Archive for Santa Anita Handicap

2014 Big Cap Showcased Old Warriors

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

Dude the Redeemer

God love the seasoned warriors; the ones who rise up and reclaim glory in stunning fashion when everyone else has begun writing them off.

During the Sochi Winter Olympics, Austrian skier Mario Matt, two months shy of his 35th birthday, handled a tricky slalom course on challenging soft snow to become the oldest Alpine gold medalist in Olympics history. The course was so tough—termed brutal by some—that five of the eight top skiers from the first of two rounds failed to finish the course.

Matt’s experience, talent, and will to win allowed him to shine against some of the world’s most talented and much younger skiers.

“He’s a tremendous competitor, a game-day guy,” said U.S. men’s head coach Sasha Rearick.

Game On Dude gave racing the same type of performance March 8 in one of the most exciting Santa Anita Handicaps (gr. I) seen in many years.

Santa Anita Park is home base for the 7-year-old son of Awesome Again, but the Southern California track has been the site of as much heartbreak as triumph for him. Just four months ago Game On Dude was favored to win the Breeders’ Cup Classic (gr. I) after a sterling run of five consecutive graded stakes victories, including a 73⁄4-length romp in last year’s Big ’Cap. The gelding, however, finished ninth in the Classic, 11 lengths behind winner Mucho Macho Man and nosed-out second Will Take Charge. Game On Dude had been the favorite in the 2012 Classic, also at Santa Anita, and finished 15 lengths back in seventh.

The Dude ended last year with a good second to Will Take Charge in the Clark Handicap (gr. I), so a strong start this year would have restored the faith of many. But that didn’t happen. Instead, Game On Dude finished fifth in the grade II San Antonio Stakes against much softer competition than he would face in the Big ’Cap. The only other graded stakes winners in the field were Blueskiesnrainbows, who had just won the grade II San Pasqual Stakes, and Willyconker, who had won the grade I Frank E. Kilroe Mile Stakes in 2012 but had not won or placed in a stakes all last year.

So the speculation began. Had the Dude lost his edge?

Trainer Bob Baffert took the heat for the San Antonio loss, saying he didn’t have Game On Dude prepared. Then he stewed over the naysayers.
“Bob’s proud of Game On Dude,” said jockey Mike Smith. “He’s like family to him. When you knock him, you’re walking on the fightin’ side of Bob, I guess, like it says in the old country song that Merle Haggard used to sing.”

The Big ’Cap wound up being the perfect stage for redemption: a rematch with Mucho Macho Man and Will Take Charge at Santa Anita along with the top three finishers from the San Antonio—Blingo, Imperative, and American Blend—and grade II winner Hear the Ghost from the always dangerous barn of Jerry Hollendorfer. The doubt hanging over Game On Dude made him the third choice in the field; the first time he had not been the post time favorite in 15 starts.

The Dude was ready, however. Smith took him right to the front and let him roll through sharp fractions of :22.91, :45.39, and 1:09.39, a brisker pace than what unfolded had when Game On Dude ran head-to-head with Blueskiesnrainbows in the San Antonio. Heading into the second turn, the fans got the showdown they’d been hoping for with Mucho Macho Man at Game On Dude’s right shoulder and Will Take Charge just outside of Mucho Macho Man.

“The stars are all aligned,” said track announcer Trevor Denman.

This time the Dude’s talent and will to win were unassailable. Mucho Macho Man faded and Will Take Charge was held at bay by 13⁄4 lengths. The Dude trifecta was priceless: He made history by winning his third Santa Anita Handicap, he broke the stakes record with his final time of 1:58.17, and he struck dumb his critics.

“It’s an emotional win,” Baffert said afterward. “It kills me when they knock on him, but we came in quiet and that’s the way I like it. We came in under the radar, and we were ready for them.”

The Big ’Cap was an important race for the sport as well. A compelling handicap division allows fans to make a connection with top horses and gives a chance for rivalries to develop. Keep putting such compelling contests on TV and perhaps Thoroughbred racing could start to savor some redemption of its own.

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Steward’s Transparency After Controversial Big Cap Best Call of All

This week’s LET IT RIDE.COM HOT TOPIC comes from Nick Kling of The Troy Record…take a read and VOICE AN OPINION!

Time for Transparency

The 74th running of the Santa Anita Handicap will not be remembered because it was won by a great horse. Nor will it go down in history because of a track-record time. What makes last Saturday’s race notable is the controversy surrounding the outcome.

