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Friday, August 31, 2007

Notes - Sept 1 [With Update]

- So it figures, I post my Friday picks here and get shut out for the day. How embarrassing. Of course, it was a pretty impossible day as evidenced by the $11,000 payoff for five out of the pick six. I was at Saratoga for the final weekend last year, and seem to recall the results being totally baffling. Of course, all these maiden races - especially the cheap ones - don't make it any easier. And there are five more of them on Saturday. I don't believe I'm going to fight the Head Chef's suggestion to go to the beach. In any event, though I haven't been doing that terribly of late, my selections on this site have not fared very well at all.

So I was thinking I should stop or cut back. But I recall a friend from long, long ago who, when faced with a cold streak, would make sure to bet each and every race. His theory was that he would be getting all of the bad bets out of his system, and just get them over with. Too bad there was no simulcasting then, he could have gotten an entire year's worth of bad bets over with in one day.

So with that in mind, I'm going to soldier on and tell you who I like in the Forego; do with it what you see fit. I won't be offended. [UPDATE: Chatain has a bruised foot and was being fitted with a special shoe. Thanks to reader affirmedny for pointing out the article in the Form, which is not new. Just missed it.] My pick is Chatain, 5-1 morning line for Angel Penna Jr. After winning the one-turn one-mile Hal's Hope at Gulfstream earlier this year, he was stretched out to two turns. He ran fine in the Donn, checking in 4th, just 2 1/4 behind Invasor; subsequently he ran poorly (as the 6-5 favorite) in the Ben Ali on the Poly at Keeneland. Penna then gave him some time off, and brought him back in a six furlong allowance at the Spa on Aug 6. I watched the replay, and this was a very stylish win. Cornelio Velasquez had his hands full restraining him early, but horse and rider were relaxed and settled rounding the turn. The jockey waited patiently behind horses, saving a bit of ground on the turn, and angled out for room turning for home. I love seeing a horse respond as if by push button command, and that's exactly what Chatain did, powering past the field without being shown a whip, and easing up at the wire. It was a perfect prep. He's never been seven furlongs, but as mentioned, he's been a flat mile, so he'll have no problem with the distance.

As for High Finance, there's no doubt he looks imposing, but he could have his hands full with Atilla's Storm up front. And besides, the favorites are dropping like Republicans in Washington, so why not take a shot?

- Two more winners for Linda Rice on Friday, and she's arguably the hottest trainer on the grounds now. That gives her ten, and don't look now but she's just one win behind the Toddster, who's currently tied with Contessa for third in the trainer standings. Leading trainer Bill Mott added his 21st win of the meeting with 8-1 Namaste's Wish. Kent Desormeaux was on board again, and you might wonder how they could let any horse with that combo go off at that price. But Namaste's Wish disappointed in two well-bet dirt efforts, losing by a combined 37 lengths. You can't bet a trainer's horses just blindly, and I guess there was little enthusiasm for a full sister to Purge trying the grass for the first time.

As mentioned in the prior post, Biancone took the With Anticipation with Nownownow. It was the first grass try for the son of Whywhywhy, and the first stakes winner for that Mr. Greeley first-year sire, standing for $7500 at Gainesway. This colt still had a lot of ground to make up entering the final turn, and seemed hopelessly boxed on the hedge. It took Julien Leparoux until midstretch to finally find a seam, but Nownownow really exploded once clear and won by a widening three lengths in a very nice effort.

Betting Public Getting Snakebit

- Some comments I wanted to comment on. One anonymous reader, writing of the 15-day suspension of Patrick Biancone, notes that the ban will start, of course, AFTER the Saratoga meeting ends.

The suspension will be served Sept. 5-19 and Biancone does not plan to appeal, the authority said. [Louisville Courier Journal]
And, referring to the trainer's winner of the With Anticipation stakes at the Spa on Friday, another comment notes: He should be serving his suspension "NOWNOWNOW."

This ban is not related to the cobra venom investigation which is continuing separately, or so we're told. It was June 22 that a vial of crystallized cobra venom was reportedly found in Biancone's barn at Churchill Downs. (The Daily Racing Form reiterated that story on Friday, again attributing it to a source close to the investigation who spoke on the condition of anonymity). So this has been going on for over two months.

I've been kind of a lone wolf on this, but I myself will reiterate this: I think it's totally incongruous that jockeys would be banned from some tracks because of an ongoing investigation regarding some suspicious exotic bets on races at Great Lakes Downs, but that Biancone continues to be welcomed everywhere. If the authorities in Kentucky really found cobra venom in his barn, why wouldn't that information be transmitted to the tracks (just as the TRPB has done with the riders); and, in turn, why wouldn't those tracks - and Churchill is one which has barred those riders - ban Biancone as well? I mean, I'm starting to think that they in fact do not have the goods on him, because this just doesn't make sense to me. People say 'well, it wouldn't be fair until he has a hearing,' but the jocks haven't had any hearings as far as I know. And I think it's grossly unfair to the betting public for it to have to consider the allegations when they're handicapping a race with one of his horses.

Getting back to the suspension, Gregory A. Hall reported in the Louisville Courier Journal that Tom Amoss, the trainer of Ride Em Cowgirl, the horse that finished second to the now-dq'd runner that tested positive (for theophylline and caffeine), was told by racing stewards at the end of June not to run the horse in any more maiden races....because of a suspicious test from the race. And this I believe created yet another situation which was unfair to the betting public.

Since the race in question, run on May 3, Ride Em Cowgirl ran in two subsequent maiden races. She finished second at 7-10, and third at 1-2 (oh man), the latter on June 27. But for her next engagement, after Amoss was told not to run her in maiden races, she showed up in an overnight stakes at Lone Star. And here's where I have a problem. There very well could have been those in the betting public who were thinking 'hmm, she looks a bit disappointing, but Amoss must think a lot of her to run her out of conditions like this. Let's make her 9-2.' So they did, and she finished last. The truth is that Amoss had to run her out of conditions. And perhaps he felt that she needed to race, and that the Lone Star stakes was the only available spot. If they knew that, some may have looked at her differently. I would have. This is all speculation of course. But it seems to me that bettors may very well have gotten a raw deal there.

OK, I rambled on far longer on that subject than I thought I would. But I also wanted to mention one other comment. Great job by another Anonymous picking up on Spitzer's comment that he's been "fully transparent in what we have done" in the franchise process. As the reader points out, the fact is that, since the change of administrations in Albany, there's been No public input. At all.

Down to the Wire

- Just a few days to go until Governor Spitzer's scheduled Sept 4 announcement of his proposed plans for the NY franchise, and it's been mostly quiet of late. Capital Play mounted a last minute flurry with a public presentation in Saratoga last week; and a reader reported that they had women handing out fliers outside the track. Also last week, Empire Racing rose up from the dead like Glenn Close in the final scene of Fatal Attraction to issue one last desperate press release decrying the conflict of interest inherent in an endorsement for NYRA by a local Saratoga organization whose members include a NYRA trustee. And Jeff Perlee added "A few weeks of taxpayer-funded success in Saratoga can’t make up for decades of financial mismanagement, bankruptcy, and failure at the top.” Blah blah blah.

Otherwise, there's not been much to do but sit and wait for the ending.....or perhaps it will be just another beginning? Spitzer's plan of course will have to be signed off by the state legislature Shelly Silver and Joe Bruno, and unless the governor actually awards the franchise to the latter, you can expect him to strike a skeptical pose no matter what is proposed. A Senate committee has scheduled a Sept 12 hearing to discuss the governor's plan.

Meanwhile, Common Cause/NY has released their findings as to how much money franchise bidders have directed towards politicians, and it's hardly a surprise that the four entities have spent over $2 million, split roughly 50/50 between lobbying activities and campaign contributions. Nor does it come as a shock that Spitzer was the main beneficiary, pocketing some $632,779 from various people and entities associated with the bidders.

Spitzer said the money wouldn't affect his decision.

"We have been not only meticulous and fully transparent in what we have done, the record we have created, and we are weighing and balancing all of the factors and look forward to announcing the next step early next week," Spitzer said yesterday.

"The concerns they articulate about how we have to clean up Albany are essential to what I've spoken about for some time and I think when people see what we do with the NYRA franchise extension issue, they'll feel very comfortable that we've done our job," he said. [Journal News]
But despite his comment about cleaning up Albany and his advocacy of campaign reform (the issue which is at the heart of his feud with Sen Bruno), I didn't hear him say that he would return the money nor contribute it to a thoroughbred retirement farm. Indeed, in the world of NY politics, it's all perfectly legal. Barbara Bartoletti of the League of Women Voters said Spitzer had done no wrong under current campaign laws.

To show what a farce the laws are, Richard Fields of Excelsior skirted existing limits by using five limited liability corporations (LLCs) and six addresses to donate over $200,000 to the governor's campaign fund. (If he used all of his different website addresses, he could have contributed twice that much!)

Capital Play spent only around $66,000 because "we don't have to; our bid is better and returns more money to New York State for education," said spokesman Hank Sheinkopf. [Newsday] NYRA

NYRA spent $130,000 on contributions and $480,000 on lobbying; and Excelsior spent $467,000 on contributions and $105,000 on lobbying. And the largest spender of them all? Empire Racing, with a total of nearly $800,000, $260,000 for campaigns. Talk about good money after bad. However, given the massive deceit in which Empire and its predecessor Friends of New York engaged as detailed in the devastating report compiled for the Inspector General by Thacher Associates, if Tim Smith and his original investors walk away with only lighter wallets and their reputations still intact, I think they will have done pretty well.

