Saturday, March 27, 2010

Gloria de Campeao wins thrilling DWC on front end

Now that's how a $10 million race should finish!

Globetrotting Gloria de Campeao won by a nose over Lizard's Desire and half a head over Allybar in the Dubai World Cup at the spectacular new Meydan Racecourse Saturday. The Brazilian-bred proved to be the controlling speed, well-piloted by jockey Tiago Pereira, then hung on desperately in the final strides to take the DWC trophy and $6 million for owner Estrela Energia Stables and French trainer Pascal Bary.

The connections of Lizard's Desire settle for $2 million, though his jockey, Kevin Shea, thought he had gotten up in time and pumped his fist at the finish.

The 2,000-meter race was contested over the new racecourse's Tapeta surface. Gloria de Campo, a 7-year-old, was second in this race last year behind Well Armed -- and a distant second, 14 lengths back -- but that renewal was contested over the old, traditional dirt surface at Nad al Sheba.

"I thought I had won but as we passed the post, I looked across and (Shea) was celebrating, so I thought I'd keep quiet and wait for the result," Pereira said. "The horse settled in front and I dropped my hands 300 meters out and asked him to kick on. He was so brave and this is all just a dream."

True to tradition, the DWC was a global contest. Second-place Lizard's Desire is a South African-bred, and Allybar was bred in Ireland. America's hope, turf champion Gio Ponti, who was second on synthetic to Zenyatta in the 2009 Breeders' Cup Classic, ran a good race, but came home in fourth, a length and a quarter behind Allybar.

British-bred, U.S. Grade 1 synthetic winner Gitano Hernando finished sixth behind Mastery, and America's Richard's Kid was seventh with Garrett Gomez.

The DWC was the third race over the new surface at Meydan for the winner, a likely advantage. He previously won the one-mile Maktoum Challenge Round One-G3 on Jan. 28. Earlier this month, he was second by just a neck in the Maktoum Challenge Round 3-G2 behind Red Desire, who came in 11th of 13 in the World Cup.

Gloria de Campeao obviously scored the signature victory of his career, but he has been successful all over the world. He was a Grade 2 winner at a mile on turf in his native Brazil, was sent to train in France with Bary, won the Singapore Airlines International Cup-G1 in 2009, and for the third consecutive year has won or placed in graded stakes in Dubai.

Still intact, the son of Argentine-bred and -raced G1 winner Impression (Rubiano-Improbable Lady, by Liloy) and out of the Brazilian-bred Clackson mare Audacity, Gloria de Campeao with his Dubai World Cup win has finally punched his ticket to stud duty somewhere, despite his less-than-fashionable pedigree by American auction standards.

Much as he likes Dubai, perhaps Gloria de Campeao belongs among the stallion holdings of Sheikh Mohammed.

Thursday, March 25, 2010

NYRA plays role in 'Honey, We Shrunk the Breed'

Did Rick Moranis land a job at the New York Racing Association and I just missed it?

In a horse racing nation where many of the greatest events in our game have had distance carved mercilessly from their conditions in recent years -- even a sprint like the Vosburgh Stakes being slashed from 7 down to 6 furlongs -- NYRA has been among the greatest offenders at shrinking the conditions of historic races. And perhaps never have the rueful reductions been more noticeable than on this year's New York stakes schedule.

Ann Ferland, a racing fan and historian and a writer on the subject of thoroughbred pedigree, certainly has taken note. Her conniptions over the diminished distances exceed even my own, and help inform and inspire my rant.

This year in New York, the Suburban Handicap, which long stood as the only mile and a quarter graded race for older horses on the East Coast until September, has been dropped to 9 furlongs. Perhaps worse, so has the Coaching Club American Oaks -- the closest thing 3-year-old fillies have to a Belmont Stakes for their Triple Tiara -- and NYRA even added injury to insult by moving the race from Belmont to Saratoga, where it will serve as more or less a Grade 1 prep for the Alabama S.-G1, which is still to be carded at 10 furlongs. (But for how long?)

Writes Ann: "Better they had moved the Mother Goose, a mid-century race created just so that there would be an intermediate distance race between the Acorn ... and the Oaks. But to trash the Oaks!"

I'm certainly with Ann on this one. The CCA Oaks -- which was still at a mile and a half as recently as 1989, and is truly "America's Oaks" in more than name only -- belongs at 10 furlongs, and it belongs at Belmont. But the Mother Goose is going under the carving knife, as well, with a sixteenth being hacked out for 2010; it will be run at 8.5 furlongs instead of 9.

Ferland says she probably "shouldn't be surprised" at what NYRA's doing this year. Not after the organization moved the Ladies Handicap, the oldest stakes race in America for experienced females and a former Grade 1 race at 10 or even 12 furlongs, onto the inner dirt at Aqueduct, where it is now run at 9 furlongs (for no grade) by the depleted winter cadre of New York-circuit horses, while many top runners and their trainers are wintering in Florida.

"What does the NYRA have against the classic distance of 10f?" Ferland asks.

It's a fair question. Beyond the Suburban, the Ladies Handicap and the CCA Oaks, NYRA has cropped the conditions of the Woodward S.-G1 (once 12f, settled at 9f in 1990) and the Dwyer S.-G2 (from 10f to 9f in 1975), has fluctuated on distance for the Stymie Stakes and the Excelsior H.-G3 before settling on 9 furlongs, and has completely discarded the Saratoga H.-G2, once run at up to 14 furlongs and last run and won by Suave in 2005 at a mile and a quarter.

Absolutely NYRA is not alone in this trend. The MassCap began as a 9-furlong race (won at that distance by Seabiscuit) but was stretched as far as 12 furlongs before spending the last nearly 40 (oft-interrupted) years at a mile and an eighth. The Gulfstream Park H.-G2 was a 10-furlong race in 2004, but has been shortened twice since, its last two renewals run at only a mile. Gulfstream Park's Grade 1 Turf Handicap had been run at 10 furlongs (once) or 11f/11.5f for 18 years, and was won at 11 furlongs by Einstein in 2008, but was whacked by two furlongs a year later and thus won by a miler on the stretchout, Kip Deville.

