September 30, 2009

The Jockey Club Gold Cup and the Three Amigos

This Saturday’s Jockey Club Gold Cup promises to be one of the races of the year. While it is true there will be some other horses with solid credentials in the race, all eyes will be on New York’s three amigos. Summer Bird and Quality Road renew their Travers battle, and the horse that almost ended Rachel Alexandra’s streak, Macho Again, joins the fray. Male championships in both the 3-year-old and older divisions could well go a long way to being decided with an impressive win by one of the amigos. Belmont will host the exciting match up in the historically important race and yours truly is ready to pick the winner.

Summer Bird is a beautiful chestnut son of Birdstone. Owned by Kalarikkal & Vilasini Jayaraman and trained by Tim Ice, Summer Bird has won 3 out of 7 starts and more than $1.5 million in this, his first year of racing. He has won two of the most important races for his generation in the Belmont and the Travers and has also finished 2nd to Rachel Alexandra in the Haskell. He started his stakes career when he was a fast finishing 3rd in the Arkansas Derby in only his third start. Summer Bird seems to be still developing and is getting better and better as he learns to harness his long strides. He has proven to relish a route of ground of 1 ¼ or more and his only race over the Belmont surface produced a classic win. If voting ended for an eclipse award today, he would be the champion 3-year-old. His lead in the division is a tenuous one though, and any misstep could shift favor to others such as Mine That Bird or Quality Road. Summer Bird will be ridden again by Kent Desormeaux and is the likely favorite on Saturday.

Macho Again is a tough little gray son of Macho Uno. Owned by West Point Thoroughbreds and trained by Dallas Stewart, Macho Again has won four graded stakes and has finished 2nd in four more including three Grade 1s in his three-year racing career. As a 3-year-old, he won the Jim Dandy and the Derby Trial and was 2nd in the Preakness and the Super Derby. This year as a 4-year-old, Macho Again has Won the Stephen Foster and the New Orleans Handicap. In his last two races he was a fast closing 2nd in the Saratoga Grade 1s the Whitney and the Woodward. Consistency has been an issue for Macho Again in the past but it seems like he is becoming more of a push-button, one-run horse for Robby Albarado since he took over riding duties five starts ago. The faster the pace set early on by Tizway and Quality Road, come Saturday, the more of a threat Macho Again’s late rally will become. Being the lone older horse of the three amigos is an advantage.

Quality Road is an impressive looking, muscular 3-year-old son of Elusive Quality. Owned by Edward Evans and now trained by Todd Pletcher, Quality Road has often been considered the most brilliant of all the 3-year-old males running this year. His wins in the Fountain of Youth and Florida Derby earlier this year and the Amsterdam this Summer have been as impressive as they have been fast. His two losses out of six starts come with legitimate excuses and he is primed for superstardom. The Travers was his first try at the classic distance of 1 ¼ and it came with only a 6 ½ furlong sprint as preparation. John Velazquez will be in the saddle again and should have Quality Road forwardly placed to get first run of the three amigos. This strategy could prove a major tactical advantage. This is now the time for Quality Road to step up and move to the next level.

While I have a great deal of respect for both Summer Bird and Macho Again, I fully expect Quality Road to add his name to the great list of champions who have won the Jockey Club Gold Cup. Quality Road will get the catbird seat sitting just off of Tizway and pounce on the far turn. I believe he will assume command as they straighten out, and from there, no one will catch him. His hulking physique should be perfectly suited to the sandy surface and sweeping turns of Belmont Park. This win will vindicate his great potential and avenge his defeat (with less than a perfect trip) in the Travers. For all those people who jumped on the Quality Road bandwagon at Saratoga: You were right, only a race too early.

September 28, 2009

Remembering ... Summer Squall

I will never forget the afternoon when Summer Squall and Unbridled first met. It was April 14, 1990 at Keeneland in Lexington, Kentucky. I had been to Keeneland in the past but always with my father and older brother, never before on my own. A few months shy of my 21st birthday, it was a special day for me to travel to the most beautiful racetrack in America as an adult. It was made all the more memorable because there I would see the horse I was touting all my college friends on for the Derby, Unbridled, in the Blue Grass Stakes. This would be the big, handsome son of Fappiano’s last race before the Run for the Roses and my first chance to see him in person. I had been very impressed with his last two races in the Fountain of Youth and Florida Derby and even more impressed with his looks. Going in, I knew the Blue Grass was not an easy race for Unbridled. Standing in his way was a small but tough Dogwood runner named Summer Squall. In my mind Summer Squall, a regally bred son of Storm Bird, had been the best two-year-old in the country, and despite a late start to his 3-year-old season, had done nothing to lessen my respect for him. Unfortunately, it rained on and off most of Blue Grass day and the already speed favoring Keeneland track was now even more so in its' wet condition. To no ones surprise, Summer Squall looked like he was out for a Sunday stroll as he galloped around the muddy track to an effortless victory. The late running Unbridled could make up little ground and finished third. I was disappointed, but I knew the race set-up would be completely different on Derby day.

Three weeks later the sun was shining, the track was good and I was once again part of the crowd. The large field created a fast pace, as it often does, and combined with the classic distance, the 1990 Kentucky Derby set up perfectly for Unbridled. The strapping bay colt rallied on the outside and powerfully strode to a 3 ½ length victory at generous odds of 10-1. It had been the most impressive Derby win in several years and if not for one horse, he would have won by ten lengths. Of course that horse was his new rival, Summer Squall. Summer Squall suffered only his second defeat in the Derby but in the process had gained even more respect as he truly ran a winning race. A race that would have won many years, was simply second best to a powerhouse on this day. The Neil Howard trained bay ridden by Unbridled’s former rider, Pat Day, would head to Baltimore in search of revenge.

Preakness Day was a day for turning the tables. First the bettors flip-flopped and made Unbridled the favorite and then in the race, it was Summer Squall who would be the horse sprinting powerfully away from his rival. In one of the fastest Preakness Stakes ever, Summer Squall scooted through on the rail and defeated his adversary Unbridled by 2 ¼ lengths. One thing did remain constant though, as the rest of the horses were left far behind. Summer Squall finished more than eleven lengths in front of 3rd place finisher Mister Frisky. There was no doubt as to who were the best two 3-year-olds of 1990, the question was, who was the best? The Belmont would not provide the answer as both rivals ran with an anti-bleeder medication, and at that time, New York did not allow Lasix. Summer Squall would not run leaving Unbridled to collect a $1 million dollar bonus for best performance throughout the Triple Crown despite turning in a dismal performance, finishing a well beaten fourth. Despite the million dollar carrot dangling in front of them, Summer Squall's handlers opted to do what was best for the horse.

After his excellent performances in the Derby and the Preakness, Summer Squall deserved a vacation. Managing partner of Dogwood Stable, Cot Campbell and trainer Neil Howard wanted to give their colt a little breather before a big Fall campaign that would surely culminate with a well deserved championship for Summer Squall. Campbell, a charming Southern gentleman had put together the syndicate that would own Summer Squall under the name of Dogwood. Within this syndicate, Summer Squall actually had 28 different owners. All these owners were more than ready for Summer Squall to return to the races and he did not disappoint when he returned in September to easily win the Pennsylvania Derby. Talk about consistency! The win brought Summer Squall’s record to 9 wins in 11 starts, with the only losses being his 2nd in the Derby and a 2nd in his first race of the year, in a sprint to the best sprinter of the era, Housebuster.

It was on to Louisiana for the Super Derby and a match up with Unbridled that would surely crown a 3-year-old champion. But alas, the meeting never happened as Summer Squall came down with a virus just days before the big race and did not run. Unbridled ran 2nd in the Super Derby but later won the Breeders’ Cup Classic. For the second year in a row Summer Squall would narrowly miss out on an eclipse award as the outstanding horse of his generation. After the virus, a quarter crack, and general wear and tear to the small horse, Summer Squall was never quite the same. He was a successful 4-year-old, but just not quite the horse he had been. He did manage to beat Unbridled in two out of their three meetings as older hoses which brought his final tally to 4 wins from 6 starts against his outstanding rival.

At stud Summer Squall was a success. Siring such notables as: champions Charismatic and Storm Song and a favorite of mine, Summer Colony. Currently he is a very popular broodmare sire with Summer Bird being one of his many successful grandsons. As a big fan of Unbridled, I often was rooting against Summer Squall, but I always had great respect for him. Years removed from their rivalry, I found great appreciation for what a magnificent runner Summer Squall truly was, his Hopeful win in which he bulled through a hole the size of a toothpick is still one of the bravest performance I have seen by a 2-year-old. When I learned of his passing last Tuesday, I felt a wave of pure sadness. He was 22 years old. I remember you Summer Squall.