Thursday, August 30, 2007

Saratoga Friday

- The boys at the Special appear to be slacking a bit as the meet comes to a close, and never updated their website, so I'm going to go ahead and post my picks for Friday's twilight card here below; I hope they don't mind. I'm a little afraid to do so because my picks on this site have been rather crappy lately. But I did have three winners in the paper today, and two of them, D J Lightning ($9) and Bar City ($11.80), paid decent prices, though since they were first-time starters, they were essentially a guess. (The other was the latest winner from the Motion barn, La Neige, who was the easiest kind of winner at 8-5, with Ramon Dominguez merely a passenger in the final eighth mile.)

Mt Orient was another winner for the George Weaver barn, its 4th in the last week. This guy was 0 for 19 on August 19, and has won six races with his next 19 since then. On Friday, he has horses running in two races; he has a pair of first-timers on the grass, by Giant's Causeway and More Than Ready (the latter out of a Polish Numbers mare), both with Tomlinsons in the 350's. And in the With Anticipation, don't count out Pulla Fast One, who was extremely impressive winning here on Aug 19 at 21-1. He was wide on both turns, and glided around horses easily turning for home, got the lead, took a little bobble step, and came home in a bit less than six seconds for the last sixteenth.

Gotta go, I'll be back later with some more from Thursday's card; but in the meantime, here's the picks for Friday:

Race 1 – SEVENTEEN LOVE rebounded with a nice rail-skimming win here last month, holding off Rizzi's Twist, an authoritative winner of her next race. SMOKIN SARAH checked in third behind a couple of solid state-breds running third in a stakes. WHAT'S YOUR POINT has made his with two straight wins while climbing the ladder, and moves up again first time off the claim for Contessa.

Race 2 – Watch the tote for some clues in this state-bred maiden claimer loaded with debut runners. SIR SHEFFIELD is by the second year sire Outofthebox, thus far successful with debut runners, out of the razor sharp Richard Schosberg barn. EL TAMBERITO has some bullet works at Philly Park for trainer Anthony Dutrow. ONE LITTLE SECRET drops in for a tag after three well-bet tries in maiden special company.

Race 3 – EGYPT LANE has moved significantly up in class after switching barns (to William Badgett), jockeys (to Edgar Prado) and surfaces (dirt to turf). Moves up in class after a fast closing win here, and while a similar fast pace isn't assured, four solid works since her last indicate that she's held her form. ZAYNAB has been close, but hasn't won in his last eight, six of those as the favorite. She's the type I tend to keep from the top of my tickets, but she's generally good for a share. SWEET RANSOM is sharp for leading trainer Bill Mott, but cutback in distance demands odds higher than you're likely to see.

Race 4 – RED HOT POKER makes his monthly start, though he barely squeezes it in. He could also squeeze out a win dropping for a tag after three solid tries in maiden special company since switching to today's rider Julien Leparoux. MIKE'S DREAM TEAM had good energy closing wide and zig-zagging down the center of the track in a very green 4th place finish far from behind; also drops for a tag. FREGATA also rallied from far back, and did so after being left at the gate; looks possible for a share despite a big move up in class.

Race 5 – STASHED AWAY has returned after nine months on the shelf for trainer Timothy Ritvo with two fine efforts despite traffic trouble in the stretch each time; third try of the form cycle from a good post today. SURVIVED drops sharply in class for Allen Jerkens; this filly was beaten less than four lengths by Grade 1 winner Rutherienne just in June. SEEING CLEARLY arguably has better form at Suffolk than did Dr. Rico, a 31-1 surprise in this very class on Sunday.

Race 6 – BOSTON CAT was well-meant when she encountered trouble at the start, and was forced to angle extremely wide in the stretch before finishing with a flurry; stretch out in distance would seem to be an obvious help. George Weaver sends out a pair of first-timers in GIPSY LORE, by Giant's Causeway, and MISS CHALLENGE, by More Than Ready, both of whom have been working on the lawn and have the pedigree for this. OUR DREAMETTE has shown good speed in grass sprints and could be tough to catch stretching out is left alone on the lead.

Race 7 – STORM DIXIE actually did rather well to finish just over five lengths back in her last when solidly four wide both turns in a race which has produced two winners and two seconds. She raced well prior in an overnight stakes and seems well spotted here for the Pletcher barn. DARING DREAMER has put in good efforts in each of her four grass starts, and, benefiting from an inside trip, checked in two lengths in front of the top choice last time out. AS DO I raced well enough in her first three starts to figure she just had a bad day when she faded to 9th in her last.

Race 8 – ZEE ZEE, by Exchange Rate, coupled with the filly SHERENE, just cruised past the field four wide in his debut under a highly confident Kent Desormeaux, and then responded when roused, turning back Showing Up's baby half-sister. Steps right up to the With Anticipation for leading trainer Bill Mott. SEA CHANTER is another filly; this daughter of War Chant was out of the money at 3-10 at Colonial in her last try, after winning her debut impressively at Belmont. Stonerside homebred has a Phipps-influenced pedigree that suggests she'll stretch out. REBOUNDED rebounded after almost falling turning for home to win his debut for the sharp Barclay Tagg barn; looks to have a shot for at least a share, but so does nearly every other runner in the race, so insist on value.

Race 9 – BRAVE EMPEROR drops in for a tag after an OK third in maiden specials, and gets the rail and Kent Desormeaux for Bill Mott; prospect of short price, but a dangerous combination to ignore. PAY IN KIND also takes a class drop and tries grass for the first time; direct descendant of the influential broodmare Glowing Tribute has green in her blood. STAR STUDDED has been finishing well at this level and begs inclusion towards the bottom of your exotics tickets.

Where's That Confounded Bridge?

- Only one of the eight races on opening night at Presque Isle Downs filled to the maximum of 12, which is a bit surprising considering that the total purse money being offered totals $581,000. The inaugural eight-race card attracted 78 entries for an average of 9.75 entries per race. [Thoroughbred Times]

The backstretch at Presque Isle Downs has room for just over 500 horses, but as of Wednesday only 168 horses were stabled on the grounds. Another 20 shipped in from local farms and training centers to train on Wednesday.

"Quite a few of the bigger outfits are waiting to see when their horses get into races, and then shipping in," said racing secretary Joe Narcavish. [Daily Racing Form]
One of those could possibly be Highland Cat. We're at the point at which many of the partners, including yours truly, are ready to throw in the towel, cut our continuing losses, and sell him to the highest bidder (which thus far values him at $5,000, oh man). But the suggestion was made to try him once at Presque Isle Downs, where he could possibly like the Tapeta Footing, and earn a decent chunk even if he finishes second or third.

Michael Dickinson invented the Tapeta surface, and there's an article providing the background by Dick Jerardi in the Philly Daily News. Dickinson is quoted as saying that "There will be no dirt tracks left [in 10 years]." That's a statement that, besides making our Green Mtn Punter cringe, may have been more credible a year ago before problems started to surface at tracks like Woodbine and Turfway (not Del Mar, where the only problem seems to be the slow times and the fact that Baffert and John Shirreffs don't like it). And it will of course be some more time before potential issues such as more subtle injuries and health hazards from ingesting the dust become apparent. But we're certainly looking forward to this particular new surface and seeing how it fares over the next month, and later at Golden Gate.

- I was just going to write that I can't believe that people are actually bridgejumping on Hesanoldsalt....but he's already finished out of the money in the 3rd at Saratoga...big surprise, eh? It was a small bridge, with around $100,000 bet on him to show (at least with a minute or so to post) but still created some nice payoffs. I picked Nkosi Reigns in the Special (and my analysis unfortunately never made it to their website, though you can see it if you download the pdf version of the paper [er, pdf, and registration required blah blah] in its entirety), and this adds to my usual plethora of second place finishes to longshots amongst my picks over the last week. Nkosi Reigns ran second to 25-1 Sleek John, an improbable beginning to an impossible carryover Pick Six which includes three four maiden races and a steeplechase, eek! Even Steve Crist wanted no part of this one!!

And speaking of bridges, here's a story from Bangor, Maine that's rather scary in the light of the tragic bridge collapse in Minneapolis earlier this month.
Tractor-trailer trucks carrying the concrete components for the parking garage now under construction at the Main Street site of Hollywood Slots at Bangor’s future home will have to use two of the three bridges spanning the Penobscot River.

The pre-cast blocks and columns, weighing between 45,000 and 65,000 pounds each, began rolling into the city on tractor-trailers last week. [Bangor Daily News]
Over 800 truckloads over the next two months will be required to complete the delivery, and those carrying over 80,000 pounds will have to wind through local streets. I'd like to see the delivery bill for this one. I don't think it qualifies for Amazon's Free Super Savings Shipping.

Wednesday, August 29, 2007

Notes - August 29

- I did the handicapping column for Thursday's races in the Saratoga Special, and it should be up here, if not now, then shortly. I'm doing Friday's too, so I gotta go but I'll squeeze in a quick post here.

