Archive for Belmont

Saturday’s Stakes Provided Preview of Breeders’ Cup

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?

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Is Racing Capable of Capitalizing On A Star Like California Chrome???

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?

Field Size Remains a Major Problem for Horse Racing

This week’s LET IT RIDE.COM HOT TOPIC comes from Bill Finley of ESPN.com…take a read and VOICE AN OPINION!

Small fields, big problem

The entire card at Hollywood Park Friday consisted of 52 starters. The winners included a $3.40 horse, a $4 horse, a $3.80 horse and a $5 horse. Favorites won four of the eight races on the card.

This isn’t meant to pick on Hollywood Park or the racing department there. The following day Belmont had five starters in the Grade 1 Mother Goose and a 1-5 favorite. (Dreaming of Julia, who lost). The feature the next day at Belmont, the Open Mind, also drew five starters. Monmouth Park put on a two-year-old maiden race Saturday with the ridiculously inflated purse of $40,000 and could only get six starters. The winner paid $2.60. Back at Hollywood, the Grade 2 Hollywood Oaks on Saturday attracted a field of five. It was won by 4-5 shot Doinghardtime, who topped a $6.80 exacta and a $15.80 trifecta. She was part of a Pick Three that paid $18.60, actually not that bad when you consider that the winners paid $2.80, $3.60 and $4.40 and there were just 20 horses combined in those three races.

That was the case the last few days at Hollywood, Belmont, Monmouth, but it’s not just those tracks. Everywhere you go, the fields are pathetically small and the favorites dominate. The problem is particularly bad in stakes races, especially stakes races on the dirt.

By and large, the sport of horse racing is putting out a product on a daily basis that its customers despise, and that’s a huge problem. Bettors don’t want to wager on five-horse fields, they don’t want to bet on 2-5 shots and they don’t want to play exactas that pay $6.20. Yet more and more that’s exactly what the sport keeps giving them. Horse racing is not unlike any other business: try to sell a lousy product and your business will soon be in the toilet.

And it’s only going to get worse. The foal crop keeps getting smaller every year. We may not be too far from the point where a six-horse race is celebrated as a big field.

That’s one reason we are seeing so many short fields, the other is the reluctance of trainers to run their horses back if they haven’t had five or six-weeks of rest. Perhaps it’s the way they are bred, perhaps it’s that this country allows its race horses to be pumped full of myriad drugs which makes recovering from a race a lengthy task; whatever it is when horses don’t run fields are going to be small.

It’s not that the industry isn’t worried about this problem, but it’s not worried nearly enough. This is an issue that is crippling the sport and something has to be done and it has to be done now. The product is everything and the product has to be improved.

There may be more than one way to solve this problem, but the most obvious is to reduce the number of racing dates. The norm in Southern California is now four days a week and NYRA cut back to four days a week during a part of the winter season at Aqueduct. Monmouth only races three days a week. But the cuts in racing schedules have to go way beyond what has happened so far. NYRA should run four days a week year-round, with the exception of Saratoga. But Saratoga doesn’t need a six-day-a-week schedule like it has when five would work much better.

You cannot justify racing four days a week in Southern California when you have a Friday card at Hollywood that attracts just 52 horses.

Give the fans what they want — good betting races, good racing — and they will support you. Give them garbage and they’ll find something else to spend their money on.

WHAT’S YOUR TAKE?

Is The Triple Crown Harder Than Ever To Win???

This week’s LET IT RIDE.COM HOT TOPIC comes from Alice Wincze of Lexington Herald-Leader…take a read and VOICE AN OPINION!

Why winning the Triple Crown is harder than ever

The fervor of the question increases with every passing year. And as the years turn into decades — three now and counting — the subject gets dissected so exhaustively that even those deemed experts abandon trying to come up with one concrete answer.

I’ll Have Another’s victories in the Kentucky Derby and Preakness Stakes have gathered the racing world to its latest roundtable discussion over why it has been 34 years since a horse has proven capable of capturing the three-race, five-week gauntlet that is the American Triple Crown.

Though just 11 legends have accomplished the feat, the current drought has long since passed the previous record 25-year gap between Citation’s sweep in 1948 and Secretariat in 1973.

The one thought most agree upon is if I’ll Have Another wins the Triple Crown, he’ll have done so in an era unlike that of any of his predecessors.

To merely say it takes a special horse to win the Triple Crown is too simple a way of explaining why a generation of fans exist who have never witnessed a sweep. Some of the greatest horses of our time, most notably Spectacular Bid (1979), Alysheba (1987) and Sunday Silence (1989), made it to this very point only to be tripped up by various factors during their 11/2-mile journeys around the Belmont oval.

For the majority of the 11 horses that have failed to finish the job since Affirmed did so in 1978, their attempts have come at a time when the racing landscape is drastically different than it was for the 11 who succeeded.

This is not your grandfather’s racing. As the Thoroughbred breed has changed — for better or worse — so too have training styles and the attitude within the sport.

