The Brock Talk

Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Horse of the Year Race Slow After Six Months

Approaching the six-month mark in 2011 and nobody has a hint as to who might be Horse of the Year. There are plenty of possibilities with perhaps even more predictions, but at the half-way mark of this second or third year of the decade depending on how you look at it - nobody has come to the forefront in the run for the golden Eclipse Award.

Three different horses won the Kentucky Derby presented by Yum! Brands (gr. 1), Preakness Stakes (gr. 1) and Belmont Stakes (gr. 1) for the second consecutive year and Derby winner Animal Kingdom is now out for the year with a slab fracture. There are no stars in the older horse ranks and for the first time in North American history, there are rumblings of three consecutive female Horse of the Year titles. Zenyatta was Horse of the Year last year and Rachel Alexandra took home the golden statue in 2009.

Preakness winners in recent years at least have some bling in their trophy cases giving Shackleford fans some hope. Since Derby winner Charismatic won Horse of the Year in 1999, (he also won the Preakness that year) three Preakness winners have been honored with the golden Eclipse Award. Preakness winners Point Given (2001), Curlin (2007) and Rachel Alexandra were all so honored without Kentucky Derby victories. The last Derby winner to garner Horse of the Year without a Preakness win was Spend A Buck in 1985.

Belmont winner Ruler on Ice also might have something going for him depending on your definition of asset. Although the Test of Champions has not produced the number of Horse of the Year winners in recent years, the three most contemporary Belmont winners to be named HOY were Point Given 10 years ago, A.P. Indy in 1992 and Conquistador Cielo 10 years before that. So if the Belmont Stakes continues its recent trend of producing a Horse of the Year every ten years or so, Ruler on Ice may be right on schedule. Which brings us back to the definition of asset.

Adding further optimism to the Shackleford and Ruler on Ice camps, Rachel Alexandra and Curlin also won only one Triple Crown race. Both won the Preakness and then showed what it takes for a 3-year-old to get Horse of the Year post Triple Crown.

Rachel Alexandra won the Mother Goose against fillies, the Haskell Invitational against colts again, and the Woodward against older horses to finish her 2009 campaign. All three of her year-end races were grade 1, at three different tracks and Rachel had zero losses on the year to boot.

Curlin wasn’t so accomplished losing the Belmont to Rags to Riches after his Preakness win. He was then third behind Any Given Sunday and Hard Spun in the Haskell. But Curlin hit his stride in his last two races defeating older horses in the Jockey Club Gold Cup (gr. 1) and Breeders’ Cup Classic (gr. 1).

Not that any of the current 3-year-old males can’t make a late season run, but Curlin and Rachel Alexandra illustrate just how high that Horse of the Year bar has been set.

As in most years, the older horse division is most likely to produce the HOY but they too have struggled to produce a favorite. Donn Handicap winner Giant Oak has lost three straight since taking the division's first grade 1 race in January and Game On Dude, upset winner of the Santa Anita Handicap (gr. 1) in more ways than one, lost the grade 3 Lone Star Park Handicap to Awesome Gem in his next start. The other grade 1 race for older horses at a mile or more, the Stephen Foster at Churchill Downs, produced long shot winner Pool Play, who returned $75.20 to his supporters that day.

Perhaps the front runners for Horse of the Year as June turns to July come from the ranks of the older fillies and mares. Havre de Grace may have the slight advantage in that division as the winner of three graded races this year including the prestigious Apple Blossom Handicap (gr. 1) at Oaklawn Park. A recent winner of the grade 3 Obeah Stakes at Delaware Park, Havre de Grace is on target for the grade 1 Delaware Handicap July 16.

Although a slow starter this year with three consecutive seconds in graded stakes, Blind Luck (photo above) remains the longtime nemesis of Havre de Grace in a rivalry that goes back to the Delaware Oaks (gr. 2) last year won by former. Havre de Grace has the edge this year, however, defeating Blind Luck in the Azeri Stakes (gr. 3) in March at Oaklawn. Blind Luck then came back to win the grade 2 La Troinne at Churchill Downs before recently defeating an accomplished group of fillies and mares in the grade I Vanity Handicap at Hollywood Park.

Meanwhile, Awesome Maria has gone undefeated in four races this year including winning the grade 1 Ogden Phipps at Belmont Park. Trainer Todd Pletcher has indicated that the grade I Ruffian at Saratoga may be the next start for Awesome Maria who was among the top 2-year-old fillies on the East coast last year.

Should a female win the Horse of the Year again this year after Rachel Alexandra in 2009 and Zenyatta last year, it will be the first time in the history of North American thoroughbred racing that females will have been named Horse of the Year in three consecutive years. Since the Horse of the Year was established in 1887, Twilight Tear and Busher in 1944-’45 respectively, were the only other females to win Horse of the Year in consecutive years, so the odds seem a little stacked against the ladies. There may not be another Rachel Alexandra or Zenyatta in this group of older fillies and mares, but they do bring enough name recognition and industry credentials to be respected.

Perhaps todays male have some respect, but none of the colts, horses and geldings racing today have quite yet obtained the credentials of some of their female counterparts. This may not quite be Tea Leoni and David Duchonvy splitting up, but it is soon time for all to step up make some Horse of the Year waves.