I'd love to get a hold of some old Racing Forms, from the late 70's or so, when the meeting was only four weeks. I'd be interested in checking out the races for the last few days of a season, to see how many races horses typically ran there during the course of the meet. It's quite noticeable to me this week that most of the horses, if they've run here at all, did so once, during the first week or so of the meet. It's no wonder the cards became so shaky midway through - all the good horses that ran in the competitive races during the first week or so need the 4-5 weeks in between, and the races probably wouldn't have filled had they been written. I have little doubt that a look at a Form from late August, 1980, would show that the horses ran more frequently, perhaps far more so, in the four weeks then than they do in six now.

Another record-setter at 5 1/2 furlongs today, this time a Baffert/Zayat Del Mar import named J Be K who won by seven in 1:03.13. This $350,000 juvenile purchase by the good debut sire Silver Deputy, out of a mare by Valid Wager (Valid Appeal). Not much on the catalog page, so he must have looked good in the breeze show. The trainer has another one on Thursday - Indian Blessing, by Indian Charlie, has a five furlong work of 57.12 at Del Mar.

A winner and a close second for Graham Motion, as Good Day was beaten by.....Prom Party? Yes, it's true, the Toddster, back in the winner's circle!! That gives him 11 winners out of 99 runners, for an even 11%. He'd won just one of his last 43, having gone 14 in a row without a win since Wait A While became his first winner in 29.

Gulfstream Folly Could Be Peanuts Compared To This

- Magna Entertainment may be bleeding money, but Frank Stronach continues to live on the high horse, with an average pay package, since 2002, of $47 million, according to the Toronto Globe and Mail. And his bank accounts will grow even fatter after Magna International shareholders approved Stronach's plan to accept a $1.5 billion investment from the Russian aluminum magnate Oleg Deripaska who, with a net worth of $13.3 billion, ranks #40 on Forbes Magazine's list of wealthiest people, and is thought to be the richest man in Russia. Deripaska's RUSAL is said to account for 16% of the world's aluminum production. Deripaska will own 42% of a new holding company that will control Magna Int'l, the same percentage as will Stronach.

But while Frankie is ceding his sole control over the giant automobile parts maker that he built, to his everlasting credit, from a single machine shop in Toronto, under the terms of the deal, Mr. Stronach stood to gain $150 million up front from the sale of half his consulting contract, as well as millions more in annual dividends. [Wall Street Journal] There had been word of opposition to the deal amongst major shareholders, and the Globe and Mail suggested that they could at least have organized to obtain a better deal for themselves.

If they were smart, in return for a yes vote, they'd have demanded that Mr. Stronach be stripped of one of his more dangerous powers: He can sell control of Magna without the other shareholders receiving a dime. In Bay Street parlance, Magna has no “coattails” – nothing to ensure that all shareholders are given equal treatment if there's a takeover.

Had they been organized, minority investors could have proposed an elegant compromise. You want this deal, Mr. Stronach? Fine, but we want coattails. We want to know that if someone's going to pay $150 for your shares, they're going to offer the same for ours.
Stronach sees the deal as an opportunity for him to become involved in the Russian automaking industry, which he sees as an emerging and potentially lucrative market, and Deripaska is well-connected with Vladamir Putin, and married to the daughter of former president Boris Yeltsin. But Russia is a scary place.....even for those who have moved outside its borders. And Deripaska has been described as being "ruthless," and recently had his U.S. visa rescinded amid concerns about the accuracy of statements he made in a meeting with the Federal Bureau of Investigation. So Frankie seems to be venturing into a territory that is potentially far more treacherous than his ill-fated reconstruction of Gulfstream Park.

- Laurel Park's takeout reduction has failed to stimulate handle, and the track will not experiment with takeout cuts in the near future, Laurel's top official said Tuesday.
Lou Raffetto, chief operating officer of Laurel's owner, the Maryland Jockey Club, said the analysis of the five-day period from Aug. 15-19 revealed that average all-sources handle on Laurel's races was down from $1.66 million a day to $1.52 million a day, a decline of 9.2 percent. Raffetto said he used those five days because they matched up to last year's meet on an apples-to-apples comparison, based on the number of races run, the number of runners on the cards, and the number of turf races run.
"The little guy, it doesn't appear as if he cares" about the takeout level, Raffetto said. "The big guy may look at Laurel at August and say that it's great we cut the takeout, but we're only doing $1.5 million a day, and it's hard to play in those small pools." [Daily Racing Form]
The problem with the pool sizes is kind of a Catch-22; you're trying to attract big handle with lower takeout, but that extra handle would distort the small pools so as to nullify any takeout reduction for big bettors. As far as small bettors go, the effect of the extra money to churn would only be felt over a far longer period of time than the ten days of this meeting. And, as Raffetto also pointed out, it didn't help that the meet competed with Saratoga. I have to plead guilty for not supporting this worthy experiment in large part because of that. And that's something that I, and other horseplayers who did the same, may come to regret in the future when tracks point to this meeting and ask why they should reduce their take.

- And back to Magna for a moment, I saw this disclaimer in the company's press release announcing the deal.
This press release may contain statements that, to the extent that they are not recitations of historical fact, constitute "forward-looking statements" within the meaning of applicable securities legislation.......We use words such as "may", "would", "could", "will", "likely", "expect", "anticipate", "believe", "intend", "plan", "forecast", "project", "estimate" and similar expressions to identify forward-looking statements. [CNN Money]
The folks at Siro's might want to consider posting a similar warning at its handicapping seminars.

Final Week in Motion

- It's the final week at Saratoga, and I'd been alternating between planning a full attack mode and just chilling and enjoying the expected fine weather coming up for the holiday weekend. Then I nailed the 8th race exacta cold at Del Mar on Monday, and my NYRA Rewards account is replenished..

For a guy who I feel I've mentioned a lot during the meet, Graham Motion only had two winners going into Travers weekend. But he's doubled that total since then, most recently stealing Monday's finale with Chief Running Bear. He has three live looking runners and a first-timer scheduled to run in the next two days (Wed and Thurs), and I believe I picked each one of them on top for my Saratoga Special picks. Gotta be a winner in there somewhere. On Wednesday, he has the morning line favorite in two races. Adriano, who closed very well for second, at 8-1, in his debut here on 8/3, goes in Race 4. He'll be ridden by Ramon Dominguez, who piloted both of the trainer's aforementioned recent winners. By AP Indy, this juvenile is closely related to the Haskell/Belmont winner Bet Twice (whose dam is the third dam of Adriano). And in the 6th, we have Going Day, also with Dominguez, second here on 8/6 despite being very wide from the 11 post every step of the way at the same 1 3/16 distance. This daughter of the Irish stud Daylami was an expensive yearling purchase who may be starting to pay dividends here in the U.S. She's out of a half-sister to the Super Derby winner Arch.

One more horse I like today; something a bit more subtle, at 10-1 morning line. In the 7th, He's a Pioneer steps up in class after being claimed by trainer Enrique Arroyo (who earlier in the meet popped River Mountain Rd at 14-1). This gelding tired to a distant 4th at 8-5 when haltered in his last. But note that the race was a mile and an eighth around two turns, his only such effort. Around one, this is an ultra-consistent sort who has otherwise won four races with two seconds and a third in ten tries. Two races back, he won in allowance company at Belmont, and that has turned into one of those "hidden" key races - each horse that he beat came back to run in the money in their next start. Cornelio Velasquez, who rode the trainer's longshot winner here, hops aboard for the ride. So this one looks like some potential value in a very competitive race....if you're looking for others for exotics, you may have to take....a wide stance.

- Santa Anita will unveil its new Cushion Track surface for training on Sept 4. Golden Gate is ahead of schedule with their new Tapeta Footing, which will open for training on Oct 6.

And it's the latter surface on which horses will compete for big money - some $520,000 per day - at the new Presque Isle Downs track in Erie, PA which opens on Sept 1. Scott Lake is one of many who will be shipping there to take advantage. "I have horses at seven different tracks....and I'm shipping from everywhere." [Pittsburgh Tribune-Review] Lake will be stabling 24 horses there; Steve Asmussen will have 30, and John Servis and Graham Motion are amongst the others who will be there.

Tuesday, August 28, 2007

Notes - Aug 28

- Hunch bets for Tuesday:

A Quick Bye Bye - 10th at Prairie Meadows
Uwouldn'twannabeme - 6th at Fort Erie
Potential Rival - 8th at Yavapai Downs
- The latest setback for Rags to Riches may result in her missing the Sept. 8 engagement Ruffian Handicap at Belmont; the Gazelle a week later is a possible alternative. But the Toddster told Sherry Ross of the Daily News that the Belmont winner was feeling better on Monday.
"She just charged from the back of the stall when I checked in on her just before we left. That's her. If you didn't have a thermometer, then you would have never thought anything was wrong with her this morning....I might even train her in the morning, if she's as frisky as she is right now. We'll pull another blood on her in the morning, and then I can breeze her (tomorrow) possibly. But it's premature to make any decisions yet." [NY Daily News]
- Shug McGaughey on the disappointing 4th place finish of Sightseeing in the Travers:
"He didn't run very good, and why he didn't run any better, I honestly don't know,....I was very disappointed but I don't have a reason for his performance. I still think he's a distance horse, and I've just gotta figure out where the switch is." [Bloodhorse]
- Prairie Meadows is taking a wait-and-see attitude towards synthetic tracks.
"There are some pros and some cons," Prairie Meadows general manager Gary Palmer said. "As the information funnels in from all different directions, everyone learns a little more every day." [Des Moines Register (hat tip to Albany Law School Racing and Gaming Today]]
The article refers to a report in the Racing Form that a rash of breakdowns[at Arlington Park] the past two months [has] raised the 2007 total to 14. I hadn't read that before; and considering that the 2006 total that caused so much consternation and which led to the installation of Polytrack was 22, I'd say that's pretty disturbing news.

