The Brock Talk

Friday, October 29, 2010

Zenyatta's Road to Perfection Has Many Obstacles, From Ghosts Past and Present

Without doubt, the Breeders’ Cup Classic (gr. 1) has given thoroughbred racing some legendary races in the previous 26 runnings. Wild Again got it all started in the wild inaugural Classic over Slew o’ Gold and a Bo Jackson-like Gate Dancer in 1984, while three years later Ferdinand carried jockey Bill Shoemaker and trainer Charlie Whittingham from the dawn of their respective careers back to the heights in the then new age of the championship event. Whittingham would return with Sunday Silence in 1989 when he defeated Easy Goer in the rematch of the Triple Crown combatants. Cigar won the memorable Classic at Belmont Park and Tiznow began the millennium with the only Classic repeat, winning in 2000-’01.

Last year Zenyatta wrote herself into the record books by becoming the first distaffer to win the Classic, but just how much more significant will a successful defense of her title will be, should she hit the wire first Nov. 6 at Churchill Downs?

First, it should be noted that her hurdles appear to be a few notches higher in 2010 than last year in the Classic despite the incredible extension of her undefeated winning streak to 19 races. This year Zenyatta will have to leave Southern California and travel more than 2,000 miles from Los Angeles to Louisville and run on a surface on which she has never competed. Zenyatta has twice won impressively on natural dirt, but both victories came in the grade 1 Apple Blossom at Oaklawn Park in Arkansas. Interestingly she won both of those races by an uncharacteristic 4-1/2 lengths, the two longest winning margins of her career. So natural dirt does not appear too much of a challenge. “Appear” being the operative word there.

It is also apparent that the 2010 Breeders’ Cup Classic field will bring much more accomplished than her foes last year at Santa Anita.

Homefield advantage and much of the wagering support will go to Blame, winner of the grade 1 Stephen Foster Handicap at Churchill Downs in June and more recently the grade 1 Whitney Handicap at Saratoga. Quality Road will arrive at Churchill Downs this year as the chiseled 4-year-old veteran winner of three grade 1 victories and not the rebellious slayer of the “big green monster” in last year’s Classic who eventually had to succumb to being scratched before the race after his failed attempt to destroy the starting gate and eat the Santa Anita assistant starters. Japan sends over their best older dirt horse in Espoir City and the sophomore crop is well represented by Preakness Stakes and Izod Haskell Invitational Looking at Lucky. And Jockey Club Gold Cup (gr. 1) winner Haynesfield and RSVP’d as well.

Regardless of the repeat angle, a victory in the 2010 Classic would seem to be more impressive than even her thrilling victory last year at Santa Anita over 2009 Champion Older Male Gio Ponti.

The question then begs of the historical significance of a distaffer winning a major grade 1 race over older males over the classic distance of 10 furlongs (1-1/4 miles).

If the Breeders’ Cup Classic is the most prestigious race in North America for older horses, then the Jockey Club Gold Cup is the race that it passed for the honor. Won by some of the greats of game including Man o’ War, Gallant Fox, Whirlaway, Forego, Kelso, Buckpasser, Affirmed, John Henry, Cigar and Curlin, the Jockey Club Gold Cup remains one of the great late season tests in the older horse ranks. Since the race was established in 1919, only seven horses have won the race twice, one of which was the great mare Shuvee, who won in 1970 and 1971. It should be noted that Shuvee won her Gold Cups when the race was run at 2 miles and the 1971 victory was the final race of her career.

On the West Coast, prestige in the older horse ranks begins with the Santa Anita Handicap (gr. 1) run each year in March. Run since 1935, the Santa Anita Handicap was the first $100,000 race in North America and has been won by the likes of Seabiscuit, Round Table, No Double, Ack Ack, John Henry, Affirmed, Alysheba and Tiznow. Jockey Bill Shoemaker won the “Big Cap” 11 times, trainer Charlie Whittingham won it eight times. But no filly or mare has won the Santa Anita Handicap in 76 editions.

The grade 1 Woodward Handicap, run each year since 1954 in New York, has once been won by a female - last year when Rachel Alexandra took the race during her brilliant Horse of the Year campaign.

The grade 1 Hollywood Gold has had three female winners including Happy Tissue in 1944, Two Lea in 1952 and Princessnesian in 1968. But again, that race has been run each year since 1938, so three wins since Walt Disney released the motion picture Snow White is less than a 1-for-20 pace.

