May 23, 2008

Ranking the greatest near-misses

Now that Big Brown (BB) is one victory away from becoming only the twelfth Triple Crown winner, let's take a stroll down memory lane (purely chronological order) to recount some of the greatest horses to NOT win this uber-prestigious three year old feat. A whopping 21 horses since 1970 have won two-thirds of the Crown races. As most of you know, three horses in the decade of the seventies did achieve racing immortality; Secretariat in '73, Seattle Slew in '77 and Affirmed in '78. So while all the momentum seems to be with BB, a defeat on Saturday puts him on a long list of "also rans."

1976, Bold Forbes: Bold is a first cousin to once presidential candidate Steve Forbes and "black horse" of the family dynasty after Malcolm stumbled into the breeding shed one night after partying with the Kennedy's and drinking a bottle of Dewar's Reserve. He thought he was sleeping in the ranch house next to his wife, but the result was a determined thoroughbred who captured the '76 Derby and Belmont Stakes. Bold will always have a special place in my heart as he was the grandsire of the first horse my father co-owned (of which I have lived vicariously as an owner).

1979, Spectacular Bid: "The Bid" was an arrogant S-O-B who hated kids and was disrespectful to the mares in surrounding barns, but man was he talented! Legend has it that Bid was soooo confident (ala, Rick Dutrow) that he would win The Belmont Stakes that he outdrank every horse and sailor in his barn the night before the big race and subsequently was a little squemish the next day. Or it could have been the safety pin found in his hoof the morning of the race. Regardless, Bid did win 26 of 30 career starts, though he could not get past the elder Affirmed in the Jockey Club Gold Cup.

1984, Swale: There was an absence of "super" race horses in the early eighties following the anomoly of talented charges in the 1970's until Swale came along. A son of Seattle Slew, Swale was destined for greatness, which he confirmed with victories in The Kentucky Derby and Belmont Stakes. Unfortunately, Swale died of a heart attack while being bathed the week following The Belmont Stakes, prompting protests by PETA against soaps, shampoos and personal hygien in general. Which coincidentally is why most PETA advocates don't bathe or shave their bodies (men or women!).

1988, Risen Star: Without this homebred's campaign, the mighty Secretariat may have been considered a dud at stud. This was his only male progeny to follow in dadd's hooves on the track. He could have been mistaken for the original "Big Red" when he ran away from the field in The Belmont by 15 widening lengths. Secretariat is mostly known as a broodmare sire since his daughters were particularly useful in producing champion thoroughbreds (i.e. A.P. Indy, Summer Squall).

1989, Sunday Silence: The Sunday Silence/Easy Goer showdowns were awfully fun to watch when I was a teen. This was probably the last true rivalry (not quite as stirring as Affirmed v. Alydar) on the racing oval now that trainers pick their spots more carefully and horses race less in general. Sunday Silence was retired into his 4YO season after an injury with a record of 9 wins and 5 places from 14 starts! Easy Goer was no slouch either ("don't sell yourself short judge, you're a tremendous slouch" -- Caddyshack) winning 14 of 20 starts, while finishing second 5 times.

2001, Point Given: His sire, Thunder Gulch (winner of 1995 Kentucky Derby and Belmont Stakes) almost made my list, but almosts don't count in horse racing. This horse is the reason I now believe that ANY horse can lose on a particular day, including Big Brown! Point Given's only off-the-board finish (5th) occured in the second fastest Derby in history (won by Monarchos). He rebounded to reel off four consecutive Grade I victories, but unfortunately he was injured after the Travers Stakes at Saratoga (midsummer's Derby) and was not able to officially prove to be one of the greatest since he never faced or beat older horses, the KEY criteria in my book.

2005, Afleet Alex: I know many of you believe that Smarty Jones was the better of these two who put Oaklawn Park on the 3YO trail, but this is my damn blog! Wow, it feels great to use the word "damn" and not feel the threat of reprisal. Here's my case for Alex; a very versatile colt who won the prestigious Hopeful and Sanford Stakes (setting Stakes record in process) at Saratoga -- the latter being the only race legend Man o' War ever lost. Bred for speed, he seemed to only get better as the distance increased, all the while showing that explosive turn of foot. His greatest moment, however, came in the Preakness Stakes when Scrappy T bolted on the turn crashing into Alex. Jeremy Rose managed to hand on for dear life as Alex's nostrils brushed the sandy loom of the track before picking himself upright and rocketing off to another victory! This horse was truly special and it is too bad his injury and Smarty Jones' "alleged" injury prevented the world from seeing a true heavyweight match race. Finally, the clincher would be Alex's Lemonade Stands and the attention (and donations for children's cancer research) that were a direct result of this horse, the little horse that could.

Speaking of match races, while I do think Big Brown will win on Saturday, the true test would be in late October at Santa Anita IF his connections will do right by racing and send him postward in the 25th anniversary running of the Breeders' Cup Classic against... CURLIN!! What a treat that would be; win, lose or dead-heat.

