Saturday, July 31, 2010

And 'Lime' makes nine

My juvenile sales class of 2010 scored its ninth maiden-breaking win when Lime Key overcame a slow start to be hustled forward, surge into the lead in the stretch and hold off a rallying Report Card Time by a neck to win a $40,000 maiden-claimer Saturday at Woodbine.

Sent off as the even-money favorite, Lime Key (Gibson County-Darn That Girl, by Darn That Alarm) scored in his second career outing for owner Colin P. Mouttet. He covered five furlongs over the all-weather track in 59.28 and was trained for the win by Gregory de Gannes.

The gelding was foaled in Florida, bred by Third Street Stable & McKathan Bros. He was a $17,000 RNA at the Ocala Breeders' Sales Co. April auction of 2-year-olds in training.

I recommended the horse off a blazing 9 4/5 eighth at the under-tack show, despite a page where the "first three dams (are) utterly devoid of blacktype."

I saw reasons to like the horse beyond the obvious speed, and in spite of the light look of his page. For example, his second dam and some others in the family have started more than 40 times apiece, and earned their keep despite not appearing on the page in dark type.

"This is the first foal from his dam and she won at 2 and 3 for $96,508," I wrote. "... Not a brilliant family, but a professional Florida family. This colt might be early enough to do some good work at 2 and 3, yet -- if we're lucky -- sound enough to run on as his second dam and some others have done."

Lime Key certainly checked in early at the winner's circle, victorious in his second lifetime race and earning $18,439 from Saturday's score, more than was bid for him at the sale. He's earned $20,449 from two starts. We'll see if he can hang around and keep winning like some of his predecessors.

Through today's action, of my 187 sales tips, 45 have started by the end of July (23.9 percent), making 75 starts, with nine winners and 29 total in-the-money finishes, for $296,825 (that's $3,958 per start).

Click here to track the accomplishments of my Class of 2010, and the handful of horses I thought were too expensive or otherwise warned against. None of those "pans" have raced, but all might come on yet to make me look the fool.

Still waiting for a super horse?

A discussion on a Yahoo forum I frequent -- dubbed tb_breeding_theory -- prompted some thinking on my part.

It was suggested by one person that the breeding and racing industry goes through a roughly 30-year cycle in which we keep producing equally well-bred horses, but none of them reaches "super horse" status.

I asked myself (and others), do we really go through a 30-year cycle between "super horses?"

And I decided that I don't think so, but it might depend on how we define "super horse."

It seems to me the drought is really in Triple Crown winners. But certainly that can't be the only measure of a "super horse." I'd say Spectacular Bid was one (26-for-30 lifetime), and he lost the Triple Crown.

I'm sure nobody needs this history lesson, but the American Triple Crown was won three times in the 1970s -- Secretariat in '73, Seattle Slew in '77, and Affirmed in '78). All are undeniably "super horses" who rarely lost, and certainly took down America's most notable title; "Triple Crown winner."

The Bid had his shot in 1979.

So by that measure, we'd be looking at -- about nowadays, really -- for the next "super horse" to arrive. If we're on a 30-year cycle.

But what has racing seen since? Were there no "super horses" in the interim?

Just looking at Kentucky Derby winners, we see these examples (dated by their Derby wins):

1985 -- Spend a Buck: Surely almost nobody would consider this colt by a relatively unheralded son of Buckpasser (Buckaroo) to be a "super horse." But then again, why not? He was 10-for-15 lifetime and never finished worse than third, earning more than $4.2 million. He was a Grade 1 winner at 2 and 3, and very well might have backed up his Derby win with victory in the Preakness had his connections not skipped Pimlico for Garden State Park and the Jersey Derby, where a $2 million bonus had been established for any horse who could win two earlier stakes races there (the Cherry Hill Mile April 6 and the Garden State Stakes April 20), plus the Kentucky and Jersey derbies. ... Spend a Buck followed the money. ... Champion 3-year-old colt and Horse of the Year, Spend a Buck's connections possibly kept him from going down in history as a "super horse" by choosing the $2 million bonus over winning the Preakness (a Churchill-Pimlico double many horses have made) and then at least trying the Belmont, where I'm not sure he would have beaten Creme Fraiche (the only gelding ever to win the race), but finishing second or third would've preserved his 100 percent OTB record lifetime.

1987 -- Alysheba: Maybe going 11-8-2 for 26 starts isn't a high enough win percentage to qualify for "super horse." But he was a G1 winner 10 times, took the Derby and Preakness at 3, the Breeders' Cup Classic at 4, earned $6.6 million, and was a champion three times; 3-year-old colt, older horse and Horse of the Year.

1989 -- Sunday Silence: A lock for "super horse" status had he not lost to Easy Goer in the Belmont Stakes, this near-black son of Halo won nine of 14 (six G1s), never finished worse than second, and went on to sire the richest lifetime foal crop in world history.

That would seem to get us through the 1980s with at least several near-misses for "super horse" status.

The Derby winners were a relative dearth of super-horse candidates for several years after Sunday Silence -- Unbridled, Strike the Gold, Lil E. Tee, Sea Hero, Go For Gin, Thunder Gulch, Grindstone. But even among those (who were still undeniably pretty good racehorses) emerged two major U.S. sires in Unbridled and Thunder Gulch.

Then in 1997 we saw the beginning of a run on near-Triple Crowns, that began with Silver Charm (12-for-24 lifetime, beaten three-quarters by Touch Gold in the Belmont to lose the Triple Crown). It would be hard to argue a 6-for-20 horse is a "super horse," but had Real Quiet been a nose quicker than Victory Gallop at Belmont, he'd have been a Triple Crown winner the next year and the drought would have been broken 12 years ago. Charismatic nearly did it just one year later, finishing third despite a broken leg. War Emblem, Funny Cide and Smarty Jones gave us another three-year stretch from 2002-2004 where the first two legs were won and the Triple lost at Belmont; War Emblem stumbled at the start of his legend-defining race, Funny Cide was a credible third and Smarty Jones crushed everybody in his Belmont Stakes -- except Birdstone, who ran him down and won by about a length.

So that's six near-triples from 1997-2004. Had any of them broken through we'd be talking about half or less the Triple Crown drought we're presently suffering. And at least a couple of those horses (Silver Charm, definitely Smarty Jones) would be serious arguments for "super horse" status had they won a Belmont Stakes (and thus Triple Crown) they narrowly lost.

(Big Brown was our latest TC shot, but threw a stinker in the Belmont.)

I think Barbaro was a super horse, but regrettably we can't fully label him such. We'll never know how and why he went wrong in the Preakness, but had he run it the way he did the Derby, maybe not even a razor-sharp Bernardini would have been beating him that day. And how many rivals even would have shown up at Belmont three weeks later?

None of this takes into account horses like John Henry (39-for-86, 16 G1s, seven times champion, raced 1977-84), Cigar (19-for-33, 16 straight at one point), Zenyatta (17-for-17), Curlin (11-for-16, five G1s, $10.5 million), and Rachel Alexandra (13-for-18, three historic G1 wins vs. males), nor anyone overseas, most recently and notably Sea The Stars, who might have been the first English Triple Crown winner since Nijinsky (1970) had his connections not considered the accomplishment so unimportant as to not even try the St. Leger at 14 furlongs.

So I'd argue we've not suffered a dearth of "super horses" since the last U.S. Triple Crown was won in 1978. We've just had a lack of that one horse who could be a length (or sometimes less) faster on one day of his life (or be handled differently by his connections) to break the Triple Crown drought -- and thus to take our minds off the question, "How long has it been since we saw the last 'super horse?'"