The grade 1 Whitney Handicap at Saratoga has been run since 1928 and is perhaps most famous for Onion’s defeat of Secretariat in 1973. But the Whitney also been won by legends such as Discovery (three times from 1934-’36), War Admiral (‘38), Kelso (‘61,’63,’65), Dr. Fager (’68), Alydar (’78) and Easy Goer (’89). But the Whitney has also produced six female winners including the first two winners Black Maria in 1928 and Bateau in 1929. Other distaff winners were Esposa (‘37),Gallorette (‘48), Lady's Secret (‘86), and Personal Ensign (‘88).

So going into the 2010 Breeders’ Cup Classic it is sure that Zenyatta will have many doubters. There will be many who have never believed because of her penchant to stay in Southern California for most of her career, venturing out only twice to run in Arkansas. There are those that chide the quality of her competition during the streak and that she never traveled east to take on Rachel Alexandra.

But the historical significance of defending her title in the Breeders’ Cup Classic, should dispel many of those uncertainties.

Monday, October 25, 2010

Beware The Derby Fever After The Juvenile

If you’re planning on running out to Las Vegas to place your Kentucky Derby presented by Yum! Brands (gr. 1) future book wager shortly after the Grey Goose Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Nov. 6, beware that history is against you. In the previous 26 runnings of the Juvenile, only Street Sense has managed go on to win the Kentucky Derby the following year. In fact, the Juvenile has produced only five Kentucky Derby winners during that time.

The Juvenile got off to a fast start in 1984 when Chief’s Crown won as the odds-on favorite over Tank’s Prospect in second and Spend A Buck (right) in third. Six months later all three were at Churchill Downs for the Derby with Chief’s Crown maintaining his popularity as the favorite. But Spend A Buck turned the tables on the Juvenile winner in a wire-to-wire Kentucky Derby victory while Chief’s Crown could only manage to hang on for third. Tank’s Prospect was seventh in the Derby but came back two weeks later to take the Preakness.

In the 1986 Juvenile, favored Capote defeated Qualify but the future stars were back in third in fourth. Future Kentucky Derby and Preakness winner Alysheba (left) was in the show spot just more than two lengths ahead of Bet Twice. Bet Twice would finish second to Alysheba in the first two legs of the Triple Crown but won the Belmont Stakes (gr. 1). In fact, five of the top six finishers in the Juvenile went on to the Derby with Gulch and Demon’s Begone.

It would be six years before another future Derby winner would even run in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile but the 1988 and ’89 Juveniles did feature Easy Goer and Go and Go, both of whom would take the Belmont Stakes seven months later.

Sea Hero won the 1993 Kentucky Derby after running in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile at Gulfstream Park in 1992. However, his status as the 2-1 betting choice was deflated when he finished a non-descript seventh behind Juvenile winner Gilded Time in the Juvenile.

The next ten Juveniles produced several future classic winners and 1997 Juvenile Champion Favorite Trick was named Horse of the Year that same year. Tabasco Cat, third in the 1993 Juvenile, went on to win the Preakness and Belmont Stakes in 1994. That same year Timber Country won the Juvenile before winning the Preakness the following year, becoming the first Juvenile winner to win a Triple Crown race.

Point Given was the next Juvenile graduate to win at that level winning the 2001 Preakness after finishing second to Macho Uno in the 2000 Juvenile. Four years later, Afleet Alex was second to Wilko in the Juvenile but would later win both the Preakness and Belmont.

Street Sense was a fairly anonymous Juvenile winner in 2006 at 15-1 odds, but there was a glimpse of the future as jockey Calvin Borel steered around one horse into the far turn before returning to the inside rail to find running room and go on to a 10 length Juvenile victory. The team would repeat that game plan on the first Saturday in May to give Borel his first Derby and trainer Carl Nafzger his second.

The most recent Juvenile graduate to take the Run for the Rose is of Mine That Bird, who took the Derby at odds of 50-1. He was slightly more popular in the 2008 Juvenile with 23-1 odds, but his performance was forgettable, finishing last.

The natural tendency after the Breeders’ Cup is of course, to begin the road to the next year’s Kentucky Derby. Just remember that there is much that can happen between November 6 at Churchill and the first Saturday in May at Churchill Downs.

