Monday, February 22, 2010

Derby field taking shape ... of a blob

Maybe more than in any other season of recent memory, I'm impressed by the field of Kentucky Derby hopefuls as February makes the turn for home into March.

"Impressed" not quite so much by the brilliance of talent -- though there are some very nice horses vying for those 20 starting gate spots -- but by the depth of the pool of hopefuls. With a couple of notable exceptions, it's hard to separate the top 25 to 30 horses that could be considered most likely to make their way to Churchill for the first Saturday in May.

Saturday's brace of races -- six that were considered potential Derby-preps -- added to the reputations of some contenders, but also muddied the waters a bit.

On Saturday night, I picked my initial 10 horses for the annual Road to the Roses competition online, and scored a few points (though not nearly enough for weekly honors) as D' Funnybone came home winner of the Hutcheson, and Eskendereya won the Fountain of Youth, with another of my choices, Jackson Bend, figuring, as well.

But those 10 horses aren't exactly the top 10 contenders in my mind. They were chosen solely to score points in the contest (and not well-chosen, at that), while there are others who weren't running last week (Lookin at Lucky, particularly) who belong high on the list.

So I guess I'll chime in with my Top 10 Derby Contenders as of Feb. 22, on the heels of some key races that have helped shape my opinion -- from mere blob, to a blob with some gelatinous qualities that will set up a bit more over time. And if I'm wrong and the blob never takes on a winning form, we can just make Jell-O shots and forget our worries.

1. Eskendereya (Giant's Causeway-Aldebaran Light, by Seattle Slew). Stellar winner of the Fountain of Youth at 9 furlongs, and bred to get the mile and a quarter of the Derby (and perhaps beyond) with ease. Sire Giant's Causeway had three Grade 1 wins going 10 panels or more, this colt's dam was by a Triple Crown winner in Seattle Slew, and second dam Altair was by Alydar, who was second in all three TC races to America's last Triple Crown winner, Affirmed. No doubt the horse has the pedigree and class to run in Derby company, and trainer Todd Pletcher should get him there. ... Pletcher, however, is yet to win a Kentucky Derby. Perhaps this colt will be his first.

2. Lookin at Lucky (Smart Strike-Private Feeling, by Belong to Me). Divisional champ at 2, but unraced thus far at age 3 and didn't exactly set the world ablaze with his 1:15 and change 6-furlong work today at Santa Anita. Prior works had been much sharper, however. He was the classiest 2-year-old in the country last year, but needs to get off the sidelines and back in a race to regain the No. 1 spot in my mind. I'm also not very compelled to give much weight to Cal-based horses until I've seen them on real dirt, so Lucky might be the only name from that circuit in this Top 10.

3. Conveyance (Indian Charlie-Emptythetill, by Holy Bull). Not thrilled with his pedigree for getting the distance, all though the sire was third in the Derby himself. But it's hard to ignore 4-for-4 and the ability to transition from synthetic, on which he won the San Rafael S.-G3 at Santa Anita onto conventional dirt, over which he annexed the Southwest S.-G3 at Oaklawn on Saturday. Dam was a three-race maiden who hasn't yet produced anything else of note, and second dam In The Till (Mr. Prospector) was unraced, but did produce several stakes-placers.

4. Rule (Roman Ruler-Rockcide, by Personal Flag). I'm not entirely convinced of this colt's pedigree for getting a mile and a quarter, but also can't ignore that his second dam is Belle's Good Cide, who was dam of Derby/Preakness winner Funny Cide, and some doubted that gelding's ability to get a classic distance, too, until he dusted favored Empire Maker in the Churchill stretch and crushed 'em all two weeks later at Pimlico. Rule broke maiden at a mile and has a pair of Grade 3 wins at a mile and a sixteenth, so two turns in itself isn't a problem. We'll see if he can carry his brilliance to 10 furlongs.

5. Odysseus (Malibu Moon-Persimmon Hill, by Conquistador Cielo). Only three races under his belt, but the last two -- a maiden-breaker at Gulfstream in January and a recent allowance score at Tampa -- were impressive. Could be the Big Brown of 2009, though hopefully without the brittle feet. Malibu Moon can get a classic-distance horse, especially with the stamina of Conquistador Cielo (a Belmont winner) and Nijinsky II (St. Leger winner at 14f) on the dam's side in this one. Look out for him in the Tampa Bay Derby on March 13.

6. Buddy's Saint (Saint Liam-Tuzia, by Blushing John). Broke maiden in the Nashua Stakes at age 2, then showed he could get a distance by winning the 9-furlong Remsen S.-G2, a long haul for a juvenile. Desperately needed a race off the layoff in the Fountain of Youth Saturday, and failed to figure.

