Monday, December 28, 2009

Age, layoffs and Lava Man

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Bring him back at age 10, that is.

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

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

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

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

Saturday, December 26, 2009

Thoughts on pedigree: Recency trumps 'ancient' history

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And, almost unequivocally, I agree.

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday, December 19, 2009

A Facebook presence for my stallion

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, December 17, 2009

Laurel home to slots? Why the heck not?

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

From what I've seen, I certainly agree.

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

And not very many people attended.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday, December 12, 2009

First track on the 'unexpected vacation' circuit

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, December 11, 2009

Hang in there, Kip; Christmas is coming

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, December 4, 2009

Belated call to help backstretch kids at Christmas

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Phone: (516) 488-2103

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Hialeah, here I come

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

It really frees up the social calendar.

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

Ah, Hialeah.

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

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

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

Friday, November 27, 2009

Thank heaven, no co-horses of the year

It's been more than a week since I've blogged. Life has jumped up and bitten me more than once in the past few days, and focusing on this aspect of my routine has simply suffered.

Thankfully a bit of racing news has at least prompted me to offer my own spin on an issue.

I think it's great that two out of three groups which vote on the Eclipse Awards have rejected the notion of changing the rules to allow co-horses of the year; namely Rachel Alexandra and Zenyatta.

It isn't that both females aren't deserving; they are. But while there are photo-finishes, in a manner of speaking, in the Eclipse voting, there should be no dead-heats. Somebody must be declared the winner.

For my money, that female remains Rachel Alexandra. I was thoroughly impressed with Zenyatta's historic win (the first for a female) in the Breeders' Cup Classic. But let's face it, that race was her only real challenge this year. She raced an entire season without leaving California's artificial surfaces.

Meanwhile -- though she and her connections are sometimes maligned -- Rachel Alexandra overcame a barn change (with her sale by breeder and original owner Dolphus Morrison to Jess Jackson, et. al.) to stage her own undefeated season. She crushed 3-year-old fillies in the Kentucky Oaks and the Mother Goose. She became the first filly to win the Preakness since Nellie Morse in 1924, and backed up that win against her age-group of colts and geldings with a victory in the Haskell. Then she became the first female ever to win the Woodward Stakes, that against older males.

This season Rachel won stakes races at: Oaklawn Park (Martha Washington S., Fantasy S.-G2); Fair Grounds (Fair Grounds Oaks-G2); Churchill Downs (Kentucky Oaks-G1); Pimlico (Preakness S.-G1 vs. males); Belmont Park (Mother Goose S.-G1); Monmouth Park (Haskell Invitational-G1 vs. males); and Saratoga (Woodward S.-G1 vs. older males).

She might have ducked Zenyatta and the "plastic" tracks in California on Breeders' Cup weekend, but during the campaign she won on fast strips and in the mud, over seven tracks in six states. Meanwhile, Zenyatta -- special though she is -- ducked everything, everywhere except Southern California and one fine field of older males that came to her back yard to race.

I'm not saying Rachel will win horse of the year. Zenyatta easily could, especially by making the last impression with her splendid win in the Classic.

But regardless which fine female takes the honors, at least we won't have the cop-out result of a draw.

Friday, November 20, 2009

Fitting end for Bobby Frankel

In what has been a week of crushing news, a ray of joy glimmers. And a little irony shines down with it.

The late Bobby Frankel went out a winner. And in a twist on the longtime conditioner's old nickname, the winning filly was bought from the race by new connections.

Life by R R, the last horse ever entered in the name of Hall of Fame trainer Robert J. Frankel -- who died Monday of leukemia -- took the field gate-to-wire on Wednesday under Alex Solis in a race at Hollywood Park. She was saddled and officially ran under the name of Frankel's assistant trainer, Humberto Ascanio, but entries for the race were due on Sunday, the day before Frankel died, so Frankel's name was originally on the entry.

A 68-year-old Brooklyn native, Frankel early in his career earned the nickname "King of the Claimers" for his ability to improve on horses picked up on the claim. And his last entrant, Life by R R, a 3-year-old filly by Domestic Dispute, was claimed herself from her victorious race; trainer Doug O'Neill bought her for a partnership at a tag of $25,000.

It's outcomes like this that make me believe those folks who say that everything happens for a reason. I suppose you can look at any occurrence, roll it around in your mind, and come up with additional meanings not visible on the surface and perhaps only attached to that happening because you thought hard enough to make it so.

But then that's sort of what life's all about, isn't it? Taking what has been, thinking it over really well, considering its lessons or message, and fitting it into the puzzle of what will become.

Bobby Frankel started at the bottom and worked his way to the top. He deserved to go out a winner. And it is most fitting that victory came with a horse running for a tag; the last one entered by the late King of the Claimers.

Long live the king.

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Taken from my hands, left in Bobby's?

No offense to his family and friends -- or to humankind -- but I will always remember the day that Hall of Fame trainer Bobby Frankel died, Nov. 16, 2009, as the day my first baby in this hard business met her own untimely demise.

I shared on this blog earlier in the week that Oracle at Delphi (Mighty Forum-Bushes Victory, by Spartan Victory) broke the humerus in her left front by crashing through a fence in a panic Sunday night, spooked by a falling tree. Another filly followed her through and was injured, but by reports I've received, should recover well.

Born March 30, Oracle at Delphi, the splendid chestnut filly with a huge blaze and three white socks eerily reminiscent of her great-great-grandsire Secretariat, didn't make it to eight months of age. She lived through the night Sunday, but X-rays in the morning revealed no hope of recovery.

And I'm not 100 percent certain that the full measure of that truth has yet sunk in.

I don't get to Gordonsville, Va., all that often to see the horses. I'd "met" Delphy twice and thought she was exceptional -- though admittedly, as her co-breeder, I was biased. Still, a trainer friend of mine, from photos I sent him, said the girl was well-balanced and had the right look for her age. She had a nice engine and appeared to be one that someday, I told myself, might really motor.

But in her short time on earth, as almost-perfect as she appeared, Delphy had her share of issues.

She first came down with the snots. Aggressive treatment took care of the issue. But when it's your horse and your money, there's no such thing as a "minor" ailment in a young foal.

Then Delphy suffered a pasture accident of some sort in which she bloodied her muzzle and cracked a small bone in her nose. Careful monitoring and a few weeks without her halter for comfort and healing led to a full recovery.

Now this.

In hindsight, maybe Delphy's was just a life not meant to be. Or meant to be for long.

I'm left to try and rationalize why fate chose her to take so soon, though of course there's no reason behind determining the victims in matters of fatal chance.

