Sunday, January 31, 2010

Late to the Gulfstream party, I leave it up $2

DORAL, Fla. -- OK, how does a guy pick five winners on a 10-race card and come home from the racetrack only up $2?

It starts, I'm sad to admit, by actually being late to the races, for the first time in my life.

Sleeping the night (and, as it turns out, half the day) away at The Blue, I had set a 9:30 alarm on my phone that never rang. I was awakened at 11:58 a.m. by a polite woman from the cleaning staff, knocking at the door and asking if she needed to come back later. ... Um, yeah, please. Later.

Had I not gotten just a little turned around on the way to Gulfstream Park, I might have made it in time to bet all 10 races. As it was, I missed out on a $10.20 winner in the first (Diced N Sliced) and saw Race 2 without betting it, when I would have hit the $15 exacta cold (4-2).

And, of course, the return also depends on how much you bet. Hit a price on which you only wagered $2 and you still don't have all that big a score. Bet $10 on a horse you really like, who fails you, and it's a big setback. Plunk down $12 on a tri-box and have a horse sneak up (barely) for third and your $12 goes "poof" in a hurry.

Nevertheless, I had a ball at Gulfstream Park all afternoon and into the evening. The facility is dramatic and beautiful, the racing was excellent, and I made a couple of new friends in the crowd -- Roger (originally from Wales) and Gary (born in Britain, forgot to ask if he spells his name with one R or two). They were enjoying the races with Gary's two sons, deciding to attend after meeting the owner of one of the Sunshine Millions entries elsewhere in the city over the past few days.

Neither man was a big horse-racing aficionado, but everybody had a blast, a fact not lost on me as racing continues to struggle with gaining traction among the modern sports-viewing public.

Despite its many issues, which we needn't rehash here and now but that do need fixing, we really do have a great game.

Second example: Early in the day, I had been approached by a man with a thick, eastern European accent (Russian maybe?) who asked me if there was a way he could use the automated teller to "make bet on three horses to finish first, second, third, any order?" Indeed there was, and I showed him by dropping my own credit slip in the machine and punching in a mock tri-box for the upcoming race.

"Then just hit 'print ticket' and you have it," I said, before punching "return balance" instead to get my money back.

The man thanked me, put his fresh credit voucher into the auto-teller, and set about making his bet for that race.

Near the end of the race card, I saw that man with his wife (who looked like a local) and a couple of children, exultant. He was waving a wager ticket above his head, literally jumping up and down like he'd just bought a freakin' Toyota in a 30-second spot from 1984. I walked up, grinning.

"Is this it? Is this it?" he said, showing me the ticket. "It" sure was.

"Perfect," I said, triggering a second round of jumping for joy.

I love this game.

The only bad point on Saturday came at the end of Race 7, when Rosie's Gal (a long-shot selection of mine who was well-positioned for awhile) pulled up with a lame right hind leg shortly after the finish. Jockey Paco Lopez did an admirable job of getting her stopped quickly and keeping her calm and still while waiting for the veterinary team. I don't know her condition; only that the leg wasn't obviously broken (i.e., dangling) and she was vanned off (though that doesn't show in the Equibase chart). I hope she'll be OK.

Now for the roundup, my picks who finished where I predicted in italics:

Race 1: 3-8-7 (in the body of the race analysis, typo reversed two in the quick-look and was fixed).
Finish: 3 Diced N Sliced ($10.20); 2 Lacie Slew; 7 Suave Royalty.
Post race analysis: The 8, My Prefered, "broke in the air and was eased." The 2, Lacie Slew, was my fourth (unmentioned) choice in my handicapping system and made some sense to get up and place or show, which she did.

Race 2: 4/2-6-7 (I couldn't really separate the 4 and 2, but felt they were clearly best).
Finish: 4 General Maximus ($5.20); 2 Afleet Express; 5 Family Holiday (a 31-1 bomb); 7 Peace at Dawn at nearly 20-1. ... Exacta $15.
Post race analysis: As expected, the 4 and 2 were clearly best.

Race 3: 2-10/12 (The horse I liked best was first on the also-eligible list and didn't draw).
Finish: 1 Dreamed to Dream (paid $167.60, seriously); 4 Pretty B; 3 Angel's Cove.
Post race analysis: This race just blew up in my face, with the 2 faltering to seventh, the 10 "no factor" in eighth and the 12 finishing a dull fifth as the favorite. Maidens, go figure.

Race 4: 6-9-4-3.
Finish: 6 It's Not For Love ($23.60); 4 Lady's Wish; 3 Watch Smartly.
Post race analysis: I actually thought the 6, 15-1 on the morning line, might drift up in the odds and she came down instead, almost to the point that I didn't like the price enough to bet her. But I did, across the board, and wished I'd bet everything in my pocket. She was criticized for not running well in Florida, but from the PPs I read, her races in Florida were short while her best speed figures -- at Belmont, Monmouth and Aqueduct -- were at a mile. Give her a mile and she wired this group, despite hitting the freakin' rail in deep stretch. ... No, that didn't in the slightest just about make me crap my pants. ... The 9 finished fifth as the heavy favorite, and I was left wishing I'd added the 3 to my tri-box (betting all four of my choices above) as the trifecta paid $365.70.

Race 5: 2-9-12 (since none of the AE-list horses drew in).
Finish: 8 Hollywood Left ($10.60); 1 Chihulykee; 3 Triple E.
Post race analysis: Another race about which I was apparently clueless once the three nice horses on the also-eligible list failed to draw in. It didn't make much sense to anyone else, either, as the 1 went off at nearly 40-1 and the 3 at 11-1, for a trifecta of $1,399.10.

