Tuesday, November 11, 2014

"Worst Breeders' Cup Ever"? - Come on!

(Photo ©Tom Hyland)

Sometimes I think a journalist pens an article just to be controversial; his or her emotions winning out over reason. That's my best reasoning for the essay penned by Gary West for espn.com on November 7.

I did not have a good day betting this Breeders' Cup - go back over my selections and you'll know this. But that did not dampen my enthusiasm for this year's event, as I was throughly entertained, especially with such big payouts. Who doesn't like to dream they'll hit it big at the Breeders' Cup? Here was a day to do just that.

Of course, I'm talking about Saturday, as Friday was rather chalky. Yet both days featured excellent racing, with thrilling finishes and intense drama. Texas Red won the Juvenile on Saturday, which throws the Eclipse award for 2 year-old colts into confusion. He may win it, but even his owner acknowledged the quality of American Pharoah, the early favorite for the race, who had to be scratched. Did the fact that this race did not have American Pharoah or Calculator - the horse who had finished second to American Pharoah in two consecutive Grade 1s - make it any less of an exciting race? Yes, it would have been a better race with those two horses in it and no one's handing the Eclipse Award to Texas Red just yet (I'd be highly surprised if he did win it), but congratulations to the Desormeaux brothers for their great win. It was an excellent race!

West talks about the lack of strength from the European contingent. Why is that? Last year, Treve who won the Arc de Triomphe in 2013, did not race in the Breeders' Cup (nor did she run in this year's Breeders' Cup Turf after again winning the Arc). That happens most years, given the proximity of that race to the Breeders' Cup. But last year, Magician, who was not Aidan O Brien's best horse, did win the BC Turf. So because one of the European horses, such as Flintshire - who placed second in this year's Arc - and Telescope, a highly regarded Sir Michael Stoute charge did not win the BC Turf, it's a disappointing race, according to West. Really? How about some love for the winner Main Sequence, who made this race his 4th consecutive Grade 1 conquest this year and should be one of the three finalists for Horse of the Year. Doesn't his win mean something?

Apparently for West, the Turf is only a worthwhile race if a European horse wins it. Well, we've got some pretty good turf horses in America as well.

I could go on and on about the points brought up by West, such as defections. Yes, it was disappointing that Palace Malice had to miss the Classic, due to injury, as he was one of the top older horses in the country for the first half of the year. But those things happen. As far as Will Take Charge not being the race, due to retirement, I'm sorry, but that horse wasn't the same in 2014 as in his magical year of 2013.

Seems to me that having Bayern, Shared Belief, California Chrome and Tonalist in the race guaranteed a marvelous Classic and that's what we got.

I notice that West did not mention the Friday card, which was rather chalky. Yes, Goldencents (Dirt Mile) and Tapiture (Distaff) ran bang-up performances in their races at very short prices. Apparently, this is what West wanted from the entire BC weekend, the leading horses in their categories winning their respective races. For myself and a lot of bettors, we want big prices and unpredictable races and that's what we got, especially on Saturday. Tapiture and Goldencents proved their status as likely Eclipse-award winning horses - we were treated to that on Friday, while on Saturday we witnessed some major upsets. For me, both cases are what makes the Breeders' Cup such a great event.

Worst BC ever? Try telling that to Roger Brueggemann and Florent Geroux, trainer and jockey of Work All Week, winner of the Sprint. A deserving champion - one who's ten for ten on the dirt. Defending champion Secret Circle placed a hard-charging second. Wasn't that a worthwhile result? How does a race like this make for the "worst BC ever?"

West also brings up the track bias argument for the early races on Saturday. He mentioned the first race won by Ocho Ocho Ocho in 1:14.57 for 6 and 1/2 furlongs on the dirt, after a blistering half mile of 43.96. Alright, the fastest horse went wire to wire - he was the favorite after all. Also, this was a race taken off the turf, with only six horses of the original 14 competing. The favorite shook loose, that's all.

