Sunday, August 30, 2009

Printed Form still holds value

The Daily Racing Form has some questions for its audience, in the form of a survey I completed last week at some prompting from

It was the most interesting survey I've ever answered on the Internet. And, considering I've completed somewhere between a hundred and a hundred million surveys since getting our first dial-up connection at home in 1994, that's saying something.

From the tenor of the questions, two things seemed apparent:

1. The Daily Racing Form is serious about understanding its audience; how they function as readers and online users today and how they might best be served in the future.

2. Somebody's wanting to take an ax to the print edition of the Daily Racing Form, "America's Turf Authority Since 1894."

I could be sounding the alarm a bit too soon -- or too loudly -- about the latter point. But it's clearly on their minds at DRF; whether the printed form is serving enough devoted readers to maintain in its present form or to worry about continued improvements.

That doesn't mean the printed Daily Racing Form is being canceled tomorrow or anytime really soon. But the way the print media has reacted to both changing tastes in information-gathering among the public and to the sour economy -- that is, reacted by slashing newsroom staff and both the format and number of printed pages -- such a reaction is certainly a consideration at the Racing Form's business offices, as well.

The survey also included a lot of questions about whether online users take advantage of DRF's Formulator PPs, and if not, what it might take for them to switch over from PDF downloads of traditional PPs.

But, since I'm on the road and I usually write too lengthy anyway, I'll not get that involved in the survey evaluation in this post.

I'll just go on record as saying that, for me, the printed version of the Form is at least as valuable as any information I purchased, downloaded and printed from online, whether that was at Brisnet, Equibase or It's in a format I like, in no small part because I can roll it up and tuck it under my arm while in line at the wagering kiosk, or the concession stand, or the john; something not as easily done with a thick stack of loose, letter-sized pages printed off my PC.

And, I never throw that Racing Form away. Since my visits to the track are infrequent, it's still a bit of an adventure each time for me and the Form I bought is a souvenir -- just like the bookshelf in my mom's basement full of programs from dozens of Kansas City Royals games attended through the years, with my childish but slowly maturing efforts to keep score of the game scrawled in pencil on the lineup cards.

So, what about this blog's readers? Do you still buy a printed copy of the Daily Racing Form? Or has it outlived its usefulness in an Internet age?

Please respond in the poll at left.

Friday, August 28, 2009

Bad News Friday: Paralysis, setbacks and death

Not to be the anti-Paulick Report, where Fridays are usually for good news, I was struck this morning by the general "downer" that faced me in my daily Blood-Horse e-mail this morning.

-- "Jockey to Have Surgery, Paralysis Feared"
-- "Back Leg Injuries Tied to Synthetic Tracks"
-- "Grade 1-winning Stallion Sunriver Dead"
-- "OBS Sale Ends with 36.6% Decline in Gross"


First things first, best of luck today and my prayers go out to apprentice jockey Michael Straight, who underwent surgery Thursday afternoon in an effort to repair four fractured vertebrae suffered in a Wednesday spill at Chicago's Arlington Park. Straight's twin brother, Matthew, issued a statement on behalf of the family Thursday afternoon saying that an update of his injured brother's condition would be issued this morning.

A family friend has said the prognosis that Michael Straight will ever walk again is "very grim."

The Straight brothers, who are 24, both are graduates of Chris McCarron's North American Racing Academy in Lexington, Ky. Michael won on his first lifetime mount March 6 at Tampa Bay Downs and has won on 39 of 372 mounts this season, a sign of much promise. He'd been riding primarily at Arlington this summer, while his brother was riding at Ellis Park in Henderson, Ky.

The potentially paralyzing spill is the second at Arlington this season. Highly regarded veteran Rene Douglas is still recovering from a paralyzing fall suffered May 23.

My prayers will continue to go out to both injured riders and their families.

Meanwhile, death struck the younger stallion ranks again as Sunriver, Grade 1-winning full brother to champion mare Ashado, suffered an apparently heart attack or aneurysm at the youthful age of 6. Sunriver retired with $816,414 in earnings from six lifetime races, including victories in the Hollywood Turf Cup S.-G1 and Bowling Green H.-G2 on lawn and the Peter Pan S.-G2 on Belmont's main track.

