May 19, 2009

Rachel Getting... Praised

Move over Zenyatta... Rachel Alexandra has stolen your thunder as queen of the backstretch. As Zenyatta's connections scratched her from the Louisville Distaff on May 1st because of an off-track, Rachel went to the post a few races later and turned in a smashing performance that has since brought additional comparisons to Secretariat's historic 31 length Belmont victory. And it's remarkable how Rachel was able to back up that stupefying effort with her dominant pace-setting score in The Preakness Stakes, holding proven closers in Derby winner Mine That Bird and third-place finisher Musket Man in check.

To gauge Rachel's winning time of 1:55.08, consider that the last time a "speed horse" was victorious in the Preakness was 2002, when War Emblem clocked in at 1:56.36. As race times tend to change over the years based on nuances with the particular track, comparing these times to Big Brown's smashing win just last year in 1:54.80 while getting a perfect stalking trip underscores the quality of the race produced by Rachel. Especially after having to start from outside post 13 - that had never before produced a Preakness winner - and also lunging outward at the break.

Enough about the terrific race that we have come to expect from Rachel, the question is where does she go from here? Even though Mine That Bird was reeling her in at the finish line, pace still makes the race and no way would Calvin Borel let her go that fast in the mile and one-half distance of The Belmont Stakes. But a filly has already beaten the boys in the Belmont -- as recently as 2007 when Rags to Riches held off the mighty Curlin of all horses! Who's talking about Rags to Riches now, or even a month after her historic win for that matter? The fact is that another victory against these same horses doesn't really change anything, while a loss... now that's another story entirely. "Old Mo" (aka momentum) is known to change jerseys in a hurry and the last thing racing needs right now is Rachel relegated to the back pages of the magazines, papers, blogs, etc. Just for the record, with Rachel's bloodlines of Sadler's Wells and Damascus on her sire line and Mr. Prospector and Stop the Music on her dam side, she is as well bred for the distance of the Belmont as anyone else in the potential field, including Mine That Bird!

It sounds as if Jess Jackson and Steve Asmussen are keenly aware of this by commenting that they are in the driver's seat for Horse of the Year honors. After the impressive victories Rachel already has under her belt, they can carefully pick and choose another 3-4 races with the ultimate goal being the Breeders' Cup Distaff at Santa Anita and an expected epic battle with the aforementioned Zenyatta, who is not only undefeated in her lifetime but who at 17 hands tall can actually look Rachel in the eye. Who wins that stare down is yet to be determined.

May 12, 2009

Preakness Preview - Lucky #13 for Rachel?

Talk about some drama! We've had plenty of it the last few days in the thoroughbred racing community, with Mine That Bird's owner plotting with Derby runner-up Pioneerof the Nile's owner to deny Rachel Alexandra the chance at proving herself against the boys by filling the entry box with other nominated colts. The scandal even led to heiress MaryLou Whitney, who owns the sire of Mine That Bird, Birdstone. As soon as the media ran with the alleged quotes, Allen and Zayat were criticized on all fronts leading to a major retreat, while Whitney claimed she never spoke of any such coup - which has since held true.

Now on to the race itself. In many ways I feel this year's second jewel of the prized Triple Crown is a "do over" of The Derby, with Rachel getting her crack against the colts and a smaller field which should eliminate SOME of the bad starts and rough trips many of these same horses experienced in The Derby. After all, last year only one colt beaten in The Derby - Gayego - dared challenge Big Brown on two weeks rest and he finished next to last! This year we have not only the top four finishers in Louisville, but also the beaten favorite and two other also-rans.