Friday, June 24, 2011

Birthday Horses

Yesterday was my 52nd birthday. I don’t say that insolently looking for more happy birthday wishes. I say that to make a point.

Race trackers are a good lot.

If you’re reading this blog, you probably consider yourself a race-tracker. Whether you are a groom, trainer, jockey, owner or just fan, you’re a race-tracker. If you don’t consider yourself a race-tracker,… I suggest you consider it seriously. It is a good group.

I say that based on my birthday experiences yesterday on the internet. Quite frankly, I must say, it is something that I had never experienced before - at least on the internet and seldom good - or off the computer. They are steamers, hot tips, inside track winners.

Yes, there are plenty of horseracing prognosticators on the internet. They have websites, twitter accounts and facebook pages. And there are those serous players who like to share and discuss their selections as well. Some are better handicappers than others, but there seems to be something to learn from a great many of them.

But these tips were different. There were three of them. All came from different people. All three said simply “Happy Birthday Brock” then a horse’s name, race and track. One was posted on my Facebook wall and two came via direct message. There was nothing mysterious about them. They were all just different enough to nullify suspicion.

The first birthday steamer came on my Facebook page wall. The horse was Kindersley in the first race at Belmont Park. Now I’m not one to play many tips – I’ve just lost too much money believing too many other people. I have now reserved myself to losing money because of my lack of handicapping skill. It's not much more profitable, but it feels better.

But yesterday was different. It was my birthday so why not take a shot. After all, Kindersley was an attractive 6-to-1. Unfortunately, Kindersley encountered a little trouble shortly after the break of the one mile allowance race and was never able to catch the top two and finished third. I lost my small win bet, but certainly got an ample amount of action in return.

I returned to my Facebook page with a sigh and grin and again I found two more steamers. They were sent by two different Facebook friends from two enitely different parts of the country. Both of these tips were sent to my Facebook inbox, with more confidentiality than Kendersley, who was posted on my wall. But Kindersley's effort had me in the mood, so I decided to again plop down a small win bet on each of the new birthday tips.

The first came from my old stomping grounds at Louisiana Downs and was ridden by Quincy Hamilton, a former client of mine from my years as a financial advisor. Hudson’s Creed was also 9-to-2 so again, I took a shot with a small win bet. Hudson’s Creed broke on top and never looked back and I was rewarded with for my small endeavor.

Now I had house money and it was still my birthday.

The third steamer was like Hudson’s Creed in that he was running at yet another of my former stops on the horse racing trail, Hollywood Park. Lucky Primo was the tip and sure enough, Lucky Primo won the Golden State Cup for California-breds and returned a handsome $19.00.

I must also say that these tips were not sent to me by close friends. Although additional thought says they probably should be. They are just some acquaintances of mine in the interesting world that is social media. It is interesting in that I don’t believe I have ever received three good horse racing tips in one day. It is very seldom that one good steamer is passed my way on any given race day.

But yesterday was my birthday and these seemed as unique as they eventually turned out. There may also be an old race track rule that you don’t tout some nag to somebody on their birthday. If not. There should be. Regardless, I think the whole experience says something about horse people in general. They may not always have a lot to give, but when they do, it is sincere. At least it sure felt that way yesterday.

Thanks friends.

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Heiligbrodt Dispersal Sad News For Texas and National Racing

With the special State legislative session in Texas drawing to a close, it appears there is little hope of slot machines at Texas horse and greyhound tracks in the near future. State lawmakers again have ignored the horse industries that are supposedly such a large part of the Texas culture and have again failed to give Texas citizens the right to voice their stance by vote. State Senator Jane Will, R-Lewisville, and her Bible belt colleagues continue to allow Texas dollars to flood out of the state by the millions as their constituents flock to casinos located just across the Texas border in neighboring states.

Meanwhile, owners and breeders who have invested millions of dollars in Texas racing in recent years in hopes of the opportunity to compete on an even playing field with those racing in other states, are either leaving the Lone Star State in droves or just leaving horse racing all together.

Recently, public thoroughbred auction company Fasig-Tipton announced the dispersal of the racing and breeding operation of Bill and Corinne Heiligbrodt of Houston, Texas. The sale not only signifies the loss of a nationally leading stable of significant size with divisions from California to New York, but the exodus of an industry leader nationally and in his home state. Bill served on the both the boards of the Texas Thoroughbred Breeders’ Association, the Texas Horsemen’s Partnership, is a former trustee for the Breeders’ Cup and former member of the National Thoroughbred Racing Association board of directors. Bill and Corinne were honored as the leading earner of accredited Texas-bred money in 2005 from the Texas Thoroughbred Association and in 2003, they were honored with the Western Region Owner of the Year Award from Thoroughbred Owners’ and Breeders’ Association.

The Heiligbrodts entered racing in 1988 and experienced success early when Appealing Breeze finished 10th in the 1989 Breeders’ Cup Juvenile in their white silks with the burnt orange star front and back. Bill and Corinne will leave a large gap in the thoroughbred industry as their vast operation spans racing, breeding and participating in public sales as a buyers, sellers and pin-hookers, although they may reserve interests in some aspects of the industry. Based at their Palacios Farm in Texas where they stable many of the yearlings and 2-year-olds, the Hieligbrodts also board mares in Kentucky and Texas. They also have interest in stallions standing in Kentucky, Louisiana, Florida and New Mexico.