And I'm left to console myself with memories and frivolous thoughts, like speculating that Delphy must have been fast; after all, in a panicked rush of horseflesh, she was the first foal to hit the fence.

Condolences have flooded in, from friends, family, horse-business contacts and readers of this blog. Each and every kind word has been appreciated. True to the nature of horse-lovers, myself included, some of the seemingly most offbeat comments offer the truest comfort.

And this is where one Robert J. Frankel re-enters our story.

A member of a horse racing message board in which I participate, known as BigHorse2 at Yahoo Groups, passed along this thought, typed-up, she admitted, through a stream of her own tears.

"Maybe Bobby went to train Delphy."

My filly should be so lucky up in Heaven. She's due.

Monday, November 16, 2009

Rest in peace, win in heaven, Bobby Frankel

News is just breaking of the death of Bobby Frankel, a victim of leukemia at age 68, but it's fitting to pause amid an already tough Monday morning for me and offer condolences to his friends and family.

Born Robert J. Frankel in Brooklyn, July 9, 1941, he went on to train more than 3,500 winners, including Breeders' Cup Classic-winning Horse of the Year Ghostzapper.

Frankel also conditioned Breeders' Cup Sprint champion Squirtle Squirt, Breeders' Cup Filly & Mare Turf champion Starine, Belmont Stakes winner Empire Maker, two-time Pacific Classic winner Skimming, two-time Santa Anita Handicap winner Milwaukee Brew, and many other top thoroughbreds for well-known owners such as Edmund Gann.

Racing has lost a hall-of-famer; someone who clearly loved and lived for the game.

Rest in peace, Robert.

Sunday, November 15, 2009

Danger at every turn, long before they race

No e-mail subject line could be worse, especially coming from your boarding farm owner and partner on a horse.

"CALL ME 911!"

Sarah Warmack, owner of Hilltop Farm VA, had the displeasure Sunday evening of informing me that the 2009 filly we co-bred, Oracle at Delphi (Mighty Forum-Bushes Victory, by Spartan Victory), has likely broken her leg. "Delphy," as she's known around the barn, spooked when a tree fell on the rain-soaked property and she crashed into the fence. We'll know in the morning whether she'll have a chance at a full recovery or if euthanasia is required.

Sarah will spend the night in the barn. I routinely thank Heaven for her.

I will be talking a lot to Heaven in the coming hours.

And if anyone needs evidence for why buying at the 2-year-old sales is so increasingly popular vs. breeding your own to race -- especially since right now horses are practically being stolen at auction, considering the costs that went into them -- just save this post.

Update 9:30 a.m. Nov. 16: As she suffered a broken humerus, with heavy hearts no choice remains but to put the beautiful filly down. Rest in peace, baby girl. You leave us too soon, and forever wondering what might have been.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

If I booked Zenyatta's first date

Now that Zenyatta has stated her case for Horse of the Year with her exhilarating victory in Saturday's Breeders' Cup Classic, thoughts turn to the breeding shed.

While it might be nice to see the fabulous 5-year-old Street Cry mare take a shot at breaking Cigar's North American record of 16 wins in a row -- she's presently 14-for-14 lifetime, of course -- the likelihood of her ever racing again is practically zero. So, now to speculate on who that breeding date for Zenyatta might be.

Maybe it's too conventional in thinking, but I would first consider Giant's Causeway.

Zenyatta carries no Northern Dancer, so adding some over a Mr. Prospector-line mare is hard to quibble with. The cross does offer 4x4 inbreeding to Roberto and 5x5 Halo, which adds up to a linebreeding of 6S x 5S x 6D x 5D Hail to Reason.

Giant's Causeway at this writing is No. 4 all-time in progeny earnings on synthetic surfaces (one notch behind Street Cry), which should make Zenyatta's connections of owner Jerry Moss and trainer John Shirreffs happy, since they're based in California where all the major tracks are mandated to have all-weather surfaces instead of conventional dirt. But Giant's Causeway can get any sort of horse. He has multiple G1 progeny winners on dirt, turf and synthetics.

What's not to like?

Another consideration for Zenyatta, in my estimation, is to avoid the chance of adding too much size to her prospective foals. Zenyatta is as big a mare as you'll find; she stands more than 17 hands high. Sending her to a whopper of a stallion could result in babies who are so big they can't move fast enough to get out of their own way. Or that can't stay sound. Despite Zen's clearly overcoming the "too-much-size" pitfalls (perhaps in part because of masterful management by Shirreffs, who only raced her 14 times in a three-year career), it's my belief that an average-sized or even smaller horse is generally better both for athleticism and soundness.

Giant's Causeway has good size, but at 16.1 hands he isn't a monster.

In a few pedigree discussion groups, I've witnessed other recommendations for Zenyatta. One person suggested Hard Spun, who I like on pedigree. But if Zen were my mare and I were breeding to keep and race the foals -- as Moss likely will be -- then I wouldn't choose a stallion whose first runners are yet to prove themselves.

It would be easy enough to make cases for plenty of other top stallions, and for two more top choices, I would look to Awesome Again and big-splash youngster Medaglia D'Oro, the latter of whom is sire of Zenyatta's off-track (but never on-track) rival, splendid filly Rachel Alexandra.

But my top pick would be Giant's Causeway -- performance plus all-surface versatility.

Have ideas of your own? Please detail them in the comments section below.

Saturday, November 7, 2009

Win the Classic, win Horse of the Year? No, not Zenyatta, but Summer Bird

As I fill in on the sports desk this weekend, I get to watch the Breeders' Cup from work.

And ABC's piece on Summer Bird seconds ago leaves me wondering -- could the 3-year-old colt upset both Zenyatta today and Rachel Alexandra for Horse of the Year by winning this afternoon's Breeders' Cup Classic?

Honestly, I don't think he'll win the race. I like Einstein at a bit of a price, Zenyatta is a SoCal monster who must be reckoned with even amongst males, and Rip Van Winkle is probably Europe's best bet.

But if Summer Bird could take the race, he would have quite a quartet of Grade 1 victories to his name: The Belmont Stakes, the Travers Stakes, the Jockey Club Gold Cup, and the race of the year, the B.C. Classic.

You at least could make the case.

Friday, November 6, 2009

Fatal error of the day: 'I might like Man of Iron'

That's what I told myself when filling out my Darby Dan contest bracket. "I might like Man of Iron."

Then I decided I didn't. Not enough. So my Marathon entry had the beaten favorite, Mastery, and no-shows Nite Light and Gangbuster.

Cloudy's Knight was on my radar, too. But ageism got the better of me and I left out the 9-year-old, too.

Shows what I know.

