Sunday, May 31, 2009

The long and the short of it: Colonial's turf course

In less than a week, they'll be off and running again at Colonial Downs in New Kent, Va. While some fans lament the track's location -- it isn't terribly convenient to any metro area, though less than an hour from Richmond -- I enjoy its rural setting and in my experience the track management and staff have always been quite accommodating both for fans and media.

What I'm not so tickled with is the stakes schedule, which is apparently limited by the configuration of its otherwise spectacular turf course.

Last year, Colonial didn't just trim, it hacked, significant distance out of a few statebred stakes races. I e-mailed the track to ask why, and a top official at Colonial called me back within 30 minutes -- I kid you not, called, not e-mailed, I told you they're accommodating -- and we discussed the matter for about a half-hour.

The Virginia Thoroughbred Association makes the decisions when it comes to statebred stakes races, I was told. And, having trouble filling some of them, I was informed by Colonial that the VTA decided shorter was better. So mile or mile-and-a-sixteenth races were carded last year at 5 1/2 furlongs instead, and mostly are again this year.

That isn't just "shorter." That's short. ... Really freakin' short.

Now, I'm a fan of turf racing, and of distance racing. Frankly, those two often go hand in hand, as grass horses frequently have a bit more European lineage and stayer influence. But I also appreciate the horses who can and do run short. Among Virginia-breds, Bop is one of my all-time favorites, and for him, shorter was always better.

But dropping the distance from 8.5 furlongs to 5.5 furlongs was unlikely to broaden the field, and last year it really didn't, even though the VTA and Colonial attempted to expand entries by turning 3-year-old only events into stakes races for 3- and 4-year-olds. The Oakley Stakes last year went off with seven horses, little or no improvement from when it was run at a distance.

That's because for every sprinter you draw with a short race, you risk eliminating a miler. I have friends among Virginia's horsemen and horsewomen who were out of the Oakley Stakes last year once they learned it was being run at 5.5f. It was just too short for their horse.

This year there are 23 nominations for the Oakley, which will be run next Sunday, June 7, on the meeting's opening weekend. We'll see how many make it to post.

The ideal compromise in my opinion would be to run these races at a "middling" distance; preferably 7 furlongs. That way the milers have to shorten up a bit, the sprinters might have to last just a little longer than they'd prefer, but in either case the connections of all might be willing to take a shot.

Trouble is, Colonial's turf course, the most beautiful (in my opinion) and widest (by point of fact, at 180 feet) grass course in the country, with up to 10 different rail configurations, apparently is restricted to either the shortest of sprints, or to route racing. It's seven-eighths of a mile in circumference with no chutes to provide for anything other than 5 or 5 1/2 furlongs, or a mile or more. (There's an abbreviated chute on the turn for home that, coupled with the widest rail settings, permits the 10 furlong distance of the Virginia Derby-G2.)

Seems like bad planning to me.

The track has a 10-furlong dirt course, with a chute so long that in the fall, trotters can blaze their way around a one-turn mile, a configuration unique among harness courses. But at a track where a majority of the thoroughbred races are carded on the lawn, there's no such thing as a 6-, 6 1/2-, 7- or 7 1/2- furlong grass race. None. ... And that's hard for me to fathom.

I wonder what, if anything, could be done about it now. I've included an overhead shot of Colonial while under construction (above, "borrowed" from Resource International, an engineering firm that was part of the project) and track layouts ("borrowed" from the Daily Racing Form) for both Colonial (top) and Lone Star Park.

What I'm wondering is whether a diagonal chute like the one Lone Star has cut between the apex of the turn for home and final stretch, could be duplicated in reverse, so to speak, at Colonial, where the chute would run through the open grass to the left of the two lakebeds in the aerial photo, in effect short-cutting the far turn, perhaps allowing for 6- and 7-furlong distances (just guessing).

I had often wondered why there weren't races from 6 to 7.5 furlongs (or somewhere in that range) on the turf course at Colonial, but apparently wasn't smart or inquisitive enough to find out.

But other than cost (likely considerable) -- and the prospects that, perhaps, the infield grass and lakes are part of a wetlands tradeoff (read the engineer's page on the project) that couldn't be altered -- I don't know why Colonial's track management wouldn't want additional configurations and distances.

I'm open to comments here, particularly from VTA members, Colonial Downs staff, or anyone with the inside skinny on why Colonial was built the way it was, and whether modifications to the course are feasible now.

Saturday, May 30, 2009

I need to see a man about a horse

Actually, I'm dying to ask a question of someone about one particular horse, but apparently not quite "dying" enough to make a long-distance phone call and harass a trainer who doesn't know me from Adam.

Since last fall I've been waiting for the return of Radical Fringe. He's a cousin to my new filly Oracle at Delphi. What I mean is, his dam and my mare, Bushes Victory, who is Della's dam, are full sisters.

Radical Fringe debuted at Arlington Park last August at age 3 where he started slowly in a 5-furlong turf maiden-special. He was closing at the end and settled for fifth. (YouTube video

Then, the Van Nistelrooy gelding went on a tear. He easily cleared his maiden condition next out, again 5f on turf at Arlington, coming within sixteen-hundredths of the track record. (Video) Next he won his N1x by three lengths on the main (synthetic) course, where he came even closer to the track record; three-hundredths off the mark. (Video)

I was crossing my fingers for a stakes start, as a turf sprint was coming up at Hawthorne for ages 3 and up, and he'd generally been knocking heads with older horses, albeit in much lower conditions. Instead, his connections sent him to Keeneland and back onto synthetic, where he was an impressive second to a fairly fleet sprinter, My Best Pal Red, getting beat just a half-length in a race run in pretty darned-near "racehorse time," 1:08.86 for 6 furlongs.

He won again next out, back in Illinois at Hawthorne, in what had to be one of the last turf races of the season, held in mid-November. So his 3-year-old year constituted five starts, three wins, a very solid placing at Keeneland, and $61,920 earned.

Since the Daily Racing Form reported before that last start that Radical Fringe would be turned out for the winter afterward, I wasn't expecting to hear from him for a few months. But now the sun's out and the racing's under way at Arlington -- where the chestnut gelding has proven he can win over either strip -- and unfortunately he's yet to have a published work in 2009.

The DRF article said Radical Fringe had several problems getting to the races. I don't know whether they were soundness related or perhaps testicular in nature. ... He did undergo "the ultimate equipment change" and then not too long after made a case for himself as a serious racehorse, with sharp efforts at three different venues in four months.

His last trainer was Hugh Robertson, so if anybody knows the gentleman (and particularly the horses he's working with right now) I'd be interested in hearing about future plans for Radical Fringe. I thought he might be a stakes horse, which would be good for my filly's page, but I'm starting to wonder when, or if, we'll hear from him again.

I just wonder what the little red gelding is doing now.

eBay find: Trophy won by The Axe II

Far as horse racing-related eBay unearthings go the cool factor on this lot achieves Grade 1 status. So does the price.

