Archive for Del Mar

Could A Turf Race In November at Del Mar Decide Horse of the Year????

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

Doug O’Neill’s suspension shows why little makes sense in horse racing

As odd as it may seem, Horse of the Year may ultimately be decided through a race at Del Mar … in November.

It’s been that kind of a year.

In a racing season filled with the likes of injuries, scandals, and a Triple Crown near-miss, just to name a few, the appearance of Kentucky Derby-Preakness winner California Chrome in a turf race just might be remedy for the bad taste lingering from the controversial and widely panned Breeders’ Cup Classic.

According to trainer Art Sherman, California Chrome will be given a workout on the turf on Nov. 23 and if all goes well, the California-bred will run in the Grade 1 Hollywood Derby at Del Mar on Nov. 29 at the track’s inaugural fall meet.

Considering the dilemma facing Eclipse Award voters, the ability of a dirt star like California Chrome to display a new dimension by adding a Grade 1 turf stakes to his resume could be enough to propel him to frontrunner status for racing’s most coveted prize.

At the very least, it would supply the kind of a satisfaction that the BC Classic was supposed to supply.

Instead, the decision by the Santa Anita stewards not to disqualify the victorious Bayern for bumping the favored Shared Belief at the start of the race has created a situation in which some voters seem intent on administering their own brand of justice by using their Eclipse Award ballots to offset the stewards’ verdict.

The Breeders’ Cup Classic was painted as the race that would settle the Horse of the Year debate, but in its aftermath turf star Main Sequence emerged from the Breeders’ Cup as the No. 1 choice in the final National Thoroughbred Racing Association poll. Bayern and California Chrome, who was third in the BC Classic, were second and third, respectively.

Main Sequence is a perfect 4-for-4 this year — all in Grade 1 stakes — and turned in an exceptional effort to beat Prix de l’Arc de Triomphe runner-up Flintshire in the Breeders’ Cup Turf. Yet, aside from the Breeders’ Cup, Main Sequence faced only modest competition in his turf victories.

In contrast, this year’s crop of 3-year-old males turned out to be a sensational group with runners like Bayern, California Chrome, Shared Belief, Tonalist and Toast of New York, who was second in the BC Classic. Given that level of depth and competition, it would only seem proper to honor the best member of that class as the year’s best horse.

The Breeders’ Cup Classic, though, may have pulled the plug on that notion.

Yet now, there may be a chance for redemption. The Hollywood Derby would give California Chrome a fourth Grade 1 win in 2014, two more than any of his 3-year-old rivals. His four-bagger, with the Santa Anita Derby, Kentucky Derby and Preakness, also carries more clout than Main Sequence’s quartet and has enough of a cushion to push his three 2014 losses into the background.

Plan B, in case California Chrome fizzles in his turf work, would be to run in the Native Diver, also on Nov. 29. It’s on the dirt, but is only a Grade 3 stakes and would lack the charisma that could come from a Grade 1 win on a new surface. Naming California Chrome Horse of the Year off a final push from a Grade 3 stakes seems a stretch.

So for now, the intrigue of finding out whether the grass will be greener for California Chrome has the Horse of the Year debate back on the right track. Instead of focusing on the actions of three stewards, there will be a race to ponder and an outcome that will be put under a microscope by discerning eyes.

It’s a dramatic improvement from the quagmire racing currently has on its hands … just as long as California Chrome doesn’t bump anyone.



Are Large Fields and Polytrack Connected???

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

Handicapping Insights

The Blue Grass Stakes (G1) was run for the eighth and final time on Polytrack Saturday and California shipper Dance With Fate (Two Step Salsa) will go into the history books as the last winner over the synthetic track.

Whether or not Dance With Fate goes on to greatness three weeks later in the Kentucky Derby is a moot point. He beat 13 rivals in a terrific betting race and joins the likes of Bandini, Sinister Minister and Millennium Wind that won the Blue Grass and little else.

I picked those three as they won the Blue Grass back when it was run on dirt. Since switching to Polytrack, the Bluegrass has had a spotty record producing classic types but that was the case in the most recent years when it was run on dirt. Not much changed but at least the Blue Grass renewals that were run on Polytrack had big fields.