Congrats to the connections of both winner Man of Iron and of Cloudy's Knight, who ran a winning race under Rosemary Homeister Even if Rosemary was, according to Caton Bredar, cussing her luck after the race.

Zenyatta: Root for, but bet against in Classic?

Less than 36 hours from now, we'll have no more questions about one of the greatest race mares of the last 20 years.

Zenyatta -- champion older female in 2008 and an unbeaten 13-for-13 against females -- has been entered in the Breeders' Cup Classic against the opposite gender.

It isn't just the step-up to facing males that is a question mark for the 5-year-old Street Cry mare. Zenyatta also never has raced the 10-furlong distance of the Classic.

Both of those unknowns -- plus her being favored on the morning line at 5/2 and, I believe, not likely to drift a lot higher -- lead me to figure that Zenyatta is a bet-against in this race.

After all, the talented mare has not been quite as dominating against her own gender in four races of 2009 (best Equibase speed figure a 116, six points below her career high). And now she tackles a field of 12 boys and men with their own distinguished list of accomplishments.

Eight of Zenyatta's male Classic opponents have won at 10 furlongs, a total of 12 times. Most notable are Gio Ponti (3-for-4 lifetime at the distance) and Summer Bird (2-for-3).

Three of the horses have victories over Santa Anita's all-weather strip, paced by Colonel John, who has won half of his six lifetime starts on that track and just missed a Grade 1 victory by a neck in the Goodwood there on Oct. 10.

Zenyatta is a California-circuit all-weather-track specialist, but despite a field peppered with East Coast-shippers, foreign invaders and turf horses hoping for crossover success, half of her opponents (including Gio Ponti) do have synthetic track victories to their credit.

And while the older males will carry 126 pounds and the mare does get a weight break for gender (123 pounds), the impost on the several talented 3-year-old colts and geldings in the group is even lower, at 122.

This isn't to say that Zenyatta has no strengths. She isn't favored without cause.

Beyond her unblemished lifetime mark, she is 4-for-4 over the track at Santa Anita, has the highest career all-weather speed figure per Equibase (122), and a jockey in Mike Smith who both knows her and knows Santa Anita (51 percent W-P-S during the meeting, third-best in the field among riders).

There's every reason to believe that a Street Cry mare out of a dam by Kris S. should be able to get 10 furlongs.

And she has been handled masterfully, but carefully, by trainer John Shirreffs, whom I doubt would cast her in this role if he didn't think she could handle it. ... I particularly like that Shirreffs has worked her at 6 furlongs four times in a row prepping for the added distance; she's the only horse in the field to have worked 6f more than once in the past few months and of the others, only two have drilled longer than 5f at all.

So if Zenyatta has all that going for her and is still a bet-against, for whom would I wager? Which one of these dozen males is going to beat her?

It's a tough call, but I'm leaning toward the 7-year-old veteran, Einstein, and I love the morning-line odds of 12/1.

Einstein is a battle-hardened competitor with G1 wins on both turf and synthetic. The Helen Pitts trainee is the only other horse in the field with a 120 or higher Equibase speed figure on an all-weather track, and he earned that 120 in winning the Santa Anita Handicap in March -- going this distance, over this track.

He's fallen off the radar a bit, but with only a bit of better racing luck, he wouldn't have.

Were it not for a trip in which, per the charts, he "bobbled," was checked, and was bumped, perhaps Einstein wins the Stephen Foster Handicap at Churchill Downs on June 13 to become only the second horse (the other being Lava Man) to have G1 wins on all three racing surfaces. Instead, he loses by a length to Macho Again and by a nose to Asiatic Boy (neither in this Classic field), finishing third.

Coming off a poor effort in the Arlington Million on grass (won by Gio Ponti with Einstein fifth beaten 8 1/2 lengths), Einstein came back to miss by only a neck to Richard's Kid (also in the B.C. Classic field) in the Pacific Classic at Del Mar, another G1 on synthetic.

Pitts has Einstein working well. An Oct. 11 four-furlong move at Churchill was done in a less-than-scintillating 49 seconds, but the times were slow that day and he was still fifth of 58 at the distance. Same story on Oct. 18 when a 1:01 for 5f was still second of 60. And, he's since followed up with a bullet 59.8 for 5f (best of 54 at CD on Oct. 25), plus a Santa Anita work of 47.80 for 4f (6 of 45).

I think Einstein could be sitting on a big race, and that could make him the man to take down Zenyatta.

Others certainly have a chance.

Irishman Rip Van Winkle is quite talented, with several losses to certain European champ Sea the Stars, but how will the 3-year-old Euro turf horse handle older males and females, a U.S. synthetic track, and the ship all the way to California?

Colonel John can win at SA (3-for-6) and win at 10f (1-for-4). Richard's Kid is coming in off a G1 all-weather win at this distance two starts back and a career-high Equibase figure in the Goodwood last out. Gio Ponti relishes 10f but his synthetic speed figures are a notch below his brilliance on grass. Summer Bird, Quality Road and Mine That Bird all are talented, G1 winners, but as 3-year-olds can they best their elders?

Looking for a long-shot, particularly to fill out the exotics? Awesome Gem at 30/1 on the outside is 8-for-12 lifetime win/place/show on synthetics and 20-for-30 on the board overall, is coming in off a G2 dirt win in the Hawthorne Gold Cup, and has a career-best all-weather speed figure of 116 -- better than Gio Ponti (114) and Mine That Bird (114) and only two clicks slower than Richard's Kid, all of whom are at 12/1.

This year's Breeders' Cup Classic certainly is an intriguing race.

Shirreffs and owners Jerry and Ann Moss are taking a big chance with Zenyatta, risking her unbeaten lifetime record to race a new distance and against males, presumably in a gambit to dethrone likely favorite Rachel Alexandra as Horse of the Year.

I'm definitely not rooting against Zenyatta in her quest. But at 5/2, I just don't like the odds.

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Setting my alarm on the Darby Dan challenge

Some of the coolest contests in the horse racing industry of late have been the Darby Dan Fantasy Stakes.

Darby Dan Farm -- which stands a slate of stallions including Perfect Soul, Magna Graduate, Repriced, Sun King and Suave -- on a couple of prior occasions has hosted these online contests in which "Darby dollars" are spent to create a competition stable for a given race or races. In this case, for the races of Breeders' Cup weekend. The horses you choose score points for you based on their finish.

There are cash prizes, but the grand prize winner is rewarded with a complimentary season to one of the Darby Dan stallions, valued at up to $15,000.

I really enjoy playing Darby Dan's contests, and others, such as Road to the Roses, "the official fantasy game of the Kentucky Derby."

