The Brock Talk

Friday, July 30, 2010

Lookin at Four in the Haskell

The $1 million IZOD Haskell Invitational of 2010 has certainly met the challenge of attaining the standard set by the previous best versions of the 1-1/8 mile, grade 1, race. Won last year by Horse of the Year Rachel Alexandra over eventual Champion 3-Year-Old Colt or Gelding Summer Bird and the site of one of epic battles of the 1980s when Alysheba tried valiantly to run down his Triple Crown nemisis Bet Twice in ’87 and failed, this year’s Haskell Invitational features nearly every top 3-year-old male in training.

The race features the first two finishers in the Kentucky Derby (gr. 1) presented by Yum! Brands in Super Saver and Ice Box respectively and the top two finishers in the Preakness in winner Lookin at Lucky and second-place finisher First Dude. Only the Belmont Stakes is lightly represented with the winner Drosselmeyer on the sideline due to a minor injury and runner-up Fly Down running the previous day at Saratoga in the grade 2 Jim Dandy Stakes.

Because of the success of the Elite Summer Season at Monmouth Park and preponderance of some of the nation’s top stables running at the New Jersey track, this Haskell Invitational also brings the most legitimate winner of the local prep race (the Longbranch Stakes on in Trappe Shot, installed as the morning line co-second choice at 3-1.

Only horse racing can produce the irony of one of the best versions of the Haskell Invitational during a year when GAHP (Generally Accepted Handicapping Principals – I was an accounting major in college) have defined this crop of sophomores as mediocre at best.

And with that being said – let’s pick a winner. My comments in post position order.

1. Lookin at Lucky (Martin Garcia) – The morning line favorite at 5-2 odds is, in my opinion, the most logical winner. Whether one can bet on him at 5-2 is the question. He has a knack for trouble when he gets too far behind and young jockey Martin Garcia is likely to receive instructions from trainer Bob Baffert to stay engaged with the leaders. Baffert, who has won the Haskell three times with Point Given (2001), War Emblem (2002) and Roman Ruler in 2005, knows that closers have a difficult time getting to the winner’s circle in the Haskell. His 1-5 favorite Point Given won while overcoming the biggest deficit at the half-mile pole in the last ten runnings of the Haskell at 4 lengths. Point Given won by a half-length over 13-1 shot Touch Tone and 7-1 choice Burning Roma. In other words: stay close.

2. Afleet Again (Joe Bravo) – Not even the best 3-year-old colt named “Afleet” to have run at Monmouth Park this year having lost to Afleet Express in the grade 3 Pegasus June 19. Breaking from the 2 post will help him improve off of his last two wide trips at Monmouth Park as will local leading jockey Joe Bravo. But he’ll need a bigger boost than that to have an impact on this field.

3. Ice Box (Jose Lezcano) – The winner of the Florida Derby, runner-up in the Kentucky Derby and the favorite in the Belmont Stakes. Trouble in Kentucky and a bad day in New York kept this Nick Zito trainee from a Triple Crown credential. Needs a fast pace to run down and still belongs to the mysterious, riddle-wrapped enigma club of this class. Recent Haskell history is also against him from a pace standpoint. See comments on Point Given.

4. First Dude (Ramon Dominguez) – If speed is what you need to win the Haskell Invitational than nobody comes more prepared than 6-1 morning line choice First Dude. If the Preakness and Belmont are 1-1/8 miles, you may be looking at the winner of both races. But the Preakness is a sixteenth of a mile and the Belmont three furlongs longer. The Haskell is not. It is exactly 1-1/8 miles and it may be exactly the distance for perennial second and third fiddle First Dude.

5. Our Dark Knight (Elvis Trujillo) – The Rabbit. Owned by Robert V. LaPuenta and trained by Nick Zito, Our Dark Knight has apparently been entered into the Haskell to insure an honest pace for the connection’s stable star Ice Box. Look for this allowance race winner to shoot to the lead in an effort to disrupt any possibility of a slow pace by First Dude – then fade into the dark night that is the Haskell also rans.