Empire Stud of New York, where Sunriver stood, reports that there should be around 150 foals combined from the stallion's two crops, the weanlings of 2009 and the anticipated foals of next spring.

Sunriver, by Saint Ballado, was a fine racehorse and splendidly bred. His dam, Goulash, was herself a stakes winner and graded-placed, and in addition to the aforementioned Ashado (champion 3-year-old filly of 2004 and champion older mare the following year) had produced a third stakes-winning full sibling in Saint Stephen (Native Diver H.-G3, etc.) and yet another full sibling, Ballado's Halo, was blacktype-placed. The quartet's half-brother, Storm Creek Rising, was also stakes-placed.

Sunriver's death is certainly an untimely loss both of good blood and some stamina influence from New York's stallion ranks.

As for other setbacks, it's hard to put any positive spin on either the news that synthetic tracks might not be a trouble-free improvement over traditional dirt surfaces, or on the plummet of prices at the OBS yearling sale.

I'm unfortunately not surprised that while synthetic tracks might be reducing some traumas among the racing stock, they could be causing others -- specifically, as it turns out, hind leg injuries.

I think that in some circles, hopes have been too high that synthetic tracks were "saving horses." From some problems, yes. But as with many changes in life, there's usually a tradeoff.

Preliminary study results from the California Horse Racing Board and the University of California-Davis show that fatal injuries due to hind leg injuries are significantly higher on synthetic surfaces than on the remaining dirt surfaces in the state. In fact, only one horse out of 65 traditional dirt-surface fatalities was the victim of a hind leg injury. Conversely, of 111 horses to die racing or training on synthetic surfaces -- which were mandated by the state at major tracks, and at major expense -- 19 of the deaths were a result of hind leg injuries.

Those numbers suggest that trainers who were complaining of an increased incidence of hind leg injuries weren't imagining things. And that there's still work to do in figuring out which racing surfaces are the safest and best for our equine athletes, knowing that in a sport where speed and traffic are the order of the day, we can never keep them perfectly safe.

Finally, Ocala was apparently a great place to steal a yearling racehorse prospect this week, and there still weren't enough takers. The four-day sale not only saw a nearly 37 percent decline in gross receipts, but the average price paid for a yearling there fell from $16,160 last year to $11,463 this year.

The buy-back/no-bid rate actually was a bit better, but not significantly so, at 33.4 percent vs. 35.6 percent. I would attribute that tiny improvement to sellers attempting to set attainable reserves amid a desperately sour economy. And still, one in three sellers took the horse back home, unsold.

This probably would be a good year to be a pinhooker looking ahead to 2010, or particularly with this year's weanlings toward the 2011 2-year-old sales, when hopefully the economy will be considerably improved. But without reading the full results from this OBS sale to look for trends among the buyers, it doesn't appear there's anybody stocking-up on young prospects in hopes of cashing in when times aren't so tough.

Thursday, August 27, 2009

History in the making, and the ducking

You win some, you lose some. And apparently when phenomenal filly Rachel Alexandra is declared a probable for a Grade 1 race never before won by a female, you gain one and might lose one among the older male horses that had been pointed toward the race.

Steve Asmussen, trainer of Rachel Alexandra, revealed on Monday that she would bypass the Travers S.-G1 and a third shot at 3-year-old males in favor of facing those boys' elders in the Woodward S.-G1. Both races are at Saratoga. The Woodward has never been won by a filly or mare.

The announcement spurred West Point Thoroughbreds to point its Grade 1-winning 4-year-old colt, Macho Again, toward the Woodward, as well. He had been training at Churchill Downs since a second place finish in the Whitney H.-G1 and initially was to skip the Woodward in favor of a little extra rest before the Oct. 3 Jockey Club Gold Cup-G1 back at Belmont.

That was great news for race fans, some of whom had actually suggested Rachel would be pointed toward a race -- reminder, a race never won by a filly -- as a way of ducking competition. Macho Again would have made the Woodward about as tough a field as Rachel could have been expected to face from this year's handicap division, considering Einstein was already bound for the Pacific Classic at Del Mar to face the best of the West.

But trainer Kiaran McLaughlin might make the opposite choice for his previously Woodward-bound horse.

