The Brock Talk

Thursday, January 27, 2011

Holy Bull Has Plenty of Character

Since there is no official starting date when the road to the Kentucky Derby presented by Yum! Brands begins, it is fair to say, “we are underway” with Sunday’s Holy Bull Stakes (gr. 3) at Gulfstream Park in South Florida. Yes, some say last weekend’s Le Comte Stakes at Fair Grounds may have been more of an official launching point, but never-the-less, things are starting to heat up a little in the 3-year-old thoroughbred ranks.

Some may say that the defection of Boys At Tosconova, who has been among the favorites for the Derby over the winter, compromises the Holy Bull in terms of it actually being a Derby prep, but there is certainly plenty of character - if not down right potential - among the remainders.

In the short 21-year history of the Holy Bull, it has produced two Kentucky Derby winners in Go For Gin (1994) and Barbaro in 2006. So its place as the launching pad of Derby preps at Gulfstream Park has served it well. Although Barbaro won the Holy Bull when it was run at 1-1/8 miles and Go For Gin won a 1-1/16 mile version of the Holy Bull. For second consecutive years now, the Holy Bull will be run at a mile around one turn.

The next stops are the Feb. 26, $400,000 Fountain of Youth Stakes and the $1 million Florida Derby April 3, both at 1-1/8 miles.

Among those still going into the Holy Bull is Mucho Macho Man, a son of the Holy Bull sire Macho Uno. Mucho Macho Man has been the runner-up to To Honor and Serve – another prime Derby hopeful – in his last two races in the Nashua Stakes Nov. 6 and the Remsen Stakes Nov. 27, both grade 2 stakes at Aqueduct and both very fast. Intriguing for Much Macho Man fans however, was the fact that he made up two lengths on To Honor and Serve in the Remsen at 1-1/8 miles. How he handles his short winter vacation and the one-turn mile will be signs that might boost him on Derby lists.

Another character in the Holy Bull is Gourmet Dinner, winner of the grade 3 Delta Jackpot Stakes at Delta Downs in Louisiana November 20. What makes Gourmet Dinner a bit of a Derby stratagem is that the Delta Jackpot featured a $750,000 purse giving him – in all likelihood – more than enough graded earnings to qualify for the Run for the Roses. The Florida-bred son of Trippi, who now stands in South Africa, added to his credibility with a fourth place finish after a less than optimal trip in the grade 1 CashCall Futurity at Hollywood Park.

Of course one should hardly talk of any winter horse racing event in South Florida having charisma without the appearance of trainer Nick Zito. He has entered Dialed In, an impressive son of 2003 Horse of the Year Mineshaft, who broke his maiden in come-from-behind fashion at Churchill Downs Nov. 12. Zito is looking for his third Holy Bull after winning the stake back-to-back with Go For Gin and Suave Prospect in 1995.

Add to the cast a Dale Romans-trained son of Devil His Due in Black N Beauty, coming out of consecutive wins in a Churchill maiden special weight and a Gulfstream allowance and the Holy Bull looks to have plenty of interests and opportunities on which it can stand.

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Returning Stars Help Fill Zenyatta Void

Zenyatta, as she always does – present or not – stole the show again Monday night at the Eclipse Awards held at the Fontainebleau Miami Beach Hotel ballroom in Florida as she was named Horse of the Year, and Champion Older Female. Her ownership, training, management and daily care team was also recognized with a Special Eclipse Award for managing her historic 2010 campaign and making her so accessible to her fans.

It was her third attempt at Horse of the Year after being a finalist in both 2008 when losing to Curlin and last year when Rachel Alexandra took home the golden Eclipse Award. At age six, she is the oldest Horse of Year honoree since Cigar in 1996. Only Exterminator in 1922, Kelso in 1964 (both age seven) and John Henry in 1984 at age nine, have been older. Zenyatta is only the 11th female to be named North American Horse of the Year since the award was first given to Hanover in 1887.

