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The Conscience of Thoroughbred Racing


HALLANDALE BEACH, FL, June 12, 2022 — I love big event race days for their possibility. If it were not for that, why would Thoroughbred racing even exist?

As for the occasions themselves, they can be called Triple Crown, Breeders Cup Classic or Met Mile, whatever you desire. As the song goes, that’s entertainment.

I used to argue with my late, great friend, Harvey Pack; I called horse racing a sport, he called it a game.

As a fellow horseplayer, it is both, as Leroy Jolley once said, “it’s the greatest game played outdoors” — only not played ‘in short pants’.”

In our view, calling it a game disrespects the athletes that play it, the horses and their riders, and the men and women who teach them, optimize their abilities and, of greatest import, care for their well-being.

The one certainty is that without love for the animal, it would be neither a sport nor a game, just more breathtaking wild horses to be rounded-up by helicopter.

For all the lack of buzz entering the Belmont-154 program, the horses had the last word on a mini-Breeders’ Cup afternoon, a day filled with memorably exciting, outstanding performances.

Yes, at the end of it the rich did get richer. There were eight graded stakes events, six of them Grade 1. The names of the winning horsemen are familiar even to the most casual racing fan.

Brad Cox got the glut of graded stakes rolling, Todd Pletcher closing it out with his second of the day with Belmont Stakes champion Mo Donegal, adding a non-stakes win a half hour later, giving him a trifecta on the day.

Between the Acorn and Belmont came major victories by Bill Mott, John Sadler, Steve Asmussen and a Chad Brown hat-trick, super trainers all.

But they are more than super in name only. To win consistency at the highest levels, horses must be, first and foremost, in prime condition if they are to display their dominance on a consistent basis.

The  best horsemen are psychologists who get inside horse’s heads, coach them up to the task, honing their skills while getting them to hold form, keeping them fresh, race after race after race after race.

But it is the horse that ultimately carries them all across the finish line.

First came Matareya, winning her fourth consecutive race since turning three in her Grade 1, one-mile debut, a task made easier when a house vet observed 2021’s juvenile champion filly and didn’t like what he saw.

New York Racing Association Veterinary Director Anthony Verderosa advised the stewards minutes before the start of the tradition-laden Acorn to scratch the odds-on Echo Zulu. The judges obliged.

In the day’s penultimate Grade 1, Tribhuvan’s form was and usually is a tricky read. But Chad Brown on the grass is not, especially with a course lover that manages to get way too loose on the lead.

Fearless will just continue to grind out route victories with good energy distribution, and if only all of Casa Creed’s starts came at six furlongs on the Elmont lawn. Yesterday’s run earned him a repeat score in the G1 Jaipur.

Taking them in ascending order, three victories made Belmont Day 2022 most memorable.

Once again, Regal Glory displayed her class, needing no made-to-order dynamics to finish first. Class and kick will get it on turf nearly every time and Brown has done remarkable work with this youthful six-year-old.

Jack Christopher threw himself squarely in the center of the “best three-year-old in America” conversation in the G1 Woody Stephens.

Comfortably stalking a realistic pace in hand after steadying back and angling out into the clear, he vied three wide at the turn, was reins-shaken to the lead at headstretch, and widened while ridden out.

He was taken in hand at the end of seven furlongs in 1:21.18, a final furlong of 12.14 in an awesome display of speed and power. Nine furlongs should pose no problem; any farther will require more proof. Until then it’s wow for now.

The performance of the day clearly belonged to Flightline who has yet to show any limitations whatsoever. Winning three career starts fashionably by an aggregate 36 lengths was worthy of all the accolades.

But he needed to prove himself going a mile over a sandy eastern surface from the pole vs. a fast, seasoned, surging Grade 1 winner capable of pushing him. This was going to be tougher than the small-field softer touches he embarrassed in California.

He didn’t just win by six geared-down lengths in 1:33.59, he overcame a slow start and rider Flavien Prat needed to deal with dangerously close quarters on the backside as Junior Alvarado and Speaker’s Corner squeezed him out of inside position. Twice.

(No wonder trainer John Sadler and part-owner Kosta Hronis appeared grim-faced as NBC’s Britney Eurton sought a reaction as they made their way through the clubhouse box area en route to the winner’s circle).

So now it’s 42 lengths in four races, including two Grade 1’s. Should he remain healthy and on course, he could be, no hyperbole intended, welcomed into the conversation as one of the greatest Thoroughbreds to ever look through a bridle.

A good argument can now be made for identifying Mo Donegal as a divisional leading three-year-old. Amazingly, no sophomore in this deep class owns more than one Grade 1 victory this year.