Steve Asmussen trains for the Heiligbrodts with various divisions nationally in major markets and at home in Texas. They have many times partnered with Mike Mulligan’s Leprechaun Racing and Dennis Narlinger’s JMJ Racing Stable on various thoroughbred ventures. Golden Ballet and Cashier’s Dream were grade 1 winners owned in partnership with the Heiligbrodts while Appealing Zophie and Lady Tak won grade 1 stakes while racing exclusively for the husband and wife team. Lady Tak set the stakes record for the Ballerina Stakes (gr. 1) Test Stakes (gr. 1) in New York. Together the Heiligbrodts owned all or part of more than 118 stakes winners, of which more than 45 were graded stakes winners. They also ranked among the top ten owners nationally every year from 2007 – 2010.

Phase one of the dispersal will be held July 12 at Fasig-Tipton’s Newton Paddocks near Lexington, Kentucky and will include the sale of approximately 80 thoroughbreds of all ages. Horses will be available for inspection July 9. Catalogues are currently available at

According to a Fasig-Tipton press release, the Heiligbrodts are taking “a hiatus from the ownership ranks to devote more time to family and other business interests.” There is optimism for the industry in that they mention only the ownership ranks. A hiatus suggest they may return.

Regardless, the Heiligbrodt dispersal is unpleasant news for thoroughbred racing. This is not to suggest that the Heiligbrodts are leaving the industry based on the lack support for the equine industry by the Texas State Legislators. (Equine breeds and associations outside the racing industry stood to benefit financially from this legislation as well.) But Bill Heiligbrodt is retired from banking and financial services and the business analysis for Texas owners and breeders continues to point in the wrong direction.

It is very plausible after all, that “family and other business interest” were far ahead of legalized slots in Texas when the Heiligbrodts were making their decisions about departing from the ranks of thoroughbred owners. But other owners, breeders and trainers, are looking at that same financial future of Texas racing. And they be soon following the Heiligbodts out of Texas racing.

Friday, June 17, 2011

Foster Continues Older Horse Race For Honors

One of the best cures for post Triple Crown blues happens Saturday at Churchill Downs as the Stephen Foster Handicap presented by Abu Dhabi (gr. 1) acts as the unofficial kick-off to the second-half of the season for older males and many times, the race for the covenanted Horse of the Year Award.

While only Curlin (photo left) in 2008, St. Liam (’05) and Black Tie Affair in 1991 have been named Horse of the Year after winning the Stephen Foster, the 1-1/8 mile race on the main track has only been given the grade 1 status since 2002, some 20 years after the first running of Churchill Downs’ main event for older horses in 1982. While they have missed the golden Eclipse Award at the end of the year, recent Foster winners were division notables including Blame last year, Macho Again in 2009, Street Cry (’02), Victory Gallop (’99) and Vanlandingham in 1985.

The race for top older horse in North America certainly looks up for grabs less than six months into the year and the Foster - named for the composer who wrote "My Old Kentucky Home" among other notable songs - will likely clarify the division. Foster high-weight Giant Oak took the early lead among the older horses this year, winning the Donn Handicap (gr. 1) at Gulfstream Park Feb. 9. However, the 5-year-old son of Giant’s Causeway has since finished third in the New Orleans Handicap (gr. 2)in March behind fellow Foster starter Mission Impazible; then fifth in the Alysheba Stakes (gr. 3) at Churchill May 6. Alysheba winner First Dude will not return for the Foster, but Regal Ransom (photo right) and Equestrio, second and third in the Alysheba respectively, have both returned for the $500,000 Foster.

Santa Anita Handicap (gr. 1) winner Game on Dude is also among the tops in the older horse division, but will not race in the Foster after finishing third behind Awesome Gem and Flat Out in the Lone Star Park Handicap (gr. III) May 30. Awesome Gem will also not make the 17-day turnaround from Texas to Kentucky, but Flat Out has, and will again try for an upset in the Foster.

The West Coast will have good representation in the Foster however, as Crown of Thorns comes to Churchill after winning the grade 2 Mervyn LeRoy Handicap at Hollywood Park May 7. Once considered a candidate for the 2008 Kentucky Derby, Crown of Thorns was sidelined by injury and missed most of his sophomore year. In the last three years, the now 6-year-old son of Repent, spent his career running second in graded sprints in Southern California before stretching out and winning the 1-1/6 mile Mervyn LeRoy.

Interesting, the Foster also has the last two winners of Louisiana Downs' Super Derby (gr. II) in last year’s winner Apart and 2009 victor Regal Ransom. Apart comes into the Foster off of a win in the grade 3 William Schaffer Memorial on the Preakness undercard four weeks ago and will be saddled by trainer Al Stall Jr., who looks for his second consecutive Foster after winning last year with Blame.

Regal Ransom has a good chance to get the early lead in the Foster, a race with no real speedsters. According to Todd Pletcher assistant Michael McCarthy, Mission Impazible will also be more comfortable among the front runners but will have to try to get there from the far outside, number 11 post position. Longshot Worldly should also have a good chance to get near the front from post four with nearly every other contender trying to negotiate a comfortable stalking position down the backside.