But, being a busy (and sometimes forgetful) sort, I also have an unsettling habit of neglecting to finalize my entry or set my roster of runners for a given week.

This time, I've plugged in a warning alarm on my cell phone. I don't want to pick my stable too early for Darby Dan's Breeders' Cup challenge; there could be scratches, or other news that causes me to rethink my entry. So I really do want to enter at the last minute, so to speak, much like I end up placing my bets on those rare visits to the track.

At noon on Friday -- the deadline is 3 p.m. Eastern -- I'm going to take a break from whatever it is I might be doing and fill out my stable.

Because even though the contest is a lot of fun, without that alarm, I just might forget. And I'm always kicking myself when I realize that I've missed a deadline just 15 minutes or a half-hour after I've missed it.

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

Pennsylvania Takeout: The Garbage

Most sports industries have to battle conflicting interests of the parties involved.

Ownership and management, the athletes, the league and spectators all have a stake in a sport such as, say, the National Football League. Operating a sports franchise and a league of franchises is a delicate balancing act of trying to run a well-organized operation that pleases fans well enough to rake in the cash for owners and athletes.

A post on Monday at the Horseplayers Association of North America blog illustrates that it's possible that nobody does it worse than horse racing.

HANA points out that an Allentown Morning Call story credits slots at Pennsylvania tracks with saving the state's horse racing industry. It's a fair claim. Once struggling to stay in business, Pennsylvania tracks have not only stabilized, but flourished and, with the addition of Presque Isle Downs, expanded in number. Purses have ballooned by roughly 400 percent and rival any state's racing programs.

All of this is excellent news for the tracks, for the state which collects considerable revenues for its budget, and for horsemen, who can come a lot closer to making a good living (or at least breaking even) in a business where losing money on a horse is a very real prospect every time you breed or buy one to race.

But HANA notes that Pennsylvania is screwing over its horseplayers (my term, not theirs), and horseplayers are letting them know it by withholding their wagering dollars.

HANA notes that total handle in Pennsylvania has declined by 15.3 percent between 2006 and 2008. That's because the takeout is so high -- 35 percent, HANA reports as an example, on tri- and superfecta wagers on harness racing at Pocono Downs. Which, HANA says, swallows up more of the financial pie, leaving less for the gamblers, than even the Massachusetts state lottery.

As a result, on HANA's 2009 rankings of 72 North American thoroughbred racetracks for their friendliness to horseplayers, Penn National ranks 43rd, Philly Park finishes in 63rd, and Presque Isle is 68th.

Now, losing $100 million in handle between 2006 and 2008 would more than alarm everyone involved if it weren't for all the money from slots to make up for it. So while it can be argued that slots at the racetrack are beneficial, they also can mask very real inadequacies or inefficiencies in the overall operation.

No reasonable business owner would sit idle while revenues shrank so dramatically in so short a time. He would determine what was necessary to bring his customers back through the doors and spending at least the kind of money they used to spend, if not more.

Now, it might be a stretch to expect politicians to be reasonable. And I suspect that track management is just so happy to be back on the positive side of the ledger that its executives aren't losing sleep over shrinking handle. Yet.

But anyone who stops for even a moment to consider these numbers can see that the takeout is killing handle. More and more over time. And anyone with business sense ought to reach the conclusion that a reduced takeout (easily made possible by those same slot revenues that provide so much revenue) would allow handle to grow again.

Talk about your diminishing returns: Pennsylvania is taking so much out of horse racing wagers that horseplayers have reduced their wagering, resulting in less revenue realized for the state than if Pennsylvania were to take out a more reasonable share.

If I were a politician in Pennsylvania, I'd much rather see the state take out half as much from a handle that is twice as much. The net revenues to the state would be the same, while the horse racing business within the state would be thriving more than ever, increasing revenues collected by the state in the form of sales tax at the track, property tax from increased investment and value in horse farms and racetracks, and income tax from all of the industry's employees and principals. That includes horseplayers, who would bet more, win more, and pay more tax on those winnings.

But the current takeout in Pennsylvania, as HANA shows, is garbage.

Sunday, November 1, 2009

Standing to be counted is aided by a backbone

I have criticized New York Times reporter Joe Drape on more than one occasion for writing that "many veterinarians" agree with his stories' claims that "lax oversight" of medication rules and an overuse of even legal medications are significant factors in the mortality rate of racehorses in the United States.

I am troubled that Drape -- in my reading -- has neither quantified nor identified those "many veterinarians."

And I'm not backing down from that criticism. Names attached to claims always add weight to the opinions offered.

But this denunciation of my position, left beneath Friday's blog post about another story of Drape's, merits deeper inspection. Because while it is intended as a defense of Drape, a criticism of me, and a suggestion that Drape's reporting is accurate -- and it serves as all of those things -- the fact that it was left anonymously tells us even more:

I am one of Joe Drape's anonymous sources, a practicing racetrack veterinarian, who has spent probably 5 hours conversing with Mr. Drape about racing medication issues.
I can assure you that I will continue to insist on anonymity until this subject becomes a less combustible issue, as your unwarranted attacks on Mr. Drape's journalism prove.

That might be one to make me chuckle if the person wasn't serious. Namely the suggestion that my calls for higher journalistic standards and transparency on the subject matter are an "unwarranted" criticism, perhaps even a threat to people of good conscience.

I give remarkably little weight to anonymous critics. I'm very certain that sentiment isn't one held by me alone. The powers that be in any endeavor -- certainly in an industry like horse racing, with deep traditions and a rigid underlying culture, aspects of which do need changing -- are far less likely to be swayed by muffled voices emanating from the darkest corner of the room.

It isn't that anonymous sources or whistle-blowers have never provided necessary information that exposed serious issues and initiated change. They have and they will continue to do so. Anonymity is particularly worth seeking -- and, as a journalist, protecting -- if the source's life is on the line. Like a mob informant.

But I assure you, if you really want to make a difference -- particularly on issues of life and death for others who have no power to speak for themselves and in a field in which you claim documented education and expertise -- the fastest way to start is by growing a spine.

The New York Times' allegedly increasing list of "many veterinarians," few or none of whom I guess will go on-record with their names, does not amount to list of "many veterinarians" in any way. They all might as well be figments of our collective imagination.

In fact, I would respect Drape's reporting on this issue more if he actually phrased his claim as such: "Veterinarians who have voiced their concerns to the Times anonymously due to the volatility of this issue believe ... ."

But that never seems to be what he writes. His language suggests that there's some obvious or documented groundswell of sentiment among the veterinary community; a groundswell that is never really pinpointed. A movement that perhaps can't be quantified because its participants won't stand to be counted.

