The Brock Talk

Sunday, January 24, 2010

Beware The Cajuns, The Saints Are Going To The Super Bowl.

Logic will tell you that game results in the National Football League have zero impact on a given horse race. Common sense dictates that predicting the winner of the Kentucky Derby in late February is little more than a calculated guess - leaning much more toward guess and far away from calculated.

On the first Saturday in May, when the final bets are being placed on the Run for the Roses and the field enters the gate, I'm going to have $2 on the Louisiana Derby winner. No matter who it is.

Because the Saints are going to the Super Bowl. And I think I heard the lady say "dat da voodoo be leavin' dis city too, mon."

Okay, I'm in Texas and not walking across the tiny, demonic bridge outside of the Dungeon in the French Quarter listening to a passing voodoo queen. But I think I may have something here.

As Chris Berman pointed out on his NFL Prime Time post game show last night, the relationship between the New Orleans Saints and their fans is "unique." And with the Saints headed to the Super Bowl, every New Orleans native and cajun on the planet will have a bounce in their step for the next two weeks. They usually have a bounce in their step as it is, but over the next two weeks - watch out!

Suppose you like that longshot at Santa Anita and you just can't decide as to whether you are going to support him at the mutuel windows. If he has Louisiana's Joe Talamo aboard, lean towards betting.

If former New Orleans police officer Bernie Flint wins with 24% of starters in claiming races, look for that percentage to increase over the next two weeks.

I don't know how Ron The Greek is doing two days after his impressive win in the Lecomte Stakes at Fair Grounds, but I'll bet the shed row of trainer Tom Amoss is a pretty happy place these days.

Very few professional teams have suffered the futility of the New Orleans Saints. The Chicago Cubs come to mind, but let's face it. The sports fans in Chicago have Super Bowls with the Bears, NBA Championship with the Bulls, Stanley Cups with the Blackhawks and World Series with the White Sox.

The Saints have had roughly 42 years of bad football with a few good teams and playoff appearances sprinkled in sporadicly. In an age when other cities are building new, billion-dollar sports palaces for their fans and teams, New Orleans has been repairing the damage to the Super Dome left by hurricane Katrina - not to mention the devastation to the city and the people. The Super Dome was fixed and the Saints came back to New Orleans but the city and the people are still rebuilding.

This is more than just another Cinderella story in sports. It is about something good happening to a group of people who have suffered something much more than just bad football for a long time.

The Saints going to the Super Bowl has not suddenly repaired the city, but it has given the people of south Louisiana something about which to be very excited and happy.

I don't really believe in voodoo witchcraft or subscribe to Hindu's karma. But I am suggesting that you take a closer look at those horses ridden by Kent Desormeaux or trained by Al Stall Jr. over the next couple of weeks.

Who dat gonna win da thoid race?... Who Dat!

Friday, January 22, 2010

Holy Bull And LeComte Kick-Off Triple Crown Season

The Lecomte Stakes at Fairgrounds in New Orleans and Holy Bull Stakes at Gulfstream Park in Florida, are a little like pre-season football. On the downside, not many on the first team are playing and the results will have little effect on the Super Bowl. But it's the best place to look for new talent and everybody's just happy the season has started.

Saturday, the Lecompte and Holy Bull unofficially kick-off the road to the Triple Crown. It is unlikely that either will give us any more clear indication as to who will win the Kentucky Derby three months from now, but it's a good place to start looking for the less obvious talent.

The favorites in the $100,000 Lecomte include Turf Melody, a winner of the Springboard Stakes at Remington Park in his last race; and Maximus Ruler, undefeated in two career starts but making his stakes debut in the Lecomte.

The $150,000 Holy Bull will feature Jackson Bend, who was among the top local 2-year-olds last year in Florida, but steps into graded stakes company for the first time in the Holy Bull. Grade 1 credentials come from Homeboykris, winner of the Champagne Stakes in New York last year. A victory in the Champagne is usually significant, but a poor looking fifth next start in the Remson raised some questions about our boy-ee.

Even if nobody from the Holy Bull or Lecomte makes it into the Kentucky Derby starting gate, they still present a benchmark for us to compare when the more recognizable contenders such as Lookin' at Lucky, Tiz Chrome and Dublin come back to the races in the weeks and months to come. Both of these races are designed to help horsemen prepare for the $750,000 Louisiana Derby at Fairgrounds and the $750,000 Florida Derby at Gulfstream. They can be just as much help for handicappers and fans.