As for the second race won by Acceptance, here was a horse that had won his previous race - his debut - by 13 lengths! Was it a shock that this horse, who started slowly, was able to defeat a field of six other two year-old Cal-breds?

As for 61-1 shot Take Charge Brandi capturing the Juvenile Fillies in gate to wire fashion, that makes a little more sense for making the speed bias argument. But Top Decile made a stout charge from well off the pace to be a strong second, while Wonder Gal also closed well to be third. So there were some horses that closed, but because Puca did not, West reasons that this was an unfair race in which the results were influenced by a speed bias.

Sorry, Gary, your argument is that of someone that wanted different results. I loved what I watched for two days, even if I didn't cash many tickets. There was nothing wrong with year's event, if only one watched the races with open eyes.

Monday, November 3, 2014

Breeders' Cup Thoughts

(Photo ©Tom Hyland)

Well, if you read my predictions, you know I didn't have a very successful 2014 Breeders' Cup - I only know a few horseplayers that did (and did they make money!) 

But on to a few thoughts:

"What a memorable Breeders Cup Classic - it's a race for the ages!" - Trevor Denman during his call of the final 1/16th of a mile in the BC Classic.

Trevor Denman had a great day calling the races. I would have written a "brilliant" day, but he did call Karokontie "Karokonite" during the Mile. Given there were so many horses in these 13 BC races, many of whom he had never seen race live, I think we can give him a break on that one.

But was he ever excited during these calls! I suppose if you can't get excited about so many double digit horses winning the BC races, you'll never get excited. But Denman was great throughout the two days, although maybe that shouldn't surprise any of us, as he's been at the top of his game for many years now.


Congratulations to trainer Wesley Ward for a great weekend - not only at the track but at home. He won the first and second BC races of his career, but decided to attend his teenage son's cross country meet back home. What a classy thing to do! He was quoted as saying that his horses "aren't going to run any faster if I'm there," so he made his family his number one priority. No one would have blamed him if he did attend the races at Santa Anita, but his decision instantly won him a lot of new fans.


Congratulations as well to trainer Roger Brueggemann for winning the BC Sprint with Work All Week. Brueggemann has been a solid trainer on the Chicago circuit for years, but that has meant his profile on the worldwide thoroughbred scene has been rather limited. 

That's what I love about the BC - all sorts of trainers, be they famous, such as Bob Baffert or Chad Brown win races and then so does someone such as Brueggemann. Maybe he'll be a factor in future BC races. Regardless, he's a champion trainer and no one can take that away from him!


Take Charge Brandi winning the Juvenile Fillies at odds of 61-1! Wayne Lukas, take a bow! The man owns this race - it was his 6th win in this contest - and at a youthful 79 years of age, he appears as though he'll never slow down!


Finally, a few words about the inquiry of the Classic. Like almost everyone who watched the race live, I thought that the stewards would take a look. I also thought that given the magnitude of the race, the only way for a disqualification would be an obvious bump or two (or three) that would have had direct influence on the finish. 

Yes, Bayern did come over and bother Shared Belief, who in turn bumped into Moreno (interesting how we've heard so little about Moreno, who finished last. He clearly needs the lead to be effective). And of course, Toast of New York did come over a bit after the start and bump into Shared Belief and Moreno, so that was something to consider as well. There could have been a double disqualification, meaning that California Chrome could have been put up as the winner (what a scenario that would have been).

Did the bumping out of the gate affect the ultimate finish? You'd have to say yes, but given how many possibilities there are in a mile and a quarter race, no one can say for sure that Shared Belief or Moreno would have won. I would have taken Bayern down, but as Bob Baffert notes, you have to give Bayern credit - he just wouldn't quit and willed his way to the win.

Bottom line, the stewards went with the California regulations that state that if "an incident occurs in a part of the race where the horses interfered with were not cost the opportunity to place where they reasonably expected to finish" (CHRB rule 1699).. there would be no change. 