Monday, August 27, 2007

Tale of Two Whippings

- An anonymous commenter, referring to the death of Indian Flare on Sunday, asks: Whip abuse in the Ballerina? Paul Moran, writing on Newsday's At The Races blog, agrees:

With the filly he rode while setting a blistering pace -- :22.27, :44.57 – for a half mile spent after five furlongs, Javier Castellano repeatedly whipped Indian Flare between the quarter and sixteenth poles... This was unnecessary and cruel. Indian Flare was going nowhere. The whip is not a form of punishment and Castellano should be standing in front of the stewards on Monday. [At The Races]
Moran actually goes further, and questions the instant diagnosis of a broken pelvis by track vet Anthony Verderosa, noting that the filly ran straight and true until tiring, and questioning how he could make that diagnosis unless he's gifted with x-ray vision. The term cardio-vascular shock casts a wide net.

But even without the conspiracy theory (and without necessarily discounting it, conspiracy theorist that I can sometimes be), I did consult the head-on replay (as usual, I'll refer you to Cal Racing), and regrettably must report that the jockey was indeed whipping the filly long after she was done, and even as she was nearly back to last as far as I can tell from that angle. I say 'regrettably' because I generally give these guys the benefit of the doubt when questions of judgment arise. And because, while I've never met Castellano, I've always thought him to be quite an agreeable sort based on my observations of his interactions with others on the backstretch and in the paddock.

In the case of Russell Baze, he obviously screwed up when he whipped his wounded mount late in the game. But a guy doesn't win a zillion races like he has without a burning competitive spirit, and I think we clearly saw that get the better of common sense. He deserves his suspension, but one can at least get a sense of what was going on in his head. But in the case of Indian Flare, I have no idea what the rider was thinking, and there doesn't seem to be any way to rationalize it at all.

Notes - Aug 27

- Cooler weather and a smaller crowd on Sunday, and some huge betting moves that went right down the drain. I'm a big board watcher as you know, and love to hop on board if I see something of interest developing. But sometimes, you see "them" getting really carried away, and you just have to step back, and, even better if you have the stomach for it, plunge away with an opposing view.

The 5th was a baby race, and Pletcher had an entry which included first-time starter Phi Beta Mom, a full sister to the crack sprinter Teuflesberg, 4th in the G1 King's Bishop the day before. The Toddster does not seem to be the least bit revived from Wait A While's win, and continues to struggle mightily here. This entry opened at around 4-1, and got pounded steadily, finally landing at a minuscule 3-2. I liked the earlier action, but sometimes it just gets to the point where you sense it's totally outta hand. I think you have to look at the big picture, and ask 'what am i getting here for 3-2? Can't I do far better for that price at another time?' Here, you were getting a first-time starter from a barn which hasn't won with one (on the dirt) with ample tries this meeting, along with another who hadn't raced since fading to 5th in the spring. Pick your spots, and for 3-2, you can get a much better bet - a horse that actually has established form; even a Grade 1 stakes winner! I mean, there's gotta be better ways to invest one's money! Phi Beta Mom got left at the gate, checked on the turn, and ran dead freaking last, with the stablemate 9th.

Intrique got punched in the 7th in her first start for Tom Bush, a trainer who, as I've noted before, is not particularly adept at keeping the good word under his hat. 2-1 on this first-timer, and she checked in 6th. And in the Ballerina, I saw Burmilla on the tote at 2-1 with two minutes to go, and when I looked at post time, she was 6-5! And she was just godawful, unable to keep pace and dropping out of it early. Godolphin Guy Rick Mettee said that "she did lose a shoe." Some well-intended horses burned a lot of money on this day.

It's easy for me to say this when the horses lose, so I'll also mention Hammock, the winner of today's second. 6-1 morning line, this one got punched to 3-2 on the basis of a hot trainer (Schosberg), a somewhat similar pattern to his winner Pennylove from Sunday (returned off a layoff from a poor race at Aqueduct), and the presence in that pp line of Premium Wine, a winner here on Friday. Those are all good reasons, and nice going if you had her; but 3-2 on a horse beaten 13 lengths in its only start, in April at the Big A? There's gotta be a better way.

- A couple of bizarrely tragic items in the news. Indian Flare, who set the pace in the Ballerina, collapsed after the race and died of heart failure brought on by a fractured pelvis.

"She fractured her pelvis, probably at the break, and died of cardiovascular shock," [track vet Anthony] Verderosa said. "It's not uncommon for a horse to run their race and come back like that." [Bloodhorse]
And Russell Baze has accepted a 15-day suspension for whipping his mount Imperial Eyes after he had taken a bad step and suffered an ultimately fatal fracture. You can watch the race on Cal Racing if you have the stomach for it. The gelding had a long lead midstretch when he took his misstep. Obviously in distress, he switched leads and labored on. But Baze, instead of pulling him up, actually applied the whip late in a vain effort to get the horse home first (he finished second). It was a split second decision that the all-time leading race winner will obviously regret.
"I’m not going to try to defend what I did," said the Hall of Fame rider. "There is no way to defend it. I made a bad decision in the heat of the moment, and I am truly sorry. I made a bad decision, and I’ll take the punishment that was handed to me.
Stewards withdrew two other CHRB-initiated complaints against Baze arising from the incident -- for cruelty to an animal and actions detrimental to horse racing. [Bloodhorse]
And back to the Ballerina, Doug O'Neill pulled a Christophe Clement in reverse, shipping Maryfield out east to take a Grade 1 sprint, with the benfit of a fortuitous bob of the head right at the wire. O'Neill also shipped her in to take the G2 Distaff BC at the Big A earlier this year. And unless my eyes are deceiving me, Maryfield is the only graded stakes winner in the U.S. this year for her $100,000 Elusive Quality, can that be right?

Sunday, August 26, 2007

NY Press Hiccups on Handel

- Some interesting responses to my post on the hiring of Hal Handel as the new NYRA COO. Apparently, at least a couple of horseplayers from New Jersey and Philadelphia were not impressed with his tours of duty there. Yet, he is obviously extremely well-respected in many circles, and brings an impressive resume, at least according to the 2007 Philly Park Media Guide.

Harold “Hal” Handel came to Philadelphia Park in 1998 when he became CEO after serving in many capacities in thoroughbred racing in New Jersey. Hal was the Executive Vice-President at the New Jersey Sports and Exposition Authority (NJSEA), which operates the two state owned facilities, Monmouth Park and The Meadowlands. His previous roles in racing have included Executive Director of the New Jersey Racing Commission (NJRC), to General Manager of Monmouth Park in Oceanport, N.J., and Legal Counsel to the NJRC. Under Mr. Handel’s tutelage, Philadelphia Park has become one of the premier facilities on the East Coast, which offers its guests the finest service, facilities and conveniences.

Throughout his tenure, Philadelphia Park has undergone a complete transformation from a track of the seventies to a marble-tiled masterpiece for the new millennium. Along with the physical face-lift has come a comprehensive policy of “Great Service Guaranteed” a philosophy which encompasses total satisfaction in all facets of the racing experience offered to guests every time they visit Philadelphia Park or any of the Turf Clubs.
I presume this was all written well before the track moved all of its racing patrons to the fifth floor; I don't believe that horseplayers there are presently experiencing "total satisfaction," and I'd guess that they're wondering just what and who Greenwood really had in mind when they made the improvements. But regardless, Handel's experience in areas such as track renovations and customer service, and, in addition, with working to develop account wagering and off-track betting in New Jersey, would seem to make him a perfect fit in New York (although, regarding the latter, Gov Spitzer, attending the races on Travers Day, told the Form that merging the OTB's into the track operations would not be part of his [Sept. 4] recommendation, and is perhaps down the road that is something we should examine [DRF].)
"This is a big step for NYRA," chairman Steve Duncker said.

"I have known Hal Handel for more than 20 years and consider him one of the very best racing executives in the country," NYRA president and CEO Charles Hayward said. [Albany Times Union]
It's also entirely possible, as one commenter speculated, that the reason Handel is leaving Greenwood, and why he had already departed as CEO of Philly Park to work on the NJ matters for Greenwood, is precisely because of his unhappiness over what has taken place at that track. Indeed, Handel told Dick Jerardi of the Philly Daily News in a May interview:
"If I was a regular and went there every Saturday or every Monday, I would be dissatisfied with the fifth floor....I would think that I would cut back on my visits. I don't find it terribly pleasant."
I had written that I was "more than a little surprised" that NYRA would hire someone who worked for a company whose integrity, specifically in the matter of their attempts to wriggle out of their commitment to build a separate permanent slots facility at Philly Park, has been called into question. Maybe I was hasty in that assessment considering Handel's experience and the apparent respect he has in the industry.