It is important to also keep in mind while glancing at these less than accomplished past performances, perhaps it not wise to scoff to early.

In his rookie year, New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady had one completion in three attempts for six yards as a 6th round draft choice. He returned for his second season to win the Super Bowl.

Monday, January 18, 2010

Horses and Winners Carry Eclipse Awards Show

Watching the live telecast of the Eclipse Awards on TVG was a bit agonizing. And I'm not speaking for Zenyatta fans when I say that.

I'm speaking about the TVG telecast itself. I suspected that trouble may be on the air wave horizon when the stallion Tale of Ekati and Darby Dan Farm were the "exclusive" sponsors. Nothing against Tale of Eakati and Darby Dan Farm. Infact I salute them for stepping up. It's just that the TVG producers probably didn't have the biggest budget with which to work.

But the biggest challenges for the producers were the location and the crowd. Nearly every winner accepted their respective awards on stage with an entourage of friends, family and team members. I'm all for sharing such a special event with as many as possible. I am by no means criticizing that. But a quick mental calculation of winning entourages, multiplied by the number of nominees and their presumed groups, add a few dignitaries and journalists and I'm pretty sure you were getting close to the sum of your crowd.

The venue was terrible for live television. If one didn't know that as the famous Beverly Wilshire Ballroom, it could just as easily have been the Cactus and Cowboy Rooms at the La Quinta.

The list of 2000-5000 seat venues in Southern California is a very long one. Narrow the list with some character and historical guidelines and you still have a large choice. Specifically a Pantages Theatre-type venue. It is a small (3,000 seats) two-tiered theatre complex that hosted several Academy Awards in the 1950s. I'm not suggesting the Staples Center or the Kodak Theatre, but the Eclipse Awards deserve better than an upgraded baked chicken circuit layout.

I would think, even given the harsh economic times of Southern California, it would be possible to sell more admission only tickets to fans. I'm sure it would have been a Zenyatta-biased crowd, but a supply of Rachel fans would have been likely as well. Now you have a fluid and exiting backdrop for your awards show.

Crowd participation at this event was limited to the lady yelling "California, California!" during Will Farrish's acceptance speech. Farrish momentarily appeared willing to listen to the heckler before he realized he had no idea what she was saying and thought better of it.

And poor Kenny Rice. I had no idea the Beverly Wilshire had a cricket problem. But Tom Durkin helped Rice define the tone of the crowd in the later half of the show with some edgier humor and Rice made a strong comeback effort with a good Tiger Woods joke.

By this time in the program, audio problems had also plagued the telecast whereby any music that had played to this point was just a constant reminder that something had gone terribly wrong deep in the bowels of audio engineering at TVG.

But as our sport constantly reminds us, the horses somehow carry the show until we humans somehow catch on to their appeal. I give equal credit to the award winners and their acceptance speeches throughout the evening. Concise and most everybody concluded with something like "let me tell you a story about this horse..."

I hate to sound like Andy Rooney but... I like those stories.

Regarding the Horse of the Year Award, I made no secret that I supported the Zenyatta camp. But in my humble opinion - as somebody that has read many a blog, tweet, column and comment on the subject - it was not a slam dunk either way. So my biggest surprise was the 130-99 vote margin in Rachel Alexandra's favor. That calculates to roughly a 57%-43% tally in favor of Rachel. A wide and convincing margin.

The biggest winners of the evening still may have been the racing fans and media when during his Horse of the Year speech, Jess Jackson suggested to Jerry Moss that the two meet after the celebration to discuss a possible meeting between Rachel and Zenyatta. In his post-awards interview on TVG, Moss said "When(Rachel enters a race), we'll see what they are entering in and be alongside them in the gate."

I think it safe to say that Moss wants that Horse of the Year award in 2010. Let's just hope they try to do a little better job of presenting it.

Don't Let The Horse Of The Year Vote Ruin Your Day

Are you having a little anxiety today? Are you biting your nails a little more today than most Mondays? Is it because of that little golden trophy for Horse of the Year that will be announced tonight in Beverly Hills, Calif.? Are you just in a big old knot today wondering if it will be Rachel Alexandra and Zenyatta?

Relax it will be okay.

After months of debate in the pages of racing publications, blogs, discussion boards, Google groups, Facebook comments, and Twitter tweets, tonight the debate ends.

Some will surely experience some type of post debate depression, similar to what some suffered following the Presidential election in 2008. They should seek professional help. Because they probably have more problems. Could be issues lingering from a childhood during the Alydar-Affirmed years.