Certainly the issue of drugs -- legal and illegal -- at America's racetracks, is inflammatory. But is an aggrieved veterinarian's need to protect his career somehow more crucial than, say, mine?

I'm fooling with my reputation in two fields with this blog. I am a professional journalist with 20 years in the business -- fully qualified and experienced to criticize Joe Drape -- and I am also an entry-level breeder of thoroughbred racehorses.

Am I making nothing but friends with my comments here, on this and other issues?


Could my opinions, and the frankness with which they're delivered, potentially cost me opportunities in the fields of both journalism and horse racing?


But I was brought up to believe that if I stood for something, I shouldn't -- nay, couldn't -- be afraid to say it. Even if it made enemies. Even if it came at the price of money or so-called friends or a job.

If standing for what you believe in costs you allies and allows those in the wrong to still prevail, as a small-town police chief once told me, "then this is a job I don't want anyway."

How strongly held are your convictions about preserving the health of these animals if it is more important to protect your business or connections or reputation among powerful people than it is to publicly stand up and safeguard your patients and their equine peers?

It starts with a simple statement. Print this off and have your fellow veterinarians who agree sign on, too.

"I am Dr. ________. I have been a licensed veterinarian in the horse racing industry for ____ years. And I'm sick and tired of what some of my colleagues and their clients are doing to these animals in the name of competition and profit. There is a better way."

Certainly your opposition will be determined and well-financed. They will collude against you. That might indeed cost you some income; perhaps your whole practice if it largely involves racehorses. But do you want to stay in the business if it's that filthy?

Besides, changing the world isn't for the meek.

The most notable hero from the Tiananmen Square demonstrations remains anonymous, other than the moniker "Tank Man." But this "unknown rebel" did not seek anonymity. Far from it. He walked into a public square where one day prior -- by some witness accounts -- armored vehicles of the People's Liberation Army had crushed cars and civilians beneath their treads.

And he stood his ground in front of a column of Type 59 tanks.

To this day we are not certain of Tank Man's identity, not because he sought anonymity, but in fact because he did not shy away from his moment in history. And for that courage, he was dragged away by unknown people, to face an unknown fate.

In Beijing on June 5, 1989, one man, refusing to cower from the adversary, stood down a column of tanks in hopes of changing his nation and the world.

In 2009 America, highly trained and licensed professionals with meaningful experience demand anonymity before giving their professional opinions to a newspaper reporter because the issues are too "combustible" ... in trying to change a sports business.

Ralph Waldo Emerson once wrote: "When a resolute young fellow steps up to the great bully, the world, and takes him boldly by the beard, he is often surprised to find it comes off in his hand, and that it was only tied on to scare away the timid adventurers."

And we've all heard that there's strength in numbers.

But how can the movement to "clean up" horse racing quantify its strength, how will it ever know when it finally outnumbers the opposition, if even the movement's truest believers fear shouting out their names at roll call?

Friday, October 30, 2009

There goes Joe Drape again

In today's New York Times story about NYRA's ban of trainer Jeff Mullins, reporter Joe Drape -- whom I took to task recently for his shoddy piece on I Want Revenge and the drug culture in racing -- has gone back to the well with his unattributed claims.

Drape today writes: "The aggressive punishment of Mullins in New York comes at a time when horse racing is under intense scrutiny for its use of illegal drugs, overuse of legal medications and lax oversight, all of which many veterinarians believe are part of the reason the United States has the world's worst mortality rate for Thoroughbreds."

All emphasis, of course, mine.

Attribution, apparently as is frequent for Mr. Drape, entirely absent.

One of the first lessons I was taught as a reporter was to avoid making statements such as the above by Mr. Drape -- i.e., "many veterinarians believe" -- without telling readers who those veterinarians happen to be.

Even when Drape wrote an entire piece on how I Want Revenge supposedly illustrates the claims made above, his attempts at attribution were feeble and insubstantial.

I'm not saying there aren't sources to cite that would back up Drape's claims about drugs in racing. I'm saying that Joe Drape apparently believes he doesn't even need to bother providing such citations; that simply repeating the allegations in the New York Times ad infinitum shall be proof enough that the claims are true.

I'm all for aggressively pursuing and sternly punishing drug-violators on the back side of America's racetracks. I'm 100 percent in favor of reducing American racing's apparent reliance on medications. I would love to see and be a part of a "cleaner," less-pharmaceutical sport.

I would also like to see those who report on that sport at the highest levels follow some basic rules of reporting and attribute their statements rather than repeatedly stating as fact claims for which they rarely if ever provide supporting evidence.

On the subject of less being more ...

The Blood-Horse and Delaware Park say it's so.

Delaware Park reports that despite running 27 fewer dates in 2009, total handle was up 1.9 percent in 2009.

Frankly, handle being up at all in this down economy is impressive. The other numbers -- detailed below -- are no doubt positives for Delaware Park's profitability, but I don't think they say all that much about strengthening the quality or fan base of racing.

For example, Delaware Park's average daily handle on live racing was up 27.1 percent over 2008 -- a huge amount. But with only 1.9 percent in actual handle increase, Delaware Park in effect has focused its (very slightly better) earnings over fewer dates, spiking the average daily handle by what seems an astonishing amount.

That has to be a plus for the track's bottom line. Making the same amount of money while being open on fewer dates -- thus paying everyone from tellers to concessions workers to the gate crew for 27 fewer work days -- is pure profit.

If my newspaper could print four days a week instead of six and still charge the same subscription price and attract the same amount in advertising revenue, we'd make out like bandits, too. Typically for a business, that isn't the case.

The same scenario is true at Delaware Park for racing revenues. The Blood-Horse reports that "year-over-year racing revenue was unchanged" at the track, but by making no-more-money on fewer days of racing, the revenue "per racing day" was up 24.6 percent.

On the track, the average number of starters per race rose from 6.94 to 7.73 and the average number of races per day went up from 8.96 to 9.74. This of course makes perfect sense: Give horsemen fewer dates on which to compete and they have no choice but to show up for the races you do run.

Again, from a track-profitability standpoint, that's probably good business. It can be argued those also become better betting races; and that's a plus.

But I'm still not convinced that reducing the perceived over-scheduling of race-dates would be any significant improvement for the overall image and popularity of horse racing. ... Making the same amount of money for working less notwithstanding.

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Zenyatta in the Classic? Horse of the Year?

I'm going to make this one short and sweet.

Trainer John Shirreffs says he's "definitely" leaning toward running champion older female Zenyatta against males -- going 10 furlongs for her first time -- in the Breeders' Cup Classic, rather than defending her title in the Breeders' Cup Used-to-be-Distaff. (Is it obvious enough yet that I think "Ladies Classic" is a lame name?)

