The Brock Talk

Monday, August 30, 2010

Opportunity Lost

When Persistency passed Rachel Alexandra just before the finish line of the grade 1 Personal Ensign Stakes at Saratoga Sunday, it was a disappointment for nearly everybody in racing. After Rachel Alexandra’s dominating performance in the Lady’s Secret Stakes at Monmouth Park last month and a series of sparkling works leading up to the Personal Ensign, the hope was that Rachel Alexandra was regaining some of the form that made her the 2009 Horse of the Year.

But perhaps most disappointing, is that any race between Rachel Alexandra and Zenyatta now seems unlikely at best. Zenyatta is now scheduled make her next start in the Zenyatta Stakes Oct. 2 during the Oak Tree meeting before heading to Churchill Downs in a effort to repeat her 2009 victory in the $5 million Breeders’ Cup Classic. No announcements have come out of the Rachel Alexandra camp as to her next race, but a meeting with Quality Road, Zenyatta and Blame may not be in her best interest.

For that racing has failed. Racing has failed its current fan base, but perhaps more important, it may have missed the opportunity to present one of the great races of our era in Rachel Alexandra versus Zenyatta and a field others. A match race was never a real possibility, despite the $2 million once offered by “Matress Mac” Jim McIngvale and Sam Houston Race Park. The deep differences in the two running styles of the great mares, with Rachel Alexandra and her fondness for the lead and the typical late rallies by Zenyatta, never made a match race realistic.

Credit must be given to those that tried to get Zenyatta and Rachel Alexandra together in the same race. Oaklawn Park owner Charles Cella came the closest to producing the race early this year by offering to make the grade 1 Apple Blossom a $5 million race if both ran. At one time, dates were changed and commitments from both camps were made. But Rachel Alexandra was unexpectedly defeated in the New Orleans Ladies at Fair Grounds preparing for the Apple Blossom. The day after the New Orleans Ladies, trainer Steve Asmussen announced that Rachel Alexandra would not run in Mr. Cella’s “Race For the Ages.”

The New York Racing Association also made several legitimate bids to create the race. Last fall track management offered to increase the purse of the $600,000 Beldame to $1 million if both stars started in the October race at Belmont Park. Zenyatta trainer John Shirreffs said, "We'll have to see the calendar and how it works out. It's something to consider." And that was about as close as the race came to materializing in the Beldame.

It also has to be mentioned that Santa Anita’s synthetic racing surface must shoulder some of the blame for hindering the possible dream race. The most likely race for both mares to meet last year would have been in the $5 million Breeders’ Cup Classic. But Jess Jackson, principal owner of Rachel Alexandra refused to run her on “plastic.”

Whether the reason be racing surfaces, schedules, personalities or just bad luck is inconsequential. It’s just a shame we could not have seen this race at some time in the last two years.

Friday, August 27, 2010

Personal Ensign Obstacles Look Managable For Rachel Alexandra

Rachel Alexandra, the 2009 Horse of the Year, returns to the site of her greatest triumph Sunday in the $300,000 Personal Ensign Stakes at Saratoga. Last year she completed one of the most dynamic campaigns ever by a 3-year-old filly by winning the grade 1 Woodward Stakes over older horses at the upstate New York racing icon. In fact, in the 56-year history of the Woodward, Rachel Alexandra is the only filly to ever win the race. At that time she was atop the racing world. Sunday, she returns grade 1 competition for the first time since.

It has been a challenging year for Rachel Alexandra, who started the year with two close second-place finishes in the ungraded New Orleans Ladies at Fair Grounds and the La Troienne (gr. 2) at Churchill Downs. She has since rebounded with two victories in the Fleur de Lis (gr. 2) at Churchill Downs and the ungraded Lady’s Secret at Monmouth Park, but Sunday marks her her first start this year against grade 1 competition.

In all of those races, Rachel Alexandra has been the odds-on favorite and she is the 2-5 choice in the Personal Ensign morning line in a small field of five. Unlike any of those race however, the Personal Ensign appears to have a few more legitimate challenges and challengers as well.

The first challenge will be the 1-1/4 mile distance of the Personal Ensign. This will be the first time Rachel Alexandra has run a race at the classic distance while her two top foes, Life At Ten and Miss Singhsix, just finished first and second respectively at that distance in the grade 2 Delaware Handicap.

Life At Ten brings the other apparent challenges. Trained by Todd Pletcher and ridden by John Velasquez, Life At Ten rattled off her sixth consecutive victory in the Delaware Handicap going back to a win against allowance company at Aqueduct in November. That span includes her triumphs in the grade 1 Ogden Phipps at Belmont and the Sixty Sails (gr. 3) at Hawthorne.

The other challenge Life At Ten brings to the Personal Ensign will be her early speed. Like Rachel Alexandra, Life At Ten likes to be on or near the lead when the field settles into the early running. Although Rachel Alexandra likes to go a bit faster than Life At Ten; and it is doubtful that jockey Calvin Borel would let Rachel Alexandra get into a compromising fast, early pace; Life at Ten should have the opportunity to at least apply some pressure.

Miss Singhsix looks to be the most logical to benefit should Life at Ten and Rachel Alexandra somehow exhaust themselves during the first mile of the race. But even under the most opportunistic of conditions, the Marty Wolfson-trained Miss Singhsix will have to improve significantly in order to defeat Rachel Alexandra.