6. Super Saver (Calvin Borel) – Ice Box has nothing on this guy in the mysterious enigma department. The Kentucky Derby winner flopped in the Preakness running eighth and had previous trouble living up to his juvenile expectations before the run for the roses. His Kentucky Derby was a dream trip, which jockey Calvin Borel is more than capable of delivering Sunday. It was also on a sloppy track. There is also a chance of a sloppy track Sunday at Momouth Park. Super Saver has every ability to capitalize on both. I’ll pass at 3-1 morning line odds but will definitely have him in my exotics.

7. Uptowncharlybrown (Rajiv Maragh) – The horse that runs for the memory of late trainer Alan Seewald had one of those unexplainable mishaps in the Belmont Stakes
while running fifth, just three lengths off of winner Drosselmeyer. During the running of the race, the saddle pad carrying the additional weight necessary to give jockey Rajiv Maragh the needed 126 pounds of assigned weight, slipped completely out from under the securing girth straps and fell to the track. One can only assume that, despite carrying some ten pounds or so less weight to the finish line, the balance and effectiveness of Maragh was compromised. Uptowncharlybrown and Maragh will have to be closer to lead in the Haskell than they usually like so the pace circumstances may be too big of an obstacle to overcome for the win. But don’t leave him out of your exactas.

8. Trappe Shot (Alan Garcia) – If you are a Beyer Speed Figure disciple then this Kiaran McLaughlin trainee is an attention getter. In his last two starts (in the ungraded Longbranch Stakes at Monmouth and an allowance race at Belmont Park) he has registered 105 Beyer numbers in both races. The next best Beyer in the Haskell field is Super Saver and his 104 in the Derby and Lookin at Lucky with a 102 in the Preakness. Neither them nor anybody else in the Haskell has two triple digit Beyer numbers on their resume. He also has the speed to win the Haskell, never laying more than 1-1/2 lengths of the leader in any of his last four consecutive victories. It’s a big jump in class from the Longbranch to the Haskell and no horse has ever accomplished the double. So despite his Beyer credentials, I’m leaving him to my exotics.

Selections: 1-4-3

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Haskell Has Skins As Eclipse Award Barometer

With a stellar and competitive field assembling on the Jersey shore for the $1 million IZOD Haskell Invitational (gr. 1) Sunday, perhaps the best bet of the race will be that the Champion 3-Year-Old Colt or Gelding of 2010 will come out of Monmouth Park’s marquee event.

In a Triple Crown that saw no horse win more than one race and Belmont Stakes (gr. 1) winner Drosselmeyer on the sidelines through August, there is no clear cut favorite for 3-year-old championship title.

The $1 million Haskell at 1-1/8 miles is expected to feature Kentucky Derby (gr. 1) presented by Yum! Brands winner Super Saver (top photo), Preakness (gr. 1) winner Lookin at Lucky, Florida Derby (gr. 1) winner and Kentucky Derby runner-up Ice Box and First Dude, second in the Preakness. So other than Drosselmeyer and Belmont second-place finisher Fly Down, who is headed for the Jim Dandy Stakes (gr. 2) Saturday at Saratoga, the current 3-year-old crop is well represented in the Haskell.

There are also a slew of other Haskell contenders that could still be champion honorees with potential wins left this year in the Travers Stakes (gr. 1) later in August at Saratoga and the Breeders’ Cup Classic (gr. 1) at Churchill Downs November 5. A late season hot streak by Uptowncharlybown or Trappe Shot would give them credentials to at least enter the discussion.

History also makes a pretty good case for the Haskell producing a divisional champion. In the previous 42 runnings of the race, 15 Haskell starters have gone to become the Champion 3-Year-Old Colt or Gelding, two have been named Champion 3-Year-Old Filly; and five of those 17 have been named Horse of the Year at year’s end.

The 2009 Haskell would go on to produce the most decorated group as winner Rachel Alexandra became the Champion 3-Year-Old Filly and Horse of the Year while Summer Bird, second to Rachel Alexandra in the Haskell, was named the Champion 3-Year-Old Colt.

Serena’s Song in 1995, is the only other filly to win the Haskell Invitational and she was also given the Eclipse Award that year as the Champion 3-Year-Old Filly.