Race 6: 7-1/5-6.
Finish: 6 First Dude ($7.40); 5 The Director; 1 Don Cavallo.
Post race analysis: The 6 went off as the favorite, and my top choice, the 7, was second-favored but failed to figure. Had I boxed my top four in a tri, it would only have paid $77.10, which is probably not worth the risk of a pretty expensive tri-box wager.

Race 7: 11-4-1/5.
Finish: 11 Speak Easy Gal ($6.60); 6 Loxy Lady; 4 Eden's Storm.
Post race analysis: I didn't much like the graded-stakes dirt horse, Flying Spur (twice placed behind Rachel Alexandra) in this comeback spot, particularly after a layoff since the Kentucky Oaks on the first Friday of last May. She is fairly well turf-bred, but I was unconvinced, and she ran unconvincingly; fifth and weakening as the 2-1 favorite. I did like the 1, Rosie's Princess, at 27-1, and she was in position to figure for awhile, but went wrong at or near the finish.

Race 8, $200K Sunshine Millions Sprint: 4-6-3-7.
Finish: 6 This One's For Phil ($4.00); 4 Pashito the Che; 5 Drift King.
Post race analysis: Lost a head-bob between the two clear favorites here, with Pashito the Che running his guts out by setting the pace in blistering fractions (21.46, 43.23, 55.31) only to come up a nostril short. Without doubt the best race I've ever seen live. (Pictured above.) Both horses were brave beyond words. Drift King was a 33-1 bomb who beat my 3-horse here by less than a length to royally eff-up a trifecta.

Race 9, $300K Sunshine Millions Distaff: 4-7-3/5.
Finish: 4 Sweet Repent ($5.20); 7 Jessica Is Back; 6 Even Road.
Post race analysis: Sweet Repent won pretty easily as predicted, but didn't pay a lot, also as predicted. The 7 a fairly comfortable second. Cold exacta paid $16.60. Even Road got up by less than a length at 17-1 to again bugger-up my trifecta.

Race 10, $300K Sunshine Millions Turf: 8-4-11.
Finish: 11 Jet Propulsion ($8.00); 10 Pickapocket; 1 Picou.
Post race analysis: I didn't much like Jet Propulsion here because he's a very solid turf miler who had fallen on his face (0-for-3 lifetime, never even third place) at 9 furlongs. But he was lone speed, especially after a couple of scratches, and the late-running Soldier's Dancer (my No. 8 above) didn't remotely get the pace he needed to close from deep (24.21, 48.23, 1:11.18). The 4, Bad Action, had to be steadied on both turns.

Now, on to Hialeah in about eight hours ...

Friday, January 29, 2010

Glenn's sleepless picks for Sunshine Millions Day (Florida card only)

DORAL, Fla. -- Here I am in South Florida, and I have to say, so far, so very good.

Thanks to -- a service I highly recommend -- for a price I can afford, I'm rollin' in style with a 2010 Chevy Camaro from Avis and staying at The Blue, a "resort property" on the Doral golf course. I made it past the gated security (where my name and reservation was checked) to swing into the main lobby's driveway and park behind a Bentley while checking in. And before my second foot hit the ground when exiting the car, a bellman stepped up to say, "Welcome to The Blue, Mr. Craven. Will you be needing help with any bags?" ... About 10 minutes after reaching the room, a woman in guest services called just to make sure the place met my expectations.

Oh, yeah, and then some. And trust me, I did not pay "just-parked-behind-a-Bentley" prices.

So, partially on the flight from Raleigh-Durham International (where now it's snowing) to Miami, and partially after an evening cruise in the Camaro with drive-thru dining at Pollo Tropical, I've handicapped the Gulfstream card for Saturday.

C'mon. Lose a little money with me.

Race 1, 6.5 furlongs, Clm$25K, fillies and mares 4-and-up: A sketchy group with the exception of a couple, and I think this race has a beatable horse among the morning-line favorites in Suave Royalty. The mare is certainly a decent one, with $166,507 earned from five wins and 49 lifetime starts, but I can't figure why she's 3/1 here, just a notch behind the 5/2 first choice, My Prefered. Both are coming in off turf starts that broke up long layoffs, and My Prefered has won 13 of 51 lifetime, plus should benefit from the services of Jeremy Rose. And actually, I think a threat to beat both of them is the 3-horse, Diced N Sliced, ridden by Javier Castellano. An 8-3-7 trifecta (in some combination) is a very possible occurrence, but if I were choosing one of the three as a win-bet only, it would be No. 3, Diced N Sliced, because she's the much better price on the morning line at 6/1.
Choices: 3-8-7

Race 2, 6f, allowance N1x, 3-year-olds: A mixed bag here with two standouts. I like the 4 best, General Maximus, who broke maiden at first asking last July at Belmont with a triple-digit Brisnet speed figure. Of course, everyone else is gonna like him, too, and he's 8/5 on the morning line. Particularly considering he hasn't raced since July, a fair chance to beat him rests with the 2, Afleet Express, who also debuted with a win (Dec. 5 at Aqueduct, 93 Bris) and has raced much more recently. Others who might figure are the 6 and 7, Windy City Cat and Peace At Dawn; the former broke maiden at first asking at Hawthorne on Dec. 23 (89 Bris) and the latter ran a 90 speed figure last out on Jan 9, albeit in the slop.
Choices: 4/2-6-7

