Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Alexandra Shines, Zenyatta Grinds

Its not every year that it can be argued that the two best horses in training are both females. After this weekend there is little one can do to dispute that.

After late scratches, Rachel Alexandra faced a pathetically small field (Two to be exact) but did what a great horse should do by soundly thrashing them. The final margin of victory was just under 20 lengths and she set a new stakes record in the process. She not only ran the fastest time in the races history, she also eclipsed the biggest winning margin in the race, 15 lengths, previously held by the great Ruffian. That’s a fitting distinction considering many believe Rachel will be in her class by years end.

Zenyatta won her second race of the season to remain undefeated and despite shouldering significantly more weight then her foes she still looked rather average winning. This is one classy mare, but I’ve yet to see anything from her this year that’s truly excited me. She need’s to be running against better stock and if that means competing with males then so be it.

After the race, Jerry Moss expressed a desire to send his champion mare east to arrange a showdown with Rachel Alexandra. The sport went wild with the prospect of a meeting between the two super fillies, but that was quickly hushed with Moss’ subsequent announcement Tuesday that the mare would not venture outside of California for the remainder of the year. That essentially rubbished the prospect of a Rachel meeting after Jackson proclaimed last week that he would not run his filly over “plastic”. (Significant because the Breeders Cup is at Santa Anita again this year, a synthetic track)

I’ve got no problem with Jackson’s decision and don’t really need to expound on it after last weeks post. Jackson doesn’t need a showdown with Zenyatta because his filly has already run against and defeated males, and has an ambitious campaign mapped out for the remainder of the year, even without the Breeders Cup.

Zenyatta’s 2009 campaign is an entirely different matter. To call it underwhelming is an understatement. She took 6 months off and didn’t hit the track in competition until May. She has a 5 race campaign being mapped out and so far she’s run against over matched females in races that have failed to excite anyone. To be fair they’ve thrown out the idea of running in the G1 Pacific Classic (males) and/or the granddaddy of them all, the Breeder’s Cup Classic. If she were to run in both it would be impossible to say she wasn’t challenged sufficiently, but I’ll believe it when I see it.

Frankly, considering the quality of California handicap horses, she’d get a bigger test against Rachel, so if they are looking to prove something going east is the way to go about it. Not only would it be a stern challenge for both horses, but it would also be a mega-race that would appeal to far more than the racing fantatics. That would be the type of event that could garner massive crowds and media attention and last I checked the sport could use both.

I hope the NYRA find a wake to make it happen.

For the record, I’d probably take Rachel by 2 lengths.

Thursday, June 25, 2009

Alexandra The Great, Ready To Rumble

A mere four fillies have decided to test their luck against Rachel Alexandra this weekend in the G1 Mother Goose. It’s quite interesting that Zenyatta, who is the reigning and undefeated champion of the distaff division, still had another 7 horses enter against her in the Vanity this weekend. Granted that is a handicap and Zenyatta is shouldering a notable weight assignment, but its still rather interesting that the Mother Goose didn’t draw any deeper with the prospect of the ever so valuable graded black type on the line.

What the field lacks in numbers it makes up for in quality. Malibu Prayer and Flashing are solid fillies with genuine ability. They’ll have to improve leaps and bounds to factor with the buzz saw that Rachel Alexandra, but they are not afterthoughts.

The real development this week was Jackson’s announcement that Rachel would not go to the Breeders Cup this year. I can’t really blame him. After watching his reigning Horse Of The Year, Curlin, flounder on the synthetic track at Santa Anita last year, it’s not hard to see why he is hesitant to try his luck again.

Some think it’s a move lacking in confidence, I say rubbish. Synthetic tracks are the redheaded stepchild of thoroughbred racing. They are a specialty surface that lends itself more to turf racing than dirt racing. If the Breeders Cup wants to run its championship event over a track that lends itself more to European horses than those bred stateside, (Specifically for traditional dirt)then they need to accept that good horses aren’t going to waste their time running over a surface that may hinder their ability.