She's entered for both, but an anticipated weekend workout should determine, said Shirreffs, whether she's peaking and ready to face the boys.

My question to you: If Zenyatta wins the Classic, can she supplant Rachel Alexandra -- who is the front-runner in the clubhouse with three wins over males -- atop the leader board for Horse of the Year?

Poll at left.

The nominations are in ...

And it's interesting to me that there are as many horses pre-entered for the Breeders' Cup Marathon at 14 furlongs as there are for either the Filly & Mare Sprint and the Breeders' Cup Sprint -- 11 for each race.

Of the races less than a mile, only the turf sprint -- of which there's no comparable race for females, so some fillies and mares are in it -- has more pre-entries, 22. And seven of those horses are cross-entered into other Breeders' Cup races.

It's worth noting that there's no "marathon" specifically for females, as well. But fillies and mares can go 10 furlongs on grass in the Filly & Mare Turf and 9 on the synthetic in the Ladies Please-Call-it-a-Distaff-Again and those races drew only 10 and nine pre-entries.

I look forward to the Marathon and I hope it continues.

Hialeah back on track beginning Nov. 28 ... and what of it?

Long-dormant Hialeah Park in Florida has received approval of dates for a 40-day Quarter Horse meeting beginning Nov. 28.

The races will be the first of any kind run at the track since Cheeky Miss won the last race ever run at the historic racetrack on May 22, 2001.

News of Hialeah's approved dates comes on the same day that word breaks of Mountaineer Park's desire to run the statutory minimum number of dates (210) on an eight-month schedule, instead of year-round, putting the track at odds with horsemen who -- well, duh, I suppose -- would like to have an income during all 12 months of the year.

And that news comes of historic Ellis Park's decision to shut down Nov. 8 and suspend simulcasting operations.

And on the heels of news that the Kentucky Horse Racing Commission has approved reduced dates for all three breeds racing within the state.

And shortly after California changes its laws to allow a much higher takeout on wagers, essentially lifting money right out of the pockets of winning bettors before they've had a chance to win, reducing the incentive to be a horseplayer in the first place.

And only days after news from Florida itself, Hialeah's home state, that Adena Springs is transferring its entire Southern stallion roster out of state, all the way to Canada.

Could Hialeah be reopening at a worse time? Or is the Hialeah resurrection one of only a few signs that there's still a chance for horse racing to rebound?

I realize the markets have been poor. Purses are falling in many jurisdictions. It's a tough time to be in the horse racing business -- although when has there ever been an "easy" time?

But I often do believe that the horse racing industry knee-jerk overreacts to difficult financial times in the same way my own industry, the newspaper business, does.

We in newspapers slash staff, reduce our pages, cut dates of publication -- and somehow hope that customers to continue advertising, reading and spending with us the same way that they always have.

Horse racing slashes dates and purses, state governments treat their own lotteries as fiscal Godsends while scorning horseplayers that really keep an entire job-creating industry alive, and the quality, frequency and visibility of racing as a sport suffers more each day. But we in the business lament the declining lack of interest among the public.

I've heard the arguments for fewer dates as a return to the good ol' days. I'll have a blog entry soon on why I believe there's a big misconception about the supposed over-scheduling of horse racing.

Meanwhile, I'll continue to believe that less is almost never more.

Hialeah, I know you have your rooters and your detractors.

So good luck, Hialeah. You're gonna need it.

Sunday, October 25, 2009

Passing a milestone; thanks for reading

At risk of appearing to be a self-absorbed jerk, I wanted to recognize the 10,000th visit to this blog since its inception in the spring of this year.

I'm a little late in the acknowledging, but visitor No. 10,000 logged-on from Old Bethpage, N.Y., at about 12:03 p.m. on Saturday.

From those who read my very first post -- "At What Price, Greatness," my thoughts on the sale of Rachel Alexandra to Jess Jackson and Co., on May 7, 2009 -- through viewers of today's quick-hitter on Indian Blessing's defection being another blow to the '09 Breeders' Cup, I appreciate each and every person who has stopped by to read and enjoy, or argue with, my views on horse racing.

I don't have any intention of making a big deal out of other numeric milestones along the way. But 10,000 seemed an appropriate point at which to stop, take note, and give thanks where it's due -- to the people who actually choose to click a link or follow a bookmark and spend time reading whatever it is that I decided to write.

Every day, every post, every reader, I'm honored that you bothered.

Thank you.

Breeders' Cup loses Indian Blessing

Another major defection has weakened a 2009 Breeders' Cup already bruised by cold shoulders thrown by other major contenders.

The second straight running of the Cup during the Oak Tree meeting at Santa Anita was already suffering from the long-planned absence of likely champion 3-year-old filly and potential Horse of the Year Rachel Alexandra. Her principal owner, Jess Jackson, says he doesn't want the filly racing "on plastic" -- that is, Santa Anita's Pro-Ride synthetic main track.

Now trainer Bob Baffert has said his dual-champion 4-year-old filly Indian Blessing would not be pre-entered for the Breeders' Cup Filly & Mare Sprint. Baffert said the Indian Charlie filly -- who was the 2-year-old champion female of 2007 and champion female sprinter in 2008 -- simply has a distaste for the Pro-Ride.

"I think I'm going to pass," Baffert said. "She just doesn't like the track. What can you do?

"She looks good. It's frustrating. I'm not going to pre-enter because I don't want the temptation to change my mind."

Indian Blessing, who has won 10 of 16 lifetime for $2,995,420, was beaten over the Pro-Ride by Ventura (also a Grade 1 winner on turf) in last year's Filly & Mare Sprint, though she still finished second in that race

Rachel Alexandra and Indian Blessing aren't the only top horses whose connections are ducking the Breeders' Cup's encore performance at Santa Anita. It's official that the very fast (for six furlongs) Fabulous Strike will not appear at Santa Anita, either. The horse is 14-for-21 lifetime on dirt, but was beaten sixth lengths in a fifth-place finish in the Breeders' Cup Sprint on Pro-Ride last year. Trainer Todd Beattie is already looking forward to the Breeders' Cup Sprint on real dirt at Churchill Downs.

Changing their minds at the last minute and deciding to ship for the Cup are the connections of Kodiak Kowboy, the horse that has handed two losses to Fabulous Strike this year. Though a stakes winner on synthetic at Woodbine as a juvenile, the colt's four worst lifetime speed figures all have come on synthetic surfaces, and his connections seemed more interested in winning the Cigar Mile at Aqueduct on Nov. 28 to add an exclamation point to his stallion resume by gaining Grade 1 wins at 6, 7 and 8 furlongs.