"But the NYRA is the greatest sinner," Ferland insists.

Among other NYRA hatchet jobs: The Jaipur S.-G3 on turf (from 7f to 6f); the Bed o' Roses H.-G3 (from a mile to 7f); the Hill Prince S.-G3 on turf (from 9f to a mile); the Cicada S-G3 (from 7f to 6f); and the Top Flight H.-G2 (from 9f to a mile). Several others have been trimmed by just a sixteenth, while only a couple of important races have been lengthened.

Truth be told, while NYRA's 2010 schedule should inflame anyone who believes that too much speed is hurting the breed (and thus shouldn't be catered-to by carding shorter races), there's blame to go around.

More data from Ms. Ferland:

In 1973, the first year for graded racing in the United States, there were a baker's dozen Grade 1 races in the country for males 3 and up. The shortest? The Metropolitan Handicap, aka, "The Met Mile." Others included: the Californian S. (8.5f now G2 at 9f); San Antonio S. and Governor S. (both 9f); the Brooklyn H. (9.5f, now at a Grade 2 at a glorious 12f, a rare NYRA extension); six at a mile and a quarter, the Monmouth H., Charles H. Strub S. (now G2 at 9f), Hollywood Gold Cup, Santa Anita H., Suburban H., and the Widener H. (shortened, downgraded to G3 and gone with Hialeah Park); the mile-and-a-half Woodward S.; and the Jockey Club Gold Cup at a marathon two miles.

With just 13 Grade 1 races in 12 months for older horses, generally speaking a horse needed to defeat a few extra opponents in bigger fields to actually get a G1 win. And only one of those races, the Met Mile, was around one turn.


For 2010, the American Graded Stakes Committee has bestowed G1 status on 24 dirt or all-weather races, half of them at a mile or under. The list: (6 furlongs) Bing Crosby H., Vosburgh H., Ancient Title S., Breeders' Cup Sprint, Alfred G. Vanderbilt H.; (7 furlongs) Carter H., Triple Bend H., Pat O'Brien H., Forego S.; (8 furlongs) Metropolitan H., Breeders' Cup Dirt Mile, Cigar Mile H.; (9 furlongs) Donn H., Stephen Foster H., Whitney H., Woodward S., Goodwood S., Clark H.; (10 furlongs) Santa Anita H., Hollywood Gold Cup, Pacific Classic, Jockey Club Gold Cup, Breeders' Cup Classic.

Oh, and the 9.5-furlong Pimlico Special, already announced as canceled in 2010 for the second consecutive year.

Ferland quotes the original American Graded Stakes Committee on how its gradings were determined: "Distance was counted as an important factor, sprint handicaps being regarded as less significant."

Not anymore. Obviously.

Now, times do change, and sports change with them. Basketball has adopted shot clocks and 3-point arcs to liven-up its game. ... Though I'm still waiting for George Carlin's proposed changes (starting at 44:20 here): a two-second shot clock, a center court gas fire, and 25 points for any basket that goes through the hoop off another man's head.

But other sports don't have an entire industry built around breeding and selling the athletes. Nor such great contradictions in priorities: The Breeders' Cup Juvenile -- biggest race of the year for 2-year-olds -- is at a mile and a sixteenth, the Triple Crown for young 3-year-olds is composed of races run at 10f, 9.5f and 12f, and critics of Rachel Alexandra argue that a champion needs to prove herself at 10 furlongs, yet half the Grade 1 races for older male horses are at a mile or shorter.

But speed sells; as in low- or sub-10-second drills at 2-year-old sales. And how many everyday maiden, allowance and claiming races do you see carded anywhere in the country beyond a mile or a mile-70 or a mile and a sixteenth?

So is it any wonder that we continue to see so many "unfashionably bred" horses winning the Kentucky Derby? And continue to see our Derby winners and their sires stand for paltry sums or be banished to stud duty outside Kentucky or in other countries?

The last 20 victors include the likes of: Mine That Bird (by Birdstone, then $7,500); Giacomo (Holy Bull, a former champion himself who still stands for only $10K); War Emblem (Our Emblem, Derby winner now in Japan); Monarchos (Maria's Mon, Derby winner stands for $6K); Real Quiet (Quiet American, Derby winner in Pennsylvania for $6K); Silver Charm (Silver Buck, Derby winner sent to Japan); Grindstone (by high-dollar Unbridled, but the son now stands in Oregon); Go For Gin (Cormorant, Derby winner in Maryland for $4K); Sea Hero (Polish Navy, Derby winner now in Turkey); and Lil E. Tee (At the Threshold ... At the Threshold?).

Step back a couple more years to find Sunday Silence -- Derby winner, Preakness winner, Breeders' Cup Classic winner, Horse of the Year -- directed to Japan where all he did was become the most successful sire in global history by progeny earnings.

Check the last 20 Derby winners. Do you see a Storm Cat on that list? A grandson of Storm Cat? (Though eventually someone like Giant's Causeway might get a Kentucky Derby winner.) ... Yet the now-pensioned Storm Cat once stood for $500,000. And his line is proliferating everywhere.

That's because the races we claim to revere actually have little to do anymore with the route to where the most money is made in horse racing.

And that route's getting shorter every year.

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

To Zorn's chagrin, Stronach to retain Laurel, Pimlico with sale to bankrupt Magna's parent company

Steve Zorn, managing partner of Castle Village Farm and a blogger on The Business of Racing, reports at his blog and on Facebook that lawyers for Frank Stronach's Magna Entertainment Corp. are in bankruptcy court today, presenting a revised reorganization plan that will (again) cancel an auction of Maryland's racetracks that was set for Thursday, leaving Stronach and MEC in charge of Maryland racing. Zorn says that's "bad news" both for racing in Maryland, and nationwide.