7. D' Funnybone (D'Wildcat-Elbow, by Woodman). Sharp winner of the Hutcheson S.-G2 at Gulfstream Saturday would merit more consideration if he had success at a route of ground to his credit by now. The Hutcheson was but 7 furlongs and he won it well, but were the "real" Derby hopefuls in the 9-furlong Fountain of Youth at the same track on the same day? It isn't inconceivable that D' Funnybone can get the Derby distance. His dam is by Woodman, a reasonable source of stamina, and second dam Elvia was by classic-distance sire Roberto out of a blacktype mare by classic-distance sire Lyphard. ... So I ask trainer Rick Dutrow, "When are we gonna see this boy get some ground?"

8. Super Saver (Maria's Mon-Supercharger, by A.P. Indy). Another Pletcher trainee who will benefit from that conditioner's ability to get horses to the big race, albeit not yet to win it. I like that the colt won at a mile and a sixteenth as a juvenile in the Kentucky Jockey Club Stakes, and it was over the Derby's own Churchill Downs strip. Full sibling Hedge Fund has run 53 times and earned more than $151,000. Since Super Saver is yet to start in 2009, he also needs to come out of the gate in March looking less like a horse coming off a layoff and more like a serious contender, or it might be hard to get him positioned to win on Derby Saturday.

9. Dublin (Afleet Alex-Classy Mirage, by Storm Bird). Colt came up short in the Southwest to Conveyance, but does have credentials. A G1 winner at 2, however, he seems a bit hit-and-miss. Of his five races as a juvenile, he won two and failed to hit the board in the other three. Dam was a G1 winner herself, and produced G2-placed Mike's Classic. So there's some class on the page for this one.

10. American Lion (Tiznow-Storm Tide, by Storm Cat). OK, so another Cal-based runner did sneak into the mix. I like this one because he should be able to race over real dirt, as did sire Tiznow, though the Tiznows are shining on synthetic, as well. Dam's side of the pedigree is far more built for speed than the sire's, but second dam City Band was a G1 winner at a mile and a sixteenth and Tiznow's influence should help this colt stretch a bit beyond that limit.

Now let's see how long they stay in this order -- or even present on the list -- in my mind. I suspect it won't be long.

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

OBSFEB: How my seven fared

Earlier today, I posted my seven selections from the sales catalog for the Ocala Breeders' Sales Company February Selected Sale of 2-year-olds in training.

I chose a colt and a filly by Montbrook, a colt by Officer, and a trio of fillies by Orientate, Smoke Glacken and Posse. All were selected because I believe from their pages that they possess precocity on both sides of the family that should let them follow-through and race this year at age 2, while not (perhaps) being so strong on commercial sire power that they would in any way threaten to be a sales-topper. In fact, I was hoping they'd stay comparatively cheap among the offerings Tuesday in Ocala.

"Cheap," I suppose, is in the eye of the beholder.

The average price of the 66 head that sold on Tuesday was $97,182, an 8.4 percent decline from a dour 2009 and the lowest since the OBS February sale average was $82,118 in 1998. The average would have been much worse if not for three horses selling for $400,000 or more, much higher than the $340,000 sales-topper of 2009. Leading the way was a $475,000 Tiznow colt. The Blood-Horse reports that the median was down to its lowest point since that figure was $65,000 after the 1999 February 2-year-old sale. The B-H didn't enumerate the 2010 median, but by my calculations, the figure was $67,000.

So how did "my" horses fare? Here they are, by hip number.

Hip No. 7: Chestnut colt by Officer-Purer Than Pure, by Turkoman, consigned by the Jerry Bailey Sales Agency, was bought for $85,000 by one of the game's more notable players, Dogwood Stable. Though Officer's fee has plummeted to $10,000, this colt is both half to three blacktype horses (a G3 winner, a stakes winner who is a G1-placer, and stakes-placed sibling) and he also fired a 10 1/5 eighth-mile in the under tack show. It's difficult for me to consider $85,000 to be "cheap," but getting a good-looking colt who drilled sharply and is half to two horses with graded blacktype, for less than the sales average, might still be considered a "bargain."

Hip No. 57: Bay colt by Montbrook-Valid Invitation, by Take Me Out, consigned by Ocala Stud, was a $65,000 RNA. This fellow ran a nice 21 2/5 for a quarter-mile and looked pretty good to me in doing it, by the video. He is also half to a 2-year-old stakes-placer of 2009. Whomever was the last bidder is probably disappointed this colt didn't sell for $65,000, because getting him for roughly the sale's median price would have to be considered a reasonably good deal. But obviously nobody was willing to go any higher, and considering Montbrook's fee has dropped to $7,500 and there really isn't enough page to support this colt as a stallion unless he were to run like a super-horse and "make" himself, I wouldn't have bid him up any higher, either. (As though I'd have the money to bid him up this high.) ... It will be interesting to see what Ocala Stud's next move is with this colt, since he didn't sell Tuesday.