Fans have to accept this fact as well. There is no reason to be angry with Jackson. That anger should be focused on the Breeders Cup and the California Horse Racing Board. Synthetic tracks have a place in the sport for second tier tracks or those tracks that run winter meets with questionable weather, but they should have no bearing on the Breeders Cup.

Weight Stops Freight?

In a move that harkens back to an earlier time in racing, Zenyatta, the reigning champion of the distaff division, has been assigned 129 pounds for the G1 Vanity Handicap on Saturday at Hollywood Park. She’ll be conceding between 13 and 18 pounds to the other seven fillies entered for the $300,000 feature.

In years past this type of spread would not cause anyone to bat an eye, but it is really uncommon for that type of spread in the modern game. Now days trainers hold sway over the tracks an typically refuse to run their horse if they don’t get an acceptable spread. Man O War, who carried 130+ pounds multiple times as a 2yo is rolling in his grave.

This seems like a perfectly legitimate assignment though. Zenyatta has not lost a race in her career and has not looked remotely threatened in any recent race. The field, while comprising several nice, honest fillies, is not that distinguished and should not provide an upset unless Zenyatta is clearly off her game.

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Beyond VLT's

While I was a proponent of the VLT (video lottery terminal) legislation that was shot down Monday in a Senate hearing committee in Kentucky, I am cautiously optimistic that the failure of that bill might be the wakeup CDI and Co. need to finally focus on addressing the quality of the product they offer. I know I’m kidding myself, as these might be the least creative people on the face of the earth, but I’m hopeful that they will now start thinking outside of the box, in an attempt to address their problems head-on as opposed to sitting idly by waiting for a handout.

At the end of the day racing is operating on a flawed business model created a century ago. Horse racing has failed to evolve like so many other sports that have embraced the technological era and haven’t been so embedded in the past as to let it ruin their future.

Now the discussion moving forward from the defeat of bill HB-2, will be what can CDI and Co. do to address declining handle and attendance, so that they can offer competitive purses that rival those of the inflated slot filled purses in neighboring states. This is not just a Kentucky problem, so the two key areas I believe the sport needs to focus on are not exclusive to tracks in Kentucky. In a nutshell, racing in general needs to focus on restricting race days (Improving quality) and increasing visibility for the days they do have.

Last Friday Churchill confirmed something I have been screaming about for years, that night racing should be wholeheartedly embraced in horse racing. 28,000 people were in attendance for Churchill’s inaugural “Friday Night Racing.” (A test card that came about a decade too late) I’ve often stated that running horses during work hours, on workdays, is about as idiotic as it gets. Even the converted like myself can’t routinely break away from the daily grind to follow day racing in any significant way and chances are the average fan can’t either. Night racing provides exposure to a far greater pool of potential viewers (Would be gamblers) and that should be the goal of all tracks; increasing the visibility of the product.

I’m not saying all tracks should start their cards in the late evening, but at the very least, the timing of the races should be arranged so that the feature and/or last few races of each week day card could be at an hour when people can attend after work. (Or get home in time to watch) The average post time for a feature race these days is between 5-5:30, push that back an hour and tack on another couple races behind it and you’ve got an attractive evening for people looking to unwind after work with a cold one.

This kind of falls into another need for tracks, which is the restriction of race days. There is simply too much racing right now. While we could stomach this onslaught of racing during the week if they were at conveniently viewable hours, the truth is by and large, that the majority of these races should be eliminated. How do you increase field size, which is instrumental in driving handle? You limit the available races. Major tracks should not be racing Mon-Wed, (To a lesser extent even Thursdays) and those 20+ races carded during those days should be cut by 50% and the remaining should be tacked on to other days for night racing or to create “super cards” on weekend. There is no reason why a major track couldn’t split these excess races, forming two cards on a Saturday. (One a day card, one a night card) Put a feature race at the end of each card and now you’ve got a real day of racing, where the majority of your races are accessible and convenient for fans and would be viewers. That might sound “out there”, but it’s about as "out there" as fielding a ten race card on Tuesday afternoon.

A far as I’m concerned racing Mon-Wed should be banished forever outside of certain holiday cards. If not completely eliminated, it should be reserved for minor league tracks.