At the very least - if this race between Rachel Alexandra and Zenyatta is as close as we all think - about half of us won't be so happy tomorrow.

I'm here, however, to offer pre-Eclipse Awards consolation. First, realize that life will go on past the Eclipse Awards. If the folks in Buffalo and Minnesota can survive all of those Super Bowl losses (there's seven between the two teams) than you should be able to survive one Horse of the Year vote.

In fact, after tonight it's going to be a little better life than what most Horse of Year fans get. Both Rachel and Zenyatta are preparing their return to the races. Add to that, that they might even give us that dream race for which we have all been clamoring.

I guessing the Apple Blossom Handicap at Oaklawn Park on April 3 is as likely a place as any to host the showdown. The race is 1-1/16 miles over a natural dirt track on which both Rachel Alexandra and Zenyatta have won. Rachel Alexandra won the 2009 Martha Washington Stakes and Fantasy Stakes at Oaklawn last year while still in the Hal Wiggins barn. Zenyatta would be in pursuit of her second Apple Blossom title having won the race in 2008. Rachel won both of her races at the Spa by 8 lengths or more. Zenyatta won by nearly five lengths in Arkansas.

So win or lose we have that going for us. Which is nice.

Tonight's losers should also take solace in the fact that there have been historically good horses with stunning records in a given year, but were not awarded the golden Eclipse for Horse of the Year.

The three great mares Bayakoa (Arg), Personal Ensign (photo) and Paseana (Arg) come to mind. There's not a Horse of the Year among them. Bayakoa lost the honor to Sunday Silence in 1989, her most impressive year. Personal Ensign retired undefeated and with a stirring victory over Kentucky Derby winner Winning Colors in the Breeders' Cup Distaff in 1988. Alysheba was named Horse of the Year that year. A.P. Indy took the prize away from Paseana in 1992 with half as many grade 1 wins and just as many defeats. In reference to any of these Hall of Fame mares, you just don't hear people say, "Nice mare. But she never won Horse of the Year."

Win or lose, there is nothing the voters for Horse of the Year can do to blemish the year that Rachel Alexandra and Zenyatta gave us. So before you begin to wale or gnash a tooth tonight, just be thankful. We might be able to see it all again.

Thursday, January 14, 2010

Nakatani Move To Oaklawn Is More Than Just Change of Scenery

As Michael Chamberlain pointed out in his blog They Are Off, jockey Corey Nakatani has moved his tack from his lifelong Southern California base to Oaklawn Park this week in pursuit of increasing his chances of landing a riding assignment aboard a Kentucky Derby contender.

Although the American Graded Stakes Committee upgraded the Arkansas Derby to grade 1 status for the first time in more than 20 years, nearly everybody else in racing has long recognized Oaklawn Park as fertile ground for preparing promising 3-year-olds. Oaklawn Park department of racing scribe Patrick Pope has tweeked the stakes schedule in recent years, but the Southwest Stakes, Rebel Stakes and the Arkansas Derby have long proved popular with trainers with promising sophomores in their shed row. Omit the $250,000 Southwest at a mile in February and the $300,000 Rebel at 1-1/16-miles in March and you still have the $1 million Arkansas Derby April 10 that has produced Papa Clem, Gayego, Curlin, Lawyer Ron, Afleet Alex and Smarty Jones in the last six runnings. So it is safe to say that Nakatani will have the opportunity to latch onto a Derby hopeful while residing at the Spa.

But don't think it will be like shootin' a possum on the porch in Arkansas for Hollywood invader Nakatani. Calvin Borel of Rachel Alexandra, Mine That Bird and Street Sense fame has been setting up camp in Hot Springs since the late 1980s. Borel and agent Jerry Hissam know more about Oaklawn Park than just that the corned beef is good.

It has also been well known for decades that Oaklawn Park attracts some of the cream of the Midwestern jockey crop and that invading jockeys' noses are much better served low instead of high when stepping into and out of the jocks' room in Hot Springs. A mistake made among Terry Thompson, Quincy Hamilton, Cliff Berry, Louis Quinonez, Jon Court, Chris Emigh or Eddie Razo results in the same defeat as a mistake made at Del Mar. But trainers know that too. So to shine among that group is not without merit.

Nakatani won't have to be the leading rider to have a chance at a Kentucky Derby contender at Oaklawn. Borel was sixth in the 2009 Oaklawn Park standings and Cliff Berry was Kentucky Derby bound with Rebel Stakes winner Win Willy until a last minute injury to the Arkansas Derby runner-up forced him off the Derby trail.