The stewards played it by the book - and they played it safe. Maybe the rule needs to be changed, otherwise, as Richard Migliore said on HRTV, "you're going to see a lot of rough riding going on."


Finally, while the two year-old colt Eclipse award is up in the air - given the victory by Texas Red, how much does that win legitimize the performance of American Pharoah in a previous stakes race at Santa Anita? - the two year-old filly award should go to Lady Eli, who dominated the Juvenile Fillies Turf race. No offense to Take Charge Brandi and her win in the Juvenile Fillies on dirt, but Lady Eli was dazzling.

Saturday, November 1, 2014

Breeders Cup Saturday

Photo ©Tom Hyland

There's nothing like the Breeders Cup to get a horseplayer excited. There's also nothing like a bad day of handicapping at the Breeders Cup to get that same horseplayer frustrated (to put it mildly).

So today, I bet less, knowing I'll lose less - but hopefully, we'll translate that into a profitable day- I'd be happy to make $100 today. My problem is I always dream big at the Breeders Cup; nothing wrong with that, except that I'm out of my comfort zone. I start looking for a big payout instead of handicapping. I'm guessing that I'll do better on Sunday at Santa Anita (closing day) with a regular card.

So only a few picks today:

Juvenile Fillies: Difficult to choose between Feathered, Angela Renee, Conquest Eclipse and By The Moon. One of these four will win - I'll go with Conquest Eclipse and Feathered on top. If the former wins, it will be the first BC victory for Mark Casse, a trainer who's won about everything else. If the latter wins, it will be the first win for Todd Pletcher in this race.

Juvenile: A single for me with this race - Carpe Diem, who has looked brilliant in his two races to date. 

Filly and Mare Turf: Wide open and will go against defending champ Dank. Either DayattheSpa or Secret Gesture.

Filly and Mare Sprint: Stonetastic or Artemis Agortera

Turf Sprint: Incredibly difficult race. Box six horses: Undrafted, Caspar Netscher, Dimension, Home Run Kitten, Sweetswap, No Nay Never.

Sprint: Another incredibly difficult race. Box seven horses: Palace, Salutos Amigos, Mico Margarita, Rich Tapestry, Fast Anna, Private Zone, Work all Week.

Classic: Either Shared Belief or Tonalist on top with V.E. Day second or third.

Good luck to all!

Friday, October 31, 2014

Breeders' Cup - Friday

Mike Smith looks to build on his record 20 Breeders' Cup wins (Photo ©Tom Hyland)

Just a few thoughts on the 2014 Breeders' Cup races, as there is way too much written already.

A Pick 3, starting with the 5th race, the $100,000 Damascus Stakes. Bob Baffert has three horses entered, but as usual when a trainer has more than one horse entered, go with the highest price. So I'm taking a pass on Midnight Hawk (#2) and Chitu (#3) in favor of his other entry Declassify (#7).

I also like the #11 Bahamian Squall, trained by David Fawkes and ridden by Rafael Bejerano. He comes off of one of his best races ever and can still improve. He ran in last year's BC Sprint at Santa Anita and was not embarrassed, finishing 6th, beaten only 2 and 3/4 lengths for the top spot.

For the 6th race, I think that the favorite Hootenanny (#5) can be beat, as he's stretching out. He has looked great so far and I read that his trainer Wesley Ward says the horse is "fully cranked" for this race, so he could be very dangerous. But he's going up against some very tough horses in this race. It's very wide open - as are most BC races, but particularly this year - so I'm going with Commemorative (#4), Conquest Typhoon (#6), War Envoy (#7) - Aidan O'Brien - first lasix - how can you not like this horse? - Offering Plan (#8) - Chad Brown at 20-1 morning line - and finally Imperia (#11), trained by Kiaran McLaughlin, who's looked excellent in both of his turf starts.