A couple of years ago, the Jockey Club spent millions of dollars to have McKinsey & Co. do extensive market research on our industry. One common theme that they, and every other forum, has come up with is that field size is a critical component of business success. Bigger fields create more exotic wagering opportunities and more betting.

Despite its universal acceptance, racing still pays lip service to field size. It brags when it is up marginally but despite fewer foals produced, still runs too many races. A slight increase in field size barely results in marginal results. When we say we want bigger field sizes, I have to quote a panel at a Thoroughbred Racing Association seminar that stated, “We want seven 10s and not 10 sevens.”

In other words, seven races a day with 10 horses in each instead of 10 races a day with seven horses in each. But each day, despite McKinsey’s research that reinforced what we already knew, racing still gives us 10 sevens each day.

No further proof is needed when you look at the recent decisions of Keeneland and Del Mar to pull out their Polytrack and go back to dirt. It’s not like dirt is the new surface and they were taking a big gamble to install it. They have years of experience on dirt, eight and seven years experience with Poly, and they ignored the proven advice that bettors want big fields.

In the years between 1999 and 2006, the Blue Grass was run on dirt at Keeneland. The average field size for the eight runnings was 8.86 starters per race. When Polytrack was installed for the 2007 meeting, the last eight runnings of the Bluegrass Stakes had an average field size of 13.14, an increase of 48 percent. If you were told that field size for your premier three-year-old race would increase by 48 percent, you would agree to a synthetic track of plastic bottle caps.

I went back and looked at the Pacific Classic (G1) at Del Mar to see what the results were when they switched to Polytrack in 2007. In the years between 2000 and 2006, the Pacific Classic was run on dirt and the average field size for the seven runnings was 8.28 starters per race. When Polytrack was installed for the 2007 meeting, the average field size for the seven runnings increased to 10.71, an increase of 29 percent.

As far as betting was concerned, it was hard to gauge the results since over the past 14 years, betting menus have changed dramatically and more wagering options fractionalize existing pools.

Was the Blue Grass a better Kentucky Derby prep when it was run on dirt? I would say yes, but not by much. Was the Blue Grass run on Polytrack a better race? I would say yes, by far.


Has The Synthetic Era Ended For American Horse Racing???

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

Tread wearing thin on synthetic era

The announcement last week that Del Mar will replace its Polytrack racing surface with natural dirt for the 2015 racing season may well signal the end of the synthetic-track era in American racing after less than a decade.

The number of important races run over various synthetic surfaces peaked in 2008 and 2009, when 38 Grade 1 races each year – more than a third of the nation’s Grade 1 inventory – were run on Polytrack at Del Mar and Keeneland, Cushion Track at Hollywood, or Pro-Ride at Santa Anita. There were still 31 synthetic Grade 1 races in 2010 when the Breeders’ Cup and its seven main-track Grade 1’s moved to dirt at Churchill. Then Santa Anita switched back to dirt in 2011, Hollywood closed its doors for good at the end of 2013, and now Del Mar is switching back to dirt.

So from that high of 38 synthetic Grade 1’s in 2008 and 2009, there are likely to be just six synthetic Grade 1’s in 2015, all at Keeneland – unless and until that track switches back to dirt, a move many in the industry believe is now inevitable.

Keeneland’s signature main-track races – the Blue Grass and Ashland in the spring, and the Breeders’ Futurity, Alcibiades and Spinster in the fall – have declined in stature during the Polytrack era, having been won largely by grass horses who have had little other success in Grade 1 races on the dirt. When Keeneland had the only synthetic Grade 1 races in the sport back in 2006, it was a pioneer. If it still has them in 2015, after the biggest venues that followed its lead have changed back, it might instead be perceived as stubbornly clinging to a rejected technology despite its longtime motto of “Racing as it was meant to be.”

The proprietors of both Del Mar and Keeneland have said that they want to host Breeders’ Cups in the future, and while the Breeders’ Cup has taken no official position on requiring a dirt main track, it became clear after the 2008 and 2009 editions on Pro-Ride that the future of the series was on dirt.

