Archive for Animal Kingdom

Is The Thoroughbred Getting Weaker or Faster….Or Both????

This week’s LET IT RIDE.COM HOT TOPIC comes from Michael Veitch of The Saratogian…take a read and VOICE AN OPINION!

Could breeding be making today’s horses weaker?

Are modern racehorses weaker than their counterparts of past generations?

This issue has been hotly debated in racing circles for quite some time, and for me it takes on added significance during the Triple Crown season.

Last year’s Derby winner Animal Kingdom sustained an injury in the Belmont Stakes that ended his season, which consisted of only five starts.

Smarty Jones, winner of the Derby and Preakness in 2004 and unbeaten to that point, never raced after his loss to Birdstone in the Belmont Stakes.

Ditto for Afleet Alex in 2005, who never raced after winning the Belmont to go with victories in the Preakness and Arkansas Derby.

Grindstone won the Kentucky Derby in 1996 in just his sixth lifetime start.

A few days later, he was retired due to knee problems.

Statistics compiled by The Jockey Club show that the average number of starts made in a career by each horse in the United States and Canada was 11.31 in 1960.

Fifty years later, in 2011, the number has fallen to 6.20.

Of the 20 horses that started in Saturday’s Kentucky Derby, 17 of them made three or less starts this year as 3-year-olds.

It does seem that that many stars of decades past were tougher than those of today, although I hasten to add that past greats such as Artful, Regret, and Commando had brief careers.

If I were writing this column in 1919, I could have had worries about Sir Barton, who made his 3-year-old debut in the Kentucky Derby.

However, America’s first Triple Crown winner broke his maiden in the Derby.

Sir Barton then won the Preakness on three days rest, the Withers ten days after that, and the Belmont 18 days after the Withers.

Citation, the Triple Crown winner in 1948, made his 3-year-old debut with a victory over older horses on Feb. 2.

He made his seventh start of the year with a win in the Derby Trial on Tuesday, April 27, and won the Kentucky Derby four days later on May 1.

Speaking of the Derby Trial, no less than six horses in the 1950’s raced in it on Tuesday and won the Derby four

days later on Saturday.

They were Middleground (1950), Hill Gail (1952), Dark Star (1953), Determine (1954), Iron Liege (1957) and Tim Tam (1958).

Dark Star is famous for handing the great Native Dancer his only career defeat in the Kentucky Derby.

Bold Forbes won the Kentucky Derby in 1976 in his sixth start that year.

Spectacular Bid also won the Kentucky Derby in his sixth start as a 3-year-old.

“The Bid” won the Hutcheson, Fountain of Youth, Florida Derby, Flamingo and Blue Grass on the way to Louisville.

Today, you hear trainers talk about using only one or two of those races before the Derby.

I’ll Have Another made only two starts this year prior to his Derby victory last Saturday, and was making only his sixth lifetime start.

Bodemeister made four career starts before his second-place finish, all of them this year, and once again the history of unraced 2-year-olds not winning the Derby held up.

So, what is at work here?

I do think that speed in the breed, coupled with a generation of stallion syndications that causes early retirement of top horses, have not helped racing in this regard.

The creation of the Breeders’ Cup in 1984, as a very rich series to end the season in November, certainly changed both the spacing and number of races for many trainers.

To its credit, the Breeders’ Cup has a Marathon, worth $500,000 at 1 ¾ miles.

However, the Breeders’ Cup in my view has too many rich sprints.

There are the $500,000 Juvenile Sprint, the $1 million Filly and Mare Sprint, the $1.5 million Sprint, and the $1 million Turf Sprint.

If the 1 ¼- mile Classic went to 1 ½ miles, you would see more distance racing in this country.

If I could change one thing, though, it would be track condition.

Tracks have been too hard for decades.

What is wrong with the best horse winning at six furlongs in 1:10 instead of 1:07, or seven furlongs in 1:24 instead of 1:20?

Surfaces that produce those kinds of times must be taking a toll.



Breeders Cup Reveals Reasons Why Horse Racing Should Be Excited About Future

This week’s LET IT RIDE.COM HOT TOPIC comes from Joe Drape of New York Times…take a read and VOICE AN OPINION!