For the 7th, the BC Mile, I can't throw out the chalk Goldencents, who will probably be the lowest-priced favorite today and possible tomorrow. But I'm going to also include several other horses in this race, namely Carve (#2), Vicar's in Trouble (#3), Pants on Fire (#4), Handsome Mike (#5) - a 30-1 shot, Fed Biz (#8), Tapiture (#9) and Big Bane Theory (#10).

So the Pick 3 for races 5, 6, 7 is:
7,11 / 4,6,7,8,11 / 1,2,3,4,5,8,9,10 - total for a 50 cent bet = $40

Last Pick 3 of the day - races 8 (BC Juvenile Fillies), 9 (BC Distaff) and 10 (allowance race, 7 furlongs)

8th race - 4, 5, 6, 11

9th race - 1,4,7,9 - note, I am throwing out the two favorites, Close Hatches (#10) and Untapable (#11). Call me crazy, but I think these two horse will get beat, as this is a more competitive Distaff than in recent years.

10th race - 1,2,3,7,8,11 (11 is my top choice, but the race is too wide open).

So the Pick 3 for races 8, 9, 10 is:

4,5,6,11 / 1,4, 7, 9 / 1, 2,3, 7, 8, 11 - total for a 50 cent bet = $48

Good luck and we'll see you tomorrow!

Thursday, September 4, 2014

"Keys" from Del Mar

Another exciting Del Mar season is in the books and besides excellent racing as always, this year, it seemed to me, was as good a meet as they've enjoyed in years. The fields were larger and there was great balance; evidence of that is the fact that Jerry Hollendorfer and Peter Miller tied for the most victories by a trainer. Bob Baffert, by the way, wasn't even in the top five in the category, although he certainly had a fine meet, ending with a bang by winning his 12th Del Mar Futurity on closing day, September 3rd.

As a handicapper, I also loved the fact that there were a good number of double digit prices that won, especially with the 2-year old races. I mention this, as this certainly was not the case - once again - at Saratoga. I love that track not only for the history, but also the quality of racing, but when Todd Pletcher continues to seemingly win every other 2-year old MSW race at the Spa, well, it gets a little boring. Yes, he has great horses and top clients, but you'd like to see someone else win a few of these races from time to time.

So spreading the wealth at Del Mar (or any track) when it comes to the leading trainers is a good thing, so great for Hollendorfer and Miller as well as Bob Hess, John Sadler and Doug O'Neill, all of whom enjoyed more victories at the meet than Baffert. Nothing against Baffert, but it's nice to see things even out a bit. Besides, no one is going to feel sorry for BB, at least not for some time.

Baffert had the last laugh anyway when he won the Del Mar Futurity with American Pharaoah, a colt he had labeled as one of his best 2-year olds. He was favored to win his first race, but ran into a buzzsaw named Om, trained by Dan Hendricks in the 4th race on Saturday, August 9. Om, from the three hole, took the lead immediately and was able to shake loose from American Pharaoh, who stalked him three wide down the backstretch. The race was over by the eighth pole and American Pharaoh faded to fifth, losing by 9 and 1/4 lengths.

For that race, American Pharaoh was equipped with blinkers, but for the Futurity, Baffert had removed them. He had the rail, which didn't hurt his chances, but for this race, he was sharp as could be, taking the lead after a few strides and then taking command of the race after two furlongs. His final time for the seven furlongs was 1:21 and 2/5 seconds and his winning margin was 4 and 3/4 lengths.

By the way, the second and third place finishers were Calculator, trained by Peter Miller and Iron Fist, trained by Jerry Hollendorfer. I mention this as both of those horses came out of the same race that American Pharaoh ran in on August 9 against Om. Talk about a key race! (If you'll allow me a moment to gloat, I did catch the $227.60 exacta that race- I wrote about it here.)