Champion production has been going one for nearly 40 years in Haskell going back to 1974 when Kentucky Derby winner Little Current went on to become Champion 3-Year-Old Colt or gelding after finishing second to Holding Pattern in the Haskell. A year later, Wajima won the Haskell and the championship.

In 1983, Slew O’Gold won the Champion 3-Year-Old male title after finishing sixth in the Haskell behind Preakness winner Deputed Testamony. Two years later Spend A Buck became the first future Horse of the Year to start in the Haskell, finishing second to Skip Trial at Monmouth Park.

In 1994 Holy Bull won the Horse of the Year and divisional honors after winning the Haskell but it was the decade of the oughts when Eclipse Award winners began coming off the Haskell assembly line. From 2001 through last year, seven Haskell starters have been named divisional champions including and Point Given (2001) (photo right), Curlin (2007) and Rachel Alexandra all also received the gold trophy for Horse of the Year.

Big Brown (2008), Funny Cide (2003) and War Emblem (2002), all Kentucky Derby winners, were the other divisional champions from the decade along with Summer Bird and Rachel Alexandra. Big Brown and War Emblem were also Haskell winners while Funny Cide was third behind the speedy Peace Rule at Monmouth Park.

So this year’s Haskell Invitational, like most, is more than just a rematch of some Triple Crown contenders, locals and late bloomers. It is perhaps a pre-cursor to the road to championship.

Monday, July 26, 2010

Talk Again About Rachel Alexandra Versus Zenyatta

Several New York publications including the New York Daily News have speculated that the possible dream race between 2009 Horse of the Year Rachel Alexandra and the undefeated champion Zenyatta may again be a realistic consideration in the grade 1 Personal Ensign Stakes at Saratoga Aug. 29.

Trainer Steve Asmussen, trainer of Rachel Alexandra, has already indicated to Daily Racing Form that they are pointing towards the $400,000 Personal Ensign while the Zenyatta camp has made no commitment to the Aug. 7 Clement Hirsch at Del Mar.

The Personal Ensign offers two features that should be attractive to Zenyatta trainer John Shirreffs and owners Jerry and Ann Moss. The 1-1/4 mile distance appears to Zenyatta best, and the natural dirt main track. The $300,000 Clement Hirsch, also a grade 1, is the shorter 1-1/16 miles.

The Breeders' Cup this year will be run at Churchill Downs, so the Zenyatta camp may want to prepare the defending Breeders' Cup Classic winner on a natural track like Saratoga instead of the synthetic main track at Del Mar.

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Monmouth Park Hits Another Homer With Rachel

With the opening of Del Mar in Southern California and Saratoga in upstate New York, there will be no shortage of reasons to be a racing fan this weekend. However, the two famous and favorite venues will have to back off the spotlight momentarily Saturday when 2009 Horse of the Year Rachel Alexandra runs in the $400,000 Lady's Secret Stakes at Monmouth Park in New Jersey. In fact, it is safe to say that Rachel Alexandra will probably draw the attention of race fans at Monmouth Park and possibly national television viewers on TVG Friday during the races when she is scheduled to school in the paddock at Monmouth Park.

The Lady's Secret was modified in recent months by Monmouth Park to accommodate Rachel Alexandra trainer Steve Asmussen and principal owner Jess Jackson to entice them to return to Monmouth Park with their star. The purse for the ungraded race was increased $250,000, the distance was extended an additional sixteenth of a mile to 1-1/8 miles and the date was moved up a week from the original Aug. 1 as published in the stakes book.

The field set to face Rachel Alexandra is far less than stellar as well with the most formidable of them listing ungraded stakes wins at the top of their list of accomplishments. There will be no foes with the qualifications of Zardana, who defeated Rachel Alexandra in her 2010 debut in the New Orleans Ladies in March; nor Unrivaled Belle, upset winner of the grade 2 La Troienne Stakes at Churchill Downs April 30 over Rachel Alexandra.