September 27, 2009

What Gets My Juices Flowing?

You want to know what gets my juices flowing? A weekend full of major stakes races with all kinds of Breeders’ Cup implications and even some eclipse award ramifications. As a pure fan of thoroughbred horse racing, nothing is better than the week of anticipation leading up to all these major races.

Belmont has five Grade 1 stakes on Saturday topped by the Jockey Club Gold Cup. This race features a showdown between 3-year-olds Summer Bird and Quality Road and the classy older horse Macho Again. The 3-year-old championship could well be decided by a victory in the Jockey Club. The Joe Hirsch Turf Classic sees Gio Ponti make his last prep for the BC Turf as he tries to annex his fifth consecutive Grade 1 win in his march to an eclipse award. It will not be easy though, as the son of Tale of the Cat will be making his first lifetime start at a mile and a half against a loaded field headed by defending champ, Grand Couturier. In the Beldame, the Godolphin Stable tries to keep the train rolling with a two-pronged attack of Music Note and Cocoa Beach, who both take another step towards regaining their star status of last year. Standing in their way will be the formidable Icon Project. The Flower Bowl looks to be a wide open affair with several mares looking like they have a chance to win here and then repeat at Santa Anita. The Vosburgh is always an interesting affair and features Munnings back at his favorite racetrack against the ultra classy 6-year-old Fabulous Strike.

Also on Saturday, Philadelphia Park runs the rich Cotillion Stakes with the dazzling Careless Jewel making her first start since her tour de force in the Alabama. Hoosier Park hosts it’s best race, the Indiana Derby, featuring a horse very much on my radar, the Pennsylvania Derby hero Gone Astray. In my neck of the woods, Hawthorne Race Course will renew the Hawthorne Gold Cup with a field of older horses hoping to prove that they belong with the big boys.

Things will get going early on Sunday as the Prix de l'Arc de Triomphe will be run in Paris. Will Sea the Stars be in the race? That is almost as important a question as to who will actually win the race. The condition of the turf should provide the answer. Sunday also has some big offerings in the States, as Santa Anita runs the final local juvenile preps for the Breeders’ Cup with the Norfolk and the Oak Leaf. Both races produced Breeders’ Cup champions last year and with the BC at Santa Anita again this year, they are no doubt the most important prep races for the Juvenile and the Juvenile Fillies. In the Norfolk, Lookin at Lucky can solidify his favoritism for the BC and in the Oak Leaf Blind Luck will step up to challenge the more proven Mi Sueno. Belmont counters with the Kelso which should include some of America’s best hopes to win back the Breeders’ Cup Mile. I am most anxious to see the very promising colts Justenuffhumor and Courageous Cat square off in an acid test for both.

I will preview these races in more detail later in the week, but for now, let the anticipation begin. This should be a big week for all fans of thoroughbred horse racing…I know I’m excited!

September 26, 2009

Do Not Sleep on Rip Van Winkle

Before his win two starts ago in the Sussex Stakes, Rip Van Winkle was in the midst of a four race losing streak. He was not living up to the enormous expectations people in the know had placed on him from a very early age. As if waking up from a twenty year slumber, things have all changed now. With his win today in the Group 1 Queen Elizabeth II Stakes at the venerable Ascot Racecourse, the striking bay son of Galileo is squarely back on track. Rip Van Winkle has now won two consecutive Group 1’s and is now very much deserving of his claim to being one of the best horses in the world. In the QE II, favored Rip Van Winkle stalked the early pace of the older Group 1 winner, Aqlaam and easily put that runner away when asked three furlongs out. The race was soon taken up though as first Delegator, the second choice, and then Zacinto would make strong moves toward the favorite. Delegator was quickly dispatched and it was the unheralded Zacinto who would make it a race as he ranged right up within a half a length. Rip Van Winkle’s confident rider, Johnny Murtagh put down the pedal once more and his horse showed his class, as he won going away again to score by a length and a quarter. Zacinto, Delegator, and Aqlaam completed the order of finish in the four horse race. The top class, Mastercraftsman had been scratched Friday night in favor of his preferred stablemate, Rip Van Winkle.

What’s next for Rip Van Winkle? Much like last year’s Breeders’ Cup Classic victor, Raven’s Pass, he will use the QE II as a direct springboard to Santa Anita Park and the Classic.

Immensely successful trainer Aidan O’Brien has made little secret of his belief in the talent of Rip Van Winkle. The conditioner has twice been second in the BC Classic, first with Giant’s Causeway in 2000 and last year with Henrythenavigator. He would like nothing more than to add a Classic win to his impressive list of accomplishments. In Rip Van Winkle, O’Brien has a horse who is currently healthy after dealing with some nagging sore feet and is now putting it all together in the afternoon. The QE II score was his fourth win in eight starts, a record that becomes more impressive when you consider that all three of his losses this year were to European Superhorse, Sea the Stars. In fact in his last loss to Sea the Stars in the Group 1 Coral Eclipse, it was Rip Van Winkle who gave the champion his toughest race this year according to his trainer John Oxx. In that race, Rip Van Winkle gave every indication that the 1 ¼ mile distance of the Breeders’ Cup Classic should be right in his wheelhouse and judging by how well turf horses have adapted to Santa Anita’s synthetic surface, he could well be one of the main horses to beat come November 7.

September 25, 2009

The Queen Elizabeth II Stakes at The Ascot Festival

An accomplished field of five is set to do battle in the QE II stakes in England on Saturday afternoon. This one mile affair run over the hallowed grounds of Ascot Racecourse looks to be easily the most important race of the weekend and possibly one of the more important miles of the year. This should be enough reason for me to preview the race, but no, I have a completely different reason in mind. Remember last years Breeders’ Cup Classic? Sure you do…Raven’s Pass and Henrythenavigator, English 3-year-olds, running past our tiring champion Curlin. What got them ready for that performance? None other than the Queen Elizabeth II Stakes at The Ascot Festival, of course. Raven’s Pass finally got the better of his rival Henrythenavigator that day and that form carried over to our richest race. This year’s race should be another good one with, once again, major Breeders’ Cup implications.

Before the Sussex Stakes, Rip Van Winkle was favored largely due to the promise that people close to him have placed on the beautiful bay since a very early age. The son of Galileo has only one win this year, but seems to run more impressively with each race. His win in the Sussex, last out, was visually splendid as he ran away from older horses. Before that he ran a bang up second to Sea the Stars while easily defeating four-year-old Conduit, last years BC Turf hero. Often promise never materializes on the racetrack, but in Rip Van Winkle’s case, it appears to be on the verge of happening in a big way. Delegator, who was purchased by the powerhouse Godolphin Stable before his last start, ran the best race of his life four weeks ago while winning the Celebration Mile in impressive form. He was ridden by Frankie Dettori for the first time and displayed an explosive turn of foot. The son of Dansili looks to be better than ever and is a major threat to keep the Godolphin fortunes rolling.

Matercraftsman gets a reprieve from two straight losses to Sea the Stars and also a drop back in distance to one mile. He outgamed Delegator in the one mile St James's Palace Stakes at Royal Ascot this June and before that he romped in the Irish 2000 Guineas. Without Sea the Stars to worry about, and a run at his most accomplished distance, Mastercraftsman, a possible late scratch in favor of his stablemate Rip Van Winkle, could have enough to surprise the favorites. The only older horse in the field is the four-year-old Aqlaam. Recent winner of the Prix de Moulin, Aqlaam is most likely taking a step up in class to face these top 3-year-olds and will have his work cut out for him tomorrow, much as he did when a distant second to the great Goldikova two starts back. Zacinto was a well beaten second to Delegator in his latest and would be easily the biggest surprise in the field of five.

Is there a Breeders’ Cup winner in this field? Odds are against it, but with the quality of these runners, history could well repeat itself.

September 24, 2009

Who Am I ???

*I finished first in 7 out of 22 lifetime starts over my two year racing career, although the official record only credits me with six wins.

*My two biggest victories came in consecutive races at the same racetrack.

*My other graded stakes win was as a 2-year-old, but that one was taken away from me by the stewards on a disqualification.

*I was bred in Kentucky and my grandsire, Bold Ruler, is considered one of the greatest sires in American racing history.

*I was ridden by nine different jockeys and 6 of them are in the Hall of Fame, but Eddie was my favorite.

*My two word name comes in equal parts from my Sire and my Dam.

*In my most important win, I was one of eight horses in the race to win at least one Grade 1 race.

*I ran a staggering 17 times as a 3-year-old, with 5 wins.

*That most important win of mine came on a muddy track at 24-1.

*I had two trainers, but that was only because I spent a Winter in sunny California with Mr. Lukas.