Friday, July 30, 2010

Maiden-breaker No. 8, or 'numero ocho,' as it were

I've been a bit slow to blog this one, as I've hoped for the final chart to reach my inbox to get her official earnings updated. But since charts from Hip├│dromo Camarero in Puerto Rico are apparently imported to Equibase by carrier pigeon, I'm gonna go ahead and name-drop her now and update the statistics later.

Hold Still (Include-Zitlaly, by Emancipator) broke through to the winner's circle in her second start, eclipsing seven other rivals in a maiden special weight at Camarero on Wednesday. She became my eighth 2010 sales tip to break maiden, paid $6.10 to win, and covered 6 furlongs in 1:14.21, according to the finish-line photo Camarero posts on its Web site.

(Now the chart is in; she earned $5,700 for the win.)

Finishing fourth by a nose in that photo is the 2, Concertos Pride, another sales recommendation of mine from the same auction, OBS April. She was second against winners in her first out, and since has mysteriously failed twice against maidens.

Hold Still was an $18,000 purchase as Hip 696 at OBSAPR. (Concertos Pride sold for just $5,000.) In recommending her, I noted that while her 10.3 breeze was "only fair" (by that sale's standards), her female family wins. Her dam raced 46 times, winning six and placing in another 15, including stakes races among IL-breds at Fairmount and Hawthorne. Her winning second dam produced three foals that had raced as of the catalog, all were winners, and two earned black type, including LA JOYERIA ($199,981). (A fourth now has started without placing.) And her third dam, Rapid Raja, was stakes-placed and a half-sister to NATIVE RAJA (Cowdin S.-G2) and Naroctive (24 wins).

Pretty good bet to find a racehorse in this filly, even though she was banished to Puerto Rico and didn't exactly break maiden in "racehorse time."

But she's a winner, which a lot of them never are. And you could spend more and get less.

Track the performance of all 187 of my sales picks (and a few pans) in the list at the bottom of this past post.

Sunday, July 25, 2010

Daily Double: Pair of sales tips break maiden Saturday

With a debut victory at Suffolk Downs and a third-out score at Calder, two more of my 2010 juvenile sales picks are now victors at the track.

Heir's the Storm overcame bobbling at the break and fighting jockey Tammi Piermarini to gut-out victory by a head in her debut at the maiden special weight level, taking Race 3 at Suffolk Downs Saturday. Her win came 28 minutes after Sylvia's Tempo finally put it all together in her third start to take down a maiden special field over a sloppy strip at Calder Race Course. The fillies become the sixth and seventh of my 187 juvenile sale selections to break maiden, and the first pair to do it on the same day.

Heir's the Storm is one of many 2010 recommendations by stellar sophomore sire Wildcat Heir, who stands at Journeyman Stud in Florida. The stallion is simply getting winners, and getting them early, and I was confident that Martin Scafidi had nabbed a bargain when he got this one out of the Storm Creek mare Vany's Storm at OBSFEB for $20,000. Her page isn't heavy on first-generation black type and her 10.3 eighth wasn't blazing, but in recommending her I noted that she has two half-siblings who were winners at 2, one of whom did go on to be stakes-placed. Second dam Vany (Lord Vancouver) was a stakes winner and also produced MISS RUNNING VANY, LATE EXPECTATIONS, and Vany's Sword, all of whom were juvenile winners.

"I think there's every reason to believe this filly can be a useful racehorse, and soon," I wrote. Purchased in February and raced in July may or may not qualify as "soon," but she did manage to be a first-out winner.

Heir's the Storm was bred in Florida by Rick McDonald and Dierdre Wulff. The bay filly runs for owners C. and M. Scafidi, J. Masterson and Crescent Moon Stable. She was trained for her maiden win by Michael Collins, and covered five furlongs over a fast Suffolk track in :59.75.

The winner's share of the purse was $9,730.

Finding the winner's circle earlier in the day, far down the coast at Calder in Florida, was one of the more interesting recommendations I made from this year's juvenile sales.

Sylvia's Tempo (Posse-Clarksburg Queen, by Sea of Secrets) was bred by Vicki L. Macy -- in Wyoming. She was a $49,000 RNA at the OBSAPR sale, and is now at the track under the ownership of Edward and Sylvia Taylor. Michael Yates trained her for today's win, in which she slogged five furlongs through the slop in 1:01.23, to win by a half-length.

In recommending her for purchase, I pondered "why the racing gods dictated that she be foaled in Wyoming." But she "absolutely blew through a quarter in 21.1." She's the first foal from a Belmont Park stakes-placed dam (who earned $152,966), who was half to a stakes-placer of $173K; her third dam was a full sister to a G3-placed Secretariat mare. I honestly thought she'd be cheap, probably selling for less than the $49,000 that was bid, and then she didn't sell at all.

Her first two efforts were learning experiences, as she moved up from being unplaced in her first try to collecting third in her second race. On Saturday under Josue Arce, Sylvia's Tempo flashed considerable early speed (22.36/46.85 in off-going) but was tiring in deep stretch after leading by daylight, and just outlasted a 44/1 shot in Evil Queen.

Sylvia's Tempo has now earned $20,790 from three starts.

Another of my 2010 sales picks, debuting Sweet Lizzie (Omega Code-Windjammin Lady, by Helmsman), missed the break, was rushed up by rider Raymundo Fuentes to challenge Sylvia's Tempo, then cashed it in early. She was also catalogued for OBSAPR, but was withdrawn from the sale after I made my recommendations.

In all, eight of my 2010 juvenile picks ran on Saturday, but the winners were the only two hitting the board.

Through Saturday's action, 41 of my 187 sales selections have made it to the starting gate (that's 21.9 percent), for a total of 66 starts, seven wins, nine places and nine shows. They've earned a combined $262,839, led by Stopspendingmaria's $57,500. She was Grade 3 placed on Friday, finishing second in the Schuylerville Stakes at Saratoga.

Follow the performance of all 187 juvenile sales picks (and a few pans) in the list at the end of this prior post.

Saturday, July 24, 2010

'Maria' scores first black type for my class of 2010

Fresh off a maiden score by open lengths at Belmont, Stopspendingmaria led for much of a sloppy, bumpy race, then held on for second in the Schuylerville S.-G3 on opening day Friday at Saratoga.

It is the first catalog-page black type scored by any of the 187 juveniles I recommended from the juvenile sales of 2010.

Le Mi Geaux closed into a sharp pace to win a contest in which none of the six starters had a clean trip, mud notwithstanding. Sent off at 9/1, Le Mi Geaux's running line reads "broke out, bumped, 3-4 wide," yet she managed to emerge victorious under Frederic Lenclud and pocket $60,000 of the race's $100,000 purse for owner Lansdon B. Robbins III and trainer Richard Dutrow Jr.

Stopspendingmaria and rider John Velazquez, the very narrow favorites at 2.05/1, were jostled on the back stretch and, despite the off-going, still set opening fractions of 21.81 for the quarter and 45.87 for a half. The field staggered home in the slop, with the victor's final time being 1:13.67. Le Mi Geaux won by a length and a half.

Third-favored Show Me the Bling (2.55/1) collected the show money, 2 3/4 lengths behind Stopspendingmaria, and Let's Get Fiscal (2.15/1) was fourth by another 6 1/2 after both pressured Stopspendingmaria on the pace. Every horse in the field, which included other also-rans Dos Lunas and Spa Sunrise, was "bumped," "jostled," "off slow," "ducked in" at the start or was hung out wide on the turn, most of them suffering more than one such fate.

Though she didn't win, Stopspendingmaria exacted a measure of revenge on Show Me the Bling, who was the victor when both met in their career debuts earlier this summer at Monmouth. Stopspendingmaria was third on that day.

