March 31, 2009

Derby winner Alysheba dies at age 25 - caps tragic month

Beware the Ides of March, indeed! Shakespeare's famous line from Julius Caesar unfortunately turned out to be a harbinger of tragic events with past Kentucky Derby champions. The news of Alysheba's death last Friday due to a stall injury from a degenerative spinal condition has slowly reverberated throughout the equine world, just as racing fanatics were digesting the news of Lil E. Tee's passing nine days previous.

Alysheba (conditioned by savvy horseman Jack Van Berg and piloted by Chris McCarron) is universally regarded as the greatest racing progeny of the great sire, Alydar. Speaking of Alydar (and his epic rivalry with Affirmed), his son had a penchant for rivalries as well in both his 3 and 4 year-old seasons. The first rivalry started with Alysheba's 1987 Kentucky Derby triumph over Bet Twice, in which he avoided near catastrophe after clipping heels with Bet Twice in the stretch (ala Afleet Alex and Scrappy T. in the 2005 Preakness). These two finished in the same order at Pimlico two weeks later, while the speedy Bet Twice cantered through soft fractions in the "test of champions" (a.k.a. Belmont Stakes) to win easily while Alysheba lacked his customary finishing kick and finished fourth. It is important to note, however, that Alysheba was a bleeder and had to run without the diuretic Lasix according to New York medication laws at that time. For good measure, Bet Twice squeezed out a neck victory from Alysheba in the Haskell Invitational to split their head to head campaign at two wins each. And this was amongst strong competition with the likes of Gulch, Cryptoclearance and Demons Begone in their crop.

Alysheba's second "mini-rivalry" began with a painful loss to 1986 Derby winner Ferdinand by a diminishing nose in that fall's Breeders' Cup Classic. Although that defeat stirred up Alysheba, who came back for his four year-old season pissed off with a vengeance! In nine starts, he had seven wins - six Grade I's - and all but one victory was by the slim margin of under a half length... essentially taunting his peers until the finish line. Three of these victories were at the expense of Ferdinand, who fell "off form" in his six winless starts as a five year-old. Alysheba's final career victory under the lights of Churchill Downs in the Breeders' Cup Classic sealed his Horse of the Year honors. He was soon thereafter an inductee into the National Horse Racing Hall of Fame in Saratoga Springs, NY.

It is both tragic and fitting that Alysheba made it back to Kentucky just months before his death after returning to the rolling hills of bluegrass from a Saudi Arabia stud farm in late October... a much better fate than previous racing foe, Ferdinand, who's life ended in a Japanese slaughter house ( He briefly called the Kentucky Horse Park Hall of Champions home, occupying the very stall that housed John Henry for decades. Alysheba retired with over $6.6 million in lifetime earnings, also supplanting John Henry's earnings record by a slim margin. That leaves another one-time earnings leader in Cigar (until Curlin recently surpassed the $10 million mark) across from the again unoccupied stall wondering who his new neighbor will be. Whichever new horse the Horse Park staff is able to woo to the Hall of Champions, it's doubtful that one will be able to fill the bridle left by "America's Horse" - Alysheba.

March 24, 2009

Lil E. Tee and the magical 1992 Kentucky Derby

Lil E. Tee is one of the major reasons that I am so passionate about thoroughbred racing, particularly The Kentucky Derby. 1992 was one of the most exciting springs in Arkansas horse racing history, with top Derby candidates Lil E. Tee and Pine Bluff establishing an epic rivalry. It started in the Southwest Stakes, when long-shot Big Sur surprised the racing world when he bested both Pine Bluff (who finished second) and Lil E. Tee (show spot). The connections of Lil E. Tee (owner W. Cal Partee and trainer Lynn Whiting) then shipped their Pennsylvania bred to Turfway Park where he re-established his winning ways in the Jim Beam Stakes, setting up the greatest Arkansas Derby ever run. After matching strides from the clubhouse turn to the finish line, Pine Bluff hit the wire half of a head sooner than Lil E. Tee. Although Pine Bluff won the battle that day, the war ultimately went to Lil E. Tee three weeks later in Louisville.

