Thursday, May 27, 2010

Fixed-site Breeders' Cup loses sight of the point

In the May 15 issue of The Blood-Horse (and online), WinStar Farm co-owner Bill Casner, a board member of Breeders' Cup Ltd., touted the selection of Santa Anita as the sole site to host future Breeders' Cup "world championship" weekends.

Casner isn't wrong on all the facts. Only on the conclusion he reaches.

A fixed-site Breeders' Cup misses the point of holding a Breeders' Cup in the first place.

Casner's opinion piece deftly lays out numerous reasons why settling on one site -- and a warm, dry one, near a major urban market -- makes plenty of financial sense. He cites stability as a reason the U.S. Open Tennis Championships grew its sponsorships from $14 million to $60 million since establishing a permanent site. (Of course, that move to Flushing Meadows -- from Forest Hills a few miles away, where the tourney had finally settled in New York City 10 years prior after being held at various locations for decades -- was made in 1978, and Casner doesn't calculate how much influence inflation has played on that $46 million difference. He also ignores that the U.S. Open Golf Championship is successful despite being moved annually.)

Casner calls staging the Breeders' Cup at different sites each year a "daunting challenge" logistically. This I don't doubt. But that doesn't stop the NFL from moving the Super Bowl (a two-week tourist event these days) around the country every season. ... And the Super Bowl will soon be held in Jersey in February. We can't expect people to watch horse racing in 55-degree weather at Belmont in November?

Casner also thinks selecting Santa Anita as a permanent site will help the Breeders' Cup better compete as a global event with the ridiculously lucrative (for winners) Dubai World Cup held each March. But let's face it; how do you really compete financially against an event run by a guy who owns a whole friggin' country?

Bottom-line, Casner's arguments in favor of Santa Anita as the sole site for future renewals of the Breeders' Cup were about one thing: That is, the bottom line.

In a sport that is also a business, the money side of the equation surely can't be ignored. After all, no purse, no race.

But Casner's sales pitch pays only lip-service at best to a pair of crucial elements that -- without being put at the top of Breeders' Cup's priorities -- will defeat the very purpose of holding the races.

He all but ignores the fans and the "sport."

Casner's nod to the race-going public can be summarized thusly: Santa Anita is a great place to watch racing ("The morning experience of watching horses train at Clocker's Corner is second to none," etc.); and, Los Angeles has great weather, plus plenty for visitors to see, eat and do when the horses aren't on the track.

I can't contest these points. Though I've not yet been to Santa Anita, it's certainly on my racetrack "bucket list." And, presently living in North Carolina -- where no track ever to be chosen as a Breeders' Cup host site will be within "day trip" distance -- holding the event in Southern California, South Florida, Kentucky, New York or anywhere else is pretty much all the same to me. I'm having to book a hotel at least, if not also a flight and a rental car.

But it isn't the same to the Joe Pick-Sixes who are regulars on weekends at Monmouth, or Belmont and Aqueduct, or Churchill, or Calder. Casner's desire to hold the Breeders' Cup every year at Santa Anita would essentially be telling the sport's true fans everywhere in the country except Southern California that their favorite or nearest venue is permanently excluded from hosting what is allegedly racing's biggest weekend. Dyed-in-the-wool race fans in the heart of U.S. thoroughbred country, Kentucky, and in major breeding and racing states like Florida and New York -- not to mention those who patronize sites like Arlington Park in Chicago, Lone Star Park in Texas or Woodbine in Canada, all of which have hosted prior Cups -- would never again be able to buy tickets for both race-days of the Breeders' Cup while enjoying a good rest on Friday night in their own beds.

On the other hand, Casner does contend that siting the Breeders' Cup permanently at Santa Anita would bring back a certain type of fan: Celebrities.

"L.A. is the heart of the entertainment industry," he writes. "Bringing the stars back to the races will be a huge asset in stimulating fan interest and attendance."

I actually agree with Casner that racing could elevate its public profile across all demographics -- even among the People of Wal-Mart hoi polloi -- through greater patronage of the sport by the "People Magazine" set. Americans are notorious for their stargazing. Inquiring minds constantly want to know what's up with the George Clooneys and Scarlett Johanssons of the world.

But that stellar segment of the casual-race-fan set turns out in droves in "little" Louisville, Ky., on the first Saturday of every May for what is, without argument, America's biggest race. (And thus America's "race at which to be seen.") If the Breeders' Cup doesn't hold sufficient interest for the occasional (and famous and filthy rich) fan, delivering it to their doorsteps isn't really answer. Don't these people love to travel (for the right event), and can't they afford it?

In the process of making the "world championship" races a backyard-Hollywood affair, Casner and Breeders' Cup would be telling more devoted race fans across the country that they have to pack their bags, use up their hard-earned vacation and buy their plane tickets to see a Breeders' Cup -- no waiting for it to return to your area; it never will -- because the supposed biggest weekend in all of thoroughbred racing isn't a compelling enough event to convince the insanely wealthy Hollywood crowd to spring for a trip to such un-cosmopolitan cities as New York (Broadway) and Miami (South Beach).

And a key element of racing's fan base provides a convenient segue into the other half of the argument against Santa Anita as a fixed site for the Breeders' Cup: Horseplayers.

Racing might not be "nothing" without the men and women who gamble on it. But it would be a whole lot less "something" even than the shadow of its former self that horse racing in America has become. And I can't imagine all that many horseplayers eagerly anticipate handicapping the Breeders' Cup on Santa Anita's Pro-Ride. They just aren't honest races.

Take last year's Breeders' Cup Classic: The race was won by Zenyatta, a brilliant mare facing boys who also happened to be a homestanding, Southern California, synthetic-track monster. She was sent off as the favorite, but only at about 2.80/1; she won like she was 2/5. Second place went to Gio Ponti, the Eclipse champion turf horse of 2009. Third place was Twice Over, a British-bred making his first-ever start not on the turf. Fourth was Summer Bird, a Belmont Stakes and Travers winner also making his first start on synthetic.

Where to begin in figuring races that could annually be equal-parts dirt horses trying to cross-over to synthetic, turf horses likewise making a surface-switch, and horses with actual synthetic form from which to judge?

And if handicappers don't have a sporting chance at figuring out which horses might figure in a main-track Breeders' Cup race at Santa Anita, what about the horses and their connections? The fields themselves for the 2009 Breeders' Cup at Santa Anita disprove Casner's Blood-Horse contention that "the international racing community has demonstrated over the last two Breeders' Cup events that it will bring its best horses to Santa Anita."

Casner can't be completely right, considering the connections behind two of arguably the three best horses in the world last year, snubbed the 2009 "world championships" altogether.

Where was European sensation Sea the Stars? At home across the Atlantic, considering he'd already done more than enough to prove himself one of the best colts Europe had seen in decades and he didn't need to brave the ship to California and the Santa Anita heat (by British standards, with the horse's winter coat already growing in) to prove himself any further.

Or Rachel Alexandra? It's arguable whether she could've been made fit for the Breeders' Cup, considering how much her September Woodward Stakes win over males seemed to take out of her; she was rested for months after and has come back in 2010 to be narrowly beaten twice in as many starts. But Rachel's aggressive schedule was set out with no intent of being at Santa Anita for the Breeders' Cup anyway. Principal owner Jess Jackson refused to run his prized filly "on plastic" (Pro-Ride); she was declared a non-starter for the B.C. months before the race-draw.

And Rachel wasn't the only American horse held out of the 2009 Breeders' Cup because the "dirt" races would not be run on dirt. Although health and other reasons could be argued as part of the decision (especially for some of these who still haven't started since), the Pro-Ride track at Santa Anita was reportedly the reason behind the defections from the Breeders' Cup by at least three potential B.C. Sprint entries (Fabulous Strike, Kodiak Kowboy and Munnings), Filly & Mare Sprint hopeful Indian Blessing (who'd placed in the race over Pro-Ride a year prior), and top juveniles of both genders, Hot Dixie Chick (Spinaway S.-G1 at 2), Jackson Bend (four stakes wins at 2), and Dublin (Hopeful S.-G1 at 2).

Longtime Southern California fixture D. Wayne Lukas says artificial surfaces are, "just too unpredictable." That they, "(make) good horses average and average horses good." Even John Shirreffs, who trains Zenyatta, has told the New York Daily News that he "hates" synthetic tracks.

Lukas, last fall, on his trainee, Dublin: "If I don't run in the Breeders' Cup, he doesn't have to run on artificial surfaces the rest of his life."

Better think again, D. Wayne. Bill Casner wants to throw your best horses onto that Pro-Ride every year from (not quite) here on out.

Beyond the Pro-Ride itself -- which is more than enough reason to dismiss not just Santa Anita, but any synthetic main surface, as a fixture location for the Breeders' Cup -- the very nature of settling the "championship" weekend in one location, forever, turns up its nose at the notion of fairness in racing. If Santa Anita is the site for all future Breeders' Cups, then every horse in America not based in Southern California becomes a shipper for every Breeders' Cup. (Of course that's the case for foreign horses, but it always will be, hence the trouble with considering this a "world championship" anyway; some connections won't ship to the DWC, either.)

That could be a boon to SoCal trainers, as top horses would have to spend at least part of the year in Cali prepping for the Cup. It could swell the fields of races like the Pacific Classic. But it could causes horses to defect from training stables throughout the rest of the country. And might it eviscerate fields even for Grade 1 races on the opposite coast, like the Jockey Club Gold Cup at Belmont, historically a key prep for the B.C. Classic?