Race 3, 1 mile (turf), Mcl$75K, 3-year-old fillies: Perhaps the best horse in this race, might not get in this race. That's the 13 (as in, first on the also-eligible list), Baroness Jill, a Todd Pletcher trainee to be ridden by John Velazquez. The Dynaformer filly was a $320K Keeneland yearling and failed badly as the favorite in her debut, eighth beaten 10. But she was pinched back at the start and has an excuse. Since the rest of the field isn't very strong, she has a good shot if she draws in. Otherwise, I like two more outside horses, almost equally well, the 10, Palm Beach Story, and the 12, Impolite Lady. Palm Beach Story was a close third in two starts in France as a 2-year-old, but hasn't raced since July 19; she's 4/1. Clocking in at 7/2 on the morning line, Impolite Lady was third in her only start, a Belmont maiden special in October. She'll should be coming late, and with some speed in this race among the likely also-rans, that could set up well for her. ... A sneaky choice? The 2, Deborah's Pride, a firster by Tiznow out of the Trempolino mare La Samanna. Trainer Helen Pitts is 0-for-4 at the meet, but has a +3.04 wager return on first-time turf starters. And, this filly's dam has already produced three winners from five starters, two of those three winners on the lawn. ... And, she'll open the market at 10/1.
Choices: 13(if she draws in) 2-10/12.

Race 4: 8.5f (turf), Clm$30K, fillies and mares 4 and up: A fairly wide-open field with a 3/1 morning-line favorite in the 9, Loveyou Everybody, who I like, but don't love, and a 15/1 shot in the 6, It's Not For Love, who I do love at that price. The 6 hasn't won much, 2-for-22, but has the highest speed figure at the day's distance, and until being sent out in two turf sprints was remarkably consistent, running seven of eight Brisnet speed figures at or above the 82 par for winning today's race, though she was 0-fer in that stretch at Aqueduct, Belmont and Monmouth. The stretchout seems to be what she needs. ... She has a jock with a poor record in Pascacio Lopez and trainer Timothy Hills is 0-for-19, but again, I'll take 15/1 (or maybe better) on her.
Choices: 6-9-4-3

Race 5, 5f (turf), Clm$32K, ages 4 and up: Again, the best horses in this race might not draw-in, as three top threats to win are on the AE list as No. 13 (trainer David Braddy is a 25 percent winner on the class-drop), 15 (Probation Ready, won his last among similar at Tampa) and 16 (former stakes-winner Stradivinsky). Among those likely to draw-in, I prefer the 2, Golden Weekend, though he's on about a two-month break after winning in November at this distance on turf at Meadowlands. The 9, Matt's A Giant, also last raced with a win at Meadowlands at 5f on turf, in October. And the 12, Midnight Ridge, used to be fast enough, anyway, last summer.
Choices: 15-13-16 if they draw; 2-9-12 otherwise.

Race 6, 1 mile, MSW, 3-year-olds: Gotta love handicapping maidens, and this group is a challenge. While there are no first-timers to add confusion, the field has a balance of talent, with five of nine having run a Brisnet speed figure above 81 but less than 90, and two others with a 79 and 77 to their credits. Yet none have achieved the par figure for winning this sort of race at Gulfstream; 94. The 7, Gothics Peak, has the fastest prior speed figure at 89, but that was going 6f. He'll be stretching out for the first time, but that shouldn't be a problem for a son of Unbridled's Song, and he gets first-time Lasix. The 5, The Director, was a well-beaten fourth in his debut under Jeremy Rose, but Rose took him again and will try to improve on an 83 effort posted at 6 furlongs on Jan. 3 here. The 1-horse, a Pletcher-trainee named Don Cavallo, has gone two turns before, running fifth among similar at Aqueduct on Nov. 28. And the 6, First Dude, has been twice in both his starts, last October at Keeneland going 7f and in November at Churchill at a mile and a sixteenth.
Choices: 7-1/5-6.

Race 7, 8.5f (turf), allowance, fillies and mares 4 and up who haven't won $7,500 other than maiden, claiming or starter, or have never won two races: Phew, long conditions. Look for the 11, Speak Easy Gal under Elvis Trujillo, who in my opinion seems to stand well above this group. A possible exception is the 3/1 morning-line favorite, Flying Spur (No. 4), who was last seen getting beat 24 1/2 lengths (but finishing third) by Rachel Alexandra in the Kentucky Oaks. So, she's G1-placed, but her 2-year-old turf efforts weren't stellar enough to make me choose her first with a surface-switch back to grass and a nine-month layoff. The 1 and 5, Miss MVP and Loxy Lady, could figure.
Choices: 11-4-1/5

Race 8, Sunshine Millions Sprint, $200,000, 6f, ages 4 and up: If anyone is going to beat the 8/5 morning-line favorite in this race, No. 4 Pashito The Che, I don't know who it is. He's 6-for-12 lifetime with four second-place finishes, meaning he has failed to make the exacta just twice in his career. And his last six Brisnet speed figures all have hit triple-digits, topped by a blistering 114 at Philly Park in October. The oddsmakers say This One's For Phil (No. 6) has the best shot, but he's not worth 9/5 by comparison. Not in my book; even though he's working extremely well for trainer Richard Dutrow. The 3, Accredit, and the 7, Rockerfeller, should figure, but they'd have to run back to their form of six to nine months ago in order to do it.
Choices: 4-6-3-7

