The Brock Talk

Thursday, February 25, 2010

The Death Of The Dual Qualifier

As the Kentucky Derby presented by Yum looms closer and folks begin to formulate opinions, calculations and taro card results into their "picks", the term dual qualifier is likely to make an appearance. It is a system designed by the late Daily Racing Form pedigree columnists Leon Rasmussen in his efforts to define the qualifications of a Kentucky Derby winner.

In the early 1980s, Rasmussen studied the dosage profiles of every winner of the Kentucky Derby going back to 1929 and discovered that every one had a dosage index of less than 4.00. While researching the Derby winners, Rasmussen also noticed that most of them had achieved significant success during their two-year-old seasons. So using the Experimental Free Handicap and the dosage index, Rasmussen designed the dual qualifier system.

The Experimental Free Handicap, published annually by The Jockey Club since 1935, is a ranking by weight of the year’s leading two-year-olds racing at a mythical distance of 1-1/16 miles on dirt. The 2009 weighting committee was composed the racing secretaries at Churchill Downs, the New York Racing Association, and the Del Mar Thoroughbred Club.

Last year the top weighted 2-year-old males were Lookin at Lucky and Vale of York, both at 126 pounds.

Rasmussen defined a dual qualifier as any horse that is weighted within ten pounds of the high-weighted horse in the Experimental Free Handicap and has a dosage profile of 4.00 or less.

The system had it's glitches in the 1990s as outlined on The Brock Talk Tuesday, but in the last ten years have only produced one dual qualifier. In 2007 winner Street Sense won the Kentucky Derby with a 2.14 DI and was top weighted at 127 lbs. in the previous year's Experimental.

Excepts for Giacomo's close 4.33 DI in 2005 and Mine That Bird's 5.40 DI last year, the dosage qualification has held up for the other eight winners.

It is the Experimental Free Handicap that began to become more literal in terms of predicting a Kentucky Derby winner over the last decade. But before you go cussing the racing secretaries, (they get plenty by definition of their job), look at the freshman race records of the Derby winners during the oughts.

Both 2000 and 2001 winners, Fusaichi Pegasus and Monarchos respectively, were maidens when they turned three. The next Derby victor, War Emblem won an Arlington Park maiden race and an allowance at Fair Grounds in three 2-year-old races but never started in a stake.

Funny Cide (2003) and Smarty Jones (2004) were both stakes winners at two, but both against state-bred company. Smarty Jones won at Philadephia Park and Funny Cide took the BF Bongard and Sleepy Hilo at Belmont.

None of the first five Derby winners of the decade were even rated by the committees essentially making them not among the top 100 or so juveniles of their respective years.

Giacomo broke that streak in 2005 being weighted at 122 pounds in the Experimental, just four pounds lower than co-top weights Declan's Moon and Wilko.

Barbaro also missed the dual qualifier mark because of the Experimental Free Handicap, only because his 114 pound assignment was 12 pounds below that of Stevie Wonderboy. In a bit of a handicap quirk, Barbaro was ranked as the 18th best juvenile of the year by the committee, which is normally within the 10 pound parameters. When dual qualifier Ferdinand won the Derby in 1986 with 116 pound credentials in the Experimental, he was tied for 36th best among the two-year-olds of 1985.

Street Sense (photo) revived the dual qualifier system with his Derby victory in 2007 with a 2.14 DI and credentials as the top weighted 2-year-old in the Experimental at 127 pounds. As the winner of the Bessemer Trust Breeders' Cup Juvenile, Street Sense also broke the 22-year Juvenile/Derby double jinx and gave jockey Calvin Borel his first Derby win.

But the string of Derby winners not rated in the previous year's Expermental Free Handicap has begun again with the last runnings.

Big Brown had a 1.67 DI, but was not ranked after only starting once as a 2-year-old, in a 11-1/2 length win over maidens. Mine That Bird had only three minor stakes in Canada and a last-place finish in the Bessemer Trust Breeders' Cup Juvenile to unsuccessfully impress the committee.

So take the following list of this year's dual qualifiers with a grain of salt perhaps, but realize also, that there continue to be pro-dual qualifier arguments and there is some validity to rational behind the system.

