The Brock Talk

Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Louisiana Dominates Texas Yearling Sale

The Fasig-Tipton Texas Yearling Sale just keeps trudging along. Held in the stable area of Lone Star Park at Grand Prairie, a track mired in Magma Entertainment mismanagement, bankruptcies and an elongated ownership change in recent years; and in a state where legislators who appear allergic to the horse racing and breeding industry; the sale has wavered little. Looking at the 2011 numbers after Tuesday’s sale, the trend continues.

“We thought we had a very solid sale,” said Tim Boyce, Fasig-Tipton Texas Sale Director. “We weren’t high fiving anybody after that sale, but in this economy, flat is the new up.”

Fasig-Tipton, the Kentucky-based auction company formed in 1898, has been conducting the Yearling Sale in Texas since Lone Star Park first opened for racing in 1997. Looking at the sale’s history going back to 2002 as published on the Fasig-Tipton website, the previous nine Texas Yearling Sales averaged $11,582 per yearling sold. Tuesday, 225 yearlings sold for $10,628. Last year, 214 yearlings sold for an average of $11,119.

During the last ten Texas Yearling Sales, the highest average was $13,623 for the 241 yearlings sold at the 2007 sale. The lowest average occurred in 2005 when 323 sold for an average of $10,325.

This year, there were several yearlings sold with no reserve as part of the Heiligbrodt Racing Dispersal. An additional 42 thoroughbred sold after the yearling sale as part of the third phase of the Heiligbrodt Racing Dispesal. Those two factors had an adverse effect on the average price of this year’s sale as several of those yearlings left the sale ring Tuesday after the gavel fell at $1,000 or lower.

Yearlings bred in Louisiana dominated the supply with nearly 60% of those catalogued coming from the Pelican state. Oklahoma-breds (14%), Texas-breds (12%) and Kentucky-breds (9%) made up most of the remaining yearlings sold.

It was the Louisiana-breds that also dominated the demand. Of those sold, Louisiana-breds averaged $11,375, Oklahoma-breds $10,113 and Texas-breds brought an average of just $6,580. Purses or prize money in Louisiana and Oklahoma are supplemented by other forms of gaming such slot machines at race tracks in the state. Earlier this year, Texas state legislature again failed to address the issue costing the horse racing and breeding industry in the state millions of dollars.

“If slot legislation was passed in Texas,” Boyce said, “there is no doubt prices at this sale would reflect what is happening in New York where slots legislation has passed.” A recently concluded Fasig-Tipton Saratoga sale recently averaged $55,000 for yearlings bred in New York.

The leading buyer at the sale was Texan Ed Wright (photo left with Bernie Flint) from Amarillo who purchased three yearlings for $137,000. While sitting next to trainer Bernie Flint, Wright was the high bidder on a Lemon Drop Kid colt for $63,000, a Grand Slam colt for $45,000 and a colt by Limehouse for $29,000. Despite calling Texas home, Wright said he plans to run his new purchases with Flint in Louisiana and Kentucky.

Flint has saddled more than 3,000 winners and has titles at nine tracks including Keeneland, Churchill Downs and Fair Grounds. Flint also signed the tickets for on a Not For Love colt for $55,000 and $5,600 for colt by Lunarpal.

A Louisiana-bred filly by the Kentucky stallion City Zip topped the sale after dropping the gavel at $78,000. Consigned by Paul Mills Bloodstock for Judice Farms, the chestnut filly out of the stakes winning Malagra mare, Streak of Malagra, went to Bill W. Cunningham who predominantly races near his home in Vinton, Louisiana with trainer Glenn Delahoussaye. It was Delahoussaye who signed the sale ticket on top selling Daecallherdastreak.

Hall of Fame jockey Eddie Delahoussaye (photo left) was also at the Texas Yearling sale, working in his post-riding career as a bloodstock agent. A winner of two Kentucky Derbies, a Preakness and the Belmont Stakes twice, Delahoussaye remains based in California as an independent bloodstock agent and was representing Eclipse Thoroughbred Partnerships at the sale. “Eclipse runs their horses mostly in California, but there are a few of the partners from Louisiana too,” Delahoussaye said. “So I came to look at some Louisiana-breds for them.”

Delahoussaye said it was his first trip to Lone Star Park since retiring from racing in 2003. “I only rode at Lone Star Park a few times in those jockey championships,” he said, “ but I’ve enjoyed coming back. I have a lot of friends here today from Louisiana too.”

Pinhookers were also well represented at the sale with the likes of Bryan Rice, David McKathan and Harold Hatcher all signing tickets. Those yearlings were purchased for potential profits realized by re-selling them in 2-year-old in training sales next spring.

There were no magical moments with million dollar babies at the Fasig-Tipton Texas Yearling Sale. In fact the top seller fell $22,000 short of six figures. But the sale produced solid numbers in a Texas horse racing environment that is in neglect at best and near extinction at worse. Although the sale bears the Texas name and is located in the Lone Star state, it is neighbors in Louisiana, Oklahoma and other states more in tune to horse racing, breeding and sales, that are now reeping the benefits.

Monday, August 29, 2011

Fasig-Tipton Texas Yearling Sale Stays Consistent in Fluid Southwest Market

The Fasig-Tipton Texas Summer Yearling Sale gets underway Tuesday at the company’s sale pavilion located inside the stable area of Lone Star Park at Grand Prairie. The Kentucky-based thoroughbred auction company has catalogued 372 yearlings with an additional 70 horses selling as part of the Heiligbrodt Racing Stable Dispersal immediately following.

The Texas division of Fasig-Tipton Company has been conducting sales in Texas since Lone Star Park first opened their doors in 1997. At that time, horse racing and breeding in the Lone Star state was on the verge of tapping into the long believed potential of the Dallas-Fort Worth market.

