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Thursday, November 30, 2006

Notes - Dec 1 (DEC 1!?)

- Just Zip It is doing great and came out of her debut second well. Up next, if all goes well, is a six furlong state-bred maiden special with a $41,000 purse on December 10. I imagine that Bill Turner would like to stretch her out even further, but with the inner track open, that's as far as you can go without going two turns.

- I imagine that some bettors are pretty frustrated over Homerette. The NY-bred three-year old filly took the restricted Irish Linet Stakes at Saratoga in August, and was 15.90-1 that day. Since then, she's been 9-2 twice and 8-1, and managed one second and two 4ths. She was dismissed again at Aqueduct on Thursday in the Flat Fleet Feet Stakes at almost the exact odds - 16-1 even - as her last win; there were five others in the field, none higher than 5-1. But I guess she likes those odds, because she did it again for trainer Pat Kelly.

Homerette is a daughter of Grand Slam, who saw his stud fee cut from $50,000 to $35,000 for 2007.

Another winner and two more seconds for Gary Contessa.

NYRA reopened the turf course for the first time since early in the month, but the jocks shut it down after one race, and we likely won't see it again until next spring.

"It's too soft at the half-mile pole," said jockey Mike Luzzi, whose mount Rap Queen finished last after being eased late. "Just look at the fractions of the race. They went :24, :48 and then slowed it up to 1:16. My horse never handled it."

Luzzi said it was a unanimous decision by the jockeys. [NY Daily News]
- Excelsior spokesperson Howard Wolfson told the Saratogian that the proposals announced for Saratoga by rival Empire were indeed included in the plan reviewed by the Ad Hoc Committee. 'The committee chose us,' he said.

- Derby/Preakness winner and "reluctant breeder" War Emblem is still shooting blanks these days. Despite being offered more than 100 mares, War Emblem did not get any in foal in 2006. [Thoroughbred Times] But he had his first winner from his initial crop, which consists of four horses. Clan Emblem, out of a Sunday Silence mare, won in his second start under jockey Yutaka Take.

War Emblem does reportedly have some 40 foals in his second crop, but I guess he decided that he doesn't like being a dad. And that's before any of them became teenagers!

It's the retirement season these days, as the stallion announcements are coming faster than Empire's press releases. And some of them are horses that one might consider to be more marginal sire prospects than the bigger names, and they require some touting by the owners. Sharp Humor (Distorted Humor) earned a shot at stud-dom with a win in the seven furlong Grade 2 Swale, and his close second place finish to Barbaro in the Florida Derby (you mean the prospective Sportsmen of the Year struggled to defeat a NY-bred sprinter in a nine furlong race?). Winstar purchased a share after that race, and their president Doug Cauthen talked him up big time:
"In what is the best 3-year-old crop I have ever seen, Sharp Humor entered the classic picture in a serious way....His awesome runner-up performance against Barbaro in the Florida Derby, in which he posted a triple digit Beyer Speed Figure, confirmed him in our minds as one of the most talented 3-year-olds of his generation. In fact, Sharp Humor's BRIS Speed Figure in the Florida Derby was equal to Barbaro¹s, and we all know now what an exceptionally talented racehorse Barbaro was. Unfortunately, Sharp Humor sustained an injury in the Kentucky Derby which precluded us from seeing the full extent of this horse's talent." [Bloodhorse]
Some other stallions that could probably use even more PR include It's No Joke, Love of Money, Old Forester, and Praying For Cash (an appropriate name to be sure).

Silver Train will stand for $25,000 at Vinery. And the venerable mare Happy Ticket will get a one-way ticket to the breeding farm; no plans for a mate have yet been announced.

- All seems to be well with the Cushion Track at Hollywood since problems were reported a couple of weeks ago. The track was pronounced safe despite some surprisingly quick times were registered on Thursday. In the second race, 2-year-old maidens entered for claiming prices of $28,000 to $32,000 ran six furlongs in 1:09.31. [DRF]
After the first race, Martin Pedroza, who rode race winner IB Bad, said, "It's not really hard. It has a good bounce to it. It feel good, and it's not just because I won. As long as they come back healthy, that's important."

Danny Sorenson, who finished fourth on Zackary's Verbatim, said the track was similar to Wednesday, when times were not as quick. "It didn't feel any different from yesterday," he said.

Empire Demands Attention

- On-the-Muscle Empire Racing Unveils Plan for Spa reads the headline on, and that's an apt description of the organization. Second in the hearts of the Ad Hoc Committee on the Future of Racing, they are full bent on being number one in the hearts of the fans and in the minds of the politicians in New York. They held a press conference in Saratoga Springs, which happens to be part of Senate Majority Leader Joseph Bruno's district, unveiling a host of fan and horsemen-friendly ideas. If their PR agency Eric Mower did their job well which, judging by all the press and favorable headlines I've seen (Empire Racing vows to freeze prices at Saratoga if awarded franchise...Preserving the Charm of Saratoga While Enhancing Racing), then it was all covered on the local Albany news broadcasts as well.

And it's just the beginning of what will be a statewide barrage.

[CEO Jeff] Perlee said Empire plans to make a series of statewide presentations touting a comprehensive plan for making upstate New York a thoroughbred center comparable to Kentucky. The group will unveil specifics next week in Albany, he said. [Thoroughbred Times]
And what was Excelsior's response? A brief statement issued just prior to the festivities:
"Earlier this month a distinguished bipartisan panel recommended that Excelsior should run New York's racing franchise. They chose Excelsior over Empire on the merits because our team and our plans were stronger and offered a better deal for horsemen, fans, and taxpayers." [Albany Times Union]
It's a fascinating contrast of styles between the two contenders, and it remains to be seen if Excelsior will continue to exercise restraint. They may just feel that their proposal $peak$ for itself to the people who matter, especially if Empire's Saratoga ideas were already included in their bid (and it's unclear to me if that's the case). [EDIT: Excelsior claims that they were...see following post.]

Empire laid it on thick, promising town meetings, community partnerships, a public viewing area at the Oklahoma traning track, and much more:
Marketing of the local tourism industry to attract people from Montreal and other parts of Quebec, the Canadian province that borders upstate New York.

--The freezing of admission prices at Saratoga at their current levels for a minimum of five years and allowing fans to continue to bring coolers into the track.

--Enlarging the family picnic area by using part of the parking lot currently reserved for horse owners.

--Restoring steeplechase racing by including 12 jump races during the Saratoga meet and adding an extra flat race on jump-race days.

--The hiring of "guest ambassadors" to .......
Wait a minute, what was that?

Enlarging the family picnic area by using part of the parking lot currently reserved for horse owners.

SAY WHAT??? NO....I..DON'T..THINK..SO!!! That's it, man...I am SO done being objective about these guys! Them's fightin' words!! More picnic space so a few thousand more people can sit in the back and not pay attention? Thoughts of cruising by the masses dragging their coolers through the local streets as I make my way towards my spot in the owners' lot inspire me as I write my latest cash call check for Highland Cat and Christening!

I wrote a post during Saratoga on the way that so many people in the picnic area don't pay a bit of attention to the races, and at the time I tried to upload a video I'd shot, but wasn't able to manage. But now, armed with You Tube, I can. This was taken during the running of a race last summer - you can here Durkin in the background. I think it's pretty funny.

One person who did not see Empire's press conference is outgoing Governor George Pataki. He's in Iraq. "By all accounts, this government has not delivered the security and stability that the people of Iraq need," Pataki said. [Buffalo News] Like we really needed the Governor of New York to go to Iraq to tell us that. Certainly he must be on some kind of important state business and not just using taxpayer money to generate photo ops for a presidential run, right?

State lawmakers are out of town too, as the legislature is out of session. The Globetrotting Governor, however, has summoned them back for a special session on Dec 12, for the stated purpose of passing a law permitting civil confinement, in psychiactric hospitals, of the worst sex offenders when they're released from prisons. Pataki is center to left on many social issues - especially gambling, which he attempted to bring to the state on the same scope as Pennsylvania - and this seems like a handy opportunity to look righteous to the right.

The NY Sun reports here that many topics may be addressed in the special session, including a controversial pay raise for lawmakers that the Governor says he opposes, but is expected to use as a bargaining chip nonetheless. He's trying to get some mileage for his presidential ambitions, but one thing that's apparently not on the agenda is the franchise bids and the changes in racing law that we all presume with accompany them. Those will be left for the next Governor to decide.

Notes - Nov 30

- Gary Contessa is on a major roll. He was the only NY horseman that I know of to break with the horseman's association and back Excelsior over Empire; and last Monday, as you probably know, his organization got the non-binding recommendation from the state committee.

Contessa had three winners on Wednesday at the Big A, as action shifted to the inner track for a very, very long time. By the time the action shifts back to the main track, we'll be flush with Derby fever. Contessa also had a winner with his last starter, on Saturday; and he has been in the money with nine out of his last ten starters.

- Jerry Bossert of the NY Daily News writes, of a certain "prominent writer" who has called for Discreet Cat getting consideration for the sprint Eclipse, that the idea "disgusts" him.

