Monday, December 28, 2009

Age, layoffs and Lava Man

It was a predictable outcome -- not the loss by Lava Man in his return to racing a year and a half after we last saw him compete, but the outcry among fans when the horse finished last.

The richest ex-claimer in history -- and one of my favorite horses of all-time -- Lava Man set the pace Sunday in the San Gabriel H.-G2 at Santa Anita, but faded in the stretch and finished last of seven. And fans everywhere from to Facebook are calling for the Slew City Slew gelding to be returned to retirement.

To be sure, it was disappointing to see the former Grade 1 champion overtaken in the stretch of the 9-furlong turf event. Among the downcast were trainer Doug O'Neill and co-owner Jason Wood (along with STD Racing), who indeed are reconsidering whether to keep racing the gelding (soon to be age 9) after groundbreaking stem cell therapy seemed to rejuvenate his ankles.

But let's face facts: The San Gabriel was no small test.

Lava Man had not competed since July 20, 2008, at Del Mar. Simply from a handicapping standpoint, if ever there was a horse who "needed the race," it was Lava Man on Sunday in the San Gabriel.

The race wasn't won by some donkey; it went to Proudinsky, defending champion of the Grade 2 event, who nipped post-time favorite Loup Breton (3/2) by a neck on the wire. And Lava Man was no well-beaten favorite; he went off as the fourth choice of seven (at around 7/1) and despite running out of gas in the closing stages of his first race in more than 17 months, he still finished only some six lengths in arrears.

Wood wonders whether the 9 furlongs might have been too ambitious, and I would say that it was. But both he and O'Neill believe the horse was training so well that he could handle the race. The Blood-Horse reports that Lava Man looked "superb" and "on the muscle" for his comeback. And rider Tyler Baze didn't sound disappointed in the old man's effort at all.

"He just got a little tired," Baze told HRTV. "He feels like a different horse to me, like a new horse. I expect him to run big next time."

That the horse returned with blood on his hind legs -- likely from striking the gate at the start, O'Neill speculates -- indeed fuels fears that something catastrophic could happen to him. And that would be a sad event; a tough way to go out for such a gritty competitor. Yet that's the same risk facing every racehorse, every day, from 2-year-olds to the ancient warriors.

And speaking of which -- ancient warriors, that is -- did anybody who is decrying Lava Man's comeback pay any attention to Calder Race Course on Saturday? There, running on grass in the 12-furlong W.L. McKnight H.-G2, Cloudy's Knight scored a 1 1/4-length victory, capping a 9-year-old season in which he won four of five starts, earned $426,759 and suffered his only defeat by a desperate nose to Man of Iron in the Breeders' Cup Marathon.

"He's taken us from race to race," said trainer Jonathan Sheppard of his charge, Cloudy's Knight. "That will be it for him for awhile as we've already decided to skip Gulfstream.

"You can't dance all the dances, although he wasn't even blowing when he came back today. We hope to bring him back by the spring or summer."

Bring him back at age 10, that is.

Turning 9 on Friday and with a 17-month layoff from which to recover, Lava Man, too, can't be expected to "dance all the dances." And sometimes it's going to be obvious that he's lost a step.

But it isn't even giving the old fella a chance to call for retirement because he didn't hit the board in his first race in forever.

I suspect Lava Man will remain in training, at least so O'Neill, Wood and the other owners can evaluate whether he can improve from his effort in the San Gabriel.

I think there's every reason to believe that he can. And if all Lava Man manages at age 9 is to be "another Cloudy's Knight," I'd say that would be plenty.

Saturday, December 26, 2009

Thoughts on pedigree: Recency trumps 'ancient' history

A discussion in which I arrived late over at a Yahoo group I frequent -- that is, tb_breeding_theory -- finally piqued my interest this holiday weekend.

What is our obsession -- and by "our," I mean some pedigree enthusiasts -- with far-distant relatives in a horse's lineage?

