The Brock Talk

Monday, December 28, 2009

An Academic Look at Horse Racing in 2009

My late mother Joan taught second and third grade for more than 30 years and my father Phil was a successful math teacher and coach before he began training Quarter Horses full time. So I guess it's in my blood to qualify things on an A through F basis, sometimes throwing in extra credit, "works well with others" or my mom's smiley faces.

If I were to sit down at the dining room table after dinner and grade horse racing and a few factions thereof, I guess this is the logic I would follow.

I'd give a solid A to the racing with Rachel Alexandra and Zenyatta giving the valedictions and the commencement with their A+ report cards throughout the year. Without having to recall a moment of any of their races, I can justify this grade with Zenyatta being named the runner-up to Serena Williams as the Associated Press Female Athlete Of The Year and Rachel Alexandra's victory in the Blackberry Preakness being ranked among the Top 10 Sports Moments of 2009 by Time Magazine.

I'd give the Triple Crown a B+, only because each race was won by a different horse and Mine That Bird never won again after taking the Kentucky Derby presented by Yum.

The diminutive gelding from New Mexico arrived at Churchill in a Sooner Trailer two-horse instead of in a custom equine van behind a Peterbuilt 389; with a trainer in Chip Woolley Jr. (photo below) donning a cast, two crutches, a big black cowboy hat and a mustache the envy of every 14-year-old bronc-rider this side of the Pecos. And dag burnit if they don't go and win the whole pumkin' rollin' at 50-to-1 odds. And they have the super charismatic Calvin Borel in the saddle to boot.

Then Rachel Alexandra comes along and steal's Mine That Bird's jockey in true TMZ fashion and wins the Preakness before a little known Summer Bird takes the Belmont. Borel, now back on Mine That Bird for the Belmont but finishing third, was denied a chance to become the first jockey to win a Triple Crown on different horses but gives the trilogy story a boost with the effort.

It was a very enjoyable Triple Crown, but I hesitate to give it a top grade.

The older horse division of 2009 gets a C minus with only Gio Ponti's A plus, a B plus for Presious Passion (top photo), Einstein, Bullsbay and a few others others pulling the group out of D range.

Frank Stronach did his best to flunk out all of track management this year with bankruptcies dominating the Magna Entertainment front, but I'm not going to give the whole bunch an F.

That would not be fair to the foot soldiers that managed these tracks with budgets and personnel slashes that had all the rational of a Lady Ga Ga hairstyle. I can only speak personally about Lone Star Park who produced some very nice events and race cards with not much more than the personal experiences, creativity and relationships built in the local and national markets when things were more profitable. I can only assume the management teams at the other tracks were faced with similar hurdles.

Pimlico management still gets my Dunce Cap of the year for their infield crowd restrictions on Preakness Day. I was the track manager at tiny Manor Downs near Austin, Texas in the mid-80's when our track infield hosted Farm Air II, numerous Grateful Dead and Stevie Ray Vaughan and Double Trouble concerts in an equine environment. Pimlico's lame justifications for crowd reduction fell on deaf ears with this blogger.

I will also give extra credit to the New York Racing Association for putting on such great racing during the Summer and Fall at Belmont Park and Saratoga and proving that good horse racing can bring good crowds and a great horse can bring a crowd to remember.

Now ending the year with the New York comptroller asking for your financial records is reason for concern, but I'll still give NYRA a passing grade this year.

Churchill Downs always gets an A plus for their Kentucky Derby and Kentucky Oaks presentation, their racing, facility, etc. And with the installations of lights and the beginning of Friday night racing at the historic track they only solidified that grade.

Arlington Park's season was filled with highs and lows. No. I'm sorry. It was filled with highs and two tragic injuries to jockeys Rene Douglas and Michael Straight. Both Douglas and Straight are battling paralyzing injuries suffered in spills at Arlington Park. I'll give Arlington Park an A plus for their handling of both incidents both in the moments after each accident up through the following months. They have organized and produced fundraisers for both riders but more importantly, I believe, have acted professionally and compassionately.

On the West Coast Santa Anita management gets the Magna exemption and really the same thing applies to Hollywood Park which may have hosted the last meeting at the Track of Lake and Flowers. More to come on that. Del Mar? ... I give a C. How can you screw up the Pacific Ocean, Zenyatta and Bing?