Friday, October 22, 2010

Zenyatta Not Haunting Away Challengers

Although we are nearing Halloween, the big, bad mare out of Southern California is not scarring anybody away from meeting her in the Breeders’ Cup Classic (gr. 1) Nov. 6 at Churchill Downs. With the connections of 2009 Champion Older Male Gio Ponti saying they are keeping their options open for a repeat in the Classic; and Dale Romans, trainer of 3-year-old turf star Paddy O’Prado, more definite about pointing toward the $5 million race, there are as many as 15 possible contenders lining up to take on the undefeated Zenyatta.

Under the conditions of the Breeders’ Cup Classic, the field will be restricted to 14 starters. Should more than 14 horses enter, the Breeders’ Cup uses a system to rank the entrants in order of preference based upon (1) performance in Breeders' Cup Challenge Races, (2) a point system, and (3) the judgment of a panel of racing experts. The field selection system will be implemented as necessary following the taking of pre-entries on Oct. 25.

Gio Ponti (right), who is expected to also pre-enter into the $2 Breeders’ Cup Mile on the turf, split horses at the top of the stretch and opened up daylight on last year’s Classic field before being run down in the final 110 yards by Zenyatta. Also honored last year as the Champion Turf Male, Gio Ponti has six career grade 1 wins on grass including the Shadwell Mile at Keeneland in Lexington, Ky., Oct. 9. But the 5-year-old has never raced on natural dirt. Last year the Breeders’ Cup Classic was run over the synthetic surface at Santa Anita in Southern California while Churchill Downs has a natural dirt surface.

Similarly, Praddy O’Prado has more recently been thought of as a turf specialist winning four graded races including the grade 1T Secretariat Stakes at Arlington Park near Chicago. But he also ran a very credible third over the Churchill Downs main track in the Kentucky Derby presented by Yum! Brands giving trainer Dale Romans the confidence to return Paddy O’Prado to the main track in Louisville.

There is even a rare invasion from the Land of Rising Sun. Looking to become the first Japanese-based horse to win and only the fifth to start in a Breeders’ Cup race, Espoir City (left) arrived Tuesday at Churchill Downs after a long flight from Tokyo via Chicago. Last year, Espoir City won the prestigious Japan Cup Dirt and is considered to be Japan’s top rated thoroughbred on dirt with career earnings of nearly $6 million. In his last start Oct. 11, he was second in the Nambu Hai Mile in his first race in five months in what has been termed “strictly a preparation for the big race (Classic)” according to his trainer. “We have been training him looking ahead to the next big race,” said his trainer, Akio Adachi, a former jockey, in comments provided by Nobu Furuta, the administrative manager of Japan Racing Association’s New York-area office.

Of course there are the other big contenders being trained for the Breeders’ Cup Classic including multiple grade 1 winners Quality Road, Lookin at Lucky and Blame as well as Jockey Club Gold Cup winner Haynesfield, Monmouth Cup (gr. 2) winner Etched and Pennsylvania Derby (gr. 2) morning line.

It’s not like a large field in the Breeders’ Cup Classic is a rare occurrence. The race has averaged 11.62 starters in the previous 26 runnings with six of those featuring full fields of 14. In the last 20 versions, only the 1997 and 2007 Classics had less than 10 starters and both of those races had nine go to post. Multi-million dollar purses will have that effect on entries.

It will be interesting to see just how many show up at Churchill Downs in a few weeks to take their shot at Zenyatta. It appears the trend towards many may continue.

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Queens and Quicksters Will Carry Female Banner in Saturday Breeders' Cup Races

Last year may have been the classic year of the female with Rachel Alexandra named Horse of the Year, the unbeaten Zenyatta winning the Breeders’ Cup Classic (gr. 1), and Goldikova taking her second consecutive Breeders’ Cup Mile (gr. 1). But I’m not sure the female dominance is over. At least there is a very good chance that the Friday filly and mare Breeders’ Cup spotlight may continue to have female focus Saturday as well during the Nov. 5-6 championship races.

Races for fillies and mares plus the Breeders' Cup Marathon, make up the Friday, Nov. 5 Breeders’ Cup card highlighted by the grade 1 Ladies Classic. The eight Breeders’ Cup races Saturday are either restricted to colts and geldings, like the Juvenile races, or open like the Classic, Mile and others.