Horse, EFH Weight, DI
Lookin At Lucky,126,3.33
Vale of York (IRE) 126, 2.08
Noble's Promise 124, 3.36
Buddy's Saint 123, 1.67
Pounced 122, 1.07
Super Saver 122, 3.00
Aikenite 119, 2.60
D' Funnybone 119, 1.77
Bridgetown 118, 3.00
Make Music for Me 118, 3.31
Awesome Act 117, 3.57
Dublin 117, 2.33
Homeboykris 117, 3.67
Interactif 117, 2.83
Discreetly Mine 116, 2.76
The Program 116, 3.00

Qualifying Fillies
She Be Wild, 123 2.69
Hot Dixie Chick,121 3.00
Beautician, 120 2.20
Negligee, 120 2.08
Tapitsfly, 119 2.33
Biofuel, 118 1.86
Mi Sueno, 118 3.00
Sassy Image, 118 2.25
Always a Princess,116 1.67
Awesome Maria, 116, 2.23
Devil May Care, 116, 2.53
Rose Catherine, 116, 4.00
Tizahit, 114, 1.75
Ailalea, 113, 3.27

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Two Easy Numbers That Help Define A Derby Pedigree

At some point in the career of a race horse, they become defined almost exclusively by their performance on the track and not the potential created by their breeding until of course, retirement discussions begin later. For most horses, that metamorphosis is usually not compelling enough to garner much notice and it usually occurs early unless the bloodlines and financial investments are able to extend a racing career on hope and potential.

There are exceptions to the rule of course, some more interesting than others. But the most intriguing are the 3-year-olds on the Triple Crown trail where we analyze their pedigrees right to the 1-1/4 mile Kentucky Derby and through the 1-1/2 mile Belmont Stakes. That exception is partially created because we are eventually looking for a horse that can win at the classic distance of 10 furlongs. These horses simply are not running as far now as they will be on the first Saturday in May so breeding becomes an important factor. That is assuming they even make it to the Kentucky Derby presented by Yum or you're just not the type of person who relishes pedigree research.

Hope is on the way.

Perhaps the source that provides breeding information that is both easy to find and easy to decipher is Daily Racing Form in the past performances. In the example on the right, this Daily Racing Form line shows a mare by the stallion Street Cry, who is by Machiviallian. And Street Cry stood for $100,000 during the year in which the horse was bred. There have been Kentucky Derby winners by marginal or lesser known stallions, (Silver Charm by Silver Buck comes to mind), so again this is not full proof by any means. But we do have some information and knowledge of a contenders breeding without knowing the difference between Mr. Prospector and Yosemite Sam.

The Derby is unique in this sense also, because of the distance, we are looking for "classic" breeding that will produce a horse that can win at 1-1/4 miles and simply allowing the market and Daily Racing Form to who they might be.

Another number that attempts to quantify breeding is the dosage index, which is also very easy to find online. Both Bloodhorse and Thoroughbred Times offer free, five-generation pedigree information on individual Thoroughbreds, each with complete dosage information including that individual dosage index.

Dosage is a technique in which to classify thoroughbred pedigrees by speed and stamina in five different types. Any clarification beyond that becomes extremely convoluted so all you need to know is that the magic number is 4.00. Since 1929, only Real Quiet (5.29), Charasmatic (5.22), Giacomo (4.33) and and Mine That Bird (5.40) have had had dosage index above 4.00.

Be warned, most of the runners on this Triple Crown trail will meet the dosage index standard so it will not give you the winner by any means. But it will give you an additional bit of information on the genetic potential or limitations of contenders.

Using these two easy tools and some intermediate breeding knowledge and we begin to clarify the pedigrees of Southwest Stakes winner Conveyance, Risen Star winner Discreetly Mine and Fountain of Youth winner Eskendereya.

Eskendereya has the most impressive pedigree of the three being by 2009 leading sire Giant's Causeway, who stands at Ashford Stud in Versailles, Kentucky for $100,000. A quick look at the bottom side of the pedigree and we see he is out a mare by Seattle Slew, the 1977 Triple Crown winner and one of the more influential sires of his generation. It is therefore not surprising that his dosage index (DI) is well within our rule at 2.43 and Eskendereya's bloodlines seem to have the potential to provide the stamina he will need to get to Kentucky.

Strolling out of the Nieman Marcus pedigree store and into Nordstram's, we have Southwest Stakes Conveyance by Indian Charlie who stands for $70,000 in 2010 at Airdrie Stud in Midway, Kentucky.

Conveyance's trainer, Bob Baffert sent Indian Charlie to the 1998 Kentucky Derby as the post time favorite, only to see him run third behind his stablemate Real Quiet. Conveyance is out of a mare by Holy Bull, (another beaten Derby favorite in 1994), and his dosage index misses the mark at 4.33. Keep in mind that Baffert won the Derby with Real Quiet and his high dosage index so this is by no means a disqualification.