Having said all that, Mr. Nakatani appears to be well on his way based on the first two days of entries at Oaklawn. The spa lid-lifter has Nakatani on five mounts in eight races for trainers Steve Asmussen, Tim Ice, D. Wayne Lukas, Randy Morse and McLean Robertson. That caliber of shed rows produce Derby hopefuls.

It should also be mentioned that Oaklawn Park has a natural dirt racing surface. That is important because Churchill Downs has a natural dirt main track and Nakatani moves from Southern California where potential Derby horses must prepare on the synthetic Pro-Ride surface at Santa Anita. Safety arguments aside, California trainers such as Bob Baffert are looking for the consistent path on which to run in preparation for Kentucky.

That dirt to dirt angle is augmented by yet another reason the Nakatani move makes sense. Southern California trainers have patronized Oaklawn Park on a regular basis even before Lukas showed up to win the Arkansas Derby with Althea in 1984 and Tank's Prospect a year later.

Trainer Gary Stute didn't come to Oaklawn Park last year to win the Arkansas Derby with Papa Clem by throwing a dart or reading a Ouachita National Forest travel brochure. His father Mel Stute, was legendary for maximizing what Hot Springs had to offer including a victory in the 1987 Oaklawn Park Handicap with Snow Chief. In other words, the boys with the tans at Coy's Steak House (which burned last year the day before Oaklawn opened) and Bel Arte were usually from Southern California. Nakatani and agent Vince DeGregory will be familiar faces for any Santa Anita conditioners coming to Oaklawn in 2010 - whether it's for the Arkansas Derby or any of the other Oaklawn stakes long popular among the west coasters.

It is an intriguing move by Nakatani to be sure. And on the outside it could easily be painted as a bit desperate by one more prone to sensationalism. But there appears to be enough evidence of Southern California calucation instead.

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Morning Line

Years ago as a young racing secretary at tiny non-pari mutuel Manor Downs near Austin, Texas, I had the privilege of becoming acquainted with Allen Bogan (photo right), the long time and legendary Texas sports writer and editor for the Dallas Journal, Dallas Times Herald and Denton Record-Chronicle. He wrote his first horse racing story in 1937, the year pari-mutuel wagering was banned in Texas, and in 1955 he helped launch the first edition of The Texas Thoroughbred magazine.

Through the years, our acquaintance grew into a friendship and eventually I became Publicity Director at Louisiana Downs where Allen was a frequent member of the press corp. I was also honored to work with him during my time as the editor, and he with his lead column Morning Line, for The Texas Thoroughbred he had created.

Allen passed away in 1997 at the age of 84 shortly after Lone Star Park opened their doors for the first time. The Allen Bogan Memorial Stakes for Texas-breds was announced shortly after his death and remains a cornerstone of the track's successful Texas Champions Day each year. With him went as much knowledge about the history of Texas horse racing as there exists.

He would write columns referencing the 1901 Goodwin's Official Turf Guide, or stories about traveling from Texas to Kentucky by train for the Kentucky Derby in the 1950s. He spoke and wrote with as much passion about the Texas-bred Friendship Stakes in the 1980s and 90s, as he did about the King Ranch winning the Triple Crown with Assault in '46.

There are many good things that can be written about my friend Allen, but this week I remember him for the same reason I think of Allen every year around this time. For it is opening week at Oaklawn Park in Hot Springs, Ark.

Allen attended his first horse race with his wife Maxine in 1933 when they went to Arlington Downs in Arlington, Texas near what is now the Jerry Jones sports palace known as Cowboys Stadium. They fell in love with horse racing together, traveling around the state to Fair Park in Dallas, Epsom Downs in Houston and Alamo Downs in San Antonio.

In 1934, the couple traveled to Hot Springs for the re-opening of Oaklawn Park and as far as I know, they didn't miss a year at the Spa for the next 60 years. In fact, while in the armed services during World War II, Allen kept his Oaklawn Park streak alive by using his only R&R time to meet Maxine in Hot Springs for the races.

When pari mutuel racing returned to Texas in 1987, Maxine and Allen resumed their racing travels in their home state. They drove to the Gillespie County Fair in Fredricksburg, Trinity Meadows in Willow Park and G. Rollie White Downs in Brady before the larger tracks opened in Houston, San Antonio and Grand Prairie years later.