Race 9, Sunshine Millions Distaff, $300,000, 9f, fillies and mares 4 and up: Simply put, not all that competitive a group. The 4, Sweet Repent, has won her last four starts, all with speed figures likely good enough to win again here, and has beaten several others who are also in this field in the process. If you get the 2/1 that the morning line offers, that might actually be a good thing. The oddsmakers prefer the 7, Jessica Is Back, and she's certainly good enough to win here, too, and trending well on form. But she lost to Sweet Repent two starts back at Calder. The 3, Christmas Ship, and 5, Amazing, look like the best of the rest. Might have to bet the tri and tinker with your third-place horse to make much wagering on this race, unless someone drops a bomb.
Choices: 4-7-3/5

Race 10, Sunshine Millions Turf, $300,000, 9f (turf), ages 4 and up: On their bodies of work, I would like the 8, Soldier's Dancer, and the 11, Jet Propulsion, equally well here. Except that Jet Propulsion seems to lose his afterburners beyond a mile and is 0-for-3 at 9 furlongs, having not even hit the board. The 4, Bad Action, is a better bet to figure at this distance, but doesn't look good enough to beat Soldier's Dancer at his best, and Soldier's Dancer is coming in off back-to-back 9f turf stakes wins.
Choices: 8-4-11

Thursday, January 28, 2010

Big Florida weekend plans help revive blog

This blog has stagnated since mid-November, ironically when my gainful employment ended and my free time -- that easily could be used for blogging -- increased.

That stagnation is going to get a bit of a stir this weekend, as my promised and much-anticipated (by me, anyway) trip to Florida for a visit to the reopened Hialeah Park is set for this weekend.

I've actually picked the ideal weekend to be in Miami -- as if there's a bad time, I suppose. The weekend forecast here at home in North Carolina is for a high of 28 and low of 14 with a "wintry mix."

I'm not sure I've ever traveled in the direction of warmth during winter. But this is also perhaps the ideal week of the "cold" weather racing season to be in Miami.

Saturday I plan to be at Gulfstream Park, where I will take in three of the six races in the annual challenge series between Florida and California, Sunshine Millions Day. Races being run at Gulfstream include the $300,000 Sunshine Millions Turf for all horses age 4 and up at a mile and an eighth, the $300,000 Sunshine Millions Distaff for older fillies and mares at an equal distance on the main track, and the $200,000 Sunshine Millions Sprint for older horses.

The other half of the Sunshine Millions Card, of course, will be run at Santa Anita in California. There, entrants will contest the $200,000 Filly & Mare Sprint, the $300,000 Filly & Mare Turf, and the $500,000 Sunshine Millions Classic.

On Sunday, I'll focus on the revived Hialeah Park, and it's the biggest day of the resurrected track's Quarter Horse-racing season.

Sunday's feature race will be the $100,000 South Florida Quarter Horse Derby; 3-year-olds, of course, going 440 yards. But there are other big events on the card as Hialeah marks its last weekend of its comeback season.

Race 6 of the nine-race Sunday card is the 440-yard South Florida Quarter Horse Invitational Stakes, also for 3-year-olds. The purse is $30,000 in this "consolation race" for those horses that did not earn entry into the South Florida QH Derby, later on the card.

And, Race 7, immediately prior to the Derby, will be the $25,000 Sunshine State Stakes for 3-year-olds and up, going 220 yards.

Since my flight back to the Tar Heel State actually departs quite late on Monday night, I might even make a return trip to Hialeah that afternoon. If so, there's another stakes race to be witnessed -- and a long one for Quarters -- the $30,000 Sailfish Stakes at 1,000 yards for ages 3 and up.

I hope to have some more news and insights on the trip before jetting away from North Carolina on Friday. I'll try to handicap the Sunshine Millions card and post my picks (for you to bet against) from both the Gulfstream and Santa Anita races. And with a bit of help, there might be a surprise or two in store. ... Hopefully for readers only, and not for me.

Meanwhile, anyone who is a South Florida racing scene veteran -- or knows what I ought to do with the rest of my time in Miami, when the racing is over -- please post your tips in the comments section or send me an e-mail.

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Racing should ride Rachel vs. Zenyatta

The year ahead might be the best in recent history for horse racing fans. Potentially even a rejuvenation of the game in the eyes of the sports media and the general public.

We have a rivalry. Potentially more ardent, bitter and intriguing than it was two days ago.

Rachel Alexandra's crowning Monday night as the Eclipse Award winner for Horse of the Year has practically set ablaze the hair of some supporters of her chief competition for the award -- unbeaten mare Zenyatta.

One of the most incredible fillies of the last 50 years -- a filly who went 8-for-8 with five Grade 1 wins including three against males -- is being disparaged as undeserving of recognition as Horse of the Year.

Fairly knowledgeable horse people and race fans in a Yahoo discussion group I frequent have complained that the voting came down in Rachel's favor because of some unnamed "perks" voters allegedly receive. ... Don't ask me what those "perks" might be.

"RA being HOY is a joke, she doesn't deserve to stand in Zenyatta's shadow," another familiar contributor suggested. "She barely beat the males that Z destroyed in the Classic."

Wait ... what?

Exactly two horses were common opponents between Rachel's season and Zenyatta's scintillating Breeders' Cup Classic win: Summer Bird and Mine That Bird.

Rachel smashed Summer Bird by six lengths in the Haskell Invitational. Zenyatta beat him by three in the Classic.