Although there were cries from the audience to owner Jerry Moss to “bring her back,” Moss assured the crowd and racing that she was very comfortable in her new home at Lane’s End Farm in Kentucky. Moss later told TVG’s Christine Olivares that no decision has yet been made on who Zenyatta will be bred to this year, but a decision will be coming soon.

There will be a large gap left in racing with the departure of Zenyatta, but there was much encouraging news from the camps of other Eclipse Award winners.

Shane Ryan of Castleton Lyons, the owner of the owner of Champion Male Turf Horse Gio Ponti, said they are “looking forward to 2011 [with Gio Ponti] and maybe we can get that Breeders’ Cup victory eventually.” Gio Ponti finished second to Zenyatta in the 2009 Breeders’ Cup Classic and again second to Goldikova this year in the Breeder’s Cup Turf Mile.

Trainer Todd Pletcher accepted the Eclipse Award for Goldikova and mentioned that she will soon return to training and a possible run at her fourth consecutive Breeders’ Cup Mile. Only ten horses have won two Breeders’ Cup races.

Perhaps the best rivalry of 2009 came from the 3-year-old filly division headed by Eclipse Award winner Blind Luck. The other two divisional finalist, Evening Jewel and Havre de Grace, each finished second twice behind Blind Luck. Evening Jewel lost by a nose both times. Havre de Grace lost by a nose and a neck but came back to defeat Blind Luck in the Fitz Dixon Cotillion Stakes.

Facing older mares for the first time in the Breeders’ Cup Ladies Classic, Blind Luck was second and Havre de Grace third behind winner Unrivaled Bell.

But the good news is that all three, Blind Luck, Evening Jewel and Havre de Grace, will be back again in 2011 to resume their rivalries.

Even in the long term, there seems to be promise. Michael Repole, owner of Champion 2-Year-Old Male Uncle Mo directed some of his acceptance speech comments directly to racing fans saying, “If Uncle Mo lives up to my dreams, I promise you. he will live up to yours.” While Uncle Mo has the rugged trail to and possibly through the Triple Crown season ahead of him, here’s hoping Repole was hinting that early retirement of his promising star would not be in the plans if the success continues for Uncle Mo.

Of course the financial incentives once offered by the breeding industry to entice early retirement are certainly not at the level they were some five or ten years ago. The most expensive stallions to retire this year are Blame, Lookin at Lucky and Quality Road, all with $35,000 stud fees. It has not been that long since those caliber of horses stood in the $50,000 - $75,000 range and at times higher.

Last year Blame won $3.7 million on the track and will have to breed 108 mares this season to match that income. However, approaching that number will be no challenge, even in the current economic environment in the breeding industry.

Kentucky Derby winner Super Saver will have to breed just 85 mares at his 2011 stud fee of $20,000 to reach his 2010 income of $1.7 million while Lookin at Lucky will have to breed just 58 mares at $35,000 each to reach his more than $2 million in earnings last year.

For fillies and mares, the numbers are much more defining. Zenyatta made $1.2 million last year and more than $7.4 million in her three year racing career. Any significant earning potential as a broodmare for her is more than two years away in the summer yearling sales. Although it is doubtful owners Jerry and Ann Moss have any concern about her current earning power.

Last year Blind Luck made some $1.7 million on the track, so there is little financial incentive from the breeders to entice her off the race track and into retirement or for her current owners to switch careers.

Whether it is the lull in the breeding industry economics or a genuine commitment to fans that keeps more thoroughbred stars on the track, I’m not sure there is a clear cut answer – as na├»ve as that may seem. But for the time, I am grateful we have so many of last year’s Eclipse Award winners coming back 2012. With the departure of Zenyatta, we going to need all of them.

Friday, January 14, 2011

John Henry Drives Dreams of Winter Mixed Sales

Driving around South Arlington, Texas this week, longtime local sports personality Norm Hitzges brought horse racing into the discussion, as he so many times does. During his mid-morning program on the leading local sports talk station KTCK – The Ticket, Hitzges mentioned that on that day this week in 1978, John Henry was sold at the Keeneland January Mixed Sale as a yearling for $1,100 to John Calloway.

