October 30, 2008

EURO Rising

In light of recent events with the souring U.S. economy and overall poor reputation amongst the world community, it should come as no surprise that we've lost our dominance in international racing as well. The Euro based horses won 3 of 4 turf races and for good measure pulled off a couple upsets over the main track. And let me tell you, the Brits were on hand in numbers to revel in their success. I must have been in the Euro zone of Arcadia as the accents were thick on the bus ride back and throughout the pubs of Huntington Avenue. "We did it... we got first AND second!", proclaimed one expat. Quipped another, "Curlin who?"
To add insult to injury (to my pocket book, anyway) the next morning at breakfast the Lads next to my wife and I were calculating their U.S. witholding tax on their $6,000 profits (nearly 10,000 British pounds). Even our Sunday afternoon trip to the beach to watch the sun set into the Pacific Ocean from Duke's Bar at Malibu was crashed by a British family, fully stocked with Breeders' Cup accessories (presumably bought with 50 quid from winnings). They all bellied up to the tiki bar next to us ordering Mai Tais and toasting Raven's Pass and Henrythenavigator.

In spite of my inept handicapping, I could not have enjoyed the warm and sunny day any more at Santa Anita -- the majestic racetrack beneath the San Gabriel mountains. You could clearly tell this wasn't the track's first rodeo. The 51,000 plus horse lovers were nothing for this facility to handle. After watching the post parade for the Classic go by the grandstand, I realized that I forgot to make my mother's bets. Rather than booking them like my brother would have done, I scurried to the ticket windows and had all bets placed within two minutes! Now this wouldn't have been possible during many Saturdays at Oaklawn Park, not to mention Belmont, Saratoga or Del Mar, at least not on the "big event" days I've attended.
There have been multiple criticisms of Santa Anita's Pro-Ride synthetic surface, particularly after Curlin's out-of-the money showing. Not a single horse won on the main track without previous success on either turf or a synthetic track, making any dirt form irrelevant. My personal argument is not that the surface favors turf runners, but rather thwarts the chances of a speed horse from winning, i.e. Pace no longer makes the race! The empirical data I provide is that a truly "neutral" track surface should result in front-runners winning at approximate percentages to those of stalkers and closers at various distances. However, only one dirt race resulted in any horse close to the lead winning (Midshipman in the Juvenile) and most winners came from the clouds. This is one lesson I will remember for the future, whether it be the Santa Anita Derby or next year's Breeders' Cup card, also slated for Santa Anita.

The biggest winner of the day was Dubai's Sheik Mohammed al Maktoum and his family. His wife, Princess Haya of Jordan, owns Classic winner Raven's Pass and Juvenile Turf winner Donativum. Sheik Mohammed's Darley Stud campaigns Juvenile winner Midshipman and owns the stallion Elusive Quality, sire of Raven's Pass. After being so kind to American owners by inviting runners such as Cigar, Silver Charm and Curlin to run for the gaudy purse money offered at the Dubai World Cup, Sheik Mohammed now has returned stateside to claim our richest prize. Let's hope this trend does not continue! They certainly have a live bullet going into next year's Derby with Midshipman. Speaking of The Derby, we finally have a several month reprieve to recharge our handicapping batteries prior to the spring Derby trail in February. I know that I sure need a break!

October 23, 2008

Breeders' Cup Picks

After two nights of scouring the Daily Racing Form (aka,Bettor's Bible), I have been able to eliminate most of the favorites -- in my mind anyway! Those of you who have been to the track with me, or more likely who have heard one of many stories about how I lost a HUGE trifecta on a "head bob" know that I loathe the chalk. Won't touch it with a 10 foot pole, other than an occasional wheel with a long-shot choice. I obtain no excitement whatsoever by risking $5 to win $8. Now I have known some very astute handicappers who would gladly accept a 50% plus rate of return for close to a "sure thing," but those gentlemen have much more bank than me (even before the seemingly daily exhaustion of my 201k). Conversely, I delight in the notion that I can go to the track with a hundred bucks and come back with five grand and a 1099-G from Uncle Sam (hey, we've got to help "spread the wealth", right??).

So proceed with caution on the following "spot play" longshots and don't be calling next week harrassing me about my lousy handicapping skills. I already know that I hit a big trifecta about as often as the Cubs win a pennant... why do you think I have a real job?!