The jockeys get an A plus from me this year for their performances both on and off the track. Nothing shows character like taking care of your own and the jockeys made a big stride when their Jockeys' Guild was able to close their bankruptcy case in July. That ended the two-year case and the beginning steps to repair the damage of what will go down in Guild history as the decade of darkness.

And while Douglas and Straight suffered catastrophic accidents at Arlington Park this summer, fellow riders and their wives rallied to their assistance both financially and in friendship. The Don MacBeth Memorial Jockey Fund completes their 22nd year of assisting fallen riders and the Permanently Disabled Jockeys Fund passed the the $2 million mark in disbursements during the year.

Calvin Borel electrified America as only "Boo" can with appearances on the network morning show and late night circuits while Mike Smith, Chantal Sutherland, Joe Talamo, Alex Solis and others opened their lives and their jocks' room in the popular Animal Planet television series Jockeys.

On the track there were standout performances like Joe Talamo's performance on I Want Revenge in the Wood Memorial, Calvin Borel on Mine That Bird in the Kentucky Derby, and that flying partnership of Elvis Trijillo and Presious Passion in a United Nations victory and a Breeders' Cup Classic runner-up.

To the fans (come on... you brought me an apple), I place you on the honor roll and you also gets my mom's smiley face at the top of your paper. I want to recognize the New York fans that wore cowboy hats on Belmont Day and gave Rachel Alexandra ovations that will be written about for years. I salute the fans of California as well for their Zenyatta signs and ovations and of course the fans that have supported the various charities of our sport.

At the end of it all, I'd say racing made it through the year with a B minus. And I give that grade on a bell curve influenced by the economy. When all is said and done, I'm sure attendance and handle will have taken significant hits and horse racing didn't have many home runs in television ratings either. But California racing didn't fall in the ocean, no mares had eight foals, Chantal Sutherland didn't hit Mike Smith's Escalade with a golf club and Chip Woolley didn't crash into the Hudson river with Mine That Bird.

As bad as 2009 was for a lot of folks, I think racing did okay. Certainly well enough to move ahead in 2010 but not quite good enough to break out the good "bubbley" tonight.

But Happy New Year everyone, nonetheless.

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

'Twas the Night Before Racing

‘Twas the night before Christmas
Inside the barn area fence
Not a creature was stirring
Not track maintenance.

The hay nets were hung
From the stall doors with care
Hoping the guy with the sweet feed
Soon would be there.

The horses were all standing
Asleep in their bedding
While the grooms played the tunes
Of the Spanish Helen Redding
(Soy mujer, me oigo rugir!)

With mama closing the tack room
And I shutting light
We took a look down the shed row
Before calling it a night

When suddenly we heard
A bang and clang
It sounded as if
The starting gate rang

But the race track was closed
And the gate crew was drinking
So I turned to mama while wonderin’
What she was thinking?

Then a sudden red light
And with little alarm
I saw something land
Atop the test barn

It was the thoroughbred season!
There were no sulkies around!
So certainly this was
A sleigh that we found

I recognized the harness
And the reins were no mystery
But those were sure reindeer
“Track security is history!”

Then out from the sleigh
Jumped the driver dressed in red
He looks at me smiling
And says “Can you watch my sled?”

“I have peppermints here
Maidens and Claimers by name
Then suddenly he vanished
And I’m holding Rudolph’s reins

In less than a second
He was back and set to go
“How fast is this sleigh?”
He said, “You’ll never know!

“I use Christmas Spirit
To power this thing
For this team of reindeer
The world’s a bullring

“This is a very fast group
And this is a magical little bag
But don’t get ideas
They don’t run for a tag!”

Then a little toy trumpet
He brought to his lips
And he played Boots and Saddles
With his hands on his hips

I laughed then looked up
And he was gone in a sec
Then I looked down
And saw the win pic

As I looked at it closer
What a wonderful sight
It was Santa on the left
And me on the right

Donner was center
The rest were in back
And I don’t know who they were
But there were elves in the sack

He sprang to his sleigh
to his team gave a whistle,
And away they all flew
to Los Al then to Thistle.

But then I heard him say
with a laugh and a roar,
"Happy Christmas to all
And hit a pick-four!”

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

Retired Racehorses Survive Island Budget Cuts

ISLAND OF MISFIT TOYS, ARCTIC CIRCLE--In a Tuesday press conference here inside the arctic circle, Island of Misfit Toys governor King Moonracer (photo below) said he will again be helping retired race horses find homes during the Christmas season.