Zenyatta will obviously be the large focus for the day as she defends her title in $5 million Classic by attempting to extend her consecutive winning streak to a record 20 races. She is expected to be the betting favorite and will without doubt be the star of ESPN Saturday telecast at least until the running of the Classic. (She is already featured as one of the first five menu items on the Breeders’ Cup home page alongside merchandise, tickets, nominations and Breeders’ Cup 360.) A Zenyatta victory will add historical significance to the 2010 Breeders’ Cup and her legacy. The Classic is also expected to be her final career race before retirement.

What Zenyatta has been to North American horse racing fans through the last three years, Goldikova has been to European fans. While Goldikova does not have the winning streak Zenyatta does, her 12 wins from 17 career starts includes 10 group 1 or grade 1 wins. She has won the last three runnings of the Prix Rothschild (gr. 1), and defeated a field of 16 males in her last start while winning the Prix de la ForĂȘt (gr. 1) at Longchamp Oct. 3. Her next triple attempt comes in the grade 1 Breeders’ Cup Mile when she tries to surpass Mile legends Miesque, Lure and Da Hoss who are the only two-time winners of the race.

Like Zenyatta, Goldikova will be the favorite and the Breeders’ Cup Mile is also her likely swan song.

Unlike Zenyatta and Goldikova, however, the fillies and mares will rely on a numbered attack in a wide open Breeders’ Cup Turf Sprint (gr. 1) on the Saturday card. Empressive Lady, Czechers, Melito, Rose Catherine and Unzip Me are the current fillies and mares likely for the Turf Sprint.

Rose Catherine and Unzip Me will have the best chance to topple the colts and gelding in the Turf Sprint which will be modified significantly in distance from the two previous versions of the race at Santa Anita. While defending champion California Flag is back, he will lose a furlong and a-half in distance on the Churchill Downs turf, which of course, also has no downhill start like the race featured over the Santa Anita turf course in 2008-’09. The favorite should be Chamberlain Bridge, recent winner of the Arlington Turf Sprint at Arlington Park, but Rose Catherine and Unzip Me both have had their share of victories this year.

Rose Catherine has won four consecutive races including The Turf Amazon Stakes at Parx Racing at Philadephip Park Sept. 25. The Todd Pletcher-trained 3-year-old filly will be making her second Breeders’ Cup appreance after finishing third behind Tapitsfly in the Juvenile Filly Turf last year.

Unzip Me, a 4-year-old filly, has won five turf sprint stakes including the grade 3 Sen. Ken Maddy Handicap at Hollywood Park on Sept. 30 in her most recent start.

While both Zenyatta and Goldikova have big challenges ahead before they hit the winners’ circle following their respective Breeders’ Cup races, their victories may be considered likely – but far from certain. The girls in the Turf Sprint will probably have a much bigger job to do to hit the line first as well. But they’ll have the spotlight and the opportunity to make 2010 the year of female again in the thoroughbred world.

Thursday, October 14, 2010

Musket Man May Have A Shot At Classic Victory

With the announcement by trainer Derek Ryan that Musket Man will run in the $5 million Breeders’ Cup Classic Nov. 6 at Churchill Downs, it may cause some to wonder exactly what the conditioner is attempting to accomplish.

After all, the 1-1/4 Classic is expected to feature the undefeated mare Zenyatta; Quality Road, who out finished Musket Man to win the grade 1 Metropolitan Handicap in July and again in August while running second to Musket Man’s third in the Whitney Handicap at Saratoga. And don’t forget that Blame, the winner of the Whitney and second in the Jockey Club Gold Cup, is also headed to Churchill Downs for the Classic as is Jockey Club Gold Cup winner Haynesfield. Representing the best of the 3-year-old crop this year, Preakness, Haskell, and Indiana Derby winner Lookin at Lucky also appears headed to the Breeders’ Cup Classic.

So why would Ryan put Musket Man against this caliber of competition, which appears to be just above Musket Man’s abilities? It is true that Musket Man has not won since taking the $52,000 Super Stakes at Tampa Bay Downs in February. It is true that Musket Man has run against many likely Classic starters and has failed to defeat them. It is true that there are other, less intimidating, options for Musket Man on Breeders' Cup Day - notably the $1 million Breeders' Cup Dirt Mile where he would be among the favorites.