A 2-year-old filly by Montbrook out of the Notebook mare Cutoffs, Stopspendingmaria was a $90,000 purchase at the Ocala Breeders' Sales Co. February auction of 2-year-olds in training. She runs in the colors of Repole Stable for trainer Todd Pletcher. She now has a win, a place and a show in three lifetime efforts, for $57,500 in earnings.

She is the product of a wise mating by Ocala Stud of Florida and J. Michael O'Farrell Jr. Stopspendingmaria's dam was a full sister to stakes winner SPECIAL REPORT, and those two have three blacktype half-siblings by Montbrook. Sent to Montbrook twice herself, the solid race mare Cutoffs ($166K non-blacktype) has produced a multiple winner in More Drama (2-for-14, placed nine other times, for $60,480) and now a Grade 3-placed filly.

You can follow the performance of all my 2010 juvenile-sale picks and pans in the comprehensive list at the bottom of this past post.

Friday, July 23, 2010

'P Val' back in Cali: Good luck with that

If Patrick Valenzuela's career were a cat's life, it would already be roadkill.

But in a closed session on Thursday, the California Horse Racing Board voted to reinstate Valenzuela's riding privileges, under strict guidelines intended to assure he remains clean and sober.

I truly wish everyone luck with that. But don't count me among the optimistic.

It could be argued that few American jockeys of the past 50 years have rivaled Valenzuela's natural talent. Perhaps none can match his knack for getting into trouble.

"P Val" is the son of a race-rider and also had three uncles who were jockeys. So he was born to ride. He collected his first career winner on Nov. 10, 1978, at Sunland Park in New Mexico. In 1980, at age 17, became the youngest jockey ever to win the storied Santa Anita Derby, aboard Codex. He nearly wore the Triple Crown in 1989, but had it snatched away when Easy Goer defeated Sunday Silence in the Belmont Stakes. And, Valenzuela has won seven Breeders' Cup races.

But, so very often, fortune comes coupled with temptation. Valenzuela's well-documented substance abuse problems have contributed to a record that shows eight suspensions during the 1990s, a 22-month ban beginning in the year 2000, another slap on the wrist in 2004, and suspension of various conditional California licenses in 2006 (once) and 2007 (twice). His California license was allegedly revoked for good in 2008 after a drunk-driving arrest.

Since then, Valenzuela has been riding clean for two years in New Mexico and Louisiana, where he picked up his 4,000th winner. Steward Roy Wood says Valenzuela has matured in recent year. Heaven help me, it's about time, at age 47.

But there are two compelling reasons why the CHRB would have been justified in sticking with their 2008 decision and washing their hands of P Val once and for all.

First, racing is a dangerous game. While there are systems in place to stop riders from mounting up and endangering their life, their horse's life, and others when they're under the influence (witness Kent Desormeaux recently at Woodbine), it would have been fair of the CHRB to state that Valenzuela, with his 20-year track record of insobriety, is simply too much of a risk.

Second, presenting a quality product for fans -- and an honest race for bettors -- requires people of trustworthy character. Valenzuela has repeatedly abused the trust of racing officials, horsemen, horseplayers and fans for two decades.

I'm all for giving people second chances. And I wish I could be optimistic. Maybe, at 47 years of age, P Val can put in a couple of decent, clean years in Cali and then announce a dignified retirement.

But Patrick Valenzuela has never had a second chance he didn't eventually squander. And I'm not sure how the CHRB or anyone else can be confident that the umpteenth time's the charm.

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

A new blog that shouldn't be kept 'Confidential'

There's a great new addition to the turf blogosphere, and just in time for the Spa.

Liz O'Connell, a Hudson Valley farm manager and "foal nanny," has launched "Thoroughbred Confidential," which promptly earns a place among the Railbirds Row in the left column of this page. She scores big not only with today's heartwarming, hope-affirming tale of a tough filly who has already beaten the odds, but with a first-post that could be useful to anyone who is both spending considerable time at Saratoga this season, and is tech-dependent enough to want connectivity wherever they go. Liz lists all the known locations for WiFi service in and around Saratoga.

Liz was published in June in "The Rail" section of the New York Times online -- her story of a thoroughbred's birth and early development, "The Promise of a Foal." And she can be found on Twitter, where she's known as @nythoroughbred.

I'm pleased to be the first official follower of Liz O'Connell's "Thoroughbred Confidential," but I do have one piece of advice.

Dash over to SiteMeter.com and sign up for a free counter on your page, Liz. Once the equine- and turf-addicted readers of the Web world figure out where you are and what great stories you have to tell, you're gonna want to keep track of all that traffic.

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Paddy's people know how to party

Paddy O'Prado first earned my respect by gutting out a third-place finish over a sloppy main track at Churchill Downs in America's biggest race. He made me a true believer when he surged to victory in the Colonial Turf Cup.

His connections have made me a fan.

The horse's talent aside, there's nothing quite like meeting his people; the principals of Donegal Racing, their families, and particularly managing partner Jerry Crawford.

Crawford has made a few headlines on his own lately, apart from frequently being asked to comment on what is now a Grade 2-winning horse and arguably the best turf 3-year-old in the country. Just last week, he was elected to the Breeders' Cup Board of Directors, after already earning a place with the organization as one of its larger cadre of trustees. He's a good alumnus and bit of a philanthropist, as well, donating his share of Paddy's $200,000 Derby earnings to his alma mater, Minnesota's Macalester College.

Apart from the racetrack, Crawford is the managing owner of the Iowa Energy, an NBA Development League team in Des Moines, and practices law with the firm of Crawford & Quilty. But in 2008, he founded Donegal Racing -- named for the county in Ireland from whence his ancestors stem -- and the group reportedly set out to spend some $500,000 in search of a Derby horse.

Unlike some Derby dreams that are never realized, Donegal quickly found its first classic contender in the form of a gray or roan colt by one of my favorite (late) sires, El Prado. Dale Romans, the colt's trainer to this day, signed the ticket for the $105,000, Gainesway-consigned yearling at Keeneland September 2008. That price is fairly attractive in a world where some buyers spend millions for unbroken yearlings that never pan out. It's looking a little bit like theft now that Paddy's credible effort in the mud, grinding home third in America's Race, has been backed up with outstanding efforts in graded turf company.

A couple of weeks ago, Crawford e-mailed me with a favorable response to a blog post about Bobby Flay's inclusion among the new Breeders' Cup trustees. As Paddy prepped to defend his Turf Cup territory, Crawford mentioned Donegal's return trip to Virginia and suggested he and I might be able to meet at Colonial Downs.

I didn't really know for sure whether that would happen until technology -- and the right connections -- intervened on my behalf. Just as I mentioned via Twitter that I was handicapping the Virginia Derby card over a large lemonade at Colonial Downs, Sid Fernando was tweeting about Paddy and Jerry Crawford, the latter of whom is a client of Werk Thoroughbred Consultants Inc., of which Sid is now president.

I privately tweeted Sid to ask what he thought my odds were of meeting up with Jerry Crawford on this day.

"Pretty good," he replied. And, moments later: "In 4th floor club house ... go now ... just got off phone w Jerry."

Yessir, I'll go now.

My initial obstacle was getting past the first-floor elevator attendant. Thankfully, he made it easy.

I asked, "How do I get to the fourth-floor clubhouse without credentials?"

The young man grinned and replied, "It's OK, some people are getting their armbands upstairs."

"Ummm, yeah, that's the ticket. I'll be getting my armband upstairs."

And into the elevator I stepped, along with a grinning female law enforcement officer who got out on Floor 2.

As the doors closed, she offered a piece of advice: "Just act like you belong there."