Discreetly Mine won the most mundane of the three races with his carousel-type victory in the Risen Star where nobody passed anybody and winning jockey Javier Castellano kept the late challengers at a safe pace. Not much to learn from that race from a performance standpoint, so perhaps dosage and breeding become more of the equation in trying to determine if he can remain successful as the race distances progress.

Discreetly Mine is by Horse of the Year Mineshaft who certainly had no problem winning the Breeders' Cup Classic at 1-1/4 miles and Discreetly Mine's dosage index is a credible 2.76 which is good. Although Mineshaft's career as a sire, hasn't matched his success on the track and his $20,000 stallion fee is below the demand for Giant's Causeway and Indian Charlie, he looks capable of producing a Derby winner based on our over simplified analysis.

Again, this is an oversimplification to a very intricate puzzle. But stallion demand and dosage's are reliable numbers that are both easy to access and

Thursday, February 18, 2010

Champion Gio Ponti Makes 2010 Debut.

There's plenty to keep our attention this weekend with the Fountain of Youth, Risen Star and Southwest Stakes providing us plenty of pre-Kentucky Derby fodder, but flying a bit under the radar at Tampa Bay Downs will be the return of 2009 Champion Older Horse and Champion Turf horse Gio Ponti.

In what could be the most exciting year for older horses since the Cigar years of the mid-1990s, Quality Road has already made a splash with victories in the Hal's Hope Stakes and a track record performance in the grade 1 Donn Handicap at Gulfstream Park. Horse of the Year Rachel Alexandra and Breeders' Cup Classic winner Zenyatta are set to meet April 9 in the grade 1 Apple Blossom Stakes at Oaklawn and Gio Ponti makes his 2010 debut in the $150,000 Tampa Bay Breeders' Cup among a field of nine at 1-1/16 miles on the turf. Other older horses still waiting in the wings but expected back this year include Kentucky Derby winner Mine That Bird, Belmont Stakes winner Summer Bird, Einstein and Presious Passion to name a few of the stars in the division.

Trainer Christophe Clemente has said he is using the Tampa Bay race to prepare Gio Ponti for the $10 million Dubai World Cup to be run March 27 at the new Meydan Racecourse in the United Arab Emirates.

During his championship year, Gio Ponti rattled off four consecutive grade 1 turf victories in California, New York and Illinois before being upset by Interpatation in the Turf Classic (gr. 1) at Belmont Park in October then getting passed in the final strides of the Breeders' Cup Classic by Zenyatta in November. Last year the son of Tale of the Cat earned $2.33 million from his seven starts boosting his career bankroll over the $3.1 million mark.

Rachel Alexandra Posts Thursday Work
Horse of the Year Rachel Alexandra went to the track for a serious work Thursday morning going five furlongs in 1:00.20 in a work Marcus Hersh of Daily Racing Form called a "doozy" and trainer Steve Asmussen coined "overly aggressive."

Asmussen also told Daily Racing Form that "very aggressive all week, and she worked accordingly. There's still time to get exactly where we want to be. Once she got into her work, she settled down nicely."

Rachel Alexandra is preparing for the $200,000 New Orleans Ladies Stakes for fillies and mares at 1 1/16 miles March 13 at Fair Grounds and eventually the $5-million Apple Blossom Invitational Handicap (gr. I) at Oaklawn Park April 9.

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Looking For Clarity In Derby Picture

The Kentucky Derby presented by Yum picture is far from clear but after this weekend we should at least have some additional visibility.

This past Saturday at Santa Anita former claimer Caracortado stepped closer to the glass slipper with an late surging victory in the $150,000 Robert B. Lewis Stakes at Santa Anita while defeating two Derby hopefuls in the Bob Baffert trained-stakes winner Tiz Chrome, and Hollywood Prevue Stakes winner American Lion.

Meanwhile in Tampa Bay, Florida, the undefeated Rule won the Sam F. Davis Stakes for trainer Todd Pletcher in wire-to-wire fashion. While Rule looked impressive, his front-running style can present a challenge in the Derby which is sure to have plenty of gunners running early.

Back at Santa Anita Monday, Sidney's Candy won the seven furlong San Vicente Stakes and is now on the Triple Crown trail according to his trainer John Saddler. Meanwhile in Arkansas, the Southwest Stakes (gr. 3) for 3-year-olds was being postponed due to weather and track conditions until Sat., Feb. 20.