However, what I remain really surprised about is the free pass that NYRA has been given by the press in New York, both downstate and up in Albany and Saratoga. NYRA is, presumably, about to embark on a new era in which slots will become an integral part of their racetrack(s). However, Handel, as the chief executive officer of Philadelphia Park, has recently presided over a similar integration that has, to this point, been a total disaster in terms of the bottom line of the racing operations and which has infuriated and frustrated horsemen and horseplayers alike. So, how can the press merely acquiesce and not ask the obvious questions? Don't get me wrong, I'm not attacking Handel here; it's quite possible that he is exactly the seasoned and experienced track executive that he has been portrayed as, and that he will be a terrific hire for NYRA.

But if, for example, the Yanks or Mets, each of whom are set to launch their own new eras with new stadiums, hired some guy who worked for another franchise that, say, converted most of its stadium to luxury boxes, herded their "regular" fans to the upper deck, and then filed a proposal to not build a new stadium that they had previously committed to in writing, then you could be damn sure that reporters would be all over the story! It would probably be on the front page of the NY Post, blaming Spitzer for everything!

It's my opinion that if the racing media in New York was really doing their job, someone would ask some simple questions. "Mr. Handel, the introduction of slots at Philadelphia Park has been harshly criticized by fans and horsemen; you yourself even admitted that the current facilities are 'not terribly pleasant.' Can you please comment on what has transpired there? What have you learned from the experience to help New York's transition go smoother? Can you assure New York's racing fans that they will not similarly be shunted aside for slots?" Not only do I believe that these questions are perfectly fair under the circumstances, but that in the interest of a vigorous press in the matter of horse racing in New York, they absolutely demand to be asked.

Hot, Hot, Hot!

Here's Street Sense shortly before he won the Travers. We were standing at the paddock amongst what was seemingly a large portion of the 38,909, even though it was only a tiny fraction. It was hot, wow. One way in which we did indeed fit the full season into just one week was that we got to experience the full gamut of Saratoga weather during our brief stay. It felt more like Labor Day weekend for the first few days; we even had to turn the heat on in this house on Tuesday and Wednesday morning. Then the warm-up, and it took just 48 hours for the temperature to go from 70-something to 90-something, with the heat index feeling around 200. Standing at that paddock, waiting for the Travers entrants to make their way to the track, may have been the hottest I've ever been at that track, and maybe in my life. There was no trace of a breeze at that point, and the saturated air weighed heavily. Man, it was oppressive!

Naturally, this all eventually culminated in a spectacular Saratoga thunderstorm (what would a trip here be without one) that downed trees, and zapped power from half the town, causing Siro's to declare to diners that everything was on the house. Not a very good ending to Travers Day for them. And while our house was on the side of town that was spared, the storm forced us to move our backyard dinner party indoors....and in a hurry! Still, a fabulous time was had by all, except for the poor kitty cat, who got all a-scared and disappeared for the night.

My impression of Street Sense's hard earned victory is, first or all, that it was another hard earned victory, albeit this time over a horse that may be quite good as opposed to CP West, who I just don't think that highly of (and who was no match whatsoever for Grasshopper). Did Street Sense improve as those who declared he was a mortal lock predicted he would? The Beyer figure may not be that helpful in determining the answer in this case, since it was the only dirt race around two turns. With nothing else to go on, the Beyer Boys will have to do a projection. I'd guess that they'll figure that both Grasshopper and Street Sense improved a bit, and perhaps give the winner something like a 106 or 107. Whatever they come up with, it will strictly be a guess. Historically, the final time of 2:02 3/5 is merely average. It was a full 1.09 seconds slower than Bernardini ran under far less urging last year; and only one winner, Flower Alley, had run slower since 1999.

But greatness comes in different forms, and while a horse like Bernardini dazzled us with his speed, Street Sense seems to run only as fast as he has to. This is the third race in a row in which he just didn't seem that interested in either passing or, especially, putting away an opponent. That's a habit that could again prove costly against better competition, as it did in the Preakness against Curlin. But while the race doesn't leave me saying 'wow,' you can't argue with success, and this son of Street Cry has won the Juvenile, Derby, and Travers, not too bad. Maybe if Grasshopper had run a second faster, Street Sense would have too.

Hard Spun looked absolutely terrific in the paddock, but not so on the tote board. I've disparaged this son of Danzig a lot over the last few months, but not because I don't think he's talented; rather because I thought he was being managed inappropriately. I would have loved to have backed him at his 3-1 morning line or above; but 6-5 (and actually significantly lower for much of the time) didn't seem worth the risk. After his rousing comeback win over First Defence, I heard some say that they loved to see the way he showed his class. Since I'd bet the runner-up, I can't say I felt that way at the time; but in retrospect, it was an admirable effort to be sure, and Mario Pino looked as if he had something extra left in the tank.

For me, I was fortunate enough to catch the 4th race exacta, with Graham Motion's in-from-the-AE list, and last-to-first Royal Guard nipping Taming the Tiger. This produced a payoff of $62, for the second choice over the favorite, not too shabby indeed, wow! But otherwise, it was my usual frustration, running second in the opener with 8-1 Broadway Producer to Got the Last Laugh ($8.30), who did just that to the morning oddsmaker, who tabbed this latest Mott winner at 12-1! Woulda had the early double with Lukas' Mythical Pegasus.

But the biggest blow for me was the Bernard Baruch, in which I had winner Shakis squarely on top, but watched in horror as 22-1 Big Prarie split what would have been a meet-saving triple over 9-1 Drum Major and 7-1 Ballast. Damn that Rusty Arnold, I thought he was leaving New York!! And then in the next race, it was Hard Spun's comeback which dealt a second consecutive body blow, crushing any hopes of a breakout day. Still, I did cash a nice ticket, and I didn't melt in the heat.

- La Traviata stumbled very badly out of the gate, but was undaunted as she cruised to a nine length win in 1:09 3/5. Wow, Patrick Biancone seems to have a real monster here; she's won her three lifetime races, two of them stakes, by a combined 27 lengths. She's by Johannesburg, out of an unraced Unbridled mare who is a half sister to the Dubai star Jack Sullivan.

Now A Victor was another first-time winner for Michael Trombetta, and a well-bet one at 5-2. I was told afterwards that he was touted by Thoroughgraph's Jerry Brown, though I'm not sure what his sheets would say about a debut runner. This son of Yankee Victor battled back on the inside to best Asmussen's 22-1 Noble Truth...and that was enough of a theme for the day for one friend to speculate that there was an inside bias on the main track, thus providing a possible explanation for Street Sense's inability to put Grasshopper away (other than him just being a bit lazy). The second dam of the winner is a half-sister to Lost Code.

And can you believe that Life Is a Cabernet, 1-5 and 3-5 in her two prior starts for the hot Christophe Clement, paid $45.80 in the 5th?

Anyway, it's unbelievable, but it's already time for us to clean this house and pack up, so I gotta go. We'll go to the track today, but with last night's rain, the outlook for fast and firm is not very good [UPDATE - Good and Firm, surprise!], and I imagine we'll lose most if not all of the grass races; check that out before you handicap. And then, sadly, we'll be headed back to the city. Have a great day, and I'll be speaking to you next from downstate.

Saturday, August 25, 2007

Travers Morning, 8:30 A.M.

Travers Talk

- So no, the Travers hasn't created much buzz, and, judging from the fact that neither Wednesday nor Thursday's crowd cracked the 20,000 mark, I'm not expecting an overly huge attendance today. The talk of course has been about the effect of the Breeders Cup on the race, with Curlin and Any Given Saturday skipping it as unsuitable for their longer term goals. There's nothing new about the Breeders Cup turning races into preps; that very effect on Belmont's Fall Championship Series was apparent immediately upon the creation of the concept. The difference is that the effect is now extending earlier into the season. Used to be that it wasn't until after the summer that trainers would worry about prepping for the big day. Now, with the extra time between fewer races, the effect of the Breeders Cup actually radiated out to the spring, when Street Sense skipped the Belmont for the same reason that Curlin and Any Given Saturday will be absent today.

In a more perfect world where thoroughbreds were durable and able to run back often, instead of "win and you're in," we'd have "win or you're out!" If horses had to compete in races throughout the year and accumulate points in order to qualify for the Championships, then the whole season would build towards the Breeders Cup instead of being usurped by it. However, these ideas are obviously and unfortunately moot the way things are now, so the industry has to work with what they have. Which is not much right now.

So, we have a Travers without any rivalries, real implications, or drama. A mere showcase for the first Kentucky Derby winner to run at the Spa at age three since 1995 (a pretty astounding statistic). So when I sat down to write my stakes analysis of the race for the Saratoga Special, I figured that it shouldn't take me long to go through the race and crown Carl Nafzger's horse as the Travers champ. But I ended up picking Sightseeing instead. Do you think I'm nuts? I'm wondering myself.

But hell, it's easier to back an opinion merely with a non-existent reputation than with my money, so why not go out on a limb? Because I could look like a jerk? Nah, no one is gonna remember another loser by a public handicapper, a profession in which even the best are wrong most of the time.

What happened is that I watched the Jim Dandy, really paying close attention for the first time, just on Friday; I'd missed the race, as I did nearly everything else that happened on the East Coast when I was out at Del Mar. I assumed it was just a routine prep win for a horse that was looking ahead. But what I saw was Calvin Borel going to the whip on the Derby winner 13 times as he worked hard to put away CP West, a horse that, despite his improved form, I just don't think that much of. Perhaps this is meaningless; we know that Nafzger can point his horses for a big race, and that Street Sense rebounded from a disappointing (though odd) Blue Grass to win the roses three weeks hence. Or, just maybe, the horse has not regained his peak spring form.

