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The Conscience of Thoroughbred Racing


HALLANDALE BEACH, FL — Before leafing through a chock-full simulcast notebook a word about events in Saturday’s nominal feature at Gulfstream Park, the H Allen Jerkens, the 11th race on a stakes-laden holiday Saturday:

Approaching headstretch, 1-5 favorite American Tattoo was on a clear lead. Carom was attacking from the outside under right-handed whipping from Irad Ortiz Jr. going stride to stride with Shazier, fence-sitting and loaded beneath Paco Lopez.

As the eventual winner straightened away toward the line, Lopez tried to race-ride his way out of the pocket. Could he have taken back, gone around, and gotten there in time? Unequivocally, maybe, and maybe not. But that’s not the point.

Whether Carom had enough in the tank to win, or even out-finish Shazier for place, is also a separate discussion. It is the race-riding that is at issue and, in our view, it was dangerous. This-win-at-all-costs approach to race riding needs to be addressed before someone gets killed out there.

Also to be put aside before making our argument is the politics. By comparison, Irad is the fair-haired boy and a solid favorite to win the 2019 Eclipse Award. His work astride Bricks and Mortar alone would be a good enough argument.

On horseback, Paco Lopez is the farthest thing there is from an altar boy. And he, as the world knows, has a history with the Gulfstream stewards. I cannot pretend to be an expert of horse-backing. I don’t ride. But I have been watching races for over a half-century.

I also don’t know what’s in another man’s heart and mind. But after Shazier and Carom straightened away together, Ortiz appeared to drive his horse into Lopez’s mount, seemingly more interested in keeping him in than winning the race for himself.

I have never, ever, suspected that the Ortiz brothers of helping each other when riding in the same race. On my children, I have never seen evidence of that. And I’m not at all saying that that’s what happened here. But I am saying that having Jose in the boot on the winner is not a good look.

Meanwhile, that’s only money. My concern is for life and limb, both human and equine. I don’t want or demand that any action be taken by the stewards against either rider unless the stewards deem it so themselves.

But I am insisting that they take a look at this incident–if the haven’t done so already–and be transparent about their findings. If they don’t want to make an official statement, they can respond here at HRI.

The thing is that fans would not have needed to see the incident for themselves, although they should. All they would need is to listen to Pete Aiello’s race call, who saw and reported on what was happening on the racetrack.


Whether you’re a fan or horseplayer, you should have had the big fun yesterday. I know I did–and I didn’t even win. If only a couple of those exactas had gone the other way. Woulda’, coulda’…

Mike Smith did it all in one glorious if not chilly season opener at Santa Anita Park. It was worth the wait, naysayers, wasn’t it?

As all now know this morning, ‘Money Mike’ surpassed the great Jerry Bailey in Grade 1 victories, gaining # 216 in the La Brea and setting a new standard aboard Omaha Beach an hour later. The first took all his skills as the pilot, on the second he was strictly a passenger.

The moment was captured on TVG as Mike swallowed hard to get through an interview that called for him to put the moment in perspective:

There was a hit-the-wire arm pump tribute, as Bailey had done aboard Cigar, relating how they grew up in Texas–Bailey’s dad was Smith’s childhood dentist–and how he admired him from afar, his hero accomplishing only what were his childhood dreams.

Mike got the money on Hard Not to Love, improved her record to 4-for-5 lifetime going from listed stakes show finisher to Grade 1-winner following masterful handling from John Shirreffs. And wasn’t it apt that Smith would equal his hero for the man who trained old partner Zenyatta?

Heavily favored Bellafina probably missed Flavien Prat, who had called in sick, and apparently Victor Espinoza felt it necessary to battle it out on the pace with speedy Mother Mother. He certainly regretted the tack inside the final sixteenth. Bellafina can rate a little; she’s no run-off.

For whatever reason, three-time Grade 1 winning Bellafina seems to pick the oddest times to disappoint her fans and backers. She’ll have time to make good in 2020 in what likely will be a widely-spaced sprint campaign. She has unfinished business in Breeders’ Cup F & M Sprint.

Smith needed no assist to win the centerpiece Malibu. He simply sat there as Omaha Beach did almost all the work, effortlessly, after Man-Oh-Mandella had dotted all I’s, crossed all T’s. Omaha Beach was dominant and is all set for his Pegasus swansong.

That will be bittersweet for several reasons, especially in light of what might have been. Maybe Gary West decided to go for an easier $20-million than a harder $3-million. Maybe he saw Omaha Beach train and, after yesterday, let out a big sigh of relief.