Hip No. 59: Bay filly by Wildcat Heir-Vany's Storm, by Storm Creek, consigned by M&H Training and Sales, sold for just $20,000 to Martin J. Scafidi, and I think she could be a real bargain. Her 10.3 eighth wasn't blazing, but I wouldn't put too much emphasis on that. She has two half-siblings who were winners at 2 and one of them went on to be stakes-placed. There's considerable performance under second dam Vany, by Lord Vancouver. And Wildcat Heir got a sick number of 2-year-old winners as a freshman sire last year (39), so I think there's every reason to believe this filly can be a useful racehorse, and soon. And she'll have a lot easier time earning back her purchase price than will that Tiznow colt who cost almost a half-mil.

Hip No. 101: Dark bay or brown filly by Montbrook-Cutoffs, by Notebook, consigned by Ocala Stud, went for $90,000 to Repole Stables. Her dam is a full sister to SPECIAL REPORT, who was a winner in one start at 2 and won a pair of Calder stakes races at 3. The sisters also have three blacktype half-siblings -- all by the sire of Hip 101, Montbrook, and all winners at 2. I guess the price doesn't surprise me. But the fact that I somehow overlooked writing about her until June does. (I detailed only six picks instead of the seven that the headline touts, and nobody corrected me).

Hip No. 116: Dark bay or brown filly by Orientate-Ed's Holy Cow, by Bet Big, is out of a half-sister to Holy Bull and sold for Blazing Meadows Farm (Tim Hamm, agent) at a price of $40,000. She drilled only 10.4 at an eighth-mile, but I liked the way she moved and she has a full sister who won at 2 and 3 and has been stakes-placed at Saratoga and Delaware Park. Another half-sibling has won 10 times. I think the buyers Mike Conners, Kevin Jacobsen and Jim Hawkins are probably content they were able to get her for a price more than one-third below the sale's median.

Hip No. 148: Chestnut filly by Posse-Lotsofdiamonds, by Grand Slam, also sold below the sales median, bringing $50,000 for consigner Blue River Bloodstock. Harry J. Loso was the buyer. A pretty decent 10.2 drill and considerable 2-year-old performance on her page (and by other runners from her sire) made me select this one as a potential bargain. Again, $50,000 is no impulse purchase -- at least, if your title isn't "Sheikh" -- but I think the odds are in her favor to be a serviceable racehorse. Unmentioned in my prior endorsement of her is that she's a New York-bred, so she can run in restricted company for very nice purses at Saratoga, Belmont and Aqueduct.

Hip No. 157: Chestnut filly by Smoke Glacken-Minado, by Coronado's Quest, was the decided "non-bargain" of the day among my selections. The SGV Thoroughbreds consignment went for a cool $120,000 to West Point Thoroughbreds, Buzz Chace as buyer's agent. Her page shows All Rainbows -- dam of Kentucky Derby winning champion filly Winning Colors and half-sister to champion Chris Evert -- as the third dam. And she burned up the track for a pretty brisk 10.1 in the under tack show. And she has a big engine and looks like she means business. But I was a little surprised the price went so high, so fast. But Buzz Chace and West Point have pretty good track records of uncovering 2-year-olds that win, so they know their stuff.

Good luck to all the aforementioned buyers and their new charges. After all, if every one of these colts and fillies goes on to be an effective racehorse, I'll look pretty smart.

Meanwhile, it's worth mentioning that the real steals of the day might well have been the last two horses to sell.

Hip No. 159 was a Cherokee Run filly already named Run Kitten, out of the stakes-placed Mountain Cat mare, Mountain Kitten. The filly "only" ran a 10.3, but she's half to a pair of winners and buyer Shirley Duco bought her at the cheapest price in the whole sale -- just $15,000.

And, Hip 160 is by one of my favorite recent racehorses, Artie Schiller, whose first crop are 2-year-olds this year. This filly ran a brisk 10.1 and her dam is a G3 stakes-placed Miswaki mare, Ms. Isadora, who has already produced a G2-placed foal in Isabull (by Holy Bull, 3rd in the 2008 Rebel Stakes at Oaklawn Park). Second dam Ms. Eloise (Nasty and Bold) was twice a G1 winner, and produced six stakes horses. How James L. Koley bought this girl for $45,000 -- well below the sales median and less than half the average -- is beyond me, but if I were Mr. Koley, I'd be tickled.

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Out on a limb for OBS February

The Ocala Breeders' Sales Company holds its Selected Two-Year-Olds in Training Sale beginning at noon today, and I've spent a bit of time combing the catalog for horses that I like on pedigree, hoping to confirm those choices just a bit with the workout times and videos available at the OBS Web site.

Some of the available prospects jump off the page simply due to the marquee names of their sires and/or dams. Hip No. 85, for instance, is a son of A.P. Indy who turned a full 2 years of age on Monday and is the first foal of racing age out of Capeside Lady, a multiple Grade 2 winner of more than $800,000. Anybody can pick him out of the catalog as a prospect on paper, and even though he only ran an eighth in 11.1 seconds (several sales candidates ran 10-flat), if he isn't crooked as a barrel of fish hooks he'll probably bring a good price. After all, his sire stands for $150,000 and has been priced at double that in the recent past.