Breeders’ Cup Over; Excitement May Not Be

The 28th running of the Breeders’ Cup is in the books, and there is a lot of things to like about the top end of the thoroughbred racing industry. There was hardly a dud among the 15 races contested — which should be expected when $26 million of purse money is at stake.

The Europeans took a strong contingent to Churchill Downs — a must if this is truly going to be a global championship — and they left here with ample loot. The trainer Aidan O’Brien won the Juvenile Turf with Wrote, then experienced a more priceless moment when his 18-year-old son, Joseph, rode St. Nicholas Abbey to victory in the Turf to become the youngest jockey to capture a Breeders’ Cup race.

There were a fair share of bombers that came in, but none bigger than Court Vision, who had not been in the winner’s circle in 13 months but found his way back there with a furious closing kick to win the $2 million Mile at odds of 69-1.

Dale Romans, who took over the training of the horse from Rick Dutrow in September, credited luck, rather than magical horsemanship, for the improbable victory.

“All we needed to do was get him back to his old form, and if they backed up at all, he would come running,” Romans said of Court Vision, who did have eight career victories in 30 career starts. “When you have the best milers in the world running, they will go fast early. We were just hoping they would go too fast and he could run them down. And it all worked out perfectly for us.”

There also was a nice peek at some of the anticipated headliners for next year’s Triple Crown campaign. Usually the winner of the Juvenile is declared the early favorite for the Kentucky Derby, and from now until the first Saturday in May, he and his connections will be scrutinized as closely as art authenticators pore over found masterpieces looking for any hint of inauthenticity.

This year’s Juvenile champion was Hansen, and he has plenty of quirks to examine in the coming months. He came into the Juvenile undefeated after winning two races by a combined 26 lengths. Hansen flies out of the gate and never looks back. It’s not an ideal style for a colt who hopes to emerge from a full field of 20 at the Derby as the best 3-year-old in the land. His trainer, Mike Maker, knows that but confessed he had little choice but to let the big gray have his way.

“He’s a handful for us,” Maker said. “We don’t try to change him much, because if we do try, he gets mad and wants to fight. So we let him do his thing, make him believe he’s the boss.”

Hansen won Saturday by a short head over Union Rags, a colt that looks best suited to capture the Derby and beyond. He and his rider, Javier Castellano, broke from the No. 10 post and came no closer inside than the four path, turning a mile-and-a-sixteenth race into a mile-and-an-eighth one. Union Rags rolled down the stretch like he was something special, and he just missed reeling Hansen in. Union Rags is the true early Derby favorite.

Inevitably, the subject of championship voting comes up this time of year, and with it comes heated debate. It won’t be as hard to determine the award recipients this year as only a couple of horses lasted throughout 2011 and put up meaningful numbers. The New York Times does not allow its reporters to vote, but that does not mean there aren’t opinions.

Why not Animal Kingdom for the 3-year-old champion?

He had five starts this year, winning the Spiral Stakes on a synthetic track at Turfway Park and the Derby on dirt. He also finished second in an allowance race on turf and lost by a half-length in the Preakness Stakes. His Belmont Stakes effort was compromised when he was bumped at the start and his rider, John Velazquez, lost his stirrup. He finished sixth, and his season ended with a leg injury.

Neither the Preakness champion Shackleford nor the Belmont victor Ruler On Ice won another stakes race, though both are solid competitors. Shackleford made 10 starts this year, and Ruler On Ice nine. Stay Thirsty had nice wins in the Jim Dandy and the Travers, but his 11th-place finish in the Classic highlighted his up-and-down year.

Who is the Horse of the Year? The filly Havre de Grace remains the right choice. She finished fourth Saturday in the Classic after having trouble early, and her connections placed her against male horses in an effort to take away any doubts that she was a worthy recipient.

Drosselmeyer was the long-shot winner, and Game On Dude was a gritty second-place finisher, but neither can say they won 5 of 7, three of them in Grade I company. In fact, another filly and Havre de Grace’s rival, the since-retired Blind Luck, will probably collect the most second-place votes.