The Baltimore Sun has confirmed that the auction is off.

Zorn earlier had voiced concerns that Stronach and Magna would again find a way to stave off the auction of its majority ownership in Laurel Park and Pimlico. His breaking of the news that the auction is off to some degree contradicts reporting earlier today by The Blood-Horse that MEC had reached a settlement with the DeFrancis family, former owners of the tracks, on the family's future rights to potential slot revenues at the tracks, "apparently (clearing) the way for an auction of the tracks on Thursday."

Or not. Perhaps with the DeFrancis issue out of the way, Stronach and MEC have successfully argued that their position is sufficiently strengthened, permitting MEC's continued ownership of the tracks.

The Blood-Horse cited the Baltimore Sun as reporting that the deal between MEC and the DeFrancis family could pay Joseph DeFrancis and his sister Karin $8 million from MEC and $4 million from the Maryland Jockey Club to settle their claim to future slot revenues. It also was reported that the DeFrancis siblings could receive 15 to 25 percent of the proceeds of the auction if the total sale price is more than $39 million. (Ontario-based MEC paid $117.5 million for just 51 percent of Pimlico and 58 percent of Laurel in 2002, and another $18.3 million to acquire an additional 20 percent of each track in 2007.) But the newspaper reported that the DeFrancis siblings would only receive $1 million if the tracks wound up being purchased by MEC's parent company MI Developments, outside the auction process -- exactly what appears to be happening.

Now the Associated Press reports that MI Developments will pay $89 million to settle a lawsuit filed by a committee of Magna's unsecured creditors, $13 million to cover secured claims of PNC Bank, about $6 million to the holders of unsecured claims against the Maryland Jockey Club, and $5 million to "the former owners of Laurel Park and Pimlico."

The DeFrancis family was reportedly among the half-dozen or so potential bidders in the now-canceled auction. Others mentioned include the Cordish Cos., Penn National Gaming Inc., and Blow Horn Equity LLC, a Pennsylvania-based horse breeder and racing consultant backed by private equity.

The Sun's Web site story says that "plans to sell the track had raised concern about the future of ... racing in Maryland and the fate of the Preakness, the second leg of horse racing's Triple Crown." But clearly leaving the tracks in the hands of Stronach's people hasn't exactly allayed all concerns. After all, how much faith can be instilled in the Maryland racing community and its fan base by leaving in charge the company that went bankrupt in the first place? That's better than giving someone else a shot?

After all, the once-lengthy list of MEC-managed racing-industry properties includes such notable investments ditched or gone wrong as:

  • The ill-fated, once-famed Bay Meadows Racetrack in San Mateo, Calif., now sold and bulldozed for a redevelopment plan that has stalled to nothing, leaving piles of rubble in its place.
  • Great Lakes Downs in Michigan; closed by Magna in November 2007 and sold to the Little River Band of the Ottawa Indians for redevelopment as a casino.
  • Remington Park in Oklahoma; sold for a reported $70 million profit to the Chickasaw Nation in a deal that is yet to close.
  • Thistledown Racecourse in Ohio; sold for a reported $75 million profit in September to Harrah's Entertainment, another deal yet to close.
  • And, Lone Star Park in Grand Prairie, Texas, bought for $100 million and reportedly being sold to the Chickasaws for just $27 million, yet another deal not yet competed because the Delaware bankruptcy judge delayed the sale in light of a competing bid from Penn National Gaming.

Yes, Magna still manages the likes of Santa Anita, Gulfstream Park, and Golden Gate Fields. It also owns HRTV and But the firm's list of scratches and also-ran finishes certainly rivals, if not exceeds, its record for racing biz wins. So it isn't surprising that some, perhaps many, industry insiders like Steve Zorn would rather wager on a new shooter -- or maybe an old veteran like the DeFrancis family -- in the race toward Maryland's horse racing future.

It isn't that racing's faithful don't want to see Frank Stronach and MEC succeed in managing racetracks. It's just that they've reviewed the past-performances and don't see much reason to bet on them.

Sunday, March 21, 2010

Kieren Fallon sissy-punched at Lingfield

You know that your pugilistic skills leave something to be desired when you land a sucker punch on a 115-pound man and he's left standing to say that you "hit like a girl."

Irish-born jockey Kieren Fallon on Saturday was blindsided by David Reynolds, joint owner of 3-1 favorite The Scorching Wind and third-place horse Seek The Fair Land, after neither of Reynolds' horses managed to win a race at Lingfield. The altercation took place in the unsaddling area behind the weighing room at the track. Reynolds apparently blamed Fallon for causing interference that left The Scorching Wind finishing ninth of 10. But stewards absolved Fallon of any blame, finding that he was trying only to ease 5-year-old gelding Elna Bright out of the race, after the horse had been bumped and injured.

Reynolds was hauled off the grounds by security.

"It was unbelievable -- something you don't expect on a big raceday," said Peter Crate, the owner of Elna Bright. Crate was nicked up in the fracas, as well, with a red mark on his cheek, according to Racing Post. "I was standing looking at my horse's injured leg and he (Reynolds) came in like a whirlwind and landed a punch from behind on Kieren, smashing him in the face. He caught me a glancing blow as he swung and both me and Brett (trainer Brett Johnson) got in between him and Kieren."

Fallon bounced back later in the card to ride Fiery Lad in the Winter Derby and to maintain high spirits, though his charge in that race finished 12th of 13.

"He came up behind me when I was unsaddling, but I'm all right. He hits like a girl," Fallon told Racing Post. "I don't know what it was about."

"He needs to take some boxing lessons, anyway," Fallon told The Guardian.

Like most good Irishmen, it seems Kieren Fallon can take a punch. Whether David Reynolds can throw a good one is a matter for debate.