Which race has Nafzger really been pointing him to anyway? If his comments defending his passing of the Belmont are to be taken as fact, it's the Classic. On the other hand, I think that Shug McGaughey has been pointing Sightseeing for this race since the spring, when he skipped the Derby following his fine run in the Wood. His Jim Dandy is a bit better than it looks on paper, as Edgar Prado had to alter course late before a final late burst that, according to the trainer, carried over very well to the gallop out. He's worked brilliantly since then, and Shug seems really hepped up. I think he'll love the added distance (note that Street Sense is the only horse in the field to have even attempted ten furlongs), and I for one wouldn't be shocked to see him passing Street Sense in the shadow of the wore. (Though I must admit that I feel as if I'm writing this to convince myself that that's really a possibility.)

In the King's Bishop, I picked First Defence, King of the Roxy, and Teuflesberg in the paper....but honestly, I have little clue in this puzzler. I've been hoping that Hard Spun would be bet down, but no one I've spoken to likes him. So maybe he'll be 7-2 and I'll end up playing him after all. First Defence is reported to be training extremely well, and might be able to control the pace from his outside post. King of the Roxy has won Grade 2's at 7 and 7 1/2 furlongs, and seems a definite possibility for the hot Team Valor, and the recovering Toddster. And Teuflesberg may just well be the best sprinter in this group. He followed up his win in the Woody Stephens with a second to Black Seventeen in the Carry Back. That race has been incredibly productive - every horse that has run back (that's all except the winner for a total of eight) has been either first or second. His second on the grass went to further demonstrate his ample versatility. Don't know if he's value at his 7-2 morning line, but he certainly figures to be tough.

Friday, August 24, 2007

We Like It Here

- We really like it here, and we had a grand day and evening in Saratoga on Friday. And no, it's not because of a winning day at the track. (Though the Head Chef picked out Auto City from the paddock in the 8th, and cashed a $2 win bet even though she thought it was the 7th and that the '8' horse was Premium Wine....who coincidentally also won. It's that kind of stuff that makes me really question all the hours of work I put into what has here been a mostly futile attempt to identify winners.)

We've tried to reproduce the highlights of our six week stay of last year in the lone week we've been here this summer. As usual, the time has rocketed by; it's like we just got here, and now it's almost Travers Day and our final night in town, damn. Our activities have been limited a bit by the cool weather, but that changed drastically today. The heat and humidity is back, and The Weather Channel is calling for a muggy high of 96 for Travers day, as if it won't be close enough there under any conditions, oh man! The crowds haven't really picked up here this week though, and I don't think we're looking at anything near a record breaker on Saturday.

So, we headed up to Lake Moreau in the morning, waited out a fierce rainstorm, took a picturesque hike (employing our Saratoga umbrellas against the lingering drizzle), and took a swim once the sun came peering through. We hung for a while, and I made it to the track just as the 4th went off. I made (and lost) only two wagers all day, and one of those was at Monmouth. After Miss Shop took a rather dreadful edition of the Grade 1 Personal Ensign, we split for Saratoga Springs State Park, where we set up in one of my favorite babbling brook-side spots in the world, broke out some wine, and barbecued on one of the grills there.

No, it doesn't get much better than this (though I probably should have removed the bug repellent before taking the shot). As I said, we really, really like it here.

From there, we drove into town, which was hopping as one might expect on the eve of the biggest day of the year. There's an exhibition of artwork by John Lennon going on this weekend, above Mrs. London's at 462 Broadway ($2 suggested donation). Yoko Ono told the Saratogian: "I'm excited because Saratoga Springs is a really incredible city that everybody knows about through Hollywood films."

Actually, I thought it was because of the horse races. But nevermind. There are over 100 works, all for sale, and the extremely helpful staff will do everything they can to help facilitate a transaction! There's a soundtrack of Beatles songs (strangely, not all Lennon's), and I heard some great tunes - Hey Bulldog and I'm Only Sleeping amongst them - that I hadn't in quite a while. I saw works ranging from $400, for handwritten lyrics, up to $22,000. There was a series of color drawings that he made for his son Sean called, appropriately enough, Drawings for Sean. These were cute, and a few were wryly humorous, especially Big Dog Frightens But Not Always, depicting a canine displaying cool nonchalance in the face of the scary Big Dog.

But my favorites were the simple black ink drawings, mostly of himself, with and without Ms. Ono. Particularly in his self-portraits, he displayed a real talent to create, using just a few linestrokes, portraits that had ample depth. Drawings such as the Head Chef's favorite, Eiffel Tower, showing the couple standing in front of an abstract version of the title landmark, were elegant in their simplicity.

And that brings us back to the Hollywood films horse racing. A masterstroke of a score can come with a simple revelation in the black ink of the Racing Form. For many years, that's all one needed to feel fully prepared. As I've said many times, Formulator is a great tool, and over the long run, being fully informed has to pay off. (Doesn't it?) But when the results continue to defy the hours of handicapping as emphatically as it has for me this week, then it's time to get back to the basics. On any given day, anything more than the ample data provided in the Racing Bible may be better left undiscovered. I'm hoping that Saturday will be one of those days, and that I'll be able to go back and buy that drawing for the Head Chef (just $3900, framed).

- Friday was a day to cash in on some of those hot trainers I've been mentioning here; hope at least some of you have caught one of these guys. One might reasonably expect that I would be showing a profit here, but I've been betting on them (and against them) at the wrong times. Another winner for George Weaver (Philharmonic hitting "all the right notes," thanks Tom, $16.40); another first-out winner for Kimmel (Cato Major $39.60...would have figured he was dead on the board even if I was there for the race); Richard Schosberg ($10.80); Linda Rice (Absoulute Heaven $8.70); and Allen Jerkens, who I mentioned the other day as a possibility for a strong close to the meet, with Miss Shop.

Big Truck Gets Big Money

- The money showed on Barclay Tagg's first-timer Big Truck from the very beginning on Thursday. 5-2 in the morning line, he opened at 1-2, drifted up a bit, went off at 3-5 after the late scratch of Good Law, and won easily by six (albeit in a moderate time of 1:17.65.). What a great game!

Ya Think battled back along the inside to take the third, another winner for George Weaver. At Attention (2-1) took money for Mott, and though this one ran well for second, more on that later. Weaver put blinkers on this colt, as he did for his recent longshot winner Pulla Fast One, and 8-1 runner-up Hackensack.

The bettors outsmarted themselves in the 5th, letting winner Longingfortheone go off at an overlaid 9-2. Kent Desormeaux rode her last time, but he went to My Into Wishin. So did the money; she went off at 5-2. Based on their past form, in retrospect, and with the benefit of knowing the results, I'd say those odds should have been reversed.

The 7th race was the only thing I did right, throwing Mott's Monster Drive (6-5) out of my late Pick Three mix. The trainer is starting to get really overbet at times, such as with this horse trying the grass for the first time with no apparent turf breeding to speak of. So I used the three horses with turf form, and they finished 1-2-3 within a length of each other. I was upset for awhile that 9-1 Citifest was edged by 3-1 Metro Meteor, but it of course all became moot when My Typhoon lost, and even mooter when a 32-1 shot won the finale.

Thursday, August 23, 2007

On Hiring Handel

- The first thing I thought of when I heard that NYRA had hired Hal Handel as its new chief operating officer was the hard-line comments he made as CEO for Greenwood Racing, the owner of Philadelphia Park, regarding on-track insurance coverage for jockeys. Philly Park was the last "major" track I knew of that was stubbornly holding the line on the $100,000 coverage limit as many tracks raised theirs to $1 million. Repeating the old stand-by defense that other tracks had abandoned in the light of the Gary Birzer tragedy, Handel said:

"Remember that they're not our employees. We have no employment relationship with them at all....These are the employees of the trainers and the horsemen."
And regarding the fact that many other tracks had increased the coverage, Handel said: "If somebody jumps off the roof of a building, that doesn't mean we're going to do it." And that was with the riches of slots poised to begin pouring in. (After protracted negotiations, the track agreed to increase the coverage to $500,000 earlier this year.)

Handel, as the CEO of the track's parent company, may very well have just been spouting the company line, and besides, that issue is moot in New York, where the riders are covered by a state-sponsored policy. But I would imagine that some riders might be annoyed by the appointment of someone who spoke so strongly against their interests in such a sensitive area, even if he was just acting as his employers' public face.

Even more curious to me about the hiring is the events that have occurred since the slots parlor at Philly Park opened. With VLT's dominating the existing grandstand, horseplayers were relegated to the 5th floor; on-track handle and attendance have plummeted. “Philadelphia Park is poised to become a top tier racetrack offering superb thoroughbred racing year round," Handel said in a statement. I think that some horseplayers there might not agree.

Whatsmore, earlier this year, Greenwood submitted a change in their construction plans that led many to believe that they were trying to weasel their way out of building a permanent casino building, and thus leaving the current situation in place. The attempt was harshly rebuked by the horsemen and denied by the state gambling board. However, to me, any attempt to renege on their commitment to the horsemen and horseplayers of the state constitutes a matter of integrity. And again, Handel very well may not have been involved in making those decisions. But with so much emphasis on the matter of integrity, and with NYRA proposing to spend $125,000 a year in order to assure their own, I'm more than a little bit surprised that the association would reach out and add anyone, with any association to any alleged breach of integrity whatsoever, no matter how alleged it may or may not be.