But the race is just what the trainer ordered for a filly who is trying to solidify that she has her groove on again after winning the Fleur de Lis Handicap (gr. 2) in her last race by 10-1/2 lengths. Monmouth Park is also a track Rachel seems to like quite a bit having won the $1 million Haskell Invitational there last year over Belmont Stakes winner Summer Bird and a cast of disheartened colts.

The race is just one more feather in the cap of the New Jersey Sports and Exposition Authority which runs Monmouth Park. This year the track's executives have racked up enough feathers to start a pillow company with their double digit or better increases in attendance, handle and field sizes during their experimental Elite Summer Meet.

And with the 2010 Haskell looking to feature Kentucky Derby presented by Yum! Brands winner Super Saver, Preakness winner Lookin at Lucky, Florida Derby winner Ice Box, Uptowncharlybrown and Trappe Shot among the likely starters, there are no signs of bumps in the Monmouth Park road for the foreseeable future.

And certainly the New Jersey fans are deserving of the appearance of Rachel Alexandra and all she brings to a day at the races. These fans have been showing up at a clip of more than 10,000 per day this summer and haven't been leaving their wallets, tip sheets and past performances at home.

So the race may have it critics, but that will mean little when the cameras begin to click, the hands begin to clap and fathers are pointing out Rachel Alexandra for their daughters.

Friday, July 16, 2010

Surviving Hard Times Has Been Racing's Strength.

The Thoroughbred Bloggers’ Alliance Hot Topic of the Week is the State Of Racing. Will the current hard economic times and state ineptitude lead to a brighter racing future? Will failures in any big racing state like California, Kentucky, or New York lead to a brighter future?

It is indeed a very wide open, complicated and certainly an emotional topic and I’m not sure it can be completely addressed in one blog post. But there are specifics that can be addressed.

History tells us that difficult economic times can adversely affect the horse racing industry. Horse racing experienced it’s greatest popularity during the Great Depression when Gallant Fox, Equipoise and Discovery, donned the headlines of major sports pages and were the feature of many historical radio broadcasts at that time. In fact, 40 million people, nearly one-third of nation’s population, sat next to their radios to listen to the 1938 match race between War Admiral and Seabiscuit.

The racing industry also experienced perhaps their greatest expansion into previous non pari-mutuel states during and after the recession of the early 1980s. During that decade wagering on horse racing was legalized and tracks were built in Iowa, Texas, Oklahoma, Alabama, Indiana, Kansas and Minnesota to name a few. It was also during that decade when inter-track wagering was introduced throughout North America, eventually evolving into the different technological wagering opportunities we have today including account wagering and an almost endless simulcast menu at nearly every track.

It can also be argued that the collapse of the California real estate market has had a positive effect on the racing industry. As Hollywood Park closes their 2010 summer season this week, one has to again wonder if that will be the last race to be run at the Track of Lakes and Flowers. When Churchill Downs, Inc. sold Hollywood Park to Bay Meadows Land Company for $260 million in cash in July of 2005, the new owner was to continue thoroughbred racing at Hollywood Park for at least three years under the terms of the agreement. According to Bay Meadows officials, the continuation of Hollywood Park as a racing venue now depends on California allowing more gambling, like slot machines, to the track. But the down economy has made financing difficult for the development of the Hollywood Park property and the track continues to run – meet after meet.

In other states, legislatures are again faced with budget deficits, but it remains to be seen if horse racing will benefit. While there is no doubt that state budget cuts are having an effect on regulation in California where racing official positions are being eliminated; and New York, where the state’s bankrupt OTB facilities nearly took Belmont, Aqueduct and Saratoga with them; racing in other states may get a positive push from the down economy.

The most logical to benefit would be the state legislators and racing industry of Texas where slot legislation will be addressed while lawmakers face budget deficits during the next legislative session in 2011. The state’s conservatives – many of whom are still reeling from dancing being allowed at Baylor - will have to now face the possible economic impact of ignoring the potential benefits of horse racing. The state’s equine culture will also take at hit as well as which will surely bei’ts tracks are relegated further into the minor leagues of the sport if they survive at all if slot legislation is not passed.

However, it looks like horse racing in Kentucky will have to suffer some before their politicians wake up. Last year a Kentucky State Senate committee killed legislation that would have allowed slot machines at the state’s seven race tracks.