“She ran well and certainly didn’t tarnish herself,” Havre de Grace’s trainer, Larry Jones, said. “We have no regrets about running her here, and she’s still got another year ahead of her.”

So here’s to a very good year and raised hopes for an even better next year.


How Much Effect Would a Triple Crown Winner Actually Have???

This week’s LET IT RIDE.COM HOT TOPIC comes from Vance Hansen of…take a read and VOICE AN OPINION!

Does Horse Racing Need Triple Crown Winner?

“It’s too close to call! Was it Real Quiet or was it Victory Gallop? A picture is worth a thousand words — this photo is worth 5 million dollars!”

Tom Durkin’s call of the 1998 Belmont Stakes ended with these words, and while his emphasis was on the material reward if Real Quiet won the head bob over Victory Gallop, millions of viewers were just as keenly attuned to the historical significance.

It had been 20 years since Affirmed became the last horse to win the Triple Crown, and five other colts before Real Quiet had come to Belmont and fallen short. Real Quiet turned out to be the sixth, and by the dirtiest of noses.

In the 13 years since then, four more colts and one gelding have won the Kentucky Derby and Preakness only to find victory in the Belmont beyond their grasp. Racing fans of long standing could explain away the defeats of these 11, not to mention those of Risen Star (1988), Point Given (2001) and Afleet Alex (2005), who met defeat in the Kentucky Derby before romping in the Preakness and Belmont, thus showing that they, too, had been cruelly denied their own chance at glory.

The current Triple Crown drought, now at 33 years following Animal Kingdom’s defeat in the May 21 Preakness, is the longest in the series’ history, much longer than the 25-year gap between Citation’s sweep in 1948 and Secretariat’s record-shattering brilliance in 1973.

The decades of futility have prompted some both inside and outside the industry to ask whether there will ever be another Triple Crown winner and whether racing, which has seen a marked decline in popularity since the glory days of the 1970s, needs a Triple Crown winner to revitalize its status as a mainstream sport.

If the close call by Real Quiet in the 1998 Belmont proves anything, it’s that the Triple Crown is still attainable even if the task itself — asking a not-fully mature Thoroughbred to win three different races over three different distances and racetracks in the span of five weeks — seems disproportionately demanding.

Indeed, there is no other series throughout the horse racing world which requires the mixture of speed, class, form, resiliency — and let’s face it, luck — as that demanded by the American Triple Crown.

In an era when the average racehorse is making fewer lifetime starts, and with longer gaps between races, the Triple Crown might appear an anachronism. And while a vocal group of horsemen and media members have called for adjusting the distances and/or time between the three races, the feeling that the Triple Crown should stay as is seemingly remains the majority view.

“One of these days, a super horse will come along,” said trainer Dale Romans after his colt, Shackleford, won the Preakness and ended Animal Kingdom’s bid for a Triple Crown sweep. “I don’t think anything should be changed about it.”

Those whose patience are wearing thin and feel the Triple Crown is being handcuffed by tradition often point out how the dates and distances of the three races have never been completely uniform, even during the years of the earliest Triple Crown winners.

While evidently true, the three horses who accomplished the feat in the television era — Secretariat, Seattle Slew and Affirmed — did so under the current conditions and are the yardstick by which all future Triple Crown winners will be judged. Any deviation from the course those three took to attain the goal would make it difficult for a future Triple Crown winner to be looked at in the same vein.

The last three Triple Crown winners also set a bar most observers feel are unrealistic to expect from any future winner of the series. Secretariat raced six times after his historic 31-length romp in the Belmont, while Seattle Slew and Affirmed continued to race through their four-year-old seasons. Neither scenario seems remotely plausible given the convoluted economics of the sport, where a horse’s worth as a stud outweighs any earnings he could possibly make at the racetrack.

“Unless he was a gelding, any Triple Crown winner most likely would be retired weeks into the summer,” said Steve Davidowitz, a noted turf writer and handicapper. “At most, we might see this new star paraded at a few tracks for ‘farewell appeal.’