How can you reward Champion Sprinter to a horse that didn't show up on racing's biggest day, the Breeders' Cup. Discreet Cat sat in the barn that day and ran just three times in America this year, with two starts at a mile and one start at seven furlongs, none at the classic six-furlong distance. If his connections wanted him to be named Champion Sprinter, they should have gone to the Breeders' Cup Sprint or Laurel Park and try BC Sprint winner Thor's Echo in the DeFrancis Dash, but instead they ran in the Cigar Mile. My vote will be going to Thor's Echo, who showed up on racing's biggest day and won the Sprint.
- Chris McErlean, the vice president of racing operations for the Meadowlands for the last 14 years, has accepted a buyout and will run racing operations for Penn National Gaming. I mention this because the Meadowlands is a horseplayer's wet dream. The plant is clean, the TV screens and betting machines and windows plentiful, and the bountiful simulcasting menu makes NY seem like the outmoded racing state that it is. There's even a nice and spacious park area extending to the top of the long stretch that makes spring and summer evenings pleasant. As live attendance has declined, the track has largely maintained its services instead of instituting cutbacks that cram fans into small spaces. For a track of its kind (as in, not a grandiose outdoor setting such as Belmont or Saratoga), there's no better place for an evening of betting on races. Penn National is getting a good man.

Wednesday, November 29, 2006

Wonderful Enough

- While Nobiz Like Shobiz impressed us with his brilliance on Saturday, Tiz Wonderful did so with his grit. I had written that Tiz Wonderful would be not wonderful enough, and for a while there, it looked like I had the exacta cold with Any Given Saturday, the unexpected clear second choice, on top. Wild Tale, 5-1 morning line, went off at 11.80 to 1 and ran 7th by over 15 lengths; you gotta love this game.

Whereas fellow hyped two-year old Nobiz Like Shobiz impressed us with his brilliance, Tiz Wonderful did so with this grit, battling back when he seemed beaten, and holding off my pick, a very promising juvenile from Pletcher. The winner answered two big questions, winning around two turns and, showing heart when hooked late. Velazquez said: "He was a little bit delayed switching leads down the lane. Once he switched he got a good gear and went on." [Courier-Journal]

When Pletcher gets a good two-year old this time of year, one might start to wonder if he'll be the one. You know he's gonna win a Derby one of these days. Isn't he? Any Given Saturday proved he can run on real dirt in addition to Polytrack, and he certainly has the pedigree credentials to be a nice horse. Purchased as a yearling by Winstar for $1.1 million, I wrote about his pedigree the other day: He's a $1.1 million son of Distorted Humor, out of an AP Indy mare, and a half-brother to Bohemian Lady, a stakes winner at nine furlongs this year. His dam is a half to the graded winner Second of June. Going back a bit more in the distaff pedigree, I see that he's from the family of Golden Act and Highland Blade, a couple of horses that I remember as being particularly suited for long route races.

[And Highland Blade is the broodmare sire of Highland Cat, who is scheduled to return to the barn of Bill Turner next week. We've seen how much he's helped that pedigree.]

Wile E. Empire

- Baseball Commissioner Bud Selig wants to know more about future Yankees Boss Steve Swindal's involvement with Excelsior Racing. Swindal is hoping that he'll be "grandfathered" in given George Steinbrenner's long involvement in the sport as an owner and breeder. Of course, that association has not involved slot machines. Selig told the NY Post: "There is a lot of history there, but it really depends on the details and I don't want to comment until I see the details."

And yes, one day there will actually be a racino at Aqueduct, and MGM Mirage says that it can indeed have it up and running before NYRA's franchise expires. In a statement that was little more than a warning to the state, Excelsior, and Empire that its contract to build and operate the casino is immune to a change in racing operators, the company said it could have it operational during the "latter part" of 2007, and would thereby generate some $500 million in incremental revenue to the state of New York over and above the franchise bid payments. [Bloodhorse]

The contract was agreed to with MGM on a no-bid basis, which the state comptroller's office basically said was improper, but that there was nothing they could do about it. One can certainly understand why the eventual winner will certainly explore any options they might have.

Empire has now annointed themselves as a "finalist for New York State's racing franchise." That's a bit of a distortion of the facts, but when have the facts ever really mattered to them? I'm still awaiting an explanation from a spokesperson to the question of what makes Excelsior a "dog track operator." On the other hand, Excelsior continues to conduct themselves with quiet dignity. Their website has been updated with the news of their selection by the state committee, but only with a very brief statement, and some links to news articles. It's almost like the old Road Runner cartoons, with Wile E. Coyote using every bit of treachery and any useful gadgets from the Acme Corporation he can find, while the Road Runner just quietly goes about his business. And note that the Road Runner always wins. Meep Meep!

Return Engagement for Ouija Board?

- Ouija Board finished third in the Japan Cup, and is scheduled to make one more start, in the Hong Kong Vase. But according to an article in the UK's Independent, there's pressure on Lord Derby to bring her back to race at the age of six.

The stud's manager, Peter Stanley, Lord Derby's younger brother, has been itching to add her name to his list of broodmares for some time, but he may have to wait a little longer if a groundswell of opposition gains pace. Lord Derby is being urged by several well-respected professionals to give Ouija Board one more year on the racetrack, a course of action that, it is believed, would not displease her trainer, Ed Dunlop.

One leading trainer said: "I have told Lord Derby that if she was mine I would let her race again next year. She will only be six and there is plenty of time for breeding.

"This season she has been better than ever, while it is a certainty that whatever she does at stud, she will never throw one better than herself, so he might as well enjoy her racing as long as possible." [Independent]

Tuesday, November 28, 2006

Big Impact in Japan

Pretty cool, eh? It ain't Aqueduct, by the way. It's Deep Impact returning to his adoring fans after winning the Japan Cup early Sunday morning NY time. You thought it was a little goofy to send get well cards to Barbaro? The fans there were chanting Deep Impact's name. Could you ever imagine the railbirds at Saratoga going "Ber-nar-di-ni! (clap, clap, clap-clap-clap) Ber-nar-di-ni..!"

Walter discusses the question of why Deep Impact was on the pace at the Arc, whereas the late closing style that he returned to in the Japan Cup is obviously the horse's preferred style. (It's just as well he didn't win the Arc, because he would have been DQ'd for the nasal spray anyway.) I think it's a fair point that jockey Yutaka Take was still conscious of a much criticized ride in the Arc from the past, though I believe it was actually the one on White Muzzle in 1994. He was savagely criticized for moving too late, and twelve years later, the Brits were still writing about it in the papers. It's just human nature that he wanted to avoid the mistake again.

According to this article from the Japan Times, the chanting was actually going on during the race.

The crowd, 120,000 strong, was a wall of sound as it chanted Deep's name.

"I could hear them chanting," trainer Yasuo Ikee said. "It was really something and I was so grateful for it."

Passing horse after horse and gaining strongly, papers, hats and programs were hurtled into the air. Victory looked certain.
Here, we only throw programs in the air when we get nosed out of the triple or Pick 4, and there would quickly be a swarm of people fighting to pick them up off the ground.

Wanted to mention TVG, which did a great job of covering the race, sending Simon Bray and Todd Schrmmmppff to Japan to cover the race live. Schrmmmppff is a guy who always has his TV face on, and it's sometimes hard to tell if his enthusiasm is genuine or contrived. But it was obvious that he and Bray were truly overwhelmed by the scene and by the unabashed affection the fans showed for the horse. Bray had a smile so wide that it extended back to the TVG studio and brushed up against Christine Olivares' leg.

The TV feed from Japan seemed to combine the best and worst of what we've seen on the tube lately. I like the idea of the camera panning through the whole field close up while they're on the backstretch. But not in the home stretch! While Deep Impact was rolling home on the outside, we were instead, for a few (long) moments, treated to a closeup of some fading horses towards the inside. Tough to figure that one out.

No SI Jinx For This Sportsman

- Kudos to Patrick over at Pulling Hair for his excellent idea of naming Barbaro as Sports Illustrated's Sportsman of the Year.

Like Barbaro they've named figures with similar facial features, athletes on drugs, and athletes prone to break their leg.
(If Jackie Stewart is reading, Patrick wrote that, not me.) (Though it's so funny, I wish I had.) Patrick points out that Steve Cauthen was the last racing person to win the award, in 1977. And the thing that seems amazing about that is not that it was so long ago, but that a jockey actually won the SI Sportsman of the Year! These days, a jock would have to not only win the Triple Crown, but win the triple crown too!

In fact, I'd go further and propose that Barbaro should get consideration for Time Magazine's Man of the Year award for bringing out the humanity in the human race, no mean feat. But I think that President Bush has that award locked up - anyone who's enough of a fuck-up to actually get the Democrats elected these days truly deserves that award.

It's unfortunate that Barbaro will not be winning an Eclipse Award, but that's just the way things have worked out. He simply was not the best three-year old on the track this year. Perhaps he could get a Special Achievement award like they do at the Oscars or Grammys. And it would be nice if Discreet Cat could get one too, though not the Sprint award; a goofy idea, in my opinion, by Mike Watchmaker. (And someone at the Form must have thought so too, since the headline of his column has been changed from 'Discreet Cat Deserves Sprint Eclipse' to 'Discreet Cat Deserves Consideration.' [sub. only] Did they think they were going to sneak that by us blogging types?)

Notes - Nov 28

- We'd be remiss if we didn't mention the dominating win by Pleasant Premium Tap in the Clark at Churchill last Friday. He destroyed the tattered remains of what passes for the handicap division, and in doing so capped quite a second half of the racing year. Given his more than credible third in the BC Classic (trainer John Kimmel says he was hampered by a skin ailment), I think it's fair to say that he's currently the best older dirt horse that's not from Uruguay. His final time of 1:47.39 was just .11 seconds slower than the track record set by Victory Gallop.