Eventually however, as history has proven before, horse racing will somehow survive the hard times. The real question will be what it may look like and what tracks survive. The best way for the industry to have any control over that is to move before the economic prey pounces upon them.

The subject of this post was suggested by the Thoroughbred Bloggers Alliance (link), and other posts like it will be found at the TBA homepage.

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Steinbrenner Was About Much More Than Just The Yankees

Many in the horse racing industry may look on the passing of George Stienbrenner Jr. as a loss of the longtime New York Yankees owner and all of the championships and controversy he brought to the Bronx Bombers. The Yankees won seven World Series championships, 11 pennants and 16 division titles under the ownership of "The Boss" but Steinbrenner also had 20 managers in his first 23 seasons running Yankees, including firing and re-hiring manager Billy Martin five times.

George Steinbrenner Jr., who died Tuesday at the age of 80, certainly had flair, charisma and influence.

Steinbrenner was also banned from baseball in 1990 for an association with a known gambler and was reinstated again three years later by baseball commissioner Bud Selig. Steinbrenner also had a significant impact on free agency in baseball – and other major sports for that matter – signing the likes of stars Reggie Jackson and Dave Winfield to historically rich contracts.

But that image of Mr. Steinbrenner is far from that of the man that loved, and made so many contributions to thoroughbred racing.

Steinbrenner first became interested in horse racing in the early 1970s and by 1977 he had his first Kentucky Derby starter in Dave’s Friend who finished fourth behind Triple Crown winner Seattle Slew. Under his black and blue silks of Kinsman Stable, Steinbrenner tried five more times with Derby entrants with Eternal Prince (1985, 12th); Diligence (‘96, 9th); Concerto (’97, 9th); Blue Burner (2002, 11th) and post time favorite Bellamy Road who finished seventh in 2005.

Had Steinbrenner won one of those Run for the Roses, thoroughbred racing may have been even more the beneficiary of his passion and business sense.

As it was, horse racing was high enough on the sports legend’s priority list to benefit the sport of kings. Steinbrenner bred horses at his 750-acre Kinsam Farm near Ocala, Fla.; owned Florida Downs (now Tampa Bay Downs) during the 1980s and part of Balmoral Racetrack and Maywood Harness near Chicago around that time. He was also active in the Florida breeding industry and was also a past president of the Florida Thoroughbred Breeders’ and Owners’ Association

During his tenure as the head of Kinsman Stable, Steinbrenner bred or raced in partnership a number of grade 1 winners including Buy The Firm, Dream Supreme, Eternal Prince, Majestic Warrior, Spinning Round and Sweet Symphony according to

Also as reported in a column by Eric Mitchell, Ocala Farm owner and at that time vice president of the Florida Breeders’ Association Mike O’Farrell once said of Steinbrenner "When we got to the stage of implementing off-track wagering and interstate simulcasting, there is no doubt that Steinbrenner was the single most influential person in Florida in being sure it got done and got done right."

And getting it done right was what George Steinbrenner Jr. was all about – as long as he had the passion.

One has to wonder what horse racing might look like today if Dave’s Friend or Eternal Prince had won the Kentucky Derby. Would George Steinbrenner Jr. have plunged into thoroughbred racing as enthusiastically as he did major league baseball?

Probably not. But that doesn't diminish his longtime contribution to horse racing or our loss of a great sportsman.

Monday, July 12, 2010

Trappe Set For Haskell And Other Good News

It was a pretty good weekend for racing fans. Gio Ponti (photo, right), the 2009 Champion Turf Horse, put a halt to his losing streak by winning the grade 1 Man o’War Stakes at Belmont Park and 3-year-old starlet Blind Luck took the Delaware Oaks (gr. 2) over a sloppy track.

Looking ahead, we have Santa Anita Derby (gr. 1) winner Sidney’s Candy leading the contenders into Saturday’s Swaps Stakes (gr. 2) at Hollywood Park and trainer Jerry Hollendorfer said Blind Luck is headed to Saratoga for the Alabama (gr. 1). The August 21 Alabama may be one of the more anticipated races during the Spa meeing with other major league 3-year-old fillies such as Mother Goose (gr. 1) winner Devil May Care and Prioress Stakes (gr. 1) winner Franny Freud also headed to Saratoga.