When I hit the carpet upstairs, a handsome young woman, speaking to an older man in quite the checkered suit, looked at me quizzically.

I asked, "Where would I meet Jerry Crawford?"

"Oh, you're with Paddy O'Prado," the woman said.

Momentary silence.

"I am today."

"It's a big group," she said, nodding and fastening a pink armband around my right wrist. Cheerfully, she urged, "Follow me!"

And I did, though not until I had to pitch my giant souvenir drink container, still three-fourths full of lemonade, into the garbage, because, "We don't allow outside beverages on the Fourth Floor."

(Which says a little something about the social strata at a racetrack. In the Sky Suites, even the lemonade from general admission is an outsider.)

Now, clearly Jerry Crawford knew I was coming. He'd just hung up the phone from Sid and said it was OK. But all that's necessary to fulfill the meeting is a handshake and a "Thanks for droppin' by; see ya again sometime."

That's the furthest thing from what I got.

Crawford greeted me enthusiastically and the Donegal "family" was gracious toward the interloper. Jerry even wanted to make certain I didn't miss out on the Virginia Derby swag.

"Be sure to get a (souvenir) clock," he told me.

I was included in the pre-first-post handicapping "round-table," where all the parties who fancied themselves horseplayers shared who they liked in each race. And I was at the Donegal Racing tables for the buffet, where I met, among other entertaining folks, Cody and Rebekah Durr from South Carolina. Cody, a former race-rider whose growth spurt took him out of competition, broke Paddy O'Prado on a training farm in the Palmetto State. In a sense, though the colt surely would've been prepped somewhere, Paddy wouldn't be where he is today without Cody, and the Durrs have been welcomed into the Donegal fold accordingly. (Cody, just 27, is also a recent winning owner at Charles Town.)

The afternoon was, in short, a blast. Even before the big race. And despite a tragic accident that decapitated one of the suite's occupants, a foot-tall fellow named Ken, who lost his head when his young female companion's even younger brother sort of yanked it off.

A goodly number of suite-dwellers took a shot at repairing Ken, but it's far more easily conceived than consummated. I eventually concluded that the hard-plastic torso is pieced together, front and back, at the last stage of assembly. So the rubbery noggin can be extracted by force, but putting it back is a different story. ... And I tried my hand at it, for as long as anybody. (Who can resist wanting to be a little girl's hero?)

But even with the help of Sarah -- the funniest, friendliest, bestest bartender at Colonial Downs -- it was not to be. And believe me, we tried everything.

"I wonder if we greased the head, if it'd go in easier," Sarah said. "Maybe with butter or oil."

I let those words linger in the air a moment before responding.

"I don't think it'll help, Sarah. But I'll absolutely butter a Ken doll with you."

Sarah reached for the walkie-talkie she uses to call for restocks of ice, liquor and mixers: "Can we get some olive oil in Suite 10?"

It was on the bar within minutes, in a small ceramic bowl. I dipped Ken's head.

"Wait," Sarah said, "I don't think we should risk messing up his outfit. Give him here; I'll undress him."

Sid Fernando had already informed our mutual "tweeps" that I'd reported I was taking part in the "Paddy Party." Now I whipped out the phone and tweeted: "And it ain't a party until the pretty brunette bartender has gotten a guy naked and dipped in olive oil."

Our Twitter circle was, well, atwitter.

Now, this sort of activity tends to draw a curious crowd. Even if it's just a doll. And not merely within the suite, but passersby from the hallway. An ever-changing, but chuckling, spectator section formed.

Nodding toward Sarah behind the bar, I quipped: "Imagine what I'm gonna have to tip this young lady now that I've got her gettin' guys all naked and oiled up."

Lubrication was no help. Getting the head over the plastic neck stub wasn't the problem. Getting that assembly back inside the torso without the head popping back off was the rub. I finally gave up, much to the shame of my family name. (I think "Craven," among a few unflattering things, must mean, "Nothing's ever broken that we don't think we can fix, although we might wait until it's completely nonfunctional to try.")

About that time, I briefly met Dale Romans, as well, fresh off a victory with Z Appeal in the Chenery Stakes for owner Frank L. Jones Jr. And a fine fellow Romans seems to be. I tweeted about that, too, albeit noting that Dale Romans wasn't the naked, oily guy.

At this point, you might be wondering whether I even remembered I was at the racetrack. On a big day of racing. Absolutely. I took time out to lose money on almost every contest. I lost when I picked horses without consulting anyone else. I lost when I asked other handicappers who they liked. I lost even when Sarah did her best to give me a $41.60 winner, Winslet in the Tippett Stakes, from behind the bar. ("I just pick by the names," Sarah said. That didn't instill confidence. She refused afterward to pick me another.)

OK, I won a few. I recouped some bucks here and there on my notorious short-price favorites. And a couple of longer-shots who managed to show, though I'd have scored much better had they placed.

And, yeah, I had a small wager on the 7-horse in the 12th. More about that in a minute.

As the Virginia Derby approached, the Donegal suite cleared out. I mean, like the day was over. They were all headed to the paddock for the saddling. And why not? It's a big part of the pomp and circumstance. I'd considered not going to the paddock, thinking perhaps I shouldn't risk wearing out my welcome. But when there was nobody left behind, except me, I hustled off to catch up.

It's an interesting walk, following the conga line to the paddock as spectators whisper, "That's Paddy O'Prado's people!" Especially knowing you so don't belong. And the paddock area itself was surprisingly big enough for everyone -- not just us, but, of course, the connections and entourages of each entry in the seven-horse field. (Formulaforsuccess was a scratch.)

The day's gray skies began to sprinkle, but nobody's enthusiasm was doused. Horses were saddled. Jockeys were legged-up, including Kent Desormeaux aboard the eventual 3/5 favorite, Paddy O'Prado. Digital cameras and camera phones were pointed every which way, snapping shots of the horses, trainers and riders, and of course capturing the faces of the connections, family and friends, with the saddling and the grandstand as backdrops. Even cell-phone video of Miss Virginia Caitlin Uze answering that her choice for the race was Two Notch Road, "because he's the only Virginia horse."

Soon, the post parade headed toward the main track, which is virtually unused these days at Colonial except for training, as all races are carded on the spectacular Secretariat Turf Course. Then the conga lines returned to the grandstand, where we clambered up one flight of stairs to a second-floor mezzanine to stand and watch the race.

But first, time to stop at an automated teller and place my bets.

Apart from Paddy, who I thought was by far the class of the race, I liked the 2, Krypton, second-best. I bet him to place and show, decided to safeguard my unemployed-guy dollars a bit rather than keying Paddy over Krypton and Interactif for a 7-2/3, 7-3/2 trifecta ticket (that eventually would've made me almost $2,000 had I let everything in my pocket ride), and turned to leave the teller.

Honestly, I wouldn't normally bet any horse at 3/5; not willfully. (As it happens, plenty of my 3/1 horses end up 3/5 after the late money comes in.) Since I wasn't on the hottest of streaks, I actually considered the possibility that even $2 on Paddy's nose might be enough to jinx the colt. And with me standing behind almost every person who owns, knows and loves him.

Then I reconsidered and returned to the auto-teller. What kind of ingrate would I be if I didn't have money on the horse whose connections had treated me so graciously? To win, of course.

Now I could return to the group without guilt.

The field broke and passed the grandstand for the first time. And, at this point semi-addicted, I tweeted that I liked where Paddy and Krypton had settled in the pack. Two Notch Road held the lead for much of the race, as he did in the Turf Cup, but would surrender it and fade to fourth as I projected. Still, a win was no sure thing for Paddy. As the field turned for home, I wasn't certain he'd have room to get through.

