This week’s LET IT RIDE.COM HOT TOPIC comes from Gary West of ESPN.com…take a read and VOICE AN OPINION!
What did we learn?
To get here, he took the long way around. He missed the Triple Crown because of a foot issue and didn’t make his first start of the season until May 26. And he was forced to take the Lewis-and-Clark route again Saturday to win the Awesome Again Stakes at Santa Anita. But Shared Belief has arrived. He’s the early favorite for the Breeders’ Cup Classic, the top 3-year-old in the country and the leading candidate for Horse of the Year.
Although the victory confirmed Shared Belief’s status, the journey was more troublesome and demanding than anybody could have expected, and so, ironically, it might have created some doubt about the unbeaten gelding. He won, yes, but he won by only a neck, and he had to work so hard to get there, had to pour so much of his energy into the effort, that he came out of the Awesome Again looking vulnerable.
Tonalist, on the other hand, came out of the Jockey Club Gold Cup looking like an improving colt who, having shed his blinkers, has seen his future. He has figured out what he really wants to do. He doesn’t want to stalk the pace, an unsuccessful tactic best left in the Travers backwash; no, he wants to settle into that long stride of his and then rally.
At Belmont Park, he, too, had trouble Saturday. Tenth early, he had to check and alter course approaching the second turn. That was where Moreno angled into the path of Wicked Strong, who appeared to clip heels, which unseated his rider, Rajiv Maragh. (Maragh reportedly has a broken arm.) Tonalist then waited behind horses, advanced through traffic and ran the final quarter-mile in 24.71 seconds to complete the 1-1/4 miles in 2:02.12 and win by nearly two lengths over Zivo.
Shared Belief’s trouble was arguably more costly. He entered he first turn at Santa Anita three-wide, but Sky Kingdom and jockey Victor Espinoza floated the 1-5 favorite out into the six path, and conspiracy theories were blooming before the field straightened for the run down the backstretch.
“They tried some tactics on him,” Shared Belief’s jockey, Mike Smith, said after the race. But, Smith said, Shared Belief was superior to any tactic devised to beat him. As it turned, though, he was just barely superior.
Sky Kingdom’s stablemate, Fed Biz, led the field into the second turn, where Shared Belief, still forced to race wide, began to rally. Just as he needed months to overcome his foot problems, and just as the champion took all summer to redefine himself and rise within his division, he needed the length of the stretch to overcome the wide trip, but he got there.
The new Santa Anita surface was quick but not speed-favoring, and Shared Belief’s winning time of 1:48.58 didn’t sparkle. The speed figures and quantifiers won’t dazzle. But the victory, his seventh in as many starts, will shine brightly as evidence of his determination.
And so, Shared Belief has arrived. But Tonalist is threatening. Yes, with a victory in the Breeders’ Cup Classic, Tonalist could possibly sweep away all the chips. Wicked Strong, who looked as if he were going to run well before his mishap Saturday, deserves a shot at the Classic, too. And of course, California Chrome, whose conspicuous talent was muffled by a compromising and uncomfortable inside trip in the Pennsylvania Derby, could refurbish his reputation and return to the head of the class with a win in what’s shaping up to be an outstandingly compelling Classic.
Super Saturday featured six major stakes in New York and five more in California, all with Breeders’ Cup implications. And so here are some more thoughts and observations:
Granted, the championship races sit more than a month down the road, and on that road more preps remain, but at this point, American Pharoah, who’ll be favored in the Juvenile, looks like the most likely Breeders’ Cup winner. He set the pace and drew clear with instant acceleration when asked in Saturday’s FrontRunner Stakes and won by more than three lengths. It was a stylish, jaw-dropping victory, but in the context of the day’s races it looked even more impressive. American Pharoah ran the 1-1/16 miles in 1:41.95. A race earlier at Santa Anita, Beholder won the Zenyatta Stakes over the same 1-1/16 miles in 1:42.19. And so, a 2-year-old making just the third start of his career ran about a length faster than a two-time champion.
Private Zone became the first horse in 24 years — and only the fourth ever — to win the Vosburgh Stakes back-to-back, and in doing so, he became one of the favorites for the Breeders’ Cup Sprint. A tough-as-woodpecker-lips veteran, to borrow a phrase from Chargin’ Charlie Beckwith, Private Zone put away the speedy Happy My Way, momentarily lost the lead and then fought back to win by a neck and complete the six furlongs in 1:08.95, a strong clocking for the day at Belmont. If he can take that effort to Santa Anita, he’ll be hard to beat Nov. 1. But after winning last year’s Vosburgh, also by a neck, Private Zone finished 10th as the 3-1 second-choice in the Sprint.