Both Giant Oak and Mission Impazible had troubled trips in the Alysheba and will be looking for a little more racing luck in the Foster. Should either get position and a desirable trip, they both should be dangerous. It’s just that Mission Impazible will be making his move from much closer to the pace while Giant Oak figures to be closing from further back.

Stephen Foster Picks
#6 – Regal Ransom
#10 – Giant Oak
#3 – Apart

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Championship Path Can Skip Triple Crown Wins

With the less than star power talent of the thoroughbred colts and geldings class of 2011, it seems the times are ripe for perhaps a late season run by a non-winner of a Triple Crown race for year-end championship honors.

Three horses have been named the champion 3-year-old male in the last 30 years without winning the Kentucky Derby (gr. 1), Preakness (gr. 1) or Belmont Stakes (gr. 1). Tiznow was the most recent to take home the divisional eclipse award after going 0-for-triple crown in 2000 while Skip Away (photo left) in 1996 and Holy Bull two years earlier, also share the distinction.

Holy Bull was one of the early stars of the 1994 class chasing after the Kentucky Derby after going undefeated in three starts as a 2-year-old including a victory in the grade 1 Futurity. The big grey colt started 1994 just as hot, winning the grade 2 Hutchinson Stakes at Gulfstream Park keeping his record unblemished. The son of Great Above then had his first bad race in the Fountain of Youth, tiring badly to finish sixth, more than 24 lengths behind winner Dehere. But trainer Warren Croll bounced right back with Holy Bull, and won both the Florida Derby (gr. I) and Blue Grass (gr. 2) Stakes as they headed to Kentucky with jockey Mike Smith as the favorite.

But Holy Bull broke slow in the Kentucky Derby and he was never able to completely recover, finishing a well beaten twelfth behind Go For Gin. Croll then decided to rest Holy Bull and skipped they both the Preakness and Belmont.

But Holy Bull came back stronger than ever, winning the Metropolitan Handicap (gr. 1), Dwyer Stakes (gr. 2), Haskell Invitational (gr. 1), Travers (gr. 1) and Woodward (gr. 1) to end the year with a five-race winning streak and eight wins in ten starts. He also accumulated more than $2 million in earnings that year and was also named Horse of the Year for 1994.

Tiznow and Skip Away both started their championship years much more inconspicuously than Holy Bull. It took Tiznow three races to break his maiden as a 3-year-old in Southern California and Skip Away bled and was distanced in his first race as sophomore at Gulfstream Park.

Also unlike Holy Bull, Skip Away started in all three Triple Crown events after finishing third in the Florida Derby and winning the Blue Grass that year. He would go winless in the three races, however, finishing 12th in the Derby and second to both Louis Quartorze in the Preakness and Editor’s Note in the Belmont.

There would be no rest for Skip Away though, as he went to win the Ohio Derby (gr. 2) three weeks later before winning the Haskell Invitational and finishing third in the Travers behind Will's Way and Louis Quartorze. The son of Skip Trial then finished the year winning the Woodbine Million (gr. 1) and the Jockey Club Gold Cup (gr. 1) over the great Cigar.

After breaking his maiden at Hollywood Park May 31, it was already post Kentucky Derby and Preakness for Tiznow in 2000. But he would win the grade 2 Affirmed in his next race before a string of seconds against grade 1 company hit him in the Swaps and Pacific Classic against older horses. But Tiznow was not deterred and kept on rolling while winning the Super Derby (gr. 1) at Louisiana Downs and the Goodwood Handicap (gr. 1) back in Southern California. Trainer Jay Robbins put the son of Cee's Tizzy back on a plane and he soon at Churchill Downs defeating Giant’s Causeway to win his first Breeders’ Cup Classic (gr. 1) (photo right). Like Holy Bull in 1994, Tiznow concluded his year with the Championship 3-Year-Old Male trophy but the golden Horse of the Year Ecplise as well.

There are candidates for such a run in 2011 with Mucho Macho Man among the possibilities. Celebrating his real birthday (official birthday for thoroughbreds is Jan. 1) just this month, he is likely to continue to grow into his large frame and may excel on the track at the same time. He is the only non-winner of any of the Triple Crown races to start in all three this year finishing third in the Derby, sixth in the Preakness and seventh in the Belmont Stakes.

Belmont second and third-place finishers Stay Thirsty and Brilliant Speed respectively should be late season contenders with their late running styles that may have compromised them in the Belmont. Santiva, eighth in the Belmont Stakes, may be another late bloomer who will benefit running in races at much more conventional distances than the 1-1/2 mile Belmont Stakes.

There are some other possibilities for some earlier stars to return to racing after not making the Triple Crown. Rebel Stakes (gr. 2) winner The Factor and pre-Derby favorite Uncle Mo are considered likely to return. The Factor has been recovering from minor throat surgery and may start in the Aug. 27 King’s Bishop Stakes (gr. 1) at Saratoga while Uncle Mo continues to recover from a liver ailment that forced to be withdrawn from the Derby at the last hour. There may be another Tiznow out there as well that remains virtually anonymous for the first six months before exploding to success in the later part of 2011. One-time Santa Anita Derby (gr. 1) favorite Jaycito may not be so under the radar, but certainly has the potential for late season success.