For sale with an asking price of $6,800 is the Shreve of San Francisco-crafted, Sterling silver trophy for the 1963 Benjamin F. Lindheimer Handicap at Arlington Park in Chicago. The 12-furlong turf test (and, presumably, this trophy) was won that year by a superb horse who went on to be a significant influence on the breed as a sire, The Axe II (Mahmoud-Blackball, by Shut Out). Second dam of The Axe II was the Blue Larkspur mare Big Event, who was out of the thoroughbred world's Mother Superior, La Troienne herself.

The Axe II sired such great runners as Haskell winner Hatchet Man, Met Mile champion Executioner, Hawthorne Juvenile winner Al Hattab, Arkansas Derby winner Twist the Axe, and Hollywood Oaks winner Last of the Line.

If you don't eBay, you can visit the New York-based seller, Lauren Stanley Silver, and see the piece here.

The spectacular prize ain't your typical horse-racing platter or cup. The futuristic design was befitting of Lindheimer's vision, in racing, business and philanthropy; after his death in 1960, his family donated to establish the Lindheimer Astrophysical Research Center, dedicated in 1967 at Northwestern University. (The center served until it was razed due to asbestos in 1995).

But Lindheimer was a horseman at heart. He became head of racing at the long-since-gone Washington Park Race Track in 1935, and at Arlington Park beginning in 1940, promoting the legendary Washington Park Swaps vs. Nashua match race. Lindheimer put together the Balmoral Jockey Club group that purchased Lincoln Fields in 1955, renaming it Balmoral Park. He died in 1960.

The Lindheimer trophy isn't just a striking work of silver; weighing in at 40 ounces, it also features a center pillar -- between a silver base and the silver artwork (with hidden storage box) atop -- that is made of red jasper stone.

Silver's price is on the rise, but at $15.61 an ounce at the close of Friday trading, the trophy is priced much higher than its sheer precious-metal value. That's a good thing, I suppose. At least it won't end up melted down.

As for the race, it was often a stellar contest, won a year before this particular trophy was presented (that is, in 1962) by Prove It, and in 1971 by Princess Pout (after the race was shortened to 9 1/2 furlongs), who went on to become the dam of the great turf runner and sire, Alleged (by Hoist the Flag). Arlington icon Earlie Fires rode 22-1 shot Tampa Trouble to an upset win over favored Figonero in 1969.

I hope someone gives this trophy a deserving home. Maybe even Arlington Park itself. This piece should be in a museum setting or in the collection of someone who will truly appreciate it.

Someone like me, but with money.

Friday, May 29, 2009

Rachel out of Belmont; and ready for her close-up, Mr. Klein

It's official: Rachel Alexandra won't run in the Belmont Stakes.

If we needed a hint, it came earlier Friday when the fabulous filly spent more time posing for a photographer from Vogue than she did jogging over the track at Churchill Downs.

Granted, I don't know Rachel's normal work schedule under trainer Steve Asmussen. She might have been due for only an easy lap on Friday morning anyway.

What I was certain about is that a barn trying to make sure its newly-purchased star had her game-face on for a Grade 1 race at a mile and a half against colts and one high-soaring gelding was not likely to schedule an appointment with renowned fashion photographer Steven Klein, wake the filly from a comfy afternoon slumber, and traipse her in front of a 10x16 backdrop fashioned between Barns 36 and 38 at Curchill. The shots by Klein -- who has also photgraphed Madonna and "Brangelina," and whose work has been used in ads for Calvin Klein and Dolce & Gabbana -- are to appear in August's issue of Vogue.

The idea to feature a horse in one of America's glitziest fashion mags popped into the head of Vogue editor-in-chief Anna Wintour after she was present to witness the filly's Preakness win. And I'll go on record as saying this kind of publicity will be absolutely awesome for horse racing.

But it didn't seem like Asmussen and Stonestreet Stable were terribly focused on the Belmont Stakes, nor interested in risking a June "beat" for Rachel in such a tough race when her photo spread won't be due on newsstands until August.

Thursday, May 28, 2009

As Rachel waits, Derby winner dangles

Here we are, less than a week from the Belmont Stakes draw, with no commitment made from the Rachel Alexandra camp about whether the phenomenal filly will be present for a rematch with Derby winner Mine That Bird, whom she bested in the Preakness.

The Blood-Horse's Steve Haskin muses about why that might be, and speculates -- I think correctly -- that Rachel's connections, including Jess Jackson's Stonestreet Stable, have to be at least 90 percent certain by now about what they're going to do. But Haskin notes that Jackson has given conflicting signals, including statements that they'd know by last Monday whether Rachel was ready; now we'll know by this coming Monday, which for a mid-week draw and Saturday race is pretty much go-time.

Haskin writes that a decision on Monday is cutting it awfully close, and "leaves the NYRA marketing department up the proverbial creek without a paddle."

There's somebody else Jackson has left in a holding pattern: Mine That Bird.

By now I'm leaning heavily toward the notion that Rachel Alexandra won't run in the Belmont Stakes. My desire for a rematch aside, I think if she were my filly I wouldn't consider it the right spot for her.

Rachel opting out would leave her regular rider, Calvin Borel, free to reclaim the mount aboard Mine That Bird, a job he gave up when both horses were entered in the Preakness. Mike Smith rode Mine That Bird to second in that race, but has taken off the horse to stay out west next weekend and ride Madeo, a Jerry and Ann Moss horse, in the Grade 1 Charles Whittingham Memorial at Hollywood Park the same afternoon. Mine That Bird's trainer, Bennie Woolley Jr., has decided he'll wait and see whether Borel is available, and that means waiting out Jackson's decision on Rachel's Belmont future. Borel has even worked Woolley's horse in the interim.

I think Jackson might be tickled to make them sweat. After all, Mine That Bird's owner, Mark Allen, stuck Jackson and Co. in the sauna for a day when he, Ahmed Zayat and perhaps others gave serious consideration to blocking Rachel Alexandra from the Preakness by entering enough nominated, but undeserving, colts. All Jackson could do was dab at his brow for hours, until the Derby winner's connections and Zayat publicly changed their minds.

The Belmont-decision delay might just be Jackson's chance at a little turnabout. You made me wait and see whether my horse would run at Pimlico; I'll make you wait and see whether you get your jockey back for Belmont.

If so, that's the stuff good rivalries are made of.

'Bird's brother has a name ... Brother Bird

Steve Haskin of The Blood-Horse reports that the 2-year-old brother of Kentucky Derby winner Mine That Bird now has a name -- Brother Bird.

That's the moniker registered for him by Dogwood Stable, who bought him for $485,000 at the recent Fasig-Tipton Mid-Atlantic sale of 2-year-olds in training.

The name fits, I suppose. He'll have to do some real running to make people remember him as more than just Mine That Bird's brother.

Meanwhile, what a tidy profit for Paul Saylor. He bought the colt for $100,000 at the March Timonium 2-year-old sale. A few weeks later, MTB's sloshing home first at Churchill and a quick rollback of the colt into another sale attracts a price $385,000 higher than Saylor paid.

That's the kind of quick profit of which the econ major at UVA can be proud. It's like Brother Bird won Saylor a Grade 1 purse without ever wearing the owner's orange and teal.

Not Luv Gov again!

Why won't Luv Gov leave us in peace?