Reunited with jockey Rosie Napravnik and racing in blinkers for the first time in her career, Emollient seemingly returned to top form, and just in time for the Filly & Mare Turf, where she finished fourth a year ago. Ninth in each of her two prior races, Emollient won Saturday’s Rodeo Drive Stakes at Santa Anita by a half-length over Parranda. Still, Stephanie’s Kitten could be the best American hope for the Filly & Mare Turf. Showing a tactical dimension that had been absent from her recent efforts, Stephanie’s Kitten raced in fourth early and rallied three-wide at Belmont to win the Flower Bowl Stakes by more than a length over Abaco.
Vyjack looked like a contender for the Breeders’ Cup Dirt Mile with his performance in the Kelso Stakes. But his trainer, Rudy Rodriguez, indicated the veteran could remain in New York instead and wait for the Cigar Mile on Nov. 29 at Aqueduct. Vyjack rallied on the turn and wore down River Rocks in the stretch to win by a length and complete the mile in a lively 1:34.05. Itsmyluckyday, the odds-on favorite, finished third and left his trainer, Eddie Plesa, pondering the options, which include the Breeders’ Cup Classic and Dirt Mile. Not originally nominated to the Breeders’ Cup, Itsmyluckyday would have to be supplemented.
Since arriving in this country, Main Sequence has won three major stakes, all in a photo finish, the latest being the Joe Hirsch Turf Classic at Belmont. His trainer, Graham Motion, said Main Sequence, who has a history of sluggish starts and gate problems, gave his most “professional” performance Saturday despite ducking in and bumping the runner-up, Twilight Eclipse, at the finish. Main Sequence should be a player in the Breeders’ Cup Turf.
Angela Renee put herself in the Juvenile Fillies with her victory in Saturday’s Chandelier Stakes. She finished strongly, but the final time, 1:43.45, wasn’t going to frighten any rivals. After the wire, the runner-up, Conquest Eclipse, galloped out beyond the winner. The favorite for the Juvenile Fillies will probably emerge from the Alcibiades at Keeneland or the Frizette at Belmont.
WHAT’S YOUR TAKE?
Will the Derby and Preakness Wins Be Enough For “Chrome” To Hold Off Shared Belief for Three Year Old of the Year????
This week’s LET IT RIDE.COM HOT TOPIC comes from Steven Crist of DRF.com…take a read and VOICE AN OPINION!
Double Crown title streak could end
As any schoolchild knows, every 3-year-old since 1978 who won both the Kentucky Derby and Preakness failed to win the Belmont Stakes and complete the Triple Crown. But did you know there’s an even longer streak regarding the winners of the first two legs of the Triple Crown?
Since the Eclipse Awards began in 1971 through last year, 16 horses have won the Derby and Preakness – and every single one of them won the Eclipse Award as champion 3-year-old: Canonero II (1971), Secretariat (1973), Seattle Slew (1977), Affirmed (1978), Spectacular Bid (1979), Pleasant Colony (1981), Alysheba (1987), Sunday Silence (1989), Silver Charm (1997), Real Quiet (1998), Charismatic (1999), War Emblem (2001), Funny Cide (2003), Smarty Jones (2004), Big Brown (2007), I’ll Have Another (2012) and … wait, not so fast on adding California Chrome (2014) to the list.
After Shared Belief’s impressive victory against his elders in the Pacific Classic last Sunday, he inched ahead of the idle California Chrome in the National Thoroughbred Racing Association’s weekly Horse of the Year poll. (Shared Belief and California Chrome are now ranked second and third behind the 7-year-old gelding Wise Dan.)
You have to go back 45 years, before the dawn of the Eclipses, to find a 3-year-old who won the Derby and Preakness but was not acknowledged as the division’s champion: That would be Majestic Prince in 1969. He beat Arts and Letters by a neck in the Derby and by a head in the Preakness, but Arts and Letters beat him by 5 1/2 lengths in the Belmont and then reeled off consecutive victories in the Jim Dandy, Travers, Woodward, and Jockey Club Gold Cup. (He also won the Blue Grass and, in between the Preakness and Belmont, the Met Mile.) Arts and Letters was understandably acclaimed as the champion 3-year-old and Horse of the Year.
