June 23, 2009

Rachel Alexandra and Zenyatta highlight Saturday's coast to coast racing

Rachel Alexandra's mini-break is over at six weeks, as Steve Asmussen will send his Horse of the Year leader postward in Saturday's Grade I Mother Goose at Belmont Park . Likewise, Zenyatta will be taking her second step in 2009 towards Horse of the Year honors in the $300,000 Grade I Vanity Handicap at Hollywood Park, the same race this mare claimed last year during her perfect 9 for 9 campaign. Although, she'll be carrying 3 more pounds at 129 than last year's running under the handicap weight assignments, which are intended to level the playing field. This weight represents the most a mare has carried in a race since three-time Oaklawn Park's Apple Blossom champion Azeri carried 127 pounds in the Vanity's 2003 edition.

We're getting close to the point where Zenyatta's trainer John Shirreffs will begin playing cat and mouse games with racing secretaries across the country prior to entering her in competition, as is the unfortunate case with racing greats. This happened with Curlin more than once last season and certainly plagued Cigar during his 16 race winning streak during his 1995-96 season when he routinely was assigned from five to twenty pounds more than his rivals (hence his nose defeat to Skip Away).

Back to superwoman, aka "Rachel." Belmont racing officials were thrilled to hear the news last week that she was to be entered in the Mother Goose. They have parlayed this good fortune into offer free admission to all women for Saturday's racing card, as well as giving out free "Rachel Alexandra" pink wristbands for the first 10,000 attendees. Not that it matters... last year when Curlin made his much anticipated start on the Belmont lawn in the Man o'War Stakes, the best the Elmont, NY track could draw was 8,400 patrons on a day when parking and admission was free - PATHETIC!!

If Jess Jackson truly is interested in racing Rachel "for the fans" as he proclaimed repeatedly last year with Curlin, he would race Rachel in a city where fans still care about the NAME of a horse instead of their saddle cloth number (ever been to a Manhattan OTB?). Take for example, Arlington Park, where over 34,000 fans - not seasoned horsemen - pounded the turnstiles to see Cigar tie Citation's consecutive win record at 16 in 1996. Or even (I can't believe I'm even saying this...) Monmouth Park in New Jersey, which drew over 40,000 to their first (and likely last with unpredictable weather) Breeders' Cup Saturday a couple of years ago. Hell, they even drew nearly 30,000 for that Friday's Breeders' Cup supplemental card (with a few newly added "also ran" races) when it was raining cats and dogs all day!

But I digress. The point is that this will be a great summer Saturday afternoon to head out to your local race track with kids or friends in tow to witness dual perfection. I'll be making the short 15 mile trek west to Lone Star Park in Grand Prairie, TX, which is still in live racing mode, but heaven forbid if you have to visit your local "OTB" (it's all good).

Happy Racing!

June 10, 2009

That other Bird flies past Borel

I hate to make a race about a jockey, because the thoroughbred is such a magnificent creature in its own right, but Calvin Borel brought this upon himself. It's only natural to get defensive when someone questions your professional skills (whatever your trade may be), but when you guarantee a victory you set a major bullseye on your back. Not that fellow cajun rider Kent Desourmeaux needed additional motivation, especially after his criticism of pulling up Big Brown in the Belmont stretch last year and getting nipped by the slimmest of margins by Victory Gallop when going for the the elusive Triple Crown with sssshhhhhh... Real Quiet back in 1998.

Calvin Bo-rail had been on an incredible run, with multiple graded stakes winners dating back to The Kentucky Derby, but perhaps his overconfidence caught up with him, like so many Hall of Fame jockeys and others who have gone before him. Most recently, it was the obscure Stewart Elliott, who got lulled into the pace scenario before tiring aboard Smarty Jones in 2004, getting passed in the final sixteenth of a mile by the hottest sire in the business -- Birdstone. I don't know if the fact Calvin had ridden only six previous starts at Belmont Park was the reason for the apparent premature move on the expansive turn of the 1 1/2 mile oval or not, but it's hard to believe after his Derby and Preakness efforts that he is inferior to Summer Bird on his best day. But that's why this race is known as the Test of Champions... sometimes the horse has to be good enough to make up for the rider's faults.

Speaking of Summer Bird, it's yet another feather in the tiara of Oaklawn Park racing, with the third place Arkansas Derby finisher being owned by long-time Hot Springs residents Drs. Jayaraman. Having a classic winner is a big jump from claiming the $50,000 Rainbow and Rainbow Miss Stakes perennially at Oaklawn Park for top Arkansas bred horses, but the Jayaramans had recently moved their expanding broodmare operation to Ocala in hopes of upgrading their matings. However, Birdstone is a Kentucky "homebred" sire and his success in his initial foal crop will only affirm this status.

As I've discussed with several of my "rail bird" friends, this was a mondaine ending to a thrilling Triple Crown series. At this point, I eagerly anticipate the Saratoga "spa" meet to welcome back Quality Road and hopefully Rachel Alexandra to push the Jim Dandy and/or Travers Stakes to another level. Quality Road recently his first published workout (albeit only 3 furlongs) in nearly three months as he attempts his comeback from his hoof problems and Rachel may get a start late in the Belmont meet for 3YO fillies. Whenever the Triple Crown races outcomes are split as they were this year, the summer and fall season tends to dictate who will be the cherished 3 year-old of the year. We have a lot to look forward to!

Until then, may all your tickets be worth of cashing.