And wouldn't a horse like Lava Man have relished the home field advantage of Santa Anita? One of my all-time favorites, he wasn't able to finish ahead of much of anybody outside of Cali, but would have a short-price shot at two-time Horse of the Year if the B.C. had been run at Santa Anita in 2005-06 instead of 2008-09.

Bill Casner wrote 14 paragraphs on why Santa Anita should be the permanent site of the Breeders' Cup without any mention of equity or quality in the racing, nor even a cursory dismissal of arguments that a synthetic main track could cost the Breeders' Cup a slew of dirt-only horses defecting from its starting gates.

I can only presume that Casner believes locking-down the B.C. at S.A. would force folks like Jess Jackson to race there, whether or not they want to. But that potential conflict is not in the best interests of the Breeders' Cup specifically, nor of American racing on the whole.

Maybe it's time for the Breeders' Cup to admit it isn't the "world championships" of racing. Heck, last year it wasn't even the national championships. Rachel Alexandra (3-year-old filly, Horse of the Year) and Kodiak Kowboy (sprinter) won three Eclipse titles while snubbing the Breeders' Cup because of the venue and its Pro-Ride. Lookin at Lucky was champion 2-year-old despite a close beat in the Breeders' Cup Juvenile. Summer Bird was champion 3-year-old colt without hitting the board on Breeders' Cup weekend. Gio Ponti was champion older male despite losing the Classic to a girl, and champion turf horse despite running off the turf in the Breeders' Cup.

That's seven of 11 Eclipse Awards intended for horses running on the flat being handed to horses that didn't win -- or, in three cases, even run in -- a Breeders' Cup race.

If Bill Casner and Breeders' Cup Ltd. want their weekend to be all it can be -- maybe the world championships they hope for, but certainly the weekend every year in American racing for horses of all ages -- then the racing must come first; the fans and handicappers a close second. (And they will follow great racing).

That will never be the case on Pro-Ride at Santa Anita.

Monday, May 24, 2010

Horse of the Year Rachel's best, and best for Rachel

How do you define "better off?"

That's an important question in light of the results from my recent poll, in which more than two-thirds of respondents (27 out of 40) said they believed that Rachel Alexandra is not "better off, a year after being bought and campaigned by Jess Jackson and Steve Asmussen."

I presume most readers who took a stand against Jackson and Asmussen believe that Rachel is not as healthy and fit a horse now as she was last year, or perhaps as she might have been with different handling. Certainly she's beatable now -- defeated twice in a row in desperately close finishes during her first two starts in 2010. And she had proved unbeatable in 2009, going 8-for-8.

I'm going to come down on the side of the minority here. For her utmost impact on racing history, for her value, and for her long-term legacy, I think Rachel Alexandra benefited from Jess Jackson and Steve Asmussen.

What's certain in a situation like this is that nothing can be certain. Hindsight might be 20/20, but speculation (though I love engaging in it, too) usually isn't worth 20 cents.

There are, however, certain truisms of racing and horses. Not the least of these is that some horses are simply better (or at least more dominant among their peers) at age 2 or 3 than they ever will be after, while others are later-maturing.

And one axiom of life that's hard to ignore is this: You must strike while the iron is hot.

When Jackson's Stonestreet Stables acquired Rachel Alexandra after her scintillating, record-breaking victory in last year's Kentucky Oaks, there was little doubt he'd just bought the best 3-year-old filly in the country.

Bought had he bought the best horse?

That handy hindsight tells us probably not, since her unbeaten ways have not carried over into 2010, while Zenyatta continues to stand 17 hands tall at 16-0 lifetime. But by the end of last season, history shows, Jackson had bought the eventual Horse of the Year.

Following her crushing Oaks win, had Rachel stayed in the hands of her first trainer, Hal Wiggins, and her breeder, Dolphus Morrison (who doesn't believe in racing fillies against colts), she would have been pointed to the Black-Eyed Susan-G2 at Pimlico on Preakness Eve. Barring some freak incident or catastrophe, she'd have likely smashed a short field of sophomore fillies by the same sort of margin she'd posted in the Oaks. And while that win would have been another big step toward being champion 3-year-old filly, it would have done little toward earning her a Horse of the Year crown, and virtually nothing toward stamping her career as legendary.

Instead, Jackson and Asmussen entered her in the Preakness. There, Rachel did most of the work on the front end of a 9 1/2-furlong test, put away a talented speed horse in Big Drama (a 7-furlong record-setter) and still had the grit to hold off a gutsy Derby-showing Musket Man and the sharp and fast-closing Derby champ Mine That Bird to claim an historic win. She had beaten boys, she was the first filly since Nellie Morse in 1924 to win the Preakness, and now talk quickly shifted toward whether Rachel Alexandra could become Horse of the Year.

Jackson and Asmussen shrewdly backed off the throttle for Rachel's next start. They entered her at Belmont in the Mother Goose, which drew up predictably short after almost nobody thought it wise to enter their girl against Super Girl. She romped in the Mother Goose, setting stakes records for time and margin, but clearly expended much less effort than had she been asked to face colts and geldings again on the heels of her Preakness win.

Already 6-for-6 on the season with three Grade 1 wins, Rachel was positioned to at least stake a claim to Horse of the Year by collecting two more noteworthy victories. She gathered those in the Haskell Invitational -- where she all but ran Belmont Stakes winner Summer Bird and speedy sprinter Munnings off their feet in the slop -- and in September's Woodward Stakes at Saratoga, becoming the first female ever to win that race against older males; a race run since 1954.

By the finish line of her Woodward win, Rachel had done enough -- as the Eclipse voting months later bore out -- to be named Horse of the Year, despite not running in the Breeders' Cup and not facing Zenyatta, who scored an historic win of her own on that championship weekend as the first female ever to win the Breeders' Cup Classic.

The campaign clearly took a lot out of Rachel. She was cooped up (a debatable choice versus true turnout) for months before starting back to work. And unlike her championship season of 2009, she's proved unable to muster the gumption to stave off any and all challengers, getting nipped at the wire in the New Orleans Ladies Stakes by 6-year-old Zardana and nosed out of the La Troienne-G2 at Churchill by Unrivaled Belle.

But is Rachel worse? Isn't it possible that on these dates -- remember, Rachel's first two starts since a lengthy layoff -- a very fit older mare and a rising 4-year-old who is more lightly raced and at the top of her form cycle, were just a little bit better?

And even if Rachel is not her former self, who's to say she would have been anyway, even with less aggressive handling?

John Shirreffs has done a masterful job with two-time champion older female Zenyatta. She didn't race at all as a juvenile, and Shirreffs thereafter brought the giant mare along slowly, allowing her to grow into her body and her talent. As a result, she is as brilliant at age 6, if not more so, than she was during her first championship season at age 4.

But there's no guarantee that a softer handling of Rachel Alexandra at age 3 would have resulted in a 4-year-old filly to rival Zenyatta at 4. A more conservative course for Rachel at 3 could have still resulted in a 3-year-old filly title, but hardly Horse of the Year, and she still might not be any better at age 4 than she's proven so far to be.

And let's face it: Unlike Jerry and Ann Moss, who have chosen to bring Zenyatta back at age 6 for another season of racing (for which we should be cascading them with roses), there's almost no chance that Jess Jackson has any interest in racing Rachel at age 5, let alone 6. She'll be in the breeding shed next late-February or early March, being covered by Jackson's two-time Horse of the Year Curlin. So what was better for Rachel's future value as a broodmare (and the prospective prices of her foals)? Two really good seasons and one "lesser" championship among fillies and mares?

I think -- for her value (a practical concern in a sport that is a business) and for her legacy -- Rachel Alexandra was better served by one full-throttle season in which she shook the racing world and made history almost every time she ran, with the well-earned reward of 2009 Horse of the Year.

It's a trainer's job to recognize how and when to get the most out of his horse. Nobody could have gotten more out of Rachel Alexandra in 2009 than did Steve Asmussen; she was Horse of the Year.

Did that leave her "short" in 2010? It's impossible to say with any certainty; we can only be guessing. So that's no more than a definite maybe.

But it's safe to say that if Rachel Alexandra had been handled more conservatively last year, she'd only have been the champion 3-year-old filly, not Horse of the Year.

And this year, she probably still wouldn't be able to beat Zenyatta.

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Seeking achievers among the cheaper

With a crack, the auctioneer's hammer fell.

The man next to me -- a race fan, sharp handicapper and operator of his own small, private racing stable -- leaned over, pointed to the video screen that beamed the price (a mere $7,000) and said, "That's mine." I hadn't even noticed him placing the bid, as I'd been reviewing the catalog page again and quickly scanning the filly in the ring for conformation and attitude as the auctioneer worked the onlookers for more every possible dollar at the Fasig-Tipton Midlantic Sale of 2-Year-Olds in Training at the Maryland state fairgrounds in Timonium.

And with that, the first horse purchased with any of my input as a bloodstock advisor was in the books: Hip 153, a bay filly by Sharp Humor out of the Irish Tower mare Gaye's Valentine.

Though I came away from the sale impressed perhaps more by Sharp Humor than any other freshman sire whose get were on the grounds, this one wasn't among the horses we'd walked in expecting to buy.