Fast forward to Kentucky Derby week in 1992 and the media frenzy over the previous Juvenile Breeders’ Cup Champion ARAZI (the name still harkens memories of the Darth Vader-esque villain). Arazi had made a never-before-seen SWOOOSH move around the turn at Churchill Downs the previous November en route to his Juvenile triumph. If there was any possible chance of an American horse denying the French based Arazi the roses, that hope rested on the stern withers of Santa Anita Derby winner and possibly the greatest breeding specimen in U.S. thoroughbred history, A.P. Indy. The $2.9 million sale topping yearling purchase was sired by Triple Crown winner Seattle Slew out of Secretariat’s greatest daughter, Weekend Surprise. A.P. Indy would go on to claim the Eclipse Award for Champion male horse after his smashing Belmont Stakes score and Breeders’ Cup Classic.

Fast forward to Derby dawn, circa 1992… there is commotion on the backstretch where an exasperated Neil Drysdale is addressing the media. The shocking news of A.P. Indy’s scratch from the race due to a lame hoof sends panic through the Louisville track’s stable area and fuels several dozen hits on a recent web invention by Al Gore known as the “internet.” (Fyi… this event led to the creation of ESPN’s “Breakfast at Churchill” coverage that’s now commonplace every year come Derby morning – the beginning of my daily ritual).

Fast forward to ABC’s Wide World of Sports reporter and horse owner Jim McKay’s pre-Derby coverage debating the odds of Shelley Riley’s chance to claim the roses as a female trainer with hard-knocking Casual Lies. Then the cameras pan right to a parachute pant entourage led by wrapper M.C. Hammer (via Oaktown Stable), who owns the talented colt, Dance Floor. D. Wayne Lukas customarily gets his fair share of camera action bringing over his two Derby entries, whilst the soft-spoken Lynn Whiting leads the bridle of the “second best” horse in Arkansas, Lil E. Tee, towards the paddock where he would soon give Hall of Fame jockey Pat Day a leg up. Like his trainer and owner, Pat Day had never won the big one, even though his recent Derby mounts included standouts Summer Squall, Easy Goer and Forty Niner. All of that would change on this fateful day with the unlikeliest of candidates.

The grueling stretch drive in the Arkansas Derby against Pine Bluff must have given Lil E. Tee just the conditioning necessary to produce the winning move Pat Day needed when tracking jockey Pat Valenzuela on Arazi as he began to make his move. “And Arazi is flying!” proclaimed track announcer Dave Johnson as both colts loomed wide on the final turn for home. But as quickly as you can say, “Wooooo Pig Soooiiieee” the hype began to fade for Arazi… he was a beaten horse. It was now clear that not only would Lil E. Tee pull away from Arazi, but that this hulking bay colt in polka dot orange silks (which seemed to blend magnificently with his iridescent bay coat) was en route to passing Casual Lies to capture “the greatest two minutes in sports!” I was so ecstatic and proud at that very moment that our humbly bred, Arkansas owned horse accomplished the unthinkable.

The rivalry with Pine Bluff continued on the national stage in the Preakness Stakes, with a flip-flop finish for the two… Pine Bluff ultimately got his garland of flowers, but had to settle for the Black Eyed Susans instead of roses, while Lil E. Tee finished 5th at Pimlico, a very tired horse at that point. When Magnolia, Arkansas land man and banker W. Cal Partee won The Derby with Lil E. Tee as his fourth starter, he was a youthful 82 years young (coincidentally the age my father Herb turns today - March 24th). What made the victory so special for Mr. Partee was the fact Lil E. Tee’s sire, At The Threshold, was also campaigned by the Partee family, finishing third in the 1984 Derby won by Swale.

What some people may not know is that Lil E. Tee’s racing career was almost an afterthought when as a yearling he underwent critical stomach surgery, dimming his racing prospects. But after fully recovering and then showing promise in his first two career starts, Mr. Partee purchased the horse privately in Florida. And the rest, as they say, is history.

Here lies Lil E. Tee… winner of seven races from 13 starts, $1.4 million in purse money and winner of the 1992 Kentucky Derby, R.I.P.