And the good news is that he'll be back next year; the Donn at Gulfstream has been mentioned as a possible next race.

- Interesting point by the Saratogian's Jeff Scott in discussing Discreet Cat and his pedigree prospects to get a mile and a quarter.

For example, of 124 Grade I dirt races run at a mile-and-a-quarter or more over the past decade, only two (the 1999 BC Classic and 2004 Personal Ensign Handicap) have been won by tail-male descendants of Storm Cat -- an astonishingly low figure considering the hundreds of blue chip mares (many of them with stamina-laden pedigrees) that have been sent to Storm Cat and his sons over the years.

On the other hand, Discreet Cat does have plenty of stamina elsewhere in his pedigree. And in his races thus far he has shown no sign of having distance limitations. Will he be up to the challenge of taking on proven distance runners such as Invasor and Premium Tap at a mile-and-a-quarter, a distance he has yet to run? It'll be a shame if we don't get to find out.
- Empire Racing continues their marketing blitz with a press release detailing specific safety proposals for racing in New York, including synthetic surfaces at Aqueduct and Belmont. It's not clear whether these proposals were part of their presentation to the Ad Hoc committee. The release touts the unprecedented coalition of racing industry talent behind the plan, and I'm sure that will be an ongoing theme as they try and contrast the presence of experienced track operators such as, say, Magna, with the lack of such experience at Excelsior.

Monday, November 27, 2006

Mighty Effort for Thor's Echo

- Watchmaker makes a case for Discreet Cat as the sprint champ, but I think that Thor's Echo deserves the award. He writes in the Form (sub. only) that the latter's win in the DeFrancis on Saturday was much more workmanlike than impressive. I don't know if I agree with that. Thor's Echo tracked within 2-3 lengths of a very quick pace - the second quarter went in 21.74 - and then had to circle 4-5 wide into the stretch. When confronted with the fresh Diabolical, Thor's Echo dug in like a champ and got the last furlong in 12.04 seconds while conceding the runner-up six pounds and a couple of paths on the turn.

"What a great race," [Diabolical jockey Mario] Pino said afterward. "I thought I had him. [Diabolical] charged at him, but that other horse just kept digging in. We were running; I just couldn't get by the winner." [Washington Post]

I thought it was pretty damn impressive; and even Watchmaker concedes that: it is to Thor's Echo's credit that he was able to run a representative race on such relatively short rest.

- Street Sounds, who took the grassy Selima at Laurel, is a two-year old daughter of Street Cry, getting her first stakes win for Michael Matz. She's now two-for-three since switching to the grass. She's a half sister to Silver Highlight, a stakes winner on the turf at Woodbine this year; and her third dam is the fantastic multiple Grade 1 winning turf filly Sabin, who won 18 of 25 for trainer Woody Stephens in the early 80's.

In the Laurel Futurity for the boys, Alan Goldberg-trained Strike a Deal gave Ramon Dominguez a sweep of the two juvenile grass stakes and became the latest stakes winner for his sire Smart Strike. It's at least his 12th of this year, and his career stats on Equiline now show a lifetime stakes-winners-to-foals percentage of 10%. Strike a Deal is also now two-for-three on the grass. Strike A Deal is out of Shag, a stakes winning daughter of Dixieland Band.

Distance For Discreet Cat?

- Godolphin Guy Rick Mettee told David Grening of the Form, of Discreet Cat: "I still think it's going to be a question mark whether he gets the mile and a quarter."

"Any horse that has a cruising speed of 1:07-and-three and can run a mile [in 1:32.46] - how many horses do you see do that and still run a mile and a quarter? Precisionist is one, off the top of my head, that was a good sprinter and who got the mile and a quarter."
Discreet Cat won the UAE Derby at a mile and an eighth; that's the longest he's gone, and that is the race in which he beat Invasor by some seven lengths. His real trainer, Saeed bin Suroor, now mentions the Godolphin Mile as a possible alternative to the mile and a quarter World Cup; and Mettee talked about bringing him back to the U.S. in the seven furlong Tom Fool at Saratoga.

I say 'let's see,' before we anticipate too much. I'm not being solely skeptical of the connections; they do seem sincere in their intentions to bring the horse back. It's more a wariness of the fickle finger of fate which seems to plague this sport when it seems like something good is going to happen. That plus the fact that I don't imagine it would take much in the way of a minor injury to put the kibosh on the whole thing.

Because if they really don't think he's a mile and a quarter horse - and that's the way he's been campaigned, and the way the early indications are of what his campaign next year would be - then I don't see what they really have to gain from a business perspective to bring him back at all. This isn't like the old days; he doesn't have to prove any durability. Equaling (almost) the track record at a mile at Aqueduct while giving actual weight to older Grade 1 horses and going the first six furlongs in 1:07.3 is certainly sufficient to ensure a lucrative stud career these days - especially when it caps an undefeated career of sheer brilliance. Vindication comes to mind - he went to stud at $60,000 after going four-for-four at two; so we can imagine what an undefeated and freaky son of the extremely popular Forestry could get now.

It's hard to believe that they would bring him back here for the Tom Fool; where would that lead - to the Vosburgh? The Breeders Cup Mile? If the Sheikh's people don't think he's up to the mile and a quarter Classic, then I don't see the point in him coming back here after World Cup day - from a business perspective, of course. There just doesn't seem to be that much upside there. Of course, perhaps they're just trying to be great sportsmen by giving us all a chance to be dazzled again by an absolutely brilliant thoroughbred. I'll believe that when I see it.

- Discreet Cat got a Beyer of 116 for the Cigar Mile.

- The "numbers" would indicate that a mile and a quarter should be within the capabilities of Discreet Cat. He has a dosage index of 2.67, and his Tomlinson distance rating is 379.

He's out of a mare by Private Account, a Grade 1 winner at a mile and a quarter (Widener Handicap). He has inbreeding to Buckpasser and Ribot. His half brother, Pretty Wild, by Wild Again, was definitely a miler - he took the Grade 2 Jerome at that distance. But if you go further back in the distaff pedigree, you'll see that this is the family of the Belmont winner Touch Gold and the distance turf specialist With Approval. [Their third dam is the fifth dam of Discreet Cat.]

What that all means, we won't know until he tries the distance, as we all sincerely hope he will. It's fun to try and figure it out on paper; but it will be much more fun if we find out at around 5:30 P.M. at Monmouth next October 27.

Magna Misplay

- Here's the first indication that Empire Racing's decision to take on an array of corporate partners from outside the state hurt its bid with the state committee that has recommended Excelsior for the NY racing franchise. Saratoga mayor Valerie Keehn, a member of the committee, told the local Channel 9 news that some on the committee worried about Empire's size.

Empire's stakeholders include track and gaming operators Churchill Downs, Magna and Delaware North.

Jerry Bilinski of Excelsior Racing Associates said, "That is our focus, New York. We want New York people running New York racing."
Empire felt that the recommendation of the New York Thoroughbred Horseman's Association would obscure the out-of-state investors and give the company a New York flavor. But it just may have been the questionable decision to include Magna that particularly sabotaged that strategy. Magna, awash in debt, has become a universal symbol of incompetence in the industry, especially after the overwhelmingly negative reviews of the rebuilt Gulfstream Park, and their inclusion invited derision right from the very start. I would guess that's one call that Empire CEO Jeff Perlee would like to have back.

Sunday, November 26, 2006

Notes - Nov 26

- It must have been a familiar feeling for Cornelio Velasquez on Sunday, sitting on a supremely talented colt trained by Barclay Tagg, and taking aim at the leader entering the stretch run. Like Nobiz Like Shobiz, Showing Up blitzed by and drew away for an easy win in yet another extremely impressive display of equine talent seen over the holiday weekend. The final quarter went in 23.56 en route to a final clocking of 1:59.35. And as correctly predicted right here, Obrigado was up to get second and complete an exacta of $24.60.

Watching the race, I was getting a little nervous about Showing Up; he was further back than usual, and didn't seem to be going anywhere. I could never be a jockey; I'd always be moving too soon. But Tagg seemed to be thinking the same way: "Well I was a little angry he was back in fifth place, and I was hoping he was in third place."

We rightly complain about three-year olds being retired, but we should feel pretty lucky going into 2007. Not only will we (hopefully) have the otherwordly Discreet Cat, but Showing Up is a horse that I think may be able to compete with the top grass horses in the world next year.

- When the horses came out onto the track for the third at the Big A on Saturday, I thought that the 5 horse, Bark Dust, looked a bit stiff. Handicapping based on visual observations is far from a strong point, but I do feel qualified to make at least some evaluations. As I started having those thoughts about the Todd Pletcher-trained three-year old, who was running for a $75000 tag, he and jockey Garrett Gomez, left their lead pony and galloped off. In the past, I would have thought that was good, that the horse was anxious to run. But last week on TVG, I heard someone, I believe it was Gary Stevens, comment in the negative on a similar situation, pointing out that it meant that the jockey felt that the horse was in need of being warmed up more aggressively.

Well, I don't know if my observation was just plain wrong or if he warmed up out of it, not only did Bark Dust win, but he did so stretching out to a distance that seemed to be beyond his best, and did so in a remarkably game performance in which he just would not the favored Mister Supremo get by.