It looked as if things might go the same way a couple of times since. Twenty years after Arts and Letters, Easy Goer had a very similar streak after falling short to Sunday Silence in the Derby and Preakness. He was heavily favored to complete the turnaround in the Breeders’ Cup Classic, but then Sunday Silence beat him for the third time in four meetings and was deservedly a nearly unanimous choice.
In 2003, it seemed that Empire Maker had edged ahead of Funny Cide when he beat him in the Belmont, giving him a 2-1 lead in head-to-head meetings and a 3-2 lead in Grade 1 victories. Neither one of them, however, won a race past June, and by the time ballots were due in December, Funny Cide’s Derby and Preakness made it seem to a majority of voters that he had been the more successful 3-year-old and deserved the nod.
The 2004 voting would have been interesting if Birdstone had won the Breeders’ Cup Classic. After denying Smarty Jones’s bid for the Triple Crown by beating him in the Belmont, Birdstone returned to win the Travers. Would a BC Classic victory have pushed him past the Derby-Preakness winner? We’ll never know since he finished seventh, and Smarty Jones was an easy Eclipse winner.
So, the question now is whether Shared Belief can catch up to a Derby-Preakness winner. Let’s say he makes his fourth and final start of an unbeaten 3-year-old season in the BC Classic and wins it, beating California Chrome in their only meeting. Would it be enough? California Chrome would still have a 3-2 lead in Grade 1 wins (Santa Anita Derby, Kentucky Derby, and Preakness vs. Pacific Classic and BC Classic), but Shared Belief’s two big victories would have been against older horses instead of the uninspiring 3-year-olds whom California Chrome was walloping last spring.
Still, winning the Derby and Preakness is a powerful double that tends to look even better in hindsight. The discussion then comes down to accomplishment vs. talent. It’s possible that one could simultaneously believe at season’s end that Shared Belief is the better horse but that California Chrome accomplished more this year.
It would be a fascinating debate if we get that far. Maybe the best part is that this could develop into more than a one-race rivalry: California Chrome is scheduled to race as a 4-year-old, and Shared Belief is a gelding with an unlimited future on the track. These things are always best settled on the racetrack, so here’s hoping.
WHAT’S YOUR TAKE?
This week’s LET IT RIDE.COM HOT TOPIC comes from Steven Crist of DRF.com…take a read and VOICE AN OPINION!
Racing needs to improve its product and change with the times
Some of the most interesting remarks made at last Sunday’s Jockey Club Round Table on Matters Pertaining to Racing were on a topic sometimes overlooked at such industry gatherings: Matters actually pertaining to actual racing.
Martin Panza, nearly a year into his new position as the senior vice president of racing operations for the New York Racing Association, has already made a series of welcome changes to the game in New York – not in the frequently overemphasized areas of marketing or medication, but in the nuts and bolts of the racing product.
He has emphasized quality over quantity, banishing the 13-race Saratoga cards that used to overflow with turf sprints, maiden claimers, and complicated conditioned-claiming races.
“Race day schedules have to be reduced,” he told the assemblage in Saratoga Springs, N.Y. “Our fans deserve and demand better wagering opportunities. If there is not a reduction in race days, then at the very least there must be a reduction in the number of races offered. The days of carding 11, 12, or 13 races may be over. They should be. It’s just not working.
“As our economic environment has changed, we need to reevaluate our circumstances and our strategies. Instead of scheduling cards with 11, 12, or 13 races, because that’s what we did last year, maybe it is time to look at the equation from the other side. How many races can we run on a given day and average eight, nine, or 10 horses per race? Set the standard from a requirement of what we want the product to look like, and then determine the amount of races that can be offered to meet that standard.”
Setting a standard for racing, rather than having it set for you purely by economics, is exactly the kind of attitude that makes our sport different from managing a casino floor. It’s been a while since anyone paid more than lip service to the idea of setting high standards for the sport of racing in New York, and now is the ideal time to be doing it.
Promoting quality over quantity sounds good, but doesn’t work if you can’t pay for it. When Monmouth Park went upscale with an “elite” meeting, everyone liked the boost in quality, but the increased business was not enough to offset the higher purses. The whole experiment turned into a massive giveaway that was discontinued after one year.
