The Brock Talk

Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Rachel, Ruffian and the Amazon Roan

With the retirement of 2009 Horse of the Year Rachel Alexandra (photo left), I found it interesting to compare and contrast her to other great fillies of our time – Ruffian and Winning Colors. For several reasons – not the least of which is simplicity – I restricted the comparisons to the two and three-year-old campaigns of each. Although Ruffian was by far the biggest star at two, it is their sophomore campaigns in which each filly seemed to shine the brightest, whether by popularity, fate, performance, or in the case of Ruffian, fatality.

Ruffian of course, ended her 3-year-old campaign tragically in 1975, crushing her right front sesamoids in a fatal match race against Kentucky Derby winner Foolish Pleasure before 50,000 fans at Belmont Park and a July 4 national television audience. Both Winning Colors and Rachel Alexandra had forgettable 4-year-old campaigns and did not race at five. But all three gave us brilliance epitiomized, none perfected but worthy of greatness, history and glamour by any standard.

Ruffian (photo right) was the youngest to catch the eye of the national racing public, winning all of her five races as a juvenile of which four were graded stakes. Her last race of her juvenile season she won the grade 1 Spinaway at Saratoga by 12-1/2 lengths and was the landslide winner as Champion Two-Year-Old Filly of 1974. Winning Colors was undefeated in three starts as a 2-year-old, but her biggest win that year came in the restricted Las Centinela Stakes at Santa Anita. Rachel Alexandra finished sixth, beaten eight lengths in her first start as a 2-year-old and ended the year winning the grade 2 Golden Rod Stakes at Churchill Downs. With only three wins in six starts, Rachel Alexandra was promising, but far beneath the national radar. Winning Colors had much the same anonymity nationally before she turned three. But before the Kentucky Derby Future Wager and across the Southern California-Mexico border, winter bets were being wagered with her name and the Kentucky Derby on the ticket.

At three, trainer Frank Whitely sent Ruffian through easy wins in an allowance race and the grade 3 Comely Stakes at Aqueduct to start the year. Rachel Alexandra began to turn local heads early winning the Martha Washington Stakes at Oaklawn Park by eight lengths before taking the grade 2 Fair Grounds Oaks in New Orleans in March. Rachel Alexandra next won the grade 2 Fantasy back at Oaklawn Park and by the time she got to the Kentucky Oaks (gr. 1), she was the odds-on favorite for the fourth time in four starts that year. Winning Colors had the slowest start of the three, running second in the Las Virgenes Stakes at Santa Anita behind another heralded filly in Southern California, Goodbye Halo.

It is difficult to say that Ruffian had any type of breakout race as a 3-year-old because she had been so dominant from the time she stepped on the track as a juvenile filly. Her grade 1 victories in the Acorn at Aqueduct and the Mother Goose and Coaching Club American Oaks at Belmont seemed nothing more than technicalities. Lucien Laurin, the trainer of Secretariat, once said to the press of Ruffian, "As God as my witness, she may even be better than Secretariat." Ruffian was never headed by any horse at any point of call at any time during her career until the match race. She won her five races during her 3-year-old year by a combined 37 lengths or by about 7-1/2 lengths a race. Ruffian set a new stakes record in each of the eight stakes she won and equaled two track records as well.

Although Winning Colors (bottom photo) started a bit slower, she breezed through the Santa Anita Oaks (gr. 1) winning by 8 lengths and seemed to handle the boys just as easily, winning the Santa Anita Derby (gr. 1) by 7-1/2 easy lengths. She was not the betting favorite in the Kentucky Derby, but stayed popular among a stellar Derby field that included Forty Niner, Risen Star, Seeking the Gold and Private Terms. But she would have nothing to do with any of them and promptly left them in her wake, taking the Kentucky Derby in wire-to-wire fashion while holding off the late charging Forty Niner at the wire. In the Preakness, jockey Pat Day aboard Forty Niner would not let Winning Colors get alone on the lead as she had in the Derby and the two cleared the path for a stalking victory by Risen Star. Winning Colors would run sixth in the Belmont and then came back to run second against older mares in the Maskette (gr. 1) at Belmont and fourth in the Spinster (gr. 1) at Keeneland. Her final race as a 3-year-old came against the undefeated Personal Ensign in the Breeders’ Cup Distaff. The race was at Churchill Downs, the site of her greatest triumph, and trainer D. Wayne Lukas, and jockey Gary Stevens had every intention of taking advantage of that. Again Winning Colors sped around the Churchill Downs oval in apparent control until the final second of the Distaff, when Personal Ensign edged Winning Colors at the wire in one of the closest and most dramatic races in Breeders’ Cup history.