If that isn't enough evidence to get you to realize that the Om race on August 9 was a key race, consider what happened on closing day in the Oak Tree Juvenile Turf Stakes, that went off as race 6, just an hour or so before the Del Mar Futurity. The winner of this race was Daddy DT, trained by John Sadler and ridden by Corey Nakatani. Daddy DT had run in one previous race, that on the polytrack, finishing sixth by ten lengths. Guess what race that was? You got it, it was race 4 on August 9, the race won so convincingly by Om. Yes, the switch to turf was the right call for Daddy DT, but clearly, his effort in the August 9 race, was much better than looked on paper, due to an overwhelming foe.

So the evidence is overwhelming - the 4th race on August 9, a 6and 1/2 furlong sprint for 2-year olds was as "key" a key race, as you'll ever find!

By way, I can't wait to see Om race again. Nor can I wait to see what is in store for the first-ever fall meet at Del Mar; named the Bing Crosby Season, the meet runs from November 7-30.

Saturday, August 16, 2014

A Price at Del Mar

I caught a big price last Saturday at Del Mar when Om wired the field of 2 year-olds at 6 and 1/2 furlongs. Om, a Dan Hendricks charge, was 15-1 in the morning line and went off at 22-1. The fact that Bob Baffert had a first timer from Zayat named American Pharoah had a lot to do with Om's odds (American Pharoah, coming off some typically fast works for the trainer was the morning line favorite at 5-2 and was bet down to 7-5).

Om had run one race and finished fifth, beaten by 11 and 1/4 lengths; to the casual handicapper, this looked like a horse to take a pass on. However, the race he ran was a 5 furlong sprint run in June at Santa Anita in a very fast time of 57.2. Om showed some speed out of the 6 hole, but couldn't keep up with the winner, as he was 3 wide into the stretch, as noted in the form. Also, while Om did finish 11 and 1/4 lengths behind the winner (BadReadSanchez), that horse won by 10 lengths, so Om really turned in a fine performance the first time out. The fact that he was sent off at 5-2 was another positive sign.

Om, out of the three hole, did grab the lead right away in last Saturday's race with American Pharoah stalking him to his outside. It was those two horses on the lead all the way down the backstretch, but by the time the horses entered the lane, Om had put away American Pharoah and all of his challengers, winning by 7 and 1/4 lengths. Thankfully, I made a $2 exacta with a few horses, so I collected $227.60, as the second favorite Iron Fist, trained by Jerry Hollendorfer, got the place spot.

Today could be a similar story for the 6th race at Del Mar, a 5 and 1/2 furlong sprint for 2-year olds. Once again, there's a talented Baffert firster, this one named Abusive Power, co-owned by Mike Pegram. He's had some fast works and is ridden by Baffert's go-to jock Martin Garcia. All systems are go, as they say (he's 4-1 morning line).

The favorite is #8, Kantune, trained by Mark Casse. Kantune ran an excellent first race at Del Mar on July 19, a 5-furlong dash in 58 seconds flat. He just missed, finishing second by a half-length when bet down to 7-2. No doubt a deserving favorite today at 3-1.

However, inside speed has been very good at Del Mar lately, so look out for the #1, American Sailor, a Cody Autrey trainee. He also had a fine first race at Del Mar on July 19, that was run in a very quick 57.4. American Sailor showed early speed, but according to the notes in the form, was three wide in the lane and weakened; he finished ninth, beaten by eleven lengths. The fact that he was sent off at 5-2 is a positive sign for today, as is the fact that he has the one hole, so his early speed should mean a great deal in this race.

To complicate things even more, there's the #7, Discreet Prince, conditioned by Robertino Diodoro. This horse ran in the same race as American Sailor, but was not favored by the public, going off a tick shy of 40-1. However, this horse beat American Sailor that day, also showing speed, finishing 5th, beaten by 5 and 3/4 lengths;  his morning line is a much more reasonable 5-1.

Add to the mix some beautifully bred firsters such as #2 Pappou (Tapit, out of a Saint Ballado mare, trained by John Sadler and #5 Film Freak (Fusaichi Pegasus, out of a Dynaformer mare), trained by Tommy Proctor and you've got a pretty contentious race. How I love these two-year old races at Del Mar!