No, I'm looking for horses that, hopefully, might be had more affordably. And as an observer who has never bought a horse at public auction -- actually, never attended one -- I think from distant study alone that there are two primary kinds of bargains at a 2-year-old sale. The only thing the two have in common: Pedigrees that are less than highly commercial.

The first is the late-bloomer; the colt or filly who, particularly on pedigree, looks like better 3-year-old or 4-year-old performer than a competitive 2-year-old. Some sires simply don't pass along much precocity. Neither do some female lines. These prospects might be a little slow in the 2-year-old breeze-ups, but if they move well and, particularly, if they come from female lines that send very high percentages of foals to the races, you still have a fair chance of getting a runner at 3. ... You'll just have to spend time and money this year waiting for that maturity to occur.

The other potential bargain -- and the one on which most of my focus was directed with this OBS February catalog -- is the horse that is likely to run his best right now, at age 2.

Some sirelines get plenty of 2-year-old runners and winners. Likewise, certain female families just seem to keep dropping foals who make the races at 2. With The Jockey Club reporting that in 2008, fewer than one-third of all registered 2-year-olds made a race-start, simply uncovering the horse that is ready to race now -- well, by June or July anyway -- rather than next spring, gives a buyer a big leg up on earning back that horse's purchase price with his early performance at the racetrack. Frankly, breaking that maiden or placing in a stakes race is only going to get tougher when the late-bloomers join them in the starting gates next year and beyond.

So, where to start? ... With sires who get a better-than-average percentage of 2-year-old runners and winners -- regardless whether they're big-name, big-price tag stallions -- that's where.

One of the first to draw my attention in this book, under these criteria, was Hip No. 57, offered by Ocala Stud. The bay colt is a son of Montbrook, who historically sires about 46 percent 2-year-old starters from all foals, significantly better than the breed average, and nearly 21 percen of all Montbrook foals in his stud career became winners before they turned age 3. Montbrook 2-year-olds also have a lifetime average earnings per starter of $22,377, giving their sire a 2-year-old Average Earnings Index of 2.03, more than double the breed average.

Also on the plus side for this colt is his dam's side of the pedigree. He is out of the mare Valid Invitation (Take Me Out-Valid Silk, by Valid Appeal). While she is unraced, her first foal to race, a filly named Sweet Enticement (Drewman), was a winner at 2 last year and placed 3rd in the Florida Stallion/My Dear Girl Stakes at Calder on her way to earning $61,185 as a juvenile. Second dam Valid Silk didn't race and win until she was 3, but she produced a 2-year-old Arlington Park stakes winner in ROCKY RIVER (Concorde's Tune), and her winning daughter Valid Pro (Polish Pro), also has produced a juvenile stakes winner by Concorde's Tune in RED NATION. Under the third dam, the 3-year-old stakes-winning Silk Stocks (Medieval Man), are additional 2-year-old stakes horses in: son RAZOR (another Concorde's Tune, SP at 2, dual SW at 3); son Silk Broker (Pentelicus, G2 placed in the Saratoga Special at 2); granddaughter SILK CONCORDE (Concorde's Tune again, SW at 2 and 3); and grandson Concorde's Appeal (you guessed it, and SP at 2 and 3).

Hip 57 made a good impression in the under tack show, posting a reasonably brisk 21 2/5 for an eighth and looking relatively at ease doing so, with a sound action and feeling only one crack from the whip as he straightened out from the turn.

A $7,500 stallion for 2010 (who stood for $20,000 five years ago), Montbrook's median 2-year-old among 18 sold last year went for $32,500. The average for a colt was $44,689. Both of those figures are well below the median and average prices of all 2-year-olds to come out of this sale last year ($90K median, $104,481 average) even though the 2009 numbers were dramatic drop-offs from a record 2008. So if this colt goes for a price typical of the Montbrooks last year -- $30,000 to $45,000 -- I'd have a hard time considering him a bargain as measured by my bank account, but he might cost less than half as much as the average horse to come out of this sale in 2010, yet, statistically speaking and on pedigree, have a better chance of actually racing soon, and successfully.

I look forward to seeing his selling price at the end of the day.

So, now that you see the thought process that has gone into selecting this list, I'll be more brief in my assessments of the horses to follow. These aren't in any particular order of preference.