The day before the 2009 Kentucky Derby, Rachel Alexandra introduced herself to racing fans around the country with a dazzling 20-length victory in the Kentucky Oaks. Days later she was purchased by a group headed by Jess Jackson who summarily announced they were heading to the Preakness to take on the boys. Holding off the late rally of Kentucky Derby winner Mine That Bird, Rachel Alexandra became the first filly since Nellie Morse in 1924 to win the second leg of the Triple Crown since 1926. She returned to her division in the Mother Goose, and again clobbered her female rivals by nearly 20 lengths. She stomped the sophomore boys again the $1 million Haskell Invitational before stepping up another level to take on holder horses in the grade 1 Woodward at Saratoga.

In a race in which her competition threw everything but the kitchen sink at Rachel Alexandra, she eventually fought off Bullsbay in deep stretch and held off Macho Again by a head becoming the only female to win the prestigious Woodward and the only 3-year-old filly to defeat older males in a grade 1 rounte race in New York since Lady Primrose won the Manhattan in 1887.

Rachel Alexandra was the only one of the three honored as the Horse of the Year but all three were named the Champion Three Year Old Filly respectively. Ruffian was the only Champion as a 2-year-old but titles seem almost trivial when remembering these three great female thoroughbreds. Ruffian almost black, Rachel a glistening bay and Winning Colors the Amazon roan.

It seems almost pointless to say which may have been bigger or faster or more attractive. All three were stunning individuals who came to the paddock as a queen would address her court. Both Ruffian and Winning Colors are in the Hall of Fame and Rachel Alexandra is destined there as well – likely in the first year of her eligibility.

I’m just glad to be counted among their subjects.

Monday, September 27, 2010

Five Million Reasons To Watch Goodwood and Gold Cup

Two of the most lucrative races in producing Breeders’ Cup Classic (gr. 1) winners are Saturday with one on each coast. While the Woodward Stakes (gr. 1) at Saratoga has produced the most Breeders’ Cup Classic winners with six, the Goodwood in Southern California has produced five winners and the Jockey Club Gold Cup in New York has produced four Breeders’ Cup Classic champions.

The statistics speak well for Quality Road, winner of the 2010 Woodward at Saratoga in early September, but will skip the Jockey Club Gold Cup and train up to the $5,000,000 Classic on Nov. 6 at Churchill Downs. But the numbers also point to good things for both the big races this weekend, the Goodwood and Jockey Club Gold Cup.

The Goodwood Stakes has traditionally been run at Santa Anita during the Oak Tree Meeting, but the non-profit Oak Tree Association moved the meeting to Hollywood Park because of disputes with Magna, which owns Santa Anita. Ironically, the most recent winner of the Goodwood and Breeders’ Cup Classic double was Pleasantly Perfect in 2003, before the installation of the track’s artificial surface. The other two Goodwood/Classic winners, Tiznow in 2001 and Alphabet Soup in 1996, produced Classic winners at tracks outside of Southern California. Tiznow won the 2001 Breeders’ Cup Classic at Belmont Park and Alphabet Soup won the 1996 Breeders’ Cup Classic at Woodbine. The first Goodwood winner to hit the Classic winner was Ferdinand in 1987 who stayed at Santa Anita to win a thrilling Breeders’ Cup Classic over Alysheba that year.