Although pari-mutuel wagering had been legal just more than a decade, it had taken that long to develop a major horse racing facility in the lucrative market. While much of that potential was realized in the first five years, the track was eventually sold to Magma Entertainment which drove the facility into bankruptcy. While Remington Park in Oklahoma City never filed for financial protection, that track too was owned and managed by Magma, stagnating the regions developing thoroughbred racing and breeding industries.

The Southwest is also a market in which hurricanes Katrina and Rita whipped out entire thoroughbred seasons in New Orleans and Houston in 2005 and 2006.

It is a market in which Texas state legislators continue to strangle the horse racing and breeding industries. While tracks in other states benefit from hosting other forms of gambling, off-track and account wagering, Texas has been stuck in the technological stone ages of horse racing with purses to match.

Just weeks ago in Saratoga, New York, average prices hovered around $300,000 at Fasig-Tipton's Select Yearling Sale. That sale of course, traditionally features some of the most prominent bloodlines and buyers in the world. But days later, Fasig-Tipton hosted their New York Bred Preferred Yearling Sale at Saratoga and averaged nearly $55,000 for the 124 yearlings that were sold.

Last year at this sale, 214 thoroughbred yearlings sold for nearly $2.4 million for an average of $11,119; far short of even the New York-bred numbers in Saratoga. But the Texas division of Fasig-Tipton Company has not only survivied but continued with a level of consistency.

Top selling yearlings at the Texas sale continue to break the six-figure barrier each year and last year’s prices were nearly 10% above those in 2009.

“The dynamics of this sale has certainly changed over the years,” said sale director Tim Boyce. “This (Texas Yearling) sale used to be predominantly for Texas-breds and Kentucky-breds. Now Louisiana-breds, Oklahoma-breds and New Mexico-breds are a big part of this sale.”

Boyce said they will still see a considerable amount of buyers from Texas, but there has been a recent infusion of demand from other states. “Louisiana has really become more lucrative for owners,” Boyce said. “There has been a large growth in purses while the price of training in Louisiana has remained very competitive. You are also starting to see more national like Maggie Moss and Spendthrift race in Louisiana.”

Boyce said that has brought more Louisiana-bred horses to the sale and additional prospective Louisiana owners to bid on them.

“A lot of our horses are sold to the end user who will run them,” Boyce continued, “but the pin-hookers are also starting to realize that Louisiana-breds will sell anywhere [next year in 2-year-old in training sales.] They’ll sell in Texas or they’ll sell in Florida.”

Boyce has again attracted yearlings representing some of the top sires in North America including Dehere, Exchange Rate, Smoke Glacken, Lemon Drop Kid, Lion Heart, Spightstown and Successful Appeal. The sale will also feature six colts and three fillies by perennial Texas leading sire Valid Expectations.

The sale begins at 10 am at the Fasig-Tipton Sales Pavilion in the stable area at Lone Star Park at Grand Prairie located between Dallas and Fort Worth.

Friday, August 26, 2011

Travers Winner Will Join Ghosts and Greats

Take every winner of a major 3-year-old race since the second leg of the Triple Crown and throw in the winners of Monmouth Park’s Long Branch and Woodbine’s Victoria Park Stakes, some long shots, and you have the recipe for the 142nd running of the grade 1 Travers Stakes Saturday at historic Saratoga Race Course.

Winners of the Preakness (gr. 1), Belmont (gr. 1), Resorts Casino & Hotel Casino Invitational (gr. 1) and Jim Dandy Stakes (gr. 2) have entered the 1-1/4 mile “Mid-Summer” Derby and the million dollar purse has attracted four non-stakes winners hoping to capitalize on Saratoga’s historic moniker as the “graveyard of favorites.” It was after all, Saratoga that added “upset” to the sports vernacular when a horse by the same name defeated Man o’War in the 1919 Sanford Memorial at Saratoga.

But the Travers is also known for producing champions. In 2009, Summer Bird was the most recent Travers winner to be named champion 3-year-old colt. The first Travers winner to be so honored was Baden-Baden in 1877 with 24 Travers winning champions in between.

Whirlaway (photo) is the only Triple Winner to win the Travers – having done so in 1941 – but eight others have won two legs of the Triple Crown before winning the Travers some 3 months later in their respective years. Point Given (2001), Man o’War (1920), Damascus (’67), Native Dancer (’53) and Duke of Magenta won the Preakness, Belmont and Travers. Thunder Gulch (1995), Shut Out (’42) and Twenty Grand (’31) won the Derby, Belmont and Travers while.

Since no single horse won two legs of the Triple Crown this year, nobody has a chance to join the likes of Whirlaway, Point Given, Man o’War and Damascus on those lists, but there are plenty other historical clubs to join coming out of the Travers winner's circle.

Favorite Stay Thirsty comes into the Travers after winning the Jim Dandy over the same Saratoga track July 30. Arts and Letters was the first horse to win the Travers after winning the 1969 Jim Dandy with seven others having done so since. Since 1964, the Jim Dandy has been the main local prep race for the Travers and was the same path Bernardini, (sire of Stay Thirsty), used to win the 2006 Travers and later, title as champion 3-year-old colt or gelding that year.

Stay Thirsty also broke his maiden last year at Saratoga, while the only other Travers runner with a win over the track is Malibu Glow. At 20-1 in the morning line, Malibu Glow defeated older allowance horses in a 1-1/8 mile allowance race in late July and is among those with upset aspirations.

Stay Thirsty is trained by Todd Pletcher, who is the current leading trainer at this Saratoga meeting and in search of his seventh title at the Spa. Pletcher is also trying for his second Travers victory after winning in 2005 with Flower Ally.