Trainer Bob Baffert saw his Preakness winner Luckin at Lucky work Saturday at Santa Anita covering six furlongs in 1:12.60. As reported in Daily Racing Form, Lookin at Lucky suffered a minor setback following the Preakness with a fever, but Baffert said they are back on track for the $1 million Haskell Invitational (gr. 1) August 1 at Monmouth Park in New Jersey. Kentucky Derby (gr. 1) presented by Yum! Brands winner Super Saver is also training for the Haskell in Todd Pletcher’s barn as well as sentimental favorite Uptowncharlybrown and Preakness runner-up First Dude.

First Dude will also bring sentimental support to the Haskell as owner Jack Dizney as pledged 1% of his graded stakes earnings to the Grayson-Jockey Club Research Foundation, the industry’s leading veterinary research organization.

However, the sophomore class of 2009 took a hit this weekend when trainer Bill Mott said Belmont winner Drosselmeyer will take a break from training for at least 60 days due to a foot concern. It is conceivable Drosselmeyer could return in time for the Breeders’ Cup, but it will likely be his first start after the long vacation presenting a large hurdle in front of an already daunting task. If the Breeders’ Cup Classic features Zenyatta, Quality Road, Rachel Alexandra and a late blooming 3-year-old star or two, it becomes a worse option and a doubtful path for Drosselmeyer and his connections.

One of those potential late blooming 3-year-old made an appearance this weekend at Monmouth Park. Trappe Shot (photo left) looked very impressive winning the $175,000 Long Branch Stakes, the local preparation for the Haskell. In his first start around two turns, Trappe Shot stopped the clock in 1:43.48 for the 1 1/16 miles. It was also good enough to earn him his second consecutive 105 Beyer Speed Figure having also achieved that number in a June 5 allowance victory at Belmont Park.

Super Saver (Kentucky Derby, 104) and Lookin at Lucky (Preakness, 102) have only achieved triple-digit Beyer numbers once to help put Trappe Shot’s two recent races into perspective. In any event, Trappe Shot may be one of the most exciting new challengers to Triple Crown winners in the Haskell since Lost Code took on Derby and Preakness winner Alysheba and Belmont winner Bet Twice in 1987.

But perhaps some of the best news we heard this weekend was regarding the recovery of Global Hunter. Just a few strides after winning the American Handicap (gr. 2T) at Hollywood Park July 4, Global Hunter dislocated his right front fetlock, a life-threatening injury for a thoroughbred.

However, he was rushed to Alamo Pintado Medical Center in Los Olivos, Calif where he underwent four hours of surgery the following day according to Trainer A.C. Avila told Bloodhorse that a plate and 16 screws were inserted to stabilize and repair the joint and Global Hunter is currently “doing fantastic.”
Best news of all.

Monday, July 5, 2010

A Rough Holiday Weekend For Derby Class of '09.

It was not a good holiday weekend for horses from the Derby class of ’09. Derby winner Mine That Bird finished eighth in the grade 2 Firecracker Handicap at Churchill Downs Sunday; Regal Ransom (8th in the ’09 Derby), finished fourth in the Suburban Handicap (gr. 2) while Hold Me Back (12th in the Derby), lost his jockey to a bad breathalyzer test before the Dominion Day Stakes at Woodbine even started Friday. And even though I Want Revenge (photo right) didn’t start in the Kentucky Derby presented by Yum! Brands last year, he was the prohibitive favorite before being scratched the morning of the race. I Want Revenge didn’t fair much better Saturday, just defeating Regal Ransom for third in the Suburban.

Hold Me Back apparently made the pre-race curfew that Kent Desormeaux missed, because he eventually won the $216,400 Dominian Day with replacement jockey Tyler Pizarro. And forgive me for not being too harsh on the other three.