Due to its huge, casino-fueled purses – maiden races on Whitney Day were worth $98,000 – New York can afford to do the right things for racing instead of focusing entirely on the bottom line. Panza believes that the declining annual foal crop makes such changes necessary as well as desirable.
“It is difficult to maintain a quality racing program for the long term by running lower-level races,” he said. “The economics of ownership is not really sustainable with the lower-level purses.”
Rather than card as many five-horse fields as possible, he suggests, less could be more.
“Having spent most of my career in California, we enjoyed a certain amount of isolation from other racing circuits,” he said. “Now working on the East Coast, I am amazed at the amount of racetracks trying to compete with each other in such close proximity. With the foal crop situation, horsemen, owners, and racetrack operators may fare better with coordinated 60-day meets shared amongst three states rather than the current schedules being offered. Perhaps breeding programs could expand to tristate or multistate opportunities rather than remaining unique to each individual state.”
These are the kinds of ideas that are going to be necessary for the sport to survive, much less thrive and grow. An increasingly vocal and critical fan base is voting with its feet against smaller fields and higher takeout. Racing tends to spend more time worrying about abstract ideas about customer creation and retention rather than doing the best marketing of all – improving the product being sold.
“The game is undoubtedly going through a transitional period,” Panza acknowledged, but found some reason for optimism there:
“It seems to me with thought and proper planning, we may have an opportunity to reinvent ourselves.”
WHAT’S YOUR TAKE?
This week’s LET IT RIDE.COM HOT TOPIC comes from Art Wilson of San Gabriel Valley Tribune…take a read and VOICE AN OPINION!
California Chrome still shining brightly
In a sport where some pundits often rush to judgment, this year’s crop of 3-year-olds may be developing into a nice lot.
Whereas early in the year California Chrome was dispatching all comers and critics found fault in his opposition, it now appears the Kentucky Derby and Preakness winner will face some stern tests this fall.
Take Bayern, for instance. He’s always had the talent to become a top race horse but he was so lightly raced his inexperience most times overshadowed that talent. Now look at him. He won the Woody Stephens on Belmont Stakes Day and parlayed that victory into a most impressive win in last weekend’s Haskell at Monmouth Park.
The Offlee Wild colt burst onto the scene in February after a 15-length victory in an allowance race at Santa Anita Park. The race had Hall of Fame jockey Gary Stevens excited later.
“I pulled up after the race and Mike Smith came up galloping behind me and he said, ‘Do you know how much you won by?’ ” Stevens said. “I said, ‘I have no idea.’ He said, ‘A pole. You won by a sixteenth of a mile.’ I actually made Bayern gallop out after the race because he’s a colt that’s progressing.”
A quarter crack set Bayern back a bit and he missed the Derby after a third-place finish in the Arkansas Derby on April 12 and a disappointing runner-up effort in the Derby Trial on April 26. Now, after a lackluster ninth-place showing in the Preakness, he’s put it all together with back-to-back victories.
Trainer Bob Baffert was leaning toward the seven-furlong King’s Bishop at Saratoga for Bayern’s next start, but the colt’s 7 1/4-length gate-to-wire victory in the Haskell might have changed his mind. Baffert now is thinking Travers Stakes on Aug. 23.
“I was just hoping he’d be able to get the mile and an eighth,” Baffert said post-Haskell. “Gary Stevens, after he rode him last time (Woody Stephens), said, ‘You have to let him route again. He’ll just keep going.’ ”
So one Hall of Famer took the advice of another and the result is we might see a Breeders’ Cup Classic in November that includes Palace Malice, California Chrome, Bayern and Shared Belief. Think maybe that race would have Santa Anita buzzing?
Here’s a look at how I rank this year’s 3-year-olds heading into August:
(1) California Chrome: One loss doesn’t knock the king off his throne, especially when he was not disgraced in defeat. His fourth-place finish in the Belmont, a race in which he was injured, earned Chrome a short respite, but he’s back in his barn at Los Alamitos and likely headed for a start in the Awesome Again Stakes at Santa Anita on Sept. 27.
(2) Shared Belief: The son of Candy Ride has done nothing wrong in his brief career and won all five starts by a combined 29 lengths. His 4 1/4-length victory in the Los Alamitos Derby on July 5 had folks debating whether California Chrome or Shared Belief is the better horse.
(3) Bayern: This guy might just be the most talented of them all, a question that figures to be answered by the end of the year. His victory in the seven-furlong Woody Stephens had some onlookers wondering if he should remain sprinting, but his Haskell romp may have changed most of those thoughts.