But it is also true that in 14 career starts, Musket Man has never finished worse than third and the furthest he has been off of the winner was 6-3/4 lengths behind Mine That Bird last year in the Kentucky Derby presented by Yum! Brands. Five of his last eight races have been against grade 1 competition with two additional starts against grade 2 company. His only start in an ungraded race since January of last year, was in his Super Stakes win.

And there are some very interesting Breeders’ Cup Classic trends that say the that Ryan and owners Eric Fein and Vic Carlson would be remiss for not allowing Musket Man the chance at an upset in the Classic.

According to this year’s edition of Crushing The Cup, the favorite has done very well in the Breeder’s Cup Classic, winning eight of the 26 Classics, for a respectable 31% win rate. But only three of the last 12 favorites, including Zenyatta last year, have made it to the winners’ circle. Ghostzapper won the 2005 Classic paying $7.00 as the favorite and St. Liam won the Classic the following year and returned $6.80. During that 12-year span, the average winning payout was $23.73 with the longest payout being Volponi, who paid $89.0 after winning the 2002 Classic.

Don’t forget that Musket Man has plenty of high quality credentials on his racing resume as well. The four-year-old son of Yonaguska and the Fortunate Prospect mare Fortuesque has earned more than $1.2 million in his 14-race career against some of the top competition of his class. He was third in both the Derby and Preakness last year after winning the grade 3 Tampa Bay Derby and grade 2 Illinois Derby at Hawthorne before shipping to Kentucky.

In two of Musket Man’s few races this year with less than triple digit Beyer Speed figures, he ran a 99 in the Super Stakes and a 95 assigned to him after a troubled trip over the slop in the grade2 Churchill Downs in May.

In his most recent race, the Monmouth Cup Oct. 9, Musket Man’s stalking running style got compromised by a lumbering slow pace by eventual winner and defending champion Etched. Musket Man was also forced four or five-wide turning for home and still managed to muster a challenge but not pass the fast moving Etched. Musket Man was the odds-favorite to win the Monmouth Cup and that may not speak well for his Classic chances. But this less than grueling stroll of a $300,000 Monmouth Cup might just be exactly what the trainer ordered to set the team on course of the much richer Classic.

Financial backers of Musket Man in the Classic may get better than what they ordered as well. Zenyatta should again be the favorite and will likely be over bet because of her popularity. It is not likely that Musket Man will become more popular than Lookin at Lucky, Quality Road or Blame; and possibly Japanese invader Espoir City, winner of the prestigious Japan Cup Dirt in December, will garner his share of the Classic wagering. That leaves little chance that Musket Man will fall below 12-to-1 and will likely be closer to 20-to-1. That could result in some solid profit.

There is a lot of time between now and the Nov. 6 Breeders’ Cup and many things can happen and likely will happen as the race looms closer. But when looking for that last race longshot, don’t overlook Musket man – the horse that has lost his last five races but still may have his best shot at Churchill Downs.

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Don't Let Facts Get In The Way of Secretariat's Truth

Hollywood’s Secretariat, recently released by Disney Studios, has all of the little factual hiccups that horse racing fans will notice but soon forget as the movie tells the remarkable story of what many consider to be the best thoroughbred race horse of all time. Based on the true story of then Colorado housewife Penny Chenery-Tweedy (Diane Lane), who assumed responsibility of her ailing father’s (Scott Glenn) Virginia-based farm Meadow Stable, the movie tells the story of Secretariat very well from the famous coin toss, to his first steps as a foal, training and racing through the Triple Crown.

One might not expect much drama from a movie where everybody knows the ending, but it’s the journey to the end that makes this movie so enjoyable. Lane remarkably portrays Chenery’s struggles against the male dominated world of horse racing and the conservative members of her own family including her husband Jack Tweedy (Dylan Walsh) and brother Hollis Chenery (Dylan Baker). On her mission to save the family farm and keep Secretariat, Chenery aligns with trainer Lucien Laurin (John Malkovich), Meadow Stables’ longtime secretary Elizabeth Ham (Margo Martindale), groom Eddie Sweat (Nelsan Ellis) and jockey Ron Turcotte, (played by real jockey Otto Thorwarth).

It is a movie that will gnaw at the side of horse racing purist with a few creative liberties taken by director Randall Wallace, the Oscar and Golden Globe-nominated screenwriter of the global hit “Braveheart,” but the acting, direction, cinematography and screen play by Mike Rich will quickly overcome any and all of that. Technically, the movie is “suggested” by the book Secretariat: The Making of a Champion by William Nack. In the movie, Nack is smartly played by Kevin Connally of Entourage fame alongside Eric Lange as Andy Beyer.