My mission, should I have chosen to accept it (which obviously I did), was to scour the 405-horse catalog for potential bargains, then to weed through those and find the animals we'd actually want to purchase at what were effectively well below median prices. Literally, the horses we'd want even though almost nobody else did.

That job proved a little harder to do considering the sale was an improvement by every financial measure over its 2009 counterpart, with gross revenues increasing 23 percent, and the average and median prices rising by 14 and 8 percent, to $47,984 and $27,000, respectively.

I tackled the project with enthusiasm, which didn't dim as the days wore on. From the two weeks prior to the sale schedule itself, and throughout my six days in Maryland, the experience was at times wearying and worrying (hey, we're workin' hard and spending money here), but priceless in the wisdom I've gained and the desire to do this sort of thing every day for the rest of my life.

Out of my pre-sale research, two days of watching the breeze shows, and visits to the consignment barns, I winnowed my list of potential horses down to 48. It isn't like we were trying to buy a dozen at this sale. But when the endeavor is to identify and purchase one or two of the true bargains among horses actually worth owning, I figured we needed to have a barrel full of possibilities.

I won't go through my selection process (unless you'd care to hire me for a forthcoming sale, in which case my thoughts will be entirely transparent to you). Let it suffice to say I expected that some of the horses identified as possible bargains in the pre-sale process would obviously breeze their way out of "cheap" status, untold others for any number of physical or temperamental reasons would simply not be fit to recommend, a majority of the final list might sell for less than the sale average or median and still exceed our budget, and among those that did fall generally within our grasp, most would still have slipped through our fingers by not meeting their reserve or by having another bidder barely top us.

From the 405 horses in the book -- and the 312 that actually went through the ring -- I only felt confident that about a dozen would be both there for us at the price we needed, and be horses that we wanted. And as I reviewed on Tuesday-after the list of four dozen horses I'd prepped and prioritized for Monday's sale, I realized how right I'd been. Of the 48, exactly 12 had managed to stay within our sights.

I also knew that while some horses from the list (as it turned out, three out of four) would see their prices grow beyond our budgets, others that we might want to have could inexplicably fall into our laps. So some scrambling took place on auction-day itself (especially after a Cat Thief filly, Hip 12, saw the hammer fall at $5,000) to see horses in the outside and interior walking rings and gather sufficient decision-making information in order to make a last-minute identification of horses that just might be there in range and worth having, even though they weren't on our radar when the day begin.

Despite our status at the lower end of the price spectrum, we were buyers, not beggars, and can hardly afford not to be at least a little bit choosy.

Thus came to be the purchase of Hip 153.

At this time, it's worth reviewing my work from this sale, with each horse's selling price and a few thoughts. Remember, I was trying to tab desirable horses that I felt would land below (hopefully well below) the sale median.

EASMAY: My Chosen 48 by priority/category

Top choice, in a class by himself among these, was Hip 301, a Medaglia D'Oro colt out of the unraced Meadowlake mare Retiro Park, who is a full sister to champion filly MEADOW STAR and who from her nine foals has produced four winners, including G3 victor SNORTER. Sound like a colt you couldn't buy on the cheap, especially at a sale where the average purchase went for nearly $48,000 and by a sire whose average 2-year-old colt sells for $110,000? Maybe, but this 11-flat breezer was bought by agent Mark A. Wampler for $30,000, just three grand above the sale median and $70,000 beneath the sire's advertised 2010 stud fee. ... I knew chances were incredibly slight that we'd get him. But for a couple of reasons, I wanted to see him because I felt going into the sale that his price would not be nearly up to his sire's standards; and about that, at least, I was right.

Priority 1 Horses

Hip 7: Chestnut colt by Sharp Humor-Accusation, by Royal Academy. This 11.1-breezer at a sale where 10.4 was pretty good had a look consistent with most of the Sharp Humors -- strong shoulder, wide chest, muscular hind -- the embodiment of a horse who shouldn't get pushed around on a racetrack, but who can still run a bit. I liked the Randy Miles consignee quite a lot, but so did Raymond P. Susi, who bought him for $20,000.

Hip 37: Dark bay colt by Pleasant Tap-Biding Time, by Seeking the Gold. This big fella from the consignment of Eisaman Equine is the son of a G2-winning dam who just hasn't reproduced herself. Still, she has four winners from seven prior foals. He went for $35,000 to Mongolian Stable; more than I expected, but no doubt inflated a bit by a 10.4 breeze from a colt who is likely to be a two-turn 3-year-old.

Hip 63: Dark bay colt by Montbrook-Chancey Light, by Colony Light. This lanky fellow consigned by Peggy S. Dellheim was running a temperature on the day he was supposed to be running his breeze, and got pushed into Day 2 of the under-tack show. He still managed an 11.1 despite being under the weather a day prior. He wasn't the straightest stick in the woodpile, but considering he's by a sire who gets 2-year-olds and out of a stakes-winning mare of $160,405, I have to think the $15,000 spent by Jung Hun Seo on behalf of the KOID (that is, Korean racing interests) was money well spent.

Hip 72: Chestnut filly by Include-City Life, by Carson City. This girl became a list-cracker on sale-morning, after I decided to review her in the walking ring outside. The 11-flat breezer seemed to be a fairly nice, albeit not huge, filly, by a sire who gets winners, and out of a dam who has 5-for-6 winners from prior foals. Numbered among those older siblings are stakes winners URBAN GUY (G3-placed, $175K) and Maryland Million Lassie winner OBJECT OF VIRTUE. We took our shots, but ultimately the Wes Carter consignee went for a mere $12,000 to Dave Houghton.

Hip 104: Bay filly by Dehere-Dominating, by Cherokee Run. I would've loved this James Layden consignee at half the price, but the $42,000 paid by Robert Jacoff dims my enthusiasm a bit. Lots of professionalism on the page, but not much black type. The 10.4 breeze was good enough.

Hip 157: Bay filly by Grand Reward-Giana, by Exclusive Era. Sophomore sire already has 34 winners. Stakes-placed dam has produced 10 to race and seven winners from 11 foals; two of those foals also are stakes-placed, including one Group 3 performer in the U.K. She wasn't a tall girl, but she was only a week past her actual second birthday and despite only 60 days in training managed a 10.4 breeze. I think John Salzman made out like a bandit at $10,000 for this Pike Racing consignee.

Hip 176: Bay filly by Chief Seattle-Hey Darla, by Evansville Slew. Not altogether certain about the 2x3 inbreeding to Seattle Slew, but she was relatively clean and straight, and breezed a fair 11-flat. Though her dam was unraced, all three older siblings have started and two have won, most notably $200K-plus stakes winner R BETTY GRAYBULL. I'm shocked she didn't bring more than $6,000 (an RNA), although I have it on the consigner's own authority that it would have taken relatively little more to meet that reserve and result in a sale.

Hip 250: Chestnut colt by Mizzen Mast-Moussica, by Woodman. This one wasn't originally on my list, but consignor True South pressed me to look when I was at their barn to meet and greet other horses. So, I ranked him, but didn't expect the colt -- who worked 35.2 for three furlongs -- to be there for us at the right price. And he wasn't, going for $40,000 to Jack Smith Thoroughbreds; though that price is still below the sale average.

Hip 269: Bay colt by Aragorn-Pantelleria, by El Prado. Another introduced to my list by the consignor, this time Scott A. Bergsrud of SAB Sales. Turf-bred colt breezed 11-flat over a slow dirt course and should only improve on grass (or synthetic?). He generally had the right look, and I think buyers Marty Nixon and Joel Quinville did well to get him for just $21,000.

Hip 280: Dark bay colt by Dehere-Population(IRE), by General Assembly. Curious mating of a sire generally known for dirt horses with an Irish-bred mare who is already dam of two stakes winners, including English-raced G1 winner SARATOGA SPRINGS. Consigned by Mountain View Racing Stables LLC, the colt worked 11.1 and to the largest degree, looked the part. He sold for $20,000 and is also bound for Korea, the purchase made by Chun Yeon Hwang for KOID.

Hip 314: Dark bay colt by Defrere-Sandy Lass, by Line in the Sand. A couple of Deheres made the list, and now one by his full brother, Defrere. This one only worked in 11.1, but was by far one of the taller horses on the grounds, with a lot of filling out to do. He has a winning full sibling who earned nearly $84K, but two other full sibs include a 10-race maiden and one that broke down in its fourth start. Still, the Paul Sharp consignee was bought by David Cramer for just $7,000, and you can hardly get and keep a mare in foal and pay a cheap stud fee for that.

Hip 330: Gray or roan colt by Consolidator-Sixy Chic, by Saratoga Six. Consignor Bergsrud was candid in his own estimate of the colt as one of his more affordable in the sale. But I agreed with him that the horse should make a runner for somebody, somewhere. Statistics suggest the same; his sophomore sire got more than 60 percent starters and 19 percent winners from his first crop of 2-year-olds, and this one's dam has four winners from five foals of racing age, one of them a 15-win horse by another Storm Cat-line sire in Exploit. No horse is perfect, but this one's biggest outward "flaw" was shared with many others on my potential bargain list: He was short. He sold for $8,000 to Carl Doran, but had the horse been two or three inches higher at the withers and not a degree straighter nor tick faster, the money would have been two or three times greater, I'm sure.