- I'm going to eat crow at the bottom of this post, where maybe the pure racing readers may not have reached. I guess what Pletcher needed to break out of his slump was for me to write "Is Wait A While a complete throwout in the Ballston Spa, or what?" She was magnificent, powering home in 5.77 seconds, and it's great to have her back, and man, can you believe we let her go off at 3-1? My Typhoon was 6th at 7-5, and I would term her performance as "shocking." Not that I would have had the Pick Three with 32-1 Judge's Pride anyway.

Notes - Aug 23

- I feel as if my picks, or observations, or whatever I call it have been bad, so I'm just going to mention one little horsey from Thursday's card, and then bore you with what we did on the dark day Tuesday.

In the third, a turf sprint for two year olds, Michael Matz, who as we mentioned is three for 10 (and two thirds), sends out Lake Placid. He is by Giant's Causeway, and his first two dams were stakes winners on the grass. Whatsmore, this is the distaff family of Theatrical - the 2nd dam of that grass champ is the third dam of Lake Placid. That's all I got for today, I'll (mostly) spare you otherwise. Yeah, it's another "bad" card, but I see opportunities betting against both Vitruvius, making his two-turn debut in a very competitive field (looking at Monopoly Pricing) and Wait A While. Aside from the slumping Toddster, I just don't think she's the same filly as last year; and My Typhoon looks mighty mighty tough to me cutting back to a distance that I think she prefers.

A quick plug for the "unknown" Monet exhibit at the Clark up in Williamstown, which we saw on Tuesday. I know that the real art fans are ga-ga over this because of the rarity of the works shown. But I, knowing little about art history and impressionism, was left merely to enjoy them for their own worth. In fact, I made the Head Chef come with me to see some "real" Monets in the Clark's main gallery space first so that I could have some perspective. I think I wrote last year that the paintings in their permanent exhibit alone are very well worth the trip there. Also, the grounds at the Clark are quite stunning themselves, and how's this for a picturesque little spot for a picnic lunch?

From there, we headed south to a favorite spot called Wahconah Falls State Park.

Let's just say it's an idyllic spot, one of those place where I can sit all day and wonder what the hell is wrong with the world. Probably not a good spot for handicapping though based on my results on Wednesday.

We headed back to Saratoga in time to head to Congress Park for the weekly Tuesday night free music. Nothing spectacular here, just a nice setting where people in a very nice little city gather on the lawn to hear local bands play. A long ways from Central Park Summerstage to be sure. In this case, the music was supplied by Doc Scanlon's Rhythm Boys. Afterwards, we went to the Mexican Connection for dinner. I just indulge the Head Chef when we go there; she loves it, I don't like Mexican food, and get by with a plain steak, hold the cumin please!

I remember a time when I used to dread the dark day (as well as the year that there wasn't one, an experiment that quickly revealed itself to be a disaster). Now it's a day to look forward to, a break from the routine. And Saturday's King's Bishop Travers card also looms as a break, this one from the recent routine of mediocre racing we've seen here over the last week. 12 big races, and about 150 entries altogether. Time to get to work.

Wednesday, August 22, 2007

Clip Clop

- Wedensday was another day with a solid cover of clouds, but no rain, and pleasant temperatures. This is apparently about to change; in fact, the impending warmup is quite apparent in the more humid air tonight. It's supposed to be 90 on Friday, and the chance of passing storms will persist through Saturday, at least according to the forecasts.

It was also another day of restricted claimers, state-breds, and maiden claimers. The quality of the cards has not picked up just because it's Travers week. If you think about it, the way horses have their races spaced out longer and longer these days, the ones that ran in all the good races during the first two weeks of the season shouldn't be expected to return before the last week, if not at Belmont or Presque Isle Downs. And NYRA needed to save some quality for Travers day, on which there will be 12 races without a NY-bred in sight until the finale.

And it was another day of futility for Todd Pletcher, whose cold streak has steadily progressed from curious to downright bizarre. This is not a matter of a string of bad luck, losing close photos and encountering legitimate excuses. His horses are just running awful, plain and simple. And amazingly, the betting public has not made much of an adjustment, continuing to bet his horses as if it was 2006. A couple of weeks ago, I mocked the suggestion that Pletcher is an automatic throwout, but after Wingspan, at 1-2, couldn't even get up for second over Omeya in Wednesday's third, I'm starting to wonder. There's a premium being offered in nearly every race he has an entry in. Is Wait A While a complete throwout in the Ballston Spa, or what? (She'll probably win by ten now that I said that.)

Bobby Barbara got off the schneid in the first with Half A Note, first time on the turf. Another second for the Weaver barn; returnee (and favorite) (and one of my crummy selections) Eddie C. held gamely for second, albeit a distant one. Barbara knows where the winner's circle is here, and is worth keeping an eye on during the balance of the meeting.

We noticed before the 2nd that the Toddster was wearing a suit as he gave Johnny V a leg up on his first-timer Smokin' Stephanie, as opposed to his more casual outfit on Monday; so perhaps he was expecting favorable results on this day. The public piled on this one, sending her off as the 5-2 second choice despite his futility with first-time juveniles on the dirt, which has been the case here for the entire meeting, and going back to Panty Raid on Aug 10 last year, his last such winner. Smokin' Stephanie pressed the pace to the turn, but feebly faded to 6th. Syriana's Song, 8-5 morning line, was an overlay at 9-5 after lagging early in the wagering.

The third was the aforementioned race with Wingspan, who looked like a cinch on paper to get Pletcher that elusive 10th win once Frankel scratched Argentina. Tejida, the third winner of the meeting from ten starters for Michael Matz, is by Rahy out of Batique (Storm Cat), a multiple graded winner on the grass.

Madam Commander was impeded by a wall of horses down the backstretch in the 4th, and settled for second best to Beam of Love. The winner is from the Contessa barn, and though he's still under 10% wins, he's picked it up a bit with three winners in the last four days and five in the last week. Pletcher's entry Desafinado, 6-1 morning line trying dirt for the first time after running up the track on the grass, was bet down to 7-2, and was never a threat after a stumble at the start.

In the 5th, oh man, Love Cove was a glaring overlay at 14-1, and I'm not redboarding, I mentioned her here on the blog. I was discussing her before the race too, marveling at the odds, but using her everywhere on my tickets except on top. I thought Stag Dancer would be overlooked, and instead she was overbet and empty on the track, yuck, a lousy selection.

The 7th featured the best finish of the day, as Jazzy came from out of the clouds and out towards the outside rail to nail Stormy Kiss in the 7th. What had looked to me like a wide open race on paper became a one-sided betting affair with Smart and Fancy pounded to 6-5, and I passed on the race. Sometimes I get scared away by that kind of action when I don't expect it, and in a case like this, my initial impression was the right one. Jazzy was certainly amongst those I gave a shot to.

The Head Chef was a late arrival, after going to the Farmer's Market. But she arrived in time for the 7th, and was hepped up after Jazzy's win; she didn't have him, but she thought it was cool the way she won. So she went to the paddock for the featured Albany Stakes, determined to use her power of observation to determine the winner, as she has done on a few occasions that she's reminded me more than a few times. She was really intent this time, and took notes on the program. Bayou Timber was heavy, a comment which the Head Chef wouldn't take kindly to if written by the horse about her. Dr. V's Magic was thin; Stunt Man a bit slender; Stopbluffing was prancing, and Good Prospect was clip clop. I don't know what that means.

These notations were not very definitive as far as determining a winner went, but she had one other observation. Todd Pletcher was paying keen attention to a horse....but not to his own Doctor Freud. The object of his admiration was Stunt Man. He sized him up and down, and didn't take his eyes off him except to give Johnny V a leg up on his 4th of five losers on the day (including The Ag, inexplicably sent off at 2-1 and running 5th in the finale). And after that, he turned to look at Stunt Man again. The Head Chef took this to mean that Stunt Man was a winner, and wondered why, after his two length win over the thin horse, she didn't have $100 to win on him given how easy it all was. I bet him in some doubles, but stubbornly insisted on leaving out the two morning line favorites; The Ag was a sure loser, but the other was the eventual winner One in a Romp, just the second winner of the meeting for Allen Jerkens

As far as the Toddster goes, he's certainly the center of attention at Saratoga whether he's winning or losing. At least we know he can pick out a winner before the race, even if it's not his own.

News and Notes - Aug 22

- I found a spot for the wireless router and a corresponding and conveneient one for the laptop that seems to be holding together. The wireless internet technology still has a ways to go. I think I should get some Crazy Glue and nail them down in place.

The Head Chef's friend Eileen has still not made it up here. She missed the early train from New York this morning, and says that she'll be on the later one. I'm making it 8-5 that she doesn't. If she does, the train arrives at 6:17, and we can shuttle her straight to Siro's. But I do hope she makes it soon. Without the kids here this year, it's the only shot I have of making it to the trotters one night.