Just a few minutes later, Pletcher's Sam P. won the 5th race at Churchill, his second winner of the day there - he got part of a dead heat with Our Sacred Honour in the third (and remember, we're going to watch for that one on the grass). Later, Pletcher just missed taking the Kentucky Jockey Club when a game Tiz Wonderful proved to be indeed wonderful enough and battled back to beat the trainer's Any Given Saturday. But he took the meet finale with Meritocracy.

Cigar Day Photos

It used to be that the first floor of the Aqueduct grandstand was one of the most undesirable places to be in the city. Or virtually anywhere else for that matter. But now that it's mostly closed, it can actually be a respite from the crowded clubhouse on the rare days that it's partially opened. Of course....

Most of the grandstand remains closed.

The Big A paddock.

All lenses were on Nobiz Like Shobiz.

Nobiz Like Shobiz.

Some of the biggest excitement took place at hourly raffles held by New York State Lottery. I guess the Lottery folks were taking a little time off from trying to get that racino approved.

Noshobiz Like Discreet Cat

- The announced crowd on Saturday at Aqueduct was only 4,834 on an absolutely gorgeous November day. The crowd was packed into the clubhouse as usual, with extra areas of the grandstand open to accommodate crowds that never came. The TVs blared the results of way too many big racing events around the country on the same day - a zillion stakes races at Laurel, extreme day at Calder, two-year olds galore at Churchill. So it felt like a big day anyway, even as the routine undercard plodded along. The shroud of bankruptcy and uncertainty hangs heavily over the storied track, and not even the prospect of seeing the ephemeral Discreet Cat could bring fans out on this day. But the ones who didn't come should be sorry. Years from now when you hear around 10,000 people tell you that they were there that day, don't believe them more than half of them.

We can't talk about Discreet Cat until we first mention Nobiz Like Shobiz. It was his win that signaled that this would not be just another day at the races. Barclay Tagg's prized two-year old sat patiently and professionally between horses behind the pacesetters in the Grade 2 Remsen. As he turned for home lockstep with 11-1 Timber Reserve, you figured it was time to see if this colt is worth all the hype that was generated from his two prior starts. I have to admit that I was just a bit skeptical. No longer.

Cornelio Velasquez asked Nobiz Like Shobiz for a response at that point, and wow, did he respond. "He is getting it! He is getting it in a big way!" exclaimed Tom Durkin as the son of Albert the Great strided out with a purpose, emphatically drawing away, and doing it as if he was truly enjoying himself as his rider merely showed him the whip. "I just had a lot of horse. I think he is the best two-year-old now. He was a little green the first couple of times, but he is getting more better, more better. He likes company and competition." [Bloodhorse]

Actually, he still seemed a bit green in the stretch as he seemed to be trying to look around a bit, perhaps seeking that company and compeition that he likes but no longer had. He got his final eighth in 12.77; last three-eigths in a racehorse 36.86. Tagg said: "If he's not a Triple Crown candidate, they've never made one." [DRF]

While I still think Tagg made the right move in skipping the Juvenile, it's now certainly fair to wonder what might have been. Nonetheless, the colt is definitely better off for having not made the trip to Churchill, and I imagine he'll be many peoples' winter-book favorite for the 2007 Kentucky Derby.

It was a show-stopping performance, but was not to be the top story on this day. Godolphin wanted Discreet Cat to finally get a test in the Cigar Mile, but you know what? Despite chasing a revived Silver Train through a six furlong mark of 1:07 3/5 that almost made Durkin fall out of the booth, I don't know if he got it! I have never before seen a thoroughbred race horse run six furlongs in 1:07.75 with his jockey sitting motionless throughout. He made what would otherwise be a blazing and punishing speed duel look routine; Garrett Gomez was casually looking behind him as they were turning for home. It wasn't until the eighth pole that he even shook the reins, and showed Discreet Cat something called a whip.

"I had plenty of horse and my only concern was when I looked back I couldn't tell how fast Badge of Silver was coming.

"He was hiding behind us. When I took a peak back at the eighth pole I could see him so I showed Discreet Cat the stick a couple of times and he went about his business.

"He's never been hit with it (the whip). I've been excited ever since I put a leg on him. To run as fast as they ran and the way he was doing it, he's just a nice horse." [Sporting Life UK]
The final time of 1:32.46 was a stakes record and a virtual tie for track record with Easy Goer's 1:32.40 (edit - times corrected); the final quarter was 24.61, so maybe he did get a little tired. I suppose even a freak can get weary after running that fast. The second quarter was 22.11, and the third was run in 22.92. Trainer Saeed bin Suroor said: "He was a bit keen today and in future he needs to relax more. His time in Dubai over the winter should help him to do this."

So yes, Discreet Cat is a freak, a monster, whatever you want to call him. He's also the best three-year old to have raced in this country this year. Forget Barbaro vs. Bernardini. Discreet Cat should win the Eclipse for top three-year old.

Saturday, November 25, 2006


Discreet Cat was a blur even in the paddock before the race

Showing Up at Hollywood

- I don't imagine that Barclay Tagg has any regrets about not running Nobiz Like Shobiz in the Breeder Cup (though I'm writing this before Saturday's Remsen). But I wonder if, considering how the races turned out, he thinks now and again about how Showing Up may have fared had run in the Mile or the Turf. The distances of those races may have been the biggest problem - one race may have been too short, the other too long. But does anyone think that Showing Up is not in a class with Miesque's Approval? Or with Red Rocks for that matter?

We've seen how European three-year olds, such as Red Rocks and the Arc winner Rail Link seem better prepared to face older rivals at this time of the year. But Showing Up's effort in the Man O'War against older horses were no worse, on paper, than those by the aforementioned pair in the races leading up to their big wins. Of course, there's always the matter of the relative competition, and Cacique's inexplicably dull effort in the Turf didn't exactly flatter those he beat in the Man O'War. But it seems to me that Showing Up certainly has the potential to be competitive against the Turf and Arc winners, putting distance preferences aside for now.

Tagg has opted to return Showing Up to racing against his own age group, and he'll finish out the year in the G1 Hollywood Derby at a mile and a quarter on Sunday. Owner Roy Jackson told the LA Times:

"After his last race [a 3 1/2 -length win in the Jamaica Breeders' Cup Handicap on Oct. 14 at Belmont], Barclay thought it would really be sort of pressing it to run him in one of the Breeders' Cup races. He thought it would be better to keep him with his own age bracket. We want to keep him sound and run him next year, so this race made more sense."
Ivan Denisovich chased Showing Up home in the Secretariat at Arlington over the summer, and looks to rebound from his eventful Queen Elizabeth II Stakes in England, in which his jockey was accused of using him in inproper "team tactics" to bother Godolphin's Librettist. Brother Derek makes his grass debut, and Dan Hendricks explains:
“Cecil [Peacock] said if we're going to experiment with (Cushion Track) in a $100,000 Grade III race against older horses (Native Diver 'Cap), then let's experiment on turf in a $500,000 Grade I against 3-year-olds....I couldn't put up much of an argument.” []
I probably could, but I won't. I think the horse has been mismanaged ever since it became clear that he's a shade (or three) below the top horses in his age group.

Obrigado looks like an interesting money prospect in the race. He's a steadily improving gelding for Neil Drysdale who has thrown in final furlongs of 11 1/5 in rallying for second in each of his last two races, both Grade 2 stakes at a mile and an eighth. He looks like he'll like the stretchout here.

- Score one for the U.S. - kinda - as Godolphin's Ashkal Way, a middling runner in the UK last year, took his third graded stakes in a row, and his first Grade 1, the Citation, at Hollywood on Friday. And oh my, he was 7-2 as the fans went Euro and backed Rob Roy, a late-running 5th in the BC Mile, to 9-5 favoritism.

Great ride by Garrett Gomez, who overcame the ten post by angling Ashkal Way in before the first turn; he was only 2-3 wide at that point. He got a comfortable position on the rail, and moved up between horses on the turn, saving as much ground as possible. "I was making a little run around the turn and really the only decision I had to make was to duck inside Doug O'Neill's horse (Whilly) rather than go around." [Sporting Life UK] Vic Stauffer picked up the move at that point, and when they got to midstretch, he said, "You better take a look at Ashkal Way, and he is ROLLING down the center of the track!" And he rolled home by a length as the favorite lagged in 5th. Ashkal Way is now one second place finish from being undefeated in seven U.S. starts.

- Don't forget the Japan Cup; it's on TVG at 12:30 A.M. Saturday night (Sunday morning) in the East. Deep Impact will no doubt be the heavy favorite based on the way his fans backed him in the Arc, and if you get that effect here in the U.S. pools, it translates into a subsidy for backers of Ouija Board.

Just Zip It Photos

That's her on the far outside.

She looked none the worse for the wear after the race. That's trainer Bill Turner checking her out on the right.

Many thanks to Just Zip It partner Jeffrey A. Wurst for the kind permission to use his photos.

Friday, November 24, 2006

Just Zip It Zips Late

- Bill Turner told me and a group of about eight other owners in the paddock before the race that he expected Just Zip It to run well, but that he thinks she really needs more distance. It was a 5 1/2 furlong affair against a pretty weak state-bred field. I found that interesting because most everyone who saw the photos I posted of her here felt that she was built like a sprinter. (I should have some photos up shortly.)