Along those lines, I am going to give Friesan Fire a chance to redeem his "beaten chalk" status. I backed off him leading up to The Derby due to an expected unfavorable pace scenario, yet he was totally wiped out leaving the gate and never ran a lick. I am hoping for a Louis Quatorze-esque rebound -- that Nick Zito charge who ran an awful 16th in the 1996 Kentucky Derby only to win the Preakness Stakes in a stakes record tying performance! Larry Jones has brought his son of A.P. Indy to Pimlico Race Course just north of Baltimore to get plenty of action over this quirky oval with tight turns -- similar to that of Fair Grounds track in New Orleans, where Friesan swept the spring three year-old series in dominant fashion. For these reasons, I'll be thrilled with 8-1 or so odds come Saturday. If you're looking for more of a long-shot, I see no reason to change my stance on the honest Musket Man, although General Quarters will present a much bigger price if you can dismiss his troubled trip while splitting the field. I would expect Pioneerof the Nile to run another good stalking race, but now that his owner is the "bad guy", I'll be hoping for a flop.

Does this mean I'm betting against my girl, Rachel? Not necessarily... I'll certainly include her in multiple tickets. I just think the public will bet the farm on the filly, especially when the Pimlico odds-maker has set Rachel as the 8-5 morning line favorite. And the extra ground from the 13 post position is a lot to ask from a horse who was expected to get a month break, but now will be facing a hungry crop of sophomores after a 20+ length smashing win. Let's hope that Kentucky Oaks effort was as easy on her as it appeared or she may finally come up a short horse. For those of you playing the race, good luck sirs! It should be exciting regardless of the outcome.

May 8, 2009

Rachel Getting... SOLD!

I just had my breath knocked out after reading that phenom filly and my modern day "Cigar", Rachel Alexandra, has been sold to Jess Jackson's Stonestreet Farms (Curlin's majority owner) for an unspecified amount. My best guess would put this sum at over $5 million; anything less would be pimping this magnificent filly out like a cheap prostitute. However, Jackson showed a lot of class with previous super-horse Curlin by bringing him back for a four year-old campaign and even reluctantly running the champ in the Breeders' Cup Classic, knowing the race and surface would not best suit him.

Part of my feeling of betrayal is due to my special bond with Rachel. I thought I was her #1 fan who was entitled to approve any deals, but obviously Jackson must be to put up that kind of money. I first met Rachel when making her sophomore bow in the Martha Washington Stakes at Oaklawn Park over President's Day weekend. Everyone there was aware of her talent, as she paid a meager $2.80 to win and $2.20 to show. But few expected the luminary that she turned out to be. For the next three races I became a groupie... always pushing my way to the prime spot in front of Rachel's paddock stall while following Rachel to Louisiana in the slop, back to Arkansas and finally to the mecca of horse racing where her God-given talent transformed into legend before 104,867 sets of eyes. I even got a "thumbs up" when calling out to Borel as he led Rachel out of the Churchill Downs paddock (slightly viewable on Bravo's Kentucky Oaks coverage).

But what's the big deal - right - favorites are always SUPPOSED to win! I have personally witnessed three marquee races in particular that were expected to be coronations, yet turned out to be humbling experiences. Last October, Curlin entered the Breeders' Cup Classic at Santa Anita having not lost on dirt since August of 2007 and was thus sent off as the "odds-on" favorite. The synthetic surface perhaps partially to blame, nonetheless, Curlin labored through the stretch to a fourth place finish. Smarty Jones was set to become the last unbeaten Triple Crown winner since the great Seattle Slew in the 2004 Belmont Stakes. It's just that someone forgot to tell Nick Zito and Birdstone to let the 2-5 favored Smarty Jones win. And perhaps the toughest blow on me personally was the 1996 Pacific Classic, in which Dick Mandella used two horses to "tag team" the 16 consecutive race winner Cigar by baiting him into a suicidal speed duel with Siphon, while setting it up for his other closer, Dare And Go. This lone poor ride on Cigar is why Jerry Bailey can never be regarded as the best jockey of his generation.