March 19, 2009

Rachel Alexandra creates more buzz

Although my new favorite filly of all time, Rachel Alexandra, easily won her third Stakes race in a row in last Saturday's $400,000 Fair Grounds Oaks, her time was finally eclipsed by her male counterparts as Friesan Fire stopped the clock 10/100ths of a second faster a few races later. However, an asterisk could be placed next to her finishing time since jockey Calvin Borel was more interested pointing to his homies in the grandstand in the last furlong than guiding Rachel to the wire. It nearly cost him as longshot Flying Spur and Patrick Valenzuela stormed through the stretch to get within 2 lengths of "throttled down" Rachel at the finish line. Not only do I admire Rachel for her take no prisoners running style after seeing her twice, but she also sparked a decent trifecta ticket (for a chalk favorite, anyway) for me with the long-shot running second, so now I'm a resolute fan. By the way, thanks also to Macho Again in the New Orleans Handicap I've hit exotics paying over $100 on my last two track visits in 2009, so this may FINALLY be my year!

Co-owner and breeder Dolphus Morrison then added more rain on the New Orleans parade of those hoping for Rachel to jump on the Triple Crown trail. "No, no, no, no," he said, as he labeled the performance "awesome." "We have too good a filly to risk her future in a 20-horse field of brutal, man-macho colts," said Morrison. "It's not where she needs to be. If we could win the Kentucky Oaks, it would be a wonderful thing." You have to admire the humility and sensible nature of Morrison, who clearly wants to do right by his pride and joy. Not to mention the East vs. West showdown the Kentucky Oaks would create against Juvenile Fillies champion and IEAH Stables "star" purchase, Stardom Bound. By the way, if you're curious about Rachel Alexandra's name, it comes form Morrison's eldest grand-daughter, who is probably the most famous kid in pre-school these days.

Happy Racing!

March 16, 2009

Friesan Fire scorches wet Louisiana Derby track

It's time to add another star to Larry Jones' impressive training resume... Friesan Fire. This racehorse was absolutely professional in drawing away from a deeply talented Louisiana Derby field of nine entrants including Papa Clem (who previously bested I Want Revenge in California before that one took the Gotham Stakes), Terrain (my longshot choice who finished 4th in last fall's Breeders' Cup Juvenile and put in a decent bid to be nipped for 2nd) and a host of local foes. Yes, the racing Gods seem to be approving of Larry Jones, who took some criticism following Eight Belles' break-down after finishing second in last year's Kentucky Derby. He was the consumate professional in all media requests and panel interviews on safety initiatives following that tragic event but ultimately admitted that the year had taken a toll on his personal life and may be ending his status as trainer at the end of this year. In addition to Friesan Fire, he trains the more heralded son of Unbridled's Song, Old Fashioned, who was a beaten favorite by the 56-1 longshot Win Willy in The Rebel Stakes at Oaklawn Saturday. Still a pretty nice one-two punch as we near The Derby!

Friesan Fire's sweep of the Fair Grounds stakes circuit for three year-olds reminds me of Smarty Jones in a number of ways. First, Smarty Jones won the Arkansas Derby from the outside post by laying just off another front runner for 6 furlongs before drawing away on the turn when he left Purge and others behind in the 2004 Arkansas Derby. That race led to the Oaklawn Challenge $5 million bonus for sweeping all three Oaklawn preps and winning the Kentucky Derby. Too bad for Friesan Fire's connections he' running in the year of massive economic woes (Frank Stronach's MEC tracks, including Pimlico Race Course in Maryland - site of The Preakness - just filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection). But I'm sure they were more than pleased with the 60% winners share of the $600,000 purse from the Grade 2 Louisiana Derby.