My first trip to Oaklawn Park came in 1988 while working at Louisiana Downs. My steak ended just three short years later when I moved to California to work at Los Alamitos and Hollywood Park.

Having returned to Texas 16 years ago, I've resumed my trips to Oaklawn. I'm lucky to have a group of friends who have made the annual trek from Austin and Dallas-Fort Worth to Oaklawn for decades now and I joined them in 1998.

Every morning we walk across the street from our Best Western Motel, past Rocky's Corner Pizza and into the barn area. Then breakfast in the track kitchen, the clocker's stand and a shed row if we can muster an invitation. Then back to the motel to study and discuss, before we're back across the street to catch the first at Aqueduct. The first two days we camp in the Oyster Bar until the last at Santa Anita. First winner buys the first shrimp. Then we have a dinner often comprised of pizza or fried chicken and back to Oaklawn for Sam Houston, Los Alamitos and harness and dog track du jour.

Age usually forces us to dine with utensils the second night and sit at a table in the Carousel Room during day three at the races before driving back to Texas that night.

Conversations range from Blushing Groom being by Red God to Woody Stephens' five Belmont winners to "Cowboy Jack Kaenel rode Aloma's Ruler." Someone usually refers to a jockey as a "human sail" while getting split in an exacta and mustard on a shirt is just a good topic of discussion. At one time, Don Julio was our musical director, but I was forced to let him go. We have yet to have a shortage of individual or group confused states throughout the trip however.

It may not be the way everybody enjoys a weekend at the races. And I'm not sure I recommend it. But it's one of my favorite weekends of the year and I'll bet Allen and Maxine are proud of us.

Oaklawn Baby! We're going to Oaklawn!

(Photo L to R: Andy Koester, Jeff Hooper, Rush McGinty, Tommy Roberts, Brock Sheridan)

Editor's Note: We will be at Oaklawn Park February 19, 20, 21. I hope to see you there.

Thursday, January 7, 2010

Thoughts, Comments and Questions Regarding 2010

I'm feeling pretty optimistic about horse racing in 2010. With Quality Road's victory in the Hal's Hope Stakes at Gulfstream Park in the books, I'm hoping that will be the first in a long line of returning 2009 stars making their successful new year debuts.

So the new decade has started well for horse racing. But will the momentum continue? Which takes us right into my top questions as we head into 2010.

Question #1. Is Zenyatta retired?

As Steve Haskin said during his recent installment of And They're Off on, owner Jerry Moss indicated after the Breeders' Cup that she was retired. But the now 6-year-old mare continues to remain in training at Hollywood Park and certainly there has been no announcement regarding her plans for the breeding shed.

Which brings us to Question #2. If Zenyatta is retired, to what sire will owners Jerry and Ann Moss breed her?

If Zenyatta were mine and money was no object, she would be on her way to Ashford Stud in Kentucky and romance with Giant's Causeway.

One doesn't have to be a bloodstock agent to see how well this mating would fit - at least on paper. Giant's Causeway was the leading sire in North America in 2009 with $11,079,918 in progeny earnings and his $100,000 stud fee is just about the standard by which to measure stallions worthy of Zenyatta.

Giant's Causeway earned more than $3 million on the track and was the Champion 3-Year-Old Colt in England and Europe before finishing second to Tiznow in the Breeders' Cup Classic. He produces winners and stakes winners on dirt, turf and synthetics and more than 500 of his weanlings and yearlings have averaged nearly $300,000 at public auctions over the last four years if the goal is to put the foal on the market.

Despite his name, Giant's Causeway has moderate size at 16.1 hands which is desirable for a mare as large as Zenyatta. We're not trying to produce a Clydsdale here. His all-time leading money earner is multiple English and European Champion Shamardal, whose dam sire is Machiavellian, the paternal grandsire of Zenyatta through Street Cry. Machiavellian is by Mr. Prospector, whose blood runs through many of Giant Causeway's most successful get including Italian Champion Primary, multiple grade 1 winning turf specialist Aragorn, and Giant's 2009 leading money earner Swift Temper.

Not to sound too technical, but according to the Zenyatta-Giant's Causeway paring gets an A++ Werk Nick rating and would produce a foal with a dosage index of 1.80 with a center of distribution of 0.50. In other words, the colt or filly would be able to run all day and then some.

But apparently, I might be getting ahead of myself on the whole retirement issue. If Zenyatta continues to train and breeding plans aren't made sometime in the near future, I for one will start feeding the fires of the Rachel Alexandra meeting.

Question #3.
Would the real Mine That Bird, please stand up?