Another nationally prominent trainer trying for his second Travers win is Bob Baffert, trainer of Haskell winner Coil. Baffert won the 2001 Travers with Point Given, who like his son after him, also won the Haskell Invitational. In fact, Point Given was the last of seven horses to win both the Haskell and Travers. Others who have won the two races include Coranado's Quest (1998), Holy Bull ('94), Forty Niner ('88), Wise Times ('86), Wajima ('75) and Holding Pattern in 1974.

So both Stay Thirsty and Coil hope to follow in the footsteps of their sires, both of whom won a graded race before the Travers, the Travers, and the division championship later.

Belmont Stakes winners have had the most success in the Travers with 27 of them coming back to win the Mid-Summer Derby, of which 14 were also named champion 3-year-old colt or gelding. Summer Bird was the last take the Belmont, Travers and championship, having done so in 2009. The first horse to list those three titles among their accomplishments was Duke of Magenta in 1878. The list also includes legends such as Man o’War (1920), Whirlaway (‘41), Native Dancer (’53), Damacus (’67) and Thunder Gulch (’95).

This year, Belmont winner Ruler On Ice (photo winning the Belmont) is hoping to join that list, but he won’t have the genetic history or trainer accomplishments of Stay Thirsty or Coil. Neither Roman Ruler (sire of Ruler On Ice) nor trainer Kelly Breen have a Travers win on their record, but Ruler On Ice remains among the probable winners at 6-1 odds as one of three grade 1 stakes winners in the Travers. Coil and Shackleford are the others.

Shackleford attained his grade 1 status the classic way, taking the Preakness, the second leg of the Triple Crown. But also like Ruler On Ice, Shackleford’s close bloodlines are not speckled with winners of such races as the Travers, Haskell and Belmont – both have worked for their respect this year. Shackleford has been second in the Florida Derby at 68-1, fourth in Kentucky at 23-1 and won the Preakness at 12-1. His only race as the favorite was the Haskell last month when he was second by a neck behind Coil at 3-2 odds.

Shackleford also fights a futile history of Preakness winners in the Travers. Since Duke of Magenta won the Preakness and Travers in 1878, only six others have pulled off the same double. However, every one of them were champions including Man o’War, Whirlaway, Native Dancer, Damascus, Point Given and Bernardini.

It has been a much maligned group, these 3-year-old colts that make up the sophomore class of 2011. Early season long shots dotted the pre-Kentucky Derby landscape among this crop and different horses have won nearly every major race in this division this year.

But after all of that, some survivors still have a chance to step into the company of legends. Others may be looking for the edge brought on in the company of Saratoga ghosts that haunt race favorites at the upstate New York track.

But whether by grade one or grave yard, the winner of this Travers should have a say in the voting for the coveted Eclipse Award for the champion of this division and perhaps more.

Monday, August 22, 2011

Must See Horse Racing This Weekend

The purpose of today’s blog is to give notice. I want everyone to have plenty of time to clear their calendars this weekend. If it’s too late to clear your calendar and you have something planned for either Saturday or Sunday, (and it is not going to the track or your favorite simulcast center), set the DVR to record. If you don’t know how to set the DVR , you have four days to figure it. If you don’t have a DVR, you have four days to get one.

Because it is going to be a very good weekend of thoroughbred horse racing.

Saratoga on the East coast and Del Mar in the West, both feature their marquee races. Saturday, Saratoga hosts the mid-summer Derby in the grade 1 Travers Stakes for 3-year-olds at 1-1/4 miles on the main track. Sunday, Del Mar presents the 21st running of the $1,000,000 Pacific Classic, also at 10 furlongs on the main track but open to older horses.

The Saturday card at Saratoga also includes the grade 1 Foxwoods King’s Bishop Stakes, which looks to see the return of last year’s Champion 2-Year-Old Male and one-time Kentucky Derby favorite Uncle Mo. The seven furlong King’s Bishop Stakes should be no easy walz for Uncle Mo, however with Jersey Shore Stakes (gr. 2) winner Flashpoint a confirmed foe.

Another one-time Kentucky Derby hopeful after winning the grade 2 Hutcheson Stakes at Gulfstream Park in February, Flashpoint was fourth in the Florida Derby (gr. 1) and 14th in the Preakness (gr. 1) in his only two races around two turns. Winning the six furlong Jersey Shore makes him undefeated in sprint races the subject of much positive talk since trainer Wesley Ward confirmed Flashpoint for the King’s Bishop from his Aqueduct base 12 days ago.

As recent as last week, trainer Bob Baffert was considering the King’s Bishop for his one-time Derby hopeful, The Factor. Instead, Baffert has said he will run The Factor in the $300,000 Pat O’Brien Stakes (gr. 1) at Del Mar Sunday. The seven furlong Pat O’Brien will be The Factor’s first start since undergoing throat surgery last Spring and his first start against older horses. Baffert has won the O’Brien a record four times including the last two with Brujo last year and Zensational the year before.

Still the spotlight will be on the $1,000,000 Travers Stakes Saturday. First run in 1864, the Travers is the last chance for these top 3-year-old colts and geldings to make an impression against their age group before graduating to face older horses in the Fall. Even a impressive effort in the Travers is generally accompanied by some level of success against older horses on the resumes of most sophomore champions.

Stay Thirsty has the home course advantage in the Travers after winning the grade 2 Jim Dandy at Saratoga in his last start. Jim Dandy runner-up Moonshine Mill is also headed to the Travers as is Preakness winner Shackleford, Belmont Stakes (gr. 1) winner Ruler on Ice and Resorts Casino Haskell Invitational winner Coil (photo).

The Pacific Classic has two of the first three finishers from last month’s Hollywood Gold Cup (gr. 1) at Hollywood Park in winner Game on Dude and third-place finisher Twirling Candy. The 1-1/4-mile Pacific Classic will also help clarify who might represent the West coast in the Breeders’ Cup Classic at Churchill Downs in November but more importantly, may also have historical implications.