*My last race was in Louisiana, but most of my races (16) and all of my wins were in New York.

You should know by now … Who Am I ???

September 23, 2009

Race of the 21st Century

September 21, 2009

Remembering ... Princess Rooney

I will never forget the day the Princess became a Queen. It was on November 18, 1984. Rider Eddie Delahoussaye got her out of the gate running and the Princess was quickly abreast of the speedy Lucky Lucky Lucky, where she stayed until ready to explode. At the top of the stretch, she did just that with an explosion of desire, class, and speed, Princess Rooney had finally made the world take notice. Left in her wake was a top class field that included two-time champion, Life’s Magic, who could only manage an outclassed 2nd as the Princess romped home that day by seven emphatic lengths. This was the inaugural Breeders’ Cup and Princess Rooney had taken the spotlight that she so long deserved on a most grand stage. Her performance became even more impressive when the Classic was run. Wild Again the victor in a stretch long battle with Slew O’ Gold and Gate Dancer stopped the teletimer a full second slower than had Princess Rooney who had been little more than hand urged earlier that afternoon in the Distaff.

In my eyes, Princess Rooney had always been an amazing champion. As a two-year-old, trained by Frank Gomez, she was untouchable. At that time it was a little unusual to hear of rumblings of greatness coming from Calder Race Course, but the word was out. There was a two-year-old filly owned by Paula Tucker who was devastating the racing landscape of South Florida. After four races where she annihilated her Calder competition, her connections brought her to the Northeast where she could finally be tested. She was not tested. The prestigious Frizette at Belmont and the rich Gardenia at the Meadowlands became two more walks in the park for the gray daughter of Vebatim. Six races at two and not another horse within camera-shot. Princess Rooney was simply awesome and along with Ruffian was one of the best two juvenile fillies that I have ever seen.

Yet a championship was not in the cards, as that same year out West raced an electric filly named Landaluce. The greatest juvenile filly ever to run in California, Landaluce tragically died of a virus before the year was out. Her winning margins were so big and her times were so fast that at the time of her death talk of her abilities had reached almost mythical proportions. It was clear that two of the best horses of 1982 were 2-year-old fillies, but only one could be named champion, and that would be Landaluce.

Princess Rooney began her 3-year-old season in similar fashion as her juvenile campaign. She dominated colts in a prep race in Florida in which she beat the future Tampa Bay Derby winner and then proceded to take Kentucky by storm. After her win in the Ashland by nine and ½ lengths, most people, including yours truly, considered her the best 3-year-old of either gender. She had won her first nine starts with an average winning margin of nearly nine lengths. Her trainer Frank Gomez nominated her to both the Derby and the Oaks, but always planned on the Kentucky Oaks. Although he did have a little fun with everyone by walking into the racing secretary’s office just minutes before the Derby entry deadline. But the Derby was not to be, and the Princess went to the Oaks as an overwhelming favorite and gutted out a 1 ¼ length victory. She was 10 for 10, but the narrowness of the victory was a foreshadowing of things to come as in her next race she was finally defeated, a well beaten second to Ski Goggle in the Acorn. Something was wrong and the racing world quickly found out it was a hairline fracture. Because of her short year and with her last race being a defeat, Princess Rooney was once again denied championship honors.

Several months went by before her next race and when she did come back the Princess was not quite the same. She changed hands of trainers twice, first to Joe Pierce, and then on to Neil Drysdale as she felt the sting of three more defeats. The Princess was far from through though, as the Summer of her 4-year-old campaign rolled around, Princess Rooney began to round back into top form. Her winning time of 1:46 and 1 in the Grade 1 Vanity and her smashing score in the Spinster were part of a four race winning streak she brought into the new championship day of racing, the Breeders’ Cup. As the beautiful gray filly effortlessly sprinted away from the field that day she clinched her first and so richly deserved eclipse award as the champion older female of 1984.

Princess Rooney retired after the Breeders’ Cup Distaff with 17 wins out of 21 races. She proved to be a great filly three consecutive years despite her setback midway through her racing career. In 1991 Princess Rooney was inducted to racing’s Hall of Fame, becoming the first Breeder’s Cup winner to enter the Hall. The Princess might have been all tiger on the racetrack, but back home she was a sweet and gentle mom to hundreds of foals that were born on her farm.

Although she was unable to produce many foals herself, Princess Rooney became a true matriarch as she oversaw all the fillies on the Gentry Farm with her love, kindness and teaching of the young horses. Princess Rooney had moved to the Gentry Farm in 1995 after George Aubin, who had paid $5.5 million for her in foal to Danzig at the 1985 Keeneland November sale, realized that she was not going to reproduce her greatness and sold her at auction to Robert Gentry. Gentry bought her in foal to Deputy Minister for $130,000. The Princess spent her final 13 years at the Gentry Farm and left an enormous void when she finally succumbed to complications from equine protozoal myelitis. The younger horses at the Gentry Farm had lost their adopted mom. She was 28 years old. I remember you Princess Rooney.

September 20, 2009

Who Am I ???

*I won 14 out of 20 lifetime starts over my three-year racing career.

*I won nine graded stakes throughout the East, South, and Midwest.

*I was an impressive looking Bay in my day, if I do say so myself.

*Both my sire and my trainer are members of the Hall of Fame, although I am not as of yet, but I think I should be!

*I ran in the Kentucky Derby as an undefeated horse.

*I am perhaps best remembered for a narrow defeat despite all of my impressive wins.

*I was known for my aggressive running style in both my races and workouts.

*My sire also ran in the Kentucky Derby as an undefeated horse.

*My favorite track was Gulfstream Park where I was undefeated in four starts.

*I only finished 2nd once in my career and that was to a three-time champion.

*I was known for my blazing fast times as I broke several stakes records and three track records.

You should know by now … Who Am I ???

September 19, 2009

One Mile North of the Border

All eyes will be pointed north tomorrow as the most important race run in Canada is contested at one mile on the Woodbine turf course. Whoa cowboy! Did I just say the most important race run in Canada…have I forgotten about the Queen’s Plate? What about the Canadian International?

While it is true that the Queen’s Plate and the Canadian International have more history and more prestige in the world of Canadian racing, the Woodbine Mile is now hands down the most important race run in Canada as far as quality and ramifications to America’s championship day of racing, the Breeders’ Cup. This year’s Woodbine Mile offers a top notch field with several horses that can make a beeline to Santa Anita with a solid performance tomorrow. No fewer than six different horses would be much of a surprise to take home the big prize on Sunday, as Ventura, Bribon, Rahy’s Attorney, Jungle Wave, Ferneley, and Sterwins all come into the race off excellent form. In a wide open race like this I generally prefer to look for a little value with my wagering dollar and I believe I have found the horse to fit the bill in Sterwins.

Sterwins is a powerful six-year-old roan gelding who on his best day can beat anyone as evidenced by his romping win over Go Between in the Ben Ali last year at Keeneland. The son of Runaway Groom clearly has a fondness for the Woodbine turf course and is coming into the race in fine fettle. Most importantly, he should relish the solid pace early which will set up his preferred style of relaxing early and flying down the lane. At 8-1 or higher, Sterwins offers excellent value. I am going to take a stand against the Californian invader, Ferneley, as I question his ability to beat Grade 1 horses, and against the excellent Canadian sprinter, Jungle Wave, as I feel a mile is probably a little too far for him to beat these monsters. So that leaves the extremely classy mare, Ventura, the miler extraordinaire, Bribon, and the defending Woodbine Mile champion, Rahy’s Attorney for Sterwins to beat. Truly Grade 1 horses, so it will be easier said than done, but I am going to give him a chance. It should be an outstanding race.

If you have already cleared some time to watch the Mile, Woodbine has a couple of other turf races tomorrow that should be stepping stones to Breeders’ Cup races.

Just as Well, the rapidly improving Jonathan Sheppard turfer, will try to keep things rolling as he tops an extremely well matched field in the Grade 1 Northern Dancer Stakes. The 1 ½ mile turf race legitimately could be won by any of its’ ten participants and should provide a fantastic stretch run.

Forever Together, the best female turf horse in North America, will try to run her record on the lawn to 7 for 10, as she towers over a field of seven in the Canadian Stakes. She ran the worst grass race of her life when third in this race last year, and looks for atonement at low odds tomorrow. A likely winner, Forever Together will cement her position as the favorite for the BC Filly & Mare Turf.

September 18, 2009

How Super is it?