I Want Revenge was making his return to the races in the 9 furlong Suburban after fifteen months off with his last race being his remarkable Wood Memorial (gr. 1) in April of last year. Around the far turn, eventual winner Haynesfield moved passed Regal Ransom, who had set the Surbuban fractions and began to pull away down the Belmont Park stretch as Regal Ransom and I Want Revenge began to tire. Regal Ransom was also making his first start of the year, having not raced since finishing eighth in the Breeders’ Cup Classic in November.

In a bit of Suburban irony, Haynesfield was a Kentucky Derby prospect in March of last year before he finished eighth in the Gotham (gr. 2) behind I Want Revenge.

Like, Regal Ransom, Mine That Bird (photo left) was making his first start since a poor Breeders’ Cup Classic as he finished ninth that day at Santa Anita. And the 2008 Canadian Champion had a few additional obstacles to overcome as well. Making his first start under the direction of Hall of Fame trainer D. Wayne Lukas, Mine That Bird had been pointed to an allowance race earlier in the week on dirt, but the race didn’t fill. The Firecracker was also Mine That Bird’s first start on turf, and judging by the performance, may be his last.

Lukas has said that they are now pointing Mine That Bird toward the grade 1 Whitney Handicap on the dirt at Saratoga August 7. There he is expected to meet the leading older male horse in the country at this time, Quality Road, with the grade 1 Metropolitan Mile and grade 1 Donn Handicap at Gulfstream Park this winter among his 2010 credits.

On a side note, Quality Road worked Sunday at Belmont Park going a half mile in an easy :48.84 for trainer Todd Pletcher. “It was just an easy maintenance breeze for him,” said Jonathan Thomas, Pletcher’s assistant. “He went well.” Quality Road was among the favorites for the 2009 Kentucky Derby as well before an foot injury forced his withdrawl just days before the run for the roses.

No news as to the next start for I Want Revenge from trainer Dick Dutrow’s barn nor on plans for Regal Ransom, from Saeed bin Suroor on plans for Regal Ransom. Toby Sheets, assistant to trainer Steve Asmussen, said plans for Haynesworth will not be determined in the near future either.

Toby Sheets, assistant to trainer Steve Asmussen said “[Haynesworth] came out of the race well. We’ll wait until he comes back and breezes, and then begin talking about it.”

Friday, July 2, 2010

Show Me The Reason

A few days ago, NBA agent Lon Babby was on the ESPN Radio’s Mike and Mike in the Morning talking about the much anticipated NBA free agency season that began at midnight Thursday. With the iconic Cleveland Cavalier LeBron James and superstars Dwayne Wade of Miami and Chris Boss of Toronto all becoming free agents this year, it is the biggest and potentially most impactful free agency season in NBA history. Certainly the biggest free agency class since future Hall of Famers Grant Hill and Tim Duncan hit the market together ten years ago. Babby, who represented both Duncan and Hill, told how as an agent he provides a list of criteria to each client before the free agency process begins. On that list are things like Championships, compensation, coaching, style of play, city livability, taxes, teammates, etc. There are 13 items on the list and the free agent is asked to rank them in order of importance. Without disclosing any names, Babby went on to say that nearly every free agent he has ever represented ranked compensation as their highest priority. He clarified that money does not trump every other item on the list, but if all other things are equal, money is invariably the most important to the players.

I’ve followed sports long enough to remember when Curt Flood of the St. Louis baseball Cardinals challenged a trade after the 1969 season, taking his case all the way to the United States Supreme Court, and pioneering free agency. And I’d be willing to bet that from the days when Flood roamed center field in St. Louis to James’, Wade and Boss today, money has been the driving force in most free agency decisions. For Flood it was a $100,000 contract in 1969. It was a very big number for a baseball player at that time. Today it is James, Wade and Boss each hoping for the NBA maximum contract of $96 million over four or five years.

I bring up free agency in light of the curious move recently by Jess Jackson (photo right), principal owner of Rachel Alexandra, who decided to run his 2009 Horse of the Year in the ungraded $400,000 Lady’s Secret Stakes at Monmouth Park July 24 instead of the grade 1 $250,000 Ruffian Handicap at the same distance at Saratoga the following week.