Wallace has made it clear that he did not want to create a documentary. Rather he wants to introduce or re-introduce the audience, “to the deeper truth of what Secretariat and Penny accomplished,” he said in final production notes. That goal is clearly achieved with the obstacles set by husband Jack; brother Hollis; Ogen Phipps (James Cromwell); Sham and his bravado trainer, Frank “Pancho” Martin (Nestor Serrano).

Some battles accentuate Chenery’s strength in many confrontational scenes where she takes on everyone from the family trainer, to Turcotte, to Phipps-more throughout the movie. Lane is masterful in portraying Chenery’s cleverness during the pre-race press conferences and Rich’s screenplay is on target in portraying the horsemanship she had learned from her father that gave her the conviction place such a gamble on a horse. The most subtle aspects of Lane’s performance is perhaps the most important, as her character was elogent, intelligent and classy in nearly every scene.

I was a little disappointed the Belmont scene did not really portray his true dominance in that race, but the cinematography crew had their shining moment here with an isolation head-on shot that is sure to make you stop chewing you popcorn. Wallace creatively uses the actual television broadcast footage of the Preakness and brilliantly seemed to inter-disperse original audio from NRA track announcer Chick Anderson with a talent that sounded eerily similar.

Laurin and Mrs. Ham provide the needed Disney levity with well played slap stick moments centered around Laurin faults in men’s style – in particular, the hats. Malkovich is brilliant throughout playing a lighter and more vulnerable character in Laurin who you laugh at and not with. And two thumbs to Thorwarth. His riding ability was an obvious plus and he was very believable as a cantankerous but tactful Turcotte.

I must disclose that I can’t watch the original Secretariat Belmont Stakes footage without tearing up before they go four furlongs. One of my favorite moments in racing came discussing the Belmont Stakes with Ron Turcotte and asking what he looking at over his left shoulder in the famous finish line shot. “I’m looking at the timer on the tote-board” Turcotte told me. “I’m like everyone else. I can’t wait to see how fast Big Red was going.”

I was 13 when Secretariat won the Kentucky Derby in 1973 and I was a veteran of four Kentucky Derbies via the 1973 miracle of Jack Whitacker, Hayward Heybrown, et. al. and CBS Sports. So I was pretty much sold on the story before I walked into the theater. But this film sold me on the rest. And really, Diane Lane, John Malkovich and Secretariat are all you need to know as motivation to see this film.

Secretariat is a typical family feel good Disney movie. But it really is a well done film and exciting tribute to Secretariat and Mrs. Chenery.

Wednesday, October 6, 2010

Not Apocalypse Now nor Anytime Soon

The Major League Baseball playoffs began Wednesday with a triple-header of games telecast from Tampa Bay, Philadelphia and the Twin Cities of Minnesota. All games were available on the cable channel TBS. Tropicana Field in South Florida was not sold out for game 1 between Texas and Tampa Bay in a market that has been plagued by tiny crowds throughout the season.

The NFL has had six blackout games in the first four weeks of the 2010 season. Blackouts are mandated in the home TV market when teams fail to sell out the stadiums 72 hours before kickoff. This year the NFL is on pace for an increase over the 22 games blacked out last season, the highest number in five years. This year, cities with NFL play-off teams last year such as Cincinnati, San Diego and Phoenix, have all experienced blackouts. San Diego, the only NFL team in all of Southern California, won their division last year and has had both home games blacked out this year.

Both leagues are doing very well financially, despite the apparent hic-ups in baseball’s inability to feature all playoff games on network television and the NFL’s ticket sales on a 3-year downward trend. But it does tell you that this economy has had a negative effect on some of the strongest sports leagues and enterprises and not to give in the apocalyptic prognosis horse racing regularly endures during times like this.

According to figures released by Equibase Wednesday, September was a particularly bad month for horse racing with 12.5% less days of racing in 2010 compared to the same month a year ago. Declining foal crops have contributed to that and figure to become a larger problem in the next two years or three years. That's all pretty bad news for the horse racing industry.

Encouraging however, was the fact that U.S. wagering on horse racing declined only 6.4% which drove up the average amount wagered per race day by 6.8% to $1.73 million and the average daily purse distribution up nearly 3.7% to $185,500.