Temperence Hill won the Belmont and was the 3-year-old champion of 1980, Island Whirl was a Grade 1 winner in three consecutive years, Reinvested was third in the Kentucky Derby and a multiple stakes winner, Sunny’s Halo won the Kentucky Derby and was a multiple graded stakes winner, Gate Dancer won the Preakness and came within two heads of winning back-to-back Breeders‘ Cup Classics, Creme Fraiche won the Belmont and earned more than $4 million in his career, Wise Times won three consecutive Grade 1 races, Alysheba was a 3-year-old champion of 1987 and Horse-of-the-Year of 1988, Seeking the Gold was a multiple graded stakes winner who finished 1st or 2nd in all but one of his races, and Sunday Silence won two-thirds of the Triple Crown and was the 3-year-old champion of 1989. Quite an illustrious list. What do these ten horses have in common? They all won the Super Derby in the decade of the 1980’s, making them the first ten winners of the race.

In 1980 the Super Derby was a brand new race and it immediately gained national prominence as the premier race for 3-year-olds in the Fall. Year after year top horses went down to Louisiana and won the Super Derby not as a prep, but as a major goal. As the 1980’s came to an end so did the excellence of the Super Derby fields. Maybe the purse did not seem so outstanding anymore or maybe racing in Louisiana in September was no longer considered the best way to get your horse to the Breeders’ Cup. For whatever reason, the importance of the Super Derby is not what it once was. Today a better name for the race would be the Pretty Good Derby.

This year’s Pretty Good Derby brings together a field of seven. No world beaters in here once again, but the good news is that it offers a very well balanced field of seven. Each of the seven horses has a legitimate chance to take home the winner’s purse and together they offer an interesting betting affair.

Soul Warrior, upset winner of the West Virginia Derby, is listed as the morning line favorite. I like to bet on races where I am not fond of the favorite and in the Pretty Good Derby, I am not liking Soul Warrior’s chances. I’ll be a little surprised if repeats his West Virginia performance and adds another derby to his resume. I hope Soul Warrior gets bet heavy, but I think he probably will not go off as the favorite. In my opinion, Blame with Louisiana native, Jamie Theriot, in the irons, is strictly the horse to beat and could well end up the people’s choice as favorite. The late developing son of Arch has run deceptively well in his last few races and out gamed Pennsylvania Derby hero, Gone Astray, in his latest. Louisiana based trainer Al Stall should have him ready to run his best this Saturday. Winning the Pretty Good Derby is in Blame’s bloodlines as both his sire, Arch, and his broodmare sire, Seeking the Gold, won this race. Looking past Blame, I look for longshot, Electric Alphabet, to run a big race. Electric Alphabet is improving with every race, has a solid race over the racing strip, and appears to have inherited a penchant for fighting all the way to the wire from his sire, Alphabet Soup. The Godolphin charge, Regal Ransom, is the wildcard in the race and if he runs as well as many of the Godolphin runners recently, would be no surprise to take this once ‘Super’ race.

September 17, 2009

Rabbit Stew

“Be vewwy, vewwy quiet, I’m hunting rabbits.” Why, you question, am I hunting rabbits? I was hoping that you would ask. Some of the greatest horses in thoroughbred racing history have been plagued by these pesky little rabbits, and I demand that it stops today. The latest varmint to pop out of his rabbit hole and twitch his rabbit nose at the world occurred in front of my very eyes in the Woodward Stakes. The magnificent race horse, Rachel Alexandra, was set to run her heart out in her first attempt against older horses and low and behold what did we see … but a screwy rabbit. “Oh boy, rabbit tracks.” Apparently his handler calls him Da’ Tara. Now this handler, a Mr. Nicholas Zito, declined to admit to Da’ Tara’s true identity, but methinks his furry little white tail gave him away. In the paddock that day, I tapped Da’ Tara on his shoulder and said, “Pardon me, but you know you look just like a rabbit.” There was no reply. The race was soon run and this dirty little rabbit tried all of his rabbit tricks and almost cost mighty Rachel the race, thankfully she overcame.

Unfortunately, this is not a new trend in racing. Allowing rabbits in races that are specifically designed for horses has been going on for a long time. The great Dr. Fager was harassed by that screwy Hedevar on more than one occasion. Triple Crown champion Seattle Slew was pestered by the wascally Life’s Hope in ‘The Greatest Loss There Ever Was’. More recently the little long eared, fur balls Show Boot and Crafty Player ran in the Woodward just to beleaguer Commentator. In many cases these nuisances have prevented the best horse from winning the race. Does that seem fair? Great horses, beautiful and majestic creatures that they are, having to run against rabbits??? When will the madness end?

I would like to put an end to it right now and I offer a viable alternative. Now you have to understand that I am an animal lover through and through, but these pesky rabbits have bothered me once too often. Perhaps Elmer J Fudd, the genius that he was, had it right all these years when he said “Mama's wittle baby woves wabbit, wabbit, Mama's wittle baby woves wabbit stew!” I ask you … shouldn’t we keep the rabbits out of the races and maybe put them instead into a nice, tasty little stew?

September 16, 2009

Race of the Century - Second Division

Excitement fills the air as the huge crowd readies for the much anticipated 2nd Division of the Race of the Century. A field of 13 is set to do battle to get a step closer to 21st century bragging rights. The sun is shining and it is a little hot and humid for this time of year with temperatures approaching the nineties here at Churchill Downs. The horses look great but you can see the heat on at least one of their conditioners; Rick Dutrow, trainer of St. Liam, is completely washed out. The fans have had a tough time deciding between this loaded field. Ghostzapper rates a tepid favorite over Curlin, although both horses are listed at 9-2 on the tote board. Next is two-time Breeders' Cup Classic winner, Tiznow at 5-1 and the sentimental choice is Barbaro who will go off at 7-1. I’d like to take a moment to thank our sponsor Dapper Dan Hair Cream for helping to get all these great horses together. We’re getting close now. The horses are starting to load, let’s get ready to run. They’re all in, and…They’re Off!!!

War Emblem is off like a rocket from the outside, just to his inside is Ghostzapper and there goes St. Liam on the rail. War Emblem is determined to have the lead as Victor Espinoza steers him towards the rail. St Liam and Ghostzapper are next, but there is a wall of horses between them. Azeri, Lava Man, Tiznow and Left Bank all try to hold their pos…OH! Left Bank checks sharply! Lawyer Ron and Rags to Riches are also bumped in the melee. That could have been disastrous, but everyone is still on their feet. It’s War Emblem by a length and a half. St. Liam and Ghostzapper are renewing their rivalry in the early stages with a Californian contingent of Azeri, Lava Man, and Tiznow close behind. Barbaro is down on the rail, with the recovered Left Bank back in contention. Next comes Lawyer Ron, the filly Rags to Riches, Afleet Alex and then back to Street Sense who has fallen some 20 lengths behind of the fast pace set by War Emblem. Fast, I’ll say :22 and 3 and now :45 and 3! It is a furious pace and the others are closing in. Just three lengths separates the first eight horses. War Emblem leads the chase into the far turn with St. Liam off the rail and Ghostzapper on the outside breathing down his neck.

Lava Man and Barbaro move up and Tiznow is between horses. Afleet Alex moves up on the rail and Street Sense still has more than 15 lengths to make up. Rags to Riches is making her move. Spinning out of the turn that’s Ghostzapper who’s taken the lead, Tiznow joins St. Liam from the inside and Curlin is making a powerful move on the far outside. Barbaro is right there with Rags to Riches and Afleet Alex. As they approach the eighth pole it is Ghostzapper and Tiznow. Tiznow and Ghostzapper! Curlin is driving on the outside and … Afleet Alex bursts through a narrow opening on the inside! Afleet Alex is flying! Ghostzapper, Tiznow, Curlin and Afleet Alex! That’s Afleet Alex with Curlin on the outside, Afleet Alex has done it! Afleet Alex with Curlin, Tiznow, and Ghostzapper, What a Race ladies and gentleman!

The top four finishers: Afleet Alex, Curlin, Tiznow, and Ghostzapper advance on to the final race in the Race of the Century. In the all important race for the fifth spot, the fans’ sentimental favorite, Barbaro, won a four hose photo over Rags to Riches, St. Liam and the late running Street Sense. Barbaro will round out the top five headed to the championship race. The final order of finish included Lava Man 9th, Lawyer Ron 10th, Left Bank 11th, Azeri 12th, and War Emblem staggered home in the stretch to finish last. Final time for the race over the fast Churchill Downs Dirt Course was 1:59 and 4.