“Economically speaking, it would be too risky for such a valuable stud prospect to be risked in competition. Essentially, there would be little to gain unless the owners and future breeders were die-hard, old-school types who wanted to see just how good their horse might really be when he comes back as a four-year-old. The odds on that happening are greater than whether or not we will see a Triple Crown winner in the next five years or so.”

Which begs the question: What impact would a future Triple Crown winner have on racing if he won’t be around long enough to maintain interest in the sport? Davidowitz said while there would be a temporary positive surge of media interest following a Triple Crown sweep, it would take reforms of other factors negatively affecting the sport’s popularity for fan interest to be sustained.

“Racing does not need a Triple Crown winner as much as it needs good horses to remain in competition beyond a win in a Triple Crown or Breeders’ Cup race,” Davidowitz said. “Not as much as it needs fewer tracks open simultaneously in neighboring states, with shorter, better-designed and coordinated racings schedules, with fewer or no legalized race-day drugs.

“And some serious efforts to promote its greatest yet least promoted asset: that horse race handicapping and betting on horses is probably the most intellectually satisfying, best gambling game man has ever invented.”

While the Kentucky Derby is the sport’s premier event and the Triple Crown its most elusive prize, there is much more to racing than the casual fan might be aware of. The results of dozens of graded stakes throughout the year play a role in determining the sport’s 11 divisional champions, among which one is voted Horse of the Year. It’s a process repeated every year whether there is a Triple Crown winner or not.

A great horse can come from anywhere, and as the examples of Cigar, Zenyatta and even Seabiscuit show, catching a whiff of the hoopla surrounding any of the Triple Crown races is not a prerequisite for a horse to earn the sport’s highest distinctions or penetrate the mainstream consciousness.

Of the 18 horses who have taken two-thirds of the Triple Crown since 1979, 17 have gone to be named divisional champion, five have won Horse of the Year titles and an equal number have been enshrined in the Racing Hall of Fame. While the doors for a Triple Crown sweep have closed on Animal Kingdom and were shut earlier for Shackleford, there is much left for them to run for beyond the Belmont Stakes.

For the sport of Thoroughbred racing, it’s business as usual until next year.

Could Racing’s Obsession with the Triple Crown be Detracting From True Stars of the Sport???

This week’s LET IT RIDE.COM HOT TOPIC comes from Jeff Scott of The Saratogian…take a read and VOICE AN OPINION!

Racing too obsessed with Triple Crown

Maybe people will believe in him now. After nearly hanging on in the Florida Derby at 68-1 and out-running his 23-1 odds in the Kentucky Derby, Shackleford stayed up all the way to the wire at 12-1 in the Preakness, benefiting from a smart ride by Jesus Castanon and a slow start by Animal Kingdom to hold off the Derby winner by a half-length.

It was a gritty performance by the son of Forestry, who was used early in keeping up with Flashpoint’s 22.69-second opening quarter. After taking over from the pacesetter, Shackleford caught a bit of a breather on the turn, leaving him with enough left to withstand Animal Kingdom’s late charge.

As for Animal Kingdom, he showed his Derby victory was no fluke, making up 18 of an 18 1/2-length deficit before running out of room. However, he was unable to completely make up for a 26-second-plus first quarter-mile.

The Preakness result is unlikely to change the opinion of many that this year’s Triple Crown contenders are a decidedly below-average bunch. The winning time was the slowest in 18 years, and only the top four finishers (which also included Astrology and Dialed In) did much running in the stretch.

The case can be made that outside of Shackleford, Animal Kingdom, Derby runner-up Nehro and perhaps Mucho Macho Man, no horse emerged from the first two legs of the Triple Crown with a significant boost to his reputation.

Early indications are there’s a good chance Animal Kingdom and Shackleford will both run back in the Belmont. If they do, and they’re joined by Nehro, Master of Hounds, Alternation and Mucho Macho Man (who reportedly lost a shoe on Saturday), it would make for a solid field.

Although there is a ten

dency to dismiss the Belmont when there is no Triple Crown at stake, the race has seen a number of outstanding performances under these circumstances during the past decade. Point Given (2001), Afleet Alex (2005) and Summer Bird (2009) were all standout winners, as was Rags to Riches in her historic victory over Curlin in 2007. All five of these 3-year-olds were awarded divisional championships, and Point Given and Curlin were named horse of the year.