Desormeaux made sure that he did.

The hall-of-famer and his horse had saved ground all the way around, and moved up some along the rail before the door seemed to go shut. But Desormeaux angled Paddy out just enough to split horses at about the three-eighths pole, then took him right back to the rail, where Paddy really hit high gear. The galloping gray powered home in front of Interactif by a length and a half, to a rising din of celebratory shouts and shrieks from the Donegal delegation.

The Paddy Pack quickly moved down the stairs and toward the winner's circle. Crawford dashed ahead, prompting me to tell someone who'd joined us in the paddock that not only would I rather not have to race his horse right now if I were an owner, I'm pretty sure I'd rather not have to race Jerry.

"He has a ton of early speed," I cracked.

At the winner's circle, the gate kept closing, then opening to let more people inside. A voice in the crowd observed, "There sure are a lot of 'em." And there were. Not just the usual Donegal partners and pals, but me (hey, if you're gonna be a hanger-on, then cling for dear life) and a growing cadre of friends and supporters.

It was one crowded win-photo in the making.

I looked to my right, where Miss Virginia stood at my side, pinned against the brick wall and invisible to the photographer. Smiling, Miss Uze said, "I was asked to be here, they probably want to see me," and politely squeezed her way past me to get out and around to the front. Later, she would be goaded into kissing Desormeaux over the Virginia Derby's silver trophy, and Crawford was heard asking, "Can you say 'Breeders' Cup?'"

Back to the suite we went, but the Paddy Party wasn't long for Colonial Downs. Reservations had been made at a Richmond restaurant within the hour, and it's a 40-minute drive back to the city. So, after granting an interview by cell phone, Crawford gave his crew the directions to dinner and bade me farewell.

My day didn't exactly end there, but this novella of a blog post probably should. I will say that on my way out, I struck up a conversation with one of the people from that Paddy win-photo; a gentleman who was waiting outside for his friend to call a cab that, they learned, would take some 35 minutes to reach the track from Richmond.

And soon, I was clearing out the front seat of the old Dodge Ram to give Jack Stewart of Louisville's Lichtefeld & Stewart Racing, and his buddy, a ride back to their Richmond International Airport hotel.

Every day should be like this.

And apart from the loudmouthed, naked-doll-oiling party-crasher, I'm pretty sure Paddy and Donegal Racing would agree.


Good luck, Glory

From my perspective, there was only one negative to come out of Saturday at Colonial Downs, but it's indeed a sad note. Prepare The Way, a 3-year-old filly owned by Gordon and Lisa Calhoun and trained by Sarah Warmack, whose Hilltop Farm boards my mares and foals, cracked a sesamoid in Race 1. The latest word is that she's doing as well as can be hoped, but would be retired from racing. Good luck to "Glory" and her connections, who love her almost like their own daughters.

Correction: Macalester College is located in St. Paul, Minn. I apologize for the error.

Sunday, July 18, 2010

Today, we feast: Gourmet Dinner is fifth to break maiden from 2010 juvenile sale tips

First-time starter Gourmet Dinner stalked the leaders and prevailed in the stretch Saturday in the ninth race at Calder, becoming the fifth of my 2010 2-year-old sale tips to break maiden.

The Trippi colt, out of the Pentelicus mare Potluck Dinner, was sent off at 9/1 under Sebastian Madrid, and scored by a length for trainer Peter Gulyas and owners Our Sugar Bear Stable. He covered 6 furlongs among statebred maiden special company in 1:11.99.

Gourmet Dinner was bred in Florida by Ocala Stud and William J. Terrill, and brought $40,000 as Hip 277 at Ocala April.

In tipping the Trippi, I noted that I, "don't usually go for unraced or poorly raced dams, but this one overcame her one-start record to produce six to race, four winners, two stakes horses and three that have earned $167K or more." The colt breezed a very credible 21.3 at the sale.

Gourmet Dinner seemed to run like a pro in this one, and has already earned back $29,820 of his $40K purchase price.

The only thing I don't particularly like about the colt is the name they eventually gave him. It's been used before (on a stakes-placed 1980 filly by Raise a Cup), and with Trippi as the stallion, so much more could've been done.

Two suggestions for a Trippi-Potluck Dinner foal (now that it's too late): Whoatethemushrooms and Whatsinthebrownies.

In the same race was another of my 2010 tips from OBSAPR, a $70,000 buy named Conway Hillbilly (Montbrook-Pearly White, by Holy Bull). He was involved early, but hung out four-wide, and wound up ninth of 12.

You can follow along as I track the performance of all my nearly 200 picks (and a few pans) from the juvenile sales of 2010 by scrolling to the complete chronological list at the bottom of this former post.

Saturday, July 17, 2010

Va. Derby prediction: A parade to follow Paddy

I'm planning on being at Colonial Downs in under 11 hours, so I'd better make this quick. But, much as I (correctly) posted on my Facebook page prior to the Colonial Turf Cup, I think Paddy O'Prado is the horse to beat today in the Grade 2 Virginia Derby.

Yeah, I'm a freakin' genius. The horse is 7/5 on the morning line and the pre-race favorite. But I do believe he's the most talented horse in this field, perhaps by far.

Paddy surged to win the Turf Cup going away even though Two Notch Road (who would finish third) was uncontested on the lead. I didn't bet Paddy on that day (not liking the price) but had wagered across the board on Two Notch Road at nearly 27/1, figuring he'd get the early advantage without much pressure. Sure wish he'd at least hung on for second over Workin for Hops, though I still scratched out a little profit.

Let's start by drawing lines through the 4 and the 5 in the eight-horse field, Majestictroubadour and Awesome Dream, who have two wins in seven starts, a whopping $25,000 or so in combined earnings, and no Beyer higher than 79 between them.

Today, I don't at all like Two Notch Road; not at 8/1 on the morning line, at least. Not sure I'd bet him even if he drifted up to where he was on Turf Cup day. I don't think the son of Partner's Hero out of a Capote mare -- who was fading at the finish going 9 furlongs -- will get the 10 furlongs today well enough to figure.

Stately Victor, also 8/1 on the morning line under Ramon Dominguez, has beaten Paddy O'Prado in the Blue Grass S.-G1. But that was on synthetic, and while sometimes horses can cross over successfully from fake dirt to the turf, and while Stately Victor did break maiden on grass at Saratoga, he was only eighth and fifth in his last two tries on turf (both Gulfstream allowances early this year) and I think the best he can do on this day is hope for second.

Interactif (3/1) and Krypton (7/2), starting in the third and second gates, to me are by far the most likely to challenge Paddy O'Prado for supremacy today. Both are G3 turf winners who should be able to get the distance, particularly Krypton, who is by Rock Hard Ten out of an Unbridled's Song mare. Krypton, with a 95 Beyer in winning the Hill Prince S.-G3 at Belmont on June 4, is by that measure the second-fastest horse in this race, and I think he'll prove it today under Rajiv Maragh -- but probably not get to Paddy, whose Beyer for the Turf Cup was 99 and he seemed to only be getting stronger.

A potentially live long shot for exotic wagers is the 6, Formulaforsuccess, who will be ridden by Victor Lebron for lesser-known trainer John Pucek (4-for-39 total this season from all starters). By Broken Vow (as is Interactif) out of a Nashwan mare, he has the pedigree to get the distance. He "gamely" wired a Churchill allowance field at 9 furlongs on grass his last out for a Beyer of 84, but will need to not get too tangled up with Two Notch Road on the front end if he hopes to last the 10 furlongs today.