That gives us a Derby-prep triple header on Saturday with the grade 2 Fountain of Youth Stakes being run at Gulfstream Park near Miami and the Risen Star (gr. 2) Stakes at Fairgrounds in New Orleans.

Ron the Greek, the popular come-from-the-clouds winner of the one mile Lecomte at Fairgrounds Jan. 23, returns in the 1-1/16 Risen Star to again meet Letsgetitonmon, who was third that day. Lecomte runner-up Maximus Ruler was entered for the Risen Star, but was scratched when a stone bruise was discovered after a Sunday morning work.

Invading the Risen Star from Florida will be Drosselmeyer, a Bill Mott-trained son of Distorted Humor who easily won a 1-1/8 mile allowance race at Gulfstream Park recently after turning heads with a big maiden score at Churchill in November.

There will be plenty of talent staying in Florida for the Fountain of Youth including the much anticipated return of Buddy's Saint. From the only crop of Horse of the Year St. Liam, Buddy's Saint has risen near the top of many Kentucky Derby polls and watch lists having won the Nashua (gr. 2) and Remsen Stakes (gr. 2) last year in New York and training well in Florida over the winter.

Holy Bull (gr. 3) winner Winslow Home is off the Triple Crown trail with an injury, but runner-up Jackson Bend returns in the Fountain of Youth as does sixth-place finsisher Aikenite, who is looking to improve with a much more relaxed running style Saturday. Last year, Aikenite was second in the Dixiana Breeder's Futurity at Keeneland and third in the grade 1 Hopeful Stakes at Saratoga behind the winner Dublin.

The D. Wayne Lukas-trained Dublin makes his sophomore debut in the $250,000 Southwest Stakes at Oaklawn Park at one mile and may be the trainer's best chance to improve on his four previous Kentucky Derby victories. After a poor performance in the Iroquois Stakes, it was discovered that Dublin had a throat problem that inhibited his breathing. That has since been corrected surgically, and Lukas is looking for good things from the Afleet Alex colt.

Looking to add to his list of three Kentucky Derby wins is trainer Bob Baffert, who sends San Rafael Stakes winner Conveyance in from California. Baffert has not sent a horse to Oaklawn in nearly a decade, but in recent years the Hot Springs track has been successful in producing successful Triple Crown performers in recent years including Rachel Alexandra, Summer Bird, Curlin, Smarty Jones and Afleet Alex.

Following Conveyance from California will be the second and third-place finishers in the San Rafael, Cardiff Giant and Domonation and a host of locals from the Smarty Jones Stakes round out the Southwest.

A look at the recent history of these three stakes shows that the last time a Kentucky Derby winner was produced from among them was 2004 when Smarty Jones won the Southwest on his way to the run for the roses. But a closer look reveals that just last year, Fountain of Youth winner Quality Road and Southwest winner Old Fashioned were headed to be among the favorites in Kentucky until both suffered injuries just before entries were taken. That gave Derby favoritism to Friesan Fire, who won last year's Risen Star.

It's still a long road to the Kentucky Derby for these 3-olds and the many more not starting in Arkansas, Florida and Louisiana this weekend. And I don't expect to be much closer to certainty with my Derby pick Saturday night. But at least we'll be able to see who's headed in the right direction.

Thursday, February 11, 2010

The NTRA Is Going To Create The Race? Really?

When I first heard that Rachel Alexandra's owner decided not to run her in the $5 million Apple Blossom Invitational against the undefeated Zenyatta, I was saddened. But I can't say I was really that disappointed. Expecting trainer Steve Asmussen to ready Horse of the Year Rachel Alexandra from first work to race of the millennium in less than seven weeks seemed a bit of a stretch of even his Eclipse Award-winning talents.

I am very dissapointed, however, in owner Jess Jackson's next move to discuss "with Alex Waldrop, President and CEO of National Thoroughbred Racing Association, ...the hope of coordinating training schedules, racing schedules, purses and all ancillary factors, so that we can all agree upon three dates and three venues for what will be a racing series to rival the Triple Crown.”


The NTRA is going to coordinate training schedules? Really?

Forgive my sarcasm and lack of confidence in Alex Waldrop's horsemanship and backside experience, but I just don't see John Sherriffs nor Steve Asmussen listening to a thing Alex Waldrop has to say about the training schedules. Outside of spouses and mothers, trainers listen only to two things - horses and owners. I just don't think Waldrop's experience with Wyatt, Tarrant & Combs is going to carry as much weight in a tack room as it did in a court room.

