s owners recently sold his slot which could go to a Classic upsetter. A starting-stall would be a lot more valuable should Chrome be defeated. If that occurs, Chrome would lose the bonus which was expected to cover his Pegasus entry fee.
Worse, his anticipated stud career might lose a little momentum. Doubtful in light of his 2016 resume but anything’s possible in the horse business.
Unless there’s a clause we’re unaware of that allows investors to bail out of their commitment without taking too big a hit, the Pegasus very likely will have a full field.
And as far as that's concerned, it might turn out to be a LATI scenario for some not-quite-ready-for-primetime players. For the Classic/Pegasus favorite it's a Lose And They’re In scenario.
Written by Indulto