No better place than the "Graveyard of Champions" to give a try though.

One interesting note that Rachel Alexandra has in her favor is the success of her sire Medaglia d’ Oro at Saratoga during his racing career. After finishing second in the Wood Memorial and Belmont Stakes, the Bobby Frankel trainee went to Saratoga to win both the Jim Dandy (gr. 2) and Travers as a 3-year-old. He returned the following year to win the Whitney Handicap over Breeders’ Cup Classic winner Valponi to finish his career 3-for-3 at the Spa.

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Super Saver Needs Sea Hero Playbook For Travers

It may not be as historically significant as the 24 consecutive major league loses by the 1889 Cleveland Spiders or the 0-26 losing streak by the National Football League’s Tampa Bay Bucaneers of 1976-1977, but it’s now becoming noticeable – and quite frankly – annoying. Maybe you haven’t even noticed it. But it’s beginning to wear on me a bit.

It has now been since Big Brown won the Monmouth Stakes on September 11, 2008 since a Kentucky Derby (gr. 1) presented by Yum! Brands winner has won a subsequent race. That’s right. It has been almost two years since a Kentucky Derby winner has walked into a winner's circle after the first Saturday.

When Mine That Bird lost in the Whitney Handicap (gr. 1) at Saratoga in early August, it was his seventh consecutive loss since winning the Kentucky Derby last year. Super Saver (photo left) is 0-for-2, after finishing eighth the Preakness (gr. 1); and fourth in last month’s Haskell Invitational (gr. 1) at Monmouth Park. Both races won by Lookin at Lucky.

Gato Del Sol lost 15 consecutive races from September 1983 through April of 1985 before ending his career with a win in the Caballero Handicap at Hollywood, but he had two allowance races and a stake at Del Mar between his Derby victory and his streak of losses.

Proud Clarion, the 1967 Derby winner, finished his career by losing all of his nine races in 1968. But like Gato Del Sol, Proud Clarion won races after the Derby and before his losing streak started.

Tomy Lee, the 1959 Derby winner, had a somewhat pathetic post Churchill Downs career. Trainer Frank Childs chose to return Tommy Lee to California to run in the Cinema Handicap at Hollywood Park instead of trying for the Triple Crown and skipped both the Preakness and Belmont. Tomy Lee finished sixth in the Cinema and was given six months off before coming back to win a 6 furlong allowance race. He finished his career with two loses at age four. Both Super Saver and Mine That Bird passed Tommy Lee in the post Derby career derby the second they stepped foot on the track for the Preakness.

Prior to Mine That Bird and Super Saver (photo right), the last time the Kentucky Derby winner did not win the Preakness nor the Belmont in two consecutive years was in 1992 and 1993 with Lil E. Tee and Sea Hero respectively.

Lil E. Tee finished fifth in the Preakness and was then sidelined for the rest of his 3-year-old campaign. He returned to race at Oaklawn Park in the Spring, but his only significant win came in the grade 2 Razorback and he was eventually retired later that year.

The connections behind Super Saver may be hoping for racing pattern similar to what Sea Hero showed after his Run for the Roses. After finishing off the board in the Preakness and Belmont, Sea Hero ran fourth in the Jim Dandy in preparation for his victory in the Travers at 6-1 odds. Super Saver was, of course, fourth in the Haskell Invitational before this year’s Shadwell Travers Stakes (gr. 1), and happens to be 6-1 in the morning line.

Super Saver won’t have Preakness and Haskell winner Lookin at Lucky to deal with in Saturday’s Travers, but will instead have plenty of competition and some adversity, breaking from the far outside post position eleven. Super Saver gets another shot at Haskell runner-up Trappe Shot and Preakness runner-up First Dude, who was also third in both the Belmont and Haskell. Morning line favorite A Little Warm gets the support nod based on his victory in the Jim Dandy Stakes (gr. 2) at Saratoga the same weekend as the Haskell.

The position appears to be of little concern for trainer Todd Pletcher who said that there would be benefits to being so far outside. “It looks like your main speed is 1-2-3-4-5 and the other horses who have drawn the outside can kind of fall in there somewhere,” he said shortly after post positions were drawn. “Sometimes, the No. 11 might be a little further out than you’d ideally like, but I think at 1 ¼ miles it’s okay. You get a decent run to the first turn, so [jockey] Calvin [Borel] should have the option to kind of survey everything inside him.”

But Elliott Walden Jr., the vice president and racing manager for WinStar Farm, the owners of Super Saver, said “the second race off the layoff is typically his best. We hope he learned something off the Haskell and will have a good race. He's got to step up. We'll let him do the talking. He's set up to run very, very well.”

Of course in all fairness, it is hard to burden Super Saver after only two losses after the Derby with a losing steak label. Mine That Bird is the main culprit in this two-year drought. But like Mr. Walden, there are a lot of racing fans hoping that Super Saver steps up in the Travers – and ends this dreaded losing streak.

Friday, August 20, 2010

WinStar Turning Spot Lights Into Shining Lights

There’s an old Sesame Street song entitled “One of These Things is Not Like The Other” in which the cast member muppet singing the song, asks children to look at a group of three things and decipher which item is different from the other two in some way.