What is probably a safe bet is that Reynolds won't be around a British racecourse to throw another one for awhile.

Saturday, March 20, 2010

D' Funnybone: Router in disguise?

You have to hand it to a man who knows his limitations. Or his horse's.

But I can't help but wonder whether Paul Pompa Jr. and trainer Rick Dutrow haven't written off the Kentucky Derby chances of their brilliant charge D' Funnybone without really giving him a chance to prove whether or not he can handle the task. Pompa says the horse will eventually be pointed to the second jewel of the Triple Crown, the Preakness Stakes, instead.

The Blood-Horse reported Friday that Pompa and Dutrow kept D' Funnybone -- four for six lifetime including three Grade 2 sprint wins -- entered in the 7-furlong Swale S.-G2 today at Gulfstream, rather than taking a crack at the Grade 1 Florida Derby at a mile and an eighth after the defection of likely favorite Eskenderyea, who will wait for the Wood Memorial-G1 before running again.

To be sure, the Florida Derby would be the bigger test for more reasons than distance. D' Funnybone is the 6/5 favorite for the Swale and will likely go off at a short price. Even with Eskendereya out of the Florida Derby and seven of 11 entrants in the race (including Barbaro's brother, Lentenor) having just one win each to their credit, the Grade 1 field still contains two top Kentucky Derby contenders. The 5/2 morning-line favorite is Rule, who has two G3 wins at route distances. The 3/1 second choice is Radiohead, a Group 2 winner in his native England (prior to a Breeders' Cup flop) who has come back in 2010 to win his 3-year-old debut in good fashion. And simply facing 11 opponents in the Florida Derby instead of seven others in the Swale suggests a more difficult task.

But Pompa says D' Funnybone isn't running in the Florida Derby because he "isn't a mile and a quarter horse."

Granted, he's Pompa's horse. And Rick Dutrow has plenty of experience as a trainer. They've seen the horse in the flesh, plenty. They've watched the horse work.

But they know that D' Funnybone "isn't a mile and a quarter horse" exactly ... how?

It isn't because they've worked him a mile and watched him collapse after seven furlongs. Of 11 published works for D' Funnybone available at, none have been longer than six furlongs.

I presume some of their decision is based on pedigree, though if Pompa and Dutrow looked more closely, they might be at least still be toying with thoughts of the Derby.

Their colt is by D'Wildcat, a sprinter who won the Swale Stakes in 2001, a feat his son hopes to repeat today. But even D'Wildcat wasn't exactly bred solely to sprint.

His sire, Forest Wildcat (likewise a successful sprinter), nonetheless sired G1-winning miler Forest Secrets, a filly who also was a G3 winner at 9 furlongs. Forest Wildcat's daughter Snow Dance won five graded-stakes at more than a mile on turf, including the G2 New York Handicap at a mile and a quarter. Son Behindatthebar won the G2 Lexington Stakes at Keeneland going a mile and a sixteenth. Daughter Brownie Points was a dual-surface runner who spent most of her time in stakes company running a mile to nine furlongs, including a runner-up finish to Zenyatta in the 2008 Apple Blossom H.-G1 at a mile and a sixteenth and a win at a mile and an eighth on turf in the Edward P. DeBartolo Sr. Memorial Handicap.

D'Wildcat's dam, D'Enough, won five times at route distances and was third in the Montauk Handicap at a mile and an eighth. Her sire, Secretariat's son D'Accord, won the Grade 2 Breeders' Futurity at a mile and a sixteenth as a juvenile. And of course her grandsire was the 1973 Triple Crown winner: Derby (10f), Preakness (9.5f) and Belmont Stakes (12f).

D' Wildcat is a young stallion. His 2-year-olds of 2010 are just his fourth crop to race. But among his five stakes winners, daughter Authenicat has managed to score in stakes company at 8.5 furlongs at Woodbine (she also has multiple sprint-stakes wins), and ill-fated daughter The Golden Noodle (who died in a farm accident while on layup) was Grade 1 placed at a mile and a sixteenth as a 2-year-old in the Hollywood Starlet.

Granted, there isn't a ton of stamina on the top half of D'Funnybone's pedigree. And there's a big difference between a mile and a sixteenth or a mile and an eighth, and going 10 furlongs; a mile and a quarter. But not every horse you find oughta be running 400 yards against Quarter Horses, either. And on the bottom of his pedigree, there's plenty of evidence to suggest he can get a little bit of distance.

D' Funnybone's dam, Elbow (which resulted in her son receiving one of the truly creative names in racing today), was sired by Woodman, whose Grade 1 get included distinctly classic-distance horses in Preakness/Belmont winner Hansel, Breeders' Cup Juvenile and Preakness winner Timber Country, Whitney Handicap winner Mahogany Hall, Hawk Wing (English/Irish 3-year-old highweight from 9.5-11f), and Irish One Thousand Guineas winner Hula Angel.

Elbow doesn't just have stamina on the top side of her pedigree, either. She was out of the mare Elvia, who was by classic-distance sire Roberto and out of the 9-furlong G1-winning Lyphard mare, Chain Bracelet. And Elbow has produced runners at a distance; D' Funnybone's minor stakes-winning half-sister Dr. Kathy (Polish Numbers) was third behind champion Ashado in the 2003 Demoiselle S.-G2 at 9 furlongs, a marathon for 2-year-olds.

True, Pompa and Dutrow haven't ruled out running D' Funnybone at route distances. Pompa says that next up for his colt -- should D' Funnybone come out of the Swale in good shape -- could be the Grade 3 Withers Stakes going a mile at Aqueduct on April 24. If that goes well, the 9.5-furlong Preakness could await. Pompa believes the sixteenth-shorter distance of the Preakness vs. the Kentucky Derby could be the difference for D' Funnybone, and adds that the "tight turns" of Pimlico better suit the colt's running style. (On the subject of Pimlico's turns, this is worth a read.)