At the end of the day there needs to be significantly less racing. The meets that traditionally draw the largest crowds are also those which run small, infrequent, meets of high caliber racing, like Saratoga, Keeneland and Del Mar. Tracks should be reducing days and this reduction in supply should increase the quality of the races that do get filled. As long as a significant portion of sport is taking place in largely pointless races, at pointless times of day, nobody is going to feel compelled to attend or wager on those events.

While I support the move for VLT’s in Kentucky, Churchill Downs and Co. should use the failure of the bill as an excuse to get creative in ways that I’ve outlined. It’s not that these ideas are revolutionary, but they try to address some fundamental issues with fundamental solutions. Waiting on legislation to save the day is predictable and is to entirely ignore the reason they need the assistance to compete in the first place.

Friday, June 19, 2009

Sailor's Cap

In Memoriam
Sailor's Cap
(Distant View - Wave On)

The Rail Tout with Sailor's Cap as a weanling

Royal Ascot (Wed-Thur) Day 3/4

G1 Prince Of Wales Stakes
10 Furlongs
4yo & Up

Click Here To Watch

G2 Norfolk Stakes
5 Furlong

Click Here To Watch

G1 Gold Cup
20 Furlongs
4yo & Up

G2 Ribblesdale
12 Furlongs
3yo Fillies

Thursday, June 18, 2009

Royal Ascot (Tuesday) Day 1

Most hard core fans are well aware of the Royal Ascot meet going on overseas. Its one of the best meets in the world and though it only lasts 5 days each card is packed with top class races. I've decided to post all graded races from the meet here for those who might not be inclined to hunt down the races or replays online otherwise. Hopefully a few more people will follow the races, which will take on added importance this year with the Breeders Cup being at Santa Anita on synthetics. Last year the Euro's dominated the first synthetic Cup, so if your wanting to get an idea for who is going to come over here at the end of the year and cause trouble for the yanks, the Royal Ascot meet is the place to start.

G1 St James’s Palace Stakes

G1 Queen Anne Stakes
4yo & Up

G1 Kings Stand Stakes
3yo & Up

G2 Coventry Stakes

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Weekend Review

Sorry for the delay. It’s been a fairly busy week (end) and when you add in the other major non-horse events that have gone on the last few days (NHL Finals, UFC 99, Confederation’s Cup, the Miguel Cotto fight, NBA Finals etc) including the world record purchase by Real Madrid of Cristiano Ronaldo, from my beloved Manchester United, its taken me some time to catch up.

G2 Californian

Rail Trip is thoroughly overrated. The only way to save his once promising career is to try running on something other than shredded tires, where his early pace might be better served. This was a poor race won by a claimer and it never bodes well for a race when the entire field is within 3-4 lengths of each other at the wire. This race is a complete non-factor in the older division. Even the Beyer was poor with its new and improved (ie overly inflated) synthetic Beyer.

G1 Stephen Foster

Sometimes connections overstate poor trips their horses receive, but Einstein was really unfortunate in this race from the very beginning. Bumped early and late, clipping the heels of another horse, bottled up virtually the entire way around the track… this was nightmare. It’s unfortunate since Einstein has become a sentimental favorite of many because of his freakish versatility.

Not much to take from this race. The final time was poor, the Beyer was poor and the favorite never had a chance to run.

Click Here For Video

G3 Poker Handicap

Sailors Cap is a really cool horse. He is a wet surface specialist and he’s yet to run a poor race over any kind of soft going. I love the fact that the trainer said the weather channel would dictate his next start. Its hard to get a peg on Kip Deville’s performance. Most will consider it a post Dubai regression, but even considering that seeing him finish so poorly against a small field of horses was tough to watch. Hopefully the second start off the Dubai layoff will be better, but perhaps his age is catching up to him.

Click Here For Video

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Belmont Wrap Up

Like many I picked the wrong Bird. I’ve found some peace with the result because Summer Bird is a horse I expected to run big in each of his Triple Crown races. Perhaps “big” is embellishing my own thoughts as published here, but I did recommend using him in the superfecta in the Derby and did say he was eligible to finish underneath the winner in the Belmont. Ok, so that’s not exactly worth bumping my chest over, but I’ve liked the horse a bit more than his odds have ever suggested his chances were. He’s done a lot in a short amount of time and I think his Arkansas Derby 3rd was a deceptively huge effort for the horse with so little experience.