And while Smarty Jones was undefeated through the Preakness Stakes, he wasn't considered a top-tier horse (won only a couple minor races at Philadelphia Park and Aqueduct) until his Oaklawn run, while Friesan Fire's start began at obscure Delaware Park but then followed through New York in his late fall campaign. He has truly blossomed over the Fair Grounds oval after racing with blinkers the past several starts. New Orleanians hope he will be the first LA Derby participant to claim the Run for the Roses since Funny Cide in 2003. Based on his seven career starts without a major break in racing action, Jones is expected to train him up to The Derby. By then, many "experts" will have forgotten about this consistent colt who has a classic sire in A.P. Indy, yet plenty of speed through his damsire - Dehere - that is displayed in his stalking running style. Speed that will come in handy getting to the first turn in good position on the first Saturday in May!

March 12, 2009

Louisiana Day at the Track

What a race card The Fair Grounds Racecourse in New Orleans has assembled for Saturday... it's too bad mother nature may not co-operate!

In addition to the marquee Louisiana Derby, the top regional turf horses, handicap division and fillies (led by my main gal, Rachel Alexandra) will be in action on Saturday's card, with major purse money on the line. We'll see if Rachel can continue to best the speed times of her male counterparts while she tackles a small field in the Oaks race.

Other key Derby preps (Rebel Stakes, San Felipe Stakes and Tampa Bay Derby) will also be run on Saturday, but the Gentilly oval hosts the deepest and most intriguing field. The morning line favorite is a two-time winner over this course, Friesan Fire. The handsome son of A.P. Indy has had perfect stalking trips in the Le Comte and Risen Star Stakes leading up to Saturday's test, but many others are very capable of the upset at better odds. Papa Clem will be hammered at the windows after a horse he finished ahead of at Santa Anita (I Want Revenge) came back to demolish the Gotham field at Aqueduct last weekend. While I do like Papa Clem's controlling speed in the race, I'll stay away if the underlay odds situation develops as expected. A horse I am impressed with is Flying Pegasus, who ran a nice second to Friesan Fire last out while being caught wide and returning from a long layoff. The second race back angle may put this son of 2000 Kentucky Derby winner Fusaichi Pegasus in the thick of things. In addition, Terrain's work tab has me thinking that local trainer-extraordinaire Al Stall has the 4th place Breeders' Cup Juvenile finisher cranked up for a big showing over the long stretch of the Fair Grounds course. Whoever your choices may be, you should get some decent odds in the exotics due to the deep field.

At Oaklawn Park, Old Fashioned will try to fend off upstarts Wise Kid and Hamazing Destiny to stay at the top of most Derby watch lists. While Pioneer of the Nile has already chased away most serious competitors on the California circuit and Bob Baffert is looking for an easy win to keep his sights on Churchill Downs.

Good luck at the windows!

March 2, 2009

Speed Reigns Supreme

This past Saturday two heralded sophomores reiterated their Derby hopes with convincing wins. A colt named The Pamplemousse made every post a winning one in his six-length romp at 1 1/8 miles, while a more Derby-esque sounding Quality Road blazed the shortened mile distance of this year's Fountain of Youth Stakes at Gulfstream Park with a Beyer rating of 113. Quality Road is likely to face the uber-impressive allowance winner, Dunkirk, on the Gulfstream grounds in the Florida Derby on March 28th. I love the way Quality Road captured the FOY... after pressing a hot pace while being flanked down the backside, he opened up at the top of the stretch and actually "outkicked" a true closer in the Ken McPeek trained Theregoesjojo, who rallied for second as the second choice in the field of ten. Quality Road also has proven Derby bloodlines via his sire, Elusive Quality -- who produced Smarty Jones (2004) -- and damsire Strawberry Road who ran long and strong. Let's hope he got enough out of the one-turn race to do him some good down the road, when it really counts!

In major news out of Dubai over the weekend, Breeders' Cup Juvenile winner Midshipman injured a tendon in his final pre-race workout and is out of the Triple Crown picture. It's a good thing Street Sense bucked that "juvenile jinx" a couple of years ago or we'd be hearing all about it now.

Also noteworthy, Hall of Fame turf runner Manila passed away at the age of 26. The grandson of Northern Dancer had been serving as the Turkish Jockey Club's top sire for over a decade. Manila's signature moment came in the 1986 Breeders' Cup Turf, where he mowed down turf legend Theatrical en route to an Eclipse award in the male turf division.