McLaughlin said he contacted Sheikh Mohammed bin Khalifa al Maktoum, the owner of his 6-year-old Grade 2 winner, Asiatic Boy, about ducking Rachel and crossing the country to race in the Pacific Classic instead of Saratoga's Woodward, to which the horse had previously been pointed.

"I sent an e-mail overseas to talk to the owner and racing officials," McLaughlin told The Blood-Horse, adding that it isn't definite his horse will dodge a meeting with Rachel. The nomination to the Pacific Classic, which is run a day after the Woodward, merely gives Asiatic Boy another option.

"Nobody really wants to face Rachel Alexandra these days," said McLaughlin, which must come as news to the nobodies at West Point, who decided to alter plans and face Rachel rather than lay out of a race that hadn't been on their horse's schedule.

McLaughlin said giving Rachel an eight-pound break -- which she'll receive in the Woodward for being a 3-year-old and a filly -- might just be too much. Calling Rachel "great," a word he says is used too often but is appropriate in her case, McLaughlin flatly said he wanted no part of her. Wherever her principal owner Jess Jackson might send her. Ever.

"She's beat everybody that's gotten in the gate with her this year. Luckily, I haven't gotten in the gate with her and don't look forward to getting in the gate with her with Asiatic Boy," McLaughlin said. "... (S)he's great for the sport, and it's nice that Mr. Jackson chose some of these spots to show how great she is. He said he's hoping to run her next year as a 4-year-old, and that's nice to hear, but I don't look forward to running against her ever, with anything."

That might make perfect sense from a let's-don't-get-our-horse-beat-ever angle. But for McLaughlin to laud Rachel Alexandra as "great for the sport" and applaud Jackson for spotting her against males to prove her worth -- then tell us not to count on him and his horses to be a part of what's "great for the sport" -- leaves me disappointed in a trainer I normally find easy to root for.

I hope the Sheikh and trainer McLaughlin decide to keep Asiatic Boy in the East and face Rachel. If so, good luck to them.

If not, and if Rachel does happen to lose the Woodward, I hope it's Macho Again who proves to have been the man for the job.

Maybe West Point -- which sells and manages racehorse partnerships -- simply sees a Woodward with Rachel as too big a marketing opportunity to miss, win or lose. But winning would be a just reward for seeing history about to be made and choosing to be a part of it by running in, rather than from, the race.

Bummer, no 'Bird' rematch in Travers

It probably isn't the biggest shock, but I was bummed to learn that Mine That Bird will miss the Grade 1 Travers Stakes at Saratoga this weekend as he recovers from recent epiglottis surgery.

It had been expected that the relatively simple procedure wouldn't make him miss the race, but a complication -- so minor as to perhaps not really be a complication at all -- has prompted the Kentucky Derby winner's connections to take a pass on the race as a measure of absolute caution.

I had been looking forward to the Travers as a race laden with talent in which perhaps both 3-year-old classic-winning sons of Birdstone -- Belmont-winner Summer Bird being the other -- would be coming from well off the pace and collecting the leaders in the stretch to make for the finish of the season.

And it's still got the makings of a great race. Quality Road indeed has something to prove, the talented Charitable Man might have more in the tank at the end of 10 furlongs than he did in the Belmont at 12, and Kensei has been the impressive winner of the Dwyer and Jim Dandy in succession.

Mine That Bird instead will be headed to the Goodwood in October at Santa Anita, which should be a good prep race for the Breeders' Cup Classic, at the same track over which that race will be run.

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Virginia's breeding business: Chickens and goose eggs

Virginia might be for lovers, but these days it's hardly for thoroughbred breeders.

That sad state of affairs -- particularly appalling to those who appreciate the Old Dominion's equine history -- is readily discernible in the numbers. I've harped on it before, but it bears at least summarizing again: Since 1991, the oldest records available online from The Jockey Club, Virginia's stallion numbers have declined from 154 resident sires serving 837 mares to a mere 41 stallions covering 123 mares in 2008.

In 1991, Virginia's number of registered thoroughbred foals totaled 747. By 1997, the number of foals registered in Virginia had plummeted to 517, and a decade later had fallen another 22 percent to 401.