The colt’s score puts his trainer, Todd Pletcher, in the Belmont-winning class of Woody Stephens—no comparisons intended—but clearly Pletcher’s handling of his Belmont runners, even those that didn’t win, is masterful.

So was the ride delivered by Irad Ortiz Jr. So thankful, Ortiz gave into his emotions on his way back to the winner’s circle. There may have been similar moments we missed, but it was a first for our eyes.

We went on record with the filly Nest. I felt she was defeated when she stumbled at the break, and didn’t realize until the head-on view later that she was bumped off stride by a veering-in Derby-winning Rich Strike, who didn’t run his race thereafter.

Jose Ortiz had little choice but to put Nest in the game early or risk being trapped by outside rivals attempting to drop in. Ortiz was forced to early use of her positional speed, saved ground, but then forced to tip out from behind rivals after straightening away.

We cannot state the circumstances cost Nest the three lengths separating her from the winner, but she was finishing faster than Mo Donegal, the beneficiary of perfect handling and excellent timing. He blew Belmont-154 wide open with three-sixteenths left to run.

Nest ran too good to lose, but such is the nature of horse racing.

The big day delivered in a big way for the sport of Thoroughbred racing and it was good box office, too, all sources handle reaching nearly $99 million.

And when’s the next big event? The Haskell is 41 days from today, July 23. The Travers is 35 days after that, August 27. If those days approach to what was seen on Belmont Day, it will be another memorable afternoon for the sport.

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13 Responses

  1. John,
    Spent countless hours handicapping, running scenarios in my head, etc, etc, etc, as I do all the time. I gave my win bet to Nest, and proud of that.
    But you need more than that in horse racing to cash a bet!
    Great day anyway for the Racing Fan!

  2. I’m reminded of the words of my late great friend, under appreciated for his handicapping genius, who often said most great bets lose.” Stay the course. IMO, the filly ran the best race but was beaten 3 lengths at the end. It happens. As for cashing, a box with the Todd favorite produced a fair payout…

  3. Looking at the data produced on Belmont Stakes day after the sun went west I observe that of the thirteen races Pletcher, Brown, and Asmussen won seven; that four races of the thirteen paid $2.60, 4.80, 2.70, and 2.90 to win; that the purses totaled $6,257,000 (thank God for casino dole); that the on-track attendance was 46,301, the lowest since 2010 (2020 and 2021 excluded because of covid restrictions); that all-source handle was down 12.4%; and that the wagering on the Belmont Stakes race was down 16.4% from last year.

    And, reviewing the ‘leader board’ for this year it held no surprises (in fact, it hasn’t changed in several years). The usual suspects were yet again the top three: Asmussen $14 million won in purses; Brown $12 mil; Pletcher $11 mil. Long way down to the fourth position. Yawn!

    The ‘Big Day’ as described in the second to last paragraph above doesn’t support the facts!

  4. The point was to note the performances of Flightline, Jack Christopher, and Todd Pletcher’s mastery of preparing Belmont horses.

    There was also a concession that “the rich did get richer,” just like oil producers, car manufacturers, and the captains of internet do.

    The crowd was capped at 50,000, they got 46+, disappointing I thought.

    Then I thought about gas at $5 a gallon, the worst inflation rate since 1982–40 years–the plague, the war, and plain old greed. Those are facts, too.

    Maybe horseplayers, or grassroots New York sports fans, don’t have as much money to risk as they once had.

    Or, to paraphrase James Carville, “it’s the economy, and the horses, stupid.”

  5. One thing that it Still seems difficult to award is the ” horse for course” angle.How many more points does it deserve? Rich Strike likes CD,Mo Donegal prefers Belmont,,and what about the Recent prime performance of another horse winning on another big time track ? And does that apply in Turf racing also ?

  6. Was an amazing day of racing; really one of the best days top to bottom that I can remember.

    One thing that should not get lost in all of this; reports of the death of The Wood Memorial has been greatly exaggerated. Wood runners scooped 2/3 of the triple crown.

    1. Maybe it’s time to reinstate the Wood’s Grade 1 status; after Saturday only possible politics should stand in the way. The Blue Grass got it’s mojo back; so should the Wood, Doc.

  7. DD & JP,
    I agree the Wood should reclaim its G1 status, but the number of graded stakes still needs to be reduced (including G1s) to help increase field size.

    Ironically, the Paulick Report recently raised the issue of tiny graded stakes fields, but unfortunately the interesting points made in that discussion could not be extended in their now defunct comments section. In what must have been surprising if not shocking to its advertisers, it was even suggested that lower purses could help!

    IMO a change is needed in the funding and functioning of the Graded Stakes Committee. My understanding is that the actual members of the committee are racing secretaries and that’s fine. However, they are working in the Breeders’ interests rather than the industry as a whole, and scheduling conflicts appear to be of no concern.