It's good to see that Kodiak Kowboy, at least, most likely will appear.

I'm a fan of the Breeders' Cup's traveling road-show format. And I think it's no small surprise that the first time the Breeders' Cup decided to leave its tents staked at the same track for two years in a row, troubles commenced. Especially since that track is a synthetic surface.

We almost certainly won't see defections like these from the Cup next year, at Churchill.

And though the sites such as Woodbine and Arlington Park -- past host sites now switched to synthetics -- still are names in the mix for future renewals, I'm wondering how long it will be until the next Breeders' Cup is scheduled over a "plastic" racetrack.

If Breeders' Cup management is wise, I would say it shouldn't be in 2011, either.

Friday, October 23, 2009

If this is a horse racing media outlet, then perhaps I should be paying a little more attention

I really should take this blog more seriously. Because, apparently, other people do.

OK, I'll confess, I do approach this blog earnestly. I have my share of fun with it from time to time, but always with a point to make. And then again, sometimes my thoughts are just downright pedantic. So it would be hard to convince my readers that this is all done on a lark.

But during a week when I was kept both busy and distracted apart from this endeavor and haven't posted to the Fugue since late on a Tuesday, I got a wake-up call in the form of an unsolicited e-mail. From HRTV. Yes, the horse racing television network that isn't TVG.

It was a press release. Because HRTV wants to reach you, through me.

"Attached please find information that you and your readers will find of interest," it read. "Thank you very much, and best wishes for continued success."

Ummmm ... wow.

The release tells of HRTV's launch of the network's new broadband channel at Now, fans of horse racing and HRTV's other original programming can stream HRTV's live TV feed over their computer, 24/7.

And that is pretty cool.

When I have the service switched on -- it's presently dormant -- I subscribe to DirecTV, and the package includes TVG. So I've seen very little from HRTV in the past. Being able to stream HRTV live over my computer is enticing, though the service does come at a cost. (Pricing tiers range from $9.99 a month to $89.99 per year, although the service is on sale through Dec. 31 at 12 months for $49.99.)

I'd really be tempted if I could account-wager from North Carolina.

And actually, HRTV isn't the only racing industry entity to contact me recently as a means of trying to get the word out about a product or service. I haven't fully checked out the site that promotes the Thomas Herding Technique of equine athletic psychology -- but it has a video with Bob Baffert on the front page and a clip featuring John Shirreffs on the inside. So I'll give them a few minutes of my time maybe later this weekend and see what "THT" is all about.

Meanwhile, maybe I need to be thinking harder, writing more, and figuring out how to stop doing this for free.

Although at least at my present prices, nobody can complain that they didn't get what they paid for.

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Radical Fringe: Bet him win-place and show a profit

Want one of the safer win-place bets in horse racing? Look no further than Radical Fringe.

I keep an eye on the 4-year-old Van Nistelrooy gelding because his dam, stakes-winning mare Broad Victory (Spartan Victory-Below Broad Street, by Kokand) is a full sister to one of my mares, Bushes Victory. And while the horse is lightly raced, when he does run, he tends to send you to the pay window.

Radical Fringe on Sunday finished second in a $40,000 claiming race at Keeneland, losing by a head to former stakes-winner Power Surge going 6 furlongs on Polytrack in 1:09.60. Thus, from six races, Radical Fringe has three wins, three second-place finishes, and $74,420 earned. And that mark would be better if he hadn't been caught completely flat-footed at the break in his debut at age 3, in which he was last early by double-digit lengths in a big group going only 5 furlongs, and managed to finish a closing fifth.

The horse is fast and consistent. He's won on turf and synthetic, and even when he's second, it ain't by much.

Radical Fringe broke maiden handily on turf in August 2008, missing an Arlington track record by 0.16. He followed that win with a synthetic victory at Arlington, coming even closer to a 5-furlong track mark -- 0.03 ticks (56.54). In his fourth start he was second beaten a half-length in a Keeneland allowance going 6f in a brisk 1:08.86. (By My Best Pal Red, a stakes-placer who finished third Sunday in Radical Fringe's race at Keeneland.) Then, "Rad" finished his 3-year-old campaign with a turf-sprint win at Hawthorne.

That's why I was surprised to see him resurface this year -- after a long layoff -- for a claiming tag of $35,000 at Arlington. He didn't disappoint in the race, finishing a hung-wide second beaten a length by former Woodbine stakes winner Stradivinsky going 5 furlongs on turf in 56.27. And on Sunday he came much closer to a win for a $40K tag, but was not among the two horses that were claimed.

The odds are never long on Radical Fringe; usually around 5-1. But if he places at least second (which he almost always has), you'll make a tiny bit. If he wins, you'll make out nicely.

And as consistently as he performs -- 6-for-7 finishing at least second place; beaten when he does lose only by horses with blacktype back-class -- I wonder how many more times Radical Fringe can run for a tag without getting himself claimed from Hugh Robertson and Wolfe Racing LLC.

Sunday, October 18, 2009

The Commonwealth Stud: Can Virginia follow European lead to restore its breeding business?

Virginia's thoroughbred breeding business is in sharp decline.

I've noticed. The Washington Post has noticed. Certainly Glenn Petty, executive director of the Virginia Thoroughbred Association, has noticed.

I have an idea for spurring the industry with a stallion stakes series, similar to Maryland Million Day or any number of other states' efforts to promote breeding in their state via premium restricted races. Petty has a different idea.

He thinks Virginia should follow the well-established lead of England and Ireland and establish a "national" stud.

Petty is of the mind that Virginia is so handicapped by Colonial Downs' relatively short meeting, lack of sufficient off-track betting locations, and better incentive programs in nearby states (namely West Virginia and Pennsylvania) that maintaining any significant private commercial breeding interest is impossible.

"Enter the government," Petty told me in an e-mail last August.

Petty said he has "developed a plan for a National Stud" that would couple a commercial stallion operation with "an educational component" at Virginia Tech University, which long has operated the Middleburg Agriculture and Research Center, first for cattle research, but rededicating the facility to equine study in 1992.

Virginia's "national stud" (or "commonwealth stud," perhaps more appropriately) would be "modeled after the national studs in England and Ireland," Petty said. That would suggest that the facility would maintain a respectable roster of stallions, provide boarding and foaling facilities for private mare-owners, and perhaps perform other services such as sales-prep or boarding horses on layup.

"There is no private funding for such an endeavor" due to the aforementioned issues facing Virginia, which limit the profitability of a large stallion operation, Petty said. "But people agree it could work over time if subsidized."