For some reason, that song rings to mind occasionally with announcements and accomplishments of WinStar Farm, the racing and breeding operation based in Versailes Kentucky. WinStar Farm is one of the more successful teams in racing and breeding this year. They won the Kentucky Derby (gr. 1) presented by Yum! Brands with their home-bred son of the late Maria’s Mon, Super Saver. Five weeks after the Kentucky Derby, they won the third leg of the Triple Crown when their Drosselmeyer takes the Belmont Stakes. Drosselmeyer was not bred by WinStar, but is by one of the industry’s leading sires, Distorted Humor. Distorted Humor, by the way, stands at WinStar Farm.

Distorted Humor heads the roster of six stallions at Winstar, along with two-time Breeders’ Cup Champion and Horse of the Year Tiznow, 2004 Sprint Champion Speightstown, Sharp Humor and Spring at Last. And lest we forget the youngster in the group, Bluegrass Cat, who is currently the third leading first crop sire with more than $350,000 in progeny earnings.

If success in the stallion barn and on the track aren’t enough for WinStar Farm, they also sold a Fasig-Tipton Saratoga Select Yearling Sale session topper Aug. 10 for $800,000. A son of Zenyatta’s sire, Street Cry, the sales ticket on the colt was signed by one of the leading buyers in the world, John Ferguson, the bloodstock manager for Sheikh Mohammed al Maktoum.

Now back to the Sesame Street song. Which of these things is not like the other? Also among the WinStar items making news this year are Kim Magan of Orfino, Idaho winning the WinStar sponsored online contest for Drosselmeyer’s horse shoes; Gerald Zebell of Arlington Heights, Illinois winning the contest to name Super Saver’s half-brother. The winning name was Superfection. And more recently making the news, is the adoption and subsequent retirement of Super Saver’s full brother, Hedge Fund.

So why is perhaps the most successful Kentucky-based racing and breeding operation of the year, spending so much marketing effort on fan contests and retired race horses?

Elliott Walden Jr., the WinStar Farm Vice President and Racing Manager explained that they had several goals at the beginning of 2010. Among them was fan relations and interaction. “When it makes sense for the farm, we want the regular fan to have a chance to see and experience this business,” Walden explained to The Brock Talk.

The probability that a Kim Magan or a Gerald Zebell will bring a broodmare to WinStar Farm and a check for $100,000 to breed to Distorted Humor, is unlikely admits Walden. But that is not the purpose of those marketing dollars and hours of effort. “We have always felt that the more we can do for the business the better,” Walden explained. And that is exactly why the farm adopted and retired Hedge Fund among others.

“We feel very strongly that we have to take care of own,” Walden said. “That is why last year we adopted and retired Lord of the Game”, a brother to WinStar stallion Bluegrass Cat.

In the end, Hedge Fund’s adoption and retirement nor Ms. Magan’s Drosslelmeyer horse shoes will make many headlines, nor save the industry in some super hero fashion. Kentucky Derby winner Super Saver many not have been a Triple Crown winner either. But the impact the folks at Winstar Farms are having on racing is going far beyond the six-figure breeding contracts, Kentucky Derby wins or gavels dropping on millions of dollars in yearling sales.

The WinStar Farm impact is also reaching out to the fans. The WinStar impact is reaching out to retired race horses. The WinStar impact - in some cases - is probably also having a negative influence on the farm's short term bottom line.

Let's hope it catches on.

Click here to register for the WinStar Daily Pick 5 Contest with a grand prize of box seats at the 2010 Breeders' Cup.

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Gio Point To Fight History As Much As Rivals in Arlington Million

Gio Ponti, the Champion Older Male and Champion Grass Male of 2009, tries to make history Saturday at Arlington Park near Chicago. Should Gio Ponti (photo right) win the grade 1 Arlington Million on turf, he would become the first horse to win the 1-1/4 race in consecutive years in the 27 previous runnings of the race.

Horse of the Year John Henry won the inaugural Arlington Million in 1981 with a historically thrilling nose victory over The Bart (photo left), and again in 1984. But John Henry missed the second running of the Arlington Million due to injury and was upset by European invader Tolomeo in 1983.

Powerscourt remains the only horse to cross the finish line first in consecutive years, but his 2005 victory came a year after being disqualified from first and placed fourth for interference in the stretch of the Arlington Million. Ironically, Powerscourt is not the only horse to be disqualified from the Arlington Million winner's circle after being the first to cross the wire. In fact, in happened in two consecutive runnings.

In 2003, Storming Home hit the wire in front, but without carrying jockey Gary Stevens. Just moments before the wire - looking as if he was a sure winner, Storming Home ducked sharply, unseating Stevens. Stevens suffered several injuries, including a collapsed lung, and second-place finisher Sulamani was given the victory.

The Arlington Million has a solid history through it’s 28 runnings (the race was not run in 1998 or ’99) with 19 Champions representing 23 year-end honors after racing in the Million. The most celebrated of those, of course, is John Henry who garnered two Horse of the Year honors, three Champion Grass Male and two Champion Older Horse Eclipse Awards at the end of the three years he competed in the Arlington Million. John Henry was also the Champion Grass Horse in 1980, the year before the first Arlington Million.