Turner told jockey Jose Espinoza to "leave her" in the early stages but to see to it that she finished well. I don't think that meant she should get left at the gate, but sure enough, though she seemed to break alertly enough, she was clearly last just a couple of strides from the gate. She passed a horse or two as they rounded the turn, and she was between horses in the two path, making progress. She continued to move up towards in the inside once straightening away in the stretch, but then found herself in a bit of a box along the rail. She had to alter course to the outside at around the eighth pole.

She was still a good 6-7 lengths back for sure at that point, and it's one of those races that you wonder as you watch how she finished where she did. She never looked like the winner, but I guess that wasn't really the intention. She just kept coming and coming and closing the gap, and got up for second in the final strides, just a length and a half behind the winner. She made up 11 1/2 lengths in the final 2 1/2 furlongs; pretty cool! And the race went 4/5ths faster than the first division of the split race.

I presume she'll move out of the claiming ranks into the more lucrative world of state-bred maiden specials for her next start. (Though the $26,000 purse ain't bad, and the second place share of $5200 will pay some bills.) And she'll certainly get the extra distance next time that she truly looks as if she'll relish. Hopefully she'll run for a bigger purse, because I don't expect we'll be in a position to make much at the windows. She was 7-1 in this race, but unless she moves up too drastically, she'll be a lot closer to 7-5 next time.

Big A Notes

- Godolphin seems to be going out of its way to let everyone know just how tough of a spot the Cigar Mile is for Discreet Cat. “This will be by far his toughest race,” said Rick Mettee, assistant to trainer Saeed bin Suroor. “Much tougher than the UAE Derby...Invasor is a different horse now than he was in the UAE Derby.” [NYRA]

Only four will line up against him, but three of them are older horses, and therein lies the inspiration for owner Ken Ramsey in running Badge of Silver. That decision, on the surface, seemed like a strange one after his fine third place finish off a ten month layoff on the grass in the Breeders Cup Mile.

"Three-year-olds are at a disadvantage running against older horses, even this late in the year.....Bernardini didn't make it. If this time-tested, old hard-knocking horse looks Discreet Cat in the eye, I think he might possibly blink." [Daily Racing Form]
Silver Train took the Breeders Cup Sprint last year, as Mettee was quick to point out, but his last race, a dull 5th in the Vosburgh at Belmont, the horse's favorite track, certainly puts a damper on his prospects for the Cigar. “I was shocked at the way he ran,” said jockey Edgar Prado. “He was training super going into the race. He broke well, but when I asked him, he never picked it up.” [NYRA]

Sharp Humor, the other three-year old in the field, makes his second start since his ill-fated run at the Derby. He figures to be part of what could be a lively scene up front with Badge of Silver and Discreet Cat.

Ken Ramsey makes a good point about three-year olds and older horses; and Bernardini's loss in the Classic was an apt demonstration that being able to beat lesser horses with something left in the tank doesn't necessarily mean that the tank will be full when hooked by more talented competition. However, while many people now believe that Discreet Cat may not be much (if at all) below Bernardini, Badge of Silver definitely ain't no Invasor. And unless Silver Train has some good explanation for his poor effort at Belmont, Discreet Cat figures to run off to his winter in Dubai in style.

- Nobiz Like Shobiz faces seven other juveniles in the Remsen, also on Saturday.

The 4th at the Big A is a maiden two-year old race with shades of Saratoga. Todd Pletcher has a pair of first-timers with long, steady work tabs; and Nick Zito, Shug McGaughey, and Kiaran McLaughlin have debut runners of their own. You may recall the uncharacteristic streak of first-time winners that Zito had upstate. Since his final one there, he has 14 in a row without a win. Skypa (Stravinsky) was a $45,000 yearling purchase. He's out of a mare by River Special, and his second dam, by Damascus, is a half sister to Avatar, the 1975 Belmont winner, and a name out of the past to be sure. I would say that was my first Belmont as a converted thoroughbred fan.

Pletcher may have struggled a bit at Churchill, but he's 7 for 23 for 30% at the Big A. Madman, one half of his entry, is a half-brother, by Mr. Greeley, to the champion sprinter Artax. Feastorfamine is a $200,000 yearling starting for McLaughlin. He's by Mr. Greeley's son El Corredor, 6 for 68 with first-time juveniles according to the Form; out of an Ascot Knight mare, and his second dam is a half to Bluebird, an Irish sprint champ.

And Rescue Party debuts for McGaughey, so watch the board with this one, who's not a pure Phipps-bred and is listed at 6-1 off some quick recent works. He's by the struggling sire Monarchos, who as we noted, has had his stud fee cut in half to $7,500, which does not make him the lowest standing Derby winner. At the least, Real Quiet is below him at $6500. Monarchos is 4 for 38 with first time two-year olds. Rescue Party is out of a Seeking the Gold mare; his second dam is graded winner Deputation; his third the Grade 3 winner Wedding Party.

Thursday, November 23, 2006

Baby Day

- Saturday's card at Churchill is all two-year olds, and that's pretty cool. In addition to the Kentucky Jockey Club, there's the Golden Rod, a corresponding Grade 2 route for fillies. Steve Flint, the trainer of probable favorite Change Up, is 8 for 15 at the Churchill meeting. There's a good article by Jennie Rees in the Courier-Journal about the filly's breeders, the Kleins, a husband and wife and their son. They also have Get Ready Bertie (More Than Ready), who may be amongst the favorites in the G2 Demoiselle the same day at Aqueduct.

Four of the Churchill races are maiden affairs, and the third race is for the boys at seven furlongs. During the Saratoga meeting, I was following first time starters who were two-year old in training sales horses who sold for a price far in excess of their stud fees. Now, late in the year, these horses have apparently had some kind of setback that prevented them from getting to the races until now. Nonetheless, they still displayed talent in the under tack show, so I still take an interest in them when I come across them.

Codio goes first-time for Scott Blasi, who is 4 for 54 with debut juveniles since taking over for the suspended Steve Asmussen in July. Blasi has been knocking at the door of late, and has six in the money with his last 12, and he is hitting at 34% for the Churchill meeting. This colt is by Donerail Court, the Seattle Slew stallion who stands for $10,000 at Stonewall in Kentucky. There's not much to see in the distaff pedigree of Codio; he's out of a mare by Valid Wager, a moderately successful California sire.

Yet Codio drew a winning bid of $350,000 at the Barrett's sale in March, where he worked a quarter mile in 21 1/5; Bob Baffert was listed as the purchasing agent. And whatever it may have been that delayed his debut, he's turned in a steady string of solid works, most recently a bullet (of 24) half in 47 flat breezing.

Tenkiller Lake is by the first-year sire Red Bullet. The 2000 Preakness winner is an example of why owners rush their horses off to the breeder shed. A winner of four of six at three, including the Gotham, he went two for seven at ages four and five, with just an ungraded stakes win and earnings of around $180,000. He went to stud at $30,000, and his record at 4 and 5 certainly didn't help. He's off to a quiet start at stud with five winners, one of those in an ungraded stakes. His fee has been cut to $15,000 for 2007. Tenkiller Lake sold for $225,000 at Fasig-Tipton in February after working in 10.3, and 22 flat. He's out of a Storm Cat mare and has inbreeding to Caro 3x3.

Our Sacred Honor was 7-2 for his debut for Pletcher, and broke poorly and ran evenly thereafter for 7th. Pletcher had another winner on Thursday, and missed a second by a nose as he closes the meet strongly. In fact, if you throw out his 17 losers on Breeders Cup day, he has seven winners out of 32 starters, for 22%. This colt is by Honour and Glory out of a Storm Cat mare. His second dam is Miss Josh, a Grade 1 winner on the grass and a half-sister to Royal Mountain Inn and Highland Crystal, both graded winners on grass. So I'm going to watch for this one on the turf down the road.

Torini was bet to 3-1 for John Ward in his debut, and also suffered misfortune at the break before running evenly. A son of Ward/Oxley's Derby winner Monarchos, whose 2007 stud fee has been slashed 50% to $7500. He's out of stakes winner Darling My Darling (Deputy Minister), a half sister to the Japan Cup winner Zenno Rob Roy. His second dam is the Grade 1 (Ballerina) winner Roamin Rachel.

Not Wonderful Enough

- Tiz Wonderful was probably the most hyped maiden graduate of the Saratoga meeting, earning a 99 Beyer in a 12 length win. I was there that day, and went hook, line, and sinker for a Zito first-timer that got bet down to 2-1. Man. I remember that Tiz Wonderful was a bit dull on the board at 5-1, and, if you watch the replay, it wasn't the most visually impressive race in my opinion. He was geared down under the wire, but Gomez rode him pretty hard until then, and gave him at least four good left-handed whacks along the way. So I was a little surprised at all the hype, which, as far as NY debut winners go this year, has been exceeded only by Nobiz Like Showbiz (who also runs on Saturday, in the Remsen at the Big A).

Like Barclay Tagg, the trainer of Nobiz, Scott Blasi passed on the Juvenile with Tiz Wonderful, and looking back and considering they were just maiden winners, do you think they would have belonged?

Tiz Wonderful, by the dual Eclipse winner Tiznow, blew away a pretty good field in the G3 Iroqouis, and the chart comments notes that he drew clear and expanded her advantage under energetic handling. Maybe the fact that he's a ridgling threw off the chart caller. Now he stretches out to two turns in Saturday's G2 Kentucky Jockey Club at a mile and a sixteenth, and Blasi says: "The more ground, the better for him," but don't they always say that?