The race is set to go off at 6 p.m., the last of an all-stakes Pick 5 at Colonial that includes the Chenery and Tippett stakes at 5.5 furlongs for 2-year-old colts and fillies, the Kitten's Joy at a mile and a sixteenth for older horses, and the Virginia Oaks-G3 at 9 furlongs.

Free past-performances and other products for the Virginia Derby are available at Equibase, which is featuring the event as its race of the week.

Friday, July 16, 2010

Disappointing race for trio of 2010 tips

I'm not sure whether anyone else is, but I'm ardently following the nearly 190 2-year-olds I tipped from various juvenile sales each year.

Every time one of them races, I'm on the edge of my seat waiting for the results. So when three of them go in one race, I'm particularly curious, and hopeful.

That didn't turn out so well today, but it looks like at least two of them have excuses.

Soldier's Tune, a $28,000 OBSAPR purchase who missed by only a head in his debut at the MCL $32K level, was a beaten favorite today in Race 8 at Calder, for a $40,000 tag. Sent off at 2.70/1, he "gave way" in the lane under Cecilio Penalba and finished fourth, beaten by a horse at almost 28/1, Master Dunker.

The race was won by Slews Big Finale in a time of 1:00.89 for 5 furlongs over a sealed, sloppy track. It'sapossibility came home second at nearly 10/1 for a $2 trifecta that paid $1,552.40.

Getting up to finish fifth by a neck was another tip of mine, On Appeal, a $25,000 OBSAPR purchase who would have seemed like a good value in the betting at nearly 6/1 after placing in both of his first two efforts. On this day, according to the chart, the saddle slipped in the early going for jockey Daniel Coa, and it's hard to win a race under those conditions. Fifth might not be such a bad effort.

Also with some excuse was firster You Es Oh Club, who was purchased for $30,000 from the same OBS April sale. Sent off at 8.30/1 and ridden by Angel Moreno, he was caught in an early, three-way bumping with Roy's Girls and Cliff's Catch (who finished seventh and eighth) and ended up straggling home 10th of 11.

I'm tracking the successes (or lack thereof) by all my 2010 juvenile picks, and you can, too, at the bottom of this past post.

Knocked Up: Trainer's desire to race 10-year-old pregnant mare invites criticism, questions

When I first read this news back in June at the Paulick Report, I couldn't believe my eyes. And today I can't believe the story -- and an ill-advised idea -- still has legs, especially after the demise of former Canadian champion Wake at Noon, who died on the track at Woodbine during a workout as his connections pointed him toward a destined-to-be-controversial comeback at age 13.

A trainer in Pennsylvania wants to send 10-year-old mare Violet Eyed Diva back to the track. After a seven-year retirement from racing. And when she's already a couple of months in foal to his own small-time son of Storm Cat, Draft Age.

PA-based owner-trainer Andrew Davidovich entered Violet Eyed Diva in a July 1 claiming race at Presque Isle Downs, but she was scratched by stewards who rightfully have a lot of questions. About the racing condition of the mare. And probably about Davidovich's sense and sensibilities.

The stewards at PID suggested Davidovich try running the mare at Mountaineer Park, where she's been training. Davidovich balked at the suggestion because "Diva" -- regally bred, sired by multiple-champion Swain and out of the three-times G1-winning Caerleon mare Kostroma -- was unsurprisingly a better turf horse in her brief, 12-race career that seemingly ended in 2003. She won three of those races and was once stakes-placed at Delaware Park, never racing for a tag and earning $79,533. Diva was retired after surgery to remove chips in her knee, an operation from which her form never seemed to fully return.

Davidovich thinks the synthetic surface at PID would be a better option for a horse with prior -- OK, I'm sorry, I can't call it "prior," it's distant, in the lifetime of a racehorse almost prehistoric -- turf form.

The Blood-Horse says Davidovich has made a "compelling case" that the mare should be allowed to race. He has positive reports from the state vets in both Pennsylvania and West Virginia. Reportedly the stewards at Mountaineer have deemed her eligible to race.

But Presque Isle Downs isn't yet convinced it's a good idea. Because it really isn't.

Davidovich says Pennsylvania State Steward Hap D'Angelis says part of the problem is that racing Diva would stir up bad publicity. Because it would. It has.

So I have to ask, why is Davidovich being so persistent?

Upon retirement, Violet Eyed Diva foaled three offspring, two of which haven't raced. The other, a 4-year-old Rahy colt named Justhitoverdrive, is unplaced in six lifetime starts and has been sent off at odds as high as 113-1. With such a poor produce record, and, Davidovich says, seeming to him that she "wanted to stretch her legs," he began working Diva, despite her confirmed pregnancy to his stallion. Davidovich said other horsemen have concurred with his decision to race her. Which boggles my mind.

The trainer says stewards need to make a decision soon.

"If there's no decision made in three or four weeks, I might as well give up on the idea, because there's no way I'm going to race her when she's four or five months pregnant," the trainer says.

Davidovich has been around the track for a good, long while. He's owned horses since the 1960s and has held a trainer's license since the 1970s.

Which is to say, he should know better. He should know (as should stewards at Mountaineer) this is a story that's going off at 113/1 to end well.

A horse coming off any serious layoff usually needs two or even three starts before she really hits her stride again. It's hard to imagine that a knocked-up mare who hasn't competed in seven years is going to fire her best shot right off the shelf. So her first race -- from a handicapping angle, probably even in the mind of most trainers -- is a throwaway. Maybe her second race, too. If she wins or places in them, it would almost be a shock. You'd just hope she came out of each race sound and ready to move forward.

But move forward to what?

Davidovich has already said he doesn't want to race the mare at four months pregnant. Which means he's working this mare -- seven years retired and two and a half months in foal -- toward what is now at most a six-week comeback.

What can she realistically be expected to earn running in cheap claimers (the tag July 1 was to be $7,500), over such a short span that makes all the risk -- not just to the mare, but to the tracks and the entire industry in potential bad publicity -- worth the reward?

I don't know if anybody else is thinking this, but at peril of being labeled all sorts of foul things, I'm willing to suggest it.

I wonder whether Davidovich isn't just trying to sell the mare.

Think about it: Dozens of rescue groups are out there, investing anywhere from a few-hundred to a few-thousand dollars almost every day to pull retired racing thoroughbreds from kill pens and find them new homes. And several times in the past we've seen former owners, devoted fans or other concerned parties step in -- when an accomplished horse has plummeted through the ranks -- to claim him from a cheap race or buy him privately with the sole intent of giving him a dignified retirement.

At this stage, despite her pedigree and raced siblings (she's half to Santa Anita Oaks-G1 winner Ariege), Violet Eyed Diva likely wouldn't bring $7,500 at auction. Her race career was moderately successful, but she's produced nothing of note from three foals: Her 2005 Point Given colt went unnamed; Justhitoverdrive was sent off at 65-1 in his last race (at PID) then refused to break; and while her 2007 filly Jo'burg Diva (Johannesburg) hasn't run out of time to make the races, the fact that she hasn't yet, halfway through her 3-year-old year, isn't encouraging. Now Violet Eyed Diva, unsuccessful when mated to three proven stallions, is in foal to the unraced Draft Age, which might actually reduce her value over selling her open and ready to be bred in 2011 on an early cover, should anyone desire to give her one more chance.

With the market flooded by for-sale and simply unwanted horses, many of them well-bred and with better track and produce records, or in foal to better stallions, Diva has little cash value. It might even be hard to give her away.

That is, unless somebody wants to "rescue" Violet Eyed Diva; to save her from being raced and risked. Seven years after her last start. Seven years after knee surgery. While in, as we humans used to call it, "a delicate condition."

Call me what you will.

I'm only suggesting it wouldn't be the first time a trainer used a steep drop into a cheap claimer just to sell a horse.