May 17, 2008

Preakness Stakes 133

I just watched the intro to NBC's Preakness coverage, something I vowed not to do in hopes of staying calm prior to the race. It was about 20 minutes of each "roundtable" participant (the table was technically a half arch) stating the obvious and trying to take credit for saving this sport. Except of course the only non-industry representative, William Rhoden of the New York Times, who stood by his comments of comparing thoroughbred racing to bullfighting and greyhound racing (by the way, where is the backlash from the American Kennel Club??), yet ended the segment by stating the current racing produce "may be" cruel. Way to go out on a limb, buddy. At least a PETA representative would have been more committal!

As for the race coming up, Big Brown's connections aren't quite as confident today with the quick two week turnaround in races, but the betting public have backed BB to the tune of 1-5 (odds just ticked up from 1-9). I've heard from several of you who are still just as interested in betting the Preakness as The Derby. While I am sitting this one out, based on the lack of a clear 2nd or 3rd choice, the exotics may indeed pay well again, regardless of who runs behind BB, assuming he's again "much the best." I will be keeping my eye on the outside posts again, as Gayego will likely improve if gets away from the gate better today. And Hey Byrn recently won at 1 3/16ths after breaking poorly and finishing a decent 4th against BB in the Florida Derby.

I hope the horses run your way today (since I have no active bets)...

May 3, 2008

Derby Wrap - Eight Belles Tribute

What a range of emotions... First, embarrassment over how poorly my picks ran (my longshots were last and next to last). Next, jubilation for another remarkable Florida Derby standout, similar to Barbaro just two short years ago. Finally, like with the events of Barbaro, disbelief concerning the fate of overachieving Eight Belles... a total deflation to end all The Derby euphoria. Yet another potential superstar not making another return to the track, this time tragically resulting in a loss of life. And the debate will continue about the grueling distance of The Derby, breeding patterns focusing on speed resulting in higher injuries and fatalities, and why Churchill Downs has still not committed to the synthetic surface (which statistically results in FEWER breakdowns on the track, though not a total reduction).

Regarding the race itself, it unfolded as well as Rick Dutrow (who received vindication after the race) and the Big Brown connections could have hoped for, with Gayego breaking poorly to his inside meaning he was able to secure a 4 wide path around the first turn, and more importantly, lay off the leaders in 5th/6th position through a moderate 47 second half mile. The pacesetters picked it up a bit over the next couple furlongs, but just enough to set it up for the "stalkers" rather than the true closers. This was evident as Big Brown, Eight Belles and Tale of Ekati were all within a few lengths of the lead for most of the way and the lone closer hitting the board was my previously discarded Denis of Cork. The superfecta payoff of $58,000 -- even with the chalk winning -- confirmed that this is the greatest handicapping test/betting race of the year, bar none! I tip my cap to those who keyed Big Brown with the 4th bettting choice, Eight Belles, and moderate longshots Denis of Cork and Tale of Ekati. Todd Pletcher continues to fire blanks when it comes to the big stage in racing.

My first thought after reflecting on this tragic Saturday is that I hope Eight Belles and Barbaro are rolling around in the hay together in horsey heaven. I would love to see a tall, strapping colt produced from such a mating in the 2012 Derby with a name worth a Derby winner... "Barbelles in May."

Well, the show goes on to historic Pimlico Race Course in Baltimore, MD, although I am spent from a grueling spring of my own (partly due to chasing these equine stars around the Derby trail!!). Now that I have the blog going, I may update it occassionally for the remaining Crown races and Saratoga meet. So please check in from time to time.

Now for the recognition of, surprisingly, only four individuals who went with Big Brown; Jim in God's country (Ark), Pam and Mary from Dallas and the grand prize winner via tie-breaker, Patrick Werner from Memphis (in his first year of participation, no less!).

Saturday - The first mint julep

Nearly 2:00 CST and i can finally relax, having made the short drive to Lone Star park to place my bets, along with a nice size office pool superfecta wheel. One tip for all you out there who plan on making your bets via online accounts; make sure you double check your tickets for correct numbers. It gets very confusing with as many as 20 runners, especially if you are betting part wheels. As for the odds arbitrage, I think Monba is a bargain for a board play near 30-1. I stick by Smooth Air as a big long-shot for the 3rd of 4th slot. Even though I have Big Brown in my large superfecta, I am playing multiple backup tri's without the 5-2 favorite to try to cash in on bigger odds. Keep in mind that there are so many options, it's better to key your top 1 or 2 choices in exactas and tri's than try to get cute with combinations and have your horse win, yet go without cashing a ticket. A $1 exacta wheel with ALL is only $19, and is sure to pay more than that (perhaps unless you're keying the 20).