Where will he go from here? That’s hard to say. I suspect he’ll be hitting the board in some big races, but I wont go overboard on any horse based on a 12-furlong race. He’s a horse with ability and while most Triple Crown participants fade into the sunset in the second half of the year, I think he could be primed to step forward at shorter distances.

It’s virtually impossible to not point the blame for Mine That Bird’s performance at anyone other than Calvin Borel. If you’re going to accept the praise for a genius ride in the Derby you have to own up to a dismal ride like the one Mine That Bird received in the Belmont. The fact that he didn’t ride all week or attempt to get a mount on Belmont day is just mind numbing. You have to get a feel for the track otherwise you stand to do what he did on Saturday, which is panic and press the button a furlong too soon. He was in a favorable position on the backstretch and had he sat chilly until the stretch he likely wins this race by 5-6 lengths. At the ideal distance for his mount his ride forced a regression of about 8-9 Beyer points. Borel is always capable of providing a brilliant ride, but this race serves as a reminder why he is generally considered a notch below the top tier jockies. While I don’t think the race should in anyway jeopardize his status as the first call rider for Rachel Alexandra, you can bet he is hoping that Jess Jackson and Steve Asmussen weren’t watching on Saturday.

Has someone figured out what Charitable Man was doing Saturday? He had no hope of out kicking a collection of deep closers and with the track catered to front-runners, the fact that he was lengths back tracking a slow pass was shocking. I thought he was a bit over rated based on his Peter Pan score, but he had no hope once he settled for stalking the pace.

Of course I cant post without wishing a speedy recovery for Dunkirk. He fractured his hind left in the running, which only makes his effort all the more courageous. He was hooked heading into the stretch and displayed a ton of heart fighting back to regain the second spot. Perhaps that heart lead to him being injured or perhaps he was injured and rallied despite it, either way he deserves some respect for leaving it all out on the track. His desire to compete can never come into question. Pletcher said he’ll be back in a couple months, I hope he can come back even stronger.

Thursday, June 4, 2009

Belmont Stakes: A Look At The Field

Chocolate Candy

This was the wise guy horse in the Derby, being bet down to 10-1 after only a G3 win. He never factored, but he stayed on better than most finishing a well-beaten 5th. This colt has ability and some class, but what worries me is his lack of speed. His peak figure of 95 won’t hit the frame here and you have to wonder about a horse needing to improve drastically in a 12-furlong race. I’m inclined to believe his best chance is if the race falls apart and several contenders don’t fire. Could factor in the exotics.


The Pletcher wonder horse under whelmed in the Derby at a short price of 5-1. He didn’t have the seasoning to be attractive in that race and he has plenty of questions here as well. Despite popular belief, horses have not fared well by being freshened for the Belmont by skipping the Preakness. Statistically you have a better chance of winning the Belmont by running in both of the legs of the Triple Crown, rather than skipping the middle jewel. There is also the problem that he has yet to win a stakes race. He put up a fine display running second to Quality Road in the G1 Florida Derby, but he was soundly turned away at the end of that race and never ran a lick in the Derby. With that said, he is perhaps the most promising horse in the field and is the only horse besides Mine That Bird that is fully capable of running unquestionably fast. The smaller field should help him get the trip and if he gets the pace to run into, watch out. He’s boom or bust. Major Player.

Mr. Hot Stuff

The best thing about his prospects is his pedigree. He is a full brother to G1 winner Colonel John and being by Tiznow means he’ll get the distance. The downside is he is only a maiden winner and he has been a primarily synthetic horse for most of his career. He’ll have to improve his career best Beyer by about 5-6 to compete and there are too many question marks to consider that a likely scenario. He’ll try to close from mid pack but I can’t see him out kicking a field full of legit closers. Deep cover in the exotics? Prefer others.