Ten of the best horses of the 21st Century have now qualified for the finals. The Race of the Century will include:

Afleet Alex
Rachel Alexandra
Point Given

September 14, 2009

Remembering ... Arts and Letters

It is funny sometimes how the judgment of history can be discordant with the conventional thinking of the time. Often this is a good thing, as with a greater knowledge comes a greater understanding of the past. The judgment of history sometimes, however; can be fickle and unfair. This is certainly true in the realm of thoroughbred horse racing. Some horses are remembered as superstars and some are not. One of the purposes of my series of ‘Remembering’ columns is to shine an ever deserving light on these somewhat forgotten horses. I mention this now because in 1969 there was a deserving three-year-old champion and Horse -of-the-Year and his name was Arts and Letters. History has chosen to glorify his rival from California Majestic Prince, another deserving star that year, but today I want you all to know the horse that Arts and Letters was and how in 1969 he proved to be a champion.

People remember the Triple Crown and in 1969 they remember the undefeated Majestic Prince winning the Kentucky Derby and the Preakness. They remember all the stories after the Belmont that talked about legendary jockey, turned trainer, Johnny Longden not wanting to run Majestic Prince in the Belmont due to his balky ankles and his overall soundness. They may even remember that Majestic Prince was a bigger and more beautiful horse than the non-classic looking Arts and Letters. What they might not remember was that the improving son of the great Ribot, who had won that year’s Blue Grass by 15 lengths, was unlucky not to have won either the Derby or the Preakness. Owned by the great horseman Paul Mellon’s Rokeby Stable and trained by Elliott Burch, Arts and Letters ran a great series of races in that year’s Triple Crown.

In the Kentucky Derby, the favored Majestic Prince made a winning move on the outside keeping Arts and Letters pinned to the rail. At the 3/16 pole, Arts and Letters looked like a dead duck as the Californian surged to the lead, but that was where the surge ended as the brave little Rokeby owned runner kept fighting from the rail. It was head and head to the wire with Majestic Prince prevailing from his advantageous outside position. The Preakness also proved heartbreaking to the Arts and Letters supporters. Checked sharply early in the race by none other than his great rival, Arts and Letters would lose touch with Majestic Prince early and despite a terrific wide rally would fall just short. Braulio Baeza would claim foul against Majestic Prince’s rider Bill Hartack to no avail.

Before the Belmont there was speculation that Majestic Prince was not fit enough to run. Longden, the trainer, was on record saying he did not think his horse should run. The owner’s wishes won out though as he demanded that his charge attempt to become the first undefeated Triple Crown champion and the stage was thus set for Arts and Letters and Majestic Prince to get it on one more time. The Belmont proved to be little contest though, as Arts and Letters rolled to an easy win with Majestic Prince rallying for second. It was a key turning point in their rivalry, but also it was the end of their rivalry. Before the Belmont, Arts and Letters found time for a key prep race.

After his narrow defeats in the Derby and the Preakness, Burch had decided to get a victory for his little colt and chose the toughest mile in the country to do just that. In the Metropolitan Mile, Arts and Letters, in receipt of a hefty weight allowance from his older rivals, made mincemeat of the field including a horse, Nodouble, who would win the eclipse as the top older horse that year. The Met started a run of races that is somewhat hard to imagine in this day and age of spacing races out. After the retired Majestic Prince recorded his final victory in the Preakness, Arts and Letters would win in succession the Met Mile, the Belmont, the Jim Dandy, the Travers, the Woodward, and the Jockey Club Gold Cup. In each of these prestigious races, Arts and Letters left know doubt as to who was best that day as he won by daylight culminating with his 14 length gallop in the Jockey Club.

It was mid-Summer at Saratoga, where Arts and Letters established himself as the new leader of the division. Returning from a short break after the Belmont, he thoroughly dominated his outclassed rivals in both the Jim Dandy and Travers and tied the track record in his Travers’ win. The Fall proved to be a coronation for Arts and Letters as he steamrolled through the top older horses including the champion Nodouble, who would run a well beaten second to Arts and Letter three times. "He's certainly better than Sword Dancer," remarked his Hall-of-Fame trainer, Elliott Burch who had guided Sword Dancer to a Horse-of-the-Year title ten years earlier. This statement was made before his tour-de-force in the two mile Jockey Club Gold Cup.

When you look back at the records of Majestic Prince and Arts and Letters you may also be quick in judgment and assume that the Californian was the better horse, but if we flashback 40 years, there was no question as to which horse deserved to be the Horse-of-the-Year. Was Majestic Prince at his best for his final race in the Belmont Stakes? Probably not, but please do not forget the smallish son of Ribot and champion horse of 1969, for Arts and Letters was a true superstar.

September 13, 2009

Race of the Century - First Division

It is a beautiful day here at Churchill Downs in Louisville, Kentucky. Seventy two degrees and not a cloud in the sky. The crowd is in high spirits as these wonderful champions are making their way to the starting gate. A quick check of the tote board reveals that the popularity of the super 3-year-old filly, Rachel Alexandra, is as strong as ever, and at 7-2, she rates a slight favorite over 2006 Horse-of-the-Year, Invasor, who is 4-1. 2001 3-year-old champ, Point Given is a solid third choice at 6-1. No other horse in the field is bet below 9-1 in this wide open affair. All the connections feel good about the way their horses are coming into the race, maybe none more so than Big Brown’s conditioner, Rick Dutrow, who has touted his charge to be almost a sure winner. The bettors seem less than impressed though as Big Brown is 16-1. The only female jockey in the race, Julie Krone, gives her mount Candy Ride a gentle nudge and the field is about half way loaded. They’re all in. And They’re Off!!!

That’s Commentator from the outside sprinting to the lead, Smarty Jones on the rail and Hard Spun also move up. Calvin Borel has Rachel Alexandra rating comfortably on the outside of Big Brown. Next, Candy Ride, Lido Palace and Bernardini are all together and then there is a break to Mineshaft, Lemon Drop Kid, and Point Given on the outside. Invasor has moved to the rail and has only horse beaten so far and that’s the mare Zenyatta. Commentator blazes into the first turn, but both Smarty Jones and Hard Spun are keen on holding their positions, so we have a three-prong battle after the first quarter in 23 seconds flat. Big Brown and Rachel Alexandra are content to stalk in the next flight and the rest of the field tightens the gap just a little bit as it only about eight lengths separating first from twelfth place, with only the undefeated mare, Zenyatta content to trail in the thirteen horse field. And so it is Commentator on the outside, just ahead of Smarty Jones and Hard Spun, who leads the field through a demanding :46 and 2 half mile. Rachel Alexandra is being confidently ridden on the outside and just two lengths off the lead. Candy Ride makes a move in between horses to be next, followed by Lido Palace, Bernardini, Mineshaft and Point Given who travels down the backstretch far off the rail. Fernando Jara and Invasor are content to stay down on the inside, followed by Lemon Drop Kid and Zenyatta.

As we move past the 3/8’s pole, that’s Smarty Jones who has put his nose in front. Hard Spun and Commentator are still right there and Big Brown, Candy Ride, and Rachel Alexandra are tracking intently. Invasor is going to need some racing room, Lido Palace is not responding and Point Given and behind him Zenyatta are both gearing up on the outside. The mile was run in 1:34 and 2 and it is Smarty Jones who will face a cavalry charge as they turn for home. Rachel Alexandra pounces first and overtakes Smarty Jones. Point Given is rallying on the outside and Bernardini moves up between horse. Invasor is full of run, but has no where to go. Rachel Alexandra opens up a length at the eighth pole with a wall of horses behind her. Point Given is coming on the outside and there is Invasor! Bursting through a hole near the rail. Rachel is resolute as Invasor and Point Given are all out. They’re not gonna get her today! 10 in a row! For Rachel Alexandra! Invasor is a tough luck second ¾ of a length behind and a neck ahead of Point Given. A filly for the ages…yes indeed!

The top three finishers: Rachel Alexandra, Invasor, and Point Given advance on to the final race in the Race of the Century. In the all important race for the fifth spot Zenyatta rallied late to secure fifth place, behind Bernardini and just ahead of Candy Ride. So Bernardini and Zenyatta will join the top three in the championship race. The final order of finish included Smarty Jones 7th, Mineshaft 8th, Hard Spun 9th, Lemon Drop Kid 10th, Big Brown 11th, Lido Palace 12th, and a tired Commentator faded to 13th and last. Final time for the race over the fast Churchill Downs Dirt Course was 1:59 and 3.

September 12, 2009

P-i-d ... What's Pid ???

P-i-d … What's Pid? That is exactly the question I asked myself just two short years ago as I had my nose deep inside the Daily Racing Form. I did a little research and found out it was a racetrack in Pennsylvania called Presque Isle Downs. OK, fair enough, probably another new track with cheap horses surviving on the fringe of the thoroughbred horse racing map. My stubborn mind has been changed though, as today I come not to bury Pid, but rather to praise Presque Isle Downs. Through further investigation, I learned that it is in Erie, PA, just off Interstate 90 and almost smack dab in the middle of Cleveland and Buffalo. Opened in 2007, they run on Tapeta, a synthetic surface designed by Michael Dickinson of Da Hoss fame. Tapeta actually seems to be better liked than many of the other synthetic surfaces seen today in the U.S. Presque Isle’s purses are supplemented by slots and like many tracks with slots, their purse structure is strong. My appreciation has grown through seeing classy horses, and quality horse people ply their trade at Presque Isle and by noticing live horses coming from Presque Isle. This is especially true of quality filly and mare sprinters.