Hip No. 101: The other Montbrook in the book, also offered by Ocala Stud, this dark bay filly has an intriguing page. Her dam, Cutoffs (Notebook-Argos Appeal, by World Appeal), won six times from ages 3 to 5 and earned $166K despite no blacktype placings. The dam is a full sister to SPECIAL REPORT, who was a winner in one start at 2 and won a pair of Calder stakes races at 3. The sisters also have three blacktype half-siblings -- all by the sire of Hip 101, Montbrook, and all winners at 2. Second dam Argos Appeal won three times at age 2 herself. ... The filly ran a 22-second quarter, among the slowest at the under-tack show, but I'm not complaining. ... It will be interesting to see how much all that blacktype drives up the price, and whether she stays in the range of Montbrook's fillies to sell at last year (around $30,600 average) or his fillies of 2008 (a whopping $111,000-plus average).

Hip No. 7: Officer-Purer Than Pure, by Turkoman. I liked this Jerry Bailey Sales Agency offering, a chestnut colt, on pedigree, before I saw that he also breezed 10.1 eighth. He's a half-brother to three blacktype foals, all of whom were winners at 2, including G3-winner PURELY COZZENE and G1-placed ERICA'S SMILE. Officer gets 49.8 percent 2-year-old runners and 22.5 percent of all foals are winners at 2, pretty decent figures for the breed. And while his fee has been as high as $40,000 in the year this foal was conceived, Officer's price tag per breeding has plummeted to $10,000 for 2010, which should influence the price in a buyer-friendly fashion. Still, there's a lot of close-up blacktype here that could keep the price higher than my "bargain" range.

Hip No. 148: Posse-Lotsofdiamonds, by Grand Slam. I would want this chestnut filly to stay pretty cheap, as her dam didn't race until age 4 (and then poorly), and her one sibling did race once at 2 last year, but didn't place and hasn't started since. But the second and third dams (Sister Stones, by Houston, and SEVEN STONES, by Habitony) were 2-year-old winners who produced 2-year-old winners. Posse gets nearly 55 percent 2-year-old starters and 23.9 percent juvenile winners, so for a low price (his fillies last year averaged $41,800; I'd want cheaper, perhaps much) she's worth a chance, especially since her 10.2 eighth was hardly shabby.

Hip No. 59: Wildcat Heir-Vany's Storm, by Storm Creek. Six of eight Wildcat Heir foals are out of this sale, and the first dam on this bay filly's page isn't awe-inspiring; winner at 3 of $45K, dam of five foals, four to race, two winners. However, one of those winners was a juvenile stakes-placed Trippi filly in 2009, and the other was a juvenile winner by Meadowlake. Second dam, stakes winning Lord Vancouver mare Vany, produced two stakes winners and a stakes-placer, and there is 2-year-old performance among her blacktype offspring and grand-offspring. Meanwhile, sophomore sire Wildcat Heir got 60 runners out of a few more than 100 registered foals as a freshman, a stellar figure, and 39 of them won. He stands for just $8,000 at Journeyman Stud in Florida, and while his average 2-year-old in 2009 (of 39 sold) went for under $40,000, it remains to be seen whether all that juvenile performance last year will drive the prices up this season. The filly's breeze was "just" 10.3 for an eighth, but that wasn't the worst at the sale.

Hip No. 157: Smoke Glacken-Minado, by Coronado's Quest. How cheap might this chestnut filly go? Hard to say, but as this sprint champion sire's fee has fallen from $30,000 a few years ago to $12,500 this year, so have the prices of his 2-year-olds, from an average of more than $50K in 2008 to only around $25K in 2009. And yet, historically, half of all Smoke Glacken foals will race at 2, and more than 22 percent of all his foals win as juveniles. The dam was unraced and the sales filly's only sibling raced at 2, but was unplaced. Second dam, Minifah (Nureyev) placed in the U.K. and did most of her producing there, to some success. Most notable is that the third dam here is stakes-winning All Rainbows (Bold Hour), a half-sister to champion CHRIS EVERT and, herself, dam of Kentucky Derby-winning female and 3-year-old champ filly WINNING COLORS. ... The breeze was a brisk 10.1, as well, her stride looked good and she has a big engine.

Hip No. 116: Orientate-Ed's Holy Cow, by Bet Big. First thing to note on this dark bay filly's page; her second dam, Sharon Brown, was the dam of HOLY BULL. That says plenty and -- coupled with the fact that Hip 116 has a full sister who won at 2 and is stakes-placed -- might keep her from being too much of a bargain at this sale, despite her sire's relatively modest $10,000 fee and the fact that her breeze was just a 10.4. Her dam was a 2-year-old winner, also. And, though her time wasn't fleet, I thought this filly moved reasonably well on the track. Orientate gets around 43 percent 2-year-old starters, better than average, and about 16 percent of all his 2-year-olds become winners. His sales prices plummeted last year in a terrible economy that hasn't gotten much better, so this will be another one in the sale whose final price will be of great interest to me.

I might be able to pick another few that I would hope can run -- but not cost six figures, and hopefully much less -- out of this book. But the sale is under way now, so I'm calling it quits with this baker's half-dozen.

Now to see how they sell, and then whether and how well they race.