Thursday, July 15, 2010

Just call it 'Tweetcapping'

I wasn't very active on Twitter until recently, when Sid Fernando -- that's @sidfernando to his "tweeps" -- did a little name-dropping on my behalf just a few days ago.

In the span of 36 hours, I went from having about a dozen followers of my tweets, to more than 60. At this writing, that number is 84 (you can add to them here). And am I ever glad that Sid spurred me to participate, because the interaction -- both personal and certainly horse- and racing-related -- has been entertaining and enlightening.

One of the most noteworthy happenings over the past few days could be a real innovation in the sharing of handicapping tips and information, not to mention a potential addition to the dictionary: "Tweetcapping."

One of my new tweeps, James Hritz (@jameshritz, of course), recently purchased an iPad. Among his potential uses for the gadget, Hritz admits, was to see whether it could help him with his handicapping hobby.

"After playing with the device for a few weeks," Hritz blogged today, "it struck me that the killer application should allow a handicapper to: Download past performances on the fly to the device from DRF or Equibase; mark and notate these past performances just like you do with paper and pen; (and) share your handicapping notes socially or at least share via e-mail."

So Hritz came up with the rules of engagement for enabling an iPad to be a social race-handicapping tool. And he freely shares those tips at his blog.

It's potentially a striking advancement not only in handicapping, but for sharing the wealth among handicappers. Some horseplayers want to keep every long shot and live horse to themselves, but most I know are quick to pass along a hot tip to their friends.

A test run by Hritz on Wednesday night showed how readily an entire, marked-up-in-color sheet of PPs can be shared as a downloadable PDF through social media with a few taps of a touchscreen and/or clicks of a mouse. And thus was born, from Hritz's fingertips to our Twitter feeds, the term "Tweetcapping," for which (despite a sparse three prior mentions by other users among content searchable via Google) I agree Hritz deserves full credit, at least in the sense of making the word meaningful. (Another of our Twitter friends, Chris Hernandez, aka @tencentcielo, added a second term to the potential lexicon: The "Twipsheet.")

According to his bio at the blog, Hritz is currently vice president of Strategy & Business Development for Fox Audience Network. His expertise is in "online advertising and new media business with deep experience in performance display advertising and social media." Add in a dash of horseplayer and Hritz seems like exactly the man to pioneer this sort of handicapping advancement.

The early results are encouraging, and more than a little bit cool.

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

A KEEAPR tip has early case of seconditis

It's early in this filly's career, and I'm not discouraged yet. But one of my tips of 2010 has raced again at Belmont, and again come home second.

Evangelical (Speightstown-Evangelizer, by Saint Ballado) was a $100,000 RNA when consigned by Kiaran Dunne's Wavertree Stables at the Keeneland April Sale of 2-year-olds in training. I tabbed her as a potential "second-chance deal," should she go through another sale later (she did not), or be available privately. Since, Evangelical has raced two times in the colors of North Shore Racing, trained by the noteworthy Barclay Tagg, coming home with two seconds and earning a combined $20,000.

I identified her as a better prospect than her RNA price -- which was nearly $70,000 less than the sale's average price and considerably below the median of $135,000 -- because she was "co-speed-demon of the under-tack show, blazing a 10-flat eighth." I noted that she was a filly who looked like she was running fast in her breeze video (you'd like to see her look more fluid), but at least she actually was fast. "So she's quick, but maybe not smooth, and she didn't look like she had a lot of size, though she appeared compact and muscular," I wrote.

Speed wasn't the only reason I took note of this filly, who was unnamed at the time of the April sale, although my endorsement came with a caveat.

"On the plus side -- and a big plus -- her female family says she should run (although soundness could be an issue)," I continued.

Her dam was a winner, but only raced three times. Evangelical does have a 3-year-old sister named Worship the Moon (Malibu Moon) who has won two of eight, placed in the Matron S.-G2 and was fourth in the Adirondack S.-G2 as a juvenile, and has hit the board in another stakes race at 3, for $130,500 so far. Second dam RELIGIOSITY (Irish Tower-Winter Sleep, by Rising Market) was a G3 winner who only raced 10 times, but produced three stakes winners (all fillies), including: Canadian 2-year-old champ KNIGHTS TEMPLAR (who died at 3 of lymphoma); DIAL A SONG (raced just eight times, but never worse than second); and FOR ALL SEASONS. The third and fourth dams here were unraced, but this is also the close female family of multiple G2-winning sprinter EATON'S GIFT.

There are runners with numbers of starts in the 20s and 30s in this recent family, including For All Seasons, who went to post 28 times. And I believe Tagg is better than most at looking out for the best interests of the horse and keeping his charges sound.

He should get this one to the winner's circle soon.

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Goodbye, George: My enemy; my friend

I hated George Steinbrenner. Loathed the man.

Now, cut me some slack. At the time, I was a just a kid, one who lived and died every day with the Kansas City Royals.

Boys in Blue win, I was happy for another 24 hours. They lose, I'd probably be in a skunky mood. And that was just the regular season.

My father taught me an early lesson about work ethic watching those Royals games. He said few athletes played the game with the effort, the fire of those Kansas City clubs of the 1970s and early '80s.

"Watch Hal McRae break up a double-play," he'd tell me. "See how George Brett runs out every ground ball, even if it's 8-to-nothin' in the seventh inning."

It took Frank White a few years to really contribute with the stick, but he was forever slick with the leather at second base, eventually winning eight Gold Gloves. First baseman John Mayberry was the strong, silent type, while the shortest of shortstops, Freddie Patek, at 5-foot-5, was the classic over-achiever. Blazing-fast Willie Wilson was always looking to stretch a bloop single into a double, a double into a triple (he led the American League five times) or a three-bagger to an inside-the-park home run. Center fielder Amos Otis could run, too, but even when he'd lost a step, his professionalism, his baseball savvy, his knowledge of the hitters gained over time meant he was almost always in the right position -- and getting an early break -- when the ball left the bat. And a Royals outfielder almost never missed the cutoff man.

The Royals didn't always have the most talent on the hill, but it was a gritty pitching staff, with a starting rotation anchored by small-college products Dennis Leonard (one of three big-leaguers all-time from Iona) and lefty Paul Splittorff (one of two from tiny Morningside in Iowa).

And then there was my hero, closer Mark Littell, a 6-foot-3 Cape Girardeau, Mo., kid with a buffalo gun for a right arm. The stadium loudspeakers blared John Denver's "Thank God I'm a Country Boy" every time Littell came in from the bullpen. I sang along like the game, maybe my very life, depended on it. On him.

I'd never before wanted to be that guy the way that I, as a 10- or 12-year-old boy, wanted to grow up to be Mark Littell. Not since, either.

Those Royals were a team built the hard way. From the minor league system up. Via key trades that brought in players (like Otis and McRae) who fit and excelled in Kansas City as they'd never fit anywhere else. By signing other clubs' castoffs in free-agency.

And every year from 1976-78, those scrappy Royals who "played the game the right way" were beaten in the ALCS by George Steinbrenner's New York Yankees, the best damned team entirely too much money could buy. That first year, the dagger was driven through my heart by a Chris Chambliss walk-off blast in the finale, Game 5. And he touched up my hero to do it.

My father silently watched me walk right out of the house, into the pitch dark on a school night, all of 10 years old. He knew I wouldn't go far. That I'd be back when I'd come to grips with the loss. And that it would take awhile. I was left alone outside for an hour or more, wearing my blue plastic stadium souvenir Royals helmet and swinging my wooden Louisville Slugger with a vengeance at invisible pitches, vowing I'd someday help take down those damned Yankees.