Tuesday, August 12, 2014

Mr. D

Richard L. Duchossois with jockey Kent Desormeaux and trainer Bill Mott at the trophy presentation for the 2009 Beverly D stakes, won by Dyanforce (Photo ©Tom Hyland)

This weekend the 32nd running of the Arlington Million will take place at Arlington Park, in the northwest-Chicago suburb of Arlington Heights. The Million is one of three Grade 1 races that day; the others being the Beverly D for fillies and mares, 3 year old and up, run at one mile and three-sixteenths on the turf and the Secretariat Stakes, for three-year olds on the turf at the same distance. These three races are the cornerstone of the Arlington Festival of Racing, the biggest day each year for racing in the state of Illinois.

The brainchild behind the Million- the first thoroughbred race in America to offer a $1,000,000 purse when it was first run in 1981- was Richard L. Duchossois, chairman of Arlington Park. The finish of that race, with the great John Henry making a furious rally to nip The Bart by a nose at the wire, was tremendously thrilling and would immediately stamp this race as one of the best of the year.

Duchossois has been the face of Illinois racing for three decades, rebuilding Arlington park after a powerful fire destroyed the grandstands in 1985. The new facility that was built at the same location is today one of America's - and the world's - most beautiful race tracks.

In Tuesday's BloodHorse.com, Claire Novak, who grew up not far from the racetrack, writes a superb piece on Duchossois (read here). Novak beautifully describes this facility as she details the life of the chairman, now a spright 92 years young, from his time in the Army during World War II through his initial interest in purchasing the track up until today.

It's a well written piece, complete with streaming video, that captures the spirit of this man, one who puts the bettor first; he comments that if you don't take care of your clients, you won't have a product.

There certainly has been a lot of bad publicity about thoroughbred racing as of late, so how nice to read this marvelous article.

Monday, July 28, 2014

Thoughts about the weekend racing on both coasts

Thoughts on an excellent weekend of racing at Saratoga and Del Mar...

On Saturday at Saratoga, there were eleven races won by eleven different trainers and eleven different jockeys. How neat is that?

It's pretty rare for something like that to happen and while it would almost be an impossibility at a small track where one or two trainers rule the roost, it's a testament to the quality and depth of racing at the Spa. Many big name trainers captured a win on Saturday: Mott, Pletcher, Matz, Tagg, Violette, Tony Dutrow, J. Larry Jones and Sheppard, to name a few. The win by Sheppard in the sixth race meant that he has had at least one winner at each Saratoga meet since 1969! 

I mention this as I remember the days some eight to ten years ago (and even after that) when Todd Pletcher would win multiple races a day (as many as three or four) and clean up every year in the trainer's standings. Nothing against Pletcher, who is having an excellent year again, but how nice for the industry and for fans wagering on these races to have such balance.


Speaking of Todd Pletcher, the trainer unveiled another of his promising two-year olds on Saturday when Competitive Edge destroyed his competition, winning by 10 and 1/4 lengths, covering the 6 furlongs in 1:09 and 4/5 (the time certainly could have been faster, by why push the horse in his first race when he's got that big a lead in the stretch?). What made this performance even more impressive was the fact that trainer Chad Brown unveiled one of his two-year olds named Aldrin (by Malibu Moon out of the Unbridled mare Tap Your Heels) in this race. One had to note this horse, if only for the fact that his purchase price at the Keeneland sale this April was one million dollars! Early talk mentioned Aldrin being a monster; that same description was also being used for Competitive Edge. Aldrin never found his footing, finishing a dull seventh in an eight-horse field.

Any performance such as the one Competitive Edge turned in, especially from a Pletcher two-year old, gets one to think about the Breeders' Cup, followed by the Derby trail in the spring, but given that this colt is by Super Saver, Pletcher's lone Kentucky Derby winner (in 2010), the buzz will naturally be rather strong!