The Ten Most Wanted colt who I said had no business in the Preakness -- and who pretty much ran like it, placing eighth -- has officially been pointed to the Belmont Stakes. He might win and make me look the fool, but I say he doesn't belong there, either.

Luv Gov broke his maiden (at 10th asking, a term you don't hear that often about Grade 1 stakes horses) on the Kentucky Derby undercard. His name first cropped up as a Preakness entry amid the subterfuge intended to keep eventual winner Rachel Alexandra out of the race. Ahmed Zayat, owner of Pioneerof The Nile, said Marylou Whitney planned to enter a colt to "promote her stallion" (Belmont winner Birdstone, sire of Derby winner Mine That Bird) and the only colt to emerge from Whitney's string with Preakness intentions was Luv Gov. (The Whitney camp issued a blanket denial of a role in any conspiracy.)

Either Whitney and trainer D. Wayne Lukas are actually every bit as confident in this horse's ability as they say -- they were quoted as entering the Preakness feeling he "(had) a legitimate chance," also not something you hear often from the camp a 1-for-10 horse entered in a Grade 1 classic -- or else they're taking this charade two steps too far.

I just don't see how this entry adds up. Other than the truly special athletes, a horse deserves his conditions; in this case, the right to face non-winners of two when he himself has not yet won twice in his life.

Luv Gov took 10 races to break maiden. He did so impressively, closing from deep in the pack to draw off and win by 6 1/2 lengths going a mile and a sixteenth in the slop, for an 87 Beyer. But running off from maidens by 6 1/2 is a far cry from announcing your Grade 1 status unless perhaps you're a first-out 2-year-old.

The colt is improving. He had only one decent Beyer at age 2, a 73 in finishing third behind the ill-fated Stormalory in a Polytrack route at Keeneland. His other juvenile efforts earned Beyers of 39, 27, 49, 37 and (after the 73) a 30. (See his full pre-Preakness PPs here.)

He progressed considerably for Lukas after a layoff from November 2008 to March 2009, when he returned at Oaklawn Park. He was second there in two straight maiden special weight efforts, with Beyers of 83 and a regressive 74, then ran well again over Keeneland's synthetic surface in a place finish from his third 3-year-old start. Then the win at Churchill.

But an instant jump to Grade 1 races?

The Belmont actually makes more sense than the Preakness, I suppose. Whitney's a New Yorker and probably wants to see one of her horses in the show. And we've seen several seemingly overmatched horses -- particularly deep closers -- get up for a piece of the action at the end of the arduous 12 furlongs. Whitney's own Birdstone paid $74 when he charged from the rear to rob Smarty Jones of a Triple Crown in 2004. The following year, Afleet Alex won the Belmont with ease, while second place went to Andromeda's Hero (closing odds essentially 12-1) and third was a maiden, Nolan's Cat, at roughly 21-1. Alex beat them by 7 and 13 3/4, respectively, but they closed from 10th and 11th -- that's next-to-last and last -- to collect $200,000 and $110,000 paychecks.

But doesn't a horse deserve his conditions? Clearly Luv Gov is no Curlin, who burst on the scene with a huge debut effort at 3 and, almost the next thing you know, was finishing third in the Kentucky Derby, winning the Preakness and barely getting nosed out in the Belmont. A horse that took 10 tries to break maiden doesn't usually inspire such confidence.

It isn't like Luv Gov was brilliant in defeat at Pimlico. He wasn't beat by 15 or 20 lengths; only about nine. But he didn't really beat anybody, either. The only horses he finished ahead of were those whose riders didn't persevere with them once they realized the cause was lost. I haven't seen his Beyer from the Preakness, but judging from Rachel's reported 108, and the distance he finished behind her, I'd guesstimate that Luv Gov earned no better than 91. That could be considered progress from his maiden-breaking 87, but not nearly enough in my mind to try a Grade 1 again next out. (Edit: Belmont-contender PPs are now up at DRF; Luv Gov's Beyer for the Preakness was a bit-surprising 94, and in an interesting change, the Beyer for his maiden win was for some reason upgraded from 87 to 94.)

And I think the colt's pedigree is suspect at least to some degree. While his sire won the Travers at a mile and a quarter and was placed in the Belmont, Luv Gov's dam, City of Silver (Nepal-Silver Discovery, by Mr. Prospector) was a modest winner once from five starts, seems bred to sprint, has produced only two foals to race (a Luv Gov half-brother won once from 12 starts) and the only blacktype winner I can see under his second dam is a granddaughter who was a champion filly ... in Puerto Rico.

Still ... again ... somehow ... Lukas and Co. apparently think he has a shot in the Belmont.

"Wayne said he worked real well (since the Preakness) and that we ought to take a chance," John Hendrickson, Whitney's husband, told The Daily Racing Form. "We've gone off at higher than 30-1 before."

And it isn't like Lukas thinks this race is important. Having won it four times -- but not since 2000 -- Lukas recently said "nobody cares about mile and a half horses anymore" in calling for the Belmont to be shortened. So maybe he figures this is as good a place as any for his 1-for-11 charge.

The more I rant about this colt, I suppose, the more likely it is he'll eventually prove me wrong. Or at least the dumber I'll look if he does. And don't misunderstand; I'm not rooting against him. I'm only assessing his chances as any handicapper would before a big race, and I don't think those chances are good. Not to win, anyway.

So why not give the colt his conditions?

Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Virginia's 'vanishing' breeding biz

I've alluded to this fact in a prior blog, and The Washington Post caught up to the story for Tuesday's editions. (You'll need a free logon I.D. to read.)

Thoroughbred race-breeding farms in Virginia are becoming very few and quite far between. From my limited experience as a budding horseman in my neighboring state -- plus evidence that continues to pile up -- it has a lot to do with the men and women in Virginia's government not really caring enough about the industry enough to cultivate it. And the fact that a significant percentage of the general public neither appreciates, nor understands horse racing.

Virginia has a fine racing venue in Colonial Downs. I happen to like the location, a rural setting near Interstate 64 on the way from Richmond to Virginia Beach, but apparently it isn't closer to bigger markets because of the NIMBY factor -- Not in My Back Yard. (Dear North Carolina: Feel free to build a racetrack in my actual back yard.)

But other than horsemen themselves, Virginians' minds are consumed by visions of the venue, off-track betting and the controversial notion of slots or other gaming to augment revenues.

Witness the immediate response of Virginia Gov. Tim Kaine when asked by a radio show host to comment on the Post's story about the loss of farms. Kaine can't get his mind off the gambling: "We have a track," he said, "we have a lottery and that's enough for me." It took multiple attempts for the program's moderator to get Kaine merely to understand that the question was about raising horses, not racing them or, the logical leap in the mind of the governor, the subject of gambling on those horses.

Kaine goes on to say that Virginia has "a number of good raising opportunities," though he admits to not being an expert on the race scene. That lack of expertise is clear, for when it comes to breeding and raising racers, the Virginia horse business could be on its last legs.

Despite the superb track that Kaine touts, Virginia's breeding, foaling and horse-development businesses are tanking. In the 1960s, Virginia was home to around 1,400 new thoroughbred foals a year; now that figure is closer to 350. As I've blogged before, the Virginia stallion scene has wilted from 154 studs serving 837 mares in 1991, to 41 stallions serving just 123 Virginia mares in 2008. I suspect the numbers will be worse again in 2009.