I'm not criticizing Paul Pompa and Rick Dutrow, per se. Second-guessing, maybe. Today and the Florida Derby would have been a great time to find out if their colt could get 9 furlongs as a stepping-stone toward getting 10 at Churchill.

But I have to credit Pompa with doing what he thinks is best for the horse, particularly at a time in a good colt's career where almost any owner of almost any horse with half a snowball's chance of making the starting gate at Churchill on the first Saturday in May is trying to beg, borrow or steal their way into the race.

Pompa notes that he got a chance to experience a Kentucky Derby win as a quarter-owner of Big Brown in 2008, after selling a majority interest to IEAH. So getting back there for him doesn't have such urgency. And he's concerned about ruining D' Funnybone, who is running well and building a decent stallion resume that would be cemented without classic-distance victories could he secure future wins in Grade 1 races like the Vosburgh Stakes, Breeders' Cup Sprint or particularly a one-turn mile like the Cigar Mile Handicap or the "Met Mile," which have often suited sprinter-types.

So I suspect D' Funnybone will run off with the Swale today and leave me wishing I could have seen him try to smash the Florida Derby field with equal aplomb.

I think the horse might be that good. And until proven otherwise, I'm reasonably convinced that he can run farther than his connections might think he can.

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Team Rachel: A camp divided?

So the Apple Blossom showdown between Rachel Alexandra and Zenyatta is off the board, leaving fans to wonder when the two will actually meet.

But there's an even bigger question in my mind right now.

Just how panicked -- and potentially divided -- is the Rachel Alexandra camp?

In the wake of Saturday's loss in the New Orleans Ladies Stakes by the reigning Horse of the Year, who was making her 2010 debut, comments by the principals give us more than a few hints at what they were thinking not only going into that race, but looking ahead to the now-scratched Oaklawn appearance.

Rachel's faithful rider, Calvin Borel, defended his filly as "a real racehorse" who didn't quit despite being headed in the stretch by eventual winner Zardana. "She needed the race, that's all."

And Rachel certainly did need the race. She'd been off since a Sept. 9 win against older colts and geldings in Saratoga's Woodward S.-G1. And while some discussion group friends of mine think she had plenty of work prior to her return, I disagree. Though she had seven published works after her four-and-a-half-month layoff, the first of those came on Jan. 31. I've had trainers tell me in the past that it usually takes two or even three months to bring a horse back to the starting gate off a significant layoff. Rachel started the New Orleans Ladies Stakes some 42 days after her first official work back at the track -- only six weeks, maybe a little bit short.

Trainer Steve Asmussen seems to know it.

"The filly's lacking fitness," he said immediately after the race. "It was my job to have her there, and I didn't do it. ... She's not where I thought she was and if I had thought she'd get beat, she wouldn't run."

But she did run. And not all that terribly, posting a Beyer speed figure of 100, not exactly crappy for a race that was six months after her last start. And one wonders what might have happened had Borel let the girl run instead keeping her in a stranglehold in an apparent attempt to teach Rachel to rate.

"I wanted to let her run her race early, but they wanted me to wait," Borel said after the loss. "I wanted to go on past the speed horse (42/1 Fighter Wing) early. I'd have got by her anytime and my filly could have gone on, but they wanted me to wait and not get into her until the sixteenth pole."

Steve Haskin of The Blood-Horse details the many ways that Rachel seemed "not the same" on Saturday. And he astutely points out that had one or another of a very few things gone Rachel's way -- say, if Borel had let the champion have her head, or had Zardana not shipped east from California for the race -- the reigning Horse of the Year might well have won (in the latter case, quite handily) and the Apple Blossom would still be a "go."

But it isn't, and not because her trainer wrote off the upcoming race. Haskin notes that only an hour after Asmussen told reporters that Rachel had come out of Saturday's loss quite well, her principal owner, Jess Jackson, was scrapping the Oaklawn showdown.

I can't completely blame him, but it is starting to look like Jackson is training this horse, rather than letting his Eclipse champion trainer do the job.

Rachel's trainer initially said there was no way his filly could race against Zenyatta at Oaklawn because he didn't have time to work her up to a prep race and then get her back fit for an early-April Apple Blossom. Then Jackson finagled Oaklawn into setting a slightly later date for the Grade 1 race (not to mention bumping the purse tenfold, from $500,000 to $5 million if both Rachel and Zen race). And Asmussen was left with no choice but to get Rachel into a race by mid-March if he had any hope of turning her back on April 9.

Asmussen has said the filly isn't as fit as he'd like, though he reports she came out of her prep race well, apart from a gutsy and narrow loss. But literally minutes after Asmussen's statement on Rachel's post-race condition, Jackson nixes the Apple Blossom sooner, rather than later, and instead of allowing his trainer at least a few days to see whether the filly can bounce back in time to face Zenyatta for $5 million.

Borel laments being instructed to hold back his filly in a race that she might have run off with if not choked on the backstretch. And he doesn't say that "he" or "Steve" wanted Rachel rated at all costs, probably to teach her to save energy in a race against the late-kicking Zenyatta. Rather, Borel says "they" wanted the jockey to hold back his horse. If you think the second part of "they" is anyone other than Mr. Jackson, then I have a yearling who is guaranteed to win the 2012 Kentucky Derby, and shares are reasonably priced in the low six-figures.

Granted, Jess Jackson paid untold millions for this filly less than a year ago, off her smashing victory in early May's Kentucky Oaks. And the 2009 campaign plotted for her thereafter resulted in an undefeated season and honors as both top 3-year-old filly and Horse of the Year. He's certainly played a hands-on role throughout as is his right; it's his horse, and his money.