It's abundantly clear where the business has gone; it's close by in neighboring states. From 1997 to 2007, West Virginia's foal crop ballooned 237 percent, from a paltry 194 registered foals to 654. Pennsylvania's crop swelled by 38.5 percent, from a solid 898 all the way to 1,244. (In the same period, Maryland, which is in the process of fouling up its own breeding and racing industry, has slipped 32 percent, from 1,186 foals to 837.)

I've recommended trying to spur a Virginia recovery by establishing a slate of stakes events -- a Virginia Stallion Champions Day, as it were -- open only to Virginia-sired horses, regardless of their state of foaling.

My post was in response to a post by Glenn Petty, executive director of the Virginia Thoroughbred Association, on the VTA's blog. Petty mused that perhaps it's time to abolish the Grand Slam of Grass and direct the money that Jeff Jacobs, owner of Colonial Downs, has been spending on that four-race turf series for 3-year-olds on a major turf stakes race for older horses. Petty responded at length to my post right here at the Fugue, and also wrote to me at even greater length via e-mail, sharing not only his personal thoughts but considerable background information and insights on the state of breeding and racing in Virginia.

Petty says the problem has become a chicken-and-egg dilemma: How can Virginia rebuild its stallion industry with such a greatly diminished broodmare band; yet with such a short meeting at Colonial each summer and a comparatively small annual Breeders' Fund of $1 million, how can the incentives for stallion owners be increased without depleting the kitty that rewards the mare owners?

"If you talk to folks like Debbie Easter, Larry Johnson or Donna Hayes who have recently stood stallions in VA, they will tell you there isn't a sufficient mare population to support Virginia stallions. That's the chicken," Petty writes.

"The egg is that our Breeders' Fund is so small and our race meet so short, we can't create enough financial incentives to motivate breeders to breed here or to support local stallions. If we put 50 percent of the Breeders' Fund into stallion awards and a program like the one you advocate, more folks would be motivated to stand a stallion. But how will they fill their books with a declining population of mares, a third of which are owned by commercial breeders looking to KY for big-name stallions?

"That would leave $500,000 for Breeders' Awards to motivate the folks who own the mares. Heck, if we put the whole $1 million in a stallion program, I don't know if it would move the ball."

The good news is, the suggestion I made wouldn't require an extra nickel from the $1 million Breeders' Awards fund.

And to start the ball rolling on rebuilding Virginia's stallion and breeding industry, the key isn't to find some gimmick that moves the ball the whole length of the field in one play. It's to stop the ball's inexorable tumble downhill long enough that we can even start moving it back in a positive direction.

The stallion series idea I floated was spurred by Petty's call for Jacobs to funnel $200,000 to $250,000 away from the Grand Slam of Grass and into the Kitten's Joy Stakes, an open race for older horses, making that race a $250,000 to $300,000 purse. (And, I would presume, likely earning it at least Grade 3 status eventually.)

I say that if Jacobs and Colonial Downs drop the Grand Slam and are willing to toss up to a quarter-million bucks at some other project, it's money better-spent on Virginia horses -- specifically, Virginia-sired horses. Plus, this season, a day's race-card at Colonial carried at least a total purse of $125,000 to $150,000. Put one day's purse money with the hypothetical extra quarter-million from the defunct Grand Slam and you have $400,000 in purse money for an eight-race, all-stakes Virginia Stallion Champions Day without ever touching the $1 million Breeders' Fund.

But what of the mare situation?

Petty is right (how could he miss it?) that the numbers are slim and still on a diet; 401 registered foals of 2007 and reportedly around 350 VA foalings in 2008. And he's most likely correct that at least third of those mares are owned by "commercial" interests who are looking to Kentucky instead of Virginia regardless what kind of quality regional sires the Old Dominion might boast. After all, Edward P. Evans alone keeps a reported 90 mares at his sprawling Spring Hill Farm near Casanova, Va., and owns an interest in several KY-based stallions.

If I'm a Virginia stallion owner -- and I am, just one -- Mr. Evans won't be using my horse's services. But that's O.K.; I don't really need for him to.