Hall of Fame trainers Charlie Whittingham and Ronald McAnally have won the Arlington Million three times and jockeys Laffit Pincay Jr., Gary Stevens, Cash Asmussen, Jerry Bailey and Jose Santos have each won two. Manila, Estrapade, Steinlein, Star of Cozzene and Golden Pheasant are among the thoroughbreds who have stood in the Arlington Park winner’s circle following the million.

Yet with all of that history, the Arlington Million has never produced a winner of the Breeders’ Cup Turf (gr. 1) in the same year. Manila is the only horse to win both races having won the Breeders’ Cup Turf in 1986 before going to Chicago win the million the next year. Breeders’ Cup Turf winners Theartical (1987) and Northern Spur (’95) lost the Million in the same year as their Breeders' Cup victories; and English Channel won the 2007 Breeders’ Cup Turf after finishing 4th in the ’06 Arlington Million.

Last year Gio Ponti rattled off consecutive grade 1 victories on turf on his way to his championships. This year he is hoping to win his second consecutive major after winning the grade 1 Man o’ War Stakes at Belmont Park and begin a new streak. He has endured losses this year with a runner-up finish in the Manhattan (gr. 1) on Belmont Stakes day and fourth in the Dubai World Cup (gr. 1UAE) in March in Dubai.

This year Gio Ponti will be facing a field of nine others including European Invaders Summit Surge, Tazeez and Debussy. Although most of the competition figures to come from Just As Well and General Quarters from the domestics. Just As Well was second in the Arlington Million last year and more recently runner-up in the the local Arlington Handicap (gr. 3T) while General Quarters counts the Woodford Reserve (gr. 1T) at Churchill Downs among his recent wins.

At 7-5 in the morning line, Gio Ponti certainly looks like the most probable winner. But if history teaches us anything, normality is not to be counted on in the Arlington Million.

Monday, August 16, 2010

Azeri Recognized With First Ballot Induction

Interactif’s thrilling finish over Grand Rapport in the grade 2 National Museum of Racing Hall of Fame Stakes at Saratoga Friday was a fitting tribute to the 2010 class of inductees. The 3-year-old Todd Pletcher trainee made his first trip to the winner’s circle this year while holding off the late charge of the runner-up after battling third-place finisher Krypton throughout the stretch. While the effort will certainly not qualify Interactif for Hall of Fame induction, the victory was a fitting tribute.

Among the 2010 National Museum of Racing Hall of Fame inductees are thoroughbreds Azeri, Point Given, Best Pal and Harry Bassett; jockeys Randy Romero and Donald Pierce; and Michael Millerick the trainer of Native Diver, 53 other stakes winners and the winners of 1,886 races.

Certainly all are deserving of the Hall of Fame notoriety, but among this year’s class, Azeri is the standout as the only “first ballot” inductee in the group.
Retired as the richest female in North American history with just more than $4 million in earnings, (since passed by Zenyatta with more than $6.2 million), Azeri won 17 of 24 career races including eleven grade 1 events. She won the grade 1 Apple Blossom Handicap at Oaklawn Park three consecutive years from 2002-04 and won several graded races multiple times including the Milady, Vanity and Clement L. Hirsch.

She won 2002 Breeders’ Cup Distaff in the middle of an eleven-race streak of victories against graded competition, was named the Horse of the Year in 2002 and Champion Older Filly or Mare three times.

Azeri was trained by Laura de Saroux during her first 16 races but was transferred to the barn of D. Wayne Lukas for her 2004 campaign. Lukas tried Azeri twice against males finishing eighth in the Metropolitan Handicap and fifth to Ghostzapper in the Breeders’ Cup Classic. But she never raced outside of grade 1 company that year winning the Personal Ensign and Go For Wand in New York and of course her three-peat in the Apple Blossom in Arkansas.

Home-bred by Allan Paulson and later owned by his living trust after his passing, Azeri was the daughter of Jade Hunter, a less than spectacular son of Mr. Prospector. When she retired after the Breeders’ Cup Classic, there was little doubt she had produced one of the greatest campaigns by a female in racing history. She was the wagering favorite in 17 of her races and the odd-on choice in 15 of those. She only finished worse than second three times with two of those race coming against males.

She was a dominant runner during her era and rightfully mentioned among some of the best fillies and mares ever to race. And that’s why she was elected on the first ballot.

Friday, August 13, 2010

Brock Talks Brock

One of the more intriguing aspects of racing at Del Mar and Saratoga is the two-year-racing and the preliminary search for the industry’s next stars. Last year Preakness (gr. 1) and Haskell Invitational (gr.1) winner Lookin at Lucky and future Santa Anita Derby (gr. 1) champion Sidney’s Candy were racing at Del Mar while Kentucky Derby (gr. 1) presented by Yum! Brands winner Super Saver, Florida Derby (gr. 1) winner Ice Box and Wood Memorial (gr. 1) winner Eskendereya were racing at Saratoga. In the last 25 years or so, champions such as Secretariat, Ruffian, Affirmed, Point Given, A.P. Indy, Manila, Serena’s Song and Mom’s Command - to name just a few - have started at Del Mar or Saratoga as juveniles.

That is what makes maiden special weight races and 2-year-old stakes so special about these two tracks. With each winner, one has to wonder if they have just seen a future champion or Kentucky Derby winner.