The three most recent Goodwood/Classic winners all paid handsomely to their Breeders’ Cup supporters with even Tiznow now returning $15.80 in 2001 when taking his second consecutive Classic. Pleasantly Perfect and Alphabet Soup generated even healthier returns for their supports in the Breeders’ Cup returning $30.40 and $41.70 respectively. Ferdinand remains the second-lowest priced winner of the Breeders’ Cup Classic returning $4.00, behind only Cigar (photo above) in 1995 who returned $3.60 for a $2 win ticket.

Curlin is among three to pull of the Jockey Club Gold Cup/Breeders’ Cup Classic double, having done so in 2007. As difficult as it may seem, it is another 14 years further back than Curlin to find Skip Away, who won both races in 1997. Two years earlier Cigar took both races in 1995. Interestingly, while the prestigious victories gave Curlin and Cigar the Horse of the Year honors, it was a year later before Cigar Skip Away was awarded his golden Eclipse Awards.

Like Cigar, Skip Away and Curlin are among the lowest priced winners of the Breeders’ Cup Classic returning $5.60 and $10.80 respectively.

Regardless of the investment opportunities however, it seems like that racing this weekend will have an influence over the distribution of the $5,000,000 Classic purse November 6.

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Super Derby Stills Serves Spice

Louisiana Downs’ Super Derby has a rich history beginning with the inaugural running in 1980 when Travers Stakes (gr. 1) and Jockey Club Gold Cup (gr. 1) winner Temperence Hill invaded and defeated the local First Albert. It is not known if it is the minerals in the muddy water from the Red River or the cayenne in the ettoufe at Ralph and Kacoo’s, but somehow the once prestigious race manages to pack just enough spice for a grade 2, $500,000 race.

Once a more prestigious grade 1 race at the classic distance of 1-1/4 miles, the Super Derby has been won by Kentucky Derby winners Sunny’s Halo (1983), Alysheba (’87) and Sunday Silence (’89). Last year, international powerhouse Goldolfin Stables won their second Super Derby with Regal Ransom after winning with Essence of Dubai in 2002. The Super Derby winner has gone on to win the Breeders’ Cup Classic in their next start numerous times including Sunday Silence and Tiznow (2000), while Unbridled in 1990 and Concern in 1994 won the Classic after finishing second in the Super Derby. Home at Last defeated Unbridled and Soul of the Matter won over Concern. The runner-up in last year’s Super Derby, Blame, is likely going to be among the favorites to win the Jockey Club Gold Cup (gr. 1) Oct. 2 at Belmont Park.

The 2010 renewal of the Super Derby may not produce the winner of the Breeders’ Cup Classic this year, but there is still plenty of spice.

Among the race favorites is expected to be Golden Moka, who may not be a Bold Forbes or a Mister Frisky, but is trying the same path coming to North America after an undefeated career south of the border. Bold Forbes and Mister Frisky came to the United States from Puerto Rico while Golden Moka won his first three races in Panama.

But Golden Moka already has a significant win to his credit in North American having won the second leg of the Canadian Triple Crown, the $500,000 Prince of Whales Stakes at Fort Erie July 25, after breaking his maiden and winning an allowance race and a group 3 event in Panama last year.

Adding even more flavor the Golden Moka team is the ownership group headed by retired jockey Rene Douglas, who suffered a paralyzing injury last year at Arlington Park. During his ongoing rehabilitation however, Douglas was never too far from the game and put together a group to purchase Golden Moka privately last year from the Panamanian connections. Among Douglas’ team is Denis Savard, a member of the Hockey Hall of Fame who trails only Bobby Hull and Stan Mikita among goal scores in a Chicago Blackhawks sweater.

Golden Moka will have plenty of competition from Derby Trial (gr. 3) winner Hurricane Ike from the John Sadler barn and California shipper Distorted Economy, trained by Neil Drysdale. Apart, winner of the local Super Derby prep Prelude Stakes, comes from the Al Stall Jr. barn, which missed last year with Blame and won two years ago with My Pal Charlie. Stall was based at Louisiana Downs early in his career before moving his summer base to Kentucky.

So the Super Derby may not be among the most expensive or glamorous derbies of the year as it once was. But in true Louisiana style, it’s sure to allow le bon temps roulle. Let the good times roll.