Monday, February 15, 2010

Racing industry loses innovator, friend: Jack Werk

Thoroughbred Daily News reports that Jack Werk, who founded Werk Thoroughbred Consultants and was the innovator behind one of racing's preeminent nicking systems, died Sunday at age 65 after a long battle with cancer.

Werk's firm was established in the late 1980s, TDN reports, and was an adviser on matings that included such notable products as Kentucky Derby and Preakness winner Real Quiet and last year's champion 2-year-old, Lookin at Lucky. His eNicks Web site went online in 2004. Werk also created the monthly publication Owner-Breeder along with Daily Racing Form columnist Leon Rasmussen, and partnered with Roger Lyons to develop the pedigree software CompuSire.

Sid Fernando, former bloodstock editor of The Daily Racing Form and a reader of this blog, was a longtime friend of Jack's, and reportedly will take over managing the company.

Said Fernando: "We're all devastated at losing Jack, but his most heartfelt wish was that the company go on, and he put a solid plan in place that promises the Thoroughbred industry WTC's high standard of service for a long time to come."

I'm an interested observer of both Werk's nicking system and the TrueNicks system, which emerged much more recently and is affiliated with The Blood-Horse magazine. While I believe nicking is only part of the solution to any mating question -- sirelines are important, but female family is half the equation -- I do take into account the results from both Werk's system and TrueNicks when planning my own (few) matings to mares, or when advising my friends.

Meanwhile, Jack Werk was undeniably an avid fan and friend of the racing game. And we who include ourselves in that group should mourn the loss of each and every person who is among our number.

I regrettably never met Jack Werk, but I extend my condolences to Jack's family and friends, including Sid.

Sunday, February 14, 2010

Set to gather with N.C. thoroughbred crowd in Cary

Considering I'm getting set to register my first-ever foal as a thoroughbred breeder, it's high time I take care of a bit of unattended business: Joining the North Carolina Thoroughbred Association.

As this blog has detailed, my horses are stabled in Virginia and the colt, to be named All In On Red (Inner Harbour-Lady's Wager, by Valid Wager) is thus a VA-bred. And with no racing to speak of in North Carolina -- other than a couple of noteworthy steeplechase events on which there's no wagering, for instance -- there's little reason to foal in North Carolina.

But that doesn't stop Tar Heel State residents who own thoroughbreds from forming an organization, sharing their love for the racing game, congratulating one another on their successes at far-off tracks, and trying to promote the breed and the sport within the state. The NCTA was among the participants in a North Carolina Rural Development Center study released in 2009 that recommended to the legislature a reintroduction of horse racing with parimutuel wagering as one piece of the puzzle for reviving rural communities through investment in equine interests.

This coming Saturday, the NCTA will gather for its annual awards dinner at MacGregor Downs Country Club in Cary, 430 St. Andrews Lane. Cost of the evening is $40 per person, which will get you four hours of fine dining, dancing with a live band, an open bar, and of course presentation of the NCTA's annual awards.

Annual membership costs are $25 for "junior members" age 25 and under; $60 for individual membership; $75 farm membership; $150 to attain "sponsor" status; and $250 to be a corporate sponsor.

A silent auction is also planned, with proceeds being donated to the Don MacBeth Memorial Jockey Fund to assist the injured and disabled riders -- both race-riders and exercise riders.

Since I often get little more than puzzled glances when I tell locals in my community that I'm a fan of and minor investor in horse racing, it will be good to spend an evening surrounded by those who share that passion.

Thursday, February 11, 2010

Rachel-Zen Apple Blossom showdown blooms anew

I'm scrambling on another couple of fronts this afternoon and might have to comment more later, but The Daily Racing Form's Jay Privman reports that the $5 million Apple Blossom Handicap match at Oaklawn Park between Horse of the Year Rachel Alexandra and champion older female Zenyatta is back on.

Oaklawn apparently has agreed to move the race back six days, easing the time window between when Rachel might be able to run a mid-March prep and the date she'd have to face Zen in the Apple Blossom. Rachel's trainer, Steve Asmussen, had lamented the likely three-week turnaround between races, saying he would prefer four weeks.

Leave it to Charles Cella and Oaklawn to make a bid this expensive and serious for the race of the 21st Century. Oaklawn of course offered the $5 million bonus that was cashed-in by Smarty Jones in 2004, for sweeping the Southwest Stakes, Rebel Stakes and Arkansas Derby on his way to also winning the Kentucky Derby.

"I've never had so much trouble giving $5 million away," Cella told Privman for the DRF.

But, Cella says he has a firm commitment from both camps to pit Rachel vs. Zen on Friday, April 9. That's the afternoon prior to the Arkansas Derby, and frankly could be a racing weekend to rival the Oaks-Derby double at Churchill a few weeks later.

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

So Rachel 'ducks' first

Unfair headline aside, the connections of 2009 Eclipse Award Horse of the Year Rachel Alexandra have bowed out of a potential showdown with two-time champion female Zenyatta in the April 3 Apple Blossom Handicap at Oaklawn Park.