Last year this blog latched onto a young Backtalk (photo above) after he broke his maiden at Churchill Downs in June as we were able to follow him all the way to his start in the Kentucky Derby. Backtalk finished last in the Derby, but he gave us a heck of a fun ride on the way. He was even one of the last horses to qualify for the Run for the Roses in the days just before the race. Make no mistake, I did not find Backtalk through meticulous pedigree research, work or race analysis. I stumbled upon him while writing a blog about the young stallion career of Kentucky Derby winner Smarty Jones, the sire of Backtalk.

Having admitted to my less than academic approach to picking intriguing 2-year-olds, let me tell you Hall of Fame St. Louis Cardinal Lou Brock (photo left) is my all-time favorite baseball player. That awkward transition can be explained by my intrigue with a 2-year-old first time starter in Saratoga’s eighth race Saturday. Again I assign a greater than normal significance on my name and Brock, breaking from the six post position in the 8th race at Saratoga, has my attention.

Beware there is not a long history of successful Brocks in this world. Other than Lou, the most successful Brocks in sports were 1970s-80s NFL interior line brothers Stan and Pete Brock. Quarterbacks Dieter Brock and Brock Berlin were less notable. But if the horse resembles UFC Heavyweight Champion Brock Lesnar (photo right), (in terms of competitiveness at least), the Asmussen camp should be happy. Whether he does it as cool as Brock Reynolds from the Young and the Restless, that remains.

All self importance aside though, Brock the thoroughbred has several notable qualities. The Steve Asmussen-trained son of leading sire Distorted Humor sold for $2,300,000 at the Fasig-Tipton Selected Two-Year-Olds in Training Sale, held at Calder Race Course near Miami in February.

Purchased by Rachel Alexandra owners Stonestreet Stables, Brock was impressive in the sale’s under-tack show working an eighth of a mile in :10-3/5 seconds. But in ten official works from May through July, he had done nothing to light up the morning work tabs. Now in his two most recent morning works in August, he seems to have come alive.

His bloodlines indicate that he may need a longer race than the six furlongs he runs Saturday in his first race. His dam, Tomisue’s Delight, won $1.2 million at the track and multiple grade 1 races at a mile or further including the Ruffian Handicap at Belmont and the 10 furlong (1-1/4 mile) Personal Ensign at Saratoga. Tomisue’s Delight is by Belmont winner and leading sire A.P. Indy and is also a full sister to 2003 Horse of the Year Mineshaft. As a broodmare, Tomisue’s Delight, who died of complications from colic in 2008, also produced multiple grade 1 winner Mr. Sidney and multiple stakes placed Save Big Money. So she had the potential to match her race record with her production as a broodmare.

Sire Distorted Humor stands for a $100,000 fee at Winstar Farm in Versailles, Kentucky and was the second leading sire in terms of total offspring earnings in 2009 with nearly $9.9 million. He is also the sire of 2003 Kentucky Derby winner Funny Cide and millionaires Flower Alley, Regal Ransom, Hystericalady, Commentator among others.

Brock is the second choice in the Saratoga morning line at 3-1 behind Stay Thirsty, the Todd-Pletcher trained second-time starter at 8-5. Ironically, Stay Thirsty sold in the same Fasig-Tipton Selected Two-Year-Old in Training Sale in Florida and had the gavel drop at $500,000 when purchased by Repole Stable. It also looks like these two are the ones to beat with co-third choices Etheeb and Heisman both at 10-1 odds.

Whether Brock wins Saturday or not (for the record I’m betting him), may be inconsequential in the long term of his racing career. Remember that Ice Box was seventh and fifth beaten more than 14 lengths in two Saratoga maiden races last year. This race may not be like Silver Charm breaking his maiden at Del Mar in 1986 or even meet the high future standards of a Dublin or Stately Victory breaking their maidens at Saratoga last year.

But for now – I got my Derby horse.

Monday, August 9, 2010

The Zenyatta Show Goes Much Longer Than the Expected Two Minutes

Sometimes the intangible, or at the very least less measurable definitions of greatness are the most obvious. While the streak of 18 undefeated career races no doubt defines the greatness of Zenyatta most definitely, it is her charisma that will forever be noted in the annals of the great mare.

Like some of her great human counterparts known as rock stars, Zenyatta can be measured by the length of her show. Like any historically anticipated entertainment or sporting event, of which I consider Zenyatta races to be now, the show begins long before the star comes on stage. Just the excitement of the crowd at Del Mar from the apron to the paddock hours before Zenyatta’s race exemplifies her popularity.

But when the big mare arrives, the show begins as she struts and paws around the walking ring near the saddling enclosure. But that is just the preliminary to the post parade and warm up where she adds some swaying and pre-race posing to her repertoire. Even her return to the winner’s after the race gets extended to include a stretch run long encore, that if not for a picture, the next race and her date with a big bucket of hot mash, could and would last much longer.

What’s next for Zenyatta? Possibilities include the $350,000 Beldame (gr. 1) at Belmont Park Oct. 2 or the $250,000 Zenyatta Breeders’ Cup (gr. 1) at Santa Anita during Oak Tree the same day. My vote? Take her to New York. If for no other reason than to see what a welcome a Belmont Fall crowd would bring. Do you think they would eclipse the 32 thousand fans that came to Del Mar Saturday? Get outta here!