Friday, September 10, 2010

What To Do With Mine That Bird

As the career of 2009 Kentucky Derby (gr. 1) presented by Yum! Brands winner Mine That Bird continues to plunge further downward with his last-place finish in the grade 1 Woodward, one has to wonder several things about the diminutive gelding. Was his Kentucky Derby a fluke? If he wasn’t a fluke, what has gone wrong with Mine That Bird since winning the Kentucky Derby? And what can be done, if anything, to get him back on track?

The answer as to the validity of Mine That Bird’s victory in Kentucky is obviously influenced by the fact that he has not won in eight starts since. Not only has he not won, but in his three starts this year in the Firecracker (gr. 2) at Churchill Downs and the Whitney (gr. 1) and Woodward at Saratoga, he has been beaten more than 41 lengths.

To be fair to the horse, that eight-race losing streak is riddled with legitimate excuses. In the eight races since the Derby, Mine That Bird has had five jockey changes, a trainer change, traffic in the Preakness and a bad ride in the Belmont. Two starts came at Santa Anita over a synthetic surface he obviously did not like and his first start this year was a last-second entry into the Firecracker Handicap on turf. In the Woodward he again ran with a new jockey, and blinkers for the first time, and a failed attempt at a new, closer-to-the-pace running style.

Regardless, the fluke label and been attached to Mine That Bird and the armor has worn thin among his defenders. After all, 0-for-8 is 0-for-8.

Now on to the third question: What can be done, if anything, to get him back on track? It is difficult to imagine that he would need another lay-off with only three starts year after his eight month vacation between the Breeders’ Cup Classic (gr. 1) in November and the Firecracker in July. It would appear that the Jockey Club Gold Cup, Breeders’ Cup Classic or any other grade 1 race are no longer short term options for Mine That Bird.

Perhaps the grade 2 Hawthorne Gold Cup is a viable option. The 10-furlong distance is suitable to Mine That Bird’s come-from-behind running style and the Oct. 2 date may also fit. The Monmouth Cup Stakes (gr. 2) at 1-1/8 miles Oct. 9 or the $100,000 Spend A Buck Handicap (gr. 3) at Calder the following week are other options.

But make no mistake. Mine That Bird may be just one loss away from retirement. Some might say he should be on his way back to Roswell, New Mexico now. But that is a difficult decision to make on a grade 1 winning, 4-year-old gelding. It is difficult to watch the Kentucky Derby winner flounder around Saratoga in embarrassment, but there has to be more left in the tank and some hope that what may be left isn’t sour.

That might take some wins at a lower level for a few races to help Mine That Bird regain his confidence and his competitiveness. Neither of which he currently seems to have. In no way are we suggesting Mine That Bird ever be dropped below allowance level racing. That seems obvious to racing fans but sometimes escapes certain trainers or owners.

But if all else fails and trainer D. Wayne Lukas can’t find the correct buttons to push on Mine That Bird, a swift retirement decision must be order. And Mine That Bird can live the rest of his days enjoying the dry, sunny afternoons and the funny lights in the night skies above Roswell.

Editors Note: This blog post is part of the Thoroughbred Bloggers’ Alliance Winning Topic Friday. This week various TBA bloggers are addressing Retirement: Where is the line for retirement vs competing, but not winning, for a horse that once won at a high level? As fans we want our stars to hang around and race as much as possible, but all horses lose form, some permanently some for a period of time. As fans we can't have it both ways wanting more racing, but we don't want to see our stars sullied.

You can read more TBA Blogs at the TBA home page.

Monday, September 6, 2010

Quality Road Hoping For History and Time Karma For Breeders' Cup Classic

Quality Road won the grade 1 Woodward Stakes Saturday in a gallop. A perfect preparation for the $5 million Breeders’ Cup Classic (gr. 1) at Chuchill Downs Nov. 6 according to trainer Todd Pletcher.

“I think if he gets the 1 ¼ miles he can do it with the time in between,” Pletcher said in NYRA press notes. “For me statistically, we’ve always done well with that kind of time frame, so we’d like to come into the biggest and most important race with what we do best. Our horses tend to run their best races with that kind of spacing between them.”