My thoughts are prompted by a discussion about Nasrullah, which broadened to include other sires, including Hermit, and their influences on the breed, particularly negative traits including the perpetuation of bleeders, "roarers" (a breathing malady) and general unsoundness.

I find "deep-pedigree" research to be intriguing. In fact, I am pleased to know that my mare, Bushes Victory, is from the female line that produced both Seabiscuit and Equipoise. (All descend from British-born reine de course Ballantrae, born 1899.) But though that knowledge is quite interesting to me, it's virtually insignificant in determining whether "Tory" will produce good runners herself, no matter to whom she is mated.

To put it more directly, in my opinion the biggest factor in producing a successful racehorse is to ask of the lines being crossed, "What have you done for racing lately?"

An unraced mare from a family of modest to poor siblings, coupled with a marginal sire, is likely to produce a marginal racehorse, at best. It matters not that the foal is a great-great-grandson of Storm Cat out of a granddaughter of Mr. Prospector, or that he carries eight lines to a prepotent sire like Princequillo.

I suppose it's the same philosophy as the well-known husbandry adage: "Breed the best to the best and hope for the best."

In the Yahoo-group discussion, British turf journalist and author Tony Morris took up for Hermit, who another member noted had been criticized by author Richard Ulbrich as a "provable source of vascular weakness in the modern TB."

"Hermit was champion sire seven times," Morris wrote. "I don't think that would have happened if he habitually passed on his bleeding problem. I don't dispute the idea that the problem has been noted in some of his descendants, but I have to believe that Hermit is in every pedigree, generally many times over. It's not worth thinking about now."

And, almost unequivocally, I agree.

Certainly the traits of any living example are the product of his ancestors. But trying to attribute a specific flaw in today's horse to a stallion born 145 years ago is like playing pin-the-tail-on-the-donkey, in the dark, in the Louisiana Superdome.

Granted, the more lines to a certain ancestor that a modern-day descendant carries, the more likely it is that the current animal's identifiable traits, good or bad, can be attributed to the heavily represented ancestor who displayed the same. But each additional line contributes to that likelihood in tiny increments. And it would be foolish to consider oneself certain in pinning a 21st century flaw on a 19th century sire, particularly when it's so much easier and far more direct to just look at the horse's most recent ancestors.

As I wrote in my concurrence with Mr. Morris -- a supporting statement with which I suspect he's wholly unimpressed: "If the sire, dam and their sires and dams were not notorious bleeders, or roarers, or unsound, then it's likely the foal will not be, either, regardless how many lines of Hermit (or whatever other ancestor) that foal might be carrying. And if he is a bleeder, roarer or unsound, you could blame the flaw on anything or nothing with equal accuracy."

Indeed it is interesting -- and some experts are paid quite well -- to dig deep into pedigrees, touting mares as being from the female family of La Troienne, or carrying X-number of crosses to Hyperion. But the further-off that blood becomes, the less likely it is to bear any real significance on the prospective foal.

I do believe in the process of inbreeding as a means of enriching for qualities the breeder wants to see in a foal. (Be careful, for inbreeding also enriches for the negative traits that ancestor might have possessed.) But if that inbreeding doesn't take place in the first four, or five -- at most six or seven generations, and in that case heavily, perhaps with a half-dozen or more crosses -- I believe that the influence of that repeated ancestor on the current foal is more wishful thinking than reliable husbandry.

Saturday, December 19, 2009

A Facebook presence for my stallion

As another of the suckers who have been drawn in to Facebook, I took a second step into the quicksand of that social networking site on Saturday night.

The 18-year-old, Virginia-bred son of Silver Ghost won five of 19 lifetime starts for $351,905. Included in that record were three stakes scores: The Baldwin Stakes at 6 furlongs on the downhill turf course at Santa Anita; the Bold Reason Handicap at a mile and a sixteenth on the lawn at Hollywood Park; and his signature score, the Grade 2 Swaps Stakes going 10 furlongs on the main track at Hollywood.

Those performances -- and near-misses by a half-length and a head in the California Derby-G3 on dirt and the Will Rogers H.-G3 on turf -- led The Blood-Horse to label him "the most versatile 3-year-old of his crop."