There are certainly plenty of big races left on the racing calendar dispite with the less informed racing fan might think. The Jim Dandy (gr. 2) and Travers are the big races for 3-year-olds at Saratoga and the Haskell Invitational likewise at Monmouth Park. There will be plenty of opportunities for sophomores to take on their older brethren in the Woodward and Jockey Club Gold Cup in the East and the Hollywood Gold Cup, Pacific Classic and Goodwood on the West Coast to name but a few.

There is no doubt that Derby winner Animal Kingdom, Preakness winner Shackleford and Belmont champion Ruler On Ice all have a jump on the field in pursuing the Eclipse Award over all other 3-year-old colts and geldings. But they will likely have to win more than their respective Triple Crown jewels to remain in the race for the championship.

Monday, June 13, 2011

Class of 2011 Still Has Chances To Thrill Fans

So there is not a Triple Crown winner. We knew that three weeks ago. Nope. No rivalry between Kentucky Derby presented by Yum! Brands (gr. 1) winner Animal Kingdom and Preakness Stakes (gr. I) champion Shackleford either. And another long shot (Ruler On Ice) wins a grade 1 race for 3-year-old colts (The Belmont Stakes (gr. I) in 2011. And I am less wealthy because I didn’t listen to Captain Obvious on that last one.

But our three champions coming out of the Triple Crown races, each have plenty of which to be attracted.

It was refreshing to read on the Daily Racing Form site this morning that Animal Kingdom managing partner Barry Irwin is backing off of his plans to run the Derby winner on grass to prepare for a possible start in the Breeders’ Cup Classic Nov. 5 at Churchill Downs. Before the Belmont, Irwin told NBC’s Bob Costas that Animal Kingdom was headed for the Secretariat Stakes for 3-year-olds or against older horses in the Arlington Million, both grade I races on grass at Arlington Park near Chicago this summer. But Team Valor president Irwin has since told the Form’s Jay Privman that the Haskell Invitational (gr. I) at Monmouth Park and the Travers Stakes (gr. 1) at Saratoga are two $1 million races now under consideration.

What horse racing might need more than the staying power of its stars this year, is a victory by Kentucky Derby winner Animal Kingdom. Since Big Brown won the 2008 Monmouth Stakes in final race of his career, Kentucky Derby winners have gone 0-13. Animal Kingdom is now winless since his big win at Churchill Downs, finishing second in the Preakness and sixth in the Belmont after a disastrous start. Super Saver, winner of the 2010 Derby, was winless in the Preakness and Haskell Invitational before he was retired last year and 2009 Derby Champion Mine That Bird was 0-9 before he was prematurely retired.

Preakness winners have a propensity for post Triple Crown success the last few years with 12 of the last 14 winners of the second jewel taking home post season honors as the champion 3-year-old male. The only Preakness winners not to garner that award since 1997were Rachel Alexandra, a filly who was named Horse of the Year following her 2009 Preakness win; and 2000 winner Red Bullet.

Shackleford, this year’s Preakness winner, has built in popularity with his front-running style and coming from the barn of Dale Romans, which has been in vouque rightly so the last few years.

As for Belmont Stakes (gr. I) winner Ruler On Ice maintaining his popularity, his reproductive status dictates that he will likely stay on the track for awhile. The gelding trained by Kelly Breen and owned by George and Lori Hall has nothing to send him to retirement other than injury.

Not thinking Ruler On Ice can reach the popularity of champion geldings such as Kelso or Forego, but he is sure to benefit from better management than Mine That Bird, who quite frankly, should still be running with success.

Regardless of their popularity before and during the recently concluded Triple Crown races, this much maligned class of 3-year-olds still has plenty to offer racing fans. So far they have not been the fastest class of colts and geldings, but they have been relatively sound and if nothing, surprising for those of us who have wagered on this bunch.

Friday, June 10, 2011

Standing By My Man

There is perhaps one basic question regarding the 143rd running of the Belmont Stakes (gr. 1) Saturday at Belmont Park in Elmont, New York. Even though there is no Triple Crown winner to be crowned in the third jewel of the classic American series, the 1-1/2 mile Test of Champions has plenty of opportunity for definition in 2011. But will this crop of 3-year-old thoroughbreds have a stand out - a divisional leader - Saturday evening.

Animal Kingdom, winner of the grade 1 Kentucky Derby presented by Yum! Brands but second in the Preakness to Shackleford, has perhaps the best chance at separating himself from his piers. He was a convincing winner at Churchill Downs on the first Saturday in May and came back to run a strong second to Shackleford in the Preakness. The son of Brazilian-bred sire Leroidesanimaux is also the only Belmont starter other than Shackleford with two wins this year. Animal Kingdom also won the Vinary Racing Spiral Stakes (gr. 3) in March while Shackleford also won an allowance race at Gulfstream Park in early February.

Animal Kingdom has been given the respect as the 5-2 morning line favorite while Shackleford has been taken down a notch to 9-2 as the third choice behind Derby runner-up Nehro at 4-1 in the morning line. The thinking behind that might be that Shackleford had difficulty holding the lead In the 10 furlong Kentucky Derby which raises questions about him going a quarter-mile further. Nehro also skipped the Preakness after the Kentucky Derby, so he arrives in New York with some needed time off that Shackleford of which Shackleford and Animal Kingdom have not enjoyed.