(4) Tonalist: The Tapit colt, who like Bayern and Shared Belief was compromised by injury during the Triple Crown series, earns the No. 4 ranking because of his victory in the Belmont. That trumps Wicked Strong’s wins in the Wood Memorial and last weekend’s Grade II Jim Dandy Stakes.
(5) Wicked Strong: Another late-developing colt who seems to be improving the more he runs. He was competitive in the Derby and Belmont. If Wicked Strong, Bayern and Tonalist all go in the Travers, it’s going to be one of the most anticipated editions of that stake in a long while.
Untapable, the Kentucky Oaks winner, would have made our Top Five before her fifth-place showing in the Haskell. She didn’t disgrace herself in the $1 million race, but she needs to beat the boys before she can be regarded as a great filly.
Trainer Steve Asmussen’s comments after the race, when he noted Untapable broke poorly and her chances were compromised by a speed-favoring track, only underscore how truly great Zenyatta was.
In 20 starts, a career in which she raced at five race tracks, she lost only once and her connections never had to offer alibis about this or that. They never had to say she didn’t like the track, the pace was too slow or she had a bad trip. Her only loss, by a head to Blame in the 2010 Breeders’ Cup Classic at Churchill Downs, was because she just ran out of real estate.
WHAT’S YOUR TAKE?
This week’s LET IT RIDE.COM HOT TOPIC comes from Jennie Rees of The Courier-Journal…take a read and VOICE AN OPINION!
Odds against bettors at Churchill meet
How to put this politely? Despite the usual great and profitable Kentucky Derby and Oaks cards and pockets of top-flight racing, this spring meet was the worst overall betting product I’ve seen in years at a place billing itself as the world’s most legendary racetrack.
The average field size declined from 7.78 horses for the 2013 spring meet to 7.29, and that’s with 24 fewer races in 2014, as Churchill wisely often ran only nine races instead of 10.
Even the highly publicized fisticuffs between Indian Charlie newsletter publisher Eddie Musselman and trainer Dale Romans could distract attention from the racing’s struggles for only a few days.
It wasn’t just bad numbers but too often short fields of bad horses. Late scratches were killers.
Certainly other tracks in the region face similar woes (see Ellis Park’s four-horse field that kicked off its meet Thursday). But Churchill Downs, by its own motto, is held to a higher standard.
The competition for horses is ferocious with Indiana Grand (formerly Indiana Downs) offering slots-enhanced purses and Belterra (formerly River Downs) running after a year hiatus during construction.
As Churchill track president Kevin Flanery said in an interview, competition in the simulcast market also became tougher, with Gulfstream Park and Santa Anita — offering a stronger brand than Calder and the defunct Hollywood Park — overlapping Churchill’s spring meet for the first time.
But some of the damage was self-inflicted and years in the making.
Much of the middle class, those with the small and medium-sized claiming stables, has been run off as Churchill catered to the big outfits that brought in quality but also a lot of 2-year-olds who might not run until the fall meet. More and more stalls are concentrated into fewer hands, and those hands don’t all have the kinds of horses needed to fill out a card today.
Some blue-collar outfits that do have those horses moved out of state or to training centers, where they are free agents with no obligation to race at Churchill.
What happened to all the claiming horses in the $10,000-$40,000 range? Your best shot at running at Churchill was to have a horse on the bottom or toward the top from a class perspective. The middle is shattered — albeit not just at Churchill.
Churchill cites a declining foal crop as a factor in field size. How about a lack of owners? Get owners wanting to race, and the breeders will come up with the horses.
It didn’t help that the Kentucky Horse Racing Commission’s new medication rules went into effect June 6. Among other things, they changed the timing between giving Clenbuterol (a helpful medication to prevent or reduce respiratory ailments) and racing from three days to two weeks.
Some of the state-employed veterinarians were unusually strict in prerace soundness exams, something that a track can hardly protest. No stabling at Turfway and limited training at Keeneland surely cost Churchill horses.
Whatever the reasons, the bettors spoke with their wallets, with all-source wagering on the meet down 11.5 percent from a year ago. Total wagering dropped from $416.8 million to $368.8 million, according to the Kentucky Horse Racing Commission. Factoring out Derby and Oaks days, it was down 25 percent.