Here we go. It's rare that I play the first race or "daily double," since that is usually relegated to non-winners of two claiming races and I like to save my limited funds for the feature race. But on Breeders' Cup day, every race is a feature! Which reminds me, if you haven't realized it by now, all of the five filly and mare races will be run Friday and nine races will follow on Saturday. So let's try to get off to a fast start in the first Breeders' Cup race (Filly and Mare Sprint) by picking Zaftig (8-1) on top of Intangaroo and favorite Indian Blessing in an exacta part-wheel. Hopefully, you read my blog tribute to Cozzene and Princess Rooney earlier. Well, I'll be damned if the first race doesn't have a grandson of Cozzene (Zaftig) that is coming off a victory against Indian Blessing at a mile. Let's cash a nice ticket early and have some ammunition so we can really start firing at em!

The next race is the Fillies Juvenile Turf where I like Consequence (also at 8-1 odds) coming off a bullet work. She was a bit wide in her last 4th place effort but only beaten a half length. While I mentioned I don't like betting favorites, some of my best wins have been with "beaten favorites" a race or two later when the betting public have given up on them. Everybody can have a bad day at the office every now and then. Hell, it's nearly a daily occurrence with me lately. Let's hope this filly rewards our faith in her.

The Juvenile Fillies race is one that I'm most excited about. Perhaps my best long-shot pick of the weekend is C.S. Silk. Not only because of her two widening six length victories, but because jockey Robby Albarado chose to ride this one over the third choice, Dream Express. I would say this is a bit like inside information, but the kind you can't go to jail for. C.S. Silk is a whopping 15-1 on the morning line odds! I will box her with Stardom Bound and Sky Diva in exactas and trifectas.

In the Filly and Mare Turf I will take a shot with one of many European shippers, Folk Opera (10-1), who wreaks of class while being a perfect 3 for 4 at the 1 1/4 mile distance. Again, I'll box her with the favorites in the exotics. That leads us to the last race on Friday's card, the Ladies Classic. Optimistically, I'll be counting all my money at this point and can simply sit back and relish Zenyatta's quest for racing immortality.

Saturday's action is equally as appealing for my longshot hunches. I'll start in the 3rd race (Dirt Mile) by playing the speedball Two Step Salsa (15-1) across the board and boxing with deserving favorite, Well Armed. The next race is the Turf Mile, where I'll go against logic by playing an American horse, Thorn Song at 12-1. When I first saw this name, I immediately thought of Breeders' Cup Sprint winner Thors Echo from several years ago. In addition, this one has speed to burn and has only lost as of late when going longer than one mile. Whatsthescript will be tough to beat, but the far outside post may compromise his chances.

Handicapping the Juvenile really had me perplexed, but I decided to give the nod to Square Eddie (9-2) based on his dominant Keenland romp over the polytrack surface. A hunch is telling me to bet a ticket or two on Mine That Bird at 30-1, who has dominated lesser foes north of the border at Woodbine in Canada.

Skipping ahead to the Breeders' Cup Turf, I tried over and again to beat the favorite, but couldn't. Soldier of Fortune (7-2) looks much the best in this race if he runs to form after his trans-Atlantic journey. Grand Couturier is also in excellent form and may complete the exacta. That brings us to the Classic, possibly Curlin's grand farewell. He certainly will be the focus of the event and without him in the race I would have stayed and watched from home. Many have already conceded the race to Curlin, quite a change in opinion from when trainer and owner wanted no part of a synthetic surface only one month ago. While I would love to see "little big red" in the winner's circle, I have come to expect a letdown after journeying to see Cigar and Smarty Jones clinch records after similar hype. Three of Europe's leading turf horses decided to give it a go in the Classic this year, thinking this may be their best shot on the synthetic surface. I believe that Duke of Marmalade has the class to challenge Curlin. At 10-1, this five time Group I winner this year is being grossly disrespected, probably due to his flat performance in his last start. Again, looking at the entire body of work, I expect a return to form for the Aidan O'Brien trained Coolmoore Farm standout. Go Between is heralded in California, as is three year-old Colonel John, who has took his time coming back after his gut-wrenching nose victory in the Travers Stakes in August. But the wild card in this race is Casino Drive, who scratched the week of the Belmont Stakes. This Japanese based horse and trainer then played hide and seek until two weeks ago, winning a conditioned allowance race at Santa Anita as his tune-up. Many "experts" are saying that his looks alone will put him in the winners' circle, whatever that means.