“There is no way we would have gone back to Santa Anita so many times if they hadn’t gone back to dirt,” said one Breeders’ Cup board member. “And I think it has been made very clear to Del Mar and Keeneland that any chance they have of hosting a Breeders’ Cup is contingent on having dirt tracks.”

Regardless of what Keeneland does, the other elephant in the room when it comes to synthetic surfaces is the $10 million Dubai World Cup, the world’s richest race. The World Cup was conceived as a dirt race and when it was run at Nad Al-Sheba from 1996 through 2008, it routinely attracted top American dirt horses, including the victorious Cigar (1996), Silver Charm (1998), Captain Steve (2001), Pleasantly Perfect (2004), Invasor (2007), and Curlin (2008).

Since being run on a Tapeta surface at Meydan in 2010, it has become a nearly meaningless race beyond the money, with no championship implications and diminished American participation. Changing the World Cup from dirt to Tapeta was clearly a premature move, probably based on the Maktoum family’s false impression that racing in America and perhaps elsewhere was headed for a synthetic future.

Now, with synthetic Grade 1 racing on the verge of disappearing from the sport here, and little movement abroad toward racing top-class horses over anything but grass or dirt, running the world’s richest race on a synthetic surface makes it something of a white elephant, little more than a rich novelty.

Del Mar is currently searching for the right kind and mix of dirt for its new main track, and that reflects an opportunity for other American tracks now that the synthetic age is passing: To take the time, effort and money that was spent trying to invent new racing surfaces into improving the safety and quality of dirt tracks in this country.

While there was plenty of politics and misinformation behind the introduction of the synthetic tracks, many of their advocates were well intentioned, trying to improve the welfare of horses and riders. Now that the sport has pretty much decided to keep its main-track racing on dirt in this country, that goal should be preserved, and the entire industry should work together to make dirt racing as safe as it can be.


Geldings Ruling Racing in 2013

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

The Dude and Dan

How truly wonderful it is that two outstanding geldings, Game On Dude and Wise Dan, are gracing the racing stage this year.

The good news is Game On Dude and Wise Dan are a combined nine for nine so far this year. The bad news is The Dude and Dan have made a total of 51 career starts between them, yet they have never run against each other. Not only that, as it stands right now, Game On Dude and Wise Dan will not clash anytime during the remainder of the year.

Game On Dude, trained by Hall of Famer Bob Baffert, is headed to the Grade I, $5 million Breeders’ Cup Classic at 1 1/4 miles on dirt at Santa Anita Park on Nov. 2 following his record 8 1/2-length victory in Del Mar’s Pacific Classic on Aug. 25.

Wise Dan, conditioned by Charlie LoPresti, is headed to the Grade I, $1 million Woodbine Mile on turf Sept. 15 after he won Saratoga’s Grade II Fourstardave Handicap on Aug. 10. After the Woodbine Mile, Wise Dan is scheduled to run in the Grade I, $2 million Breeders’ Cup Mile at Santa Anita on Nov. 2, a race he won last year in course record time.

The two best geldings in the sport today again are ranked first and second nationally. Here is this week’s NTRA Top Thoroughbred Poll (with the number of first-place votes in parenthesis):

1. Game On Dude (32)
2. Wise Dan (15)
3. Royal Delta
4. Cross Traffic
5. Point of Entry
6. Princess of Sylmar
7. Obviously
8. Sahara Sky
9. Flat Out
10. Palace Malice

While Game and Dude and Wise Dan are exceptional, they certainly have not yet come close to compiling a body of work that reaches the same level of greatness achieved by Kelso in the 1960s, Forego in the 1970s or John Henry in the 1980s.

Kelso was voted five Horse of the Year titles, Forego three and John Henry two.

Wise Dan has a single Horse of the Year to his credit. He was voted 2012 Horse of the Year and is in the running for a second such title this year. Game On Dude has never been voted Horse of the Year, but he also is in the running for the title this year.

On my list of the Top 100 Racehorses of the 20th and 21st Centuries, Kelso is No. 4 (behind Man o’ War, Secretariat and Citation), Forego is No. 13 and John Henry is No. 22.