But does that time frame do well statistically in the history of those that have won the Woodward and the Breeders’ Cup Classic in the same year?

For the record, six horses have won both the Woodward Stakes at Breeders’ Cup Classic. However, two of those Woodward/Classic double winners were not able to pull it off in the same year. Skip Away won the 1998 Woodward after winning the 1997 Breeders’ Cup Classic and Cigar followed a similar path winning the 2007 Classic and 2008 Woodward.

Relative to Quality Road trying to jump from the Woodward winner’s circle to winning the Breeders’ Cup Classic in the same year, four are among that group: Alysheba (1988), Cigar (’95), Ghostzapper (2004) and St. Liam (’05).

However, both Alysheba and Cigar made starts between their Woodward wins and the Breeders’ Cup Classic.

Alysheba won the grade 1 Meadowlands Cup at 1-1/4 miles in 1:58.80 to become the only horse in the modern era at that time to break the 2-minute barrier at 10 furlongs three times in the same year. Alysheba, jockey Chris McCarron and trainer Jack Van Berg then solidified the Horse of the Year golden trophy with a Breeders’ Cup Classic win over Seeking the Gold on a dark and rainy early evening at Churchill Downs.

In 1995, Cigar had just defeated Best Pal, Tinner’s Way, Concern and Urgent Request in the Hollywood Gold Cup (gr. 1) in southern California before trainer Bill Mott returned him to New York for the Woodward in preparation for the Breeders’ Cup Classic. Cigar was looking for his eighth win in eight starts for the year and his 10th consecutive career win. He would win the Woodward, the Jockey Club Gold and the Breeders’ Cup Classic to extend his winning streak to 12.

The only two horses to have won the Breeders’ Cup Classic directly out of the Woodward were Ghostzapper in 2004 and St. Liam the next year.

Interestingly, St. Liam had an eerily similar year in 2005 to Quality Road’s 2010 campaign. Both won the Donn Handicap (gr. 1) at Gulfstream Park. Both then won grade 1 stakes before finishing second in the Whitney Handicap (gr. 1) at Saratoga. Quality Road was runner-up to Blame while St. Liam was second to Commentator in the Whitney. In 2005 St. Liam went on to win the Breeders’ Cup Classic at Belmont Park. The question remains for Quality Road.

Looking at Quality Road’s year, however, seems to add credence to the strategy of taking 63 days between the Woodward and the Classic. The son of Elusive Quality seems to enjoy time between races. It was 113 days between his win in the Donn and the Metropolitan Handicap at Belmont Park. It was then 67 days before his loss by a head to Blame while carrying five additional pounds in the Whitney. If anything, 63 days may even a bit short in terms of vacation time between races.

“I think there was a lot more in the tank based on the way he came back [after the Woodward]; he was hardly even blowing,” Pletcher said.

That is a tank that will have to be primed against the likes of possibly Blame, Zenyatta and Looking at Lucky in the Breeders’ Cup Classic.

Friday, September 3, 2010

Quality Road, Mine That Bird Taking Different Strategies Into Woodward

One horse in Saturday’s grade 1 Woodward Stakes at Saratoga is hoping to continue his quest for Horse of the Year. Another is in pursuit of lost respect.

The former is Quality Road, winner of three of four races this year, including grade 1 wins in the Donn Handicap at Gulfstream Park in February and the Metropolitan Mile Handicap at Belmont Park in late May.

The later is Mine That Bird, who is winless in seven starts since winning the Kentucky Derby (gr. 1) presented by Yum! Brands some 16 months ago.

Carrying five pounds more than Blame under the handicap conditions of the Whitney (gr. 1) earlier in the Saratoga meeting, Quality Road suffered his only defeat of the year by a just a head. Blame is being pointed toward the Jockey Club Gold Cup (gr. 1) at Belmont Park Oct. 2 to prepare for a probable rematch with Quality Road in the Breeders’ Cup Classic Nov. 6. That leaves Quality Road as the 1-4 morning line favorite in the Woodward against lesser competition that has recent optional claiming winner Convocation as the second choice at 6-1 odds. Mine That Bird is the third choice at 10-1.