If Mr. Jackson really wants to coordinate training schedules, I suggest he talks with Zenyatta owners Jerry and Ann Moss. They're on Sherriffs' "listen to" list.

The NTRA is going to coordinate racing schedules? Really?

This is not to criticize Mr. Waldrop nor the NTRA, but the reality is they don't have an ounce of influence or power over the racing department's that are responsible for these racing schedules and conditions. If Mr. Jackson thinks that tweeking the conditions of say the La Troienne Breeders' Cup Stakes at Churchill for instance, will bring the dream race to reality, he should talk with Churchill Downs.

The NTRA is going to coordinate purses? Really?

If Mr. Jackson requires a multi-million dollar minimum purse for the dream race - and it sounds to me like he does - the NTRA certainly doesn't have that kind of money in their coffers and they haven't shown me they are capable of raising that kind of money from sponsorship any faster than anybody else. Little ol' Sam Houston Race Park and "Matress Mac" Jim McIngvale in Houston have been ahead of the NTRA on that level for months.

This series of races is going to rival the Triple Crown? Really?

I love Rachel Alexandra and Zenyatta. I really, really do. I get all Irish and start tearing up when I see either of them just walk into the paddock. I get choked up in the post parade and I'm usually saying goodbye to any notion of emotional stability at some point just before or during one of their races.

But I'm afraid the dream race or races will not rival the Triple Crown. Rachel and Zenyatta are the giants of the racing world right now, but the sports world is a much different place. It's a world in which the Kentucky Derby, Preakness and Belmont have to fight for air time, print space and the attentions of the American sports fans. It's an attention that the Breeders' Cup has failed to garner on a regular basis and attention it took years for even the great Cigar to muster without the benefit of the Triple Crown.

As much as you and I and every horse racing fan in North America would like to think that Rachel Alexandra and Zeyatta are household names that could rival the Triple Crown in terms of excitement and attention, I'm afraid they are just not. If you doubt it, count their appearances on Sports Center.

So the next time we want to hear about this dream race between Rachel and Zenyatta; we want to see Mr. Jackson and Mr. and Mrs. Jerry and Ann Moss, and Steve Asmussen, and John Sherriffs all in the same room at the same press conference making the announcement. This way you can avoid the embarrassment of the other party saying "I have no idea what he's even talking about. Which three races? And where? And when?" as Moss recently told the Associated Press in reaction to Jackson's statements with the NTRA.

While Waldrop also told the associated press that he supports any effort to put together a race featuring the sport's biggest stars, it is not support we are looking for here.

It is not press releases and promises we're looking for either.

It the race between Rachel Alexandra and Zenyatta that we're looking for. Really!

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

The Humility of Derby Futures

Churchill Downs will open the wagering windows for the 2010 Kentucky Derby when they begin taking bets on Pool 1 of their Kentucky Derby Future Wager Friday, Feb 12. Fans and players will have three days to wager on the first pool of the Future Wager which closes Sunday night and for a period of time they may also have the notion, confidence and thrill of having a possible Derby winner.

It may not be the best investment, but it's one of the things that makes the game fun. Let's face it, the invention of an ego pill would do a lot toward world peace but it would not be the best thing for horse racing.

There are few surprises in Churchill Downs' odds as the 5-2 favorite is "All Other 3-Year Olds" and Champion 2-Year-Old Colt Lookin at Lucky is the 8-1 favorite among the 23 individual horses listed. Buddy's Saint, Conveyance, Jackson Bend and Rule are all next at 12-1.

The surprise for some may come looking towards the other end of mutuel spectrum as notables Vale of York (photo) and Ron the Greek are toting longshot odds of 30-1. Vale of York won the prestigious Breeders' Cup Juvenile over Lookin at Lucky in November and Ron the Greek was an impressive winner of the recent Lecomte Stakes at Fairgrounds. So there is value there if you're a fan and history may not be as much against you as you might think.

A quick look at the last three Lecomte winners justifies the long odds as none of them went on to win the Derby. However, all of them at least made it into the Kentucky Derby starting gate. Friesan Fire, the Larry Jones-trained Lecomte winner last year, even went into the gate in Kentucky as the post time favorite at 7-2 odds. Despite the popularity however, Friesan Fire did not enjoy the most exciting two minutes in sports and finished 18th behind winner Mine That Bird.