On this date (Sept. 4) in 1959, Kelso won a six-furlong maiden sprint at Atlantic City to begin his distinguished career. How great was Kelso? What Kelso would go on to pull off would be comparable to a contemporary horse winning five consecutive Breeders’ Cup Classics, with a Breeders’ Cup Turf triumph thrown in for good measure.

Kelso won the Jockey Club Gold Cup, the Breeders’ Cup Classic of its day, for five straight years. In 1964, Kelso also captured the Washington, D.C., International, forerunner of the Breeders’ Cup Turf.

Regarding weight, Kelso carried 130 pounds or more 24 times. He twice won under 136 pounds (once in the 1961 Brooklyn Handicap, the other time in a 1964 handicap race at Aqueduct).

Forego also carried 130 pounds or more 24 times. He toted a staggering 137 pounds when victorious in the 1976 Marlboro Cup Handicap while spotting 18 pounds to runner-up Honest Pleasure.

Horses today rarely pack 130 pounds or more. One reason for this is many of the races a Wise Dan or Game On Dude run in today are no longer handicaps.

Excluding sprints, no horse has carried 130 pounds or more in a graded stakes race on American soil since Skip Away’s victory under 131 pounds in the Grade II Philip H. Iselin Handicap at Monmouth Park on Aug. 30, 1998.

Wise Dan won this year’s Fourstardave Handicap while carrying 129 pounds. That is the highest weight he has ever shouldered. The highest weight Game On Dude has ever carried is 127 pounds when he won this year’s Hollywood Gold Cup.

Forego not only was an admirable weight carrier, he was quite versatile in terms of distances. In 1974, Forego had the class and stamina to win the 1 1/2-mile Woodward and two-mile Jockey Club Gold Cup. That same year, he also had the class and speed to win the seven-furlong Carter Handicap and seven-furlong Vosburgh Handicap. In the Carter, Forego defeated a formidable foe in Mr. Prospector. In the Vosburgh, Forego carried 131 pounds and posted an excellent final time of 1:21 3/5.

John Henry never carried more than 130 pounds. He carried 130 pounds only three times.

Because John Henry became so immensely popular, tracks from coast to coast desperately wanted him. An appearance by John Henry meant a significant increase in attendance and handle. Cognizant of this, John Henry’s trainer, Ron McAnally, let it be known that the lower the weight assigned to John Henry, the better chance a track had to get him to race there.

It is my belief that keeping more than 130 pounds off 1981 Horse of the Year John Henry was a major reason he was still so effective late in his career, unlike Kelso and Forego. Remarkably, John Henry was voted a second Horse of the Year title at the age of 9 in 1984. As a 9-year-old, John Henry won six of nine starts, with four of his victories coming at the Grade I level.

Compare that to what Kelso and Forego did at 9 after carrying so much weight earlier in their careers.

When Kelso was 9, he made only one start. He finished fourth in an allowance race at Hialeah Park.

When Forego was 9, he made just two starts. He won an allowance race at Belmont, then ran fifth under 132 pounds on a sloppy track in the Grade I Suburban Handicap at that track.

Game On Dude and Wise Dan are each 6. Considering neither of them has yet to carry as much as 130 pounds, hopefully they both still will be racing — and winning — as 9-year-olds in the year 2016.


If Hollywood Closes, Will Del Mar Pick Up Fall Dates?

This week’s LET IT RIDE.COM HOT TOPIC comes from Lyndsay Winkley and Ed Zieralski of UT San Diego…take a read and VOICE AN OPINION!

Del Mar considering fall racing dates

DEL MAR — It’s been apparent for some time that horseracing’s days are numbered at Betfair Hollywood Park, but only recently have tracks in Southern California begun to address it, starting with Del Mar and Los Alamitos in Orange County.

Joe Harper, president and CEO of the Del Mar Thoroughbred Club, said Del Mar would like to host a short fall meeting so long as it included the Breeders’ Cup dates in late October or early November. Del Mar plans to expand and install a new turf course for the 2014 meeting and has designs on hosting the Breeders’ Cup Championships as early as November, 2015.

Los Alamitos would like to house more horses and stage more thoroughbred racing and training in addition to its year-round night racing for quarter horses, according to a recent article in Bloodhorse Magazine. Los Alamitos officials plan a $12 million expansion that will add 700 horse stalls to the 300 stalls they currently have dedicated to present thoroughbred racing. They’ll also improve a grandstand that holds 15,000 spectators now. Los Alamitos currently houses 1,100 quarter horses.