Trainer Jerry Hollendorfer has not announced if his champion filly Blind Luck will take on older males in the Pacific Classic, but has the race under consideration. With the lack of any consistent standout horses, colts or geldings this year, Blind Luck could make significant strides toward becoming the third consecutive female Horse of the Year with a grade 1 win over males in the Classic. There has never been three consecutive female Horse of the Year winners and no filly or mare has ever won the Pacific Classic.

There will be much more to come in the final days leading up to these major races as the horses train, trainers decide and entry boxes open and close. After this weekend, a 3-year-old colt may emerge a likely champion and more will be known about older horses on the West coast. The sprint division will clarify with the Pat O’Brien in southern California and the King’s Bishop in New York and we neglected to metion the grade 1 Ballerina at the Spa or grade 2 Del Mar Handicap.

We just want do not want you to miss it.

Friday, August 19, 2011

It's Tricky To Rock A Rhyme Right On Time And Win A Tiara Too, It's Tricky...

Like the Run-DMC song of the same title says, “It’s tricky to rock a rhyme that’s right on time. It’s Tricky.” For the 3-year-old thoroughbred filly by the same name, It’s Tricky will have to rock a rhyme that’s right on time in $500,000 TVG Alabama Stakes (gr. 1) at Saratoga Saturday.

Should It’s Tricky be right on time and win the Alabama, she may not reach the popularity and influence of the hip-hop group made up of Joseph “Run” Simmons, Darryl “D.M.C.” McDaniel and Jason “Jam-Master” Jay, but has every opportunity to become legendary. Following in the hoof-steps of recent female super stars Rachel Alexandra, Zenyatta and now Blind Luck to a degree, “legendary” is a term that has been defined with some clarity and should not be applied without serious consideration. A Triple Tiara for It's Tricky put her in a select group indeed.

There have been only six fillies that have won the Acorn Stakes, Coaching Club American Oaks and Alabama Stakes, the grade 1 series of races that have made up the Triple Tiara since 2010.

The first filly to sweep all three races was Top Flight in 1932 and the last was Sky Beauty 18 years ago. Between those two, Damaged Goods won the three races in 1940 followed by Shuvee (‘69), Mom’s Command (’85) and Open Mind (’89).

Between 1957-2002 and 2007-2009 New York’s Triple Tiara was made up of the Acorn, Mother Goose Stakes (gr. 1) and Coaching Club American Oaks. Between 2003-2006 the Triple Tiara was changed to the Mother Goose, Coaching Club American Oaks and Alabama before changing again to the current format in 2010. Sky Beauty, Open Mind, Mom’s Command and Shuvee won their Triple Tiaras made up of the Acorn, Mother Goose and Coaching Club before also winning the Alabama. Dark Mirage (1968), Chris Evert (’74) Ruffian (’75) and Davona Dale (’79) won the Triple Tiara, but not the Alabama.

Confusing as it may seem, it is clear that It’s Tricky has an opportunity to step into an awfully select sorority of thoroughbred sisters. It is not as if It’s Tricky has drawn into an easy lot either. In the Alamaba, the daughter of 2003 Horse of the Year Mineshaft will meet the winners of the Kentucky Oaks (gr. 1), Delaware Oaks (gr. 2), Black-Eyed Susan Stakes (gr. 2), Canada’s $1 million Queen’s Plate and Monmouth Park's Desert Vixen Stakes.

Trainer Kiaran McLaughlin told the NYRA public relations department, “You always worry about that, but being there aren’t too many new faces in [in the TVG Alabama], it seems like it might be the same race shape and participants. The extra eighth of a mile should be a big deal either.”

Trainer Bob Baffert won the Alabama in 1999 with Silverbulletday and would like to repeat with this year's Kentucky Oaks winner Plum Pretty. After finishing second to It’s Tricky in a Coaching Club American Oaks that saw the two fillies race within a few strides of each other from the start, Baffert is hoping for a fresher filly in the Alabama. This time Baffert has left the Medaglia d’Oro filly in New York instead of returning her to his base in Southern California. After her win in Kentucky, she was flown back to Southern California where she subsequently finished second in the Hollywood Oaks before returning east for the Coaching Club.

Last year, Blind Luck and Havre de Grace invaded Saratoga from the Delaware Oaks to finish one-two in the Alabama. This year, St. John’s River hopes to employ the same success after winning the 2011 version of the Delaware Oaks July 9. Humbly-bred by the $7,500 stallion Include, St. John’s River is no stranger to this group having finished second to Plum Pretty in the Kentucky Oaks. Trained by long-time Louisiana stalwart Andrew Leggio Jr., the stretch running St. John’s River is also hoping to employ the same winning come-from-behind strategy that Blind Luck incorporated last year in the Alabama.

There is much that can be achieved in this TVG Alabama Stakes Saturday. After winning two of the most prestigious North American races for three-year-old fillies, It’s Tricky has a chance to join only six other fillies that have swept New York’s prestigious Triple Tiara in its current format. For It’s Tricky, the Alabama is a defining race that puts her on a pedestal on which few have stood. Greats such as Shuvee, Mom’s Command and Open Mind are set to welcome It’s Tricky into their club. An accomplished group of foes and of course the ghosts that have defined Saratoga and the “Graveyard of Favorites” loom ahead of the young starlet.

But as the song goes...

This speech is my recital, I think it’s very vital
To rock (a rhyme), that right (on time)
It’s Tricky is the title, here we go…

--It's Tricky
--Run D.M.C.