Two years earlier in 2007, Jones took Lecomte winner Hard Spun to Kentucky. The circumstances were similar but the results quite different as 10-1 shot Hard Spun finished second to Street Sense in the Derby. In 2008, Steve Asmussen won the Lecomte with Z Fortune who went on to finish 10th in the Derby.

Street Sense, by the way, was the first and last horse to pull off the Breeders' Cup Juvenile-Kentucky Derby double - which is what Vale of York will be trying for should he make it to Louisville on the first Saturday in May.

In fact, Street Sense is one of only five this century to win the Juvenile and come back to start in the Derby the following year. Of the previous four Breeders' Cup Juvenile winners to start in the Derby since 2000, Anees finished 13th in the '00 Derby, Johannesburg finished 8th in '02, and Action This Day and Wilko both finished sixth in their respective Kentucky Derbies in '04 and '05.

Vale of York will also apparently be battling the Dubai curse having been shipped to the United Arab Emirates to prepare for the Derby by owner Sheik Maktoum's Goldphin Racing.

Since it's inception in 2000, only four of the ten UAE winners have made it the Kentucky Derby including inaugural UAE victor China Visit who finished sixth in the Run for the Roses. UAE Derby winner Express Tour was eighth in the 2001 Kentucky Derby while Essence of Dubai was ninth in his run for the roses. Last year, UAE Derby winner Regal Ransom finished eighth behind Mine That Bird while UAE runner-up and stablemate Desert Party was 14th.

Sheik Maktoum and his Godolphin Racing also failed in the Kentucky Derby with Worldly Manner and Curule, who both finished seventh in 1999 and 2000 respectively after they also prepared for the Derby in the Middle East.

So even with impressive credentials - be it in December, February or May, in Louisiana, California or Dubai - the Kentucky Derby has a way of monitoring humility.

Kentucky Derby Future Wager
Pool 1
1. Aikenite (30-1)
2. American Lion (20-1)
3. Buddy’s Saint (12-1)
4. Concord Point (30-1)
5. Conveyance (12-1)
6. Dave In Dixie (20-1)
7. Drosselmeyer (20-1)
8. Dryfly (20-1)
9. Dublin (15-1)
10. Eskendereya (20-1)
11. Jackson Bend (12-1)
12. Lookin At Lucky (8-1)
13. Make Music For Me (50-1)
14. Maximus Ruler (50-1)
15. Noble’s Promise (15-1)
16. Ron the Greek (30-1)
17. Rule (12-1)
18. Stay Put (50-1)
19. Super Saver (15-1)
20. Tiz Chrome (20-1)
21. Uptowncharlybrown (50-1)
22. Vale of York (30-1)
23. William’s Kitten (30-1)
24. All Other 3YOs (5-2)

Friday, February 5, 2010

The Donn Can Sometimes Produce A Diamond

There is a funny phenomena in sports that has only to do with time. It is the perception of fans and media alike, that early season competition somehow has less significance than the games or races later in the year.

The Red Sox versus the Yankees in May just doesn't seem as important and that same series in September. The Cowboys playing the Redskins during the second week of the season just doesn't pack the punch of that same game during the last few weeks of the regular season.

The reason is obvious of course, in that early in the year, we just don't know what teams are good and what these games may mean come playoff time. We sometimes think we know what teams are good, but often we and every sports pundit on radio and television and in blogs and newspapers are very wrong.

I mention this because Saturday, Gulfstream Park in Hallandale Beach, Fla. presents their centerpiece event for older horses, the grade 1, $500,000 Donn Handicap.

It is the first major event each year for older horses and although Quality Road looks like a championship contender, there might be a New Orleans Saint in the bunch too.

That was never more evident than in the 1995 Donn Handicap. Holy Bull was the heavy favorite and brought national attention to the race as the Champion 3-Year-Old Colt the previous year with his victories including the Manhattan, Travers, Haskell Invitational, Woodward and Dwyer Stakes. He was also a local hero of sorts, having won the Hutcheson Stakes and Florida Derby at Gulfstream less than a year earlier as well.

Unfortunately Holy Bull never finished the Donn after being pulled up on the backstretch by jockey Mike Smith. Holy Bull's injury was career ending, but not life threatening, but nobody knew that at the time. Disappointment, shock and concern for Holy Bull dominated our attention as a relatively unknown Cigar won the Donn.