With around 123 mares being covered in Virginia in 2008 but around 350 foaling there, some roundabout math suggests that around 225 mares are being covered outside Virginia and are returning home to foal. "Ned" Evans and those with the money to go wherever they wish are probably accounting for about half of those "nomadic" mares.

Job 1 for Virginia is to take back the other half.

I know it doesn't sound like much. It isn't, if you're trying to stand four or five stallions, advertising them heavily, carrying any significant staff on the property and needing to pull in 12 to 20 (or more) mares per stud just to stay in business. But there's pretty much nobody like that in Virginia anymore.

There are some beautiful properties and some dedicated horsemen and horsewomen in Virginia; people working very hard every day to keep the Old Dominion's equine business alive -- Mortgage Hall Farm (where racehorses also are broken and trained), Mid-Atlantic Stallion Station at Ravenwood Plantation (where there are also Arabians and Percherons), Moon Star Farm near Emporia, Griffinsburg Equine (which also runs a transport service), and Hilltop Farm VA, where my stallion and mares reside, among others. But few are trying to make it by standing thoroughbred racing stallions alone.

That's bad news in a way. But it can also be taken on the bright side. It won't require much positive change to be noticed and appreciated, and probably to raise the quality of in-state stallions, which has predictably declined with the mare population.

The average Virginia stallion's book in 2008 was just 2.9 mares. In 1991, when there were 837 mares covered in Virginia, the job was done by 154 stallions -- still an average book of only 5.4 per sire. With just 40 or 50 stallions still in the state, simply reclaiming half of Virginia's small, "nomadic" mare population (around 100 to 125 more VA-covered mares annually) could increase the average Virginia stallion's book to 4.9 or 5.9 mares.

Those figures aren't the dozen or more mares that a farm would like to see as the least any of its stallions serve. But essentially doubling the market almost overnight could hardly be a negative.

Petty noted in an e-mail to me that Virginia-bred and Virginia-sired foals share most of the same racing incentives at Colonial Downs. I'm not sure whether he meant that as a plus, but it's actually a drawback -- if you own a stallion. It allows Virginia mare owners to breed anywhere so long as they foal at home and it provides no real race-earnings incentive either for VA-based mares to stay at home nor for outside mares to use a Virginia stallion and retreat to their own state to foal. Yes, a VA-sired West Virginia-bred can run in a VA-restricted stakes race at Colonial, but so can one of Ned Evans' uber-bluebloods, if he decides to aim so "low."

This year's mixed-gender Jamestown Stakes for 2-year-old VA-breds at Colonial saw as its top three finishers horses sired in Kentucky (first and third) and West Virginia. The 2008 running was a sweep by KY-sired fillies, by Mr. Greeley (presently $75,000 fee), Marquetry and Smoke Glacken. In the inaugural Jamestown of 2007, the winner was by Posse ($20K for 2009 in Kentucky) while the place- and show-horses were by Housebuster (now deceased) and Black Tie Affair (just pensioned) in their Old Dominion swan song seasons of 2004, before relocating to West Virginia.

Petty says the problem is that the competition is just too well-financed.

"Simply put, people make much more money breeding horses in MD, WV or PA than they can make in VA. That's why the mare, stallion and foal numbers have shrunk so dramatically," Petty writes. "Horse racing and breeding used to be a sport, now it's a business, and no sensible business-minded person would participate in a $1 million program when there are two $4 million programs right next door."

Again, Petty's absolutely right -- from a major stud farm standpoint. There's just not enough economic incentive right now to stand a whole slate of stallions on a big stud farm in Virginia. And with a short season at Colonial and a comparatively small Breeders' Fund (which would be augmented considerably if the legislature ever allowed slots in Northern Virginia) there's not a lot that can be done right away for big-ticket businesses and breeders.

So if Virginia's breeding business is ever again going to see the light of day and be even moderately viable -- let's say, half a shadow of what it once was, rather than stuck in total darkness -- then the state will have to start small.

I know the breeder of one of those Kentucky-sired Jamestown Stakes-placed fillies. She owns a smaller farm and I believe she'd like to stay in Virginia more often with her mares, were the stallion options and racing incentives even a little bit more attractive.