Now that I've returned home and it is easily after noon, I have broken the seal on an especially nice bottle of Woodford Reserve. Of course, I had pre-prepared the mint julep base, but for those novices out there, there's still time! Simply boil 2 cups of water adding several sprigs of fresh mint with 2 cups of granular sugar and let cool in the frig. Assembe your ancillary tools (pewter or commemorative Derby glasses, mint stalks for garnish, crushed ice, straws and powdered sugar). Mix about 2 ounces of the thickened syrup with 2 - 4 oz. (make progressively stronger so bourbon doesn't overwhelm palate) of pure Kentucky bourbon over the crushed ice, insert mint sprig and sprinkle powdered sugar on top. Insert straw here and enjoy.... aaahhhhh, so refreshing!!

I'll either be laughing (to the bank) or crying around 5:06 p.m., but I'll try to muster a post-race comment.


May 1, 2008

Friday - Moment of Truth

Although yesterday's trivia question was more of an opinion poll, it underscores the fact that those still reading this blog are die hard horse racing fans! You wanna know how bad I've got Derby fever? This evening I went out and dropped a small fortune on a new high definition 42" TV to adequately view the dirt (or 50% chance of mud) kicking up in the jockey's faces. Will the strategy of picking the 20 post with Big Brown keep Kent Desourmeaux "squeaky" clean by clearing the field from the outside? Will six pairs of goggles be sufficient for Robby Albarado as he guides Pyro through the field of tiring horses in the stretch? How will Corey Nakatani and Colonel John respond to the traditional dirt surface instead of the synthetic blend? Which bomb longshot will hit the board at 30-1 or greater? Let's find out...

First, the difficulty in handicapping this field was highlighted when Churchill Downs oddsmaker Mike Battaglia assigned blanket odds of 15-1, 20-1 or 30-1 to all but the top 3 contenders rather than helping the public rank the entrants by recording some at 8-1, 10-1 or 12-1 as done in years past. Thus, you should see significant movement in odds as the day progresses. This should help the payouts on trifectas and superfectas as there are no "defined" horses that bettors will use based on morning line odds alone.
Since "pace makes the race", let me start by saying I think the pace will be quicker than typical for two reasons. First, the confirmed frontrunners in the race (Cowboy Cal, Recapturetheglory & Gayego) are breaking from the far outside posts along with Bob Black Jack in the 13 hole, meaning they will try to beat each other to the front to avoid being more than 3 or 4 wide on the short dash to the first turn. Second, there is a world record holder sprinter in this field in Bob Black Jack who has run as fast as 42 seconds and change for the half , so regardless of how much they will TRY to temper his speed it's hard to slow a precocious sort down when other colts are pressing down on him. There are also a good number of stalker types such as Tale of Ekati, Eight Belles, Monba and Big Brown who will keep some pressure on the first tier of horses. This thought process will allow me to exclude several horses with solid credentials who I think will simply run out of gas. And when a speed horse hits the wall, they typically don't finish 3rd but more like the back of the pack.

In my mind there are two solid closers in the race in Colonel John and Pyro (if you can get over his dull 10th place finish over the Keeneland polytrack, which I can). I calculated my own type of speed figures... the time each horse coming off a 1 1/8 mile race ran that last furlong. Colonel John had the quickest time of 12 seconds flat accounting for the lengths he made up between the last call and the finish line. I was surprised that the next fastest times were shared by Visionaire and Recapturetheglory. Big Brown's 9th furlong time was right at 13 seconds flat, middle of the road with this group, however he was lunging a bit in the stretch and Kent had tucked his whip away by this point, so clearly not his best effort. My fear is that Brown is so lightly raced, he could be rattled in The Derby and totally thrown off his game, which happens to a few colts every year.
Since I like the 2nd and 3rd betting choices, I'm having to think big odds to get my superfecta payoff up there! Along those lines, I think Smooth Air and Adriano are real "live" longshots. Both have the nice off the pace running style and have shown recent success. Smooth Air will be testing the outer limits of his distance, but old school trainer Stutts has been using slow gallops rather than speed drills, something that helped Afleet Alex stretch his distance remarkably. Adriano, on the other hand, is bred for Derby success with A.P. Indy as a daddy from a Mr. Prospector mare. And I believe he will be further off the pace than in his most recent Lane's End triumph, helping his cause in the stretch. I am intrigued by and will also be betting Z Fortune, Court Vision and Monba in my 3rd and 4th superfecta slots. My "horse to short" is definitely Denis of Cork. He seems to be the one everyone is raving about with workouts and how great he looks. But there's a reason his owners were lamenting how they may not even draw in for The Derby... he hasn't beaten any Derby horses or made much money! Having said that, I'm sure he'll hit the board and ruin my betting tickets. So to recap, my top picks are Colonel John, Pyro and Adriano in that order.

In past years many of us have participated in a handicapping contest for bragging rights until the next Derby, so if you are willing to put your picks on the line, please email me your top 3 choices -- in order -- to . I hope each of you will get a chance to sit back and relax tomorrow afternoon at 5:04 ET and truly enjoy the "greatest two minutes in sports." And may all your tickets be worthy of cashing!