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

2010 Among The Best Of Historical Alabama Stakes

Few thoroughbred races in North America have the history of the Betfair TVG Alabama Stakes (gr. 1). The $500,000 race for three-year-old fillies will be run for the 131st time Saturday at Saratoga and is behind only the $100,000 Ladies Handicap at Aqueduct, as the second oldest race for fillies and mares in North America. Along with the Coaching Club American Oaks and the Mother Goose, the Alabama is the third leg of New York’s Triple Tiara grade 1 series for the 3-year-old fillies. Sky Beauty (1993), Open Mind (’89) and Mom’s Command (’85) are Alabama winners also with Triple Tiara titles.

August Belmont himself won the first Alabama Stakes with his Woodbine in 1872. Fifteen years later, Americans began naming a champion among their 3-year-old fillies and future Hall of Famer Firenze took the first trophy without winning the Alabama. But it be only one year before the Alabama would impact the championship as Bella B. won the Alabama and champion 3-year-old filly title in 1888.

Since then 36 Alabama Stakes winners have also been named the divisional champion at year’s end. Hall of Fame mares such as Beldame (1904) (photo left), Maskette (’09), Gamely (’67) and Go For Wand (’90) all were named champion fillies after their victories in the Alabama. Silverbulletday (’99), Open Mind (’89), Life’s Magic (’84), Vagrancy (’42) and Cleopatra (’20) are also among the more popular on the list of Alabama winning champion 3-year-old fillies.

With all of that history, however, last year’s Alabama was among the most exciting and may be well remembered in thoroughbred racing history.

By the time the Alabama came in August last year, Blind Luck had won four of six races, including the Fantasy Stakes (gr. 2) at Oaklawn Park in Arkansas, the Kentucky Oaks (gr. 1 at Churchill Downs and the Delaware Oaks (gr. 2).

But the favorite for the Alabama was Devil May Care, a large filly from the powerful Todd Pletcher barn that had finished 10th against the boys in the Kentucky Derby presented by Yum! Brands (gr. 1). But Devil May Care had since returned to her division and easily won the Coaching Club American Oaks (gr. 1) at Belmont Park by more than four lengths in a canter.

Devil May Care was odds-on at 3-5 while support for Blind Luck was not far behind as she went to the post at 9-5. A distant third choice was Havre de Grace, who had come to New York after finishing a close second to Blind Luck in the Delaware Oaks (gr. 2) the race prior.

After the break, the field assembled into an order that would stay relatively the same until mid-way on the far turn. Black-Eyed Susan Stakes (gr. 2) speedstress Acting Happy had led the race through a dawdling early pace with the first six furlongs taking 1:14 4/5 seconds to complete but shortly thereafter the excitement level exploded.

Turning for home long shot Acting Happy still had the lead but Havre de Grace and Devil May Care had launched their attacks. Just behind them, the stretch running Blind Luck was also now in full stride on the far outside.

Nearing the black and white pole just one-sixteenth of a mile from the finish, track announcer Tom Durkin called it: “Top of the Stretch! Acting Happy a stubborn foe. Havre de Grace also right there and Blind Luck is gaining on them with every stride!”

Blind Luck and Havre de Grace would battle to the wire with the former winning by just a neck over Havre de Grace with Acting Happy less than a length back in third.

It was the second consecutive time that Blind Luck (photo) and Havre de Grace would finish one-two respectively, but it was the beginning of one the better rivalries in recent history. The two have now raced against each other six times and in five of those races, they finished first and second. Only in the grade 1 Breeders’ Cup Ladies Classic last November at Churchill Downs, did they finish second and third behind winner Unrivaled Belle.

This year, Blind Luck and Havre de Grace have raced against each other twice. Havre de Grace beat Blind Luck in the grade 3 Azeri Stakes at Oaklawn in the Spring before Blind Luck turned the tables on Havre de Grace, winning the Delaware Handicap (gr. 2) last month. With no male stars grabbing center stage and both mares having three graded victories this year, Blind Luck and Havre de Grace are mentioned in 2011 Horse of the Year discussions.

Blind Luck would be the first winner of the Alabama Stakes to later be named Horse of the Year, but has a very good chance to join Primonetta, Gamely, Sky Beauty, Desert Vixen, Tempted and Life’s Magic as Alabama winners to be named champion in the years following their Alabama win.

No matter what happens in the remaining months and races that will be 2011, the 2010 running of the Alabama will be well remembered. And to be among the top versions of a race with 130 years of history with champions dotted throughout, is special indeed.

Monday, August 15, 2011

WGN Missed Telling Arlington Million Stories

Chicago-based television “superstation” >WGN America dove into the world of horse racing Saturday with their first live telecast of the Arlington Million from Arlington Park. WGN America, formerly known as “Superstation WGN,” has for decades featured live telecasts of other major sporting events, most notably as the longtime host station of the Chicago Cubs of Major League Baseball and the National Basketball Association’s Chicago Bulls.

But this was the station’s first attempt to broadcast horse racing live and it showed. Niether host Dan Roan nor commentator Howard Sudberry, appeared to have much knowledge of the sport, despite the fact that Sudberry is the Senior Director of Marketing at the Arlington.

Early in the production, however, they identified eventual winner Cape Blanco and second-place finisher Gio Ponti as the top contenders, but fell far short of identifying their credentials or history.

Sudberry was also the voice of a pre-race feature on Gio Ponti, but chose to identify him as a horse that was much closer to the end of his career than the beginning and coming into the Million off of a four-race losing streak. Sudberry made no mention of the fact that he is a two-time defending American Male Champion Turf Horse and was the Champion Older Horse in 2009. The non-racing fan viewer had very little idea of who Gio Ponti was or that he was quite accomplished.

The telecast made some nice comparisons between Gio Ponti and John Henry, but again, neither Roan nor Sudberry mention that John Henry, the only two-time Arlington Million winner was also a two-time Horse of the Year and four-time Champion Turf Horse. The telecast highlighted the John Henry statue over looking the paddock and featured a short and generic sound bit from John Henry's former trainer Ron McAnally, but the horses celebrity was never projected.