Tonight is the Presque Isle Masters, a $400K sprint for the fairer sex and for the first time ever, I proclaim Presque Isle Downs to have the race of the week. Not bad for a track still in their infancy and located not too far from the middle of nowhere. Sorry residents of Erie! The Masters (I even like the name of the race, reminds me of April in Augusta) is loaded with fast females and headed by four Grade 1 winners. Informed Decision, Game Face, Flashing and Diamondrella are all worthy of being considered as top contenders for the upcoming Breeder’s Cup Filly & Mare Sprint and with a win tonight, should become one of the favorites for that race.

The Masters offers a perplexing handicapping dilemma in that most of the horses are coming off different surfaces. Informed Decision is the proven commodity having a sparkling record on synthetic surfaces and she is likely to appreciate the switch from Saratoga slop to the Tapeta track. Game Face and Flashing are both coming off impressive wins on the dirt and have never been better. Neither, though has experience on this surface. Diamondrella conversely comes in as a turf horse and may have an easier time adapting to the all weather surface than the dirt specialists. Trained by Angel Penna Jr., Diamondrella has won six straight on the lawn and is using this race as a gauge to see which BC race best suits her. It should be a most interesting race and I believe it is likely that more than one of these female sprinters will be on the way to the Breeder’s Cup via Presque Isle.

Kudos to Presque Isle Downs for putting together such a fine race in such a short time in existence. I urge those who have never watched a race from Presque Isle, to watch the Masters tonight, I know I will be tuned in.

September 11, 2009

Race of the Century (Two Divisions) - Post Positions & Morning Line Odds

First Division - Churchill Downs 1 ¼ Miles

1 Smarty Jones 8-1 S. Elliot
2 Hard Spun 20-1 M. Pino
3 Lido Palace 20-1 J. Chavez
4 Candy Ride 12-1 J. Krone
5 Big Brown 20-1 K. Desormeaux
6 Mineshaft 12-1 R. Albarado
7 Invasor 4-1 F. Jara
8 Rachel Alexandra 4-1 C. Borel
9 Lemon Drop Kid 20-1 E. Prado
10 Commentator 20-1 J. Velazquez
11 Bernardini 10-1 J. Castellano
12 Zenyatta 10-1 M. Smith
13 Point Given 6-1 G. Stevens

Second Division - Churchill Downs 1 ¼ Miles

1 St. Liam 10-1 J. Bailey
2 Afleet Alex 10-1 J. Rose
3 Azeri 12-1 M. Smith
4 Lava Man 15-1 C. Nakatani
5 Lawyer Ron 15-1 J. McKee
6 Curlin 4-1 R. Albarado
7 Tiznow 5-1 C. McCarron
8 Street Sense 15-1 C. Borel
9 Barbaro 8-1 E. Prado
10 Left Bank 20-1 J. Velazquez
11 Ghostzapper 4-1 J. Castellano
12 Rags to Riches 15-1 G. Gomez
13 War Emblem 30-1 V. Espinoza

These Mythical Races will be run on Sunday the 13th and Wednesday the 16th. The Final Race, with the top 5 from each division, will be run on Wednesday the 23rd. Good luck to all of your favorites and let me know who you like!

September 10, 2009

Wuzthen --- Tiznow

As the years go by, I sometimes find it harder to remember recent events with the same clarity that I remember things from 30 or more years ago. I wanted to tell you the story of a brave California bred named Tiznow and the wonderful performance he put on to win the Breeders' Cup Classic eight or nine years ago. Unfortunately, I can not seem to organize all the facts as well as I would like, so I humbly ask for your patience with me as I try to piece this all together. OK, here is what my hazy memory recalls:

Tiznow was a late developing son of the speedy California sire Cee’s Tizzy and did not get to the races until the Spring of his three-year-old year. He did not register his first victory until the last day of May, but it was clear that Tiznow was flourishing around two turns and quickly graduated from maiden winner to graded stakes winner. He had a few game losses that Summer as he shot straight up into Grade 1 races. Improvement was happening week to week and by the Fall he was romping in the Super Derby and beating top West Coast horses in the Goodwood. It was obvious he was a horse on the rise and the Breeders' Cup Classic would be next.

Clear enough, but I also remember…

Defending Horse-of-the-Year Tiznow strutting his stuff as he made a mockery of perhaps the most important older race in California, the Big ‘Cap. The way he won at Santa Anita that day, I felt like it was a safe bet to put my money down on Tiznow for that year’s BC Classic even though it was still almost eight months away. A monkey wrench was thrown into the mix though in the form of a wrenched back. It would keep him away from the races for six months and put a big question mark on Tiznow’s readiness for the Classic. He returned to the races just seven weeks before the Breeders' Cup and in two races he looked competitive, but by no means, like the Tiznow we had come to know. Would he be up to the immense challenge of the Classic?

What I remember for sure was that Tiznow was respected, but not expected to win the race by the bettors. Odds of 9-1 or almost 7-1 sound right to me. I remember there was a hot-shot European who would transfer his best to the dirt that day. I am sure it was either the Irish champion Giant’s Causeway or the smashing winner of the recent Arc, Sakhee. For the life of me, I can not recall which one. I do clearly remember the top New Yorker, Albert the Great, was the main pace of the race and the highly regarded and stylish Fusaichi Pegasus was a clear favorite. No that’s not right, the favorite was Aptitude coming off a huge score in the Jockey Club. Either way, Tiznow would have to be at his best at Churchill Downs or Belmont Park. Darn memory!!!

Anyway, I remember the race clear as a bell. Tiznow relaxed outside of Albert the Great and pounced as they straightened out. I remember thinking the European horse on the outside was going to swoosh right on by. Giant’s Causeway or Sakhee looked so strong that day. That is when the true heart of Tiznow appeared for the world to see. He was not the fastest horse I have ever seen, but he was quite possibly the toughest. Tough as nails, Tiznow dug in and there was no way that European superstar was going to beat him. Giant’s Causeway, or Sakhee (I have already apologized for my shakiness on the facts, right?) carried their momentum as far as it would take them, but it was now all about the heart of the American champion. Fans went crazy at Churchill, or was it even crazier at Belmont, as Tiznow and Chris McCarron crossed the wire first in a thrilling photo finish.

Of course, I was just having some fun…

I do remember these two great years and the remarkably similar and equally admirable performances of the unheralded, Cal-bred Tiznow. No other horse has had what it takes to win two Breeders' Cup Classics. Tiznow turned the century for American horse racing in style as he proved to be a true champion thanks in large part to his enormous heart and will to win.

September 9, 2009

There Were Other Races Last Week

The focus last week was clearly on a beautiful young filly who competed in the Woodward Stakes. There were, however, many other important races outside of Saratoga, run with countless Breeders' Cup implications.

Sea the Stars is the only other horse with a claim to Horse-of-the-World and with his win on Saturday in the Irish Champion, he made a bold statement. It was a match-up of Derby winners as Sea the Stars took on Irish Derby winner Fame and Glory for the first time since he upset him in the Epsom Derby. The high quality Mastercraftsman, who had given Sea the Stars a bit of a scare in their last race, completed the trifecta of top 3-year-olds. Mastercraftsman and then Fame and Glory got first run ahead of Sea the Stars, but when the superstar son of the great mare Urban Sea got rolling the outcome was quickly decided. Bounding away to defeat his main rival, Fame and Glory by 2 ½ lengths, Sea the Stars has now proven he is the dominant horse in Europe. He has won all five of his starts this year and they have all been Group 1 contests. The Arc will be a big test as it often comes up rather wet in the Fall in Paris, in fact, if it is too wet Sea the Stars may not run. After that, America and the Breeder’s Cup hopefully will be calling.

Richard’s Kid won the million dollar Pacific Classic on Sunday, further blurring the handicap division in the U.S. At nearly 25-1, he was one of the rank outsiders going in, but proved to be a stretch running force as he got up to nip the admirable Einstein. The favorites Rail Trip and Colonel John ran 3rd and 5th respectively and neither bolstered nor diminished their BC Classic hopes. What this race means to the Classic, I frankly have no idea. The different synthetic surfaces in California leave me scratching my head and as stated before I believe it to be a travesty to hold the Breeder’s Cup on the Santa Anita surface two straight years.