Hip 337: Bay colt by Sharp Humor-Sparkling Forest, by Forest Wildcat. This PA-bred consigned by Paul Sharp breezed 11-flat, but I logged in my notes that he was a "decent goer," and when I saw him on the hoof, he was credited for a nice hind, good shoulder and generally being "built like a truck." Young dam is 2-for-2 winners from older foals. He went for $22,000 to Brian P. Reid.

Hip 363: Bay filly by Gulch-Thanksgiving(GER), by Lomitas(GB). One of the stranger pedigree matches in the sale, this girl is out of a mare who was stakes-placed in Germany and Italy, and whose dam was a stakes winner and Group 2-placed in Germany and has produced a second stakes horse that was also twice G2-placed. Again, she was a short one; very much so in her case. But otherwise, she was pretty well correct and balanced. She only breezed 11.2, about which I was wholly unconcerned. In my opinion, Bridget Sipp stole her from consignor Scanlon Training Center for $6,000, but we'll have to see how (and whether) she races to be sure.

Hip 383: Dark bay colt by Orientate-Verbal Volley, by Oh Say. I liked this one considerably, by an underrated sire and out of a stakes winning mare who is also a multiple stakes-producer. Unfortunately, he was a late "out" from the sale due to a readily correctible physical issue, a problem that consignor Cary Frommer was exceedingly forthcoming about a day prior to the sale while still mulling whether to sell him with a warning or keep him, fix him, and then figure out what to do. Good luck to Frommer and to the horse.

Hip 388: Dark bay colt by Stormy Atlantic-Wave On, by Caveat. This half-brother to dual G3 turf winner SAILOR'S CAP (who was ill-fated due to sickness, not track injury) breezed 11-flat on a slow dirt track and has another stakes-placer among his five winning half-sibs from six older foals out of this mare. Though there were other imperfections, my biggest complaint about the horse during a barn inspection was that, at the moment I saw him, he didn't seem very alert. Miles consigned this one, too, and the colt didn't sell in the ring, later bringing $35,000 in a private sale negotiated by agent Mark Henning for Lee Lewis.

Priority 2 Horses

Hip 23: Bay colt by Holy Bull-Antequera, by Green Dancer. Miles was able to sell this one privately for $45,000, a price that wasn't just too rich for our bids, but is more than I'd likely pay for the horse. I liked him, and he breezed 10.4 at a generally slow under-tack show, but obviously didn't love him (hence, only Priority 2), in no small part because his stakes-winning dam has only two winners from five prior foals, and one of those two only earned $22K. Deuce Greathouse bought this one for Wind River.

Hip 59: Bay filly by Medallist-Catalita, by Mountain Cat. This girl oughta be a decent racehorse for someone, but she only rated Priority 2 status for me primarily because of the very slow start by her sophomore sire, who has just 10 winners so far from his freshman crop of 59 foals. Bill Reightler sold her in the ring to William H. Harris for $35,000, and Mr. Harris (whom I completely by chance bumped into at a restaurant after the sale) really likes the filly. I like the filly, too; I'm just not fond of the price. Though it was hard to deny the fleetness of her 22 2/5 quarter over a slow track.

Hip 66: Chestnut colt by Yes It's True-Charleston, by High Yield. This guy was one of the taller I reviewed, and his biggest conformational flaw was a dip in his topline that didn't make him swaybacked, but was much outside my ideal. His unplaced dam is a half-sister to G3 millionaire and record-setter WEST VIRGINIA, but the Reightler-consigned New York-bred breezed just 23.0 and that probably kept a few people off him. He was an RNA at $32,000.

Hip 90: Dark bay gelding by Macho Uno-Dancing Lake, by Meadowlake. This horse consigned by Harris Training Center breezed 10.3 and seemed to have a lot going for him. He did have a shin problem at one time, according to the consignor. But what ultimately prompted me to scratch him from bid consideration even if he stayed in our price range (which he didn't) were his very lengthy pasterns. I have my doubts he'll stay sound on them in Korea, where KOID will send him after a $20,000 purchase.

Hip 105: Bay colt by Quiet American-Do Mountain Doo, by Mountain Cat. One of the overall tallest and biggest horses I reviewed, this one should do well in his new home of South Korea, bought for $20,000 by Gun Hang Lee for KOID. I had some conformational quibbles with him, but I did with every horse. Surely the 11.4 breeze is what did him in with many bidders. Still, the sire gets 82 percent runners and 59 percent winners, and there's no reason for me to believe this one consigned by Reightler won't land on the right side of those figures.

Hip 107: Chestnut filly by Thunder Gulch-Dream Princess, by Charismatic. Another shorter, but not necessarily slighter, filly, this one's dam is half to G3-winning blacktype and she has one older sibling who has raced without placing. Scanlon Training Center had her ready to breeze a pretty decent 10.3 and that quickly launched her out of our price range, all the way up to $45,000 paid by Northshore Racing.

Hip 141: Dark bay colt by Formal Dinner-Fountain of Truth, by Proud and True. Another from Dellhiem's small consignment, this one breezed a credible 10.4. I thought he was quite steep in the croup, but otherwise good enough, and though his dam was only a cheap winner, all the foals from his minor stakes-winning second dam did race and win, so there's professionalism in the family, if not brilliance. He didn't sell at a bid of $19,000.

Hip 177: Bay filly by Read the Footnotes-Highly Capable, by High Yield. One of the better pinhooking jobs at this sale, this one owned and consigned by Kenneth Lejeune sold for $57,000 after changing hands for only $1,700 as a fall yearling. She looked racy enough and breezed 22.4, which wasn't downright slow. I was a bit surprised by the price, but Lejeune -- with whom I chatted post-sale -- was understandably giddy. He thought she'd go in that range and he was right; good on ya, Kenneth.

Hip 209: Chestnut colt by Catienus-Keep Your Day Job, by Abaginone. In hindsight, I'm not 100 percent sure why this boy didn't land on the Priority 1 list, but mostly it had to do with a relative lack of type -- not just black type, but any text -- on his page. The PA-bred and Eddie Woods consignee is the first foal from his dam (who was stakes-placed for more than $100K lifetime) and his second dam bore only five foals to race, most of them by utter-bust sires. His third dam, stakes-placed on grass in France, bore five to race and got three winners, but no stakes horses. Still, quite simply put, Catienus upgrades mares. And that's when compared to decent sires. For a female family that of late has seen nothing but the lowest grade of stallion, he might really provide a useful racehorse out of what seems like a black hole of talent. This colt might only have breezed 23.3, but he had good bone, a cool head under inspection, and a fairly racy look. The sire gets 82 percent runners, 61 percent winners and his raced foals last an average of 20.2 starts at the track, significantly above the breed average. Watch this one do at least a little something, probably plenty to merit the $6,000 paid by Murray L. Rojas.

Hip 212: Bay colt by Soto-Ladies First, by El Raggaas. I was pretty sure that progeny of a sire already banished not only from Kentucky, but from the country, would be somewhere in or near our price range. And, I was right. This one consigned by Miles breezed "just" 11.1 and sold for only $11,000 to B&B Racing Stable LLC. Yet, his unraced dam has produced nine to race and six winners (two of them of a dozen races each) from 10 foals. His second dam won 12 races, including a stakes event, and produced 10 winners from 11 total foals, four of them stakes horses, three blacktype winners, including CHURCHBELL CHIMES, who managed to win stakes every year from ages 3 through 6, including the Maryland Million Oaks and Distaff. Why wouldn't this one also be some sort of racehorse?

Hip 234: Dark bay filly by Jump Start-Meg's Answer, by West Acre. Didn't like the fact that she is the first foal from an unraced dam by a fairly modest sire. But the second dam won 11 times and produced three stakes horses, two of them blacktype winners. This filly was among the tallest I screened, had a nice head and eye, a good shoulder, breezed 11-flat, and already has her gate card. Still, she only brought $19,000 for Crane Thoroughbreds as agent for Ghost Ridge Farms; the buyer was Durado Circle Farm.

Hip 242: Chestnut colt by Silver Train-Miss Special Salsa, by Mr. Greeley. This Scanlon-consigned NY-bred breezed 10.3, had a huge neck, a nice croup and good overall balance, and yet only brought a top bid of just $7,000 from Ron Moquette. His dam was unraced, but by Mr. Greeley and out of G2-placed MISS HOT SALSA; third dam G3 winner MISS HIGH BLADE. ... Seven thousand dollars?

Hip 270: Chestnut colt by Flower Alley-Past Due, by Devil His Due. The consignor, True South, urged me to look at this one, but he was nowhere near our price range. And I'm not really sure why he went for quite what he did; $60,000 to Commonwealth Racing. Sure, his dam is a half-sister to Sharp Humor, another freshman sire whose foals I really liked in this sale. And the colt breezed 10.4 with a low-to-the-ground action that seemed very efficient. Still, he's the first foal from a non-winning dam whose own mother only bore three total foals (one other winner of $61K), and he's by a freshman sire, so there's little here to give him racehorse credentials on family history. Maybe he'll go out and prove himself on the track; I'm not rooting against him. But I swallowed hard when I saw $60,000 on the board for him, and it wasn't even my money.