Even less attention went to other contenders as Cape Blanco was referred to only as “a toughy who won the Man ‘o War at Belmont Stakes.” It was also noted that Mission Approved should be the early leader and that Tajaweed was sixth last year in the Arlington Million and a good long shot bet this year. But that was about it as far as introducing the contenders.

Granted, it is very difficult to cram information about ten horses in a 30-minute telecast, but the telecast fell short in defining the international and historical relevance of the Arlington Million. The race has a long record producing champions – not too mention top contenders for the $3 million Emirates Airlines Breeders’ Cup Turf in November.

They also had some timing problems, missing the call to post then miscalculating the time between the buglers and the beginning of the post parade for another awkward minute or so as Sudberry and Roan were not comfortable with the task of adlibbing, but got through it relatively well.

The WGN America production team was also battling a summer thunderstorm for much of the day and many may have had little experience with horse racing. In the end, most problems glaring out of the television screens of horse racing fans every where, are never seen by the non-racing fan. But this telecast was co-produced by WGN America and Arlington Park, which means the track should have had the editorial control to avoid many of these errors and oversights.

I’m not suggesting that horse racing telecasts be targeted to the hard-core fan. The producers of the Arlington Million telecast Saturday appeared to know that also. WGN and Arlington Park missed the opportunity to reach into the treasure chest of stories that come with most any race and are significantly more abundant in an international race like the Arlington Million. The program should have at least identified the three European invaders as a group or the history of American versus European winners of the Arlington Million. Nor did they convey the importance of the race relative to the Breeders’ Cup and year-end championships.

The telecast looked good, especially in the face of the weather, and there were no major broadcast disasters with extended loss of video and/or audio. They get extra credit for hitting exacta too. They just could have done a much better job of telling the 2011 Arlington Million story.

Friday, August 5, 2011

Will Whitney Winner Lead Too?

From a wagering standpoint, the 2011 Whitney Handicap (gr. I) is Hall of Fame material. Eleven older horses are set to go 1-1/8 miles at Saratoga in the Whitney with the favorite at 4-1 odds in the morning line. The second choice is at 5-1 and three others have been given the third choice odds at 6-1.

Although a long shot winner in the Whitney would push an already confusing division into near boredom, there are plenty of horses who could take a legitimate step to the front of the older horse class with a win Saturday. But as the morning line indicates, this bunch is still very much close together in the race for any year-end honors.

Giant Oak (photo), the second choice in the morning line at 5-1 odds, has most credentials this year among his foes, as the only Whitney starter with a grade 1 win around two turns on a main track this year. But that win came in the Donn Handicap at Gulfstream Park in early February and is quickly becoming a distant memory. Since the Donn win, Giant Oak has been third in the New Orleans Handicap (gr. II) behind fellow Whitney entrants Mission Impazible and Apart. He then was on the losing end of a five-horse blanket finish in the Alysheba (gr. II) and fifth again behind long shot winner Pool Play in the grade 1 Stephen Foster, both at Churchill Downs.

Flat Out gets the Saratoga handicapper’s favoritism at 4-1 off of a nice win in the grade 2 Suburban at Belmont, after finishing sixth in the Foster and second behind Awesome Gem in the grade 3 Lone Star Park Handicap. Trained by Midwest mainstay Charles Dickey, Flat Out is just beginning to earn some name recognition. The now 5-year-old horse had one win against optional claimers last year in one start. Before that, his last win was in the Smarty Jones Stakes in January of ’09 at Oaklawn while trying for the Kentucky Derby.

To characterize this group of Whitney entrants as under accomplished, is vastly unfair however.

The Nick Zito-trained Morning Line won the grade 1 Carter Handicap at seven furlongs in April, but then weakened to finish fifth in the grade 3 Salvator Mile at Monmouth Park. That performance was a bit surprising as distance has never been a challenge to the son of Tiznow. The 4-year-old Morning LIne won the grade 2 Pennsylvania Derby and an allowance race at Saratoga last year, both at nine furlongs.

The 6-year-old Tizway is another late developing son of Tiznow trying for summer fame in the Whitney. Tizway did not break his maiden until late in his 3-year-old year and didn’t win his first stake until June of last year when he won the grade 2 Kelso at Belmont Park. The James Bond trainee looked impressive in his front running victory in the grade 1 Metropolitan Handicap at Belmont at one mile May 30 over Rodman, also a Whitney entrant.

Distance should be no trouble for Mission Impazible who won the Louisiana Derby and New Orleans Handicap, both grade 2, nine furlong races at the Fair Grounds in New Orleans. And in his last start, the 4-year-old son of Unbridled’s Song was just a neck short of Pool Play in the Foster at Chruchill Downs, also at 1-1/8 miles on the main track.

So there is nothing that says the Horse of the Year can’t come out of the Whitney Handicap. The last winner of the golden Eclipse Award to pass this way was Invasor, the Whitney Handicap winner and 2006 Horse of the Year.

Another interesting Whitney happened in 1978 when trainer John Vietch used the Whitney to prepare Alydar for the Travers and yet another race against just inaugurated Triple Crown winner Affirmed. Alydar won the Whitney by 10 lengths, while Affirmed was nearly been upset by Sensative Prince in the Jim Dandy. They met in the Travers, and although Affirmed crossed the wire first, he was disqualified and placed second behind new winner Alydar for interference.

Five-time Horse of the year Kelso (photo) was also fond of the Whitney Handicap, winning the race three times between 1961 and 1965. Ironically, the great gelding’s last Whitney victory in 1965 did not result in his sixth Horse of the Year title. Instead the trophy went to Mocassin, the only 2-year-old filly so honored in North American thoroughbred racing.