Granted, Zenyatta trounced Mine That Bird in the Breeders' Cup, while Rachel barely held him off as he was closing fast in the Preakness way back in May. But nobody can argue a case for Mine That Bird getting better throughout 2009. Rachel beat the Kentucky Derby winner at the peak of his form, in a race that hadn't been won by a filly since Nellie Morse in 1924.

Still, the same Yahoo group member who made the (debunked) comparison insists, "RA is a very nice filly but not HOY in any year."

Even Zenyatta's owner, Jerry Moss, got involved a little bit, lamenting that Rachel Alexandra won despite running in mostly "restricted races" throughout 2009.

Well they weren't restricted to New York-breds, Jerry. Sure, Rachel received weight allowances, being a 3-year-old running against males and particularly against older horses in the Woodward. But those are the rules of racing; neither Rachel nor her connections write the rules, they just race under them.

Meanwhile, Zenyatta's 2009 schedule was about as "restricted" as one could get. Knowing that the Breeders' Cup would be run over synthetic at Santa Anita (again), Moss and trainer John Shirreffs essentially stayed home all year. That left Zenyatta -- an absolute synthetic-track monster -- looming dark and foreboding over the California circuit, where she was already 8-for-8 lifetime, and a dominating 8-for-8. Aside from stablemate Life Is Sweet (who went on to win the Breeders' Cup Ladies' Classic), there just wasn't much talent running against Z this year in her four starts prior to the Classic.

And the one time Zenyatta ventured outside California in 2009 -- for a scheduled start in the Louisville Distaff at Churchill Downs on Derby weekend, a race in which she was 4/5 on the morning line -- Shirreffs scratched her when rain soaked the track.

Regardless whether they've ever raced, which clearly they haven't, many Zenyatta supporters are absolutely convinced their mare would win any meeting of the pair, regardless.

"I did not want the two to meet because of their very different racing styles," wrote one contributor to the Yahoo group I frequent. That is, Rachel is a front-runner and Zen a closer. "But after Zenyatta's performance in the BC Classic ... I know that Zenyatta can and will beat Rachel ... and then the fans will just say, well of course, Zenyatta is older."

Anyone who has watched more than a few horse races should know that isn't such a sure bet. The outcome of any race depends on too many factors -- track conditions, distance, other horses in the field and how the race sets up -- to consider either runner a lock in a race between two dominant females.

If Rachel is relatively loose on the lead, she will be hard to pass -- even, I predict, at a 10-furlong distance that many of her detractors believe her connections are avoiding like the plague. The filly will fight.

And in a big group, with traffic problems or even merely moving over a traditional dirt track the likes of which she's rarely seen, Zenyatta might run into trouble she can't overcome, or simply not fire her best shot.

Anyone who is completely convinced that Zenyatta will beat Rachel should they meet this year should review her Preakness and take pause.

Mine That Bird, a devout closer who was then at the top of his game, could not reel her in even though she broke from the 13-hole (from which no prior Preakness winner had ever started) and did most of the work on the front end, pressed by a very fleet colt in Big Drama.

A number of observers, including retired jockey Jerry Bailey, have suggested with some evidence that Mine That Bird's chances in the Preakness were compromised by a bad ride from Mike Smith, who didn't give him the best trip, particularly not the shortest route through the inevitable traffic on the turn for home. ... That's the same Mike Smith who rides Zenyatta as she closes from the clouds.

And Rachel would relish rain on race-day, while Shirreffs would probably scratch Zenyatta or else have to run her even though the conditions would be advantage-Rachel.

To be sure, Rachel has her defenders, as well. My hand is raised. And a TVG network message board thread is titled "Moss is a pitiful loser" -- filled with Rachel and Zenyatta fans engaging in a sharp exchange. (Plus a few level heads.)

And it's beautiful.

Controversy spurs interest. And for once, a nationwide racing controversy doesn't involve cheating or drugs (though some Zen supporters praise John Shirreffs as a cleaner trainer than Rachel's handler Steve Asmussen) or broken-down horses being put to death.

It's a quarrel of epic proportions and a squabble that digs deep to the very roots of why mankind started racing horses against one another in the first place.

Whose horse is faster?

With Zenyatta confirmed to be in training rather than destined for an immediate trip to the breeding shed, a potentially stellar 2010 awaits.

I expect her to run a prep -- maybe the 9-furlong, Grade 2 Strub Stakes against males on Feb. 6. Then Zen would turn up next in the Santa Anita Handicap, where she'll almost certainly be sent off at a short price and probably run her lifetime record to 16-for-16 (assuming a prep win) with a stirring performance reminiscent of her Classic win, becoming in the process the first female to win that historic race.

Rachel, meanwhile, is still on the shelf after her own historic Woodward win. But (unless there's a physical issue of which we're unaware) she should become visible again on a training track fairly soon.

For the good of horse racing, these ladies should meet -- repeatedly, at different distances and venues -- during 2010.

Rachel will need to get back into training and have a prep or two before these arch-rivals-who-have-never-met, first meet. After all, Zenyatta appears to be sharp right now, today, and destined to race at least by the Big 'Cap in March if not before. I don't expect to see Rachel in a race at all until April, maybe at best.

But I hope that the summer and fall leading up the Breeders' Cup at Churchill Downs in November will give us Rachel Alexandra and Zenyatta going head-to-head two or three times. Preferably at least once against males, to hopefully make sure the field is of a good size and decent quality, with some speed to test Rachel and other closers to launch their bid with Zen.