How many millions of dollars in Virginia income (and taxes) are lost in that decline? How many hundreds or thousands of jobs have disappeared? How many farms are folded, their green spaces paved over for a Super Wal-Mart parking lot or turned into cookie-cutter houses?

It's all but certain Tim Kaine isn't aware of those figures; nor are most members of Virginia's legislature. Perhaps it's equally likely that they don't care. That's both wrongheaded and sad.

Racing is, or should be, a key element of any thriving Virginia equine industry, particularly since the state does maintain a racing venue. And that equine industry is bigtime business for Virginia. The law firm of Sands, Anderson, Marks & Miller, which numbers equine law among its specialties, cites the horse biz as a $1.65 billion annual industry for the state, in some fashion still supporting up to 20,000 jobs. If virtually any other industry that helped employ 20,000 in the Old Dominion were struggling, you can bet Tim Kaine and the legislature would take note, and try to do something to help.

Meanwhile, many laymen simply consider horse racing, and the gambling that surrounds it, a vice that Virginia would be better off without. They figure a track and nine OTBs are more than enough, even if there doesn't happen to be a wagering facility anywhere near most of the 3.5 million who live in Northern Virginia, losing an estimated $100 million in wagering annually to neighboring states. And there's no way these opponents of horseplaying want slots or other gaming approved for the state.

Fully detailing all the present challenges about the breeding business in Virginia, and all the potential fixes, would be better-suited for a future post. (Or a book.) Suffice to say that while 100 percent owner's bonuses paid at Colonial Downs last year were great, they do little or nothing for the breeder who sold that foal to the racing connections. And with a brilliant but brief Colonial meeting that completely lacks a Virginia stallion series (like successful models in New York, Louisiana and elsewhere, stakes races for which only foals sired in Virginia would be eligible), there's almost no point in standing a sire in Virginia.

The numbers don't lie. If action isn't taken soon, the race-breeding business in Virginia will die.

Of course, then it won't cost much at all to fund 100 percent owner's bonuses for VA-breds running among open company at Colonial.

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Zenyatta's five-race 2009 homestand

Trainer John Shirreffs' announcement Monday that champion mare Zenyatta will be staying home in 2009, thank you, has caused a bit of a stir among those who hoped to see the 5-year-old Street Cry daughter really strut her stuff nationwide, and maybe against the boys, this summer.

It certainly has the cinch of our blogosphere friend Ghostsnapper's saddle a notch too tight.

I'm not inclined to solely blame the Zenyatta camp, namely Shirreffs and owners Jerry and Ann Moss, because part of the fault lies with the folks whose decision 11 months ago made such a 2009 campaign for Zenyatta too attractive to pass up; that's the Breeders' Cup.

For the first time since the series' inception in 1984, North American racing's biggest, richest weekend is being hosted by the same track -- Santa Anita -- in consecutive years. It means that to defend both her title as top older racemare and her perfect record, presently 10-for-10 after a coasting win in the Milady Handicap, Zenyatta never has to leave her home base of southern California. And that means she gets to stay on synthetic surfaces all summer, where she's a proven monster.

If the Breeders' Cup were planned for anywhere outside of California, it almost certainly would not be staged over a synthetic main track. And that could prompt Shirreffs to take Zenyatta on the road a time or two, in order to keep her familiar with a traditional dirt surface and perhaps to get a race over the specific strip where the 2009 Breeders' Cup Ladies Classic would be run.

Says Shirreffs, "With the Breeders' Cup out here, what's the point (of traveling)?"

"When it gets closer to (Breeders' Cup) time," says Shirreffs in May, of the late-October festival, "you don't want to ship around too much. Saratoga is a long way."

To be sure, Shirreffs and Zenyatta's connections are showing no inclination to really test their mare this year. Not only is Shirreffs begging off a trip to America's racing mecca, Saratoga, for a possible date in a Grade 1 race like the Go For Wand at 9 furlongs early in August or the 10-furlong Personal Ensign in the month's waning days. He's also on record as opting out of letting her face Grade 1 males -- even at home in California. And he isn't particularly interested merely in asking Zenyatta if she can stretch her legs for an extra furlong.

"The (Hollywood) Gold Cup is a mile and a quarter," Shirreffs said. "She's never run that far. It would be an ambitious spot and against the boys? Let's make it even harder."

So in a move similar to, say, the Super Bowl champion Pittsburgh Steelers unilaterally deciding they'll be playing all 16 regular-season games this year at home in Heinz Field, Team Zenyatta will commute to work all year in southern California. In horse racing, they have that right.

And it isn't like Zenyatta won't be running in major races, for big money. The 9-furlong, Grade 1 Vanity Handicap and its $300,000 purse await June 27 at Hollywood Park. A fairly short van ride to Del Mar on Aug. 9 would let Zenyatta punch her timecard in the Grade 1 Clement Hirsch, then it's back to Santa Anita's Oak Tree meet for the G1 Lady's Secret Stakes as a prep for the Breeders' Cup.

Now for what this really means: If Rachel Alexandra and her connections want a piece of Zenyatta -- and I suspect they do -- they'll have to come and get her. And that, in my mind, is by design. Zenyatta will be at home, both in her stable arrangements and on the SoCal synthetics. Rachel has won over the fake dirt, but she's made just one of her 10 starts on the stuff, so a matchup at Del Mar or during the Oak Tree meet has to give Zenyatta the home field advantage in every way.

I think Ghostsnapper is right -- this schedule set out by Shirreffs likely sinks any chance Zenyatta had of being horse of the year instead of just champion handicap mare. Voters will want to see her tested, not protected.

Curlin won the title last year (over a perfect Zenyatta) because his connections -- namely Jess Jackson's Stonestreet Stable, also primary owner of Rachel Alexandra -- weren't scared of anybody, and weren't ashamed of losing in the name of good sport. Curlin crushed 'em in the Dubai World Cup. In a test to see if he might actually try France's storied Prix de l'Arc de Triomphe, Curlin tried turf in the G1 Man O'War, and it took a Breeders' Cup champion in Red Rocks to beat him. Even his fourth-place finish in the Breeders' Cup Classic -- over synthetic at Santa Anita -- was forgiven because of the surface, perhaps, and everything the horse had gone through to get there; he was rewarded for the competitiveness and resolve he'd shown throughout a rigorous, global 4-year-old campaign.

Precisely because Jackson and Stonestreet own Rachel Alexandra, I still think a clash of the distaff titans will happen this summer. Rachel has no perfect record to protect, having lost three times at 2 (before she met Calvin Borel), and Jackson would rather see his filly challenged (witness her Preakness entry), even if she fails, than to see her coast against overmatched competition.

I could be wrong. Trainer Steve Asmussen might plan a conservative 3-year-old campaign for Rachel from now until Breeders' Cup weekend, as well. Grade 1 races against her own gender and age await in Belmont's Mother Goose (9f, June 27) and Coaching Club American Oaks (10f, July 25), and the 10-furlong Alabama at Saratoga on Aug. 22.