While a victory in the Breeders’ Cup Classic may be necessary for either Blame, Quality Road or other candidates to clinch the golden Eclipse Award for Horse of the Year, trainer Todd Pletcher (photo above) seems to have as much confidence as the Saratoga line maker according to his quotes in Daily Racing Form. “That’s the way we’d like to see the race unfold, for someone to show enough initiative that we can put him in a situation where he can follow someone,” Pletcher told DRF. “I think that’s his best running style.”

The most likely to accommodate Pletcher is the speedy Arcodoro, a speedy victor against non-winners of two races allowance company at Saratoga in his last start.

A fast earlyt pace may be just what D. Wayne Lukas (photo left), trainer of Mine That Bird, has ordered for the Woodward as well. The come from behind gelding is has run two very marginal races this year, finishing eighth on grass at Churchill Downs in the Firecracker Handicap (gr. 2) and fifth again Quality Road and Blame in the Whitney. While Lukas will not be able control the pace in the Woodward, he has already made a significant change with Mine That Bird, firing jockey Calvin Borel and replacing him with Rajiv Maragh.

Lukas is also changing the pace strategy for Mine That Bird in the Whitney telling DRF that “We got to give him a chance at the top of the stretch to close. We could be five or six lengths [back] but we can’t be 16 or 17 lengths back and run down the top handicap horses.” Mine That Bird will also be running in blinkers for the first time in an effort to help him stay closer to the pace setters early.

Now the Mine That Bird bandwagon is about a crowded as a Death Valley tour bus in August, but he continues to be a charming sort for some racing fans. A Kentucky Derby winner always carries some degree of popularity - even if he accomplished the historical feat at 20-1 odds - but Mine That Bird’s smallish stature and reproductive status seem to add to his charm.

But charm doesn’t win grade 1 races at Saratoga. And based on his recent races, changes in strategy and jockeys may not be enough to help Mine That Bird get to the Woodward winner’s circle either. It doesn’t help that Lukas won his only Woodward 28 years ago with Island Whirl. But Saratoga is the “Graveyard of Favorites” so they have that go for them. Which is nice.

Ditto: Matt Carothers On Rachel Alexandra
I am completely on board with TVG host Matt Carothers and his editorial comment regarding the next start for 2009 Horse of the Year Rachel Alexandra. Like Carothers, and echoed on Friday's telecast of Blinkers Off by co-host Dan Illman of Daily Racing Form, wouldn't we all like to see Rachel Alexandra make her next start against Zenyatta in the Lady's Secret Stakes (gr. 1) at Hollywood Park during the Oak Tree meeting Oct. 2.

Of course, the race will never happen. Carothers, Illman and I recognize that. Jess Jackson, principal owner of Rachel Alexandra, has sworn he would never start Rachel Alexandra on a artificial surface. Hollywood Park has a Cushion Track main track. That makes the shipping across the country from New York to California almost inconsequential.

But the Lady's Secret does make sense on many other points as Carothers and Illman both pointed out. The Lady's Secret is 1-1/8 miles, right at Rachel's best distance and an 1/8th of a mile shorter than Zenyatta's distance.

Despite Jackson's convictions, nobody knows how Rachel Alexandra will respond to the artifical surface. And what better time to try than now, when Rachel Alexandra has so little to lose after losing to Persistently as the odds-on favorite in the Personal Ensign last week. But even with the three defeats this year, Rachel's Beyer Speed Figures compare favorably to Zenyatta. Rachel Alexandra may not be the great filly she was last year, but based on Beyer numbers alone, she appears, at the very least, in good enough form to muster a significant challenge if not an all out upset.

But the race would not need a Rachel upset to be one of the great races (if not in most demand) of our era. To see Rachel Alexandra on the lead down the stretch at Hollywood Park, with Zenyatta in methodical and determined pursuit is all we really want.

The problem is: realistically it may be just be too much to ask for.