More recently and less dramatic, Saint Liam's story relative to the Donn Handicap is a bit of a diamond in the ruff tale as well. During the previous year, Saint Liam had won the Clark Handicap at Churchill Downs and was a close second to Ghostzapper in the Woodward. It was a notable year, but certainly not enough to garner national attention.

Saint Liam won Donn over Roses in May, Eddington and Seek Gold then went on to win three more grade 1 races that year including the Breeders' Cup Classic. I don't know that I would consider the Donn a turning point for Saint Liam, but it again produced a champion.

Even going back to the 1974 Donn Handicap when it had just grade 3 status, the race has appeared to launch some notable careers. The previous year had been dominated by Secretariat and his historic run through the Triple Crown and beyond.

But the '74 Donn had a 4-year-old gelding who during the previous year had finished fourth, 11 lengths behind Secretariat in the Derby. Forego was his name and he won the grade 2 Roamer and grade 3 Discovery Handicaps in New York to finish his undistinguished sophomore campaign.

Forego won the Donn Handicap that year on his way to his seven eventual Eclipse Awards including three as Horse of the Year. It was also his first of eight wins in 1974, six of which came in grade 1 company.

Quality Road is the 7-5 morning line so it is difficult to attach the diamond in the ruff label to him. But Cigar was 4-1, Forego (photo) was odds-on and Saint Liam was no longshot. But the Donn Handicap has a history of sometimes acting as a catalyst for perhaps exposing greater potential.

And I can think of no horse currently in training that would fit this model more than Quality Road. If not for a quarter crack injury, he would have started in the Kentucky Derby and likely the Preakness and Belmont too. And one could certainly make the case for his potential before he pulled a Kanye West to Zenyatta's Breeders' Cup and dissed the gate crew on national television.

Now he's the heavy favorite in the Donn, but he also finds himself far below the attention of Rachel Alexandra and Zenyatta and perhaps even below Champion Older Horse Gio Ponti.

But no matter the winner of the Donn - longshot or favorite - they have often proven that early season wins can influence or even produce a championship too.

Thursday, February 4, 2010

Oaklawn Puts $5 Million Into Bigger Apple

Everybody knew what Oaklawn Park officials were going to say when earlier this week they announced a press conference regarding the "Race for the Ages." They were planning to announce a purse increase for the $500,000 Apple Blossom Handicap to be run April 3 at Oaklawn in an effort to create the much wanted race featuring Horse of the Year Rachel Alexandra and undefeated, Breeders' Cup Classic winner Zenyatta.

What we didn't know was that Oaklawn president Charles Cella would increase the purse ten-fold, talk to the owners, change the conditions of the race and apparently just about anything else to make the race a possibility.

Thursday at the mid-morning press conference at the historic track, Oaklawn Park announced that the grade I Apple Blossom will now feature a $5 million purse if both Rachel Alexandra and Zenyatta start in the race. They also said the race distance will be extended a sixteenth of a mile to 1-1/8 miles and the race will now be an invitational to further entice the two stars.

Obviously, we don't know if the race will happen. But Mr. Cella, racing secretary Patrick Pope and the Oaklawn Park staff deserve an A+ for effort. In one fell swoop they may create the richest filly and mare race in history. To make the race even more realistic, it may fit both mares' schedules and will be run at a track where they both have won.

More importantly, Cella said at the press conference that he has spoken with the owners of both Rachel Alexandra (Jess Jackson) and Zenyatta (Mr. and Mrs. Jerry Moss)and said both "showed enthusiasm."

There should be no problem getting Zenyatta to Oaklawn Park again where she won the 2008 Apple Blossom for her first grade 1 victory. Zenyatta worked five furlongs in 1:01.60 at Hollywood Park Wednesday morning and according to Daily Racing Form, Zenyatta could make her first start of the year in the grade 1 Santa Margarita at Santa Anita on Mar. 13. The Apple Blossom would be a logical next start and has been mentioned by Jerry Moss.

The bigger challenge will be getting Rachel Alexandra ready for the big race.

Just Monday, Rachel Alexandra had her first work of the year at Fair Grounds going four furlongs in 52 seconds. The first question will be how fast Rachel Alexandra responds to training after her four-month vacation. Six weeks to prepare for major race against a foe like Zenyatta may seem a bit out of the ordinary. But if we know one thing about Rachel Alexandra, she is far from ordinary.

Shortly after the press conference, Rachel Alexandra owner Jess Jackson said in a written statement that "Rachel will tell us when she is ready to start her 2010 campaign and we humans must agree she is in top form."