A year later, K.C. led 3-2 entering the ninth of Game 5, at home, and the combined talents of Leonard, Larry Gura and Littell couldn't stave off a three-run Yankee rally that stole my heart again. New York won in just four games in '78, though Brett slugged three homers.

Rubbing salt in my wounds was the fact that Steinbrenner was a winner who never seemed to be happy about it. He was always meddling in the day-to-day management of the clubhouse and lineup, not just front-office business. In eulogizing the sports and business icon, who died today at the age of 80, the Blood-Horse says Steinbrenner was "dominating," but they mean "domineering." Let's face it, "The Boss" could come off as a real jerk, second-guessing his managers and berating players in the media and in private, at least once (according to Yankee great lefty Sparky Lyle) telling a player that he "looked like a monkey trying to (hump) a football out there."

So, not all that likable a guy. And I obliged by disliking him with every fiber of my being. Especially since his boys kept beating mine.

After a year out of the playoffs in '79, Kansas City finally exacted some revenge on the Yanks and The Boss in 1980. I was riding shotgun in the family sedan on our way to Grandma's -- hoping to no avail that we'd get there before the last out of the ballgame, instead listening to Denny Matthews and Fred White on Royals Radio -- when Brett blasted a Rich Gossage heater into the third deck of the House that Ruth Built, giving K.C. the winning margin and a World Series berth. (The Royals subsequently lost to Philadelphia, much to my chagrin.)

That might have begun easing my animosity toward George Steinbrenner. Finally beating an arch rival who's had your number has a way of releasing some competitive endorphins; of easing your mind and heart a bit about all the frustrations of the past.

But I can tell you when I really started going easy on George Steinbrenner. Even liking the guy.

It's when I stopped long enough to take note that he bred and raced horses.

Not that you can't be both a horseman and a jackass. (Hopefully I'm not proving that.) But it let me see another side of George Steinbrenner; a passion of his that I shared. The passion. Racehorses.

It's sort of like we were ... on the same team.

Steinbrenner had achieved success in the race biz before I bothered to notice.

His Kinsman Stud Farm near Ocala, Fla., bred a lot of winners to run in the Kinsman Stable colors. Steve's Friend was Steinbrenner's first Kentucky Derby horse, in 1977, prepping for the Run for the Roses with a Hollywood Derby-G1 victory, only to be among the also-rans behind eventual Triple Crown winner Seattle Slew. I thought The Boss was finally gonna win those roses in 2005, when Bellamy Road looked like a world-beater in the Wood Memorial-G1 and was well-positioned with a quarter to go at Churchill, but weakened to finish seventh, emerged gimpy, and only raced once after.

Kinsman raced or shared in partnership a number of other top horses, my personal favorite being Concerto, who has become a pretty decent Florida-based sire.

Steinbrenner also owned Florida Downs, which became Tampa Bay Downs, and held an interest in Chicago-area Balmoral Park. He was active in horsemen's groups, as well, serving as president and a board member of the Florida Thoroughbred Breeders' and Owners' Association.

It's been said that the fastest way to make a small fortune in the racehorse business is to start with a large one. Shipping and sports magnate George Steinbrenner had plenty of options for how to blow or grow his money, and chose to invest a significant portion of his fortune in the thoroughbred industry. We can't thank him enough for that.

I still can't bring myself to root for his Yankees, but I'll confess I said a prayer and shed a tear for my horseman "friend" George Steinbrenner today. And this game will miss him dearly.

Friday, July 9, 2010

Do me a favor: Head on out to Ellis


I'm in the wrong Henderson.

The 87th season of racing opens Saturday at Ellis Park in Henderson, Ky. And here I am in Henderson, N.C., 692.7 miles away according to the "new" Mapquest.com.

Rats!

I made my first -- and, so far, only -- visit to Ellis Park last August, on my way home from moving my daughter to Saint Louis. It was a sweltering day, and I wish it hadn't ended so soon. I didn't have great luck at the window (though I did hit a 10-cent super that covered most of my losses).


But I loved the atmosphere of the historic venue (complete with "1937 Flood Mark" on the second floor, pictured), the super-friendly staff, the other fans who ranged in age from weanling to ol' gray mare, reasonably priced concessions, the bean field in the infield, and of course, pretty decent racing.

Ellis was modeled after the famed Saratoga Race Course, right down to a chute (like Saratoga used to have), built at a right angle to the home stretch and tying into the main course at the apex of the first turn. Ellis Park's two chutes permit seven-furlong and one-mile races on the nine-furlong dirt track. The one-mile Ellis Park turf course was opened in 1993, and makes for some good grass racing as the horses blow by the beans that lie just beyond the inside rail.

The venue has also been endorsed by horseplayers as a good track to bet. In April, the Horseplayers Association of North America rated Ellis No. 6 among all North American tracks (that's 69, if you're counting) for its attractiveness to gamblers. The rankings are based on an algorithm conceived by HANA board member Bill Weaver, a retired engineer, with tracks rewarded for providing value to horseplayers through low takeouts, strong field size, offering a variety of wagers, good pool size and widespread simulcasting signal.


So if you're within driving distance of Henderson, Ky., tomorrow, I urge you to visit Ellis on opening day. The high is supposed to top out at "only" 90, with little or no chance of rain, so it'll be a great day to catch some rays on the apron.

While you're there, bet the 7 in Race 4, especially if you're still getting the morning line of 6/1 or better.

I'll be generous and we'll go 50/50 on the winnings.

Tuesday, July 6, 2010

Alienation endears herself as my 4th 2010 tip to win

Alienation overcame lugging in at the top of the stretch and falling five lengths in arrears to nip her front-running rival Pedaltothemedal by a nose and clear her maiden hurdle at first asking Monday at Hollywood Park.

The dark bay or brown daughter of Rock Hard Ten was close to the pace-setter until the turn for home, when she lugged in and slipped behind by five lengths. Straightened up by Martin Garcia and fighting back on the outside in deep-stretch, she overcame Pedaltothemedal, who battled fiercely on the rail under Joe Talamo.

The two fillies covered 5 furlongs on turf in a fleet :56.29.

With the first-out victory, Alienation became the fourth juvenile to win from among my 187 tips out of various 2010 sales of 2-year-olds in training. She earned $24,000 for the race.

Alienation was Hip 719 at OBS April, where she sold for $60,000 to Navigator Stables. The owner of record at Hollywood Park Monday was one Natalie J. Baffert; the trainer Bob Baffert. Whomever they might be. (Just kidding.)

I landed on the filly prior to her sale because she "flew 21-flat through a quarter," her dam, Alienated (Gone West), was a minor stakes winner and half-sister to four other stakes horses, and her third dam was a Canadian champion grass horse. Alienation is from the female family of JUDGE ANGELUCCI (Californian S.-G1), WAR (Blue Grass S.-G1) and PEACE (John Henry S.-G1).

"If this filly earns any blacktype of her own, or if her young dam produces like her female ancestors," I wrote, "this price looks very reasonable down the road. In fact, it already does."

That opinion didn't change on Monday. Pedaltothemedal gave Alienation a run for her money. But Alienation overcame running green, won in racehorse time (especially for a first-out 2-year-old) and, if she comes out of this contest in good shape, has every hope of moving forward.

Also Monday, Sylvia's Tempo, a Posse filly I tipped at the same OBS sale, improved in her second lifetime effort, finishing third beaten just two lengths (and only a neck for second) in a sloppy maiden special at Calder. From two starts, Sylvia's Tempo -- a $49,000 RNA -- has earned $2,970.

To track the performance of all my 2010 picks and pans, click here and scroll down to the sale-by-sale, hip-by-hip roll.