Hip 315: Bay colt by Gibson County-Sanibel Sole, by Miswaki. Sire's get are usually early, fast at breeze shows, don't often bring a lot at auction, and don't frequently last that long at the track. Witness a textbook case. This colt looked pretty good to me, with a strong shoulder, nice withers, bigger bone than I expected and better pasterns than most I reviewed. He wasn't big, but he was balanced. He breezed a brisk (for this sale) 10.2; nobody went faster than 10.1. His page shows two stakes-winning siblings, a stakes-placer, and a more modest-winning full brother. ... And he didn't sell for Timber Creek at a bid of just $18,000.

Hip 322: Dark bay filly by Chief Seattle-Senita Lane, by Ascot Knight. Modest stakes-winning dam has six winners from seven prior foals, including G2-placed Zip Quik. NY-bred filly had her conformational quirks, but pretty good bone and an 11-flat breeze in which she moved decently enough. Consigned by Hudson Meadows Racing LLC, she was bought by trainer Gary Contessa for a very attractive price of $15,000.

Hip 323: Dark bay colt by Dehere-Shadowy Waters, by Wild Again. Another page on which the more recent dams just didn't have many foals to tout, at least this one was the son of a stakes-placed filly who earned $104K. Short colt had good bone and an almost-effortless 35.4 breeze. Actually brought a little more for consigner Kirkwood Stables than I thought he might; Richard Sanders paid $40,000.

Hip 350: Chestnut colt by Langfuhr-Surprising Fact, by Known Fact. Grade 3 stakes-winning dam is also a stakes producer. Sire just gets racehorses; 82 percent of his foals start and 59 percent win. Colt had a bit of a narrow base and upright pasterns, but on the whole he was presentable and he breezed a credible 11.0. Richard Hessee scored him for $27,000 out of the consignment of Ciaran Dunne's Wavertree Stables Inc.

Hip 380: Bay colt by Stormy Atlantic-Unbriled Femme, by Unbridled. Though this colt breezed but 23-flat, he did it after being medicated to reduce swelling in his face and throat due to an apparent snakebite, and he moved well. And his first dam is a stakes winner (by Unbridled, which I tried not to hold against her) and his second dam a G3-placer by Deputy Minister (a big plus). ... My first impression upon his head and shoulders hitting daylight while leaving his stall was, well, "Holy (blank)." Upon further inspection, he indeed had a great shoulder and withers, was nicely short-coupled, and had a good rear base. But he seemed much weaker on muscle in the hindquarters than in front, and while his pastern angle was good, they were a little long. He didn't sell in the ring for consignor True South LLC, which set a reserve higher than the $34,000 he brought from bidders.

Hip 390: Dark bay filly by Cetewayo-Western Glitter, by Glitterman. Another one that piqued my curiosity on pedigree, as the durable turf marathon horse Cetewayo was put to a mare by a sire known for short-distance runners. The result was a very big filly, among the largest of either sex I reviewed despite being a June 4 foal who wasn't truly even 2 years old yet. Despite her age and size, which you'd think would limit her speed, she managed an 11-flat breeze. With virtually no blacktype under the first two dams, and really rather modest production by them overall, and with a sire who is the furthest possible thing from "commercial," I didn't expect much of a price. And consignor Dellheim didn't get one, either; a bid of $15,000 that resulted in an RNA.

Hip 397: Chestnut filly by Langfuhr-Wild Linda, by Wild Again. Another Langfuhr that I liked, and it's hard not to considering the sire's productivity. This one has a stakes-placed dam who ran out for more than $160K herself, and has produced a stakes-placer among four winners out of seven older foals. She only breezed 11.2 and is longer in both the body and the pastern than I would like. But Joel Zawitz didn't take much risk in buying her from Eisaman Equine, the consigning agent, for a paltry $6,500.

Hip 401: Dark bay colt by Flower Alley-Winner's Ticket, by Jolie's Halo. Another consigned by Bergsrud that will make an affordable racehorse for someone, this colt breezed 11.0 and was described by the consignor as "athletic." The colt was stout with a big shoulder and nice hind, though his neck struck me as a bit short and he had some minor crookedness in his legs. Topping off his credentials was his status as a half-brother to seven winners, including dual G3 hero SKIP TO THE STONE and $232K stakes winner MY HEAVENLY SIGN. Bridget Sipp also grabbed this one for a cool $6,000.

Priority 3 Horses

Hip 36: Gray or roan filly by Mizzen Mast-Bet Birdie, by Bet Twice. Here's one that probably should have been on a higher list just on page and gut-feeling alone. I think she has the potential to be a serious racehorse, and so did other buyers at the sale, because this former $14,000 yearling brought $50,000 for consignor Eisaman from Pewter Stable and Paul Profera. Despite conformation that I once described as a bit "goofy," I can understand why. She's built more downhill than probably any other horse in the sale, and had a big engine for a girl who was otherwise not all that bulky. She breezed a credible 10.4, but what I liked most was that she cornered like she was on rails. Her dam was a stakes winner of $188K and has produced two stakes-placers from five winners out of seven foals. Oh, plus a Hollywood Park record-setter in Banner Lodge, who once blistered 6 1/2 furlongs in 1:13.79. I have a hunch this filly is ready to go and win soon. I also knew that, based on the activity around her every time I passed, she was probably going to be fought over in the ring, and she was.

Hip 171: Bay colt by Stormy Atlantic-Hay Lauren, by Hay Halo. Lowest-rated of three Stormy Atlantics I reviewed at the behest of my client, this one still gave plenty of evidence that he should be a racehorse, from his 10.4 breeze to his stakes-winning dam who has already produced winners from both prior foals. (The sales catalog says one is only placed in the Philippines, but she's won at least twice; I saw her do it online.) This fellow is also headed overseas, not to the Philippines but to Korea, another purchase by the visitors from KOID, for $20,000. He was from the consignment of Murray Smith.

Hip 217: Chestnut filly by Grand Reward-Leelu, by Carson City. Modest-winning dam has 2-for-2 winners from older siblings. The Timber Creek consignee covered an eighth well enough in 10.4, and looked cleaner and straighter than most on the list. Maybe should have rated higher with me, in hindsight. But still, she only brought $16,000 in the ring and didn't meet reserve.

Hip 281: Dark bay filly by Kafwain-Potomac Bend, by Polish Numbers. Filly has four older siblings, two multiple winners and one a juvenile stakes-placer who never broke maiden. Dam a G3 winner who is full to another stakes-placer. Filly breezed 10.4 and showed good extension, but I was a bit put off by her longer and more upright pasterns, and her sire's statistical history of downgrading mares. She brought a top bid of $30,000 and that wasn't enough to buy her from Frommer's consignment.

Hip 338: Chestnut filly by Forest Danger-Sparkling Pink, by Marquetry. Another filly out of a stakes-winning dam to only rate third-tier status from me, but this one was close to being upgraded to Category 2. She breezed 10.3 and looked like a "pretty serious horse" doing it, according to my notes. But her sire hasn't exactly set the forest afire with his first crop, and conformationally I had more reservations about this filly than most on the list. Apparently so did other potential buyers, as she was an RNA at just $9,000 for Timber Creek.

Hip 347: Bay filly by Gibson County-Sultry Peg Cee. Another of those precocious and fleet Gibson Countys, this one breezed a solid 10.3 and already has her gate card. Her dam bore six to race and five winners from seven prior foals, including a 2-year-old winner and NTR-setter who is a full sibling to this one. This one from Timber Creek ended up being a very late "out" in the sale, announced only a few dozen hips before her number was called.

Hip 393: Bay filly by Indian Charlie-Why So Much, by Meadowlake. While I'm not the biggest fan of Indian Charlie, this girl's reasonably good-looking 11.0 breeze and status as half to five stakes horses (three SWs, two G3-placed) and to another half-sis who is a producer of a G3 winner, was just too much to overlook. Especially since she had failed to sell for $70,000 at an earlier 2-year-old show, despite being a $110,000 yearling. ... Time was running out to move her, and somebody was probably gonna get a deal on the Nick De Meric consignee. That "somebody" -- or "somebodies," as it turns out -- ended up being William Pape and Joe Cassidy, who bought her for $65,000. Nowhere near what we came to pay, but I'd wanted to keep an eye on her anyway.

Priority 4 Horses

Hip 1: Dark bay filly by Grand Reward-You're A Lady, by Youmadeyourpoint. This filly is evidence that if you were on my list at all, you were a horse worth taking a shot with. Filly breezed a competent 10.4 and is out of a 12-race stakes winner of $180K who is half to G3 winner and G2-placed WHERE'S TAYLOR. Second dam was half to Arlington H.-G1 record-setter PASS THE LINE. I didn't think she was very strong conformationally, primarily in her neck, though nothing about her seemed so bad as to make her a danger to herself in racing. (Any more than racing already is dangerous.) Still, as the first foal through the ring, she only brought $6,000 for consigner Timber Creek; buyer was Thomas Nash.

Hip 163: Chestnut colt by Soto-Good Forecast, by Caveat. Miles consigned both Sotos in the sale and I would be glad to have either of them in my (hypothetical) racing stable, especially at the price; $8,500 for this one, paid by Uriah St. Lewis. This one's dam is a stakes-placer and has her own stakes-placer from her three winners out of seven prior foals (not a good percentage, one reason for the downgrade). The colt breezed 11-flat and generally had the right look, though there were things not to like about him here and there. Miles conceded someone had "buggered-up" the colt's shins before the horse got to Miles, but he said the problem was corrected and should be of no consequence to the horse's racing soundness. I think he's a good gamble for his buyer.