She could try G1 older mares (absent Zenyatta) in Saratoga's Go For Wand and Personal Ensign, or Belmont's Ruffian and Beldame. Or she might face colts (and perhaps gelded Derby champ Mine That Bird) again in a race like the Travers. But she doesn't have to in order to win nice races, good money, and additional respect, especially with that Preakness triumph already in her pocket -- a Preakness triumph that, in light of the Zenyatta camp's decision to play it conservative, is looking even more impressive.

Meanwhile, let's hope the Breeders' Cup never again chooses to hold its show at the same venue two years in a row. Not only does that deprive fans of lesser means in other parts of the country of a more affordable opportunity to attend (at a closer venue), but -- especially with California's universal adoption of synthetic surfaces at all major tracks -- it's made the career of Zenyatta an almost exclusively Southern California phenomenon, with only one lifetime start anywhere else. (The 2008 Apple Blossom at Oaklawn Park.)

I'll bet the connections of Lava Man wish the Breeders' Cup would have pulled this stunt during his heyday of unquestioned SoCal dominance.

Monday, May 25, 2009

Does the "D" stand for "Duh?"

Steve Haskin of The Blood-Horse has taken to task trainer D. Wayne Lukas for the conditioner's daft suggestion that the Triple Crown race distances be changed, most notably the Belmont Stakes at a mile and a half.

"Nobody cares about mile and a half horses anymore," said Lukas in The New York Post. "The living proof is that every Belmont winner winds up in Italy, Puerto Rico, you name it. They don't stand in Lexington. I've had four Belmont winners and I don't know where the hell they are."

For starters, has Lukas (duh) slept through the 2009 Triple Crown series? It was a Belmont winner -- Kentucky-based stallion Birdstone -- that has sired a Kentucky Derby winner and Preakness-placer, Mine That Bird, from his first crop.

Haskin lists for Lukas several Belmont winners who (duh) stand in Kentucky, usually for serious coin, including Lemon Drop Kid and Empire Maker. (Edit: And top equine author Avalyn Hunter notes Lukas has apparently also forgotten about two-time leading sire, A.P. Indy, one I certainly also should have mentioned.)

And, to help refresh the trainer's memory of his own horses, Lukas-trained Belmont winner Thunder Gulch stands at Ashford Stud in Versailles, Ky. (13.62 miles from Lexington per Mapquest, should Mr. Lukas care to visit) and among many great ones has sired Preakness/Belmont winner and Horse of the Year Point Given. Lukas also won the Belmont with Tabasco Cat, who sired G1 miler Island Sand and multiple G1 juvenile Habibti among other fine Kentucky-bred runners before being sent to Japan (where horse racing I'd daresay is more respected than in the States). Lukas' other Belmont winners, Editor's Note and Commendable, both began stud careers in Kentucky before being sent to Argentina and South Korea, respectively.

You know, D. Wayne Lukas started out racing Quarter Horses and has risen to tie the legendary Sunny Jim Fitzsimmons in Triple Crown wins with 13. But considering what he thinks of distance horses, sometimes I wonder how a Lukas horse ever won a race longer than 350 yards.

Blogger's note: This series of posts is the output you get when I've been gone 24 hours.

News Flash: Borel works Derby winner

The Blood-Horse reports that Calvin Borel, who rode Mine That Bird to victory at 50-1 in the Kentucky Derby, then opted-off the horse and beat him with Rachel Alexandra in the Preakness, was paired with the Derby winner again on Memorial Day in a four-furlong workout at Churchill Downs.

Sounds like MTB's trainer, Bennie Woolley Jr., has said he's willing to wait and see if Borel can ride their horse in the Belmont Stakes, which he could do provided Rachel is not entered.

We might have a shot at the Triple Crown after all -- by a rider, not a single horse.

Pray for Rene

I ventured away from technology for 20 hours Sunday to visit the beach with my family and upon my return, only one item from the horse racing world merits my foremost attention.

I offer prayers for Rene Douglas, who is likely to be permanently paralyzed in his lower extremities after a spill aboard the 4-year-old A.P. Indy filly Born to Be in the Grade 3 Arlington Matron Handicap. I urge anyone who believes in a higher power to do the same.

Douglas' filly was bumped by a second horse, clipped heels with another, somersaulted throwing Douglas to the track, and landed with her full weight on the jockey. Though Born To Be continued to lie upon Douglas after the crash, apparently it was mostly to gather her wits. She reportedly had to be pulled off Douglas so that he could be treated, but after an ambulance-van ride back to the barn, Born to Be was said to have "recovered" from the fall, according to The Blood-Horse, which cited Douglas' agent, Dennis Cooper. 

(Edit: The Daily Racing form now reports that Born to Be was euthanized later at Arlington Park. ... RIP, talented one, and my condolences to the connections.)

Cooper said doctors "gave it straight" to him after seven hours of surgery, saying that Douglas is unlikely ever to walk again. A 42-year-old native of Panama, Douglas has nearly 3,600 North American victories as a jockey, and his mounts have earned more than $102 million. He was the regular rider for 2-year-old filly champion Dreaming of Anna, and won the 1996 Belmont Stakes aboard Editor's Note.

Douglas and his wife, Natalia, have three sons, Michael, Giancarlo and Christian. They'll all need our prayers.

Moments such as this serve to remind us of the sacrifices being made by the men, women and animals who make this game possible.

I hope the early prognosis is unduly dire and that Rene Douglas is someday able to walk. Of course it's likely that even if that happens, he's done with riding.

Either way, it's fair to look back on his career his career at this point, and I would contend he was one of the top riders of his era. His is not necessarily one of the names that race fans and handicappers would list when naming the greatest recent jockeys; he's just the guy whose horses beat their horses about as often as theirs beat his.

Douglas twice won 11 stakes races in a season at Arlington Park (2002 and 2007), a record he shares with the likes of Kennard Knapp (1965), Pat Day (1981) and Jorge Velasquez (1989). He won six riding titles at Arlington Park, where in 2003 he won seven races on a single card, and he was tied for the leading rider title at the Chicago track in the early going this year. Douglas also won three riding titles at Calder and Hialeah, setting a single-season win mark at the latter.

In the irons, especially at Arlington, Rene Douglas was money.

Get well, Rene. I'll keep you and your family in my prayers.