Wednesday morning, one might have thought Shackleford would have a relatively easy time getting to the lead and setting a comfortable pace as he did in the Derby. However, the post position draw changed that assumption when the speedy son of Forestry drew the far outside 12 hole. Jockey Jesus Castanon will have plenty of time to negotiate where he wants to be with Shackleford going into the second turn of the vast sweeping Belmont main track, but both Prime Cut and Isn’t He Perfect have the inside track to the relatively short run to the first turn at the Big Sandy. Yes, Shackleford can rate as he did in winning the Preakness, but he will then have less control to establish a pedestrian pace he may desire.

None of the above make my top Belmont selection however, has I will remain true to a horse for which I am just waiting for his break out moment. I have supported Mucho Macho Man since his third-place finish in the Louisiana Derby (gr. 2) in March – a race in which he ran most of with but three shoes. There was concern about the six-weeks between Louisiana and Kentucky, but it did not shake my resolution as I was sure the improvement without the naked hoof would be significant.

Mucho Macho Man finished a solid third in the Derby and I again speculated on improving Mucho Macho Man in the Preakness. Difficult to say a horse may have needed the Kentucky Derby after the six weeks, but my thinking was just that. But the shoe monster struck Mucho Macho Man again as he again threw a racing plate in the Preakness while finishing a disappointing sixth.

Mucho Macho Man has new glue-on shoes for the Belmont and just as important, will finally turn three-years-old (actually) four days after the Belmont Stakes on June 15. One would think that Mucho Macho Man is the beneficiary of added maturity that has bypassed others with earlier foaling dates. At 10-1, the Belmont is certainly no time to desert Mucho Macho Man at the windows.

Another horse at the attractive price of 10-1 also has my attention is Master of Hounds. In a case of the clock not defining actual speed, Master of Hounds looked to be making up considerable ground in the final 110 yards of the Kentucky Derby. He eventually ran out of ground coming from as far back as eight and three-quarters lengths and Master Hounds should be much closer in the Belmont Stakes if he can manage to repeat the running styles he showed when second in the UAE Derby (gr. II-UAE) in March. The England-to-Kentucky, Kentucky-to-England then England-to-New York itinerary has created some skepticism, but the cool front expected to hit New York Saturda and having trainer Aidan O’Brien erase much of that doubt.

Belmont Selections
1. Mucho Macho Man
2. Animal Kingdom
3. Master of Hounds

Wednesday, June 8, 2011

Belmont Trends Say Stay Close Early

With the post positions now set and the morning line made for the 143rd Belmont Stakes (gr. I) Saturday, handicappers and prognosticators can now get underway. But before speed figures are studied and past performances perused, perhaps defining what it takes to win the Belmont Stakes is in order. After all, with the 1-1/2 mile distance, the sandy Belmont main track, the wide sweeping turns and it place as the third leg of the grueling Triple Crown to name a few of the races nuances, the Belmont Stakes is among the most unique in North America.

Kentucky Derby presented by Yum! Brands (gr. 1) winner Animal Kingdom has been installed as the morning line favorite with 5-to-2 odds. Unfortunately, being either the Derby winner or the favorite have not been so prosperous in the concrete jungle where dreams are made of.

In the last 30 years, only Swale in 1984 and Thunder Gulch 11 years later, have won both the Kentucky Derby and Belmont Stakes. During that same span, seven others who won the Run for the Roses finished second – sometimes heartbreaking seconds – in the Belmont. Smarty Jones (2004), Real Quiet (1999), Silver Charm (’97) and Sunday Silence all finished second in the Belmont to end their bid for the Triple Crown. Pleasant Colony (’81), Alysheba (’87), Charismatic (’99),War Emblem ('02)and Big Brown (’08) were less dramatic in losing their Triple Crowns in the Belmont.

Favorites have not fared so well in the last three decades either. Only six favorites have won the last 30 runnings (20%) of the Belmont Stakes with the last being Afleet Alex in 2005. Other favorites to don the white carnations in the Belmont winners’ circle were Point Given (’01), Thunder Gulch, A.P. Indy (’92), Risen Star (’88) and Swale.

Kentucky Derby runner-up Nehro has been assigned the role as second favorite in the morning line at 4-to-1. If Nehro goes to the gate in the Belmont as the second most popular among punters, he will have a considerable advantage, at least from a historical perspective, over the favorite. In the last 30 years, ten Belmont winners (30%) have gone off as the second choice In the wagering.

Although many wrongly assume that the 12 furlong Belmont plays into an advantage for closers, trainer Steve Asmussen may want jockey Corey Nakatani to repeat his strategy in the Kentucky Derby with Nehro. Previously a closer from as far back as tenth-place in earlier races, Nehro was sixth after the first half-mile of the Derby, but was just more than 3 lengths from the lead.

That seems to be the cat bird seat in the Belmont Stakes, or near that margin anyway. Looking back 30 years again, only five horses have won the Belmont virtually from gate to wire and seven others have won the race from 6-1/2 lengths off the lead or more after the first four furlongs. The other 18 winners raced from between a half-length to 3-1/2 lengths off the lead early in their victorious romps in New York.