Another cloudy and cool day here in Saratoga, but no rain on the radar. It's supposed to warm up dramatically - they're talking 90 for Friday - this weekend, and the forecast calls for the possibility of passing storms for Friday and Travers day. As if the meet's definitive stakes hasn't already taken enough of a beating with all of the non-appearances.

Street Sense worked five furlong in 1:00.14 in his final drill for the race. "When Calvin asked him, he went :23.3 down the lane, and galloped out [six furlongs] in 1:12.4," Nafzger told the NY Post.

- Charles Hayward defended NYRA's proposed $125,000 a year contract with Getnick and Getnick.

Hayward said the monthly $125,000 fees are considerably less than what Getnick charges some clients.

"You can't put a price on integrity," he said. "It's a lot of money, but there's a lot of good services coming as a result of that."

Hayward defended the lack of competitive bidding, saying that Getnick & Getnick is experienced, familiar with NYRA and committed to its reform. [The Saratogian]
But he didn't address the issue, as raised by Bennett Liebman in the article, that the awarding of such a contract to a firm that wrote such a glowing report on NYRA at the conclusion of their stint as their federal monitor has the appearance of conflict. And that's has the appearance of conflict.

Capital Play will make a public presentation in town here on Thursday at 11 A.M. Maybe I'll go. Or maybe not..

- Authorized won the Juddmonte International, a length clear of Dylan Thomas at the wire.
Notnowcato was another three lengths back in third place, which seemed to confirm that the Eclipse was decided by jockeys, not horses.

"Ryan Moore outfoxed me in the Eclipse," Dettori said. "It was the one that got away, but today there was nowhere to hide and we put the record straight. [Guardian Unlimited]
You can watch the race (with the French race call) on Youtube.

Tuesday, August 21, 2007

Saratoga Wednesday

- Here's some thoughts on Wednesday's card. This is just some thinking out loud about some horses that interest me for one reason or another. I may or may not end up betting on them; that will depend on the vibes and the odds, in that order. So they're not official "picks," unless, of course, they win.

I mentioned that George Weaver is on a little hot streak - perhaps a bigger one in the making? In the first, he has the 5-2 morning line favorite in Eddie C. This gelding hasn't run since March of 2006; a repeat of that race, or any of his prior two efforts would likely put this one right there. Weaver is solid in the 180+ category; eight for 30 over the last two years. Earlier this month here, the barn sent out Ground Copy for the first time since April of '06, and that one ran a huge second after rallying five wide.

Not likely to be much value there, nor in the daily double with he and Syriana's Song, the 8-5 morning line favorite in the second off a high figure (87) second here earlier this month behind Irish Smoke (94), 5-2 in her first start for Biancone, and ahead of a Pletcher 3-2 favorite. (This was back on Aug 2 before the Toddster really started to sink - he now stands at a winning percentage of 11%.) So, I'll take a peek at a trio of first-timers that look intriguing. Armonk, by the $15,000 sire Mizzen Mast, sold for $400,000 at Keeneland in April. I used to spend time looking up the breeze times, but I think I can use my time more efficiently. If a horse is by a relatively cheap sire and sells for many multiples of the stud fee, we can just figure that he worked well; 21.2 or 21.4, what difference does it make, really? Kiaran McLaughlin doesn't win with many debut babies here, but he's certainly capable and this one has some highly impressive works.

Little Miss Julien debuts for the tip-top juvenile outfit of Wesley Ward. By the $5,000 Is It True, she drew a winning bid of $170,000. Ward has won with eight first-time two-year olds this year from 18 starts; and none of them have paid more than $7.60. So if this one is anywhere close to her 8-1 morning line, she's probably not live. The doubles however can offer value on a horse that subsequently gets bet to a larger degree in the second leg; that's another sign of "smart money" that I like to look for.

And Stormy Blessing makes her debut for Darley and trainer Eoin Harty. Not much to report from the A.M. But with breeding like this - by Storm Cat out of Bless, an unraced full sister, by Mr. Prospector, to Fusaichi Pegasus - I'll be doing the paddock and tote check on her.

- The 4th is a pretty crummy state-bred maiden race, with two obvious stickouts in Staid (2-1) and Madam Commander (5-2). The latter checked in 4th for Mike Hernandez after a stumbling start, just about a half length behind Staid in the last for both. But Madam Commander was extremely wide on the turn and had some trouble in the stretch too, while Staid had a clean trip towards the rail. So, while the extra distance is a question for both of these to be honest, I'll likely use Madam Commander as a single if I decide to get involved in some Pick Threes around the race, as I do like a horse in the 5th:

Stag Dancer is 6-1 in the morning line and could provide some value, especially with Pablo Morales in the irons. This mare has excellent back form in state-bred company, and in fact has already won for these allowance conditions, at Belmont in May; he gains entry due to his $30,000 claiming tag. His efforts in his last four, in which he was overmatched in open allowance and state-bred stakes races, were perfectly honest tries, and she should just love this dropdown.

You have a couple of horses in this race that figure to get bet in Follow My Dream and Fairytale Story; they both move up off wins. Follow My Dream hadn't won in two years, and given his deep closing style, he'll need a lot to fall into place to win two in a row. And Fairytale Story comes out of an entry-level allowance that has not been at all productive thus far. I think that Stag Dancer has a class edge on those, and I'll try others who have been competitive at this level - Higher Incentive, Love Cove, and Nehantic Cat, for the minor awards.

In the 6th, a maiden claimer, the entry of Cherokee Time and Wild Logic is listed as the 9-5 favorite, and they would certainly look to be vulnerable and overbet favorites. Two first-timers rate a look. Vesper goes for Richard Violette, who scored with the well-bet debut runner Stand Pat on Monday (also in a maiden claimer), and ran second with Hedgefund Investor on Saturday. You might have read in the Form or heard Jan Rushton mention on Monday that Violette has more debut winners over the last four years at Saratoga than anyone other than Pletcher and Zito (he has eight). Vesper is by the 8% debut sire Black Tie Affair, and has a couple of fast works amid mostly slower breezes.

And Michael Trombetta sends out Stormy Miracle (Hennessy). As I mentioned the other day when he popped the debuting Cave's Valley, this guy is batting .333 with first-timers, though a mere .250 with two-year olds. He's two for six, with a second and two thirds, with two-year old first-timers in maiden claimers. Watch the board....but not too much, remembering that Cave's Valley was 6-1.

The 7th is too hard, so I'm going to cop out and skip to the 9th. The two morning line favorites in this dismal state-bred maiden affair couldn't be more vulnerable. One in a Romp (5-2) has raced in sprints, both on dirt and grass; but has fared poorly in each of her two turn tries. And The Ag (2-1) has been burning money for Pletcher; enough said (unless the guy comes into the race with three prior winners on the day).

So I'm taking a look at La Gioia Ditutti. She's trained by Gary Sciacca, who had his first winner of the meet with Grosvenor Square on Monday. We've seen trainers go on a bit of a roll after breaking through; and while Sciacca doesn't win like he once did, he's certainly a capable conditioner. This one showed improvement when switched to the grass, and progressed up to an excellent closing second to 3-5 favorite As Do I, subsequently third in a state-bred stakes (and then 9th in an allowance), earning a 70 Beyer that likely wins this. Since then, her last two weren't great to be honest. But I suppose you could argue that she bounced two back; and she flattened out after a big wide move in her last. The key could be the switch to jockey Ramon Dominguez, who has won at a 28% rate in 29 rides for Sciacca, pretty impressive when you consider the trainer's overall percentage. This Signal Tap filly looks worth a shot at her 8-1 morning line.

Notes - Aug 21

- I'm battling a balky wireless connection here in our otherwise wonderful rental. I may have to resort to.......dial-up!?

Well, while I have a moment sitting on the floor in the one spot I can hook up to the high-speed connection directly, let's catch up on a little news.

Last Friday's vote canvass in West Virginia's Kanawha County resulted in the affirmation of the 'yes' vote which would allow table games at the Tri-State Racetrack; the margin of victory, originally 33, widened to 343. That of course is still a slim margin, less than 1% of the vote. The opponents, led by the West Virginia Family Foundation, want a recount. But who's going to pay the estimated cost of $280,000? The opponents argue that a recount is a part of the election process which the track is obligated to pay for. The track and its allies likely spent at least twice [the $280,000] on the "Vote Yes" advertising and marketing campaign. [Charleston Daily Mail] The track obviously disagrees, and is backed by the County Commission President. Maybe they'll have to have a referendum as to who pays for the recount.

- Thanks to the reader who sent in this link from the Albany Times Union, regarding the suspension of the subpoena issued to the paper's James Odato with respect to the Choppergate, or Troopergate investigation, whichever you prefer. He/she also makes an excellent point, calling to our attention the fact that the Columbia Journalism Review, which supported the T-U in this article I'd linked to, has a "working relationship" with the paper.

- Finally some reaction from NYRA to the flurry of gate incidents at Saratoga, and quite a reaction it was. In a news release, the association announced that starter Richard Brousseau "will begin retirement" after 31 years; but as noted by the Times Union, the timing was unusual with two weeks remaining in the meet. The starter is the guy who just pushes the button to open the gate, whereas a lot of the attention, at least in the feedback I've gotten here, has concerned the assistant starters who are actually handling the horses in the gate. Without knowing all the details of any investigations that may have been conducted into those incidents, I would speculate that Brousseau is being made a scapegoat here. Assistant Roy Williamson will be the new starter.