(Visit Rene's Web site at

Saturday, May 23, 2009

Target: Zenyatta

I could be wrong, but the longer the world waits to hear from the Rachel Alexandra camp about whether she's running in the June 6 Belmont Stakes, the less likely it is that she's running. And to me that decision makes perfect sense.
Rachel, purchased by Jess Jackson's Stonestreet Stable and Harold McCormick after a smashing Kentucky Oaks win, was entered against boys for the Preakness and pulled off the victory despite doing virtually all the work on the front end for 9 1/2 furlongs and having to withstand another big swoop from the back of the pack by a little 'Bird.
I keep reading and hearing that she's "bred to get the mile and a half of the Belmont," but I'm not 100 percent convinced she has it in her after seeing the Preakness. I've read all the explanations for why it seemed she was starting to wear down in the waning stages of that race. I noticed one of them myself, telling a (non-race-fan) co-worker that I didn't really like how she was traveling during the Preakness; it looked like she was uncomfortable, or (and rider Calvin Borel later stated so) not fully handling the track.
In the Belmont, even if she handles the track better, the target drawn on Rachel's back will be bigger than ever. Fast horses will be thrown at her like darts in an English pub from the time the gates open, with the stalkers and closers held in reserve to rush her at the end. If you thought beating a sprint record-holder (Big Drama) to the first turn in the Preakness and holding off the cavalry charge at the end of 9 1/2 panels was a task, imagine trying to stave off Mine That Bird at the end of 12.
There's still something to be gained by beating colts and geldings ... again. Much of nobody is suggesting her Preakness victory was a fluke, but if she hands the boys their heads (or something else) twice in a row, the crown princess of this 3-year-old crop would have no more to prove against her own age and would really stamp herself as an Eclipse Horse of the Year contender.
But I think the target now is Zenyatta.
Last year's champion mare is still a perfect 9-for-9 lifetime going into today's Milady Handicap at Hollywood Park. She'll have to get by stablemate Life Is Sweet (among others) to stay unbeaten. But provided she does, I believe race fans' desire for a showdown between Zenyatta and Rachel will be just as compelling as the clamor for a Rachel rematch vs. Mine That Bird (which I'd also like to see).
Whether or not Zenyatta is still perfect when the top females do meet -- and, barring injury or illness, they will -- defeating her will be nearly as important, if not equally so, should Rachel's connections want her to be Horse of the Year.
After all, she's beaten the boys. But Rachel can't be considered the best horse to set foot on an American track in 2009 if she isn't the best of the best among fillies and mares.

Friday, May 22, 2009

Rachel's Preakness win sparks war among women (and other Internet balderdash)

There isn't really a war among women over Rachel Alexandra's Preakness win. But that's the subject of an outrageously funny (to me anyway) story at the venerable Onion online ... reporting the news for 250 to 350 years, depending on which version of their own fabricated history you're trying to follow.

It's both amusing and almost enough to get me to throw myself under a horse van that fake news (the Onion, The Daily Show) seem to have thriving advertiser support, while actual news sources are struggling with revenues. Guess it shows that readers and viewers are more interested these days in making fun of the truth than knowing it.

Don't get me wrong, I enjoy the aforementioned mock news outlets. It takes both knowledge of the real news and a true creative flair to produce such content. But I'd have thought it would also take knowledge of the real news to appreciate the sarcastic send-up of that news. And that would require patronizing newspapers, magazines and television news, or at least their Web sites. Yet almost all are struggling with advertising revenues, which are supposed to be a product of proven readership and viewership.

But I guess it isn't necessary to actually know what's going on to make fun of it, or to act like you know. Just this morning I editorialized for our paper on the incredible uselessness of some information at Yahoo Answers, where Yahoo members can go to ask questions and receive responses from people who don't necessarily know, well, anything. Like this one, from two years ago (I just stumbled upon it this week) claiming the small weekly paper one county to my west, The Oxford Public Ledgerhas been out of business a long time.

When I asked my own question -- that was, how can this be corrected, considering I have about three dozen recent copies of that paper in a stack six feet from my desk -- I was treated like a freak with three heads. I was asked, what does it matter that the information is wrong? I was told that people should know the answers they receive from other yahoos at Yahoo (my term, not theirs) could very well be incorrect. ... Just let it go.

The responses were so dissatisfying that I deleted the question.

One user insulted me, asking how an editor in the newspaper business lacked sufficient understanding of the language to realize that my question in itself was pointless. Why bother correcting information that was never guaranteed to be true?

I'm missing the point? ... You're missing the point! ... The whole damned Internet is missing the point!

The point is, when someone asks a question -- anywhere, of anyone, I should think -- they don't just expect an answer, they expect the answer. This one isn't a judgment call; it isn't "Guys? Do you think birthmarks are unattractive?" ... It's a piece of supposedly factual freaking information and it's wrong. Why is there apparently no possible means of correcting or even simply deleting it?

But from the topic of horses, I've wantonly digressed.

I'll try to get back to that more gratifying subject by the end of the night.

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

On a lighter note ... a foal photo

There was a veritable explosion of traffic at the Fugue Wednesday, thanks to the unfortunate dismissal from the Saratogian of my friend and former co-worker, Brendan O'Meara. He blogged about it; I blogged about it, and linked back to him; then he blogged about my blog and returned the traffic. The next thing you know, a whole 50 visits were made to this page Wednesday.

That's right, my sliver of the online publishing world is slowly building in popularity to where the readership periodically exceeds the number of pennies in the armrest of my '97 Dodge Ram. ... Lay off me, it's a milestone.

In an effort to brighten the mood, I'll share a foal photo. Surely nobody in the racing world can be too depressed when there's a healthy young foal to admire.

This one is Oracle At Delphi (or will be when the paperwork is finished); daughter of Mighty Forum(GB) out of the winning mare Bushes Victory (Spartan Victory-Below Broad Street, by Kokand). A Virginia-bred, she was foaled March 30 at Sarah Warmack's Hilltop Farm, near Gordonsville. With a bay sire and dark bay dam, neither with considerable white, the chromed-out chestnut was a bit of a surprise. But she kindles memories of her great-great-grandsire, Secretariat, whose color and three tall stockings she shares, and we're going to take that as a good omen until proven otherwise.

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Free Brendan O'Meara! (Or hire him, actually)

Tonight comes the unfortunate news that a friend of mine, Brendan O'Meara, is now the "award-winning former sportswriter for the Saratogian" in New York. From Brendan's blog, The Carryover (also linked below left in Railbirds Row), we learn that he was let go by the paper today apparently for criticizing its corporate management's lack of commitment to covering the Triple Crown trail.

Imagine that, a turf writer who thinks his newspaper chain should carry more racing news!

I don't know what Brendan said (or wrote) or where he did so. What I am completely comfortable telling the world is, I gave the kid his first full-time job in journalism, I worked with him for quite awhile before he went back to college for his master's degree, and in my 20 years of newspapering I've never had an employee who was more conscientious, hard-working, professional, respectful of authority and polite almost to a fault. So I find it difficult to believe that Brendan O'Meara really crossed any lines in his behavior.

That stated, I'll end with two points, from far-opposite sides of the equation.

1. I'll admit that I also have had to fire people who I never thought would push me that far. Wildly inappropriate or ill-considered comments against the paper or the company that could undermine employee morale or the publication's credibility with readers would be near the top of my list of ax-worthy offenses.

2. A newspaper that is uncomfortable or unwilling to engage in professional self-reflection about whether it does the job well -- and that moves mercilessly to quash internal criticism -- might not be secure enough in its own convictions and commitment to excellence to be trusted by its readers as the watchdog and town crier of its community.

Monday, May 18, 2009

'Bird flipped-off by another jockey

What's a Derby winner gotta do to keep a jockey?

Mine That Bird -- surprise and impressive winner of the Kentucky Derby and hard-charging runner-up in the Preakness Stakes -- has lost his second rider in as many races. Thoroughbred Times reports that hall-of-famer Mike Smith had to ask off the horse for the June 6 Belmont Stakes due to a prior commitment.