What A Tale got the place money chasing Tiz Wonderful in the Iroqouis for Patrick Biancone, and also has a license to improve trying two turns for the first time. He's by Tale of the Cat, out of a mare by Eastern Echo; and his third dam is Mrs. Warren, one of my early thoroughbred memories who I've written about a couple of times now.

Any Given Saturday is unbeaten in two races for Pletcher. Both of those races were on the Polytrack, but he shows a recent bullet five furlong work in 59.2 at Churchill. His allowance win came around two turns at Keeneland, and there's little surprise he liked the distance. He's a $1.1 million son of Distoted Humor, out of an AP Indy mare, and a half-brother to Bohemian Lady, a stakes winner at nine furlongs. His dam is a half to the graded winner Second of June. It remains to be seen if the sweeping wide move he used in each of his wins will translate to the Churchill dirt surface, but this horse was practically in Louisville around the first turn at Keeneland, and just effortlessly circled widest around horses on the second.

Joe Got Even is another who's two-for-two on the Poly, both in sprints. His one poor race on dirt came in the slop. He tries two turns for the first time, but definitely has some distance in his pedigree. He's by Stephen Got Even, out of a mare by Inland Voyager, a five-time leading sire in Venezuela; his second dam is a half to Bienamado, the multiple Grade 1 winner who took, amongst others, the mile and three-quarter San Juan Capistrano.

But we'll try for the upset with Any Given Saturday and play him exactas with the favorite, and throw in Joe Got Even on the bottom. By the way, Tiz Wonderful gets Johnny V., who picks him over my selection here. I guess that's not a good sign, eh?

Just Zip It Debuts

- Just Zip It, the two-year old NY-bred City Zip filly that I own a small sliver of, is scheduled to make her debut in the 4th at Aqueduct on Friday, a $50,000 maiden state-bred claimer; more on her, and a couple of photos here. She has a steady work tab of moderate breezes going back to September, and it's Bill Turner's style not to get them too cranked up for their debuts. But he likes the filly, the progeny of City Zip have shown some precocity, both of her siblings have won, and the fillies in the field that have started look abominable; so you never know.

Wednesday, November 22, 2006

Happy Thanksgiving!

- The Clark is a Grade 1 at nine furlongs to be run Friday at Churchill, where the weather is expected to be perfect. The field, however, is not. It's a Grade 1 without true Grade 1 quality - only Premium Tap, the expected post-time favorite, has won a Grade 1 race, and the field includes Andromeda's Hero, enuf said.

Master Command and Wild Desert ran 1-2 in the Meadowlands Cup, earning flashy Beyers that were way beyond anything either had run before. There's nothing wrong with looking at those figs with some skepticism if they are both bet accordingly, sporting as they do the highest figs in the field. The Meadowlands track played fast all evening that day and seemed to favor speed; the Racing Form track variant was 07.

Master Command had things all his own way at the Meadowlands, breaking from the three post and wiring the field. Here he moves out to the 12 post; only twice in his career has he started beyond the five, and he's run out of the money both times. He's in trouble from this post with his main foes drawing way inside and possessing good early speed. Wild Desert to me is a throwout who I hope attracts some money based on his number; he just sucked along behind the winner on the speed favoring track.

Premium Tap definitely seems like the horse to beat. He seems to have blossomed at four into a legitimate Grade 1 horse. The only concern I have is that his excellent third after a troubled start in the Classic may have taken something out of him. He was a relatively fresh face when he surprised us in the Woodward, but has accumulated some mileage now after his last two very eventful tries. He doesn't have a listed workout since that race two and a half weeks ago, which was his third straight huge effort. But trainer John Kimmel says: "I think he might be able to run better," [Bloodhorse] and Kent Desormeaux, back in the saddle after a one race sacking after running up on heels at Turfway, says: "he is doing super."

Bright One is one of two three-year olds in the field. He was 3-5 in the Indiana Derby, and ran a distant 7th in a performance that Dale Romans said he had no explanation for. "We sure couldn't find a legitimate excuse for him that night....I was as stunned as anybody." [Daily Racing Form] He bounced back with an allowance win over this track, for which he has shown an obvious preference. But he'll be tested for class and speed here, and Romans seems to be looking down the road with him:

"You know he's still lightly raced and will be a lot less seasoned than the rest of them in there. But he has so much natural talent that I think that by the end of next year, he's going to be heard from." [Bloodhorse]
Irene's Mon is the other three-year old; at 20-1, he rode the rail until swinging wide in the stretch to finish second in the Ack Ack, the first race on the Breeders Cup card. Did he benefit from a rail bias? Or was it just part of an evident cycle of improvement?

Wanderin Boy figures to go off as the second choice, and will certainly flash his usual speed fromn an advantageous post. But those two races at the pre-Polytrack Keeneland still stick out like a sore thumb, and it seems as if he'll face pressure from the likes of It's No Joke and Bright One, and perhaps Master Command. I prefer Super Frolic, 8-1 morning line, to try and complete the exacta with Premium Tap, who figures to get a nice trip from a good post if he doesn't lose action or clip heels this time. Super Frolic has had a decent year chasing Lava Man, and has shown in the past that he can compete east of the Rockies. It's his final start before retiring to stud.

More On Excelsior

- More details are coming out about Excelsior's winning bid for the NY franchise, and it seems ironic that the state committee went along with the non-profit racing/for-profit casino model that was being espoused by NYRA. But the incumbent operator could not offer the same guarantees of money that the other two did. They could not offer lease payments, as that would undermine their position that they own the land. Actually, according to the Albany Times-Union, their offers of payments based on the racinos and for capital improvements actually exceeded those of their rivals - by a wide margin regarding the latter, but the committee said it could not highly rate NYRA's commitments since they were not guaranteed.

Excelsior succeeded with its promise of $104 million in upgrades to the three tracks, compared to $59.2 million by Empire. It also guaranteed to make pension payments for track workers -- a liability now at $54.5 million and growing as NYRA works out of Chapter 11 bankruptcy.
- In the NY Daily News' Daily Politics blog, writer Bill Hammond suggests that Eliot Spitzer has put himself, and perhaps Excelsior, in a touchy position by having accepted discounted private jet rides from Excelsior principal and Spitzer campaign donor Richard Fields:
Does he ignore the panel's recommendation, or does he support giving a lucrative contract to a someone who loaned him a Gulfstream and pumped more than $200,000 into his campaign account?
- Empire's CEO Jeff Perlee told the Saratogian:
'We handily won integrity, racing experience and there was no mention here of economic development, which is a major component of our plan. Also, Senator Bruno becomes very important here, particularly when you look at operational experience. Will Senator Bruno be a party to turning Saratoga over to a dog track operator?'
We also read another representative of Empire refer to Excelsior as a "dog track operator" in an Associated Press story last night. A look at the key figures behind Excelsior reveal no obvious connections to dog racing, though it's entirely possible that someone connected with the group has such an association. Nonetheless, I think it's fair to say that that characterization would be an exaggeration even if that was the case.

But if you tell people something enough times, they come to believe it; that's part of what PR is all about. The AP story told us that the bulk of [Excelsior's] in harness racing and greyhound racing. In the Saratogian story, reporter Paul Post, who writes regularly of racing matters and should know better, wrote that Excelsior runs two Chicago harness tracks.

The fact is that William and John Johnston, referred to as "advisors" to Excelsior in the Times Union piece, own and operate Mayfield and Balmoral Park, two Chicago harness tracks. That hardly means that Excelsior "runs" them or is a harness track "operator." No more so than the presence of Delaware North as an investor in Empire makes the latter a "dog track operator," even though Delaware North is the owner of Wheeling Island Race Track, a greyhound track and racino located in West Virginia.

Tuesday, November 21, 2006

Excelsior In The Money

- The surprising decision by the Ad Hoc Committee on the Future of Racing to tab Excelsior Racing Associates as their recommended bidder in a photo finish over Empire Racing appears to have come down in large part to the bottom line; and why should we be surprised?

The nine-member board was split on Excelsior and Empire on many facets of the bid. But Excelsior ran away from the competition with its overall plan for the future of the tracks and its guarantee to provide the state with a $100 million payment to lease the tracks if slot machines are allowed at Aqueduct Raceway and $200 million up-front if slots are allowed at both Aqueduct and Belmont Race Tracks. [Albany Times-Union]
In addition, the NY Times reports on an offer to assume the roughly $60 million worth of outstanding pension obligations to track employees, an offer that Empire did not make.

The potential windfall to the state from a Belmont racino is clearly a strong point for Excelsior, as evidenced by their margin of 97 to 92.5 in the complicated scoring system for the scenario in which Belmont gets a racino. Under the Aqueduct-only scenario, the score was closer at 94.6 to Empire's 93.

But in either scenario, NYRA was far behind, registering a 76.5 in each; though the score came despite attracting no votes for first or second place under the categories of "integrity" and "details of the proposals." Whatsmore, NYRA had no guaranteed payments in its package, instead proposing $101 million if certain conditions were met first.

And while Charles Hayward kept up the good fight, telling the Times: "“When all the facts are evaluated, we are confident NYRA will be the obvious choice," it's becoming clear that the writing is on the wall for the association, which has conducted racing in the state since 1955. Having said that, despite being in the unenviable position of being a bankrupt lame duck with not a single political ally, NYRA will still present a hurdle with its land ownership claim that could tie the process up in court.