I am not sure outside of Chicago how many people are talking about She Be Wild, but the 2-year-old daughter of Offlee Wild has now run three superior races over the Arlington synthetic surface and in my mind is a real threat to beat her more talked about foes on the East and West coasts come Breeder’s Cup. She has a relaxed stalking style and then effortlessly blows them away coming out of the turn. Do not be fooled by her Arlington-Washington Lassie winning time, as her mile in 1:38 3/5 looks great once compared to the day’s other stakes races, and it was easy.

I have been looking for Gone Astray to win something for some time now and Labor Day was the day. Was it ever. Gone Astray turned Philadelphia’s Park’s 30th renewal of the Pennsylvania Derby into little more than a laugher as he pounced on the turn and then just kept on going to an impressive 9 ¼ length score. Left in his wake were only Grade 3 types, but he looks like a horse who is finally putting it all together. Unlucky loser in his previous two races, he was considered for the Travers, but his connections found the easier spot in a million dollar race. I am interested to see if Shug McGaughey bites the bullet and tries Summer Bird and Quality Road next in the Jockey Club Gold Cup.

September 7, 2009

The Rachel Diaries - Day 6

Today is labor day and our Rachel Alexandra vacation is winding down. Yesterday we spent half the day at beautiful Lake George and then caught the second half of the day’s races. At the track, I won a few dollars and saw some impressive horseflesh. In the Grade 3 Saranac, Bill Mott added yet another stakes winner on the lawn to his resume. Al Khali, a Kentucky bred son of Medaglia d’Oro, raced at two in Peru and has now become a force on grass in America at three. He won by only 1 ¾ lengths, but it was an effortless rally off a moderate pace and was geared down late. I will look for him to run long and against older soon. The Spinaway was predictably won by the precocious Hot Dixie Chick. She is the most impressive 2-year-old filly in the country so far and she ran very fast again yesterday. I was quite taken by the 2nd place filly Beautician. The gray daughter of Dehere has a beautiful long stride and ran a huge race yesterday. I am predicting big things in her future.

One vital part of our trip that I have not mentioned yet is the food. Yesterday we visited a traditional stop for me, PJ’s Barbecue. This favorite of many is just a few minutes south of the track and serves the best barbecue chicken that I have ever tasted. It is slow roasted and constantly basted over an open pit with oil, cider vinegar and spices. It is succulent, unique and delicious. Unfortunately, this meal at PJ’s was bittersweet, as word is this will be their final Summer. Say it ain’t so PJ’s! Chicken was definitely a culinary highlight for us on this trip as back in Buffalo we visited a national landmark in the Anchor Bar. They originated the Buffalo chicken wing and today they still make the best that you can get. Our other meals were good but those two meals stood out. I would also be remiss in not mentioning something that I have been eating all of my life … a shout-out goes to the racetrack clam chowder, as good as it has ever been.

Speaking of as good as she has ever been. I am still on a Rachel Alexandra high. The thrill of the stretch run, my great fondness for her, and the raw emotion of the uproarious crowd all made this one of the most exciting races I have ever seen. Despite the narrowness of her victory, I have the utmost respect for what she accomplished in making history by winning the Woodward. As outlined in my previous column, Rachel overcame a lot that would have cooked the goose of a mere mortal horse. I understand that Rachel will almost certainly not run another race this year and the slight, selfish sadness I feel is more than overshadowed by a sense of accomplishment and doing what is best for her. Not since Spectacular Bid in his 4-year-old season of 1980 has there been a horse with truly nothing left to prove, but that is how I feel about the 2009 campaign of Rachel Alexandra.

I snicker at those who suggest that she can not get a distance. Do they not realize that she is 8 for 8 around two turns? Her nine race winning streak is compromised of races from one mile to a mile and 3/16. She has beaten the boys and she has beaten the men, she has won five consecutive Grade 1 races. Rachel has run brilliantly fast and won by record distances. She has showed the courage of a lion after battling on suicidal fractions. Rachel has won at seven different tracks this year. She has captured the hearts of millions of devoted fans. You have done enough great one. Take your rest. For next year will bring a whole new set of challenges to test your grandeur. I, for one, can not wait to see you run again. Thank you for 2009.

September 6, 2009

The Rachel Diaries - Day 5

Yesterday was the day. The day that Rachel Alexandra’s amazing streak of victories would come to an end. She had won her previous eight races going back to her two-year-old season in the most impressive fashion possible without actually sprouting wings. America’s heroine was in for it. Fate was conspiring in insidious ways to stop Rachel from giving the people what they wanted. Here is what I mean:

1) The race was at Saratoga. This beautiful and historic race place is not called the ‘Graveyard of Champions’ for nothing. Man o’ War was upset, his only defeat, by Upset, forever changing the American vernacular for a big favorite going down. Secretariat, riding a high like no other horse in the modern era, left Saratoga with a bad taste in his mouth, defeated by Onion. Shocking defeats are commonplace at this idyllic but lethal racetrack.

2) She was facing older horses and more specifically older males for the first time. 3-year-old fillies simply do not win classic American races against the big boys. This was the first race that Rachel looked physically smaller than most of her opponents. She is a young girl racing men.

3) A sense of overconfidence was starting to set in. There was no reason to be overconfident against the best older males East of the Mississippi, but many onlookers do not realize that anything can happen especially when very good horses are underrated. It always scares me when too many people say that something can not happen, the surest recipe for that very thing to happen.

4) The field was set and it did not seem to complement her running style. Da’ Tara was a rabbit. Past the Point has lots of speed. Cool Coal Man and It’s A Bird like to be close to the pace. All this pace against her, an uncomfortable inside post and every jockey in the race would be gunning for little miss Rachel.

5) The other horses seemed to have an affinity for the Saratoga strip. Macho Again, Bullsbay, Past the Point and Cool Coal Man had all proven to appreciate this track with their previous impressive performances. Rachel had never run here before.

6) The post parade was raucous. More than 31,000 people screamed their support for Rachel as she walked the stretch. She reacted to the screams with a bit of overzealousness that sent Calvin Borel flying off her back. Not a good sign for a racehorse who was about to be in for the race of her life.

7) Early fractions were fast and Rachel’s pace was pressured. Da’ Tara gunned for half a mile. Past the Point pressured her from the outside, Cool Coal Man was up close on the rail. Rachel was forced to run fast all the way under constant pressure. It should have been too much for any horse to handle. The horses that did try to run with Rachel early would drop like stones finishing up the track in the last three spots.

8) The path for the rallying Macho Again and Bullsbay seemed to part like the Red Sea. With the fast early fractions softening up the speed they were poised for big rallies and they were firing their best shot. As they made their moves, they faced clear sailing with no impediments, as they pounced on Rachel.

Eight good reasons why she would be finally defeated, yet, she did it. Rachel Alexandra did it. To be there in person, within a mosh-pit of humanity and energy and emotion was surreal. My heart was pounding, my forehead was damp with sweat … I will never forget it. This race on September 5, 2009, a race that she was destined to lose, allowed Rachel Alexandra to show her true character and courageousness to the world and she did it. Rachel Alexandra did it.

September 5, 2009

The Rachel Diaries - Day 4

Visiting Saratoga holds a special place in my heart. So many Summer vacations as a kid, The Zipse family would make the trek up from New Jersey to see the finest racehorses come together. Every time I come here the memories spill out of my head making me intensely happy. When I get close it just feels like Saratoga. Come to think of it, it tastes, smells, sounds and looks like Saratoga too. It is special.

Our trip from Niagara Falls yesterday was uneventful and fast, despite me being antsy to get here. Upon arrival, we spent some quality time at the Hall of Fame and I was happy to see the girls have a good time with no boredom at all. I love the actual Hall of Fame room. Hall of Fame horse plaques on one side, with the horsemen plaques on the other. The silks of all the great owners above them. It is candy to the eyes of a real horse racing fan. Theatre seating overlooks the stage where so many greats have accepted their ultimate honor. Even a couple of touch screen computers are there to get more information on your favorites. It is quite a room. Although her racing career is barely half over (knock on wood), horse racing’s Hall of Fame is exactly where Rachel Alexandra is headed.

Every year it seems that racing anoints a new sure-fire star for the masses. These horses almost never live up to the hype. In my mind Spectacular Bid, who ended his career 29 years ago, was the last American horse to be a superstar beyond reproach. For whatever reason, shortened racing careers or more likely lack of talent, they become little more than bumps on the road of racing history. Rachel is different. She overshadows every other horse out there with her beauty and brilliance. Labor Day is a big weekend of racing, with many important races, but all eyes will be on her. Rachel Alexandra is marching inexorably towards greatness and we, the viewers, should appreciate every second.