Other Thoughts, Comments and Questions.
With victories this weekend by Secret Gypsy in the Honorable Miss Handicap (gr. 2), Majestic perfection in the Alfred G. Vanderbuilt Handicap (Gr. 2) and Concord Point in the West Virginia Derby (gr. 2), Iowa racing took a big step in credibility. Each of those horses had made their last start during Prairie Meadows’ Iowa Festival of Racing June 25 in ungraded, but relatively rich stakes. Concord Point won the $250,000 Iowa Derby, Majesticperfection crushed the Iowa Sprint Handicap and Secret Gypsy won the Saylorville Stakes. Here’s hoping the American Graded Stakes Committee closely examines these races at the Altoona, Iowa track when passing out the graded stakes honors for 2011… Doesn’t being at the top of the handicap division dictate carrying the most weight? In no way criticizing Blame’s nose victory over Quality Road, but it should be noted that Blame carried five pounds less than high weight Quality Road. A notable point in what is known as the “handicap” division. It’s really a mute point because Blame is apparently headed to the Jockey Club Gold Cup (gr. 1) at Belmont Park Oct. 2 to prepare for the $5 million Breeders’ Cup Classic a month later. Quality Road seems to be taking the Woodward (gr. 1) path to the Classic. All three races have weight for age conditions, meaning assigned race weight is based on their age – not handicapping. But it is safe to say any racing secretary would be careful to assign the six pound swing Blame would need to carry more than Quality Road. And by-the-way, both Quality Road and Blame are 4-year-olds so they will likely be toting the same weight in their next match up… Horse racing took a hit when top turf mare Tuscan Evening collapsed and died during training at Del Mar Sunday due to an apparent heart attack… 2009 Horse of the Year Rachel Alexandra put in a stellar work on the Oklahoma Training Track at Saratoga Monday morning. With jockey Shaun Brigmonhan aboard she went six furlongs (3/4 of a mile) in 1:12.96 but did so impressively according to reports. After the work trainer Steve Asmussen said “Shaun did a great job with her. She was very strong to the pole, broke off at the three-quarters. Her first eighth of a mile was excellent, to get her to settle down. She came home the last quarter in :23 and change, which is what we were looking at, and galloped out strong.” Rachel Alexandra is preparing for the grade 1 Personal Ensign Stakes at Saratoga August 29 in her first attempt at 1-1/4 miles. Fans can more closely follow Rachel Alexandra on her “Rachel’s Sandbox” website. Asmussen also said at the barn this morning that Majesticperfection will likely to pointed to the grade 1 Vosburgh at Belmont Oct. 2 in preperation for the Breeders' Cup Sprint at Churchill Downs Nov. 7.

Rex Cox and Family Fundraiser.

On Saturday, May 22, 2010, Rex, Teresa & Justin Cox of Lipan, Texas were in an automobile accident caused by a drunk driver. Rex’s legs were crushed, and he has had multiple surgeries to save and repair his legs. His recovery will be long and difficult. Please join us in a show of support for Rex and his family during this difficult time through your donation. Your generosity is greatly appreciated.

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Friday, August 6, 2010

Whitney Has All The Feel of NFL Training Camp

With National Football League training camps at full swing, many around the country have their attention on grown men trying to prove themselves to their coaches, teammates and fans. It just so happens that at the prestigious upstate New York racing haven known as Saratoga, we have nearly the same thing in the $750,000 Whitney Handicap - older horses trying to prove themselves as big league performers.

The grade 1 race at 1-1/8 miles on the main track at Saratoga features arguably three of the top five older horses in North America in Quality Road, Blame and Musket Man plus 2009 Kentucky Derby winner Mine That Bird as well as rising stars Haynesfield and Jardim.

The leader of the pack is without doubt Quality Road, who has been blazing through 2010 like he has some kind of equine chip on his horse shoulder. He has won all three of his starts this year – all in graded races - all impressively. In fact, during those three races, he has only been headed by another horse for about the first half-mile in the Donn Handicap (gr. 1) at Gulfstream Park in February. He went on to win that race by nearly 13 lengths while running the second fastest Donn in history achieving an eye-popping 121 Beyer Speed Figure.

That race was sandwiched between wire-wire victories in the grade 3 Hal's Hope Stakes at Gulfstream Park in January and the Metropolitan Handicap (gr. 1) at Belmont Park in May.

After a 3-year-old year in which he was scratched from the Triple Crown trail just days before the Kentucky Derby (gr. 1) presented by Yum! Brands as the potential favorite, Quality Road came back to the races last year at Saratoga with a vengeance to win the grade 2 Amsterdam at Saratoga in track record time. But in his next two races, he was never able to pass Belmont winner Summer Bird in the Travers Stakes (gr. 1) and Jockey Club Gold Cup (gr. 1) in New York.

However, his connections thought enough of him to send him to the West coast for the $5 million Breeders’ Cup Classic (gr. 1). But Quality Road got into a pre-race bout with the Santa Anita gate crew before taking on the starting gate itself, delaying the race and eventually being scratched. So irate about the incident was Quality Road, that he refused to board his flight home to New York days later. Instead trainer Todd Pletcher returned Quality Road to his barn at Aqueduct in a van where he promptly placed him in a camp for wayward starting gate horses.

