June 25, 2010

Zenyatta reaffirms her place in history with 17th victory

Great Britain had the Beatles, South Africa rejoices with their vuvuzelas and now Hollywood Park patrons (and fellow Americans) celebrate the greatness that is Zenyatta. Named after the third Police album, "Zenyatta Mondatta" - which was widely proclaimed as Sting's break-out party, the giant dark brown (although she appears black) mare with the familiar full blaze now stands alone in the record books with her 17th consecutive victory in unrestricted races, 11 having been in Grade 1 company.

Hall of Fame trainer Bob Baffert came out even though he didn't have any horses running Sunday, along with Bo Derek and composer Burt Bacharach - although there would be no rain drops falling on this day, only tears of joy. "People love the stars," Baffert said. "I haven't seen this many people since she ran the last time." Her presence at Hollywood Park, along with a promotional Zen' bobblehead giveaway, helped attract a crowd of 12,232, significantly higher than the average of 4,200 over the three previous Sundays.

Zenyatta faced legitimate opponents in the Grade I Vanity Handicap to earn this record, while being burdened with significantly more saddle weight to carry. Under the race's handicap conditions, Zenyatta carried high weight of 129 pounds — nine to 17 more than her five rivals — because of her stellar record. The highest-weighted Vanity winners prior to Zenyatta were way back in the 1960's; champion Gamely carried 131 in 1968 and Silver Spoon won with 130 in 1960. "We're carrying a lot of weight and I just wanted to get that weight moving forward," jockey Mike Smith added, "so I tried to tip out as we came off the turn and use that momentum to kind of slingshot me even though I was a little wide, to get her at least running."

And ran she did, past Zardana (who previously had defeated Rachel Alexandra in her comeback at the Fair Grounds) and then past a begrudging St. Trinians near the wire, a graded stakes winner who was at her peak since recently defeating last fall's Breeders' Cup Ladies Classic winner, Life Is Sweet. With the victory Zenyatta races past Hall of Fame members Citation and Cigar for consecutive win streak, although her record is even more special since she has yet to taste defeat.

In discussing her remaining pre-Breeders' Cup schedule, trainer John Shirreffs had the following to say. "How many times do you really want to cross the country," referring to the fact that the Breeders' Cup Classic at Churchill Downs in November is Zenyatta's long-term goal. Thus, she will likely remain in California for one or possibly two more well-placed prep races. Then we could be treated to an epic Breeders' Cup Classic as four year-old Quality Road is back on a record-breaking streak of his own and last year's media darling Rachel Alexandra looked like her old self in romping by 10 lenghts in the Grade II Fleur de Lis Handicap at Churchill Downs last weekend. If these great horses all stay sound and go postward in November that would certainly make up for the disappointing 2010 Triple Crown season. Stay tuned!

June 9, 2010

Personal Ensign belated tribute

Personal Ensign died of natural causes on April 8th at age 26 at historic Claiborne Farm. The Phipps' family homebred daughter of Private Account out of the Hoist the Flag mare Grecian Banner will always be remembered as the Breeders' Cup Distaff Champion who went out on top after her 13th thrilling victory from as many starts, quite simply perfection. Thus, Personal Ensign is regarded as one of the greatest race mares of all-time. In fact, in a poll of "Greatest female race horse ever" I started last year during Rachel Alexandra and Zenyatta's summer assault on horse racing, Rachel narrowly edged out Personal Ensign (7 to 6) with Ruffian also receiving a few votes but Zenyatta getting shut out (vote was prior to Breeders' Cup). I'm interested to see how these numbers may change at the conclusion to this year's season.

Personal Ensign's first of eight grade I wins came at age two, but she then was sidelined with a fractured pastern until September of her three year-old season (thus, no spring Classic attempts). Her four year-old season in 1988 was comparable to Rachel's Horse of the Year campaign last year in that she had 7 wins -- including beating the boys (Gulch) in The Whitney Handicap. Perhaps her '88 campaign was even better when you consider she competed in and won the year-end Breeders' Cup Distaff. In that career defining race at Churchill Downs, seemingly beaten on a sloppy track, Personal Ensign roared down the center of that long stretch under Randy Romero (who coincidentally will be enshrined into the Racing Hall of Fame this August at Saratoga, thanks to P.E.!) to catch the free-running Kentucky Derby winner, Winning Colors, by a scant nose on the line. One of Tom Durkin's greatest race calls ever (check the Youtube video and tell me you don't have goose bumps!). And I believe she also would have been the overall Horse of the Year in 1988 had the much-hyped Alysheba not gotten slighted the year before after losing to Ferdinand by a nose in the Classic.

"She was a wonderful filly who overcame injury to win 13 straight races," said trainer Shug McGaughey. "She was certainly one of my all-time favorites. She was a career maker."