But Jackson less and less seems the type to just hire top professionals and trust them to do their jobs, without meddling. Asmussen is apologizing for not having the horse where she needed to be for a pair of races I'm not sure he really wanted her to run in the first place. And Borel sounds frustrated as the man in the irons, being told to rigidly employ a strategy that he clearly thinks got his filly beat. And they're all probably scrambling for answers.

Losing, even narrowly and with guts, has a way of exposing every tiny crack in a team's foundation. And the contrast between Rachel's and Zenyatta's connections becomes even more stark.

Way back last June, when Zenyatta's owner, Jerry Moss, got a little too bold in his statements about letting his unbeaten mare hunt down the upstart filly wherever, whenever, he soon backed down. I speculated that change of heart came after a discussion with his trainer, John Shirreffs, whose course for the horse was being speculatively altered. It wasn't long before those two were harmonizing again on their smash hit, "We're Breeders' Cup Bound."

I'm not sure Team Rachel has it so together.

And whether Rachel Alexandra has a great 2010 and any chance of beating Zenyatta -- should they ever meet -- depends on her humans getting back on the same page in the songbook.

Sunday, March 14, 2010

Messin' with perfection

With a potential bout between title-holders approaching at Oaklawn Park on April 9, John Shirreffs -- who trains two-time champion older female Zenyatta -- has already knocked down Horse of the Year Rachel Alexandra, and he did it with a whole lot less mare.

Two-time champion older female Zenyatta on Saturday moved to within one win of tying a group of horses that include all-time greats Citation and Cigar with 16 consecutive victories by cruising to a 1 1/4-length victory in the Santa Margarita H.-G1 at Santa Anita. Meanwhile, 2009 Horse of the Year Rachel Alexandra was summarily dethroned in the ungraded New Orleans Ladies Stakes by a determined, and Shirreffs-trained Zardana, who overtook her in the stretch.

Both champions were heavy favorites in their 2010 debuts, especially Rachel, who was sent off at a ridiculous 1/2o at Fair Grounds. But we really could have seen this coming.

Zenyatta, though briefly "retired," has in fact remained pretty consistently and impressively in training since her Breeders' Cup Classic win at Santa Anita in November. Meanwhile, Rachel took several months off after beating older males in September's Woodward S.-G1, a gutty effort that obviously took much out of her. And her conditioner, Steve Asmussen, said prior to the New Orleans Ladies' Stakes that his now 4-year-old filly wasn't 100 percent.

Rachel probably shouldn't have needed to be 100 percent to beat the group of four that she was presented this weekend at Fair Grounds. Zardana is a Grade 2 winner on synthetic, but was trying dirt for the first time in a good while and is simply no Zenyatta. And while rider Calvin Borel seemed to be discontent with the ride he was asked to give Rachel on Saturday -- "I wanted to let her run her race early, but they wanted me to wait" -- ultimately Rachel had a good trip and a pretty easy first six furlongs (1:12.86), and still couldn't hold on after taking the lead, battling but losing to Zardana in 1:43.55.

"My filly tried hard," said Borel. "She needed the race, that's all."

And with that, I couldn't agree more. Rachel really needed this race.

Minutes later Saturday, on the west coast, Zenyatta made her fans a bit nervous for a moment -- as is her wont -- but ultimately eased past the Santa Margarita field to win by more than a length without jockey Mike Smith ever striking her with the whip. It was as professional as any victory in her 15-race unbeaten career. And she looks as perfect as her lifetime record heading toward the potentially $5 million Apple Blossom Handicap at Oaklawn, which Shirreffs says is Zen's target, Rachel or "no."

As for Rachel, the Apple Blossom might well be a "no."

"The filly's lacking fitness," said Asmussen after Rachel's defeat. "It was my job to have her there, and I didn't do it. ... She's not where I thought she was and if I had thought she'd get beat, she wouldn't (have) run. You take her back, you evaluate her, you see how her mood is, her diet, how she goes back to the racetrack, how she breezes. No crystal ball could see that far ahead (to the Apple Blossom)."

Clearly Rachel wasn't perfect on Saturday, but her career never has been. Though she was flawless at 3, beating colts and geldings in three Grade 1 races and in every way deserving Horse of the Year honors, Rachel had been defeated three times as a 2-year-old. Now she's o-fer in one start at age 4 and, in her own trainer's words, clearly not where she needs to be less than a month away from that looming showdown with Zenyatta at Oaklawn.

And Asmussen knows full well that Rachel had better be close as she can to perfect before she goes messin' with perfection.

Friday, March 12, 2010

Rachel and Zen don't even merit 'The Ocho'

My blogging pal over at Odds on Favorite, Bill Yates, asks a valid question this week about a weekend that should be one of racing's biggest during the early season: Who is going to be watching?

Bill notes that although Horse of the Year Rachel Alexandra and two-time champion older female Zenyatta will both open their 2010 campaigns on Saturday, neither race will be televised on a mainstream network. You'll have to watch them on a racing-oriented network such as TVG or HRTV, or stream them live on your computer via But the races will not air even on a network like one of the fifteen dozen ESPN offerings. (Not even on "The Ocho.")

And that indeed is a setback for the marketing of horse racing -- or maybe just a sign of how far horse racing marketing has already been set back.

In January I urged that racing should be riding the Rachel-Zen rivalry for all its worth during 2010. In this age, the average American only pays attention to horse racing for about five or six weeks each spring -- from the Kentucky Derby itself on the first Saturday of May, until the finish line of the Belmont Stakes in June. And if the same colt doesn't win both the Derby and Preakness, most of those casual fans (read "non-fans") drop out three weeks before the Belmont. But a real rivalry between proven older horses -- a filly and a mare, no less, for "girls" at present stand head and withers above the American racing world -- could perhaps draw more attention to our sport for a lengthier period than the racing game has seen in decades, from March all the way through the Breeders' Cup in the fall.

So much for that.