John Henry holds a special place for me as he was the first great thoroughbred I saw in person. I was at Santa Anita in 1981 when he won his second Santa Anita Handicap through the disqualification of Perrault. I had taken off a semester at the University of Arizona to become an outrider during the harness meets at Hollywood Park and Los Alamitos. On my day off, I drove to Santa Anita to witness a race that trainer Ron McAnally would later rate among his favorites as John Henry came into the Big Cap strictly off works and became the first horse to capture the historic race twice that day.

But back to the beginning.

The son of Ole Bob Bowers was undersized, back at the knee and had bumped his head leaving his stall and entered the sale ring with a bloodied face, only further confirming what the sale catalogue had scribed, that John Henry had not an even a twinge of blue in that blood of his. Calloway had purchased John Henry sight unseen but once he saw the colt and his knees, John Henry was headed again for Public Auction.

Harold Snowden paid $2,200 for John Henry as a 2-year-old, again back at Keeneland, and quickly gelded him when he exhibited a penchant for destroying steel water buckets. However, Snowden managed to make money on John Henry, eventually selling him to a South Louisiana partnership headed by trainer Phil Marino.

John Henry made his first career start at the now defunct Jefferson Downs, located on the South bank of Lake Pontchartrain in Kenner, Louisiana and reportedly walked out of the starting gate. However, he was eventually able to catch the field of maidens. He then won his first stakes in the Lafayette Futurity at Evangline Downs but a losing streak ensued and he was eventually traded – not sold – but traded back to Snowden for two promising 2-year-olds.

John Henry then managed to fall into the hands of owner Sam Rubin, a Chicago bicycle shop owner, who had purchased him privately from Snowden. Under his first year with Snowden and new trainer Bob Donato, John Henry rose from the claiming ranks to a stakes winner as John Henry began to transform as grass runner.

But John Henry still has challenges ahead as Donato fell out of favor with Rubin and Lefty Nickerson was given control in 1979. Nickerson won 4 of 11 races with John Henry but when the New York winter approached as grass racing ended, Rubin sent John Henry to McAnally on the West coast based on Nickerson’s recommendation.

John Henry began winning nearly everything in Southern California including the two Santa Handicaps in 1980 and ’81. He would win the inaugural Arlington Million over the Bart, a race finish immortalized in bronze and overlooking the Arlington Park paddock today. He won the race again in 1984 as well as three runnings of both the Hollywood Invitational Handicap and the Oak Tree Invitational Stakes. John Henry won the 1981 Jockey Club Gold Cup at 1-1/2 miles on the dirt to further show is versatility and clinched the first of two Horse of the Year titles. It was the only time the winner received all votes cast for the Horse of the Year honor. The second Horse of the Year golden statuette was presented to Rubin again in 1984 for John Henry, who had just completed his 9-year-old campaign.

In John Henry's last race, the 1984 Ballantine Scotch Classic at the Meadowlands, track announcer Dave Johnson exclaimed, " The old man, John Henry, takes command!" The final time of 2:13 equaled (at the time) the track record for 1-3/8 miles at the New Jersey track.

An injury prevented him from competing in the inaugural Breeders’ Cup at Hollywood Park and.John Henry retired as one of the most beloved horses of his generation and by far the richest with more than $6,591,860 in earnings. He would retire with additional Eclipse Awards as the Champion Turf Horse in 1980, ’81, ’83 and ’84. He was also named Champion Older Male in 1981.

The mean gelding that ate water buckets and bit his owner repeatedly, retired to Kentucky Horse Park near Lexington with 83 starts, 39 wins, 15 seconds, 9 thirds and hordes of fans who would visit him.