In addition to perfection ON the track, her accomplishments in the breeding shed far exceeded what most great race mares are able to produce through their progeny. Her first foal - Miner's Mark (not to be confused with the Kentucky 90 proof spirit) was a grade I winner and her second foal - the Mr. Prospector colt Our Emblem - is the sire of 2002 Kentucky Derby winner War Emblem. My Flag, the regal daughter of Easy Goer and Personal Ensign, won the 1995 Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Fillies and her daughter Storm Flag Flying reproduced that effort with a win in the 2002 running. Another Personal Ensign colt, Traditionally, was a Grade I winner in 2001 and another daughter, Title Seeker, is the dam of yet another Grade II winner, Seeking the Title. This success led to her being named the Kentucky Broodmare of the Year in 1996.

Along with Kentucky Derby winning fillies Genuine Risk and Winning Colors (who both passed away in 2008 - see archived tributes), Personal Ensign was the last anchor of the triangle that comprised the three best fillies over the last quarter century. That is, until our current string of femme fatals. Let's continue to wish Zenyatta and Rachel all the best to see if they are up to the challenge of capping their careers with as dramatic a finish as the graceful Personal Ensign!

June 8, 2010

Belmont wrap and current 3 year-old picture

After Drosselmeyer captured the 1 1/2 miles Belmont Stakes on Saturday, the Triple Crown Trail has finally ended with a resounding THUD (or should I say Dud!). Although always know for having potential with his breeding (I even had Drossel as high as #6 in my earliest Polls), it's clear to me that this unique distance was the only reason Drosselmeyer was able to notch this Grade I victory. He was soundly defeated by Belmont runner up Fly Down by six lengths in their local prep (Dwyer Stakes) for the Belmont -- which was run in a pedestrian 2:31.57. This year's Belmont time came in a full FOUR seconds slower than last years (granted, last year's winner Summer Bird was a better than average winner).

First Dude's show spot gave him the distinction of being the only colt to hit the board in more than one Classic race, a rarity from a historical perspective. Based on his tactical speed of going to the front (and being able to hang on after fast fractions - see Preakness Stakes) he should prove tough in the summer and fall races, which distances are usually 1 1/8 miles - other than the classic distance 1 1/4 miles of the Travers Stakes. But if I had to choose a three year-old colt at this date I would easily pick Fly Down. The son of Mineshaft (grandson of A.P. Indy) was a steal for only $80,000 at the 2008 Keeneland Yearling Sale. At the 9 furlong distance he previously trounced Drosselmeyer in the Dwyer Stakes at Belmont Park and now has defeated (all very narrowly) First Dude on three separate occasions! His lone poor performance this year came in the Louisiana Derby, in which Drosselmeyer also ran a disappointing third. Finally, Fly Down was a late foal being born April 19th, so I feel he will only improve as he continues to physically mature.

In going over my "2010 Triple Crown notes" folder, yet again I am befuddled over how I didn't cash more tickets this spring! The three winners of Triple Crown races were ranked #1, #2 and #6 in my earliest Top 10 Poll. Even veteran turf writer Steve Haskin, who publishes more blogs than anyone on the subject during the spring, could only muster 'Lucky at #2 and Super Saver at #6, with Drosselmeyer not making his "Derby Dozen" at a comparable point in time. Yet I only cashed a $5 futures bet on Super Saver at 23-1 and a small exacta backup bet (I liked Paddy for the win at juicier odds) in the Preakness. Most recently in the Belmont, I was essentially out of my allotment of "dry powder" for the Triple Crown series and thus keyed Fly Down in a few trifecta tickets. Had he passed Drossel for the win, I would have had the tri, but it likely would have only paid a couple hundred bucks even with Drossel in the mix.

Oh well, at least I felt vindicated with Ice Box finishing up the track in 9th. If you go back and lood at his odds progression from his last few races, you'll see that this horse had no business being under 2-1 in a Belmont field that clearly lacked any significant pace. He went off at 46-1 in the FOY and finished 5th, beaten 12 lengths. With those top three defecting for other preps, his odds lowered to 21-1 in the Florida Derby where he won by a nose after sizzling splits. Then he again goes off around 20-1 in The Kentucky Derby and gets the wet-sealed track and fast pace to run into the money. But 9-5 at Belmont at a mile and one-half? As Lleyton Hewett used to say... C'mon! We'll see how Super Saver and Lookin At Lucky take to their freshening period and come back in the summer series (Haskell, Jim Dandy - Travers, etc.) and possibly against older horses in the fall leading up to the Breeders' Cup, which is back at Churchill Downs, yeah!