Oaklawn had offered a $5 million purse for the Grade 1 race -- and planned to extend the 8.5-furlong test to 9 furlongs for this year only -- provided both champion females would be entered. But Rachel's principal owner Jess Jackson, upon advice from trainer Steve Asmussen, said on Wednesday that just isn't going to happen.

Frankly, they have a good reason. Rachel Alexandra only recently began working again at Fair Grounds after sitting idle for several months following her historic Woodward Stakes win over older males in early September at Saratoga. Meanwhile, Zenyatta pretty much hasn't missed a beat since winning the Breeders' Cup Classic over males in November at Santa Anita. While retirement allegedly was in the offing, Zen kept working, and from her drills she seems sharp enough to walk onto the track and beat just about anybody, tomorrow.

So, with the date being Feb. 10, an April 3 showdown of such magnitude would clearly be in Zenyatta's favor. Rachel will need a race or two before she could be expected to run her best, and frankly, on her schedule, April 3 might be her first race back. Surely Zenyatta will have run at least once in California (and probably crushed a field) before then.

What next? Jackson says he's working with the NTRA on devising a three-race challenge for the top females, that would "to rival the Triple Crown." Unless some colt is poised to actually win that crown on Belmont Stakes day, it's safe to say that Jackson's statement is not hyperbolic. All racing eyes -- and many outside the sport -- will be on Rachel and Zen when they finally do hook up on a racetrack somewhere.

Still, I'm disappointed it won't be at Oaklawn, because I intended to be there as my next stop on the Unexpected Vacation Circuit.

Tuesday, February 9, 2010

Hialeah: Among horse racing's most hallowed of halls

In hindsight, it was fitting that I first set foot on the grounds of Hialeah Park and Race Track on a Sunday.

The trip was, after all, a pilgrimage.

I spent a sunny Saturday at nearby Gulfstream Park, modern entertainment showplace, a Caesar's Palace on the Atlantic Coast, with live racing, to boot. And that experience was fantastic. I met interesting people as I watched and wagered on excellent racing. I took photos of the facility. And I realized while leaving that the fun would stretch well into the night, long past the end of the Sunshine Millions Day race card, as horseplayers took advantage of the well-appointed simulcasting facilities, casino patrons enjoyed their games of choice, and the restaurants and bars served fine food and drink.

On a Sunday that greeted me with somber skies, I drove from my hotel in Doral, Fla., to Hialeah Park. I arrived an hour before the 1 p.m. gate-opening time, slipped my rental car in through a back driveway, and negotiated my way past a friendly employee between me and the grandstand by playing him a phone message I'd received from Hialeah's Pete Aeillo, telling me to visit his office on the second floor upon arrival and I'd get all the help and access I needed.

I parked, climbed out of the car, and there she was. Though dormant for nearly a decade, weathered and far from restored, the grandstand of Hialeah Park rose proudly toward the gray sky. I walked through the open gates and experienced the same sort of feeling I'd expect upon entering an old church that had been abandoned by its congregation in favor of a newer edifice.

Though her luster has faded and nobody had worshiped here for the past eight years, Hialeah Park is still a house of the racing gods. The feeling was so strong that once during the day I paused and gave thanks for the opportunity to see Hialeah in action, and to pray for her continued survival and success.

Meanwhile, I snapped a few photos as I wandered up to find Pete's place. I bumped into him outside the small, second-floor space occupied by the employees of Coady Photography, and Pete soon walked me to his office to obtain a pink media credential on a lanyard, receive a free Hialeah ball cap, and get the chance to meet track announcer John Lies.

Pete, though harried at times, is one of the more personable guys you'll meet, and couldn't come off as any more enthusiastic about his job at the resurrected racetrack. John seems to have a great attitude, an equally good voice, and a fine race-calling style that served Hialeah well in its opening seasons as a Quarter Horse racetrack.

In track owner John Brunetti's rebuilding process, whomever made the decision to hire those two guys made good choices.

I paused at the front of the grandstand momentarily, looking out toward Hialeah's infield lake, declared a sanctuary for the American flamingo by the Audubon Society.

Then, with press credentials around my neck, I made my way toward the back side, where makeshift barns of white canvas and modular stall systems stand in for the old Hialeah stables that were razed some time ago. Despite the makeshift resources and purses that were cut somewhat during the meet (something that's happened at a lot of tracks in this economy), sentiment on the back side was strongly positive. It seems the 2009 and 2010 Quarter Horse meets had been relatively lucrative and very competitive; trends that backsiders expected to continue.

"If you come back next (meet), better pack a lunch," said one man working in the barns. "The job won't be getting any easier."

On the front side, employees were fairly enthusiastic and universally professional and helpful. A pleasant excitement simmered among the decent-sized congregation of 3,196. Granted, that number of parishioners pales in comparison to the 27,000 who showed up for Hialeah's grand reopening in November. But considering the track was open in in direct competition on this day with glittering Gulfstream and its casino, restaurants and simulcasting, I can't fault Hialeah for the size of the crowd.