Less total revenue is never a very encouraging sign for a company or an industry, but it appears the product of horse racing becomes additionally attractive as the race days decline. How that effects the bottom line of the individual race tracks and horsemen on individual basis is difficult to determine with at least some expense data. So it such not be concluded all things are good in horse racing.

But television contracts and ticket sales are a major part of the revenue streams of big league baseball and football and those two leagues are taking their financial lumps along with horse racing and other major, minor and amateur sports.

The big league money coffers are considerably larger and pockets deeper than those of horse racing, and as such, are able to withstand many more lumps than horse racing could possible endure. That much is obvious.

I just wouldn’t be looking around the local race track for Chicken Little anytime soon – unless she’s in the entries of course. But that’s for another blog entirely.

Monday, October 4, 2010

Zenyatta: So Unbelievable You Can't Believe It

To paraphrase the old 1970s Saturday Night Live character Todd, played by Bill Murray alongside Gilda Rander’s Lisa, “Zenyatta is unbelievable. She’s so unbelievable, I can’t believe it.” Does that sound trivial for such a great mare? Then take note of owner Jerry Moss, without doubt considered an eloquent ambassador for horse racing, who described Zenyatta momemts after the race by telling TVG’s Christine Olivares, “She’s unbelievable. It’s believable because I’m here. But she keeps doing it. I can’t explain it.”

TVG Host Bob Badeaker said, "I'm 63 years old... ...I've been watching races a long, long time and I can't remember anything to equal it." The ever classly Penny Chenery, owner of the great Secretariat said on TVG of Zenyatta, "it is so exciting. She’s a big glorious mare. She knows she's good. She's happy . The crowd loves her. It is just a wonderful day. I'm so glad I had a chance to get here." Then in a more touching comment she told Christine Olivares, "There is such a good feel. People who love horses... “ Ms. Chennery then tapped her heart twice, and while a little farklemt, “... right to my heart."

For most of my 30 years of adulthood, one of my favorite cocktail party questions has been, “Who are the three greatest race horses of all time?” I’ve asked this question among hall of famers at a Shoemaker Foundation event at Hollywood Park and of a similar group of attendees at a Super Derby event with Charlie Whittingham, Jack Van Berg, Bill Shoemaker, etc. I’ve asked that question at countless cocktail events at the University of Arizona Race Track Industry Program Symposium on Racing and I’ve asked the question at St. Vincent de Paul Fish Frys, boring bridal showers and honky tonks from Spokane, Washington to Slidell, Louisiana.

Two horses come up more than any others – Man o’ War and Secretariat. After that come a slew of others that includes Kelso, Forego, Dr. Fager, Citation, Cigar, Native Dancer, Buckpasser, Spectacular Bid, Seattle Slew and the likes.

I’m not sure Zenyatta will break the Man o’ War/Secretariat barrier, but she is definitely among those I consider to be the greatest of all time. And I pity those who disagree. They have every right to have that opinion, but it is a shame they can't appreciate the greatness of Zenyatta.

One barometer I will use to define the greatness of Zenyatta is ESPN’s Sports Center. There are four races that annually make Sports Center: The Kentucky Derby presented by Yum! Brands, the Preakness Stakes, Belmont Stakes and the Breeders’ Cup Classic. Occasionally a race with a funny call or unusual event like a jockey riding to the wire hanging on only to the horse’s neck, makes Sports Center as well. Depending on the winner of the Preakness, Belmont and Classic, only the Kentucky Derby can regularly be seen on the Sports Center weekend highlights Sunday night. Zenyatta’s TVG Lady’s Secret was among the Saturday AND Sunday highlights on ESPN. That kind of impact on the general sports public can not be underestimated.

The crowd of 25,800 was not so impressive, but their behavior was. I worked at Hollywood Park in 1990-’91 and would often walk through the massive paddock and wonder what it would be like to see the stairs and the walkway behind the grandstand overlooking the new paddock filled with fans. The expanse of the old grandstand designed to hold the huge crowds of the 1940s, 50s and 60s was not at capacity for Zenyatta, but it was electric. And electric fans in Southern California are rare. There are no National Football League teams able to survive there. National Hockey League fans don’t go to Kings and Ducks games just to see the puck drop to begin the game. They can hear the puck drop too. The easiest parking in major league sports is to get to Dodger Stadium before the third inning. Oaklawn Park will get that may fans for a Terry Wallace autograph session and Aqueduct will come close to that count if the weather is good.