It would not be smart to totally discount a front runner like Shackleford, however. With little competition for the front-runner position, Shackleford is likely to try to join the likes of Da’ Tara (2008), Touch Gold, Swale and Conquistador Cielo in 1982 as those who won after leading early in the Belmont. Touch Gold throws a bit of a monkey wrench into this analysis after his quirky 1997 victory in which he lead after a half-mile, then dropped back to fourth, before making another run to catch Silver Charm at the wire.

And not all speedsters are completely defeated by the long Belmont distance. Nine other front runners have held on to finish second or third in the last 30 years. In fact, in the last three years, the pace-setter has finished in the top two with First Dude and Dunkirk both finishing second last year and 2009 respectively; and Da’ Tara winning.

Preakness winners have had their challenges in the Belmont with only five winning the second and third jewels of the Triple Crown in the last 30 years including Afleet Alex (’05), Point Given (’01), Tobasco Cat (’94), Hansel (’91) and Risen Star.

Master of Hounds returns to the United States from his base in trainer Aidan O’Brien’s stable in Britain after finishing sixth in the Kentucky Derby and returning to Europe. In the last 30 years, he will be the 11th invader to start in the Belmont Stakes after traveling to New York from abroad with only Go And Go winning in 1990. Others of note were Le Voyageur, third in the 1989 Belmont behind Easy Goer and Sunday Silence; and My Memoirs, second to A.P. Indy in 1992.

The history of the Belmont is as interesting and unique as the race itself and over the last 30 years some trends seem to have developed. Speed horses, obviously, do not win the Belmont with any regularity, but they stay in the top three more often than some might think. Closers seem to have their challenges as well while staying close to the pace seems to be the winning formula.

The race has certainly measured up to its moniker as the Test of Champions as ten of the last 30 winner’s have been recognized as the divisional champion at year’s end and 59 in all. It is a large field that has entered to run in the 2011 Belmont with 12 slated to start in one of the oldest races in North America. Whether this Belmont is to be won by Derby champion Animal Kingdom, invader Master of Hounds, Preakness winner Shackleford or any other, after the race, somebody will be under the bright lights of New York and all its fame and history.

Monday, June 6, 2011

Belmont Iconic Regardless of Triple Crown

Since Shackleford dug in on his left lead in the final strides of the Preakness Stakes (gr. I) two weeks ago, holding off Kentucky Derby presented by Yum! Brands (gr. I) winner Animal Kingdom, we’ve known there will be no Triple Crown winner in 2011. It will be 33 years to the day Friday, since Affirmed and the young jockey Steve Cauthen captured the attention of America by holding off the nemisis Alydar by head to win the Belmont Stakes after taking the Derby and Preakness in 1978.

Therefor, the crowd at Belmont Park Saturday will not be as big as the crowd if Animal Kingdom had been going for the illustrious Triple Crown; and the television ratings probably won’t be as strong. The mediocrity of this group of thoroughbreds has also been concluded by those analysts who calculate such equine performance evaluations and not widely disputed by many outside the Beyers and Ragozins of the world.

But you have to give this 2011 class of 3-year-olds some credit – on many different fronts quite frankly. They have been a sound bunch compared to some classes in front of them. Arkansas Derby (gr. I) winner Archarcharch has been retired due to an injury he suffered in the Kentucky Derby, but most of the other 2008 3-year-old colt models are either still racing or in an extended pit stop.

In fact, the last three stars to leave the Triple Crown trail are all expected to return to the races. Premier Pegasus, scratched just days before going to the gate as the Santa Anita Derby (gr. I) favorite, is recovering from his surgery to repair a hair line fracture in his left front cannon bone and may return to the races this summer. San Vincente Stakes (gr. II) and Rebel Stakes (gr. II) winner The Factor is recovering from similar surgery and trainer Bob Baffert has said the August 27 Foxwood’s King’s Bishop Stakes(gr. I) at Saratoga is the target for the Arkansas Derby (gr. I) favorite. Uncle Mo, the champion 2-year-old male from last year and favorite to win the Derby for most of the winter, was scratched the day before the race not because of injury, but problems with his liver, (cholangeohepatitis for those scoring at home.) There is optimism that last year's Breeders' Cup Juvenile (gr. I)winner will again race if efforts to treats his current condition succeed.

Having nineteen from a given class start in the Kentucky Derby is nothing special, but this group came right back and filled up the gate with 14 starting in the Preakness and there are 11 probable and three additional possible starters for the Belmont Stakes. That is partially due to a lack of an intimidating star, but as Jay Privman pointed out in his Daily Racing Form column, it may be the first time ever that the first seven finishers in the Kentucky Derby also start in the Belmont. As Privman also said, even if the top six finishers in the Derby start in the Belmont, it will be history. It has been since 1950 since the first five Derby finishers came back to run in the Belmont Stakes.

This group is not the most accomplished: there are only three 2011 stakes victories between Shackleford and Animal Kingdom and multiple graded stakes winners in the class since the first of the year can be counted on one hand. Long shot winners dominated the races leading up to the Triple Crown with the Florida Derby the only grade 1 race on dirt this year with a single digit win pay-off.