Parenthtically, before you ask what would I have done, I’ll tell you exactly. In my current position I would have gone for the money.

If, however, I were a half-billionaire, loved the game as much as I profess to, I’d want to prove that I deserved the Eclipse Award I’m likely to have picked up as America’s best three-year-old of 2019 and remove lingering doubt.

Getting back to riders, Trevor McCarthy blew open a three-jockey battle on the penultimate day of the Laurel Fall meeting, riding five winners including three stakes, the most prominent aboard Someday Jones, a two-length winner over Awaysdreaming in the Native Dancer.

Three-year-old Alwaysdreaming gave actual weight to all and was coming off a single six-furlong prep. Thinking out loud, he was game enough to try the Preakness after his Federico Tesio romp last spring. Maybe he’s ready to try the deep end of the pool again on JAN 25 at the same 1-1/8 miles trip?

Todd Pletcher and Irad Ortiz Jr. concluded their Saturday with three winners at Gulfstream Park. Pletcher’s notable scores came with Halladay in the Tropical Park Derby and American Tattoo in the rescheduled Jerkens.

Of most significance, however, is the fact that Santa Anita’s dirt and turf surfaces both played, fast, fair and of greater import, safely.

May the trend be with them.

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17 Responses

  1. Pete Aiello is great and I enjoy his calls. “This horse is 68-1 but you wouldn’t know it, etc.” Did not see the race in question but there is zero chance Jose and Irad will not ride in races together. Irad put on a clinic at BC in November, a lock for Jockey Eclipse Award. There have been other brothers who rode at the same time but I can’t think of the name. Also in harness. The late Peter Haughton probably drove against his dad, huh? It’s in the genes.

  2. C,

    I’m sure ‘Announcer Pete’ appreciates that. As stated, I never thought anything untoward about the Ortiz brothers when riding in the same race.

    Yes, harness had lots of brother acts; the Dancers and the Popfingers come immediately to mind, the Myers and, yes, father and son Haughton–just tragic loss of a quality young man.

    Knew Billy just a little bit and memory is of a class act. And those are just the ones I can recall from RR and YR.

    Bettors are a paranoid lot. Purses are so high these days that most jockeys need not gamble to survive anymore, except in the boonies. Besides, seeing “larceny” around every corner is a fast track to the poor house…

  3. Horseracing will have a hard time ever being popular as the other sports are for one simple reason, the early retirement of it’s best performers.

    Omaha Beach will race just once more, never having a chance to show his potential greatness in full.

    Imagine other big sports doing this, Michael, LeBron, Kobe retiring after playing a couple of seasons, perhaps without ever winning a championship!

  4. Can’t argue the point Den and watching Omaha Beach leave the paddock, with Mike Smith barely able to wrap his legs around the big boy, we’re probably just beginning to scratch the surface.

    But Mr. Porter may have panicked some, given the colt’s issues, or was made a syndication offer he couldn’t refuse. And after running like he did while a bit washy, albeit not hyper or nervous in the parade, was nonetheless remarkable.

    Either way, once again, the Pegasus, $3 million and all, remains a sensible end to early retirees, getting to see the star 3YOs at least one final time. But, yes, our best horses are swept off the track way too soon to attract sports fans that might become horse fans.

  5. Even Kim Clijsters is returning to tennis. Unless a gelding like Forego hangs around you’re both right. But, if the groundswell of support for total banishment succeeds, the memories will be all that’s left. Hey, I’m still thinking about Slew! Thought of another father/son combo from harness racing: Jimmy Cruise, Jr. and Earl Cruise. Peter Haughton wrapped up his BMW on Patterson Plank Road. Cautionary tale, if booze was involved.

  6. Correction: Jimmy Cruise was the father and was inducted into Harness Racing HOF. His sons, Jimmy, Jr. and Earl were also drivers.

  7. JP–
    When I watched the Jerkens Stakes Saturday afternoon, I was wondering why Irad Ortiz was so aggressively keeping Paco Lopez’s mount pinned in since it was clear that Shazier had plenty of horse and would eventually blow by Carom. So I thought to myself “Who was the jockey on American Tatoo” since he was the only beneficiary of Irad’s aggressive ride. When I looked down at my Form and saw that the jockey of the winner was Jose Ortiz I thought “Hmmmmm…..”
    I agree with you that I really haven’t seen much evidence of any collusion between the Ortiz brothers who are both superb riders. And I also felt that it was possible that Irad was simply tired of Paco’s extreme–and often dangerous– aggressiveness and simply wanted to give him a message. Or there was some other reason–I don’t know. But it certainly got my attention, and I am glad you pointed it out to your readers as well.
    Chuck from Saratoga

  8. Thanks Chuck. As stated in the piece, my concern was about life and limb, especially at this time in racing history where safety is what matters most.