Petty explains that the state of Virginia receives 1.7 percent of every traditional wager on horse racing in the state, and 0.5 percent of each advance-deposit wager. Out of those funds, the Commonwealth of Virginia Racing Commission must operate its "shop," Petty says -- that's pay for its entire staff, licensing process, drug-testing, stewards and so forth. Then the VRC must return a "surplus" $800,000 to the Virginia General Fund.

"Surplus" is an interesting word the commonwealth's General Assembly has co-opted in this case. Truth be told, the government wants $800,000 from the VRC's budget before anything else is paid and regardless how much the VRC collects from the 1.7/0.5 percent shares on wagers.

"Actually, the (General Assembly) requires them to pay the $800,000 up front," said Petty about the VRC, "so they'd better get their budget right!"

Since wagering began in Virginia, Petty said, the industry has returned more than $7 million to the commonwealth's General Fund.

Trouble is, over the course of more than a decade, that really isn't a lot of money for running the entire commonwealth. Petty believes -- rightfully, I would add -- that the funds would be better-spent in the hands of the racing industry, to promote its own growth and development, generating tax revenues for the commonwealth through sales, higher property values and job creation.

"I've got kids in public school, so I'm a fan of the General Fund and the school buses it buys and the roads it paves," Petty wrote. "But imagine what the $7 million could have done if applied to programs like the one you suggest or to a Virginia National Stud?"

Indeed, the $800,000 the Virginia General Assembly siphons-off from wagering each year is a drop in the state's budget bucket, but would more than fully fund the stallion stakes series I recommended or could greatly subsidize Petty's plan for a commonwealth-run stud.

Petty says that support for his ideas has been voiced.

"Everybody sees the logic of my request and the merit of the projects this money could support," he says.

But the roadblocks to reclaiming those funds for industry use have proven impossible, thus far, to clear.

"Nobody is willing to advocate giving this money back," Petty said.

"I have asked the General Assembly for years to give us back all or some of this money. I spent all last summer visiting members in their homes and I have had two high-level meetings with the governor's office about this, plus one with the secretary of commerce and trade (he oversees the VRC) and one with the secretary of agriculture.

"Nothing. Zip."

I just hope Virginia's General Assembly is pleased with its work when those two words are all that's left of the commonwealth's thoroughbred breeding business.

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Talk you out of racehorses? I think not.

An e-mail message sent to a horse-breeding and -racing discussion group asked a question in its subject line: "How crazy am I?"

The reason for the question?

The female writer has a couple of mares. A friend has acquired an intact horse who was a decent runner who earned nearly $200,000 and was stakes-placed. And, noting that women are now more accepted on the back side of America's racetracks, the writer has a desire to breed, raise, train and race her own horses. The whole kit and caboodle.

"Give it to me straight as I need to be talked out of this," she wrote.

How crazy is she?

"Insane," I told her.

But then anybody who isn't practically made of money is nuts to get into this business, even in the smallest way, on the breeding and ownership end. Not just in this economy, though especially so. And yet we do it anyway.

Somebody oughta padlock the gates at America's racetracks with guys and gals like me on the inside; fit for straitjackets those of us who really need them; and make rounds to hand out our medications twice a day or as dictated by our psychiatric professionals.

Just please make sure you've left us with the horses.

It makes no sense for me to take in mares that others didn't want (but in which I see potential) and a stallion that had no place else to go (but who can get you a racehorse and deserves a decent home) and try to breed foals for the track. But it's what I'm doing.

Want a racehorse? They're everywhere. People run fairly good ones for claiming tags every day. Hire a trainer, write the first check (and be prepared to write a whole bunch more) and you're in the racing-stable business.

Want to start with an unproven talent so, theoretically, the sky is still the limit? Particularly in this economy, breeders, pinhookers and consigners must feel like they're giving away weanlings and yearlings at the sales. Outside of the sales ring, some of them even are.

But the pedigree side of horse racing has always intrigued me just as much as the races themselves. There's no magic combination that works every time. But can you find affinities between families and individuals that give your youngster a better chance of growing up and becoming a winner than the chances of the average foal?

As a breeder, everything is against you. Beyond the process of just getting a mare pregnant -- often no simple task -- you then have to cross your fingers and pray to the deity of your choice (where applicable) that the pregnancy doesn't slip. And that the foal is born alive. And that he has all his legs. And eyes. And internal organs, fully functional. And that he isn't sickly. Or doesn't get sick when 12 hours ago he seemed like the healthiest foal in the shedrow.

And that as he grows, he stays straight -- or gets even better with age. A real looker at six months can be a rat at 12. And sometimes a near-perfect specimen again (or an ugly one who can run) by the time the 2-year-old sales and races roll around next year.

And you hope he doesn't step in a hole. Get struck by lightning. Get kicked. Bow a tendon early in training. Bow a tendon before he ever gets to training. Isn't a head case that is impossible to train. Isn't one of those who is as fast as you'd ever want a horse to be when working alone, but so afraid of running in company that he'll just back out of the crowd and quit. That he won't freak out schooling in the starting gate and smash his skull, nearly killing himself. (Or that if he does, he recovers to threaten the Triple Crown.)

Insert your own disaster here.

If you think breeding to sell is tough, try breeding to race. You make all the plans, sometimes with a little help from bloodstock and breeding advisers and sometimes on your own. And you take all the financial chances, from cover and conception, to foaling, to the racetrack ... inviting failure at every step along the way. You're almost better off if they show you early on that they aren't a racehorse so you can retrain and rehome them right away, rather than after they're a 4-year-old, 20-race maiden who has cost you a mint and will never earn it back.

I'm not disrespecting those who breed to sell; it's become the bigger segment of the market. And for every one you make money on, there are ones on which you lose. But at least if you've bred a foal of fashionable pedigree, from reasonably good family, and he isn't sick or crooked on sale day, you have a chance. People will eventually stop buying your foals if you build a reputation for nothing but a string of perpetual losers (regardless of looks), but the one you're selling today hasn't won a darned thing to prove himself. And might never. And as a seller you can still come out well ahead.

When you breed to race, in effect the potential sucker who just bought your unproven, potential lifetime loser, is you.

How crazy is it to try and help out a friend's freshman stallion with some business (probably getting free or greatly reduced seasons in return); to breed, raise and race your own foals?

You'd be hard-pressed to come up with a better word than "insane."

So I told it to her straight, and "off-list," so far as the discussion group goes.

If she keeps all that money she would've spent, safely tucked in her pocket, she can't possibly lose.

She also can't possibly win.

Me? Talk somebody out of racehorses? ... I think not.

Just, along the way, try to make the choices that will leave you with the fewest regrets.