Until relocating to Virginia in 2009, Silver Music stood his entire stallion career at Pinebourne Farm in New York. While he has sired no stakes winners, he has stakes-placers who have reflected some of their sire's versatility, collecting black type both sprinting and routing, on dirt and on grass.

Silver Music stands for a fee of $1,500 LFG, with 50 percent discounts for mares foaling in Virginia.

The Facebook page so far has attracted a few fans, who have enjoyed some photos of Silver and -- thanks to embedding a YouTube post -- the full video of his impressive, 106-Beyer win in the Swaps. I'll hopefully soon be adding his lifetime past-performances. And, as I get the chance to visit him at Hilltop Farm in Gordonsville, Va., in the coming weeks, some more recent photos will also appear on the page.

So if you're a Facebooker, stop by for a visit.

Thursday, December 17, 2009

Laurel home to slots? Why the heck not?

A few days after my first-ever visit to Laurel Park Saturday, the Blood-Horse reports that the Maryland Jockey Club believes that the racetrack is "well-positioned" to be a site for alternative gaming in the form of slot machines.

From what I've seen, I certainly agree.

Saturday at Laurel dawned chilly, but clear and -- in the sunshine on the apron, particularly -- quite pleasant despite highs of only around 40 degrees.

And not very many people attended.

I'm having a hard time confirming what the attendance really was. Which is a shame, because if I'd known that I would want to report the number and would not be able to readily find it, I'd have just walked around between races and counted everybody.

Where I'm going with this is, a facility with gambling already taking place on-site -- a race track -- also happens to be, on an average winter Saturday, quite sparsely patronized. That suggests there's plenty of usable space on the property and in the grandstand area that could be converted to alternate gaming. And more than enough parking in the lot to accommodate slot-players.

It certainly makes as much sense (or more) to locate slot machines at Laurel than it does to develop a new, freestanding slot parlor in the Arundel Mills Mall area, which is presently the leading plan. Laurel management on Wednesday was set to detail about 20 permit approvals received in the past few years -- ranging from environmental studies, to road-widening plans, to a master sketch submitted the county -- that help illustrate Laurel's readiness to move forward.

The Anne Arundel County Council is expected to vote Dec. 21 on rezoning that would facilitate the Arundel Mills Mall location planned by the Cordish Companies.

The slots issue in Maryland is already mismanaged and behind schedule. Management of Ocean Downs, a harness track on Maryland's Eastern Shore, recently conceded that construction issues won't permit its slots parlor to open in late May next year as expected. And a contract for another proposed site in Maryland's western mountains only garnered one bid, and that bid was disqualified.

Advocates say the Maryland horse racing industry could receive up to $100 million a year once the state finally gets all five of its planned gaming locations under operation. The slots don't have to be located at tracks to benefit horsemen. And there is some disagreement over whether the Arundel Mills location might eventually prove to generate more revenues.

But if Maryland is wanting to get those one-armed bandits in action quickly,

Saturday, December 12, 2009

First track on the 'unexpected vacation' circuit

Just a post before I go, to whom it may concern.

Traveling today to Laurel Park, winning wagers to be earned.

(The above introduction, apologies to Crosby, Stills & Nash, must be attributable to falling asleep with on continuous-loop.)

Since my surprise departure from an employer of 11 years the Thursday before Thanksgiving, I decided that the unexpected vacation was the perfect time to actually get out to the races. I'm working up plans for a trip to Hialeah and Gulfstream in January or early February, but the circuit begins this morning with Maryland's Laurel Park Racecourse.

The weather forecast is probably decent for December near D.C.; no precipitation is predicted. But with a projected 12:35 post-time temperature of 40, Florida is already sounding a lot better.

Nevertheless, I'll get a chance today both to see Laurel, watch racehorses in action (which, like Pete Rose on playing baseball, I might walk through Hell in a gasoline suit to do) and hopefully cash a couple of winning tickets, but I'll also have the chance to hang out again with a friend from an online horse racing discussion group who once traveled to Gordonsville, Va., to meet me and my horses.