So, clearly, I know something about heartbreak at the track. (Sidebar: spaking of heartbreaks, the reason I've never been a big Calvin Borel fan is that he cost me a winning Pick 6 ticket at Louisiana Downs when I was about 16. After hitting 5 in a row, I went into the 8th race with two horses alive for an anticipated $40,000 payoff. I had the race favorite and a mid-priced horse Borel was riding, who got blocked around the turn stuck on the rail and had to swing extremely wide, coming up a head short at the wire! Even the 5 of 6 consolation money couldn't deter my hatred of Borel. But for the record, after two decades I have dealt with my anger and now I'm very happy for his recent successes.)

Which makes Rachel's astonishing twenty and one-quarter length romp in the 135th running of the Kentucky Oaks all the more impressive. And all the while Borel had a firm hold of her reigns in the stretch, customarily gawking at the crowd and rubbing Rachel's neck (which probably cost her the .20 seconds off a track record!) while waiting for competition, but yet again there was none. Now I've seen some 12 length romps in my day, but they're usually in a state-bred maiden race or a conditioned allowance race, not at the highest level of racing that is supposed to include the best of the best. By contrast, Mine That Bird's 6 1/2 length score in The Derby was the largest margin of victory since Assault won The 1946 Derby by eight lengths en route to the Triple Crown. And keep in mind that Rachel Alexandra had a shorter distance by an eighth of a mile to create that separation. Makes you wonder how much she could have won by running a mile and a half... I'd take Rachel and the "over" on Secretariat's 31 length Belmont triumph. Rachel and Secretariat in the same sentence?? You damned right!

Give 'em hell in the Preakness, Rachel, your biggest fan will be watching.

May 2, 2009

Bo-Rail did what?

If you were as shocked as I was to see Mine That Bird explode through the rail into the stretch, you were probably thinking it was "the other" Birdstone horse, Summer Bird, who finished a fast closing third in the Arkansas Derby. But after further review, it was a horse who in 2009 lost both starts in the racing mecca of, wait for it....... New Mexico!

Here I was watching my pick, Pioneerof the Nile, pulling away from the field turning for home after withstanding rapid quarter and half mile fractions of 22.4 and 47.1 (which moderated the middle part of the race) and hearing my long-shot's - Musket Man - name being called into the stretch when a horse skipped the rail and escaped from the field. Of course it would have to be Borel, a crafty cajun' who I was able to cheer the day before as he piloted the legendary Rachel Alexandra in the Kentucky Oaks (future post coming on this remarkable filly and my first "fillies Derby" day). But on this day I was hoping the bastard would come out of his stirrups so I could hit the tri! But alas, it was not meant to be for me yet another year, even though I always take pride in winning my own handicapping challenge (Tin Cup, anyone?) with the 2nd and 3rd place finisher (Musket Man at a nice price!).

After my multiple mint juleps had evaporated, I couldn't shake the familiarity of Mine That Bird. That's when I realized this was my long-shot special in last fall's Breeders' Cup Juvenile. My blog posting as appeared on October 23rd follows...

"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."

So for the second time in recent years, I had touted a winner a race or two prior to The Derby but jumped off the bandwagon when things weren't going great (my Razorback friends can attest to this). The other scenario was Bluegrass Cat, who I loved in the Blue Grass Stakes but hated that effort and totally dismissed in The Derby as he ran second at 30-1.

Musket Man proved his distance concerns were unfounded... I thought his previous wins at 9 furlongs already proved this. Other closers fared much better as I expected in the 3rd - 6th spots, such as Musket's show, Papa Clem - proved to be able to rate two races in a row, Chocolate Candy and the aforementioned Summer Bird. The post-time favorite honors easily went to Friesan Fire at 3.80 - 1, who finished next to last after bumping hard at the start and splitting a severe quarter crack at the onset of the race. My greatest satisfaction was seeing Dunkirk finish up the track as the 5-1 second choice in the wagering. Sure, he got a bad break along with many others in a 19 horse field... part of the reason I discounted a 3 time starter who had no seasoning as a two year-old. Several other underlays ran poorly, notably General Quarters at 10-1, Hold Me Back at 13-1 and Desert Party at 15-1.