During most of the winter, while every other horse in the barn was enjoying their mid-morning Timothy hay, Quality Road was doing time with former NYRA starter Bob Duncan at starting gate school at Aqueduct.

Unlike the Oscar winning prison rebel Cool Hand Luke however, with Quality Road it seems there was no “FAIL-yah to communicate.”

While still on probation, as exemplified by the post training hour schooling Quality Road still receives at Saratoga, it seems he is reformed and out to prove himself.

Two rookies to the national older horse league this year are Blame and Haynesfield, both undefeated in their last four starts, including two this year.

Blame brings to Saratoga the most credentials having won the grade 1 Stephen F. Foster Handicap at Chuchill Downs June 12. In fact, this 4-year-old trained by Al Stall Jr. has been turning heads since winning the Curlin Stakes at Saratoga last year. He then traveled to Louisiana Downs for the Super Derby (gr. 2) to run a very good second to a sharp Regal Ransom. Since then Blame has rattled off wins in the grade 2 Fayette at Keeneland, the grade 2 Clark Handicap at Churchill and the grade 3 William Donald Schaefer Stakes at Pimlico before taking the Foster.

Winning the Curlin Stakes at Saratoga is akin to playing on special teams in the NFL. It’s a big deal, but you just get lost in the shuffle with all the graded stakes winners at the Spa. This year, Blame has something to prove.

Haynesfield is the Rodney Dangerfield of this group from the perspective of this blogger at the very least. In blogging about his recent win over the heralded I Want Revenge in the Suburban Handicap (gr. 2) July 3, I referred to him as “Haynesworth.”

Haynesfield also has the grade 3 Discovery Handicap at Aqueduct in November in his four-race streak but the ungraded Empire Classic and an optional claiming race at Belmont are in the make up as well. He has a tendency to like to be near the lead so he’ll have to do battle with the speedy Quality Road early in the long race to make his point.

Then we have the veterans of the national wars trying to prove they can still play at this level – Mine That Bird and Musket Man. Of the two, the Derby winner has much more to prove than Musket Man.

First, Musket Man has a post Triple Crown win in the Super Stakes at Tampa Bay in February. Mine That Bird has lost six straight since taking the run for the roses including a very weak 8th place finish on the turf in the grade 2 Firecracker on the grass at Churchill July 4.

Longshot Kentucky Derby winners Giacomo (2005) and Gato Del Sol (1982) have both long been castigated for their careers after winning the run for the roses, but neither went 0-for-6 post Derby. Giacomo won his fifth race after the Derby in the San Diego Handicap but wound 1-for-7 during his career after Kentucky. Gato Del Sol won an allowance race in New York in his third start after the Derby, but had only one stakes win in the Cabrillo Handicap at Hollywood Park in 13 races after winning at Churchill on the first Saturday of May.

Mine That Bird, under the direction of Hall of Fame trainer D. Wayne Lukas this year, needs to start winning to avoid the one hit wonder label.

In terms of records and labels, perhaps Tom Petty best exemplies Musket Man in his 1989 tune "I Won't Back Down."

And I’ll keep this world from draggin me down.
And I’ll stand my ground, and I won’t back down

Since winning the Illinois Derby (gr. 2) some 15 months ago, Musket Man has taken on the best his class has to offer at the grade 1 level in the Kentucky Derby, Preakness, Carter Handicap, Metropolitan Handicap as well as the grade 2 Churchill Downs Stakes and his win in the minor Super Stakes at Tampa Bay Downs. He seems to have a propensity to raise to the level of competition, but the winners’ circle has so far eluded him at that level. The words “so far” may be the operative.

Remember nobody knew Brett Favre until his second season at Green Bay.

But unlike Mr.Favre, who is staying at home during training camp this year, this group of older horses is in attendance and ready to go in August.

Wednesday, August 4, 2010

Zenyatta Uncertainty Provides Drama For Hirsch

As of Wednesday afternoon, it is still unclear if the undefeated and champion older mare Zenyatta will run in the $300,000 Clement L. Hirsch Stakes (gr. 1) at Del Mar Saturday, but she has at least been entered. And while her potential last appearance before a California audience remains a mystery, it is clear that should she run, her competition on the track may not be her biggest hurdle. In fact, it may the track itself.

Despite passing the entry box in the Clement L. Hirsch however, it is still unclear whether Zenyatta will start in the 1-1/16th race on Del Mar’s Polytrack synthetic surface. According to Steve Andersen’s report in Daily Racing Form Tuesday, trainer John Shirreffs said a final decision will be made after the Zenyatta trains over the Del Mar track Thursday and Friday.

The Del Mar surface has again come under criticism from Southern California trainers for inconsistencies in the track and was closed for training for a day during the opening week of the seasons for repairs. “We won’t know until Thursday or Friday what we’ll do [in the Hirsch],” Shirreffs told Andersen at Del Mar. “Everything is different all the time,” he said referring to the surface.

After Zenyatta went to the track for the first time Wednesday morning, Shirreffs seemed very pleased, but would not yet commit to starting Zenyatta Saturday. In her only start at Del Mar last year, Zenyatta won the Hirsch but provided a much closer finish than anyone expected. As the heavy 1-5 favorite, she needed a furious late rally to catch Anabaa’s Creation to win by just a head at the wire.