Empire, as could be expected given the belligerent tack they've taken throughout the process, went immediately to the attack, releasing, through their PR agency, a statement attributed to Marylou Whitney:
“While I respect the people on the ad-hoc committee, they placed our horses and industry second to inexperienced operators whose real interests lie in developing casinos. As difficult as it is to say, I would prefer the New York Racing Association over the one suggested today.

“Placing our jewel in inexperienced hands would be a mistake that could kill our Saratoga racecourse. If this suggestion is adopted, I believe Saratoga and the New York horse industry will suffer. I know many will choose to race elsewhere....myself included. I have faith that the decision makers will eventually make the right decision that will put our horses first.”
Using obvious symbolism in Ms. Whitney, who has long been a highly visible part of the social scene during the Saratoga meetings, Empire, right off the bat, shows that it will try to raise fears of an unfamiliar entity tampering with the storied racetrack.

In addition, Robert Bellafiore, an Empire spokesperson, derisively referred to Excelsior as a "dog track operator" based on the bulk of its experience which is in harness racing and greyhound racing. [AP]

I'm not familiar with the group being involved with harness or dog tracks. But then again, not all that much is known about them; they don't appear to even have a website. Egads! [EDIT: WRONG - Here it is...though it hasn't been updated in some time as of this edit.] They've remained low key, especially in comparison with Empire. The key figures in the group are as follows:
[Yankees partner and Steinbrenner son-in-law Steve] Swindal; Richard Fields, whose company developed Seminole Hard Rock Casino and Hotel in Florida; Jerry Bilinski, former chairman of the New York State Racing and Wagering Board and an equine veterinarian; New York trainer Gary Contessa; retired Hall of Fame jockey Jerry Bailey; the Tishman Speyer real estate development company involved in the Yankee Stadium project; and the Rev. Dr. Floyd Flake, a former United States representative and senior pastor at a New York church involved with urban development and community outreach programs. [Bloodhorse]
Fields is an associate of the Governor-elect. Some rides that Spitzer took on Fields' private plane was an issue in the election for about 20 minutes. Bilinski is said by Tom Precious in Bloodhorse to be a close ally of Senate Majority Leader Joseph Bruno. So, like Empire, Excelsior has some friends in high places, as well as, according to Bennett Liebman of the Racing and Wagering Law Program at Albany Law School (and the proprietor of the Racing and Gaming Today site), the most significant support from the legislative members of the committee. The two may be "neck and neck" as Empire CEO Jeff Perlee said, but Excelsior would seem, at this early stage, to have the shortest route home.

Go Spooky Go!

- Many many thanks for the reader/commenter for the kind words and the delightful story of Spooky Mulder and how he/she and 4-year old son, along with some help from a handful of others, actually cheered Spooky back to the winner's circle. You see, who said that your cheering doesn't help??

Spooky is a venerable 8-year old with a big heart, and 28 wins in 70 lifetime starts. And his latest win was accomplished after Tom Durkin delivered his generally fatal "Spooky Mulder couldn't stay with him" and the horse battled back for the win. There has to be a lesson for the sport somewhere in a story of a 4-year old kid falling in love with an 8-year old horse, and one that's not running in a Grade 1 stakes on ESPN.

While the kid expected to see his favorite horse's picture in the paper the next day because it was "exciting news," the parent offered that "our idea of exciting news and everyone else's is very different." Indeed, between Santos' win in the opener and Spooky's in the feature, there was easily a page worth of human and equine interest stories for the sports section in a more perfect world. Certainly we could lose a page of OJ Simpson for something like that, yes? While it's entirely possible, if not likely, that a tape of Saturday's spill made it onto a local sports report or two, there's no way in hell that the feel-good story of the trainer and jockey winning the next day got any follow-up mention at all.

Here's the race:

Decision in NY Getting Close

- Reader Green Mtn Punter wrote in the comments section the other day:

I am more than ever interested to see the Ad Hoc Committee recommendation; perhaps the AHC will persuade me to stop worrying about Empire because I have yet to receive any reassurance from Empire or it's allies.
According to Tom Precious, reporting on, we'll learn some details about the NY racing bids today at a meeting of the committee that is termed as a crucial one that will likely include a public discussion of the specific proposals made by the bidders.

In fact, Precious reports that two of his sources said to expect a final vote on the recommendation today. And though we've all been assuming that the final decision will not be made until Eliot Spitzer takes office next year, the article goes on to report:
However, there have been various theories running rampant in recent weeks at the state Capitol how the racing franchise could still somehow appear in a last-minute session by lawmakers if they return to Albany before the end of the year.
With Empire having taken on Democrats, including some with ties to Spitzer, we could speculate that the outgoing governor could provide a last minute surprise. But the situation at this point seems too complex to even guess about, and we'll just wait with baited breath to see what happens today.

Monday, November 20, 2006

Time Was

- I recently had a sudden and unexplained desire to listen to the album Argus, by Wishbone Ash. Released in 1972, it's a guitar classic featuring the dueling lead guitarists Martin Ash and Ted Turner (no relation to Ted Turner), and by far the pinnacle of the band's career, which, I learned from Wikipedia, continues in name today in a Spinal Tap-type story complete with an experimental phase and two electronic dance albums. When I slid the vinyl LP sleeve out of the cover, a pile of newspaper clippings came out with it. They were from the Daily Racing Form; circa September, 1992.

Looking through the clippings, mostly past performances of individual horses, with a few excerpts of articles mixed in (and one complete Dave Litfin column entitled 'Watch 'outsiders' from Club Med' concerning an outside bias at the Meadowlands), I came to realize two things. For one, I hadn't listened to Argus, by Wishbone Ash, in more than 14 years. Yet I was still able to hit every note on my air guitar. And secondly, while 14 years may be a long time between listening to a record, it's really not that long in the scheme of things. Yet that scheme, when it comes to the tools we have to handicap races, has changed drastically.

Though I can't remember specifically what I had in mind in cutting out the pp's of race winners - perhaps to compile a file, by trainer, of their winners in order to learn patterns - I well recall the days of cutting out charts and taping them into notebooks. And of taping the half hour replay show on my VCR, and fumbling through the tapes, and fast forwarding, and rewinding, and fast forwarding again until finding a race I wanted to watch. The amount of time we spent on these activities, as compared to today when it's all available via a couple of clicks on Formulator or on a replay site, seems staggering now. I don't know how we did it. Tasks that could have taken a half hour can be completed in a minute now. We must have really loved this game. Though actually, based on the sight of these clippings hidden away for 14 years, I guess that after a (short) while, I wasn't willing to do all that work

The Form looked basically similar in style in 1992. The Beyer figures were already in place, but many of the features we see today were not yet present. There were no rankings of workouts; no breakouts of the horses' records by wet/turf/today's track. We weren't told what the horse's public auction price was, nor what was his sire's stud fee or who his sire was. Subsequent race winners were not italicized. How we got by without all this vital information, I can't say!

This all returns me to the question of why, at least in this handicapper's case, the bottom line has not increased in proportion to the quality and efficiency of the tools available. I'm certainly able to handicap more races from more tracks, but I can't say that my results have improved nearly as significantly as the Racing Form and its products have. Sure, I've had my share of clever winners for which I could brag about picking up something in the replay that wasn't noted in the charts (or vice versa); or by correctly evaluating the true quality of a horse's last race by inspecting, via Formulator, the past performances of all of the other horses it competed against; or by meticulously finding a relevant trainer patter that fits the bill.

But how many others have I missed that I would have had in the distant past by sticking to the core values of class, pace, speed, and tote? By getting so involved in the intricacies, how much do we sacrifice in good old basics, common sense, and the gut feelings that come from experience? I wonder if there are any statistics showing whether handicappers as a whole have improved over the last 15 years? Given the amazing advances in handicapping technology, one would think we'd all be grinding out a profit. Yet how many people do significantly better, if at all, as compared to 1992? There are times that I feel as if my handicapping Argus is long in the past, whereas it really should be now. Perhaps it's time for an experimental phase of my own.

Below are some notes from newspaper clippings that I found in the pile. Other NY old-timers may recall some of these names.

John Veitch has two grass winners, Recent Memories ($7.60) and Bank Key ($6). Each worked a handy five furlongs five days prior to the win.

Allan Jerkins has six winners at the meeting. Three of them - Miss Iron Smoke ($4.40), Missy's Mirage ($3.40), Celeste Cielo ($25.40) - are fillies who won their second start back from a layoff.

Gasper Moschera's most productuve owner is Joques Farm; five of his six meet-winners are from that owner - Ebony Magic ($3.80), Carli's Command ($7.20), Huckster Rose ($31.20), Butter Cream ($6.80) and Red Hot Red ($27.60). Butter Cream and Red Hot Red each received a freshening after "even efforts" for $35,000, returned at that level off sparse workout lines, and won stretching out.

Brittney Erin and Luv to Mumbo Jumbo are 4 year old claiming fillies who each won for Murray Garren off a stretch-out from a sprint to a mile and a sixteenth.
Some of the trainer names are quite familiar to us all: Shug McGaughey, Bill Mott, Lisa Lewis, John Kimmel, Mike Hushion, Dominic Galluscio, Angel Penna Jr. Others, such as William (Red) Terrill, Mark Reid, and Peter Ferriola, are names out of the past.

Big A Notes

- I got to the Big A for the 5th on Saturday, and thus I missed the spill in the first race that resulted in the death of Mountain General and jockey Jose Santos carried off on a stretcher. I haven't watched it; don't even wanna see. But I did want to see Santos take the opening race the next day with Cadillac Cruiser, booting home a winner almost exactly 24 hours after the accident. Nice job by Tom Durkin making note of that as they cruised under the wire (the final furlong in 11.72 for this 35K claimer!).