Several of my work friends have asked what I'm going to do now that the Triple Crown is over (as if there are no more races beyond the Belmont!). I don't know if anyone else has noticed, but the two biggest names in racing are both going to the Post this coming weekend. Zenyatta will be going for an historic 17th consecutive victory at her home course of Hollywood Park (where I believe they deserve this race - unlike other critics of her racing in Cali) and Rachel Alexandra will be running -- but in typical Jess Jackson fashion they won't say where until the last second. Thus, they'll probably choose the softest field to build back Rachel's confidence.

So yes, I will have periodic posts throughout the summer doldrums, so please stay tuned!!
Happy Racing,

Lookin At Lucky finally gets his break at Pimlico

What an interesting trip to the 2010 Preakness Stakes in Baltimore. Wanting to witness a Preakness Stakes in person at Pimlico Race Course before the Maryland Jockey Club likely moves the race to Laurel Park (due to financial woes as well as the decrepit state of the second oldest racing venue in these United States), my wife and I cheerily set out to the resting place of Edgar Allan Poe. I knew the trip was off to a good start when we came across Hall of Fame jockey Jerry Bailey at the DFW airport as we both waited out extended weather delays. Jerry seemed to appreciate getting to "talk shop" about the next day's Preakness Stakes. Coincidentally, Jerry was flying back from visiting his father in El Paso and NOT heading northeast to Baltimore, as we were. And because of this exchange, I'll never beat myself up over my lousy picks again!

First of all, I got Jerry's attention by walking over and mentioning to him that Cigar was my "big" horse, to which he replied, "What a coincidence - he was MY big horse, too!" At that point, I wanted to confront him over his bonehead speed-happy ride in the Pacific Classic, costing Cigar his 17th consecutive victory to the obscure Dare And Go, but opted for the civil route instead. Thus, after exchanging pleasantries about our reflections of Oaklawn Park, where Bailey often rode during my Oaklawn "heyday," I pulled out my charts and we both went into handicapping mode for the next ten minutes. This is something I will always remind my wife of when she accuses horse racing of being simply another "hobby" -- I can remind her of the day I held my own with Hall of Famer Jerry Bailey!

What about Paddy?, I asked. "I like him a lot, but we'll see if he can handle true dirt since the Derby track was wet-sealed," replied Baily. Jerry shot back with a comment about long-shots Pleasant Prince and Schoolyard Dreams, that I hastily dismissed. Getting back to my horses, I interrupted to ask his opinion of 'Lucky. His response was very direct and without pause, "Lucky is one of those horses who seems to find trouble... he never seems to be in the right position to get a jump on the others, and that's probably an indication of his ability rather than the jockey's moves." To which I added, "kind of like Dollar Bill several seasons back" and received an affirmative nod from Jerry. But the problem was that I disagreed with Jerry's analysis on Lucky. How in the world could I possibly dispute a Hall of Famer when it comes to horseflesh and jockeys and when horses should move?! So I just smiled and nodded but did add that I personally witnessed his Rebel Stakes at Oaklawn and was very impressed with his determination in getting past Noble's Promise. And with that, my 15 minutes in the shoes of Kenny Mayne or Randy Moss - playing Jerry Bailey's sidekick - came to an abrupt end.

Of course, the race itself wasn't nearly as interesting as our journey. But then again, in horse racing the race rarely lives up to the road getting there. Super Saver looked brilliant in the walk-over with Pletcher, but resembled a tired horse as the race unfolded. Paddy O'Prado obviously didn't take to the real dirt track and Lookin At Lucky indeed did improve off his previous unlucky stretch rides and got to the wire first for trainer Baffert under a new jockey - Martin Garcia. First Dude and Jackson Bend ran gutsy for the place and show spots, respectively.

It was a fun race to watch without too much at stake from a betting perspective, but the real happenings were going on in the infield at Pimlico, where $20 for unlimited beer refills brought in 40,000 strong party-goers to the infield alone (total attendance was 97,000). In addition to a Zach Brown Band concert, competitions ranging from beach volleyball (professional tour) to washers/cornhole and beer pong (out of shape amateurs) obliterated the sun-baked revelers. Many journalists have attacked the Preakness in recent years due to this atmosphere, but the track officials have made it clear they want the big crowds -- however they can get them. Even if that includes a marketing campaign of "Get Your Preak On!" Luckily, we had seats in the Old Hickory section of the grandstand, so we were able to retreat to our seats for much of the day.

Belmont does offer a kinder, gentler environment with more families coming over from the neighboring boroughs. So if you're high society you may want to wait for the more tempered Belmont Stakes or even the Travers Stakes at Saratoga in the fall. But if you're like me - a little bit country and a little bit rock 'n roll - then put the Preakness Stakes on your short list for big races to see before it becomes, well, history!