There was another exceptional performance by a 2-year old over the weekend, this one a California-bred filly named Desert Steel (by Desert Code, out of a Cozzene mare), who won by an easy 5 and 1/4 lengths in a track record time of 56 and 3/5 seconds for 5 furlongs! Breaking from the rail, the filly went wire to wire and never had an anxious moment (the horse is trained by Simon Callaghan). I'm sure this will be a key race; keep an eye on the 3rd place finisher Soul Flyer, a beaten chalk who had to break from post position nine. This horse ran a fine race, but when the rail horse runs that fast and that easily, there's not much you can do.


Saratoga and Del Mar are the jewels of American thoroughbred racing, so it makes sense that their analysts are among the very best. At Del Mar, John Lies takes the fan through every horse, pointing out previous form as well as breeding - he's especially thorough when it comes to naming the full or half brothers or sisters of each horse. You can tell he's done his homework and I enjoy his matter-of fact descriptions of the field; for Lies, each horse is worth a look - a fact that escapes too many handicappers.

So he's got an almost encyclopedic knowledge of the horse for each field, but it was something he said during his analysis of Sunday's final race, a 6 furlong event for three-year olds and upward maidens with a claiming price of $50,000 to $40,000. Talking about the favorite Q'Viva, trained by Mark Glatt, Lies noted that this would be his first race on polytrack; in his previous five races, he had run on either dirt or on the turf. He then mentioned how sometimes you shouldn't worry about that; instead you should look at his form and see how he shapes up against the other horses in the race - is he a deserving favorite? In the opinion of Lies, this was the best horse in the race.

We all love to examine the past performances from all sorts of angles - is the horse cutting back in distance? Is he coming off a layoff? What are his speed figures and how do they compare to the competition? Etc., etc and this leads to the old "paralysis by analysis" situation where you can't select one horse, as you're stuck between two or three (or maybe more). So how nice that Lies did what more handicappers should do - he simplified things.

By the way, Q'Viva, the best horse in the race in the opinion of John Lies was made the post time favorite and won by 4 and 1/4 lengths, paying $6.40 for the win with a $2 exacta of $61 and a $1 trifecta of $142.30. Sometimes, the obvious play is the right one!

Friday, May 2, 2014

My Derby Pick? Not who - or what - you might think

Every year, I struggle - as do tens of thousands of others - about who will win the Kentucky Derby. It's always difficult for several factors, if only that none of the horses have gone the distance of one a quarter miles, so even a horse that has had things his way, such as California Chrome, still has that one questions mark; indeed, most horses have at least two or three question marks.

So who am I picking this year? Well it's not the usual pick, as I don't know who'll win. There are seven or eight horses with a chance to win, including (in my order of handicapping):

California Chrome
Candy Boy
General A-Rod
Medal Count
Wildcat Red
Dance With Fate
Intense Holiday
Wicked Strong

I also like the chances of a few horses to possibly get up for second:

Commanding Curve

And for third:

Ride on Curlin

So there you go, just put 8 horses on top, with the same eight horses second plus the two I mentioned and then Ride on Curlin third, and you've got the trifecta. As 50 cent tris are being offered, that's a $40 bet. You'll collect a lot more than that if it comes in, so take a shot!

By the way, I like Ride on Curlin for third or fourth, but no 10 cent supers for the Derby, so $1 supers are a bit rich for my blood, so you're on your own on that one!

Friday, March 21, 2014

Journalistic Excellence?

Photo ©Tom Hyland

An inquiry into another attack on the horse racing industry

Once again, the horse racing industry is being heavily criticized with a recent video produced by PETA (People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals) highlighting certain behavior by a few individuals who work for trainer Steve Asmussen. The video, almost nine and one-half minutes in length, focuses on a PETA undercover investigator who was around the trainer's barn for several months at Churchill Downs and Saratoga, two of America's showcase racetracks. 