Even with no chance of a Triple Crown winner, both Animal Kingdom and Shackleford have an opportunity to join a fairly elite group that has won two legs of the Triple Crown and not the other. Only eleven horses have won the Kentucky Derby, lost in the Preakness, then won the Belmont. Coincidentally, eleven others have lost in the Derby, then come back to win the Preakness and Belmont. Seven others have won the Preakness and Belmont without running in the Kentucky Derby, but all of those were in 1922 and before when the Preakness was run before the Kentucky Derby.

The last to pull of the Derby-Belmont double was Thunder Gulch in 1995 with Swale (1984), Bold Forbes (’76), Chateaugay (’63), Needles (’56) and Zev (’23) among them as well. All were named champions in their respective years.

Among the eleven to win the Preakness and Belmont after losing the Derby, ten of those were named champions including Afleet Alex (2005), Point Given (’01), Hansel (1991), Risen Star (’88), Little Current (’74), Damascus (’67), Nashua (’55), Native Dancer (’53), Capot (’49) and Bimelech in 1940. Tabasco Cat in 1994 was the only member of that fraternity not to be named champion.

Certainly though, the Belmont Stakes is an iconic sporting event in North America regardless of a potential Triple Crown winner or not. Since the race was first run at Jerome Park in 1867, 59 of its winners have been named the champion 3-year-old colt or gelding of their respective years.

Three times, the Belmont Park crowd has exceeded 100,000 on-track fans with the largest crowd coming in 2004 when 120,139 came to watch Birdstone stop the Triple Crown bid of Smarty Jones. Large crowds of between 45,000 and 70,000 are typical on Belmont day.

The Belmont is also the oldest of the Triple Crown races predating the first Preakness (1873) by six years and the first Kentucky Derby (1875) by eight years. The Belmont Stakes is one of the oldest races in North America with the Phoenix Stakes at Keeneland (1831), the Queen’s Plate (1864) at Woodbine in Canada and the Travers Stakes (1864) at Saratoga older. However, the Belmont, which will be run for the 143rd time in 2011, is third to the Phoenix (159th running in 2011) and Queens Plate (152nd running in 2011) in total runnings. The Travers has had gaps in its history and its 142nd running will be in 2011.

For those reasons, the Belmont Stakes has plenty of history and prestige and the winner will be deserving of the all that comes with winning the American classic.

Friday, June 3, 2011

Gone West

Since before the day I Are Sharp and jockey Marlon St. Julien won the first race ever run at Lone Star Park in 1997, Gary West has been a member of the local media. Before that, he was a fixture in horse racing in the southwest for the better part of three decades. The history of the Grand Prairie, Texas track and much of Texas racing can be found in the archives of his columns, articles and reports published and now stored in the archives of the Dallas Morning News and Fort Worth Star-Telegram.

But recently the Fort Worth paper made financial cut backs and Gary West and horse racing coverage were deleted from their plans. The two largest newspapers in Texas now have no horse racing coverage. With no West and no horse racing, I’m sure the Fort Worth rag will lose subscribers. But that is something they and most newspapers are very much accustomed to in recent years.

What is more concerning to me is that horse racing has lost – at least temporarily – Gary West. For the last 30 years, West has been among the best writers in the industry. It is safe to say there are few other newspaper scribes who are as devoted to racing as West. A son of a jockey and a former jockey valet at Jefferson Downs, West has been more than another member of the media. West has been an ambassador for the sport.

In the interest of disclosure, I first me Gary West in 1987 when I was a publicity assistant at Louisiana Downs and he covering horse racing for Shreveport Times. We have been friends since.

West has an endless list of appearances at Kiwanas Club breakfasts and Lions Club lunches. West would also appear in horse racing and handicapping seminars at the track, in hotel lobbies, at banquests, dinners, at three county fairs and a pumpkin rollin’ if necessary. Most of these events came with no financial compensation to, and some with investment from, West.

West has also spent considerable time walking shed rows, sitting in tack rooms and leaning against outside rails talking with owners, trainers, jockeys, breeders, grooms and exercise riders. He was indiscriminate in seeking information or just conversing about a young prospect. He has spent as much time as any major turf writer clocking horses in the early morning and sharing a beer with other horse players in the afternoon or evening races. If there was a story on the backside or a steamer in the third, West usually knew about it.

He has an accent that is as mysterious as his hair styles – past and present. He is seldom seen without coat and tie and snake skin cowboy boots and his list of contacts and friends in horse racing is as long as the Fair Grounds stretch. He has as many horse player tales as any long time punter – some of which are played out by the characters in Razoo at the Races, a novel he wrote with his friend Marvin Small. But ask him for reading recommendations and he will say T.S. Eliot’s Four Quartets before Ainsle’s Guide to Thoroughbred Racing or a Dick Francis novel. (With no offense to the late Mr. Francis or Mr. Ainsle.)

He once drove all night from New Orleans to Louisville just to watch Secretariat put in his final work before the Derby. His first $100 wager was just days later on Big Red in the Kentucky Derby. He considers one of his worst days May 17, 1998 – the day his selections in the newspaper would win race after race after race as West watched from the Pimlico press box while covering the Preakness won by Real Quiet. It was also the day Pimlico lost electrical power at the track and West spent the day watching his winning selections – unable to make a single bet. Any horse player can appreciate the irony and agony.

So here’s hoping that we’ll see Mr. West is back at the races sometime soon. Ideally, we will have his writing to read again too.