Another small Virginia farm with which I'm familiar might have sent two mares to our stallion this year, but was lured away to Kentucky by recession-provoked discounts. Her pair returned with only one of the mares in foal, and toting a stack of transport and vet bills that by themselves would've paid a decent Virginia stallion's stud fee several seasons over. ... A serious financial setback that ranks high among the perils of shipping to Kentucky for a small Virginia breeder, many of whom have decided they have almost no other choice if they want to raise a viable racehorse on their farm at all.

Virginia needs to give these breeders, the mom and pop farms that make up roughly half of the "nomadic" mare population, something for their babies to run at: A Virginia Stallion Champions Day. I think many of them would keep their mares at home, most of the time. And because West Virginia statebred rules are perhaps the most generous in America, I think you might attract a few of that state's mares, too, from owners who realize they can take a shot at the new slate of Virginia stakes races without losing any of their rights to race among restricted company at Charles Town and Mountaineer.

And while I appreciate the Grand Slam of Grass, if Jeff Jacobs decided to take Petty's thought-provoking advice and spike that series (and act generously toward the state's stallion owners), there might be money to start a Virginia Stallion Champions Day without raiding the Breeders' Fund at all.

Coming soon: Glenn Petty has an idea for improving Virginia's stallion offerings, too, and nobody can say he's thinking small.

Monday, August 24, 2009

He's too Macho to turn down a date with Rachel

Despite previous plans that had the horse resting up at Churchill downs for the Jockey Club Gold Cup-G1 in October, West Point Thoroughbreds, the partnership which owns Stephen Foster H.-G1 winner Macho Again, announced via Twitter feed this afternoon that the 4-year-old colt will head for Saratoga to race on Sept. 5 against Rachel Alexandra in the Woodward S.-G1.

With the rest of the field shaping up as detailed below, the Woodward against older males really will be a test of the dominant 3-year-old filly of 2009. Even though this year's handicap division isn't all that spectacular. Even though the race isn't 10 furlongs.

Particularly with Macho Again adding depth to the field, should Rachel make history by becoming the first female ever to win the Woodward, it will be unfair to claim that she didn't earn it.

Hey there, big boy! ... Youthful Rachel Alexandra to strut her stuff against older males in Woodward

The interminable wait for information from the Rachel Alexandra camp  that everyone was squealing about over the weekend has ceased: The brilliant 3-year-old filly will next race on Sept. 5 in the Woodward Stakes against older males.

The G1 Woodward at Saratoga, a 9-furlong event run since 1954, has never been won by a filly or mare.

Connections say the decision was based not only on how well Rachel has been training, but the work of her Stonestreet stablemate, Kensei. The colt who most recently has won the Dwyer and Jim Dandy stakes will run in the Travers against his own age while Rachel steps up for principal owner Jess Jackson to face elders. No reason to run them both in the Travers, where only one can win, and when Rachel could make more history.

"Legacy," said trainer Steve Asmussen when asked about the primary reasoning behind the choice of race. Adding a little shot at Claire Novak, perhaps, Asmussen said, "Jess' sportsmanship ... is quite obvious instead of talking. No filly has won the Woodward. For everything else that she's done, I think it's a showcase or a platform that she's worthy of."

Now, I suppose, let the haters commence -- or, more accurately, continue -- with the talk of how Rachel is ducking Quality Road or even Kensei.

Yeah, what a sissy move. The testicle-dragging donkeys the 3-year-old filly be racing in the Woodward include: 6-year-old Asiatic Boy (UAE Derby-G2, second in the Dubai World Cup to Curlin); This year's Whitney H.-G1 winner Bullsbay, a 5-year-old; 4-year-old past Fountain of Youth-G2 winner Cool Coal Man; 6-year-old millionaire It's a Bird; and last year's surprise Belmont Stakes winner, Da' Tara.

But the field won't include Stephen Foster-G1 winner Macho Again, who is resting up for the Jockey Club Gold Cup-G1 in October.

So, you know, beating the remainder that do start in the Woodward will be almost meaningless.

One brief nugget about the latest Jewel

The Rachel Alexandra-less Alabama Stakes became a rout nonetheless Saturday when Careless Jewel (Tapit-Sweet and Careless, by Hennessy) dusted seven other 3-year-old fillies to win the Grade 1 race by 11 lengths, going away.