    What might get better results is a Graded Stakes Status and Scheduling Commission responsible for creating a National Graded Stakes Schedule that included a championship series for each division similar to the old ACRS series. Ideally the spacing between G1s would be optimized to permit a horse in any division to participate competitively in all, if sound enough to so.

    A new limit on the number of stakes at each grade level probably would not support an equal number of G1 races in each division. Perhaps this where tradition and perception need an objective compromise. Such a committee’s first step should be to get feedback from all stakeholders ranking all graded stakes within each division. An enabling questionnaire could be provided to each ADW customer and each on-track customer upon request.

    What an opportunity that would be to not only promote interest in the game, but also to assess its popularity!

    Any exceptions to “Optimal Grade I Spacing” should be limited to the 3YO male division. The Triple Crown not only tests the speed and stamina of a 3YO, but the soundness, adaptability, recuperative power, and luck of the winner as well. I guess Tom Jicha had it right after all.

  8. I, in the overall agree that the number of graded stakes should be reduced but also that the GS Committee will always consider breeders’ interests first and while racetracks talk cooperation, the reality is that they compete, just like any other business.

    As for a questionnaire for players to assess their opinions? It’s the old slim and none, and Slim just left town.

    As for field size and purses in graded stakes, especially Grade 1, how about this? Proportionately reducing the monies for WPS and use it to build up to say, arguably and hopefully, a minimum of eight horses. WPS horses in graded stakes would still earn handsomely and their big prize of course is the catalogue black type.

    Monies back to eighth position gives the non-super trainer and all other owners an incentive to run even when they don’t class-up on paper. Of course, pre-race veterinary inspection should be enhanced in some way such that owners and trainers taking a shot do not stress out not their horses, or worse.

    Then, too, sometimes horsemen duck a heavy favorite or two because they can, believing the favorites cannot be beaten. This is nothing new, and given the money and black-type available virtually everywhere, they have a right to seek purses to pay the large bills associated with ownership

    1. JP,
      Paying horsemen for performances that don’t produce payoffs seems wrong to me.

      IMO purses for less than full fields in G1 & G2 stakes should be reduced accordingly, with the absent balance going to a divisional weighted bonus pool for multiple top-4 finishers in G1 and G2 stakes except where such a race is already part of a series supporting such a bonus. The purpose is not to get lesser horses to run where they can’t compete, but rather better horses where they should. For example, it should have been far more lucrative for Jackie’s Warrior to finish second in the Met Mile than to win the True North!

      Further, a horse’s standing in the bonus pool could create a floor for the grade level of — as well as an entry preference for — its next start.

      Yes, tracks compete, but they also make money from simulcasting and shared horizontal exotic pools. Fixed-Odds vertical Futures betting on remaining bonus pool participants might make an interesting wager.

      Not only has Slim left town, but Hope has abandoned HRI as well. LOL

  9. Well, I, it’s been done before where purse money has been paid back to last place, and for all I know it still may be going on somewhere now, not to last but to sixth, or more.

    Secondly, everybody complains about small fields, so often in fact that the issue has really gotten stale. It’s time to move on. We’re not talking $200 million Saudi dollars here. That’s for golf degenerates, not horse degenerates.

    This section is about an exchange of ideas but, you know, Paulick might have the right idea. It takes an awful lot of time, and PR has a staff. We are a one-man shop. Food for thought.

    I, too, wish the world were perfect, alas, it is not.

  10. Saturday was a great day for the wagering public. Average winner odds of nearly 5 to 1, with a majority of the races won by non-favorites. Tribhuvan was an opportunity to quickly get back to a profit for anyone who did poorly in the first 9 races. Mo Donegal a winning favorite at better than 5 to 2 in an 8 horse Belmont Stakes. No complaints about field sizes from me.


    1st; 8; Quickflash; 14.40; 5
    2nd; 8 (7); Uncle Moonlight; 9.70; 5
    3rd; 4; Matareya; 0.30; favorite
    4th; 5; Regal Glory; 1.40; 2
    5th; 7; Fearless; 3.65; 2
    6th; 6; Jack Christopher; 0.35; favorite
    7th; 5; Clairiere; 4.80; 3
    8th; 13; Casa Creed; 4.20; 2
    9th; 5; Flightline; 0.45; favorite
    10th; 10; Tribhuvan; 19.10; 8
    11th; 8; Mo Donegal; 2.60; favorite
    12th; 9; Al’s Rocket; 1.55; favorite
    13th; 12; Palace Gossip; 1.80; favorite

    Average starters per race = 7.7
    Average winner odds = 4.95

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