Racing's fan base and powers that be have seen these two starts coming for weeks; it's been well-publicized that Zenyatta was being pointed to the Santa Margarita-G1 and Rachel was prepping at Fair Grounds for its $200,000 -- but ungraded -- New Orleans Ladies Stakes. For a couple of weeks now, it has been apparent that these races are very likely to be the one prep that each champion gets before facing one another in the always-important, suddenly massive, $5 million Apple Blossom H.-G1 at Oaklawn Park on April 9. And not only are Rachel's and Zen's prep races on the same date, they're only minutes apart; the New Orleans Ladies Stakes has a 6:15 p.m. EST post time and the field of the Santa Margarita will break from the gates at 6:36 p.m. Eastern at Santa Anita.

How in the world can that be completely overlooked by mainstream sports networks?

Racing's cause in this case isn't helped in this case by the early simmering of March Madness. This is conference tournament weekend for many schools in Division 1 college basketball. During the crucial, one-hour window from 6 to 7 p.m. Eastern on Saturday, CBS, ESPN, ESPN2, ESPNU all will be showing one conference tournament or another. That programming isn't subject to change for horse racing.

On the other hand, ABC in some markets is showing the XTerra World Championship triathlon -- a tape-delayed event being condensed into one hour -- and in my neck of the woods, 6 to 7 p.m. Saturday is reserved for local news. Maybe something could have been worked out with that national network.

And on the widely received ESPN Classic? The 1997 NCAA women's regional final between Connecticut and Tennessee. (Pssssssst. ... Don't tell anybody, but the Lady Vols are gonna win, 91-81. Trust me on this one. Now run off to your local sports book and try to place that bet.)

Surely with a little friendly coercion ESPN could have been convinced to stall the tipoff time of a women's basketball game that has been over for 13 years in order to show some live "classic" television -- two famed female racehorses gearing up to face each other in what promises to be the showdown of the last 25 years in this sport.

As it is, on a weekend that includes Kentucky Derby preps such as the Grade 2 Rebel Stakes, Grade 2 San Vicente Stakes, and the Grade 3 Tampa Bay Derby, two of the biggest prep races of 2010 -- Rachel and Zen, sharpening their daggers for April 9 at Oaklawn -- are going to go not just unwatched, but effectively unnoticed, all but invisible, across most of the sports-viewing world.

And since the Oaklawn showdown race is on a Friday, I'm already plenty worried that nobody outside of racing will be paying much attention to that one, either.


P.S. My only (respectful) correction for Bill:

The Dalton Gang never squared off over smoking gun barrels with Wyatt Earp, though that legendary marshal and gunslinger did engage in plenty o' killin' in my home state of Kansas.

The Daltons met their fate on Oct. 5, 1892, at the hands of Marshal C.T. Connelly and the townspeople of my high school haunt, Coffeyville, Kan. Civilians spotted the gang splitting up to enter two banks -- the First National and the C.M. Condon Bank, the latter of which stands to this day as the local Chamber of Commerce office -- and the townsfolk armed themselves with guns secured at Isham's Hardware, a business still open in its same location on Union Street, nearly 120 years hence.

Connelly and three other locals, Lucius Baldwin, Charles Brown and George Cubine, died in the gunfight that erupted. Four gang members -- Bob and Grat Dalton, Bill Power and Dick Broadwell -- also were killed. Young Emmet Dalton was gravely wounded, but survived to do time in prison and then be released, moving to California, where he engaged in the real estate business, wrote tales of his exploits (some of them dubious) and played a role in the early days of motion pictures.

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Conviction in, now throw the book at Paragallo

A Greene County, N.Y., judge has just found a prominent New York race horse breeder, Ernie Paragallo, guilty on 33 of 34 misdemeanor counts of animal cruelty for the mistreatment and malnourishment of dozens of horses found on his 500-acre Cocksackie farm.

Paragallo, whose racing license is suspended, during his career as a breeder and owner has started more than 4,500 horses that have earned him more than $20 million in purses. But the conditions found at Paragallo's Center Brook Farm in April 2009 were described as "horrendous," in the words of John Sabini, chairman of the New York Racing and Wagering Board and the state's Thoroughbred Breeding and Development Fund.

The 52-year-old Paragallo testified last week that he didn't know his horses weren't being fed enough. Judge George Pulver Jr. clearly found that claim impossible to believe. Thus, Pulver handed down convictions that -- though the charges are only misdemeanors -- could result in Paragallo getting up to two years in jail and $35,000 in fines.

I hope he gets every day and pays every penny. And I agree with ESPN's Bill Finley and others that now, post-conviction, Ernie Paragallo must be banned from racing forever.

Granted, Paragallo's attorney has said they will appeal, apparently hoping that the next judge will be blind, deaf and, above all, dumb by every definition. Let's hope they don't get so lucky.

Meanwhile, it's undeniable that this economy is difficult, that making a living from the race game doesn't get any easier, and that it's been widely documented there are horses around the country at risk of malnourishment and even abandonment. Thus, lenient punishments are inappropriate least of all for a noteworthy player like Ernie Paragallo.

His horses have earned tens of millions on the track. He owns interests in stallions including Unbridled's Song, who stands for $100,000 a pop and has been speculated to have earned Paragallo another $20 million over the past few years.

In light of those earnings, a $35,000 fine is chump change. So jail time and that lifetime ban are the only penalties that will really send a message that ensuring horse welfare is indeed taken seriously.

Sunday, March 7, 2010

Runs like a girl: How Rachel, Zen, Proviso and others might be changing U.S. racing's gender bias

A thrilling 2009 racing season ended with a sharp debate among fans over whether 3-year-old filly Rachel Alexandra or 5-year-old mare Zenyatta -- who never faced each other during the season -- deserved to be named Horse of the Year.