Good luck to all of your picks, as long as they don't interfere with my long-shot specials!

Horse Racing

October 21, 2008

Cozzene and Princess Rooney; Fallen Ivory Towers

I have been neglectful in my duties as a racing historian to bring you sad news of the passing of two alabaster titans of racing and breeding. Cozzene and Princess Rooney passed away in symmetry on October 7th at the mirror age of 28. As you will read below, both of these beloved purebreds were intertwined with the inaugural Breeders’ Cup of 1984, of which we celebrate the 25th episode this weekend from Santa Anita. These two courageous horses are a significant reason why the Breeders’ Cup has enjoyed the success of becoming “Racing’s Greatest Day.”

Cozzene, a champion and Breeders’ Cup winner and sire of two Breeders’ Cup winners, was euthanized Oct. 7 at Gainesway Farm near Lexington. The 28-year-old gray son of Caro shared the distinctive look of his half-sister, Winning Colors (out of Caro), who also passed in February of this year. These two specimens gave special meaning to the phrase, “Bet grays on a cloudy day.” “Grays are supposed to have a shorter life because they often develop melanoma, which he has had for years,” said Gainesway president Antony Beck. “But it has never been uncomfortable for him. Until very recently, he was a happy horse, totally pain free.”

Cozzene raced as a homebred for Hall of Fame trainer John A. Nerud and was trained by Nerud’s son, Jan. He contested the first Breeders’ Cup Mile (in 1984 at Hollywood Park) and ran third behind Royal Heroine and Star Choice. Cozzene avenged that loss by winning the 1985 Breeders’ Cup Mile at Aqueduct the year he was voted grass champion male and later sired Breeders’ Cup winners Alphabet Soup and Tikkanen. Alphabet Soup beat the incomparable Cigar, who was third in the 1996 Classic at Woodbine. Tikkanen captured the 1994 Turf in course-record time at Churchill Downs.
For his career, Cozzene won 10 of 24 starts and earned $978,152. Nine of his 12 stakes wins or placings came on grass. Cozzene was North America’s leading sire by progeny earnings the year of Alphabet Soup’s Classic win. To date, Cozzene is represented by 81 stakes winners (9% from foals), as well as 79% starters and 59% winners from foals, of which these ratios represent a very sound stallion. Cozzene is represented by progeny lifetime earnings of $80 million and 156 stakes horses.

Princess Rooney was also euthanized on Oct. 7 at the age of 28 and has earned a resting place at the Kentucky Horse Park. Other legendary Thoroughbreds buried at the Kentucky Horse Park include Man o’ War, War Admiral, Forego, Bold Forbes, and John Henry. Specific ceremonial burial plans for Princess Rooney have still not been finalized.

Princess Rooney won the very first Breeders’ Cup Distaff run at Hollywood Park (1984) in grand style, winning by seven lengths -- a full second faster than that year’s Breeders’ Cup Classic winner, Wild Again. As a result, she earned a lofty place on the list of Thoroughbred racing’s great mares and became the first Breeders’ Cup winner to be inducted into the National Museum of Racing’s Hall of Fame.

She had 17 wins (including five grade ones) and finished out of the money only once, earning $1,343,339 and the Eclipse Award for champion older mare for owner Paula Tucker under the tutelage of trainer Neil Drysdale. In the Breeders’ Cup Distaff, she defeated champion 3-year-old female Life’s Magic, who won the Distaff and another Eclipse Award the following year. When she retired from the track Princess Rooney was sold for $5.5 million, the third-highest price ever paid for a broodmare at that time.

Matt Howard, farm manager at Gentry Farm, where Princess Rooney spent the last several years of her life, said: “Princess Rooney was not only an extraordinary athlete, but something truly special to many people. To her fans she was an amazing runner, a real ham in front of the camera, and an instant friend. The horsemen who worked with her found her to be very patient, gentle, and easygoing, yet found she still had that air of royalty about her.” Howard continued, “It was a blast having her. She was always mild-mannered and calm. She did wonders with the yearlings. I think she did more with our yearling fillies than anyone could teach them. We would start weaning our fillies and send them over to her, and she would keep them in line and teach them exactly what they need to do. She taught the younger generation how to be a good horse. I think if we had more mares like her my job would be a lot easier.”