My family and I would love to see her run at Oaklawn Park. If she is in top form and it fits in our schedule, we will be there. Rachel, as you know, likes the track having won twice there last year.”

Rachel Alexandra started her magnificant 3-year-old year at Oaklawn Park last year where she won the Martha Washington Stakes and the grade 2 Fantasy Stakes.

We won't know until the afternoon of April 3 if the race between the two thoroughbreds will happen at Oaklawn Park or not. But, I'm going to have to salute Mr. Cella for the effort.

Monday, February 1, 2010

Slot Machines Will Be A Win For Texas Racing and Residents

Thumbing through the Sunday edition of the Fort Worth Star-Telegram this weekend, I happened upon a nicely produced, full-color insert promoting bringing slot machines to racetracks in Texas and Native American reservations. The Win For Texas flyer goes on to say that bringing slots to Texas would create 50,000 jobs for the Lone Star State and will create $1 billion a year in direct state tax revenue and create 6.8 billion in economic activity in the state.

While the unemployement rate in Texas is, by some estimates, nearly 2 percentage points below the national average, the 8.3% jobless rate in Texas is the highest this state has seen in some 22 years as reported by the Texas Workforce Commission. No doubt that republicans, democrats and independents can all agree on these figures as troubling. The question the upcoming Texas state Legislature and governor must face is "What are they going to do about it?" Specifically, are they going to ignore 50,000 new jobs? More importanly, though, are they going to set the table for the loss of thousands of other jobs in a failing horse racing industry?

Are they also ready to say goodbye to a large part of the Texas culture and pride that is supposed to be so closely tied to the horse? It should come as no surprise that racing is not the only equine industry experiencing economic challenges in the Lone Star State. They are generally stronger than their racing counterparts currently, but some of those non racing breeds and breed associations in Texas may benefit if future legislation contains similar financial provisions for other equine performance sports in Texas.

In June, Gov. Rick Perry congratulated the state Legislature on passing a state budget that included a projected $9 billion Rainy Day Fund. However that budget included some $12 billion in federal stimulus money that former House Appropriations Committee chief Talmadge Heflin, R-Houston said could come back to bite if lawmakers aren't willing to cut spending next session. "We could have as much as a $15 billion gap to fill," Heflin said on the Sunshine Review website, now with the conservative Texas Public Policy Foundation.

The legislature is not set to meet again at the State Capital in Austin until Janauary of 2011. However, Gov. Perry could call a special session which he has done before. I'm just not sure how likely that is to happen with Perry wrapped in a primary battle for reelection with Sen. Kay Bay Hutchinson.

Passing slot machine legislation in Texas will not solve the upcoming financial challenges of Texas, special session or not. But saying no to $1 billion in additional direct state tax revenue will be hard to justify. Morality also seems to have less influence when tax hikes are mentioned. Politicians are funny that way.

Politicians also like to have a united lobby if they're going to support much. In years past, the legislature should assigned to blame for the failure to enact much progressive pari mutuel legislation in Texas. Historically around Austin, tracks fought among each other, who fought with the Quarter Horse Breeders, who fought with the... (you get the picture.)

However, looking at the last legislative effort to legalize slot machines in Texas, the racing industry produced a united message and appeared to have laid significant groundwork from which to launch the next big effort. With or without a bad economy, there is optimism in most horse racing circles around here with regard to passing slot machine legislation beneficial to the Texas equine industry.

The pro slot machine people also acquired a big free agent in the legislative off season, even if some don't realize it.

Last October, Global Gaming Solutions, a wholly owned enterprise of the Chicasaw Nation, acquired control of both Remington Park in Oklahoma City and Lone Star Park in Grand Prairie, Texas from the bankruptcy of Magna Entertainment Corp. It is obvious GGS would be interested in Remington Park with their existing casino, but why Lone Star Park in floundering Texas?

The Chicasaw Nation, with 13 casinos, and other enterprises including health care, radio stations and several other companies in Oklahoma, is simply hedging their bet. And my sources say their hedging their bet in the direction of Texas getting slot machines at their race tracks sometime in the near future. And when it comes to working with a state legislature with any success, I will venture to say that the Chickasaw Nation will be as effective in the process as Magna was inept.

The challenge for Win For Texas and other supports of slot machines, will be to keep the industry coalition together and be prepared to pounce should a special session be called in 2010. From where I sit, it appears slot proponents are ready.

But confidence can sometimes be a curse in politics.