    Yes, Irad could have been sending a message to Paco, or maybe it was ‘payback’ for some previous incident, or it just was flat-out competition among the world’s bravest athletes at a prestigious race meet.

    I also stated that I was interested in transparency. Anyone, like yourself, who lives across the street from Saratoga Race Course and has been a lifelong racing fan, saw the incident. And the stewards didn’t, or they did but decided to keep it in-house?

    Here’s another example of what’s wrong with the game and why it needs independent oversight. I have not seen it but was informed by a fellow journalist that Carlo Vaccarezza, trainer of the second finisher, stated on Twitter to the effect that–paraphrasing here–“it was nothing. Irad Ortiz is a great rider and he wouldn’t do anything like that?”

    The trainer is asking me not to believe my own lyin’ eyes. I can’t oblige, not when Carom’s head was cocked to the left and he was ridden into the rival on his inside.

  9. C, I remember Jimmy Cruise quite well, he sure was a slick one. I had forgotten about his sons, saw them both drive but not extensively as I turning my attention to Thoroughbreds at the time…

  10. JP, Like you I got my start at RR (ok, throw in YR as well). Would shimmy under a fallen down chain link fence outside of the plant to save on the one dollar parking. Beautiful track with some very good horses. Favorite was Cam Fella who was terrific. For excursions to YR would take the #4 train to last stop and then bus was waiting near a pizza parlor to ferry to track. This was in the 1970’s and I had absolutely no concerns for my safety riding through The Bronx back then. Everybody remembers NYC as dangerous back then but we horseplayers had one common goal: get to the track at all costs! I did not remember it being dangerous and would appreciate your thoughts. Met Marty Blum later that decade after he won a contest at Big A. Then it was off to Penn National for their inaugural WSH which Blum also won. You correctly stated that he selected horses for News World owned by Reverend Sun Myung Moon. Only in NY, kids, only in NY.

  11. C, have to admit I probably have a couple of years on you.

    My favorite old timers were the great pacer Adios Butler (Eddie Cobb) and loved Su Mac Lad (Stanley Dancer), although Speedy Scot was the best trotter I ever saw.

    He broke stride, spotted field at least an eighth of a mile at Yonkers, and still won in 1:59 and change in an era when a two-minute mile on a half-mile track was a big deal.

    1. Albatross, a sire of sires. The Tapit of harness horses. Unbelievable record as sire. Can anybody say Niatross? Funny how harness was how we started out playing and then graduated to flats. Who can ever forget the dulcet tones of “Trotter Car” upon exiting Belmont or Big A. Double headers! Thank you for sharing your insights, great fun to remember “the good ol’ days!”

  12. Forgot. Speedy Scott, who died in 1990 at age 30, beat Su Mac Lad at 4 and was the second horse to win the Trotting Triple Crown at 3. He took a lifetime mark of 1:56 4/5– crazy fast for that era…

  13. Hi John,
    Thanks for bringing back my memoirs of harness racing. My favorite was Cardigan Bay vs Brett Hanover. Will always remember standing at the $ 10.00 window waiting to see if Eddie Cobb would take late money. To you and all your readers Have a Happy and Healthy New Year.

  14. I did the same re Cobb, think maybe the whole track did, but there was no need with Adios Butler, He and Bye Bye Bird put on a great show, thinking $25,000 FFA every Friday night.

    Yes, loved hard hitting Cardigan Bay, too, and Bret Hanover (one T) was a beautiful chestnut flyer. Remember getting a print glossy as a promotion when he was in a big race one night, can’t remember which.

    Fond Memories!

    Can never think too much about happy these days, but a Healthy New Year to you and yours–and to all the families of the HRI Faithful.

  15. If you folks are enjoying the harness nostalgia wave, we plan on having more harness content in 2020 than at any time since 2007. Hope that you will enjoy…

    1. Head and head, nose to nose for the lead-Bullitt Bob Meyer. Zoooooooming by-John Bothe. They’re not gonna catch the Red Man, Carmine in front-Jack E. Lee. Yes, drifted from YR to Big M when it opened but still fondly remember RR and YR. Remember an early DD at Meadowlands, numbers 10-10 that paid $2.80. Sort of like today’s exacta (s) with Independence Hall. Would have been a Mike Warren 5-Star Special like Slew in Wood. A winner, yes. Worth betting? No chance.

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