Racing doesn’t do itself any favors with its continuing obsession with ending the Triple Crown drought. Not only does this focus draw attention away from worthy horses in other divisions, but the inevitable letdown that occurs when the prize once again goes unclaimed leaves the sport scrambling for other story lines.

Whatever happens in the Belmont, this year’s best 3-year-olds will still have plenty of opportunities to prove themselves over the next five months. Among the major races on the schedule are the Travers, Jockey Club Gold Cup and Breeders’ Cup Classic, three 10-furlong staples (the last two for 3-year-olds and up) that appear to be well suited for a proven distance runner such as Animal Kingdom.

No horse has ever won all three of these races, although Easy Goer (1989) and Bernardini (2006) came close. It would make a nice story, though, if one were to pull off the feat in 2011, especially given the lack of respect this year’s 3-year-olds have won so far.


Could a Few Small Changes To Entering Racing’s Biggest Race Make it Substantially Better???

This week’s LET IT RIDE.COM HOT TOPIC comes from Evan Hammonds of The Blood-Horse…take a read and VOICE AN OPINION!

A Bettor Derby Day

The Thoroughbred racing industry should be riding the “high” it got off this year’s rendition of America’s greatest horse race, the Kentucky Derby Presented by Yum! Brands (gr. I). A record attendance for the day under the Twin Spires at Churchill Downs followed the third-largest crowd for Oaks day. Solid betting figures, decent television ratings, and a winner with an outspoken owner—what will he say next?—make for a nice run-up to the May 21 Preakness Stakes (gr. I).

Anyone who would want to mess with the Derby would stir champagne, right?

No institution, however sacred, is immune to change. In 1957, geldings were finally permitted to compete in the Belmont Stakes. In 1983, The Jockey Club accepted women members. In 1997, Keeneland installed a public-address system and hired a race caller. Just last month Churchill Downs ran the Cliff’s Edge Derby Trial (gr. III) under the lights for the first time.

The Derby itself might benefit from a few tweaks, particularly as they relate to how the final field is determined and how post positions are drawn.

Following a 23-horse cavalry charge in the 100th Kentucky Derby in 1974 and a 21-horse field in 1981, the field size has been limited to 20 starters. While many have proposed to limit the field to less than that, 20 doesn’t always mean 20.

Consider the 2011 Run for the Roses. The race drew 22 entries the Wednesday before the race, with only 20 permitted to start based on their graded stakes earnings. On that Friday, Uncle Mo was scratched, but the rules did not permit Sway Away, No. 21 on the earnings list, to join the field. Needless to say, the colt’s connections were not pleased when 19 went postward, with trainer Jeff Bonde calling Sway Away a “victim of the system.”

Most other races in North America allow also-eligibles. The nation’s tote system can handle the 24 entries on the Kentucky Derby Future Wager. Why shouldn’t the Derby draw a 22-horse field with a pair of also-eligibles that could draw in should there be a defection or two?

In 2002, Windward Passage, the winner of that year’s Rebel Stakes (gr. III), was No. 21 on the list and didn’t draw into the field despite the scratch of Danthebluegrassman the day before the Derby. The breeder/owner of Windward Passage? Team Valor Racing, headed by Barry Irwin, who won this year’s Derby with Animal Kingdom.

“It’s not so much an owner’s question as it is how it affects the bettors,” Irwin said recently. “It’s the advance wagering on Friday; that’s the issue as far as I can see.”

It’s an issue that doesn’t hold a whole lot of water. While there is advance wagering, it has traditionally been a small fraction of what is bet on the Derby. And, as more wagering moves online, refunds become less of a hassle.

For the owners, it allows that shot at the roses, despite the longshot odds. As for Windward Passage, he shipped to Texas and finished fourth in the Lone Star Derby (gr. III).

“In real life if your horse is that far down on the list, the chances of your horse being the Derby winner are pretty slim anyway,” Irwin said. “So, if you’re going to knock out a contender, that’s one thing; but if you’re just filling the gate, that’s another thing.”