Smith was already confirmed to ride G2 winner Madeo in the Charles Whittingham Memorial H.-G1 at Hollywood Park the same day. Madeo is owned by Jerry and Ann Moss and trained by John Shirreffs, connections of Smith's own Derby-winning mount, Giacomo, and of 2008 champion mare Zenyatta. Smith was or is the regular rider of both.

Just as I couldn't blame Calvin Borel for taking off Mine That Bird to stick with potential champion Rachel Alexandra -- with whom he beat the 'Bird in the Preakness -- it's hard to fault Smith here for not going back on his word to the Mosses and Shirreffs. They consistently give him top horses to ride. He needs to keep his commitments to them and maintain that relationship.

Conversely, as good as Mine That Bird is, who knows when -- if ever -- Double Eagle Stables, Buene Suerte Equine and trainer Bennie Woolley Jr. will have this kind of horse again? And would they be sure to hand the reins to Smith even if they did?

Still, Woolley's reaction is both predictable and understandable.

"It's kinda funny," he said. "You'd think if you get a horse this good, you'd keep (a jockey), but apparently not."

Woolley said he'd close a deal with a new rider in a matter of days, not waiting to see whether Rachel Alexandra is entered in the Belmont. If she isn't, of course, he could try to reunite Mine That Bird with Borel, awkward though that might be. But it sounds like that idea is written-off already or Woolley would stall at least for a few days to see whether Rachel's entry seems likely.

'Bird's baby brother goes to the dogs ...

Errr, that is, to Dogwood Stable.

The Blood-Horse reports that a half-brother to Kentucky Derby winner Mine That Bird has sold this morning at the Fasig-Tipton Mid-Atlantic sale of 2-year-olds for $485,000.

The colt actually has 2009 Triple Crown ties on both sides of the family. In addition to being half-brother to the Derby champ and Preakness-placer (both being out of the Smart Strike mare Mining My Own), the sales colt is a son of Yonaguska, sire of Musket Man, who was third in both races. (And who won the Illinois Derby-G2.)

Yonaguska, who started his stud career in Kentucky but who now stands at Elite Thoroughbreds in Folsom, La., has a 2-year-old sales average entering 2009 of just $57,299 by comparison. So this is a big sales success for the sire ... thanks of course in large part to the dam and the sibling.

That price, by the way, is a darn sight loftier than the figure Mine That Bird sold for as a yearling: $9,500.

Wither the Preakness starters? Here's my advice.

Late Saturday it started running through my head: If I were the connections of various Preakness starters, what would I do next?

Here are the conclusions I reached.

1. Rachel Alexandra: Winning the Preakness earned back a fair piece (maybe 6 to 10 percent) of her purchase price for Jess Jackson's Stonestreet Stables and Harold McCormick. She was impressive, tiring perhaps toward the end, but she did all the work in the race, gunning from the 13 hole and taking the field gate to wire. And jockey Calvin Borel said she didn't handle the track "110 percent." The Belmont is not a given; neither as a win (Mine That Bird is a'comin') nor even as a destination. She's defeated boys and can go back to beating up on fillies and have a fair chance at Horse of the Year -- clearly one of Jackson's goals -- without necessarily facing them again, especially if she knocks heads with defending filly and mare champ Zenyatta somewhere along the way and beats her, too. Unless Rachel is perfect in training the next three weeks, that's what I'd do. And maybe even then.

2. Mine That Bird: Better than I imagined, the Little Gelding Who Could probably will in the Belmont. He's a gelding, so the only way for him to earn his keep is by racing. If he's "right," he goes to New York, and probably as the favorite, with or without Rachel Alexandra. Look for him in some challenging spots at classic distances -- The Haskell at Monmouth early in August and the Travers at Saratoga at the end of the month, particularly. The goal is the Breeders' Cup Classic, but if that doesn't seem the best spot when that time comes, perhaps tackle the B.C. Marathon this year (he should get the distance; we'll know post-Belmont) and the Classic at 4.

3. Musket Man: Few Triple Crown-trail entrants have impressed me more than this colt. Sired by a sprinter who has already been banished from Kentucky to Louisiana (Yonaguska) he just doesn't seem bred to get the distances of the Preakness (9.5 furlongs) and Kentucky Derby (10f). But he "toughed" his way to third in both, and he won the Illinois Derby-G2 covering 9f at Hawthorne. It seemed his finishes at Churchill and Pimlico were all guts and not enough "kick;" he couldn't overtake Pioneerof The Nile at Churchill nor Rachel at Pimlico, and got outfinished by Mine That Bird. No shame in that and I'm not saying I'd never consider sending him longer than 8.5 or 9 furlongs again. But I do think he might be devastating in a one-turn mile.

4. Flying Private: What an improvement from Derby (last of 19) to Preakness (fourth). He might not have been as bad as the former and might not be as good as the latter; time will tell. Despite more than a quarter-million earned, he still has just one win from 12 starts. Time to get that second win in softer company.

5. Big Drama: Fifth place at Pimlico, but might've run the second-or third-biggest race. He already was coming into the Preakness with only one prep (DQ'ed from first in a 7f record-shattering performance at Gulfstream), and being asked to go an eighth more distance than he'd ever raced. Then he lived up to his name by bucking off John Velazquez in the starting gate, and followed that by bobbling the break. Somehow, he still made the co-lead with that freak of a filly while being wandered out into the center of the track, I can only presume in an effort to hang her out wide on the turn. Fifth beaten 5 1/2 doesn't seem so bad after all that. Nevertheless, as another, like Musket Man, who is sired by a sprinter (Montbrook) I would turn him back in his next start; maybe the G2 Woody Stephens at 7f on the Belmont undercard. We know he's a beast at that distance.

6. Papa Clem: This colt has had a tough trail. Second in both the Robert B. Lewis on the California circuit and the Louisiana Derby when shipped cross-country to Fair Grounds, he finally picked up that big graded win in the Arkansas Derby, over now-retired Old Fashioned. He was a brave fourth after a troubled trip on Derby Day, but a disappointing sixth at Pimlico despite less trouble than most of the field seems to have had. Seems time for a break. One of the best-bred in what is obviously a first-class group -- by Smart Strike, sire of Curlin and English Channel, and both his first two dams were G1 winners -- the sky is still the limit for this one. But after all that racing and traveling, a month or six weeks off could be in order.

7. Terrain: Has knocked heads with good horses, but hasn't won a race since Sept. 13, age 2, the Arlington-Washington Futurity-G3 -- and that by double-DQ. Bred to get a route of ground, he just hasn't been good enough to win in top-graded company. A move down in class from G1/G2 company is likely in order, at least until he wins a couple and regains confidence.

8. Luv Gov: Can we try NW2L company next out? Please?

9. General Quarters: Another one likely due for a break. He has campaigned hard and earned a bit of glory for his amazing, retired ex-school-principal owner/trainer/groom Thomas F. McCarthy, taking the G1 Blue Grass Stakes at Keeneland and the G3 Sam F. Davis at Tampa. But he's made six starts already at 3 and is one of the few 2-year-olds who didn't really rest over the winter, running in four allowances (no wins?!) in October and November, then placing in Tampa's Inaugural Stakes two days after Christmas. Tenth at Churchill and ninth at Pimlico might be signs of fatigue. Break or not, I'd next send him back to the surface of his greatest victory -- synthetics. For Mr. McCarthy, that could mean working vacations to Canada (Woodbine) or California, or maybe just hanging around Chicago to try older horses in the Chicago H.-G3 on Independence Day at Arlington Park and the Washington Park H.-G3 in September.