King Moonracer is responsible for flying around the world each night in search of unwanted toys. In 1935, a deal was forged between Moonracer and Santa Claus of the North Pole to help find homes for these misfit toys.

Two years later, seven-year-old Suzy Angelino of Pawtucket, Rhode Island wrote to Claus in an official "letter to Santa" asking for help in finding a home for a thoroughbred living at Narragansett Park. Angelino, whose father owned apple and carrot distributorships near racetracks throughout the United States and thus had a certain amount of influence among the equine racing set, soon had Seabiscuit and War Admiral using their immense influence in the animal kingdom to pressure Moonracer into a deal.

The relationship has stood strong for more than 80 years now with King Moonracer and Claus helping to find homes for these racehorses. However, the recent downturn in the world economy has caused budget cuts at the Island Of Misfit Toys. Many feared these cuts would impact certain divisions on the Island including finding homes for retired racehorses. Therefore today's announcement comes as a welcome message during the holiday season.

North Pole Elves Corporation press secretary Gladys Magilicutty, whose father Spanky was a jockey, said "The Elfin community has been proud to support this effort to help retired race horses. Plus, our equine division has been slow since the demise in popularity of the rockin' horse as a Christmas toy and "horse cakes" never quite caught on like we projected."

In a jesture of appreciation, retired race horse foundations, farms and organizations have pledged to help King Moonracer and the Island of Misfit Toys in any way. If you would like to help click on any of the retired racehorse links below.

To learn more about adopting a retired race horse, click here.

To find a race horse retirement organization, foundation or farm near you:
New Vocations
California Equine Retirement Foundations
Old Friends
Thoroughbred Retirement Foundation
ReRun Adoption

Monday, December 7, 2009

Announcing The 2009 TBA Photo Contest

Announcing the annual Thoroughbred Bloggers Alliance photo contest. As we used to say in the old Quarter Horse days.... Open To The World! Professional and amateur, fun, serious or pretty. The rules and where to enter are below.

Here are the rules for this year:
Can submit up to 3 photos taken this year; subject matter horse
Submissions: email the photo to
Submissions due by 12/13/2009 (sunday)
Voting for top ten will be 12/14 through 12/20 (monday through
Sunday), will be able to vote on multiple pictures, but we ask only
vote on 3.

Top 10 photos will be chosen to enter the final round.
Voting on winner will be 12/21 through 12/27
winner announced.
Prize = The picture will be featured on the photo page, and the photog
given the opportunity to link to anything they want and to say
whatever they want (provided it abides to civil discourse, and doesn't
say anything bad about the TBA ;-D ).

Friday, December 4, 2009

Derby Preps Deserve Graded Flexibility

This week the American Graded Stakes Committee released their annual list of graded stakes to be run in North America in 2010 and they have certainly grabbed the attention of racing fans in the social networking worlds of Twitter and Facebook.

Each year since 1973 the Thoroughbred Owners and Breeders Association has appointed a committee to evaluate all major added-money Thoroughbred races in North America and "grade" them as I, II, III or ungraded with grade I representing the most prestigious, richest and most highly competitive. TOBA appoints six of their members to the committee (including the committee chairman) and each year invites six leading racing officials to also serve.

According to the TOBA website, "the purpose of the American Graded Stakes Committee is to provide owners and breeders of Thoroughbred horses a reliable guide to the relative quality of Thoroughbred bloodstock by identifying those U.S. races whose recent renewals have consistently attracted the highest quality competition." The committee has a $75,000 purse requirement for a race to be considered for grading and also considers the longevity of the race, insures adequate drug and anabolic steroid testing, and that the race be restricted only by age and gender.

It is a good process that was quickly emulated by racing jurisdictions and recognized by publications and sale companies around the world.

My criticism comes from the line "provide owners and breeders... a reliable guide". Once again the racing powers have snubbed their noses at the fans.

To be fair, the graded stakes committee at one time "unofficially" considered the public appeal of graded races and tried giving graded status to races at smaller tracks in an effort to promote those tracks. the grading system, but it was determined that granting a graded status to given race had little effect on attendance or the promotion of the given track. As a longtime marketing guy, this was very difficult for me to accept but I eventually came to realize that this was fundamentally true. Nobody was going to Brock Talk Downs to see the Sheridan Derby because it was a graded race.