Once horses are entered, there needs to be a better way of determining post positions. A blind draw is fine for a giveaway at a carnival or a kid’s birthday party, but a blind draw for a sporting event of the Derby’s magnitude is wrong. While it creates some suspense and garners some airtime, it’s time for this method to go.

We couldn’t agree more with Matthew Gatsas’ “Industry Voices” editorial in the April 30 edition of The Blood-Horse (page 1156). He wrote: “Simply give the connections of the top earner the first pick, continue down the list, and the 20th selection goes to the final qualifier.”

He pointed out that no other major sport relies on the blind draw, and he’s right. Home field advantage in the playoffs based on regular season performance is in play for the NFL, NBA, MLB, and NHL. The fastest qualifiers get the best slots in NASCAR and other motor sports. Even the NCAA men’s and women’s college basketball tournaments—March Madness—are seeded.

While there are plenty of upsets during March Madness, and the No. 1-seeded teams don’t always reach the Final Four, everyone knows the best horse doesn’t always win the Derby. That’s the sporting life. However, in the case of the Derby, the better horses have earned the right to be given better chances.


Was Animal Kingdom’s Derby Win a Loss for the Preakness???

This week’s LET IT RIDE.COM HOT TOPIC comes from Rick Snider of The Washington Examiner…take a read and VOICE AN OPINION!

Animal Kingdom’s win is loss for Preakness

The Preakness Stakes appears to be an afterthought on the Triple Crown trail.

After Animal Kingdom’s long-shot victory in perhaps the poorest Kentucky Derby field since 1983, few of those horses are progressing to Pimlico Race Course on May 21. Runner-up Nehro will head to the Belmont Stakes, hoping to beat a tiring Animal Kingdom there. Only Derby losers Mucho Macho Man (third), Shackleford (fourth) and favorite Dialed In (eighth) have committed to the Preakness.

Translation: This Triple Crown leg looks more boring than the NFL labor talks.

The 14-horse starting gate won’t be short on entrants; nine non-Derby runners are possible. However, there’s no star power. Animal Kingdom’s victory at the Derby might have been a fluke, and none of the sport’s top 3-year-olds is healthy. Uncle Mo, once considered a legitimate Triple Crown threat, is sick. Toby’s Corner is also on the mend.

Horse racing has enough trouble attracting crowds without losing its few big names. Crowds at Pimlico plummeted in 2009 after major infield changes, including the ban on bringing in alcohol. Last year’s Preakness saw a recovery to about 95,760, but that still was 21 percent short of 2007’s record crowds. In other words, Pimlico drew significantly smaller crowds despite a more wholesome family atmosphere with quality entertainment.

Nothing draws fans like a big horse, though, and Animal Kingdom doesn’t rate despite a legitimate Derby victory. Belmont will draw heavily should Animal Kingdom also win the Preakness, but for now he’s just some lucky horse from Churchill Downs. Maybe if he was called Animal House and ridden by John Belushi the public might come, but even the colt’s local ties — he’s stabled in Fair Hill, Md., near the Delaware border under trainer Graham Motion — won’t be enough.

The question is whether Animal Kingdom can replicate the quick rise of Derby-winning predecessors Charismatic (1999), Funny Cide (2003) and War Emblem (2005) by also taking the Preakness.

Certainly, Animal Kingdom is an intriguing horse. It’s not often a Derby winner has also won on grass and synthetic tracks in just five career starts. Indeed, he was the first Derby winner with only four previous races since 1918.

Maybe we’re seeing the rise of the next great champion. A resume that includes wins on three racing surfaces surely provides options. Still, Animal Kingdom has no drawing power. His only previous stakes victory was the modest Grade 3 Spiral, which is like hitting a homer at Hagerstown.

The Preakness is an entirely different race than the Derby. It requires speed and tactics rather than the cavalry charge of nearly 20 horses in Louisville. Dialed In may be the favorite; Preakness bettors often have seen a badly beaten Derby choice rebound in Baltimore. If Dialed In stays close early, he has a real chance of beating Animal Kingdom. That is, unless Animal Kingdom proves he’s legit.

And that’s why there are betting machines.