But the numbers don’t reflect the enthusiasm as Zenyatta came home and they drowned out the race call of track announcer Vic Stoffer.

And how to you measure the greatness of Zenyatta in that Hollywood Park stretch. Switch, a 3-year-old filly that had primed to almost perfection by trainer John Sadler, turned for home with a 3-length lead on Zenyatta, switched leads and burst another length ahead. Defeat seemed a possibility for Zenyatta who confidently and slowly began to lengthen her strides – making up little ground in the first few in the straightaway. The jockey Mike Smith snapped his whip once – twice – three, four, five times and Zenyatta somehow passed the fast moving Switch.

Type “Zenyatta, Ladys Secret” into Google, Bing or Yahoo and you don’t see Daily Racing Form, Blood-Horse or Thoroughbred Times among the top visited sites. Instead you see Forbes, CBS Sports, NBC Sports, Yahoo Sports, USA Today, ESPn Sports.

Believe me. There are thousands of young sports fans out there that saw Zenyatta for the first time through this media and will bet her at any low price in the Breeders’ Cup. If she should win, they will celebrate that 5-to-2 win ticket like they hit the Breeders’ Cup Pick-6 for a mil. If they match their psychographics like I think they, they will take five friends to bet the Breeders’ Cup only to show their superior intelligence. That’s the kind of impact Zenyatta is having on the sport.

Does Zenyatta belong with Man o’ War and Secretariat? Probably not. Should she be mentioned in the same breath as Citation, Kelso, Dr. Fager, Forego, Buckpasser or Spectacular Bid? I pity those who think not.

Friday, October 1, 2010

Last Show At Hollywood For Queen Zenyatta

Zenyatta makes her Southern California swan song Saturday in career that will without a doubt go down as one of the greats of all time, when she run in the $250,000 Lady's Secret during the Oak Tree meeting at Hollywood Park.

Zenyatta will be attempting to tie the North American record for consecutive victories at 19 when she runs what is believed to be her last race in her home state in the grade 1 Lady’s Secret Stakes. Zenyatta will also be attempting to win the Lady’s Secret for the third consecutive year, the third time she will have won a grade 1 races in three consective years. She also won the previous three Vanity Handicaps at Hollywood Park and Clement L. Hirsch at Del Mar, although technically, the Hirsch was a grade 2 in 2008.

Only Forego has won two grade 1 races in three consecutive years since the American Graded Stakes Committee began grading races in 1972. 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 in the pre-graded races era.

Hollywood Park has long been considered Zenyatta’s favorite track and where she is based in the barn of trainer John Shirreffs. Although the 1-1/16 distance of the Lady’s Secret is not her best distance, the come from behind Zenyatta is expected to handle her five foes.

Reinterval, second to Zenyatta in the Hirsch Aug. 7 is entered in the Lady’s Secret for another try at Zenyatta as is her mate in the stable of trainer Eric Reed, Satans Quick Chick, winner of the Lexus Raven Run Stakes (G2) last fall at Keeneland Race Course. Also lined up to take on Zenyatta is Switch, looking for her second upset of the year after defeating Blind Luck in the Hollywood Oaks Switch is also the only other filly or mare in the field with a win over Cushion Track. Trainer Bob Baffer t tries to win his third Lady’s Secret with stakes winner Moon de French and trainer Doug O’Neill has entered Emmy Darling, a filly he claimed for $62,500 Aug. 19 at Del Mar and has won 5 of 20 starts and more than $273,000.

But everything is right on schedule at Barn 55 at Hollywood Park where Zenyatta resides in the Shirreffs stable. “She’s just getting better and better and as nonchalant as ever,” said veteran assistant and exercise rider Fred Wilson. Asked if there was more pressure on victory 19, Shirreffs replied, “No, not really. It’s the same routine.”

Routine may be the order at the Shirreffs barn but Saturday at Oak Tree at Hollywood Park will be anything but. On a card that also features the grade 1 Goodwood, a race that has produced four winners of the Breeders’ Cup Classic, promising 2-year-old colt JP’s Gusto in the grade 1 Norfolk and the grade 1 Yellow Ribbon for fillies and mares on the turf, without a doubt the star of Hollywood will be Zenyatta Saturday.