And the winning trainer, Rene Araya, was also enjoying a reversal of fortunes; he was the trainer of the stricken horse the day before. He'd told the NY Post afterwards, "He was the soundest horse in my barn."

"A friend of mine told me everything happens in threes," Santos said. "First, my filly (Fleet Indian) gets pulled up in the Breeders' Cup. Then my father (Manuel) passed away on Nov. 10. Then (Saturday's) fall. With that all behind me, I should have good luck now for the next 10 years." [NY Daily News]
Hopefully, he'll start by having more luck just picking up some mounts, which have been difficult to come by lately. He'll have a new agent; Drew Mollica will switch to Shaun Bridgemohan, who will check in for the winter, a time when the top riders go down to Florida.

- Araya flies under the radar here, but has had a good year with limited stock - 21 winners out of 101 starters. While Cadillac Cruiser was his first winner of the Big A meeting, he'd had three seconds and third in his previous nine starters.

Mike Miceli is another trainer who doesn't get much attention, but he's a capable guy who does a solid job with the stock he has. He's had two double-digit winners in the last two days - Drop-down Worthy Lover took Sunday's closer at 11-1, and in a race worthy of a trip to Cal Racing, his Sir Whimsey surrendered a small but clear lead at the eighth pole, and battled back to, as the race chart put it, get the job done.

- Tom Albertrani is on fire at the Big A; remember when he couldn't buy a winner that wasn't named Bernardini at Saratoga. He's six for 13 at Aqueduct, and without the Travers winner; he's taken four of his last five.

He has a Darley three-year old Kentucky homebred filly making her debut at the Big A on Wednesday, when they're scheduled to be back on the main track. (The weather looks a bit shaky for the weekend, and who knows what they'll do about Discreet Cat, who worked a bullet five furlongs in 59.10 on Sunday.)

Prussia is a daughter of Holy Bull, out of Grafin (Miswaki), a G3 stakes winner in France. She's a half-sister to Zosima, the 2003 Arl-Wash Lassie winner. She goes first time Lasix, and this looks like a strong move for Albertrani; he's 4 for 10 during the last year; 6 for 18 over two. And they don't always get bet. Those six winners include one at 8-1 (Songster) and another at 9-1; and none below 2-1.

It's Still Bernardini

- Pete from Gowanus questioned the assertion by Nancy J in CA that Barbaro blew away 14 graded stakes winners in the Derby. He's right; according to Dan Illman (registration req'd) (via Curb Your Enthusiasm), the correct number is actually 15!

Bluegrass Cat (G1 Haskell Invitational, etc.)
Jazil (G1 Belmont Stakes)
Brother Derek (G1 Hollywood Futurity, Santa Anita Derby, etc)
Showing Up (G1 Secretariat Stakes)
Sweetnorthernsaint (G2 Illinois Derby, etc)
Deputy Glitters (G2 Ohio Derby, etc)
Point Determined (G3 Affirmed Handicap)
Lawyer Ron (G2 Arkansas Derby, etc.)
Cause to Believe (G3 El Camino Real Derby, etc).
Private Vow (G2 Kentucky Jockey Club, Futurity)
Sinister Minister (G1 Blue Grass Stakes)
Bob and John (G1 Wood Memorial, etc.)
A. P. Warrior (G2 La Jolla Handicap, San Felipe Stakes)
Sharp Humor [G2 Swale]
Keyed Entry (G2 Hutcheson Stakes)
That's a fair point by the emotional pro-Barbaro contingent and an impressive achievement. But, as Illman points out, everybody runs in the Derby, whereas later in the year, people are far more likely to duck horses like Bernardini. So it may not be a fair comparison.

Plus, I could pick through that list and point out that Keyed Entry and Sharp Humor are sprinters that won their graded stakes in such races. Showing Up and AP Warrior won their graded stakes on the grass, Sinister Minister on a freaky speed-favoring track, Private Vow as a two-year old, and the plodding Jazil at a distance which is irrelevant in U.S. dirt racing. Bob and John, Point Determined, and Cause To Believe have been unable to replicate their California form outside of the state (Bob and John's strange, wet-track Wood notwithstanding). Bernardini beat Bluegrass Cat, Lawyer Ron, and Brother Derek; and I think few would argue that he'd have had any difficulty beating any others on the list that I haven't mentioned. So, I don't think this is a significant statistic in deciding the Eclipse.

An emailer (who told me to get a life!!..oh man!) pointed out that Barbaro's time in the Derby was better than Invasor's in the Classic. That's an excellent point, and I have to admit that I didn't notice that. Barbaro's Derby went in 2:01.36 (final quarter 24.34); while Invasor finished in 2:02.18 (final quarter 25.59). I could quibble and point out that Invasor earned a better Beyer (116 to 111), and talk about ground loss and the alleged inside bias, but there's no doubt that this comparison attests to the tremendous quality of the Derby winner.

However, I'm still not persuaded that Barbaro earned the three-year old Eclipse over Bernardini on the racetrack throughout the year. Even if I accept the argument that Barbaro's Derby was better than any of Bernardini's races, that doesn't mean I think that the award should go to the former based on a single race. What if Discreet Cat shatters the world record for a mile on Saturday while Garrett Gomez takes a nap on board? Should he then get the Eclipse?

Look, I am not anti-Barbaro! (And I apologize for writing that Bernardini "made a mockery" of the Preakness without acknowledging Barbaro's injury) If I was voting, and I decided to do so from my heart, based on my admiration for his amazing courage and the efforts to save him, and for what he's done for the sport; or to express my opinion about how Bernardini's owners conduct their business, I'd vote for him too! If the voters do decide that they believe that Barbaro demonstrated that he was a better animal than Bernardini and vote him the Eclipse, then I'd disagree with that assessment, but I'm not going to whine about it. In fact, I'd get a certain amount of satisfaction.

If Barbaro gets the award because voters are going along with the attitude of the likes of Gary West, and casting an activist vote as a commentary on Bernardini's early retirement and/or the so-called "checkbook horsemanship" of his owners, then that would be pleasing to an extent as well. Perhaps if voters did that consistently, it would discourage owners from rushing their horses off to the riches of breeding. (Or maybe it wouldn't matter a whit.)

But if he does get the Eclipse for that reason, then there is going to be a very difficult question to answer, namely this: Why is it that those business decisions, in addition to, as one commenter pointed out, some questionable aspects of the last two horse of the year winners (a prominent drug suspension of Saint Liam's trainer, and alleged collusion before the Classic between the connections of Ghostzapper and Roses in May), have been tolerated by Eclipse voters in the past, but not now, in a year in which the owners in question are Arab? That's one question that you'll have to go to someone other than me for an answer.

- Your continued comments are welcome in the comments section (click on "#" comments below the post....the registration, while a slight hassle, prevents bulk spammers from attacking the site), or via email. But I already have a life, thank you for your concern.

Little Miss is Quick at Hollywood

- Quick Little Miss is the first horse that I've noticed running back after having competed in the Breeders Cup, and she won the seven furlong Moccasin Stakes at Hollywood on Sunday after running 10th in the Juvenile Fillies. For those convinced that there was a rail bias on Breeders Cup day, it was, perhaps, the first payoff, as she started from the 13 post at Churchill at 23-1 that day. Her trainer Mel Stute said afterwards: "I wasted a little money going back east with her....I'm hoping it was just the post position and the track because I believe she's something special, I really do." I had picked her in the Juv Fillies, and bet her even though I knew that her being selected by Andy Beyer likely doomed her chances.

Even though the entire crew of Beyer/Crist/Davidowitz/Watchmaker/et al have written definitively that the rail was indeed golden on the big day, there are still some who feel that it was a coincidence that all of the dirt winners other than Invasor came from the rail post, given the different running styles that prevailed in the races. Quick Little Miss' win probably doesn't add much to either argument. She was a longshot on BC day, and on Sunday, she sat in last and benefited from a fast pace and a lethargic final furlong of almost 14 seconds to run down 7-10 favorite Jump On In. I did not like her in the race; my whole logic in picking her in the Juv Fillies was the way she improved around two turns, and here she was cutting back to a sprint.

Rider Jon Court said: "It just shows the track's playing favorably, it's not biased." [LA Times] But to me, it just shows that pace makes the race.

The Cushion Track was a problem on Sunday, and the start of the program was delayed for 40 minutes due to what was called "unevenness." General manager Eual Wyatt Jr. described the problem as "waves" in the composite surface. [LA Daily News] And in the morning, Circle the World, a Todd Pletcher-trainee, broke down on the Cushion Track and had to be euthanized. Nobody ever claimed that there would never be fatalities on synthetic surfaces. But the breakdown occurred amidst the problem with the track (which was first noticed late on Saturday), and shortly after there were concerns with the Polytrack at Woodbine. The events seem to put the industry on notice that we have not yet reached racetrack nirvana, and that the jury may still be out on the long-term future of synthetic surfaces as we see them play out over time, and under different conditions.

- Quick Little Miss is by the NY-based stallion Freud. She's out of an Unbridled mare who's a half to Greater Good; her third dam is the champion sprinter and Black Eyed Susan winner What A Summer. For the second-year sire, whose fee will remain at $10,000 for 2007, she's one of two career stakes winners.