Remember, this comeback meet featured Quarter Horses, which Floridians haven't seen race in their state since 1991 at Pompano Park, a harness track. And Hialeah operated without the ability to offer simulcast wagering, which even by the end of the 2010 winter meet, not all patrons had quite figured out.

"I punch 'Other Tracks' and still all it gives me is Hialeah Park," said one man to a friend as both stood at an auto-teller to place their bets.

Before too long, Hialeah will be hosting a poker room, adding some revenues to fuel further renovations. Simulcasting rights are scheduled to return, which will help attract bettors like the aforementioned patron, who don't just want to wager on Hialeah during a day at the races, but also on other tracks around the country. And a shrewd move by Brunetti fulfilled a legal requirement for two consecutive calendar years of race-meets by staging a "2009 fall meeting" and a "2010 winter meet" in immediate succession, from late-November through early February, letting Hialeah qualify to host slots and full casino gambling in 2011.

So Hialeah Park's comeback is well under way.

I pondered all this as I walked down an empty trackside apron, distancing myself from the crowd in the one-third of the grandstand that is open, while approaching the starting gates to photograph the horses breaking in The Sunshine Stakes.

As my feet shuffled, I kicked something and heard it scuffle along the concrete apron ahead of me. It was nothing important, I was certain, and I continued to walk.

Then, in a moment of sentimental clarity, I turned to look back at what my toe had booted. It was a chunk of concrete and aggregate, slivers of black and pink stone. An egg-sized hunk of Hialeah Park, I presume, probably fallen from the shuttered grandstand a few yards away.

That lump -- I consider it an artifact of racing history -- now sits on my mantel in North Carolina, next to a 60-year-old Life Magazine page featuring Citation's breaking of the all-time earnings record for a thoroughbred racehorse. The same Citation whose life-size statue stands watch over the patio and paddock area at Hialeah Park.

If you've ever clutched a wager ticket and prayed to the racing gods for divine intervention as the field turns for home, then whether you've ever set foot there, to you Hialeah Park should be sacred soil.

And if politicians, the racing industry's powers that be, horsemen, horseplayers and John Brunetti can continue to cooperate on the undeniably good work of restoring Hialeah Park, we will be able to watch and wager for generations to come as horses -- hopefully thoroughbreds, too -- rumble toward the finish line at these hallowed grounds.

Monday, February 1, 2010

A quick-hitter after Hialeah

DORAL, Fla. -- I learned something Sunday.

My Quarter Horse handicapping skills are hyper-focused on being able to pick the horse that will be bet down to nothing by post time on his way to victory.

Actually, I only picked two winners Sunday in my first-ever visit to Hialeah Park: Chi Ter to win the South Florida Quarter Horse Stakes (pictured above), and One Tough Dude in the following race, the Sunshine State Stakes. Chi Ter was 4/1 when I bet him -- the morning-line price to which he'd drifted back up after taking some early money -- but he was bet hard late, too, and closed at 4/5. One Tough Dude was 7/1 when I bet him fairly late in the process (off a 5/2 morning line), and yet he managed to be bet-down to even money by post time.

I would have had a third winner in the same, somewhat disappointing fashion had I taken the 8, Cartel of Diamonds, in Race 3. Opening at 3/1, the 5-year-old gelding soon was a short price, and I felt I had no other choice but to try and couple him with someone else in exotics. My trifecta was blown up when 6/1 Rey Moro did come home second, but 9/1 St Pats First was bumped hard and finished a half-length out of third, behind 14/1 shot Meeks Gol.

The day had started in promising fashion, or seemingly so. Maybe it was actually a bad omen.

I took a price-horse in the first, First Miss Dash at about 9/1. I loved her anyway, and bet her at 11/1 before she drifted down a bit. She gave a great effort, but only managed third, losing second by head-bob to Chicks on Cash, and finishing barely more than a neck behind the winner, the 2/1 favorite Our First Dream.

I had bet $10 on her across the board, and the show money (a sweet $10.20 for $2, more on that later) paid $51. But it was sooo close to being sooo much better.

And by the end of the day, I realized I'd been sooo close on sooo many occasions. But never right when the price was right; only when the price was short.

On the subject of show-payouts, a chat with a Hialeah Park employee offered a nugget of information: Patrons of the revived track's Quarter Horse meet tend to be win-only players. The pools are small (only $3,981 WPS in Race 1) and the vast majority of that cash is placed on win-bets. So, when a 9/1 horse comes in third as I had her, the payout is more than respectable.

I hope to write more on Hialeah in the coming week. While the facility has so far yet to go in its comeback, there was a lot of excitement on both front side and back, and I think the place that has one of American racing's most-storied pasts, will also have a viable future.