That nod eventually went to Rachel at the Eclipse Awards. And since Zen's owners, Jerry and Ann Moss, decided to keep her in training instead of breeding her this spring, it looks as though we might get to see these two hook up early as April 9 in the Apple Blossom Handicap at Oaklawn Park. Hopefully both females will stay healthy all season, meet more than once, and the thrills of 2010 might rival those of '09.

But decades from now, when we look back on the campaigns staged by the connections of Rachel Alexandra and Zenyatta in 2009, I wonder whether their seasons might be recognized as having a broader influence on the course of American racing.

That is, 2009 just might have been the year in which American thoroughbred trainers stopped being so scared of boys.

When breeder Dolphus Morrison sold Rachel Alexandra to Jess Jackson and company, shortly after her smashing win the Kentucky Oaks, Jackson and new trainer Steve Asmussen did something Morrison said he'd never do: Point the filly toward a race against colts. Morrison -- like many in the racing game -- believes that fillies and mares should only race against other females. Going up against males, so the thinking goes, is asking too much of a filly or mare, physically. But two weeks and a day after her record-setting margin in the Oaks, Rachel Alexandra most of the work on the front end and held on at the wire against Kentucky Derby winner Mine That Bird to beat colts and geldings in the Preakness Stakes, becoming the first filly to win that race since Nellie Morse in 1924.

Rachel, as any half-awake observer of horse racing knows, wasn't done facing boys after her historic Preakness score. She kicked around a short field of fillies in a boringly brilliant performance in the Mother Goose Stakes, then returned to the boys' club in the Haskell, running Belmont Stakes winner Summer Bird right off his feet to win by 6 1/2 lengths over a sloppy track at Monmouth. In September, Rachel recorded her third victory against males -- this time older horses -- by becoming the first female ever to win the Woodward Stakes at Saratoga.

Rachel Alexandra finished the year 8-for-8, three of those wins in Grade 1 races against males. And perhaps her season forced the hand of Zenyatta's connections -- the Mosses and trainer John Shirreffs. They opted to let their big, lifetime-unbeaten mare tackle males in the Breeders' Cup Classic at Santa Anita last November, not just because Zen "fit" in the race, but to make a lasting impression on one of the sport's biggest days in an effort to help the reigning Eclipse champion older female add Horse of the Year to her credentials.

Zenyatta won the Classic with powerful style, becoming the first female ever to win that race in 26 runnings. It was enough to more than cement her place in history; just not quite enough to beat out Rachel for Horse of the Year.

What has happened since? Well, nothing for either of these females, other than training toward their 2010 campaigns. But a lot for some other fillies and mares.

On Saturday at Santa Anita, the Juddmonte Farms' mare Proviso, trained by Bill Mott, "closed desperately in the final sixteenth" to become the first female ever to win the Grade 1 Frank E. Kilroe Mile Handicap. The British-bred mare nosed out Grade 1 winning Brazilian-bred Fluke, ridden by Joe Talamo, to score the historic win. Multiple G2-winner Battle of Hastings was third in a solid field of males that, on this day, got beat by a girl. (And a second female, Tuscan Evening, was entered in the race, but scratched by conditioner Jerry Hollendorfer after she drew the far outside post.)

And, on the same card, British-born mare St Trinians actually was sent off as the 3-1 favorite in the Grade 1 Santa Anita Handicap, a race that had never been won by a female in its 72-year history. Make that 73 years, as St Trinians suffered a difficult trip and finished sixth; Misremembered won from a full field of 14. But the fact that a mare was the post-time favorite in a race never before won by a female suggests that bettors believe the girls can compete.

I was actually a bit surprised that Zenyatta wasn't in the "Big Cap" Saturday. It looked like a field she could beat, but instead she is pointed toward the Grade 1 Santa Margarita for fillies and mares this coming weekend. Maybe Shirreffs thought that going right back up against males after a four-month layoff was too much to ask. And in the end, Misremembered's winning time of 2:00.20 was faster than Zenyatta's victorious time over the same track and distance in November's Classic, so to win, Zen would really have needed to bring her A-game.

Flashing back to '09, Rachel and Zen weren't the only females to take on, and defeat, male horses in big races. Ventura defeated males in the Woodbine Mile-G1 in Canada on Sept. 20. And 3-year-old Evita Argentina beat nine boys to win the Grade 2 San Vicente Stakes a year ago in February.

It really shouldn't come as a shock to American fans that the best females can run and win among males at the highest levels of the game. In Europe and elsewhere, they do it all the time.

Many times champion turf mare Ouija Board during the earlier years of this 21st century defeated males in the Group 1 Prince of Wales in England, and the G1 Hong Kong Vase, as well. She placed or showed among the very best males in top races such as the Japan Cup (won by Deep Impact), Coronation Cup (Shirocco), Irish Champion Stakes (Dylan Thomas), and the Prix de l'Arc de Triomphe (Bago). And when Ouija Board lost the Hong Kong Group 1 Queen Elizabeth II Cup in 2006, the race was won not by a male, but by another female, South African-born Irridescence.

Then there's Australian champion Makybe Diva -- a racing female so good and so famed she became known simply as "The Mare." She defeated males at least a dozen times, including three consecutive renewals of the biggest race in Australia, the Group 1 Melbourne Cup, from 2003-05.

There's an adage in horse racing that an owner or trainer should keep himself among the best company, and his horse among the worst. And certainly taking on lesser challenges is the faster route to the winner's circle. But I have to believe that a big part of racing is the desire on the part of the connections to let your horse meet and beat the best competition it can.

Sure, most of the time fillies and mares will continue to run against other females. Just as a statebred race limits the competition, making it easier for a horse to win or place well and earn his keep, gender-restricted races are typically easier spots to run and win for a filly or mare, and every trainer and owner wants to win; needs to win in order to pay the bills.

Still, if the conditions fit and your filly is tight and right, there are boys to be beaten, everywhere from the maiden ranks all the way up to Grade 1 races. And I'd like to see more females given the chance.