The last line of the TOBA website page describing the American Graded Stakes process reads "Judgment and flexibility... must always be a part of the system." And that is the tool the committee can use to make the most appreciated changes for the fans without compromising the mission of the process as stated by TOBA.

Based on the Twitter and Facebook comments and posts I've seen since the committee announced their 2010 schedule, there is one area that garnered most of the attention of racing fans regarding graded races - Kentucky Derby prep races. Specifically, the changes made to the grading of the Illinois Derby, Sunland Derby and Arkansas Derby are getting the internet chatterers a chattering.

The Arkansas Derby has been upgraded from II to I, the Sunland Derby is grade III for the first time and the Illinois Derby was downgraded from a grade II to a grade III.

In my humble opinion, the grade I status for the Arkansas Derby is long overdue. With Triple Crown stars such as Afleet Alex, Smarty Jones and Curlin among it's last six winners, it appears it should have been a grade I a long time ago. And remember, Smarty Jones was just a Birdstone's throw away from being a Triple Crown winner.

Illinois Derby stars include Derby winner War Emblem, Ten Most Wanted and Musket Man. Not a stellar class and really the race probably deserves a grade III based on the committee's criteria, but this race has evolved during the last decade into a legitimate Derby prep. It is not on par with the Santa Anita Derby, Florida Derby or Wood Memorial, but it certainly is more significant to prospective Derby starters than the Sunland Derby, even though the Sunland race produced Mine That Bird last year.

The Louisiana Derby seems to be another Derby prep on the rise having produced last year's Derby favorite Friesan Fire as well as Pyro and Circular Quay the previous two years. Problems with scheduling the Florida Derby on a consistent basis and slot revenues have helped the Louisiana Derby quality recently and it is now a serious race to look for in the Derby past performances.

Again, I'm not saying the Louisiana Derby is on par with the big boys, but it is certainly not on the same level as the grade II Rebel Stakes at Oaklawn which is prep for a Derby prep.

I guess what I'm trying to say is that these Derby prep races are more significant to fans and horse players than perhaps the TOBA realizes. They may not be bringing people to the races, but they are important guides to the marginal fans that handicap that one race a year - The Kentucky Derby. So if there is one area where I would like the American Graded Stakes Committee use some of their judgment and flexabilty it is with these Derby Preps. It is perhaps the one group of races that the casual fan depends on the graded stakes committee to help them find a winner.

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

Dear Santa

(Cartoon by Remi Bellocq)

Dear Santa,
I've been a pretty good boy this year, (relatively speaking I guess), and it's early December, so I thought I better write my Christmas list and send it to you here pretty quick.

I hate to be a pain about this Santa, but I really, really want a Triple Crown winner this year. I know they're hard to make and it's not the elves specialty or area of expertise. But if they can squeeze it in during some of their down time in January and February, we really don't need delivery during the peak holiday season.

And forget the Derby exacta. I can do without the Derby exacta if you work on the Triple Crown winner for me.

Just a thought. You knew I was going to ask.

I also want a good leg for Summer Bird and if you can put a little "good will to all men" in Quality Road's stocking.... those guys on the starting gate are just trying to help. Careless Jewel could probably use a little of that stuff too, but I wouldn't waste any on Rachel Alexandra. I don't think she's going to be good will to any men, mares or foes this year and I think we both agree she has all the magic she needs.

It's been a very rough year on lots of people Santa, but we have some friends in racing that have been dealt some pretty big challenges. For them and everybody who may be needing a little extra Christmas spirit this year, put a little extra under the tree from all of us... will ya?

This gift is not quite so noble and I'm sure you don't normally stop at racetracks, but if you have any extra high definition television cameras when your making a final pass, there'd be lots of happy girls and boys in your 21 and older demo if you'd drop a few extra at a track or two. We'd sure like to see horse racing not lag too far behind in an area (television) that is so vital to our sport.

Before you go Santa, a few more small items... continued stardom for Chantal Sutherland. Regardless if she re-appears on the successful TV series Jockeys or not, she's good for racing.... A step ladder for Zenyatta's new boy friend is probably appropriate... nice homes for all the retired race horses... and peace on earth, good will to all men.

Thanks Santa and Merry Christmas,

PS: Remind Blitzin he still owes me $10 for the basketball pool.