The Horseplayers Association of North America says the No. 1 reason, more so than field size, was that Churchill increased the takeout (the money skimmed off the top of each dollar bet that goes to purses, the track and taxes) from 16 to 17½ percent for win, place and show bets and from 19 to 22 percent for multi-horse bets. In protest, HANA spearheaded a betting boycott.
HANA president Jeff Platt says the research shows that takeout — the cost of betting — has a far larger impact than field size on a regular racing day because of its effect on serious players.
“Forget that we’re boycotting,” Platt said. “It’s the market speaking about what players think about higher takeout.”
Flanery said he’s comfortable that Churchill remains in the middle range of takeout, higher than some in straight wagers and exactas but lower in trifectas and superfectas.
“We’re not the cheapest and we’re not the most expensive,” he said.
He sees field size, driven by horse population, as the major culprit and contends there would have been a purse decrease, including a significant cutback in stakes, without the price hike for betting.
Platt said that if the takeout increase had been in play only for Derby Day and possibly Oaks Day, “I wouldn’t have liked it … but there wouldn’t have been a boycott.” He said that’s because, with their much larger fields, high quality and massive betting pools, wagering on those cards still makes sense for the serious player.
• Daily purses averaged $532,903 for 38 days, down about $2,000 per day.
• A total of 181 horses were claimed for $3.771 million, accounting for $226,260 in state sales taxes.
• New announcer Larry Collmus made entertaining even the two-horse race that occurred after a $5,000 claiming race had four scratches.
• Thankfully, Churchill learned to modulate its new sound system. Sadly, the impetus appeared to be the mare who died after flipping and hitting her head in apparent reaction to a loud video of a starting gate springing open.
• As said before, the new Grandstand Terrace and Big Board are welcome additions. As always, there certainly were things to like at the meet. But racing fans in Louisville want to once again love going to their hometown track (and I’m not talking about night racing.) That’s Churchill management’s challenge.
WHAT’S YOUR TAKE?
This week’s LET IT RIDE.COM HOT TOPIC comes from Eric Crawford of WDRB.com…take a read and VOICE AN OPINION!
If Chrome wins Triple Crown, can racing capitalize?
LOUISVILLE, Ky. (WDRB) — In four days, we’ll know. We’ll wake up next Sunday morning and have our first Triple Crown winner in 36 years, or we’ll feel that old familiar frustration.
Let’s do a little positive visualization. Imagine California Chrome wins the Belmont Stakes. Imagine the chestnut colt rounds the sweeping turn for home, gathers himself through that heartbreaking stretch and gives horse racing the moment it has lusted after since the newness wore off of Affirmed’s Triple Crown in 1978.
We’ve heard about how the sport needs a Triple Crown winner. Fans want it. Even the media want to see it. They’re so eager to see it happen in New York that Belmont Park officials have scrapped Frank Sinatra’s “New York, New York” in favor of the old “Sidewalks of New York” number that was played before the race for decades. Anything to shake the bad luck.
But for all of its luster and historic difficulty, what would a Triple Crown do for the sport? Or, more to the point, is horse racing in any position to take advantage of the marketing potential of a Triple Crown winner?
It’s fair to say that thoroughbred racing as an enterprise has never been in greater need of the kind of positive news that California Chrome could offer with a win. The debate over performance enhancing drugs and treatment of the animals has grown louder in recent years. Just this spring, trainer Steve Asmussen was implicated in a video obtained by an undercover worker in his barn who turned out to be an operative for People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals.
The sport has steadily slid from the American sports consciousness after holding a central place there through the middle of the last century. These days, it’s just as likely to move the needle for bad news as for good. Barbaro was a bigger story even than Big Brown’s Triple Crown quest.
In California Chrome, racing could well have its super horse. They’re going to say he beat a bad Preakness field. They’re right. He also, if he wins on Saturday, will have beaten more rivals over the three-race Triple Crown series than any other colt to accomplish the feat. Saturday’s field is stocked with fresh horses. It’s a quality field.
Horse racing, as a sport, generally finds a way to muck up these moments. One problem is that the sport has no central authority. There’s no commissioner of the sport to set policy nationally and look out for the sport’s well-being.
Nor does horse racing have any central authority for marketing or promotion. If California Chrome wins Saturday, his connections will do whatever TV appearances are able to prevail upon them. They will try to do as many as they can. Owner, trainer, jockey will fan out over as many national shows as they can get to.