With a long season of good luck, good form and good health for both females, the 2010 Breeders' Cup could be a "rubber match" of sorts, and the deciding factor in the Horse of the Year voting that the Rachel-less B.C. failed to be in 2009.

And for once -- with these two amazing females carrying horse racing's colors -- perhaps our game will be the talk of the sports media throughout the year, and not just from the first Saturday in May until the final strides of the Belmont Stakes a few short weeks later.

Thursday, January 14, 2010

Watching Red 'race' for the first time

You'd think an unemployed journalist would be blogging with all his newfound down-time. I'm not fully certain why I'm not accomplishing more here, but I guess job-hunting does take some time, and I've also distracted myself with other endeavors.

While my teenage daughter was visiting North Carolina during the holiday season, we road-tripped with a friend of hers to Atlanta for a concert (Lady Gaga, I did not attend) and then Daddy and Daughter jetted to Boston on New Year's Eve to see Amanda Palmer and the Boston Pops in historic Symphony Hall.

And on Saturday, I drove to Gordonsville, Va., to visit my own horses at Sarah Warmack's Hilltop Farm VA.

After the loss of our co-owned filly, Oracle at Delphi, in November, all has gone much better for my small stable.

Stallion Silver Music is feeling right chipper for 19 years of age, and some interest has been stirred among Virginia breeders this year, unlike last season.

Open broodmare Lady's Wager is putting on weight (she struggles to maintain when pregnant and nursing) and should be ready for a relatively early cover by Silver this year. Hopefully she'll be in foal before the end of March.

Broodmare Bushes Victory, dam of the ill-fated "Delphy," is happily in foal to Silver Music for a late-2010 foal of undetermined gender.

And new yearling All In On Red (pictured at left above), a June colt, is catching up in size to the other 2009 foals. More important, according to those who frequent the farm, he hates to be at the back when the babies run in a pack.

I caught a brief but encouraging glimpse of this late in the day, as the winter-blanketed babies realized it was feeding time and hurriedly brought themselves up from the pasture. Red and a pretty nice filly were neck-and-neck while well in front, and as they came up the hill (whether in actuality or just wishful thinking on my part) Red seemed to find another gear to reach the still-empty feed buckets first, by several lengths. ... And to be terribly pleased with himself for "winning."

Thoroughbreds are, after all, born to run. But not all of them are born with that desire to compete; the will to win.

Whether Red will be fast enough (and sound enough) to make a living at this game won't be determined for another couple of years. Yet I have to like that he hates to settle for less than first, even among in his present youthful company in a big, open pasture in Virginia horse country.

Wednesday, January 6, 2010

Lava Man's short-lived comeback

So the great Lava Man's un-retirement becomes a re-retirement after only one race.

The 9-year-old gelding who is the only horse ever to win Grade 1 races on all three surfaces (dirt, turf, synthetic) and became the richest ex-claimer in history with $5,268,706 in earnings finished last of seven recently in the San Gabriel H.-G2. I detailed how the race wasn't a "bad" last in an ambitious spot (9 furlongs on turf in graded company), and how a horse coming off a 17-month layoff surely needed a race or two before being expected to show his best.

Lava Man won't get that second race off the layoff. Nor the third, which many handicappers often figure to be the point a comeback cycle when the horse is finally ready to give his best effort.

I won't criticize the connections -- co-owners Steve, Dave and Tracy Kenly and Jason Wood, and trainer Doug O'Neill -- for the basic decision of finally turning the old warrior out for good. Lava Man has earned every penny of his retirement costs and care several times over.

What I do wonder is, having attempted only one race -- and a strenuous one that Lava Man led, in which he finished beaten only six lengths, and from which he reportedly came out of in perfect health -- what was ever the point in bringing him back?

I still refuse to believe, as some critics have suggested, that greed was the reason. I think it really was about giving the horse a chance to do what he was bred to do, and what he for so long obviously loved doing -- running at top speed; racing to win.

So while retiring a 9-year-old can't be considered a bad or rash or indefensible decision, I do question the thought process of the connections from the outset of Lava Man's comeback, particularly their resolve to fully pursue the comeback in the face of what should have been a very predictable outcry among some (many?) fans that the horse shouldn't be racing anymore.

"He came out of the race sound and he is a strong and sturdy horse, but we don't want to tarnish his reputation," Kenly told The Blood-Horse. "We always said we would only run him if he could compete at the highest level, and I don't think that is in the cards anymore. It was his first race in a year and a half and I'm sure he would improve in his next race, but I think he has lost a step. It was disappointing for all of us because he was training unbelievably.

"If it was any other horse he'd be back running in a couple of weeks. To us, this wasn't a risk from a health standpoint even though we took a lot of criticism. There was no fear in racing him. He is 100 percent healthy. But I just don't think he can compete at the level we want him to anymore. In the end it's always been about the horse and not the money."

You know, I have a hard time believing that horses can read their press clippings. I suspect that Lava Man's "reputation" isn't much of a concern to Lava Man -- except, perhaps, as he walks by other stalls around the barn and sees either fear in the eyes of his potential opponents, or a lack thereof.

Worry about "tarnishing" the horse's reputation is entirely a human concern. And certainly it isn't only Lava Man's reputation the connections are considering. Surely nobody, me included, would enjoy being raked over the coals by the fans every time the horse raced in the future, both pre-race and even worse after the finish anytime Lava Man (again) didn't win.

But what, really, about Lava Man's situation has changed in the days since the San Gabriel?