Today is important. Her first race at Saratoga and her first race against older horses comes in the Woodward Stakes. A race that usually has a lot to say when eclipse awards are handed out, and this year should prove no different. I look at the field and I do see potential pitfalls for our heroine, but then I look back at her races and I smile a confident smile. Going back eight races ago, Rachel Alexandra began a run of four straight races that would make any two/three-year-old filly proud. Her wins in the Golden Rod, Martha Washington, Fair Grounds Oaks and Fantasy were elegant and dominating. A forewarning to things to come, she demonstrated just how special she was becoming. In her last four races, Rachel Alexandra has taken things to a whole new level. Her wins in the Kentucky Oaks, Preakness, Mother Goose, and Haskell are stunning. Not hyperbole, but fact … these races are superior to any string of races I have ever seen a filly run … ever! When I sit back and objectively look at the Woodward field my confidence soars.

Anything can happen in a horserace, but this is Rachel, and hey, I just was invited to the winner’s circle if Rachel wins, so I got that going for me.

September 4, 2009

The Rachel Diaries - Day 3

Question - What do you get when you mix the Perfect Storm, A frightened toddler, and Alice Cooper? Why, our day at Niagara Falls of course. We pulled on our fashionable, blue Maid of the Mist rain ponchos and without hesitation, confidently strode on the sea-worthy vessel for some Falls gazing. OK, the fact that this rain gear, happily handed out by the smiling older gentleman at the Mist’s last checkpoint, covered our entire bodies should have been clue enough, but I still thought I was taking my small family on a tranquil little cruise to take a closer look at the Falls. A light spritzing of water would be pleasant on this Summer day I remember thinking in my tourist haze. Ten minutes later, all hell had broken loose. We were right in the middle of what could only be called a monsoon. Water was everywhere, our little Kendra thought that this was the end of her short life and as I looked over to my wife, I thought,” since when did I marry Alice Cooper?” Mascara running everywhere, I heard someone yell, “Batten down the hatches,” I think it was me. Amidst this flurry of activity, I could not help to think that Falls looked especially beautiful from ten feet away. Thank God for the calm after the storm.

Rachel Alexandra is so close to wrapping up the 2009 Horse-of-the-Year award that her followers can taste it. So what, you say. Quick…who was the last 3-year-old filly to be named Horse-of-the-Year? I’ll wait while you mull that one over. Ruffian, Genuine Risk, Go For Wand? No, no, and no. The answer is Busher, who was three years old in the year 1945. It has been 64 years since the most coveted award in American racing has been bestowed on a filly of three.

In 1944 Busher was the juvenile filly champion and she proved to be even better the following year. In 13 starts, Busher won 10 races, with 2 seconds, and a third. But her fine record of 1945 only tells part of the story. Like Rachel Alexandra, Busher was too good to run against only her peers. Against her own age set, she won against fillies in the Cleopatra and Santa Susana and she defeated colts in the San Vincente and Hollywood Derby. Against older fillies and mares she won the Santa Margarita and Vanity Handicap and Busher was at her very best when she beat the older men in the Arlington Handicap and the Washington Park Handicap. In the midst of all these stakes wins, Busher even found time to defeat her rival, 4-year-old Durazna, in a match race. No filly since Busher has been able to do enough. Clearly it takes a great campaign for a 3-year-old filly to be the ultimate champion.

64 years is an awful long time. I would say the 3-year-old filly division is more than due to take home racing’s biggest honor. Rachel is ready to emulate the great Busher. With a win tomorrow in the prestigious Woodward Stakes, Rachel Alexandra will not just be knocking at the door of Horse-of-the-Year, she’ll be kicking it in.

September 3, 2009

The Rachel Diaries - Day 2

“Oh, You’ve got to be kidding me!“ Not yet three hours into our drive, and the Ohio State Patrolman, cherries-a-blazin’, gestures for me to pull over as he eases between me and the Camry ahead, whom he is also inconveniencing on this beautiful Summer day. “Do you realize you were speeding today?“ The officer deadpans. “No, do you realize that I am now only going to drive faster to make up for lost time officer?“ I answer in my mind. We play this little authority figure/admonished schoolboy tete-a-tete for another minute or two and then the nice lawman lets me off with a warning. He looks in at my wife and daughter and wishes a nice vacation for us a couple of times. Back on the round again, a few thoughts cross my mind. First, what the bleep! I wasn’t even speeding that fast, but also, I wondered if that Buckeye patrolman knew that it was his duty to let me pass. For I am on a mission for Rachel.

Rachel Alexandra is on a mission. She is doing things that have never been done before, both this Saturday at Saratoga and the entire year of 2009. But, I offer this warning to all fans and well-wishers of our heroine, the Woodward is a lot tougher than people are giving it credit for. Are there any superstars? Yes … Rachel. Are there a bunch of good older males to challenge her? Yes.

Asiatic Boy, my second pick, was a star oversees winning the UAE Derby in a romp and three other graded stakes on dirt, as well as, running 2nd to Curlin in last year’s World Cup. His first two races in the U.S. have been good but not great. Watch out if Kiaran McLaughlin has him ready to run his best. Bullsbay is a late developing son of Tiznow, most Tiznow’s are late developers, and is coming off his best race ever. His score in the Grade 1 Whitney was quite impressive and it was over this surface and at the Woodward’s distance. A repeat performance makes him a real threat. Cool Coal Man is also coming off a pip over this same ground when winning a minor stake here on August 10 by nearly 13 lengths. He has yet to win a Grade 1 race yet, but it would be no surprise to me if the Grade 2 winner someday did. Macho Again is sometimes on and sometimes off, but when he decides to run, his late rush makes him dangerous in any race. He likes Saratoga and has won four graded stakes, including the Grade 1 Stephen Foster, on his resume. It’s A Bird ran poorly last out in the Suburban Handicap, but you do not need to go much farther back in his form to find success. He has been victorious in the Lone Star Handicap, Oaklawn Handicap, and the million dollar Sunshine Millions Classic already this year. Past the Point is coming off a sharp victory at Saratoga, a track that he loves, and has proven his class by finishing 2nd to Curlin in the Woodward last year. Da’ Tara’s recent form looks awful, but he is a Belmont Stakes winner and he is trained by Nick Zito, so you never know.

Certainly Rachel Alexandra is the reason why so many millions will be watching the Woodward with great anticipation, but please, do not underestimate what she is trying to do on Saturday. This is not an easy race for even the greatest of 3-year-old fillies.

September 2, 2009

The Rachel Diaries - Day 1

And the Journey begins, from our not-so-palatial estate in Suburban Chicago to the small burg of Latham, New York. The minivan is loaded and the sleep crusties are sufficiently washed from the corners of my eyes. “Gotta get an early start.” I keep telling my wife, who is just trying to fathom how well an eight or nine hour ride with our 14-month-old daughter is going to work. Candie is a sport and is willing to take her ‘chances’ on this family vacation so that I can see a horse. I’m glad that she ‘gets me’ enough to put up with this craziness, besides I just know in my heart that our daughter, Kendra, is going to adore the horses. Oh, and in case you were wondering, No, I do not drive that fast to get to the Albany area in eight or nine hours. Today we are on our way to Buffalo and to see Niagara Falls…it just feels more like a family vacation this way and it is actually directly on our route to Saratoga. Which of course is the ultimate destination and my real reason for this trip, one Miss Rachel Alexandra.

Rachel will be trying to make history by becoming the first female horse ever to win the Woodward Stakes. Fillies and mares have not attempted to run in it very often, Rachel will be only the sixth, and have found little success. Shuvee was the first, as she ran in the Woodward twice as an older mare in 1970 and 1971, finishing 5th and 6th. Summer Guest ran in it three consecutive years from 1972-1974 at 3,4, and 5 years old. Her best finish was as a three-year-old when she finished 2nd but was disqualified and placed 3rd. Magazine was the third female to try her luck in the Woodward when at the age of four she finished 5th and ahead of Summer Guest in 1974. Since then only Relaxing, fourth in 1981 and Lady’s Secret, a well beaten 2nd in 1986, have attempted to beat the boys. No filly or mare has run in the Woodward Stakes for 23 years and only one 3-year-old filly has ever been in the race…until now.

How important is it to win the Woodward?

The Woodward is won year in and year out by the very best horses in racing. In the 55 runnings to date, the winner has gone on to win an eclipse award that same year a staggering 33 times. Not many races in American history can claim a 60% chance of winning an eclipse award by winning the race. Though it has changed in distance and racetracks over the year, the champions keep winning the Woodward. Rachel Alexandra will try to raise that percentage and become the first female horse ever to win the prestigious Woodward Stakes. Boy, I hope she does it.