In some ways, it’s a refreshing departure from the way sports — and marketing — are done these days. But in another, it depicts a problem for the industry.
Everybody is a free agent. The Triple Crown is run in three states, all of whom have their own racing commissions, which even worse than being independent of each other, are largely governmental bodies, which ups the dysfunction exponentially.
California Chrome’s owners, though they seem to be making a good-faith effort to do everything the right way for the sport, also are going to be doing their own thing. They signed a deal with Sketchers shoes this week to wear the brand’s logos on their hats and in other places, while having it represented somewhere on the horse.
If California Chrome wins, everybody will want a piece of him. And how will that be handled? And what is the best way to handle it?
When an NBA or NFL, even NCAA team, wins a big national competition, the T-shirts and hats go online before the telecast is off the air, and players are already wearing the merchandise on national TV. Crass? Maybe. But people want to be a part of the event. And buying something like that is part of how they do it. It’s a powerful marketing tool.
If California Chrome wins the Belmont, how will casual sports fans at home get a piece of it? Sports Illustrated may have a commemorative issue ready to go. Maybe fans will buy and keep newspapers. But by and large, there’s no large scale mechanism to put a part of California Chrome and his story — a T-shirt, a hat, anything — into peoples’ hands.
And then there’s the question of the horse himself. If he wins a Triple Crown, does he become too valuable to race? The best thing for racing would be for him to finish out this racing season — culminating in a run in the Breeders Cup Classic, and then perhaps to run a full season as a 4-year-old.
But few think that will happen. He’ll bring $30 million or more as a stallion if he wins, and it’s likely we’ll have seen him run his last race — even as a great many Americans are meeting him for the first time.
Maybe the marketing of it doesn’t matter. I’d like to think it doesn’t. I’d like to believe that the absence of such blatant commercialism is one of the charms of horse racing. But I can’t. Racing doesn’t just need a Triple Crown, it needs to find a way to take advantage of the series. Otherwise, California Chrome wins, is a big story for a few days, then fades away, and the Triple Crown series is even less of a novelty.
Racing’s magic moment could be coming. But will anyone be surprised if the sport can’t capitalize?
WHAT’S YOUR TAKE?
This week’s LET IT RIDE.COM HOT TOPIC comes from Steve Davidowitz of ESPN.com…take a read and VOICE AN OPINION!
Can it happen to California Chrome?
Not many people would argue that California Chrome is a deserving odds-on favorite to win the Belmont Stakes and complete the rare sweep of the American Triple Crown.
Yet the same was true for many of the 12 winners of the Derby and Preakness since 1978 who failed to win the 1½-mile Belmont.
In his latest column for ESPN, Bill Finley described what happened to those 12 horses in sufficient detail to underscore how difficult it is to win the Belmont after winning the first two jewels in the crown.
In these next paragraphs, I’d like to focus on three of those failed bids from a slightly different perspective. Specifically, the race that Alysheba lost in 1987; the one that Real Quiet literally blew in ’98 as well as Smarty Jones’ failed bid in 2004.
Two of the “upsets” are worth close inspection to appreciate the extreme pressure California Chrome’s veteran trainer Art Sherman is under. The other illustrates a lesson that California Chrome’s jockey should heed.
First, let us acknowledge that any horse that sweeps this difficult three-race series at three different distances on three different racing surfaces in three different states during a compressed five-week period automatically deserves to be considered among the great horses in American racing history. That does not mean we have to rank any Triple Crown winner as the equal of Secretariat or Citation. But we should give more than a passing nod to the high level of talent it took to win the three classics when so many others have failed.
Forget speed figures, pace numbers, competition rankings and/or other measuring sticks. If California Chrome can complete a sweep of the 2014 Triple Crown, he will be an automatic Horse of the Year winner as well as a bona fide first-ballot Hall of Fame member when he becomes eligible down the road.
Beyond that, here are the stories behind three Derby and Preakness winners who did not complete the sweep.
In 1987, I was clocking horses privately for Hall of Fame trainer Jack Van Berg, at his request. Going into the Belmont Stakes, Alysheba had defeated Bet Twice in the Derby and Preakness. He certainly was bred to handle any distance and had not reached his physical potential. Alysheba’s 1988 Horse of the Year campaign would confirm that.
But I gasped when I saw Alysheba work a mile a week after the Preakness, then officially work again, a week before the Belmont, a work that was posted by the New York Racing Association clockers as a mile in 1:44. The simple fact, however, was that Alysheba did not work a second consecutive mile; he worked the full 1½-mile Belmont Stakes distance that day, stopping my watch in 2:35.