Kenly says the horse is "sound ... strong (and) sturdy." The connections thought he was "training unbelievably" and Kenly is "sure he would improve in his next race." No particular health concerns have cropped up, and, Kenly said, there is "no fear in racing him. He's 100 percent healthy."

Granted, the connections didn't like what they saw at the finish.

"He may have needed a race, but the fact that he was going so slow at the end and was still trying his eyeballs out told us all we needed to know," said Kenly.

(The Blood-Horse reported that Lava Man finished under wraps when jockey Tyler Baze realized the horse would come home out of the money. And Lava Man was finishing "so slow" in a race won by Proudinsky in 1:46.91, which by my count might make it the fifth-fastest San Gabriel Handicap in the race's lengthy history. ... Baze said Lava Man ran "like a new horse.")

To me, the connections' decision to bring back Lava Man at all looks worse (by their own doing) in a one-race comeback than if they had given him two or three races to see what he had left in him. At least give him a crack at restricted company -- Cal-breds and Florida-breds -- for a $500,000 purse in the Sunshine Millions Classic at Santa Anita on Jan. 30.

Stem-cell treatments on his ankles reportedly improved the horse's condition and soundness considerably. He was training well and by all accounts looked great. Frankly, 9 furlongs among graded turf horses was too much to ask of him in his first race back, but Lava Man didn't embarrass himself and he didn't quit. He should improve his next out and it wouldn't take much improvement to move up onto the board in graded company considering he was beaten only six lengths off a 17-month layoff.

Now Lava Man doesn't get that chance.

Retiring Lava Man is fine with me. And if it wasn't, so what? He ain't my horse.

But shutting down the Lava Man comeback after one race -- a tough one in which he couldn't honestly have been expected to run all that much better than he did -- isn't just frustrating and disappointing for the connections, but for the horse's fans, as well.

And to me it's more questionable from a horse-management standpoint than if they'd just sent him to Old Friends months ago as originally planned.

Monday, January 4, 2010

Classic aside, I'd still vote Rachel

If the AP's Female Athlete of the Year voting is any indication seems that Zenyatta -- historic winner of the Breeders' Cup Classic -- is gaining the edge over flashy filly Rachel Alexandra in the pre-Eclipse handicapping for Horse of the Year.

Zenyatta finished second to Serena Williams in that balloting. Rachel Alexandra was a distant seventh.

But for my money, I'd still take Rachel. Here's why.

Zenyatta -- while undefeated lifetime over 14 races -- was the winner of exactly one truly challenging race in 2009; said Breeders' Cup Classic.

Yes, that race was a great effort amid a global and talented field. And it was an historic victory; Zenyatta was the first female ever to win in the Classic.

But it was one race. Run over a track on her "home" circuit in Southern California. Which Zenyatta never left during the course of 2009. And while the field was stacked with some very nice horses, frankly a lot of them were turf horses (Gio Ponti finished second), including Euros whom, frankly, nobody had any real idea whether they'd perform well with the long ship, the comparative heat of Southern California, and the synthetic surface.

For such a seemingly talented field, the 2009 Breeders' Cup Classic wasn't exactly a group from which any horse could emerge victorious. In fact, Zenyatta was not only favored at a little less than 3/1, but only Rip Van Winkle (at a little over 3/1) was anywhere close in the odds.

Final order of finish, with odds (rounded) and comments:
1. Zenyatta, 3/1*, an unbeaten synthetic monster racing at home.
2. Gio Ponti, 12/1, turf horse.
3. Twice Over(GB), 9/1, turf horse.
4. Summer Bird, 7/1, 3-year-old with no prior synthetic form.
5. Colonel John, 12/1, a synthetic G1 winner in Southern California.
6. Richard's Kid, 11/1, another synthetic, G1, SoCal male.
7. Awesome Gem, 52/1.
8. Regal Ransom, 39/1.
9. Mine That Bird, 14/1, hadn't won since the Kentucky Derby.
10. Rip Van Winkle(IRE), 3/1, quit early, a turf horse with no prior synthetic form.
11. Einstein(BRZ), 10/1, a horse I liked here due to prior synthetic form, but who did nothing.
12. Girolamo, 25/1, how the hell was he only 25/1?

Now, by my count, from that group of also-rans, there are exactly three Grade 1 synthetic victories: One each for Colonel John (Santa Anita Derby at 3), Richard's Kid (2009 Pacific Classic) and Einstein (2009 Santa Anita Handicap).

Zenyatta had six G1 synthetic wins (granted, among females) going into the race.

I wrote a blog just before race-day that Zenyatta might be a bet-against in the Classic, but based solely on synthetic form -- and why should we have looked anywhere else? -- I don't know what in the world I was thinking. She was sent off as the favorite and probably should've been 3/5 instead of 3/1.

Meanwhile, much was asked in 2009 of Rachel Alexandra.

After she crushed 3-year-old fillies by record lengths in the Kentucky Oaks -- a race from which some handicappers predicted a bounce -- she was sold to Jess Jackson and wheeled back for the Preakness, against colts. There (granted, with a weight break) she was the brave winner, holding off a late charge from the Derby victor in Mine That Bird, despite having done almost all the work on the front end. Winning the Preakness was something no filly had done since Nellie Morse in 1924.

After beating the colts at Pimlico, Rachel returned to the 3-year-old filly ranks to set another record-lengths mark, this time in winning the Mother Goose Stakes. The ease with which she crushed her own age and gender in the Oaks and Mother Goose was simply breathtaking.