Hip 275: Gray or roan filly by Tapit-Peyvon, by Slewacide. I went in wanting to love the Tapits as much as everyone else seems to, but while this one made the list, she didn't make it easy to recommend her. The 11.1 breeze wasn't so bad, except I thought she looked a bit unfocused in her move. And though she was a $130,000 RNA as a weanling, her conformation at age 2 (lighter in bone and muscle, longer and more upright in the pasterns than I'd like) didn't suggest that she should have been, despite her dam's status as a stakes winner and the producer of G3 winner/G1-placed MASSIVE DRAMA. Parrish Farms, the consignor, ultimately sold her privately to Edward Williams for $42,000.

OK then, to summarize my performance at trying to locate the worthy among the sale's bargains (true worth to be determined about three years from now, after they've raced ... or haven't) the statistics are as follows.

Of 48 selected, two were late-outs, leaving us with 46 horses on which to bid. Eight of those did not meet reserve, all but two of those at prices not just below, but well below, the sale median.

The 38 to sell brought a combined $933,000, for $24,552.63 on average. That's close to half as pricey as the sale average. The median price on my list was $20,000 -- certainly more than we were looking to pay, but $7,000 beneath the median for the sale.

So on the whole, I was effective at singling out the less-costly horses in the book, not that it's all that difficult to do. (Though there is homework involved.)

The question is, did I find a high percentage of achievers among the cheaper? And, if so, will anybody hire me to do it again?

Saturday, May 15, 2010

Could he be that unlucky?

I'm Preakness-bound within the next couple of hours, so today I'll see in person whether 2-year-old champ Lookin at Lucky could possibly racing under brutally unfortunate circumstances yet again.

Contrary to his name, Lookin at Lucky has had the ill fate to suffer nothing but horrible trips dating back to his Breeders' Cup Juvenile runner-up finish last November. In the Kentucky Derby two weeks ago, he had the bad luck to draw the rail (from which no horse has won since Ferdinand in 1986), was beaten around and shuffled back on the first trip past the stands at Churchill, and yet somehow managed to be full of run in the homestretch to finish sixth.

The misfortune eventually resulted in Lucky's trainer, Bob Baffert, deciding on a rider change, just to shake things up. Garrett Gomez is off to ride Dublin for D. Wayne Lukas, replaced by Martin Garcia. And maybe "Go Go" took that bad mojo with him -- Lukas' Dublin drew the far outside Post 12 for the Preakness. Lookin at Lucky and Garcia will break from the seven-hole, right next to their biggest adversary, Kentucky Derby winners Super Saver and Calvin Borel.

Whatever happens, it looks like I'll have a very good view. More about that post-race.

Thursday, May 13, 2010

Late-night reflections from Timonium

TIMONIUM, Md. -- Hello, blog. I'm just stopping by to check in after a long, but enjoyable Wednesday in Maryland, where I'm taking part for the first time in all the activity surrounding an auction of 2-year-old racehorses.

The day began with my cell phone alarm not going off as it was set (I double-checked and the darned thing does seem to have been programmed correctly), and the hotel front desk wake-up-call service apparently missing my room as well. Luckily I woke up on my own, only a little behind schedule, and made it to where I needed to be in plenty of time. That being the first day of the breeze show for Fasig-Tipton's Midlantic sale of 2-year-olds in training.

After a good five hours of watching dozens upon dozens of horses rumble past the grandstand at the fairgrounds racetrack in Timonium a few lessons have been learned.

1. Horse people are generally good folk, both fans and the "players" in the game. Fun to talk with, at the very least. ... Many have a sense of humor, too. Overheard from one attendee of the under tack show: "Good crowd today. Looks like the grandstands during the actual race-meet at Laurel."

2. Some of these horses increased their stock dramatically by posting more rapid breeze times, while others likely cost their consigners significantly by being a tick or two slower than average.

3. That faster or slower one-fifth of a second run on Wednesday (or during today's second session of the breeze show) neither makes nor breaks a racehorse; it won't be the difference whether that animal is a winner or loser in the future. Not unless some track starts carding eighth-mile races with walk-up starts.

4. Sunscreen. Buy it. Use it.

Other lessons were learned later in the day and into the evening.

Traffic stinks on I-695 and I-70 headed west from the Baltimore area between 4 and 6 p.m.

The fan accommodations at Charles Town are significantly better than those at Laurel and Pimlico. In exchange, you have to follow a red-carpet path and arrow signs as you negotiate a twisting trek of something like 12.7 miles from the parking garage through the vast slot machine parlors (and under-construction areas for upcoming table games) before reaching the racetrack and its seating. The path is so convoluted that you really should be rewarded with cheese when you reach the end.

Yuengling Black & Tan is pretty good beer, and the Charles Town concessionaire sells a pretty fair slice of pepperoni pizza at a decent price. For track food, at least.

In the mud at Charles Town, take the speed horse and expect her to hold on, at least for a piece. Unless I, Glenn Craven, have effectively identified and wagered upon the speed horse, in which case he or she will die in the stretch and finish next-to-last.

When I get the notion that I should really quit while I'm behind, I should quit. Instead, I stayed for the ninth at CT, watched my horse win the race, and knew before he ever crossed the wire that he was gonna get taken down and placed second.

Let's hope for an equally educational Thursday. Minus the sunburn.

Sunday, May 9, 2010

Censored in China: Now I'm somebody

I've just received perhaps the most interesting personal news in the 368-day history of this blog.

I'm blacklisted in Beijing.

Ann Ferland, traveling with her husband, informs me this evening that she'll have to wait until she gets home to check up on my most recent reflections.

"The Great Firewall of China seems to think your blog is too dangerous for people in this country to access," she writes.

In the next few days, this blog will have topped 20,000 visitors in slightly more than a year online. (I'd hoped to make that figure by its anniversary and fell short. And it was soooo in reach.) ... Imagine how many visitors I might have had if nearly 1.4 billion potential Chinese admirers weren't barred from reading? (I kid.)

I'm pretty sure that I know how this happened. In ranting about those who complain about the dark side of horse racing (drugs, etc.) and thus feed information to reporters anonymously rather than putting their names, reputations and credentials on the line to solidify their claims, I cited the Tiananmen Square "Tank Man" as a person of courage who changed the course of world history by putting himself at risk.

I suspect the Chinese communists would prefer the whole world would forget about Tiananmen Square. Fat chance. But, being a dictatorship, the Beijing government does have the power to blind its citizens to what those of us on the outside think of such totalitarianism.

At least I'm still not banned in Boston. Although wouldn't it make me darkly intriguing if I were?

Saturday, May 8, 2010

Un-'Lucky' Gomez travels to Dublin for Preakness

You gotta love Bob Baffert. Whether or not you like the way he trains a racehorse (and there are some fans who don't seem to like the way anybody trains a racehorse), he's at least a great and usually frank interview.

Baffert on Saturday responded to the constant questions from media about whether 2-year-old champ Lookin At Lucky will run a week from today in the Preakness with the most specific response a trainer could give. In a manner of speaking.

"We're at 52 percent today," Baffert wisecracked.

That 48 percent unknown is accompanied by the uncertainty of a rider change should Lucky compete at Pimlico. Jockey Garrett Gomez is off the horse, and Baffert has not decided who will ride if Lucky races in the Preakness.

Gomez rode Lucky to his championship -- and through an unbroken series of horrible trips that began in the Breeders' Cup Juvenile and continued all the way through Derby Day, when Lucky had the misfortune of drawing the rail. Baffert criticized Gomez's ride in the Santa Anita Derby, when Lookin At Lucky was knocked around, but still finished third. Still, the trainer later said the jock would not be fired from the mount.

But today, Gomez's agent, Ron Anderson, said the rider had been told a jockey change was forthcoming -- just in an effort to revivify Lucky's fortunes -- so Anderson scrambled up a Preakness mount for Gomez aboard Dublin for trainer D. Wayne Lukas.

"I told Ron I didn't know if I was gonna run the horse (at Pimlico), but if I did I was going to make a chance only because of the bad luck we've been having lately," Baffert told The Blood-Horse. "Just out of respect, I said, 'If you can find another mount, find it,' because I didn't want him to get shut out."

While Baffert fumed about Gomez's ride in the Santa Anita, he conceded there was nothing the jockey could have done to improve Lucky's chances at Churchill.

"The thing is, he just had some bad trips, but the last race, there's nothing Garrett could have done," Baffert said. "The one-hole killed him."

There's certainly been a run of tough luck for all concerned. So maybe change will be good for everybody.

Friday, May 7, 2010

So long, Eskendereya; hope you're bred to soundness

For the second straight season, a runaway winner of the Wood Memorial has approached Kentucky Derby Day as the likely favorite in the race, and been scratched before the Run for the Roses due to injury.

And with word of the retirement of this year's stunner of a scratch, it's possible we'll never see either of them race again. (Although last year's defector, I Want Revenge, just this morning posted a published work at Aqueduct; 3f in :38.25.)

Zayat Stables has announced that Eskendereya, victor in a runaway Wood, is through with racing due to the soft-tissue injury that kept him out of the Derby. Owner Ahmed Zayat says he will retain a significant ownership stake in the horse in a partnership with Jess Jackson, billionaire owner of Stonestreet Stables and Horses of the Year Curlin and Rachel Alexandra.