Harper said Los Alamitos would be a good location for a limited, three-days-a-week meeting in the spring and a year-round venue for training.

“A year-round training facility won’t work at Del Mar,” Harper said. “It won’t work at Santa Anita. Los Alamitos, from my point of view, is the best place. We have a very good relationship with (track executive and consultant) Brad McKinzie and Doc Allred (owner of the track). Doc’s word is his bond. We’d love to do business with them.

“But for us, any expansion of dates will be done with one thing in mind,” Harper added. “Don’t screw around with the summer meeting. Those dates work great. So we’re not going mess with that at all.”

The matter was discussed Tuesday at the Del Mar Race Track Authority and Race Track Leasing Commission meeting. Tim Fennell, CEO and general manager of the Del Mar Fairgrounds and Racetrack, said he would be in favor of additional dates in the fall for racing. Any expansion of racing would have to go through a series of state governing bodies, but Fennell said he would push for the approvals.

Harper said Del Mar’s fall racing would be an “Oak Tree-type meeting.” Santa Anita Park hosted the fall meeting and the Breeders’ Cup last November and will do so again this November. Del Mar has been in discussions with the Breeders’ Cup and sent a proposal last spring in hopes of luring a future world championship to the surfside track.

For now, Del Mar has no plans to add racing until Betfair Hollywood Park is closed. Bay Meadows Land Co., which owns the track’s 238-acre site, has been approved for a $2 billion commercial and retail development on the site. But financing has been an issue. Bay Meadows refused to commit to more racing after its racing meet ends in December.

Fairplex Park in Pomona was considered the ideal place to expand thoroughbred racing and add additional stalls for stabling the horses that will be stall-less when Hollywood Park closes. But Fairplex Park officials withdrew from consideration as an alternative to Hollywood Park, leaving the industry scrambling to find another year-round stabling and training venue.


Del Mar Joins Saratoga, Limits Field Size for Two Year Old Races This Summer

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

Del Mar to limit entries in juvenile maiden races

A day after the New York Racing Association announced it would limit the number of starters in 2-year-old maiden races this summer, the Del Mar Thoroughbred Club and the Thoroughbred Owners of California reached a similar agreement Wednesday.

NYRA said it would allow eight 2-year-olds in maiden sprint races at Saratoga Springs, N.Y., hoping to have “more cleanly run events” and “more high-quality races.” In the past, 2-year-old races could have as many as 12 horses.

Del Mar will limit the number of starters to 10 in maiden sprint and route races. The new rule won’t apply for stakes races.

“I have been trying to get Del Mar to do it for years,” trainer Bob Baffert said by email Wednesday. “It’s a great idea. Young horses can’t develop as well in large fields.”

Tom Robbins, Del Mar’s executive vice president, racing/racing secretary, said the TOC approached him three or four years ago to reduce the field for 2-year-olds, but it was never approved by the TOC.

“Del Mar has been OK with it, but it was not passed by the TOC,” Robbins said.

That changed on Wednesday.

“(We) have agreed to limit the number of starters in all maiden 2-year-old races to 10,” TOC president Lou Raffetto Jr. wrote in an email, “with the understanding that all such races with 16 shall be split as long as it does not stop another book race from going.”

Raffetto said the TOC planned to agree to the change before New York announced its new rules.

Robbins said Del Mar couldn’t unilaterally put in a rule without “dealing with the owners and trainers in the state.” He said limiting fields to 10 2-year-olds seemed to be a perfect compromise.

“What if you said eight and the ninth or 10th horse didn’t get in?” Robbins said. “You have a lot of mad people.”

Oceanside’s Jeffrey Bloom, whose Bloom Racing LLC owns five 2-year-olds in syndication, thinks the change will have little effect.

“Sure it’s nice to have a shorter field,” Bloom said, “but I don’t see a need to go lower than 10. I don’t think it will have a significant impact.

“To have fewer than 10 could be a problem. It’s not rare to have two or three scratches in a 2-year-old race due to sickness or injury. You could be down to five or six horses.