So, with seemingly no more challenges facing her in the 3-year-old filly ranks, Jackson and Co. sent her back again to face boys her own age. Her next race was a fleet finish over a sloppy track in the Haskell, splashing home in 1:47.21 for 9 furlongs. In that race, she crushed Summer Bird -- who was later sent off as third-favorite in the Breeders' Cup Classic -- by six lengths.

Some of Rachel's detractors imply that her connections ducked the distance by skipping the Travers Stakes in order to run in the Woodward Stakes at 9 furlongs.

But, frankly, what was a girl to do?

If Rachel had gone to the Travers and had beaten 3-year-old colts again, so fricking what? And if she was sent somewhere, anywhere, to run 10 furlongs and beat older fillies and mares not named Zenyatta, the yawns from race fans and Eclipse voters alike would have been even bigger.

So Jess Jackson and Co. pointed her to the Woodward Stakes, a race -- like the Breeders' Cup Classic and with a much longer history -- that had never been won by a female.

Yes, Rachel got a weight break in the Woodward. Yes, Calvin Borel flogged her down the stretch. Yes, she barely won that race. ... But she won.

And since the world seems so fond of touting the field-strength for the Breeders' Cup Classic -- a race, as noted, with exactly three G1 wins over synthetic among the 11 horses that faced Zenyatta -- let's weigh the strength of Rachel's six opponents in that Woodward.

Post, horse, comments:
1. Da' Tara, surprise winner of the 2008 Belmont Stakes, but that's a Grade 1 win on dirt.
2. Bullsbay, won 2009 Whitney H.-G1.
3. Rachel Alexandra.
4. Cool Coal Man, G2 winner on dirt.
5. Macho Again, won 2009 Stephen Foster H.-G1.
6. It's a Bird, two G3 wins on dirt and DQ'ed from first in the Oaklawn H.-G2.
7. Asiatic Boy, four group-level wins in Dubai, G1-placed on three continents.
8. Past the Point, second in the Woodward S.-G1, a year prior.

So, Zenyatta faced 11 opponents with three lifetime G1 wins on the "surface of the day," synthetic. Rachel in the Woodward faced six opponents with an equal number of prior G1 wins, three, on the surface over which they'd be racing that day, dirt. The Woodward field also had a four-times GSW and three-times G1-placed horse in Asiatic Boy, a G2 winner, a multiple G3 winner, and the defending runner-up in this very race.

Was the Woodward really all that "light" a field? And the Breeders' Cup Classic -- in hindsight particularly, noting how the horses actually performed -- really one of the deepest Cup fields ever, as some have suggested?

I think the answer to both questions is, "no."

Throughout 2009, consistently more was asked of Rachel Alexandra than of Zenyatta. The 3-year-old filly recorded historic wins against males in the Preakness, Haskell and Woodward, and record-shattering victories against her own age and gender in the Kentucky Oaks and the Mother Goose. Zenyatta meanwhile beat up on a talented stablemate in Life is Sweet, and otherwise the same cast of SoCal distaff characters, throughout a conservatively (and brilliantly) managed season -- until owner Jerry Moss and trainer John Shirreffs took their one big shot of the year, and hit the bulls-eye in the Classic.

I'm not being dismissive of Zenyatta's accomplishments; 14-for-14 lifetime is a big deal (although the first nine shouldn't count toward 2009 HOTY voting) and being the first mare to win the Breeders' Cup Classic -- in exhilarating fashion, no less -- certainly is memorable.

But Zenyatta went 5-for-5 in 2009 with one signature win. Rachel Alexandra went 8-for-8 with at least five victories that were noteworthy, either for their ease (Oaks, Mother Goose) or for beating boys in Grade 1 races (Preakness, Haskell, Woodward).

Were I voting -- and I'm not -- Rachel Alexandra would receive my ballot.

That doesn't mean Zenyatta is undeserving. And I think it's more likely that she'll win Horse of the Year.

But I truly don't believe Zenyatta did as much over the course of the year to earn it.

Saturday, January 2, 2010

Ringing in the new year with a new winner

Over the past few years of his stud career in New York, my stallion Silver Music -- then the property of Pinebourne Farm -- served a declining book and with spotty results. So his number of current runners is quite small.

But, today I get to extend my congratulations to Steve Zorn and Castle Village Farm, who own one of those few Silver Musics who are presently at the races. Castle Village Farm's Talking Blues (Silver Music-Time to Chat, by Gallant Hour) broke his maiden on the day he (and all thoroughbreds) officially turned 4, taking the sixth race at Aqueduct on New Year's Day.

Talking Blues and jockey Rosie Napravnik stalked the pace at the outset of the $12,500 maiden-claimer for New York-breds, going a mile and 70 yards on the inner dirt, then came on to win by a strong 5 1/2 lengths. The gray or roan gelding breaks his maiden in his eighth lifetime start, having finished second in three of seven prior races. His lifetime earnings are now $21,705.

Formerly trained by Billy Turner, when that conditioner moved his string to Gulfstream for the winter, Castle Village Farm transferred Talking Blues to Bruce Brown's barn at Belmont in order to take advantage of the many NY-bred opportunities at Aqueduct during the winter months. Looks like the decision paid off.

The Pinebourne Farm-bred horse is a full brother to Silver Music's highest lifetime earner, Time to Rap. A chestnut gelding also bred by Pinebourne Farm, Time To Rap won seven of 17 lifetime on the New York circuit, for $169,894.