I asked Jack if he went too far or too fast, and he said: “No, the horse is a bull. He needs to work hard to keep him in top shape.”
In the Belmont Stakes, racing without Lasix, Alysheba finished a tired fourth, caught at the wire for third by Gulch, one of the best sprinter-milers of the past 50 years, but a horse who was not built for nor trained to go 12 furlongs.
Hall of Fame jockey Chris McCarron took a lot of blame for Alysheba’s defeat — for taking him under restraint heading into the first turn. With considerable grace, McCarron accepted the blame. But as I witnessed it, Alysheba was somewhat overtrained for the grueling climax to the Triple Crown, and the evidence was on my stopwatch and in his final furlong on race day.
In 2004, the opposite occurred with Smarty Jones. While I was not clocking for trainer John Service, I was fascinated by the enormous public support the horse was gaining day by day as he approached his Belmont Stakes.
I was in Philadelphia when several thousand people showed up at Philadelphia Park for his key final workout for the Belmont, clocked officially in 1:29 ⅕ for seven furlongs.
I got him going five furlongs in a leisurely 1:02 flat, galloping out seven furlongs in 1:29 ⅖, while hardly acting as if he had worked at all.
“No matter,” I thought, “he lays over the Belmont field.”
Well, not quite. As the race was run, Smarty Jones was unusually rank, hard to control, hard for jockey Stewart Elliot to keep him out of a surprising speed duel with Purge and Rock Hard Ten, who went six furlongs in 1:11.76 and a mile in a blistering 1:35.44. The fast pace for the 12-furlong distance took its toll on Smarty Jones as long shot Birdstone began to close ground coming out of the final turn and nailed the exhausted 3-10 shot approaching the wire.
Upon further examination, two things stood out:
Smarty Jones was “too fresh” for the Belmont, and Birdstone was a vastly underrated colt who had shown signs of class as a 2-year-old in 2003. He not only won the Grade 1 Champagne Stakes the previous fall, but two months after the Belmont, he won the prestigious Travers Stakes at Saratoga.
When I wrote this all up after the Belmont for a monthly magazine, I received an intriguing letter in the mail from the great trainer Michael Dickinson, who said: “You were 100 percent right about the lack of serious training that horse had for the Belmont. I thought the same exact thing.”
Dickinson’s letter did not prove me correct, but forgive me for taking it as an endorsement for my line or reasoning.
Using just these two examples, there is this much to conclude and keep in mind regarding California Chrome:
As good as he has been, trainer Art Sherman must train his horse perfectly to keep him in top shape for the task at hand. So far, Art and his son Alan have made no mistakes. Yet, I cannot remember any horse going into the Belmont who has been trained more sparingly than California Chrome.
Since the Santa Anita Derby on April 5, “CC” has had only four workouts, each at the relatively short four-furlong distance, all at Chrome’s home track of Los Alamitos. This Saturday he is scheduled to have his only workout since the Kentucky Derby four weeks ago — a four- or five-furlong drill at Belmont Park. The Shermans both say he won’t be asked to show much speed.
Speed is not the issue, and his daily gallops might be all he needs. But we should pay attention to what he does and how he does it. We should check out his daily moves on the NYRA website and via YouTube. If he goes into the Belmont with too much energy, even the usually calm California Chrome could get caught in a speed trap, just like Smarty Jones.
Going back to 1998, jockey Victor Espinoza might also learn an important lesson.
In that Triple Crown season, Real Quiet defeated Victory Gallop in the Derby and Preakness. But in the Belmont, as Finley pointed out in his column, jockey Kent Desormeaux moved sooner than needed to open up at least four lengths approaching the final furlong. Fact is, Real Quiet had hit the wall.
He was game but staggered to the finish line and was caught right on the wire by his chief rival, Victory Gallop, a talented colt who won the Stephen Foster and Whitney Handicaps the following season.
The lesson here for jockey Espinoza is straightforward: Remember that the Belmont main track is 1½ miles. While most victory moves begin entering the far turn on one mile and 1⅛-mile tracks, that spot on the oversized Belmont racetrack is nearly five furlongs from home. Too many jockeys have moved too soon at Belmont Park regardless of distance. In the 12-furlong Belmont Stakes, that can be a costly error.
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