“A lot of 2-year-olds have some experience (by the time the Del Mar meet is run) so traffic in race is a standard part of racing.”

Del Mar’s implementation of the new rule could affect the track’s profit. Races with more horses usually generate a higher betting handle. Still, Robbins said Del Mar is willing to take that risk.

“We have never had a problem with that,” Robbins said. “Everyone is aware of it and on board. It’s all good.”

Del Mar runs from July 18 to Sept. 5.

CORRECTION: In the original posting of this story, it was stated that Tom Robbins approached the TOC about reducing the field for 2-year-olds. However, the TOC approached Robbins. We apologize.


Match Races Need to Feature More Than a Marketing Gimmick

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

A Case for Match Races

Sunday’s “Battle of the Exes” at Del Mar was, yes, a gimmick, hokey and a horrible race to bet on with one horse 3-5 and the other even-money. It was also a lot of fun. Sorry, purists, but I found it to be a lot more entertaining than anything else that happened in horse racing over the weekend.

And it wasn’t just the storyline.

Former lovebirds Mike Smith and Chantal Sutherland battled it out on the racetrack with the male jockey admitting he would be humiliated had he lost to his old girlfriend. Smith, riding like it was the Kentucky Derby, won and pumped his first in celebration as his maiden claimer crossed the wire in front of Sutherland’s maiden claimer.

But Smith and Sutherland ride against each other every day, and no one cares. It took the match race aspect to turn their fractured relationship into an entertaining spectacle. That’s because match races are great theater. And this one got me thinking: why can’t racing feature a lot more match races, and not just gimmicks but ones that pit top-class horses?

Match races have given horse racing some of its greatest and most memorable moments. There was Man o’War vs. Sir Barton, Nashua vs. Swaps and Seabiscuit vs. War Admiral in perhaps the greatest match race ever. Harness racing had Bret Hanover vs. Cardigan Bay. The “Pace of the Century” attracted 45,000 to Yonkers Raceway.

There’s nothing more compelling than two great horses going after one another, the outcome proving who’s the better of the two.
Joker Face and Parable, the two maiden claimers that met in the Battle of the Exes, are hardly the stuff of champions. But even pitting those two slowpokes provided the type of intrigue and excitement you never see in a normal race.

Would Smith gun for the lead? (He did). How would Sutherland respond? (She asked her horse for everything in an effort to press Smith’s mount). Would the two match strides in the stretch? (Not really. Joker Face was too good). There were some chess match elements to the race.

(The Del Mar racing office did a good job finding two horses rather close in ability. But shouldn’t Sutherland been assigned a filly? … just to make things all that more interesting).

If matching two maiden claimers could do this, what about two star horses squaring off? How much fun would a Blind Luck vs. Havre de Grace match race be? Or top 3-year-old colt Shackleford vs. top 3-year-old filly It’s Tricky? What if they were ever able to get Rachel Alexandra and Zenyatta not just in a race together but in a match race? Why not race 3-year-old filly pacing sensation See You At Peelers head-to-head against one of the top male pacers?

Any one of these events would provide the type of compelling elements that are very hard to find these days in racing, even in some of the sport’s biggest races. A match race is a showdown, a rivalry. They’re Ali/Frazier, Red Sox/Yankees, Michigan/Ohio State, the sort of thing that grabs the attention of the media and public unlike anything else.

In horse racing, we don’t root for our favorite team or horse but for the 4. Twenty-eight minutes or so later, we root for the 6. That’s the primary aspect that separates racing from mainstream sports. Too many of our contests lack any kind of excitement and the outcome matters only for betting purposes.

There hasn’t been a significant match race in 36 years, since Ruffian and Foolish Pleasure at Belmont Park in 1975. The Ruffian tragedy soured just about everyone on match races and turned conventional wisdom upside down. Because of what happened to the filly it became accepted that they are too dangerous.

Are they? It’s hard to say, but it seems to be reaching to paint match races with such a broad brush because of one tragedy. Unfortunately, horses break down all the time, in all kinds of races, with big fields and small fields, on all surfaces at all distances.

Racing could use some more excitement. It could use some high-profile match races.