There is no Kelso, Alydar or even one as accomplished as Invasor in this 2011 Whitney. But nobody should be scoffing at the credentials Flat Out, Giant Oak and the like either. Quite frankly, asking for the second coming of another Kelso is a bit pretentious anyway. Don’t you think?

This Whitney will tell if any from Saturday’s group can be mentioned in the upcoming divisional championship discussions of the late Summer and Fall of each year. Right now, that’s all horse racing fans can ask. Blind Luck and Havre de Grace are doing their parts in keeping the female Horse of the Year “three-peat” alive while the males at both the 3-year-old and older levels continue to beat each other up round robin style.

There are plenty of bigger races for older horses coming up. Del Mar has the Pacific Classic later this month and Saratoga still has the Woodward on Labor Day weekend. Belmont has the Jockey Club Gold Cup and Santa Anita has the Goodwood in October, all grade 1 prep races for the $5 million Breeders’ Cup Classic to be run at Churchill Downs on the first Saturday of November.

It just that it’s getting very close to a time when somebody needs to step out of the pile.

Wednesday, August 3, 2011

Summer Signs Pointing Up For Horse Racing

This year horse racing couldn’t find a star colt, gelding or horse with a with a spy satellite and a bag of sweet feed.

In both male divisions, any talk of season-ending Eclipse awards is usually guided by the “What have you done for me lately” standard. Recent graded stakes winners Stay Thirsty, Coil and First Dude are at least mentioned when the topic turns to champions, even though Coil and First Dude each won their first grade I race of the year in their last starts (Resorts World Casino Haskell and Hollywood Gold Cup respectively) and Stay Thirsty has only two victories of note this year, both only grade 2 (Gotham Stakes and Jim Dandy).

The two biggest stars in the sport so far this year are from the older female ranks in Blind Luck and Havre de Grace. Not that these two very popular and gusty fillies aren’t worthy of their notability, it’s just that it is not often that we get to see their grade 1 races like the Apple Blossum (won by Havre de Grace), the Vanity Handicap (Blind Luck) or the Delaware Handicap (Blind Luck) on network television. Certainly HRTV and TVG help, but few sports fans would recognize Blind Luck.

Having said all that, from a business standpoint, horse racing is experiencing some notably upward signs, both short and long term. The industry has other more reliable indicators of the industry's overall popularity and profitability, but these positive signs are certainly notable.

Colonial Downs just concluded their 32-day season with a 21% increase in average daily attendance while money wagered on live and simulcast racing rose nearly as high, increasing 19.8%. Reducing and changing racing days and post times are attributed to the average gains, but total money bet at Colonial Downs rose slightly over last year as well.

Although purses at Colonial Downs dropped slightly due to less money wagered on Colonial races at other locations, more fans went to and wagered more money on the New Kent, Virginia track’s races this year compared to last. And that is significant in an national economy that is still far from any considerable recovery.

Saratoga, the prestigious, summer resort season located in upstate New York, is also experiencing increases. During the first two weeks of the meeting, attendance is up 1.3% with those folks wagering 4.5% more dollars on the races.

More interesting is the wagering on Saratoga from downstate. Last year, New York OTB was up and running during the Saratoga meeting. Some 50 OTB locations throughout the city closed in December due to bankruptcy caused by state budgetary problems (very long story short), and have since been replaced by simulcast facilities at both Belmont Park and Aqueduct Race Course on Long Island. The New York City fans have responded to the upgrade in facilities and have not been deterred what so ever by lost convenience of the many OTB locations available to them last year. The results speak for themselves as the increase in downstate wagering during the first two weeks of Saratoga have resulted in an increase of 11.4% over last year’s combined on-track handle.

Churchill Downs incorporated also gave investors and racing enthusiasts good news when they release their second quarter and six month figures ended June 30. In a July 27 press release, Churchill Downs Inc., revealed that net revenues from continuing operation for the quarter grew 16% compared to same period last year – to $249.7 million.

The growth was mainly attributed to the continued expansion and growth of CDI’s online and gaming business segments, of which and Harlow’s Casino near Memphis, Tenn., are included. The release also said that net earnings from racing operations increased primarily because of increases in admission, sponsorships, corporate hospitality and broadcast rights during the Kentucky Oaks and Derby.

Further south in the Lone Star State, where things have looked pretty dreary recently since legislation failed to legalize slots machines and casinos at tracks and on Native American reservations. Texas purses are now sure to decrease, while competing tracks in the Midwest and Southwest continue to increase their horsemen’s prize money through revenues from other forms of gaming in their states. One would think optimism for the future of horse racing in Texas would be rolling out of the state faster than a west bound tumbleweed leaving El Paso.

It has been recent headlines in the state that large gaming companies like the Chickasaw Nation’s Global Gaming and Penn National Gaming had invested heavily in Texas racing with large investments in Lone Star Park and Sam Houston Race Park respectively.

Recently, however, Retama Park in San Antonio has revealed they too are entertaining offers from corporations with large gaming interests. The story that appeared recently in the San Antonio Express-News story identified Retama Park CEO Bryan Brown as saying they would not disclose the name of the interested parties, only to say they were publicly traded Las Vegas Companies.

It may be two years before the Texas legislature meets to again and addresses the slot machine at race tracks issue, but potentially having the assets of three large gaming companies in Texas leads to much optimism for the next battle with those apposing additional gaming in Texas.

Despite horse racing's ability to provide a star in the more popular 3-year-old male and older horse divisions, racing fans appear to be showing up and betting their money on the thoroughbred game this summer nonetheless. Even in the wake of the most disheartening sports news in Texas since the 2010 Dallas Cowboys and Texas Longhorn football seasons, there is reason to look toward the future as gaming companies continue to invest in horse racing in the Lone Star state.