It was a hectic day for me, as I had two flight delays en route back to Dallas, barely arriving in time for our Derby party, which I was greeted with tornados and repeated interruptions of Derby coverage on the local NBC affiliate. And of course, the TwinSpires website was backlogged prior to The Derby to prevent future bets (saved me more $$). But I will close my weary eyes soon in hibernation mode with Rachel Alexandra's 20+ length romp as my last sight. So thanks for all your emails/text messages/phone calls, but just don't expect any future replies until Monday morning. It was a great Derby 135 friends... just THIS CLOSE from a $42,000 trifecta! Ahh, but that's what keeps us coming back for more, just like sinking that 20 foot putt on the 18th green to salvage a 95, but you're right back on the tee box the next weekend!

Until the Preakness Stakes in two weeks, may all your tickets be worthy of cashing. Come see me at Lone Star track in Dallas this summer!

Peace out.

I Want Revenge

Derby 135 is beginning to resemble one of too many reality shows these days where one contestant is voted off each day. The latest defection - I Want Revenge - was technically no longer the morning line favorite since betting opened on Oaks day and the locals pounded Friesan Fire to 9-2 and locally owned General Quarters to 5-1(retired principal from Louisville - the best feel good story of this group).

I can recall the 1992 Derby morning scratch of A.P. Indy, but don't remember the top 2 picks having to drop out in the final week, but maybe someone can add to that.

I guess that's the benefit of being in town seeing local stories before the press conferences are picked up by sports outlets. That is coming shortly.

Horse Racing

May 1, 2009

Derby 135 Week - Oaks Day

My how time flies when we're having fun. It's hard to believe that Derby day is nearly upon us. But first comes the best race program assembled since the Breeders' Cup at Santa Anita last October. Friday has historically been known as both "Fillies Derby" day and Louisville's Day at the Downs. I look forward to being amidst the 100k plus racegoers across the grandstand and infield celebrating two standout ladies; Zenyatta and Rachel Alexandra (different races). And with Macho Again running in the Alysheba Stakes on the undercard, it's starting to remind me of Louisiana Derby day... I hope I'm as lucky! Rachel Alexandra and Flying Spur keyed a nice trifecta ticket for me and ditto for Macho Again on that rain-soaked day, which I'll be betting back tomorrow.

Speaking of rain, that's been a real concern for The Derby. I still doubt we'll have a soupy track like the one Smarty Jones won over. But if it does come up wet, beware of Friesan Fire -- after all, his mother was a mudder! Desert Party is the only other starter who has won on an "off" track.

I've done my best to save most of my thoughts on handicapping The Derby until the last moment, so not to influence your opinions. After all, I've only picked one winner (long-shot Funny Cide in '03) since I started this 13 years ago. In recent years I have turned away the obvious talent, which this year seems to be I Want Revenge (now that Quality Road is out). So it should surprise no one that I'm tossing the favorite in my picks, though not ALL of my bets in case I'm wrong. Here's how I see the race unfolding...

Of the top choices, I think Papa Clem and Friesan Fire will flash speed based on their quick works, along with long-shots Regal Ransom, Join the Dance and Atomic Rain. My guess is that Joe Talamo will be forced to rush Revenge to save ground on the first turn. Then comes all the horses who expect to be laying 5th or 6th (pushing each other faster) like Pioneer, Desert Party and General Quarters. Thus, I like the long-shot closers Hold Me Back and or Musket Man to run into the exotics.

I know I live in Texas and should be concerned with this swine virus outbreak, but I'm feeling another kind of fever -- Pioneer of the "west" Nile virus! True, he has yet to pop a triple digit Beyer speed figure, but he's beaten several top choices - including I Want Revenge twice in a "loser leave town" match in the Lewis Stakes. The fact that he hasn't run on a dirt surface leads me to believe he has more upside than others.

For all of you who are interested in our handicapping contest, please post your picks (top 3, in order) in the comments section - or send me a personal email if you prefer. Nobody has picked a "stone cold" trifecta yet, so perhaps this is the year! Happy Derby to you and yours.

Horse Racing