Summer Bird

This horse showed a great deal of heart and mental toughness running as well as he did in the Derby with only three starts in his career. He was a well-beaten sixth, but he did improve nine spots in the final three-quarters of a mile. Like others he is touch light in the speed department but he was close to eclipsing the century mark in the Arkansas Derby. His sire won this event, but the concern is that his deep closing style might be blunted in a field predominately made up of other closers. I can’t say I support him for the win, but he is eligible to factor underneath if he keeps progressing. Mixed feelings.

Luv Gov

This horse took ten tries to break his maiden and Dwayne Lukas wheeled him back two weeks later in the Preakness where he finished eighth, beaten some 9 lengths. He could have done much worse, but it still wasn’t enough to warrant any real confidence here. His sire is a pure influence of stamina and his trainer has won the race a handful of times, but he doesn’t look very logical here. Prefer others.

Charitable Man

This horse will vie for favoritism and there is a lot to like. For one he is undefeated in New York, with two of those wins over the Belmont track. Second, he is the only legit speed in the race. Another common misconception about the Belmont is that because the race is a mile and a half, with stamina coming into question, that the race favors deep closers. In reality the race has traditionally been dominated by horses with tactical speed that either set the pace or stalk it. The only hesitation I have with this horse is the fact that his last effort has been entirely overrated and he’ll be over bet as a result. His score in the Peter Pan was really by default. He sat a distant second while Hello Broadway (His top concern in the race) set wild fractions of 22 and 44. It was really one of the most puzzling races of the year with Broadway running about as rank as possible. Charitable Man’s win was never in doubt and the only somewhat surprising aspect of the race was the distinctly average final time and Beyer it received after he got the ideal trip while closing into a brutal pace. With that said he is sitting third off the layoff and is by a sire that won this race. Dangerous.

Mine That Bird

This is the first race of the Bird’s career where the expectation is to win. He came out of nowhere to win the Derby and nobody legitimately expected him to beat the buzz saw that is Rachel Alexandra. Here on the other hand he is only facing one major Derby player and one talented newcomer of questionable upside. His sire won this race and the prospect of rain certainly doesn’t hurt him either. The horse has been a freakish closer, not just visually where the quality can be deceiving, but his fractions have really been otherworldly. His closing fractions were second only to the great Secretariat in the Derby. He displayed similar times in the Preakness despite not hugging the rail like at Churchill. Borel gets the mount back here and that’s great news for the horse as well. The concern here, like for many others, is the lack of pace. They won’t get the lively pace the Derby and Preakness demand, and one of his chief threats will be controlling the race up front. This race is won with tactical speed and he might need to use a touch of it here to not fall back into a different area code. Otherwise, he might be too far removed to catch Charitable Man. With that said, he is the best horse in the race. He’s the most proven horse, he’s the fastest horse, and after a triple crown of uncertainty I’m going with the most logical horse. If he gets a clear run on the field, he’ll be more than most of these can handle. The Pick.

Flying Private

Another long shot from the Dwayne Lukas barn. Flying Private was drubbed in the Derby and shocked most by running a decent fourth in the Preakness, beaten 4 lengths. His Preakness figure was very solid and is a better peak figure than everyone minus Mine That Bird and Dunkirk. Again, the trainer is pretty dangerous in this race historically, but it’s hard to support a horse that’s still eligible for N1X conditions. While I can’t see him winning, it’s not out of the question that he could mimic his Preakness effort and factor somewhere in a tri or super. Eligible for a minor share.

Miner’s Escape

Interesting horse. After a dominant display breaking his maiden at Gulfstream he wheeled back in the Fredrico Tesio and ran them off the track. It appears the horse finally “got it” over the winter. His sire was the Horse of the Year and had a field day at Belmont Park, drubbing almost everything that faced him at the track. He’s staring up at a massive class jump though and of the horses with questionable speed figures he leads the pack. If you buy into Beyer’s he’s going to need to improve by about 16-18 points to win this race unless it turns into a free for all late. He does, however, posses tactical speed and will likely be no further back then second for a majority of the early running. His trainer also knows a thing or two about pulling off an upset in this race. Deep cover in the exotics.