No doubt there are plenty of challenges for horse racing currently, but there are also some significant signs this summer that the game is going in the right direction. When there is no stars bringing the fans to the track, that alone presents signs of optimism.

Monday, August 1, 2011

Jumbled Group of 3-Year-Olds Reaching Fast Times Levels of Confusion

There hasn’t been a class like this since Fast Times at Ridgemont High. Literally. Not since 1982, when Sean Penn’s Jeff Spicoli said “Aloha” to Ray Walston’s Mr. Hand in the California teen-culture classic movie, has there been no 3-year-old with more than one grade 1 win at 1-1/8 miles or further on the main track this late in the year.

This schedule of grade 1 races begins just before the Triple Crown with the Florida Derby six weeks before the first Saturday in May. Other grade I Derby prep races include the the Santa Anita Derby, the Arkansas Derby, the Resorts World New York Casino Wood Memorial, the Blue Grass Stakes and the Arkansas Derby. The grade I schedule continues with the Kentucky Derby Presented by Yum! Brands, the Preakness, Belmont which make up the Triple Crown, and continues with the Resorts World Casino Haskell Invitational. There is also the grade 1 Queen’s Plate run at Woodbine in Canada in late June or early July and the Travers Stakes run in late August.

Since 1982, there have been 13 years in which the Triple Crown races were won by three different horses. In fact, in the last three years, nine different horses have won the nine Triple Crown races in that span. There were also three different winners of the Derby, Preakness and Belmont in 2006, 2000, 1996,’93, ’92, ’90, ’86, ’85, ’83 and 1982.

In ten of those 13 years, there was yet a different winner of the Haskell. So it is not uncommon for the sophomore thoroughbred male picture to be so unclear this late in the year.

What is unique about this group, is that their inability as individuals two win two grade I races on the main track around two turns goes back to the major Kentucky Derby prep races in Florida, New York, California, Kentucky and Arkansas. This year's winners of those races were Dialed In, Toby’s Corner, Midnight Interlude, Brilliant Speed and Arch Arch Arch respectively. Then Animal Kingdom, Shackleford and Ruler on Ice won the Derby, Preakness and Belmont as Inglorious wins the Queen’s Plate and Coil wins the Haskell.

In fact, one has to go back 20 years to match this level of inconsistency through July among our star 3-year-olds.

In 1982 Gato Del Sol won the Kentucky Derby while Aloma’s Ruler, Conquistador Cielo and Wavering Monarch won the Preakness, Belmont and Haskell respectively. Six days prior to the Belmont Stakes, Conquistador Cielo won the grade 1 Metropolitan Mile Handicap over older horses, but that was around a one turn one mile at Belmont Park.

The prep races that year were won by Muttering (Santa Anita Derby), Timely Writer (Florida Derby), Air Forbes Won (Wood Memorial) and Hostage (Arkansas Derby). Son of Briartic won the Queen’s Plate that year.

There have been some classes get close to matching the infamous mid-season mark. In 1985, Tank’s Prospect won the Preakness after winning the Arkansas Derby, but was the only sophomore colt or gelding with two grade 1 wins as of Aug. 1. Eight years later, Prairie Bayou won the 1993 Blue Grass Stakes and the Preakness to become the only male 3-year-old with two grade I wins on his resume in the first seven months of that year. But both 1985 and 1993 had interesting circumstances that may mislead to assume apparent confusion in the grade 1 ranks in those years.

Spend A Buck (photo), winner of the 1985 Derby, skipped the Preakness in pursuit of big bonus money then offered by the folks at Garden State Park. That class also included Crème Fraiche, the middle member of trainer Woody Stephens’ five-consecutive Belmont victors; and the next two Breeders’ Cup Classic (gr. 1) champions in Florida Derby winner Proud Truth and Skywalker, winner of the Santa Anita Derby. Spend A Buck was named Champion 3-year-old and Horse of the Year that year.

In the 1993 Kentucky Derby, 12-1 shot Sea Hero upset favorite Prairie Bayou, who came to the Derby off his win the Blue Grass. Prairie Bayou managed second in Kentucky, but avenged his loss by winning the Preakness in his next start. Unfortunately, Prairie Bayou broke down in the Belmont Stakes and had to be euthanized. That day Colonial Affair made jockey Julie Krone the only female jockey to win a Triple Crown and Kissin Kris would win he Haskell to keep Prairie Bayou as the only dual grade 1 winner so far that year. Early the next year, owner John Ed Anthony accepted the Eclipse Award naming Prairie Bayou as the champion 3-year-old male of 1993.

This year, nationally acclaimed trainers Todd Pletcher, Nick Zito, Bob Baffert, Bill Mott, Dale Romans, Graham Motions and Kelly Breen have tried everything except the toolbox belonging to Spicoli’s dad in an effort to return their grade I victors to more grade I winners’ circles. But none have been able to muster much consistency out of their high profile trainees of this class to do so.

The next grade I for this bunch is the Travers Stakes at Saratoga Aug. 27. After that, the natural transgression then leads to races against older horses as the Jockey Club Gold Cup at Belmont, and the Goodwood Stakes at Santa Anita lead to the Breeders' Cup Classic at Churchill Downs in early November.

Some grade I winners from this 2011 sophomore class are sidelined temporarily with minor injuries. Kentucky Derby winner Animal Kingdom and Wood Memorial winner Toby’s Corner are among them. Others such as Arch Arch Arch have met early retirement due to more serious lameness issues. But the connections behind Ruler On Ice, Coil and Shackleford have indicated they are pointing toward the mid-Summer Derby at Saratoga.

So as Spicoli might say in Fast Times "If Baffert, Breen and Pletcher don't get their stars back in form pronto, this class of 3-year-olds might be remembered as bogus too. Get it?"