“I think it has (become harder to win) because of the reasons for which we breed horses,” said Penny Chenery, owner of Secretariat. “Back in the ’70s we were still breeding horses to race them, and so much of the industry now is concentrated on sales. So you breed a good-looking, early speed horse who isn’t equipped to go a mile and a half, or to run three hard races in five weeks.

“We just have a different set of goals with the horses we breed now.”

The Triple Crown races have not changed since the Thoroughbred Racing Association formally recognized the three-race series in 1950. The variables needed to notch victories in the trio, though, have grown to titanic proportions

Size matters

Of the 11 Triple Crown winners, only the great War Admiral in 1937 began his run by defeating 19 others in the Kentucky Derby.

With the first leg now the most famous race in the sport and long-shot winners showing a Derby victor can come from anywhere, 19- and 20-horse fields have become the norm in the past decade, increasing the odds that even the most talented horse of a generation could be derailed by a troubled trip.

Though field sizes in general have declined over the years, the Triple Crown races regularly hit their starting-gate limits.

Citation only had to beat 15 total horses en route to his coronation. Secretariat defeated 21 others during his Triple Crown run. Seattle Slew and Affirmed faced 29 and 20 total rivals, respectively.

I’ll Have Another took on 19 in the Derby, 10 in the Preakness and could encounter nine more foes in the Belmont

“It’s not too tough to win the Triple Crown. It’s just these fields are always full fields and it’s all about getting a good trip,” said Graham Motion, trainer of 2011 Kentucky Derby winner Animal Kingdom. “There is always going to be a horse in the Derby that’s not going to get a good trip and that’s what’s going to make it so hard to have a Triple Crown winner.”

How one even gets a horse ready for the Triple Crown races is a different animal than it was in the ’70s.

First, there is the trend of trainers wanting to allow more time between starts in hopes of avoiding the dreaded “bounce” factor off of big efforts. However, with the 20-horse Derby field being determined in part by graded stakes earnings since 1986, some say they now have to ask more of their prospects earlier in order to secure the crucial money needed.

“It is not a three-race series anymore, it’s more like a five-race series,” said Hall of Fame trainer D. Wayne Lukas, winner of 13 Triple Crown races. “In the ’50s or ’60s, you could take a soft approach and train your horse and come May say, ‘I think he’s good enough’ and run him in the Derby against 10 or 12 horses. Now you cannot do that.

“You’ve got to say, ‘We better run good in the Rebel Stakes, the Arkansas Derby, the Fountain of Youth.’ We better go to the well because the earnings are so imperative for us to get in.”

While the race for graded earnings has played a role, it is the monetary action brought on by the auction arena that has been arguably the biggest factor in the Triple Crown drought.

Money changes everything

Where once homebreds ruled the classics, the rise of the commercial marketplace in the past 30 years has prompted breeders to produce a different type of athlete than previously demanded.

With deep-pocketed buyers like Robert Sangster, Coolmore, and Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid al Maktoum arriving on the scene in the 1980s, wild bidding wars erupted that produced seven- and eight-figure yearlings as well as broodmare prospects.

Since buyers need to get as much return as possible on such lofty investments, precocious babies that could inspire a strong following in the breeding shed went to the top of buyers’ wish lists, regardless if they had classic ability.

“There might be a tendency to try and breed a powerful speedy horse as opposed to one that looks like it could run a distance of ground. But you have to understand that commercial breeders are breeding what they think they can sell,” said bloodstock adviser Ric Waldman, who managed the career of leading sire Storm Cat. “And I think the end user has wanted a speedy horse.

“It’s not like we don’t want to breed Derby winners, everybody wants a Derby winner. But it goes back to the type of horse we think will make a good stud horse. And the kind of horse we think will make a good stud horse has typically been one that has shown speed and precocity.”

In trying to breed fast, pretty horses, some argue the durability of the modern Thoroughbred has been sacrificed along with the stamina. Today’s runners might not be the iron horses of the past, but part of the issue behind their perceived fragility may be just that — perception.

“I cannot believe how well these horses handle the comeback (during the Triple Crown),” Motion said. “Animal Kingdom went into the Preakness great, he went into the Belmont great and I never could have predicted that having never done it before. I don’t think we give these horses enough credit for how durable they are.”

Given the way the sport has changed, some like Lukas have said the Triple Crown should change with it, both in terms of the races’ distances and spacing.

If I’ll Have Another ends up winning this challenge, he’ll not only have racing’s greatest achievement on his résumé, he’ll have overcome a new set of obstacles in doing so.

“It shouldn’t be easy,” Waldman said. “While everyone is hoping we have a Triple Crown winner, the fact there hasn’t been one in such a long period of time underscores how difficult it is. You add in the component that maybe we’re changing the breed over this period of time and that compounds the difficulty in trying to achieve it.”

WHAT’S YOUR TAKE?

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.

WHAT’S YOUR TAKE?