Brave Victory

This is an ambitious spot for this horse. He is only an allowance winner and his only experience at 9-furlongs was around one turn. His sire (Lion Heart) was a dominant miler who was not at his best beyond 9-furlongs. That combination doesn’t seem to bode well here. The best finish of his career, a third place finish in the Peter Pan, is deceptively average unless you watched the race. (As I discussed for Charitable Man above) He closed into a brutal pace but still was beaten by the only real horses he needed to compete with. With all of this said, Nick Zito is the upset king in the Belmont. Smarty Jones and Big Brown were considered by many to be mortal locks for the Triple Crown and Zito stole both races with Birdstone and Da’tara. (The latter being the real upset) So while I can’t bring myself to bet this horse in any way, shape or form, I do this acknowledging that betting Zito horses consistently in the Belmont has made a few people a small fortune. Prefer others.

Wednesday, June 3, 2009

Synthetic Beyers: As Artificial As The Tracks

In a press release Tuesday on the Daily Racing Form, (Click Here To Read) Andrew Beyer announced that he is retroactively changing the figures and the methodology behind his figures for all races on synthetic tracks in 2009 and beyond.

Handicappers and fans alike have noticed that synthetic Beyer Speed Figures have been noticeably lower than those produced on traditional dirt tracks. Figures that reach or exceed the 110 barrier are a rare occurrence and the average top class figure earned by solid G1 and G2 performers is in the 105 region. On the east coast, which is still predominately comprised of dirt tracks, the typical G1 horse earns between 105-115.

Now, if the decision to adjust the methodology of the figures was based solely on a belief that the fundamental mechanics behind figures were flawed, I could understand the need to adjust the figures. Beyer reveals the true reason they’ve adjusted the figures were to “make synthetic figures closer to those for dirt”. That’s an entirely different issue.

The question is should these figures be retroactively increased simply because of perception that they’re low? What real value is there for speed figures if they are arbitrarily inflated so that they are more comparable to those on dirt? If there is a noticeable disparity in the speed displayed on differing tracks should that not be reflected in the figures?

I’ve seen very little evidence that purely synthetic horses are in the same class as pure dirt horses. Bob Baffert famously once said about synthetic tracks, “they make an average horse good and a good horse average.” We’ve seen very little in the brief history of synthetic racing to dispute that opinion.

I Want Revenge was an average horse on polytrack and put up two powerful performances on dirt. Papa Clem became a G1 winner on dirt after being a promising yet second tier horse on poly. Pioneerof The Nile, the top dawg in California , has looked distinctly average after flopping in the Preakness and earning a 96 Beyer in the Derby.

What great horses have synthetic tracks produced? The closest thing to a great horse produced on the synthetic circuit is Zenyatta. The undefeated mare is undoubtedly a great race mare, but its not to be forgotten that she really stamped her case by shipping out of Cali and defeated former Eclipse champion Ginger Punch on dirt in the Apple Blossom.

Aside from her, you have a handful of synthetic horses that have under whelmed when it mattered most in the Triple Crown and the non-synthetic Breeders Cups. If the synthetic circuit is producing lesser quality horses, shouldn’t they produce lower figures?

I’m not trying to discount California racing, but I’ve yet to see a Ghostzapper, Curlin, Mineshaft or Medaglia D’Oro (unquestionably fast horses) produced by purely synthetic racing, so you have to wonder why the Beyers need to be arbitrarily increased to match those earned on dirt.

If I had to guess as to the real reason they are being increased it would start with advertising and pressure from commercial stud farms. Speed figures are a big angle in promoting a stallion. How often do you see in trade publications, “The Highest figure of 2008”, “The Fastest Horse Since The Inception of Speed Figures”, “Ten Triple Digit Beyers.” These are big marketing tools and it’s hard to promote a 102 Beyer.

I’m also sure there has been some pressure from the tracks. Speed figures can easily give the perception of producing less talented or dynamic individuals, not a particularly useful rallying cry to attract people to attend.

Whatever the rational is behind this move I don’t agree with it. To inflate figures for perception defeats the point of the figures in the first place. It makes the figures as artificial as the tracks the horses are running over.