Zayat said that he and Jackson "will work to develop the best progeny for American racing."

Word of advice, Messrs Zayat and Jackson: A program to breed "the best progeny for American racing" really should endeavor to eliminate the trend of the fleet-but-fleeting, six-race superhorse.

In other words, as stallions, 4-for-6 Eskendereya, "not so much;" 11-for-16 Curlin, closer to a "yes," though his own sire raced but eight times and his dam not at all.

I understand that the current market will greet Eskendereya with open arms, just as it has eight-race wonder Empire Maker (who stands for $50,000 this year), sire of Zayat's own 10-race G1 winner Pioneerof The Nile, who didn't race past the Preakness his 3-year-old year. It shouldn't, but it will.

At the very least, I beg of you -- all of you, not just these men of abundant wealth, but anyone who is mating sire to dam in hopes of a racehorse -- give more than passing thought to soundness.

We've apparently spent the last several generations of thoroughbred breeding so focused on horses who'll breeze a 10-flat eighth at a 2-year-old sale to bring top-dollar -- and hopefully win a few graded stakes on their way to a post in one of those 20 starting gates at Churchill on the first day of each May -- such that now many of the fastest aren't even holding together long enough to reach the targeted race, let alone competing at age 4 and beyond.

Empire Maker raced eight times and Pioneerof The Nile's dam, Star of Goshen, only five; her dam just six. It could be argued that Pioneerof The Nile exceeded expectations by reaching double-digits in starts.

Lava Man went to post 47 times. With Slew City Slew (42 starts) and Li'l Miss Leonard (18 races) as his parents, it makes perfect sense. (And while Lava Man's second dam, Pink Native, was unraced, her sire Be a Native, raced 42 times, and her dam, Pink Khal, answered the call to post on 57 occasions.)

So please present Eskendereya nothing but mares from lineages that demonstrated rock-solid soundness. Mares who ran a couple-dozen times themselves, and who have siblings that totaled starts in the 40s or 50s. Or hundreds.

I just checked the stats. Empire Maker from his first three crops has 66 percent starters from all foals (not a particularly high number, but not atrocious). Yet their average number of starts per runner for Empire Maker's 190 foals to race: 6.5. Even accounting for the fact that a third of his runners just turned 3 and have had little chance, that simply isn't good enough. For example, fellow fourth-crop sire Macho Uno has a band of runners who are the same age as Empire Maker's, yet their number of starts average 9.2, a disparity I suspect will widen rather than narrow as these stallions' records develop over the next decade or more.

A fast horse is a thing of wonder.

Fast and fragile is not in the best interest of the horse, nor of racing's future. And there should be no wondering about that.

Thursday, May 6, 2010

Rachel one year post-purchase: Better for it?

I launched this blog one year ago tomorrow with a lengthy pondering of the Rachel Alexandra purchase by Jess Jackson.

The brilliant 3-year-old filly had just completely left a field of her contemporaries in the Kentucky Oaks, leaving some to wonder whether she might have belonged in the Derby, instead. We would know within less than two weeks whether Rachel Alexandra "belonged" with the boys, as Jackson's camp, including trainer Steve Asmussen, pointed her toward the Preakness, instead of Pimlico's Black Eyed Susan, the traditional filly target. And her jockey, Calvin Borel, begged-off his Derby winner, Mine That Bird, to pilot his favored filly to victory in the Preakness, the first female to win the race since Nellie Morse in 1924.

Here we are a year later, and many steps have been run; races and championships won. Rachel was set on a course that her breeder and first owner, Dolphus Morrison, would never have taken; racing her three times against males. Morrison is among those owners (and trainers, and fans) who think that fillies belong in filly races, colts and geldings have "their" races, and never the twain shall meet.

Rachel proved up to the task in 2009. For Jackson and Asmussen, she rebounded from her gritty Preakness win with a cakewalk by record margin and time in a short-field running of the Mother Goose. Then she trounced a field of boys -- including Belmont Stakes winner Summer Bird -- over a wet track in the Haskell Invitational, becoming only the second filly to win that summer classic. (The first was champion Serena's Song in 1995.) Last, she gutted out a front-running win in the Woodward Stakes at Saratoga, the first female ever to win that race, which has been run annually since 1954.

Though she skipped the Breeders' Cup at Santa Anita -- owner Jackson had said for months he would not run his filly on the Pro-Ride synthetic course there, referring to such surfaces as "plastic" -- Rachel Alexandra's historic campaign was rewarded with Eclipse awards, not only as champion 3-year-old filly (which she was beyond doubt), but for Horse of the Year, to the chagrin of those who favored lifetime-unbeaten older mare Zenyatta.

The filly who had already set three records in 2009 for Morrison and his trainer and dear friend, Hall Wiggins -- that is, stakes-record times in the Golden Rod at Churchill and Martha Washington at Oaklawn Park, and a margin record in the Oaks -- went on for Jackson/Asmussen to set two records in the Mother Goose, and to win three indisputably historic victories vs. males. With Morrison and Wiggins it isn't an unreasonable assumption that Rachel would have been 3-year-old champion filly anyway. But with Jackson and Asmussen's aggressive handling, she became Horse of the Year.

So it would be difficult to argue that Rachel Alexandra was sold from a good situation into a lesser one.

Or would it?

After a grueling 3-year-old campaign, Rachel was laid-up for months without a work. She has come back to run tenaciously in a pair of stakes races -- and has lost them both by slim margins, the New Orleans Ladies to Zardana and most recently the La Troienne-G2 to Unrivaled Belle. Losing to an elder like Zardana in a comeback race after a long layoff is less surprising than being nipped at the wire by a fellow 4-year-old who'd made half as many lifetime starts and never won above the Grade 3 level.

Was Rachel Alexandra merely ahead of her age group as a 3-year-old, and now they've caught up? If so, she would hardly be the first horse to have been as good (especially by comparison) as she'd ever be at age 3 (or in some cases even at age 2), but only a "good" or even "average" horse at age 4 and beyond.

Or is she just not the same filly that she was in 2009? Has she "lost" something along the way? A step, or a little bit of heart? ... And if so, whose fault (if anyone's) is that? Should she have been handled more conservatively -- say, like a John Shirreffs might do, and did with Zenyatta at ages 3 and 4?

So on the anniversary eve of this blog, a poll: Rachel Alexandra, better off with Jackson and Asmussen?

Vote. And discuss in the comments thread, please. I can't wait to see what some of you think on this subject.

I'll tell you what I believe after the poll closes.

Meanwhile, I hope more than nine people vote, unlike my last Rachel poll. Geez, she gets beat once (now twice) and all the Rachel fans go into hiding?

Wednesday, May 5, 2010

Cool move: Ice Box to skip Preakness

Industry sources are reporting that Ice Box, runner-up to Super Saver on Saturday in the Kentucky Derby, will not line up for a second shot at the Calvin Borel-piloted colt when he takes the next step toward Borel's brash Triple Crown prediction in the May 15 Preakness Stakes at Pimlico.

Smart move. If I were Nick Zito, who trains Ice Box, I'd do the same, even if the horse came out of the Derby cool and composed.

There could be several reasons why even a fit and icepick-sharp Ice Box shouldn't ship to Pimlico, but only one really matters.

He's going to win the Belmont Stakes instead.

Now, I'm hardly "going all Calvin" in that statement. And yes, maybe Ice Box doesn't run in that race, either. But if he's going to freeze out a Super Saver Triple Crown bid (provided somebody else doesn't do it a week from Saturday, which is entirely possible), Ice Box's best bet is the Belmont.

I'm not sold on the "front-runners win the Preakness; closers don't" poppycock. That might once have been true, but over the past couple of decades the race has been won by horses from any- and everywhere in the field at the first and second calls -- maybe least of all by the race's early leader. (I'd have to check, and won't at the moment take the time. But Andrew Beyer did that legwork at some point in the past.)

Still, at 9 1/2 furlongs instead of 10, a closing Ice Box might get the door slammed on him just before the wire again.

That won't be the case at the 12-furlong Belmont Stakes. Super Saver has a shot to get that distance, particularly with Belmont-winner A.P. Indy as his broodmare sire. But Ice Box is a grandson of A.P. Indy on his sire's side (via Pulpit), out of a mare by Belmont-winner Tabasco Cat -- a mare named Spice Island who twice won (on grass) in stakes company at a mile and a half herself. So if anybody still on the Triple Crown trail is bred to get the Belmont distance, it's Ice Box.

And Zito should have him right, especially with the extra two weeks of prep; two weeks Super Saver won't have. Remember Zito's boy Birdstone? Smarty Jones does.

Ice Box was closing fast on Super Saver in the final strides of a Derby run in sorta glacial time.

On June 5 in the Belmont Stakes, Ice Box down the stretch should be like a snowball rollin' downhill.

Tuesday, May 4, 2010

Breeding observations from a wise guy

I'm engrossed in study of the catalog for the upcoming Fasig-Tipton Midlantic Sale of 2-year-olds in training, which prompted this realization.

Both from horses in this catalog and from their elder siblings, I can see the influence commercial breeding has on the sales market, and on the breed.