It was a fine performance.

It was not a performance worthy of some of the gushing I've heard and seen since, including nitwittery on message boards about how Rachel Alexandra skipped the Alabama to duck Careless Jewel. ... They're serious.

Careless Jewel ran a great race in the Alabama, especially for it being only her fifth lifetime start. She acted up at the gate, had to be checked hard early, sat just off an honest pace set by Be Fair, and then drew off to win by open lengths over Milwaukee Appeal and Casanova Move.

But the margin -- achieved in a year with a very average crop of 3-year-old fillies and in a race run without the division's true star -- might make the win look a little more breathtaking than the time suggests.

Winning time for the 10 furlongs was 2:03.24; decent, but not jaw-dropping. In fact, the time is only the fourth-fastest Alabama in the past 10 renewals (the ill-fated Pine Island, Society Selection in the slop and Flute all were quicker). And it's actually in the lower 50th percentile of Alabama Stakes-winning times over the past two decades; essentially tied for seventh-slowest of the 20, in fact.

Granted, Careless Jewel did more than enough to win, which is what matters most. She ran well despite adversity and has tons of up-side considering this was only her fifth race. It would've been great to see if she'd been able to give Rachel a run for her money in the final eighth, which almost nobody -- colts and geldings included -- has been able to do all year. And at a mile and a quarter, a distance Rachel has yet to run.

Maybe we'll even get to see that someday.

Saturday, August 22, 2009

Jess Jackson: 'Guardian of the Galaxy'

With his usual dose of European horse racing pragmatism, Malcer has weighed in from well on the far side of the pond about the way Jess Jackson is yanking the chain of the American sports media and turf fans, potentially to the detriment of the sport.

Spurred by dueling commentaries from Claire Novak at (who thinks Jackson is displaying a lack of sportsmanship by being so vague about his plans for top filly Rachel Alexandra) and Ed DeRosa (who defends Jackson from Novak on his Big Event Blog), my blogging friend in Germany nails shut the case in favor of Novak right from his headline.

At his blog "The Dresden File," Malcer cautions Mr. Jackson that, "The World Isn't Waiting."

From a global sports perspective, he couldn't be more correct.

Sure, the racing world waits with bated breath to know where Rachel Alexandra is racing next. And "Guardians of the Galaxy" devotees take polls on what's the most interesting upcoming storyline: Adam Warock & the Universal Church of Truth or maybe Rise of the Badoon as a major stellar empire.

Nobody else gives a flying fig.

DeRosa writes from the perspective of a horse racing addict (a monkey that rides both our backs) who knew darned good and well that Rachel Alexandra wasn't running in today's Alabama S.-G1 against fellow 3-year-old fillies at Saratoga. He points to her workout patterns under trainer Steve Asmussen, which indicate she wasn't on the brink of a start.

"John Scheinman of the NYRA press office and trainer Mark Hennig both noticed that," DeRosa writes, "so it's not like deciphering Asmussen's motives required possession of the Rosetta Stone or an advanced degree in reading tea leaves."

No, and I didn't even need that much information to write off the Alabama as her next start. Be it sportsmanship or ego, Jess Jackson's appetite isn't sufficiently fed by watching his filly crush a field of four by 20 lengths, the likely result of an Alabama that included Rachel. (As it is, the Alabama today features eight entries, only one of which is at longer odds than 8/1 in the morning line.) He wants to fry bigger fish, and he wants more of them on the stringer.

I suspect Claire Novak, who has followed racing since childhood and has reported/commented on it for quite some time now, didn't exactly need a lightning bolt from the sky to strike her with the foreknowledge that Rachel wasn't running today, either.

Not so with the rest of the sports media. The non-turf guys and gals. The people with press passes to the Kentucky Derby but who don't know why it's even called "turf writing" when most of the races are on dirt anyway.

For racing to stop being a boutique or niche attraction -- the "Guardians of the Galaxy" of the sports world, only understood and appreciated by the sort of fan who never misses an issue -- the general sports media needs a little spoon-feeding. Jess Jackson is doing that after a fashion, but his evasive, noncommittal statements leave reporters not really knowing what the spoon holds on any given day until it's in their mouths. Could be chicken soup. Could be huitlacoche.