The short version is this. Game On Dude, Twirling Candy, and Setsuko entered the stretch of the one and one-quarter mile classic in a virtual line. A combination of jockey actions and tiring horses initiated chain-reaction bumping. As a result, favored Twirling Candy surrendered in upper stretch, while the other pair engaged in a slug-fest to the finish line. Game On Dude won by a nose, earning a Grade 1 victory for himself and $450,000 for his connections.

The Santa Anita stewards hung up the inquiry sign and took twelve minutes to determine there would be no disqualification. That decision ignited a controversy and may be challenged on appeal by the connections of Setsuko.

Nevertheless, whether the non-disqualification was correct is not of immediate relevance. What is important is what the three stewards did in the aftermath. They talked about what they had done.

On Sunday, Daily Racing Form (DRF) reported comments made by the stewards, describing their thoughts in reviewing the inquiry. DRF also reported the stewards had voted 2-1 to keep the result as it stood and not disqualify Game On Dude. Included was the name of each of the stewards and how they had voted.

Here is an example. Steward Scott Chaney said, “We held (Setsuko) blameless, and he was clearly interfered with. So the question was, who’s to blame – the inside horse (Game on Dude) or the middle horse (Twirling Candy)? (Twirling Candy) initiated contact. Our determination was (Game on Dude) maintained a straight course.”

Steward Kim Stanley saw it differently. She said, “Twirling Candy and (Game on Dude) I felt had equal contact, and (Setsuko) was the one that got bothered. I think they came in, and out, equal amounts and they bumped into (Setsuko).”

DRF reported, “Chaney and (steward Tom) Ward voted to make no change, while Sawyer argued for a disqualification.”

Transparency like this is rarely seen in Thoroughbred racing. With occasional exceptions, stewards at most venues have had a simple philosophy regarding the public’s right to know — ‘Tough luck, sucker.’

Despite being stonewalled time and again, bettors and horsemen have continued to clamor for accountability. In this era of open government and unfettered information, they say, it is unconscionable Thoroughbred racing hides decisions which determine the outcome of millions of dollars risked by the public.

New York racing took a baby step in the right direction in 2010. Stewards at New York Racing Association (NYRA) tracks began to post a brief, cryptic description of some of their decisions. Here is an example of a recent posting, which I found at the ‘Steward’s Corner’ link on the NYRA website (www.nyra.com). It said:

“RACE 10: Jockey objection for alleged interference in the deep stretch run the #8 Norman Asbjornson (J Pimentel) against #5 Stay Thirsty (R Dominguez). The #8 claims that the #5 drifts in, causing him to alter his course. After reviewing the films the race is official as is.”

To be fair, there have been some NYRA stewards’ postings with more detail. However, I have yet to see one which itemizes how the stewards voted, by name or otherwise, nor any elaboration of why or why not a decision was made.

You might ask why this is important. That’s easy. Many incidents are not cut-and-dried. There can be issues with camera angles, jockey actions and intentions, whether a horse was tiring or had equipment problems, and the like.

I know of an incident at Saratoga last summer where a non-disqualification inflamed bettors needlessly. The jockey on the affected horse believed his mount was out of gas and I strongly suspect that’s what he told the stewards. If the public had been so informed, some of their ire would have been quelled.

There can be a whole host of reasons why something happens. Less debatable is the impact of the stewards’ decisions on bettors, owners, and trainers. No matter how they rule, a large number of people are going to be upset. When evidence is razor thin, as in the Santa Anita Handicap, tempers flare.

Nevertheless, the uproar at Santa Anita would have been far worse without the willingness of the California stewards to discuss their reasoning.

After watching the head-on replay several times, I concluded the stewards made the wrong decision. After reading Cheney’s comments I went back and looked again, this time trying to draw a mental line of the path being followed by each horse. I discovered there is merit to Cheney’s statement Game On Dude held a straight course. I may still believe a disqualification was warranted, but at least my room for doubt was expanded a notch or two.

There is a procedural difference between California and New York racing. Santa Anita stewards are state employees. A single body can determine their work rules. Individual New York stewards are selected by three different bodies: the state racing and wagering board, NYRA, and the Jockey Club.

Nevertheless, to my knowledge, there is no statute stopping the state racing board from directing the stewards to issue more detailed public reports. I applaud the board, NYRA, and the Jockey Club, for doing something last year, but the time has come for more.

If members of the state legislature voted on issues of public spending and hid their votes it would be a scandal. Why, then, should racetrack stewards be allowed to adjudicate a billion dollar industry in secrecy?

New York bettors and horsemen should no longer be treated like mushrooms — covered up and kept in the dark.
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