Host: Contestant number one, please state your name and what you do.
C#1: My name is Mine That Bird and I won the Kentucky Derby and finished second in the Preakness and third in the Belmont.

Host: Contestant number two, please state your name and what you do.
C#2: My name is Mine That Bird and I couldn't outrun a fat man in boots in West Virginia or California.

Host: Contestant number three, please state your name and what you do.
C#3: My name is Mine That Bird but I can't prove it because Chip lost my papers in Baltimore.

Question #4.
Will Lookin' at Lucky win the Kentucky Derby?

The odds, probabilities and history say no. Lookin at Lucky's only loss came while finishing second to Vale of York in a less that comfortable trip in the Breeders' Cup Juvenile, but came back to impressively win the CashCall Futurity at Hollywood Park in December. Following the Futurity, Baffert indicated that Lookin' at Lucky would probably prepare for the Derby with just two races and both would be outside of California. This would be a much different strategy than what Baffert has employed with Kentucky Derby winners Silver Charm and Real Quiet (War Emblem came to the Baffert barn just before the Derby) or any of his other Derby stars such as Point Given or Pioneerof the Nile.

Not many January Kentucky Derby favorites are in the winner's circle on the first Saturday in May either. Although the decade of the "oughts" produced post time favorite winners Fusaichi Pegasus (2000), Smarty Jones (2004), Street Sense (2007) and Big Brown (2008), one has to go back to Spectacular Bid in 1979 to find a winning Derby favorite in the previous century.

But for now, Lookin at Lucky looks to have all the parts to be a serious contender in the run for the roses.

Question #5.
Will the Rachel Alexandra and Zenyatta popularity carryover into racing generally in 2010?

That all depends on Rachel herself and the Triple Crown. One has to think that those two great mares created some new fans and reinvigorated marginal ones at tracks from California to New York. Any campaign by Rachel resembling 2009 and general sports fans and the media will begin to take further notice.

The Triple Crown stands alone in it's appeal and popularity among "non" racing sports fans and a strong performance by any horse in the Triple Crown will only further solidify the sport's fan base.

Monday, January 4, 2010

Kudos To The Gate Crew

I was glad to see Quality Road start the year on the right foot by winning the $100,000 Hal's Hope Stakes at Gulfstream Park on opening day Sunday. I was happy to see the successful return to the races by a legitimate star from last year despite a foot injury that kept him out of the Triple Crown, and a mid-season move to a new home in the barn of trainer Todd Pletcher. But I am most happy about the win with regard to perhaps Quality Road's worst moments of 2009. (Excluding him seeing Rachel Alexandra in the paddock before a race of course.)

When we last saw Quality Road on national television, it was Nov. 7 and he had taken control of the pre-race starting gate process before the $5 million Breeders' Cup Classic. For one reason or another, the Florida Derby winner had decided he was not going to cooperate in any way with the gate crew at Santa Anita and was forced to be scratched by track officials for safety concerns and a potential injury after kicking the rear tire of the starting gate.

So traumatized was Quality Road from the incident that days later he refused to board his return flight to New York and instead pulled a John Madden and made the 3,000-mile trip via highway and horse van.

But upon his arrival home at Aqueduct Race Track, Pletcher quickly started morning training sessions at the starting gate commonly known as "schooling" in gate crew parlance.

Conducted by former NYRA starter Bob Duncan and current NRYA assistant starter Guido Rouse, jockey John Velasquez would ride Quality Road in, out and around the starting gate several times. Then Velasquez would step off and the process would be repeated. Sometimes they would school during the early training hours. Other days they would receive special permission from track officials to school in the paddock and starting gate during the afternoons of non-racing days at the track. “We wanted to come as close as we could to simulating a race without actually doing so,” Pletcher said of the process in November.

All of the hard work and patience payed off however, as Quality Road walked into the gate before the Hal's Hope without incident and promptly and easily made a successful return to the races.

Starters and assistant starters are a lot like offensive linemen in football in that they only they are more often recognized when something goes wrong. Upon a bad start, everybody's cussing the gate crew. If the race start is good... who cares? Having worked on gate crews during high school and college, I can personally attest to the potential dangers to horse and human inside and around the "the big green monster." I can also tell you that satisfaction in taking a uncooperative gate horse and watching them become a stakes winner. So when there's a starting gate success story like Quality Road and Duncan, I like to make mention of it.

So cheers to the gate crew in New York and Florida. Thanks for giving us Quality Road again.