While all thoroughbreds and their handlers are technically free agents and have the right to command a certain level of purse money to perform, for most, that level is limited to the tracks at which one is given a stall and further within the confines of that track’s condition and stakes books.

But for a select few throughout history, stakes schedules and prize money has been significantly adjusted by race tracks to attract those stars. Going back to 1920 when Kenilworth Park put up $75,000 for a match race between the great Man o’ War and Triple Crown winner Sir Barton, tracks have used money and specified race conditions to feature the star thoroughbreds and promote horse racing at their venues. Certainly Rachel Alexandra and the undefeated Zenyatta fall into that category today.

Earlier this year Oaklawn Park president Charles Cella offered to boost the purse of the grade 1 Apple Blossom ten-fold to $5 million if both Rachel Alexandra and Zenyatta started. Jackson declined after Rachel Alexandra unexpectedly lost in the New Orleans Ladies Stakes preparing for the Apple Blossom. The purse of the Apple Blossom reverted back to the original $500,000 but Zenyatta and her connections still showed up in Arkansas to win her 16th consecutive race.

Instead Rachel Alexandra made her next start in the $200,000 La Troienne (gr. 2) at Churchill in early May and was upset. She finally won her first race of 2010 in her third start in the $200,000 Fleur dis Lis (gr. 2) at Churchill June 12. The next day Zenyatta made history winning her 17th race in as many starts in the $250,000, grade 1 Vanity Handicap. No purse levels were adjusted in the La Troienne, Fleur dis Lis nor Vanity but now Jackson is back in free agent mode, apparently taking Rachel Alexandra to the highest bidder – and taking the criticism for it from bloggers, the media and in particular the New York Racing Association, which operates Saratoga where the Ruffian will be run. NYRA president Charles Hayward said in a prepared statement that they “are puzzled and disappointed that Rachel Alexandra, who performed so well at Saratoga last year, is passing up the Grade 1 Ruffian to run in a non-graded race at Monmouth over the same distance."

The solution to Hayward’s puzzle of course is money – something the NYRA does not have much of after needing financial assistance from New York State to stay in business past the Belmont in early June this year. But NYRA’s financial problems are an entirely different story.

I can’t blame Jackson and his partner Harold McCormick for taking the extra money offered by Monmouth Park management. After all, Rachel Alexandra did win the $1 million Haskell Invitational over colts last year at Monmouth Park so we know she likes the Jersey Shore. It is also easy to imagine why Jackson and his ownership team, family and friends may want to return to Monmouth Park – the track and community have wonderful reputations. But you can’t tell me the crowd at Monmouth cheers any louder than the Saratoga folks last year when Rachel Alexandra won the Woodward.

I also don’t understand why Jackson exposes Rachel Alexandra to the potential criticism of skipping a grade 1 race – something she doesn’t need nor deserve. In the Zenyatta v. Rachel debate, (however tiring and ugly it can become at times) the Zenyatta supporters can now say Rachel dodged Zenyatta in the $5 million classic because the owner didn’t like the artificial surface. The Zenyatta supporters can now say Rachel dodged them again in the $5 million Apple Blossom. And now – never mind the competition in Zenyatta’s grade 1 wins in California, at least she shows up. Rachel’s critics now have her dodging grade 1 competition in their arsenal.

And I’m not sure the winner’s share of the extra $150,000 in the Lady’s Secret compared to the Ruffian is enough for a man like Jackson. I would take the barbs for $90,000 as I’m sure many would. But Jess Jackson can spend $90,000 at a concession stand if he sees a hot dog that he thinks is worth it. Jackson could probably lose $90,000 miscalculating a few tips.

Jackson has every right to take his filly anywhere he wants and run her anytime. And we as race fans are lucky she is even running this year at all. Most owners would have retired the Horse of the Year to the breeding shed. So don’t mistake me for looking a gift Rachel in the mouth.

As Lon Babby said, all things being equal between two teams, money comes into play making a free agent decision. But all things are not equal between the grade 1 Ruffian the Lady’s Secret. So we can only deduce that money is trumping every other factor for Jackson – at least in this instance.

I just don’t know why.

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