10. Friesan Fire: Trouble at Churchill (18th place, suffering minor cuts on his legs), trouble at Pimlico (dropped almost to his knees at the start, finished 10th), so you'd think it might be time to pull back and regroup. But trainer Larry Jones is one of the best, and spaced this colt's races right leading up to the Derby. He shouldn't be too fatigued, though it's hard to imagine he came out of the Preakness terribly well, tough trip considered. But I wouldn't expect him to be sidelined all that long. While his sire is A.P. Indy, who usually throws plenty of stamina, his dam, Australian-bred Group 1-winner Bollinger, was a sprinter, so maybe the races in which he was so successful -- the Lecomte (8f), Risen Star (8.5f) and Louisiana Derby (8.5f), all at Fair Grounds -- are indicative that he's really a miler.

11. Pioneerof The Nile: I have two words for owner Ahmed Zayat and trainer Bob Baffert -- Hollywood Derby. Time and again we've seen synthetic performance translate to turf, and vice-versa, on the California circuit. He placed on synethic in the Lane's End at Keeneland, age 2, then ran a respectable fifth in the Breeders' Cup Juvenile. And he did everything right in four straight graded wins over synthetics leading up to Churchill. So we're goin' back to Cali (Cali, Cali) and is anyone gonna beat us? (I don't think so.) ... Seriously though, turns out Pioneer broke his maiden on the lawn at Saratoga, no mean feat. And while his sire, Empire Maker, might have run on dirt, Empire Maker's dam, Toussaud, was a turf mare and produced three G1/G2 turf winners, Chester House, Chiselling and Decarchy. And (I've written this before), Pioneer's dam, Star of Goshen, was turf-stakes-placed, not to mention a daughter of noted turf sire, Lord At War(ARG), John's Call (Turf Classic Invitational, Sword Dancer Invitational) and Honor In War (Woodford Reserve Turf Classic) notable as G1-winning turf offspring. ... A bolder course of action would be to check out Pioneer's 3-year-old grass form in the Colonial Turf Cup-G2, two weeks after the Belmont (so five weeks of rest since Pimlico) and, if he wins there, point to the Virginia Derby-G2 and follow the Grand Slam of Grass trail all the way to the Breeders' Cup Turf-G1. ... But admittedly, I love grass horses.

12. Tone It Down: A return to allowance-level company is in order. I'll leave it at that until he shows me more.

13. Take The Points: I liked this colt prior to the Preakness. He was six-wide in the race, but I have a feeling something else went wrong, or perhaps they'll find he's not feeling well, because this battler had never been worse than fourth in his life. He's run his fastest going a one-turn mile at Gulfstream, but was respectable in two starts on synthetics in California. Appears to be bred to go however far he needs, so I wouldn't absolutely cut him back in distance for good. Just figure out what went wrong and try to find a group he can beat next time.

Sunday, May 17, 2009

Preakness, post-race, post-slumber

A collection of musings spilling forth after a night to sleep on how Rachel Alexandra won the 134th running of the Preakness Stakes at Pimlico Race Course in Baltimore.

Rachel Alexandra is as good as advertised. Mine That Bird proved to me he was better than I thought. Probably much better. Barring traffic problems that forced Mike Smith to swing him seven wide, he might have gotten up in time.

So, as some fans feared, Rachel Alexandra might have "stolen" our chance at the first Triple Crown since Affirmed in 1978. Of course you never know how the race would have turned out with one fewer horse -- the winner, particularly. But if Rachel hadn't taken the Preakness from him, Mine That Bird, who came home second and full of run, might have had a very legit shot at a Triple Crown. He's sure looked like the only horse in the two races thus far who has handled 9.5f and 10f like he wanted even more ground. Of course, if "ifs and buts" were candy and nuts, then every day would be Christmas. (Or as Aussie bull rider Troy Dunn once quipped to me during a post-rodeo interview, "Yeah, and if me auntie had balls, she'd be me uncle.")

And thus, is Mark Allen now regretting his decision that prompted him to say it "ain't right" keeping Rachel out of the race by entering nominated-but-undeserving colts to protect Mine That Bird?

Reading the Preakness chart, I don't know that I've ever seen so many horses with evidence of troubled trips. The order of finish behind Rachel, with "trouble" notes as applicable: Mine That Bird (std'd 1/4, 7w); Musket Man (std'd rail 1/4); Flying Private (steadied early and 1/4); Big Drama(fractious gate, bobbled); Papa Clem; Terrain (run btw, in tight 3/16); Luv Gov (angled 8wd); General Quarters (shuffl early, std'd 1/8); Friesan Fire (bobbled st); Pioneerof The Nile (5wd btw); Tone It Down; Take The Points (6wd to far turn). ... Does this mean nine of 13 exit the race with some sort of excuse?

I love Calvin Borel. I love his enthusiasm. I love how "down to earth" he is. (Though with his upbringing, how could he not be?) I love that all he wants from life is to be around and to ride these horses; how that gives him unbridled joy; how it seems that he finds something to appreciate about every horse he meets, every one is "a good horse"; and how with him, they get better. Cheers, Calvin. May this run through the Oaks, Derby, Preakness and beyond make you one of the most in-demand riders in racing.

What now of the Belmont Stakes? If Mine That Bird comes out of the Preakness well and good, no doubt he should go. He'll be a favorite, if not the favorite, even if Rachel runs. Maybe she didn't like the Pimlico surface that much, or maybe she just hadn't been tested so hard before, but it appeared she was beginning to labor at the end of the Preakness; or at least wasn't as good as him at the end. She didn't look like a filly that would be comfortable at 12 furlongs. But her sire, Medaglia D'Oro, placed in the Belmont (to Sarava), so maybe. It would sure make the race worth watching, a "gender wars" rivalry between these two. But I don't want her going there if it's bad or wrong for her, and I'm not sure it wouldn't be wrong for her. ... Which leads us back to, "So, as some fans feared, Rachel Alexandra might have 'stolen' our first chance for a Triple Crown since Affirmed in 1978."

If that's the case, it wouldn't be the first time. Most notable is 1968, when Forward Pass had won both the Derby (edit: by DQ) and Preakness. Then: Cue Stage Door Johnny. ... Having not competed in either prior Triple Crown race, he exited stage left with the Belmont trophy, relegating Forward Pass to second place and robbing him of marquee billing among racing's historic leading men.

And then there was Birdstone, sire of Mine That Bird. He did compete in the 2004 Derby, albeit well-beaten by Smarty Jones. Smarty took the Preakness handily while Birdstone rested and prepped for the Belmont. There, as we all recall, a Triple Crown again was denied, with a devastating late kick by a slightly smallish horse -- a stature and running style passed down from sire to son; a son whose shot at the crown was denied Saturday in Baltimore. ... The Racing Gods giveth, and they taketh away.