(Statistics and quotes supplied by www.bloodhorse.com )

Horse Racing

October 15, 2008

Breeders' Cup teaser

Big Brown may be out for the Classic, but come next Saturday I'm leaving on a jet plane, don't know if I'll be back again. The allure of seeing Curlin race in person again was just too much to resist. I previously saw the colt last spring at Oaklawn Park dominating other three year-olds. After all, the 25th anniversary of what John Forsythe (of "Dynasty" fame) originally coined as "Racing's Greatest Day" is about so much more than a two horse confrontation that wasn't meant to be. This culmination of the year's greatest equine performers has evolved into two days of truly world class thoroughbreds, thus, aptly renamed the "World Championships" of horse racing. Considering that picturesque Santa Anita Park in Arcadia, California is one of the last remaining iconic racing venues I have yet to attend, what a way to check this one off my bucket list!

It's hard to believe that only one horse has ever successfully defending his Classic victory, back when Tiznow grittily held off Giant's Causeway and Sakhee en route to winning back to back Classic titles. Will that be Curlin's destiny on a synthetic surface where he's never even raced? Or will he face a similar fate to Unbridled, Cigar and Pleasantly Perfect, who all finished third trying to defend their Classic triumph? Curlin will certainly have to earn this victory with the likes of Go Between, Colonel John and the intriguing Japanese import Casino Drive, who was forced to scratch the week of the Belmont Stakes back in June. Win or lose (in my opinion, only if he loses), owner Jess Jackson stated he very well may race one more time before concluding his monumental career.

The other standout race, at least on paper, will be the Distaff, er... "Ladies Classic" by its proper name. Zenyatta tries to keep her unbeaten streak alive against rivals Hystericalady and Ginger Punch. Can you still call it a rivalry if one mare has dominated the same fields again and again? As an Arkansas Razorbacks fan, I have to loosely apply the term "rivalry." But seriously, this is one time I would have liked to see her connections go against conventional wisdom and give this monster mare a chance against the boys in the Classic. If the three year-old filly Eight Belles (God rest her soul) could trounce a decent group of boys (sans Big Brown), I would think that a more mature and physically imposing Zenyatta could hold her own against this group. But, they didn't ask this guy's opinion.

Finally, the Filly and Mare Turf division may be the deepest field of them all, with a nice blend of U.S. based runners and European invaders. The various ruling families of Dubai will be represented, as will top English and Irish operations, who traditionally do especially well in the Turf races. However, this year the synthetic surface is also likely to play into the imports hands since grass horses can generally translate success to the non-traditional surfaces as well.

I will have more specific tips/comments on most Breeders' Cup races middle of next week, after I have time to study the official entrants' charts that will be announced tomorrow. Just a reminder to my "bettor" friends that the DRF will be selling full past performances of all entries by the end of day tomorrow, giving you over a week to fine tune your handicapping... dangerous for sure! And for those of you without a local track or OTB nearby, please refer to the link below at www.bodoglife.com .


Horse Racing

October 13, 2008

Big Brown down and out for good

The dream matchup between defending Horse of the Year, Curlin, and three year-old sensation, Big Brown, will now be an everlasting "what if" after Big Brown was retired this morning after sustaining an injury to his right front foot (not the same hoof pictured from Belmont Stakes in photo) during his Aqueduct turf course workout. Furthermore, it seems just as doubtful as to Curlin's status for the Breeders' Cup Classic with trainer Asmussen awaiting his final workout this afternoon before the race entry deadline tomorrow. My gut is that this will give Team Curlin an easy "out" for the race, opting instead for another Grade I dirt race (possibly in Hong Kong, an international mecca for thoroughbred racing) prior to retiring as the richest of all time. The general consensus is that the vast contingent from across the pond will have an advantage in the big race due to their grass/synthetic emphasis, which translates to success on the Santa Anita polytrack.

How quickly things can unravel such a promising event (kind of like the stock market these days). Of course, I probably jinxed this race after my wife asked this weekend the chances of an injury to Curlin or Big Brown. I was getting ready to book my accomodations to Los Angeles for next weekend. I thought at this point, perhaps one of the entrants would be injured in their final workout and scratched from the Classic, which translates to less than 15% that it would happen to either of these.

As a whole, the Breeders' Cup event is shaping up as a true international event with many super-talented horses. I will have an overview of key races after the entries are established mid-week.


Horse Racing