There are countless examples of foals that were bred (seemingly) not for winning races or surviving long careers at the track, but merely to cash in on a hot sire or "fashionable" breeding. Foals out of mares who were good, stakes-producers with what some would consider marginal sires, suddenly sent to the biggest names in the book. And, to a degree, it makes sense: If she can produce a statebred stakes winner with a regional sire, shouldn't she produce better when sent to a Storm Cat or Unbridled's Song?

Perhaps, but breeders in the process seem to forget what got them there; a nick that worked repeatedly among her earlier foals, particularly, or the type of racemare she was or sort of runner she'd previously produced. The commercial name as sire of the forthcoming offspring becomes more important than actually building upon the racing success of that foal's elder siblings.

Another trend I've noticed repeatedly in breeding for the American market is a measure of disdain for good turf horses. In all financial spectrums of the market, time and again, stakes-class grass mares are bred to decidedly "dirt" sires. And I'm not talking about sires who were raced on dirt themselves but have proved they can get you a turf horse now and again -- like Tale of the Cat, whose progeny earnings are nearly one-third on turf and who has sired the likes of last year's champion grass horse, Gio Ponti. Rather, the mare is sent to a horse whose get don't even seem to like grass for rolling or snacking.

Some of that phenomenon also is attributable to the sales. In the States, a splendid-looking colt by a dirt-oriented young sire (let's say Bernardini) has "Kentucky Derby" written all over him in the eyes of prospective buyers at a yearling sale. A colt of that same visual quality, sired by Kitten's Joy or English Channel, instead reads "Hollywood Derby." And while they're both Grade 1 races, Hollywood's race ain't "America's Race," and thus far fewer folks are lined up to pay the price of admission for the dream of having a horse in the starting gate on the first Saturday of each May at Churchill Downs.

Another market force in the dirt-over-turf breeding decision is the horse's usefulness at all levels of racing. While Virginia's Colonial Downs cards even bottom-level maiden and claiming races on the lawn -- the most beautiful lawn at any racecourse in America, I might add -- you can't get that everywhere. In fact, almost nowhere. And some tracks (ranging in quality from backwater bullrings to Oaklawn Park) don't have a turf course at all. Some buyers -- and thus breeders -- might be concerned that a horse methodically bred for turf will have nowhere to run if he isn't good enough to compete in allowance- or stakes-class races. So breeders put that good turf mare to a good dirt sire just in case the foal ends up needing to run for a $5,000 tag. Well, congratulations: You quite likely just bred a $5,000 plater.

I understand that at this stage, I have no street -- or, let's say, "back side" -- cred as a critic. My first foal in this game is a yearling; his 2009 stablemate already dead. (One of the harsh realities of the horse business; accidents happen.) And, being among the masses who can't afford a five-digit stud fee, let alone six, I sure haven't jumped into the deep end of the gene pool to start my breeding program.

But before getting involved, I watched this game from the sidelines for a decade, both the races and the sales. And soon enough, we'll be finding out whether that has made me wise, or just a wise guy.

Saturday, May 1, 2010

Silver Music's swan song: G2 winner dies back at home in Virginia while covering mare

I told Sid Fernando this afternoon that maybe this is the best possible way to go for an athlete who is past his prime.

Silver Music, a Grade 2 stakes winner for whom I've been honored and privileged to be the caretaker since autumn 2008, died this morning -- May 1, 2010 ... Kentucky Derby Day -- in the state of his foaling, while covering a mare at Hilltop Farm in Gordonsville, Va. He was 19 years of age.

The striking gray was foaled on Valentine's Day, 1991, on the expansive Spring Hill Farm near Casanova, Va., a homebred of Edward P. Evans, one of the nation's more noteworthy breeders of racing thoroughbreds. The colt was a son of Silver Ghost (Mr. Prospector-Misty Gallore, by Halo) and was out of the Stop the Music mare, Music Bell, who is still alive and well in retirement at Spring Hill Farm at age 24.

I last saw him on April 3, when the accompanying photo was taken. He was an impressive horse, and it has been an honor and a privilege to be his caretaker for the last 20 months of his life.

Though only a modest winner at the track, his dam, Music Bell, came from exceptional family and proved to be an outstanding producer. Her dam was Grade 3 stakes winner Belladora (Stage Door Johnny-Prayer Bell, by Better Self), a three-quarters sister to 1969's American 2-year-old champion Silent Screen (by Stage Door Johnny's sire, Prince John). Both Prayer Bell and Silver Music's fourth dam, Spinaway Stakes-winner Sunday Evening (Eight Thirty-Drowsy, by Royal Minstrel) have been designated reines de course.

Music Bell also produced G2 turf winner Musical Ghost (Red Smith H. at 11f) and $784K-earning Japanese runner Ghost Soldier (both full brothers to Silver Music), plus a five-times stakes-winning filly in the sprinter Prospector's Song (Prospector's Music). Silver Music's full sister, the unraced Ghost Bell, produced Philadelphia Park stakes winner Monsoor (Mt. Livermore).

But Silver Music was his dam's first foal, and he is who first made her mark as a producer.

After a lackluster debut at Churchill Downs at 2, Silver Music was transferred by owner Lauren Cohen to the barn of David A. Vivian in Florida.

The colt broke his maiden for Vivian in his sixth career race, going 6 furlongs on dirt for a $50,000 tag at Calder Race Course. Silver Music collected his second career win in his ninth and final start at age 2 -- this time going a mile and a sixteenth on grass in allowance company -- then finished a well-beaten 11th in the Tropical Park Derby-G3 on Jan. 2, 1994. After a turf allowance-placing at a mile and an eighth for Vivian, Silver Music was sent west to train under Wallace Dollase in California.

There, the colt blossomed.

Dollase sent him out on March 30, 1994, in the Baldwin Stakes, an "about 6 1/2-furlong" affair on the downhill turf course at Santa Anita. Silver Music closed from seventh, 12 lengths in arrears, to win by by a half under jockey Chris Antley, upsetting Danehill's full brother Eagle Eyed in the process.

Silver Music would finish no worse than second in his next five races for Dollase.

The colt undertook quite a stretchout -- to a mile and an eighth -- in his next start, the California Derby-G3 on dirt at Golden Gate Fields. Sent off at 7/1, he lost the race by a half-length to the longest-shot in that race's history, Screaming Don, who repaid his backers $103.60 on each $2 wager. Next-out for Silver was another "tough beat," this time by a head in the 8.5-furlong Will Rogers H.-G3 on grass at Hollywood Park, to Wes Ward-trained Unfinished Symph, who would go on to be third that year in the Breeders' Cup Mile-G1.

Another second-place finish followed in the Sausalito Handicap back at Golden Gate, in which Eagle Eyed exacted revenge by 4 1/2 lengths. Then, Silver Music won as the odds-on favorite in the Bold Reason Handicap at a mile and a sixteenth on the Hollywood lawn, setting the stage for his biggest victory.

On July 23, 1994, Silver Music rallied from last of six, nine and a half off the pace, to win the Swaps S.-G2 on the main track at Hollywood Park. He came home in 2:00 3/5 for the 10 furlongs, defeating Grade 1-caliber horses in Dramatic Gold (who went on to run third that year in the Breeders' Cup Classic) and reigning Hollywood Futurity champion Valiant Nature, in second and third. Silver Music earned a career-best 106 Beyer speed figure for the race, and next set his sights on older horses in the Pacific Classic-G1.

That start was not as successful, as Silver Music finished fifth behind Tinners Way (who won the race in track record-equalling time of 1:59 2/5), Best Pal, Dramatic Gold and Slew of Damascus. Finishing in arrears of Silver Music were Del Mar Dennis, Stuka, Bertrando (whose track record Tinners Way had equalled) and Risen Roman.

Still, it was a season that featured three stakes wins, two on turf and one on dirt, at distances ranging from about 6.5 furlongs to a mile and a quarter; a campaign that resulted in The Blood-Horse declaring Silver Music the "most versatile" 3-year-old of his crop, a point that would be hard to argue.

Silver Music started only once at age 4, a modest fourth in a stakes race at Golden Gate, then was retired to stud duty at Pinebourne Farm in New York. He retired with five wins -- three in stakes races -- from 19 starts, for $351,905.

At stud, Silver Music sired several winners and three stakes-placers (to date) from modest opportunity, both in numbers and in quality of mares. His leading earners are Time to Rap ($169,894) and Stevie Stressor ($163,273), the latter of whom for a time was the track record-holder for 7 1/2 furlongs at Belmont Park. Perhaps reflecting their sire's versatility in their own, modest way, Silver Music's three stakes-placers include Classlylilprincess and Silver and Green -- both as 3-year-olds, around two turns on grass at Suffolk Downs -- and Stage Music, as an unraced 2-year-old, sprinting on dirt among NY-breds in the New York Stallion Great White Way Stakes at Aqueduct.

From a dwindling group of progeny at the track, Silver Music's latest winner was Talking Blues, a full brother of Time to Rap, who scored in the NY-bred maiden-claiming ranks for owners Castle Village Farm, at Aqueduct on New Year's Day.

No mares were yet confirmed in foal to Silver Music this season, his second in Virginia. Amid the Old Dominion's declining breeding business, only one mare was covered last year by Silver Music. That foal -- being carried by Bushes Victory, a modest-winner but a full sister to Colonial Downs turf-sprint stakes winner Broad Victory, by Spartan Victory and out of Alabama Oaks-winning Below Broad Street -- is due June 1.