Should Zenyatta go in the Hirsch, she will be trying to win the race for the third consecutive year – something she achieved earlier this season in winning the grade 1 Vanity Handicap at Hollywood Park for the third straight time. While the Hirsch was a grade 2 in 2008, I could only find one horse, the great gelding Forego, who has won two separate North American grade 1 races in three consecutive years. Forego won the 1974-76 Brooklyn Handicaps and upped the ante considerably by winning the Woodward stakes four consecutive years from 1974-77.

Worth mentioning is that Kelso won the Jockey Club Gold Cup five consecutive years from 1960-64 and three straight Woodward Stakes from 1961-63. However, that was before the American Graded Stakes Committee began grading races in 1972.

More historically, Zenyatta will be trying to add to her undefeated 17-for-17 record. Unfortunately for the Hirsch, the track and history are Zenyatta’s biggest challengers. Expected to offer the most competition is perhaps Rinterval, an Irish-bred invader from Chicago who just finished a very nice second to Informed Decision in the grade 3 Chicago Handicap at Arlington Park July 4. There are no grade 1 stakes winners in the Hirsch although Made For Magic won the grade 2 Milady Handicap at Hollywood Park in May and Dance to My Tune was just more than a length behind Zenyatta in the grade 1 Santa Margarita at Santa Anita in March.

It is unclear if Shirreffs is considering Zenyatta for the grade 1 Personal Ensign at Saratoga August 29 against Rachel Alexandra. Shirreffs has mentioned shipping to New York for perhaps the $350,000 Beldame Oct. 2 following the Hirsch, but has also discussed staying in California for an additional start before the Breeders’ Cup in November.

Monday, August 2, 2010

Lucky Answers In Haskell Create More Questions

No doubt that IZOD Haskell Invitational winner Lookin at Lucky stepped to the head of the 3-year-old class with his impressive run in the $1,000,000 race Sunday at Monmouth Park. The question is: Where will he run next? The most obvious option would be to stay on the East Coast and make his final prep for the Breeders’ Cup Classic in the $1 million Travers Stakes (gr. 1) Aug. 28. Another option is for trainer Bob Baffert to return to the West Coast with Lookin at Lucky and race against older horses in the $1 million Pacific Classic (gr. 1) at Del Mar the same day. There is even speculation on Daily News that the $1 million Pennsylvania Derby (gr. 2) at Philadelphia Park September 25 may be a possibility.

My money is on the Travers for a number of different reasons.

First, the Travers is run a natural dirt main track at Saratoga. With the ultimate goal for Lookin at Lucky now being the $5 million Breeders’ Cup Classic at Churchill Downs, also on a natural dirt surface, the Travers would provide the better preparation from strictly a surface standpoint. But with Lookin at Lucky having won 8 career races at 6 different tracks from ProRride to Poly-track to natural dirt from Southern California to Arkansas, Maryland and now New Jersey, it appears he can carry his racetrack with him anywhere.

With many competitors from the Haskell plus Jim Dandy Stakes (gr. 2) winner A Little Warm expected to be going to the Travers, the fan pressure will be on owners Mike Pegram (photo), Karl Watson and Paul Weitman to send Lookin at Lucky to the Travers. The fans usually don’t have much influence in these decisions however. But prestige does and despite both races being grade 1s, the Travers has the history and the prestige.

The Travers also has the attention of the thoroughbred breeders in Kentucky. There is little doubt a Travers win has a bigger influence on a stallion’s post race value compared to the Pacific Classic. And a horse can run in million dollar races for years and never accumulate enough purse money to approach their stallion value. Especially with a horse like Lookin at Lucky who already has a classic victory in the Preakness and a 2-year-old championship on his resume as well as attractive bloodlines being by the successful stallion Smart Strike who stands for $75,000 per live foal Lane's End in Versailles, Kentucky.

Lookin at Lucky is now the leader of the 3-year-old division, but has by no means wrapped up the title as Champion 3-Year-Old. A win in what looks to be a light Pacific Classic would do little to enhance those chances if Super Saver were to win the Travers. Or if Super Saver lost the Travers then came back to win the Breeders’ Cup Classic, Lookin at Lucky would be hard pressed to even be considered without a Travers win. Don’t scoff too hard at Super Saver having a big day at Churchill Downs again without knowing what the chances of rain might be in Louisville on November 6.

One thing is for sure however. And that is the Haskell seemed to be Lookin at Lucky’s coming out party. Anybody that is going to catch him is going to have to show some of that same transformative improvement that can happen to 3-year-olds this time of year. Trappe Shot (photo), Super Saver and maybe A Little Warm seem to be likely candidates now. I’m afraid First Dude will not benefit from the 1-1/4 mile distance of the Travers and Classic. Ice Box should benefit from the distance, but will need to find that kick he had in Florida and Kentucky to have chance of taking advantage. The Monmouth Park race track was certainly not conducive to his late running style, so there’s a bit of an excuse there too.

But no matter the potential, excuse or misfortunes of those left in Lookin at Lucky’s wake in the Haskell, as least they know which direction to point their guns. Now let’s see if Baffert gives them a shot before the Breeders’ Cup.