Thanks for the invite, Rob. And for the worthy diversion from worldly worries.

Friday, December 11, 2009

Hang in there, Kip; Christmas is coming

In a season of my own discontent, I woke up Friday to some difficult news.

One of my favorite racehorses, Kip Deville, is in critical condition. The odds of survival are stacked against him.

The winner of the 2007 Breeders' Cup Mile is suffering from a seemingly routine case of colic that preceded a bout of laminitis, from which he might not recover.

Kip won my heart as a 3-year-old when he bolted to the lead -- and I do mean "lead" -- in the Colonial Turf Cup. The gray colt was utterly unable to rate at that stage of his career, and led by some 20 lengths on the back stretch. He should've been used up and beaten by the entire field by the finish line, but Kip, as he always did, remained game. Only the splendid Barclay Tagg trainee Showing Up finally passed him (by about 3 1/4 lengths), and Kip on that day settled for second.

It aided Kip's popularity with me that he was an Okie-bred. As a Kansan with some family roots in Oklahoma, I know full-well that it isn't often a horse born in those states really makes an appearance on the national stage. (Kansas can, at least, lay claim to one Kentucky Derby winner: Lawrin, 1938.)

So I looked forward to each of Kip's races. Not long after his Colonial Turf Cup display, he was purchased by IEAH Stables, who campaigned him with expectations equal to a Kentucky blueblood. And he delivered, winning four Grade 1 races from ages 4 to 6: The Frank E. Kilroe Handicap and Breeders' Cup Mile in 2007; the Maker's Mark Mile in 2008; and the Gulfstream Park Turf Handicap early this year.

In his last race, the Fourstardave Handicap at Saratoga in August, Kip faded badly to finish eighth of nine. Maybe that was an early sign of fatal things to come.

But while Kip's health waxes and wanes, and as this holiday season progresses, I'm going to keep hoping for a Christmas miracle.

Friday, December 4, 2009

Belated call to help backstretch kids at Christmas

Notified of this fine holiday charitable effort more than a month ago, I've been remiss in not giving a plug before now to the Belmont Child Care Association's annual Anna House Holiday Event.

Scheduled for Dec. 12, the day provides some 400 children of backstretch workers with the opportunity to select gifts for their family members. And one for themselves.

A flier for the event -- done as a takeoff of the ubiquitous Mastercard commercials -- lists the financial breakdown of the operation as such:

-- Presents: $7,269.
-- Wrapping paper: $317.
-- Ribbon: $168.

But being one of the people responsible for bringing a smile to a child's face on Christmas morning indeed is priceless.

Though the event is now only eight days away, I'm sure the Belmont Child Care Association would still be pleased to have your donation.

Mail checks to:
The Belmont Child Care Association
Belmont Park -- Gate 6
2150 Hempstead Turnpike
Elmont, NY, 11003

Phone: (516) 488-2103

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Hialeah, here I come

There's something to be said for losing one's job.

It really frees up the social calendar.

That thought hit me the other day as I was contemplating what to do after departing unexpectedly, and unexplained, from my position at the North Carolina newspaper where I'd worked for nearly 11 years to the day. But what to do with my time?

Ah, Hialeah.

Historic Hialeah Park and Race Course reopened for Quarter Horse racing on Nov. 28 after some eight years on the shelf. Its last thoroughbred race was run in 2001.

So, sometime between now and the close of this "resurrection meeting" on Feb. 2, I shall venture to South Florida and stand trackside at a true American racing treasure. I won't be able to see any races run over more than a few hundred yards. But I can check out the distinctive architecture, the infield flamingos, the statue of Citation and learn a little bit about handicapping Quarters.

I haven't picked a date yet, though the quick trip won't take place between Christmas and New Year's. So the month of January or closing weekend, Feb. 1 and 2, are most likely. ... And I might as well hit Gulfstream Park while I'm in the area. Racing there resumes Jan. 3.