Eventually, only the die-hard turf media are waiting in line every day for another taste. The other sports reporters have scurried off to baseball, hot dogs and apple pie, or at least to NASCAR and a fried bologna burger.

Granted, I knew Rachel Alexandra wouldn't be in today's Alabama Stakes. Ed DeRosa knew it. Claire Novak probably knew it, even without "waiting for the overnight" as she mentions at

So why can't Jess Jackson just flippin' say so, two or three or five days in advance. And he can, but he doesn't want to. We're all just too amusing as playthings.

"It's fun to have the speculation," Jackson told the Albany Times-Union.

Fun for him, sure. Fun for some of us, maybe, though Claire Novak is no longer giggling. And it is not good for racing as a general-consumption sport.

The longer Jackson waits to commit, the shorter time any given facility will have to promote Rachel's upcoming appearance. That is not such a big deal at Saratoga -- potential site of three out of Rachel's four remaining "races under consideration" -- but it would become a huge concern for Philadelphia Park should Team Rachel opt for the $1 million Pennsylvania Derby-G2 on Sept. 7. A good problem to have, I suppose; better than running without Rachel. But you'd like to have some lead-time to prepare for an overflow crowd and to put on the best possible show.

More important, casual race fans and the general sports media -- which is largely bereft of even casual race fans these days -- get bored quickly with Jackson's little game of "no news makes good news."

So I'll spare us all the drama -- Rachel Alexandra isn't running in the Pennsylvania Derby. Hardly likely, anyway, unless Jess Jackson wants to make me in particular look the fool.

Whatever Jess Jackson wants next, it awaits him at the Spa.

If Jackson -- who doesn't need the money but has bellyached about purses anyway -- desires a $1 million pot, it's there for his filly in the Travers S.-G1 against 3-year-old colts and geldings next Saturday, and at a new distance for Rachel; 10 furlongs.

A shot at older fillies and mares? The Personal Ensign-G1 is the very next day and also at Rachel's untested distance of a mile and a quarter, albeit for much less money.

Really wanna prove Rachel's mettle in historic fashion? Run her against the older males in the Woodward S.-G1 at 9 furlongs on Sept. 5. No filly or mare has ever won the race. So what if the $500,000 purse is barely walking around money for a man with $1.8 billion?

I think it's down to the Travers or the Woodward. I'm not sure the Personal Ensign is enough of a test, for either Rachel or her mercurial owner. But body-slamming the 3-year-old colt/gelding division by sweeping the best of three falls would be quite a feat. And emasculating the older male handicap division in the Woodward gives Rachel a piece of racing history even more rare than her victory in the Preakness, which no filly had won since Nellie Morse in 1924.

Maybe strategy somehow plays into this game of hide-and-seek that Jackson is playing. But I don't really see how. Wherever Rachel shows up, she'll have to race whomever else is entered, and she'll still be one of the favorites. And even if Jackson is trying to ensure a better field -- that is, to dupe the Rachel-dodgers into racing his filly against their collective will by being the last to commit -- there's nothing to stop an entire field from scratching-out on race day if their connections really don't want to run against her.

So, DeRosa's valid suggestion that we as fans and media lack patience notwithstanding, once Rachel crushed colts in the Haskell there never really was any good reason for Jackson and Team Rachel to be playing five races against one another as if they're all somehow on equal footing.

Perhaps Jackson is trying to fashion himself as a latter-day Tom Smith. The great Seabiscuit's trainer played games with the clockers and media, even using a look-alike horse named Grog to hide his star horse's true workouts. And the conditioner was notoriously short on information, to the point of being nicknamed "Silent Tom."

Whatever his motivation, it's clearly working to the satisfaction of Jess Jackson, the individual. Not so much, I'm afraid, for a publicity-starved sport that could stand to have the connections of its biggest star in a quarter-century be a little more accommodating with the general sports media and fans.

Because, as "The Dresden File" states, the rest of the sports world just isn't going to sit around and wait for Rachel Alexandra news. They've got better things to do. Like counting sheep.

And we'll have to try and wake them long enough to watch whichever race it is, once Mr. Jackson makes up his mind.