John Henry died at age 32 in October of 2007 at Kentucky Horse Park but his lasting impact on horse racing lives on. But unlike many champions who live on only because of their championships, John Henry continues in the hopes of the optimists and dreamers looking for that special find during the cold days of Winter Mixed Sales.

Thursday, January 6, 2011

San Pasqual and Hal's Hope among first pages of 2011 Older Horse Story

No doubt the older horse ranks of 2011 have been depleted with the retirement of Horse of the Year candidates Zenyatta and Blame, as well as stars Rachel Alexandra, Quality Road and Lookin at Lucky. Those five horses alone will leave quite a void in the handicap division and horse racing as a whole.

But the new year has just been celebrated and it’s time to look ahead.

The preview of the older horse class of 2011 got an early start with the the grade 1 Hill ‘N’ Dale Cigar Mile at Aqueduct November 27, where we saw 34-1 longshot Jersey Town upset Jockey Club Gold Cup (gr. I) winner Haynesfield. Finishing an uncharacteristic eighth in the Cigar Mile was Musket Man, a determined competitor with six wins from 18 career starts who has only finished off the board in two of those races. In the 2010 Breeders’ Cup Classic (gr. I) he was stepped on in the first turn and was never in contention.

It appears all three of the aforementioned Cigar Mile horses will be back in 2011.

On the west coast, trainer John Sadler started the Santa Anita season with a bang the day after Christmas winning both the grade 1 Malibu Stakes with Twirling Candy; and the grade III Sir Beauford Stakes with last year’s Santa Anita Derby (gr. I) winner Sidney’s Candy (photo right). On a very fast and new, natural dirt surface at Santa Anita, Twirling Candy broke the main dirt track record for seven furlongs, a record previously set by Spectacular Bid in 1980, by stopping the clock in 1:19.70. Almost equally impressive was Sidney’s Candy in winning the Sir Beauford (gr. III) by more than seven lengths. Both appear to be pointing for 4-year-old campaigns in 2011 with Twirling Candy set for the Strub Series at Santa Anita which also includes the Jan. 15 San Fernando (gr. II) for 4-year-olds going 1-1/16 miles and the Feb. 5 Strub Stakes (gr. II) at nine furlongs.

Also in Southern California, trainer Bob Baffert has said 6-year-old Richard’s Kid will be back for 2011, however his schedule may include the Dubai World Cup (gr. 1-UAE) which usually negates a North American campaign for much of the year. However the trainer may still have some options as he has indicated that Misremembered, winner of the 2010 Santa Anita Handicap (gr. I), will be back in 2011. Baffert also has Alcindor, although fourth in the Malibu in his most recent start, he is a colt who has captured some attention in Southern California.

Breeders’ Cup Dirt Mile (gr. I) winner Dakota Phone is also slated for a 2011 return Saturday. Although he finished fourth behind Aggie Engineer in the Dec. 4 Native Diver Handicap over Hollywood Park’s Cushion track after his Breeder's Cup win at Churchill Downs, the Jerry Hollendorfer trainee gets a rematch with Aggie Engineer over Santa Anita’s new dirt surface in the grade II San Pasqual Handicap.

There will be a preview of the handicap division on the East coast Saturday as well at Gulfstream Park in the grade III Hal’s Hope Stakes. Won last year by Quality Road, the 2011 version is headed by the Todd Pletcher-trained Rule and the Morning Line from the Nick Zito barn.

Rule will be making his first start since finishing third last year in the Florida Derby (gr. I) behind Ice Box. On the other hand, Morning Line begins his 4-year-old season after winning the Pennsylvania Derby (gr. II) in September and finishing second to Dakota Phone in the Breeders’ Cup Mile.

So the handicap class of 2011 doesn’t have as much star power as last year’s group. The reality is that few ever have or ever will. You don’t find Zenyattas and Rachel Alexandras in every generation. But this group has plenty of intrigue and uncertainty, which of course, is supposed to make for better horse racing. And it’s time to put down the champagne and find out who we’ll be debating about this time next year in the Horse of the Year race.