As you will see on the video, PETA accuses Asumssen and his assistant trainer Scott Blasi of all sorts of unethical behavior with one horse in particular, 2011 Kentucky Derby runner-up Nehro, but in reality, it is a criticism of his barn's behavior with numerous horses.

On March 19, The New York Times ran a story penned by Joe Drape about this video. Certainly the power of the Times gives this episode greater weight; at the very least, it's more negative attention that the racing industry doesn't need.

I'd like to make a few points here, starting with The New York Times. Basically, my first question is this; what does the Times have against horse racing? In 2012, the paper published an article, also by Drape, about an investigation into the drug culture (as they described it in their article) of horse racing in America; there was one particular shocking photo of a dead horse, laying outside a race track and the point of the article was to claim that too many horses were being given medications that were either improper or not needed. The blame was on trainers and their owners who wanted to do everything they could to make a buck.

Later that year, Drape also wrote an article criticizing Doug O' Neill for his handling of his horse, I'll Have Another, that had just won the Kentucky Derby and Preakness Stakes and was looking to capture the Triple Crown with a win in the Belmont Stakes. The article featured a quote from a veterinarian who said that the horse had been on medication, as though every medication given to that horse or any horse is a bad thing. When the truth came out, it was clear that the medication was routine for the horse and amounted to nothing more than a mild pain killer.

Incidentally, owner Paul Reddam passed up the possible glory of a Triple Crown by retiring the horse a few days before the Belmont Stakes, as the horse had suffered a tendon injury. Reddam clearly did the proper thing by not racing the horse, so can you imagine the Times' response if he had raced the horse in the Belmont and he had suffered an injury? Yet they went on a wild goose chase with one particular angle and tarnished the image of Reddam and especially trainer O'Neill. Yes, O'Neill had been suspended in the past for not following regulations on medication, but this was clearly a case of guilt by association. Shouldn't we expect better from such a distinguished newspaper?

My question about why the paper dislikes the sport is based on my opinion, one that I'm sure many of you reading this will agree with; the average reader of The New York Times does not care about horse racing. I think I can safely make that assumption. So why have they decided to attack the sport again?  To be fair, the investigation this time was done by PETA and not the paper, so perhaps the editors believe they are doing a service here. But I disagree.

The paper's 2012 investigation was published the week of the Kentucky Derby, the one race per year that the average American follows, if only to win an office pool. So the editors knew that this particular timing of their story would have greater impact. If this were a horse racing publication, fine. But for the Times, this smacked of opportunism.

Now to be fair to The New York Times, they don't always criticize the sport. Last year, they ran a wonderful feature on jockey Russell Baze, complete with streaming video, about this remarkable jockey. I've emailed Joe Drape personally in the past and he promptly replied, thanking me for my email; this was in response to an excellent article he wrote about Todd Pletcher.

I also want to point out in the article on the 19th, Drape did ask the agent of a jockey who was accused by PETA in their video of using a buzzer in a race; the paper let the agent make the claim that he trusts his jockey. So the paper did make some attempt to be fair. However the tone of the article was anti horse-racing, so the damage had been done.

A by-product of this is the fact that as the average reader of the paper is not a big thoroughbred racing enthusiast, he or she will read this and assume that all of this negative behavior is true, given the paper's track record for journalistic excellence. Those of us that love horse racing know better.

But my biggest criticism of this situation is clearly focused on PETA. Let me first say that I am a lover of thoroughbred horses and animals in general; if there are incidents of improper treatment to a horse, we should know about it. PETA can help greatly in this regard, but only if they tell the truth.

One can certainly understand why PETA went after Asmussen, as he has been suspended numerous times in the past for medication violations. If there is abuse going on in his barn, then the idea of an undercover investigator infiltrating his crew's behavior can be a valuable thing. The evidence in this video certainly looks damning enough, so that's all fine. We know there are cheaters in this sport - as in many sports - so let's not close our eyes to this situation.

But here's my problem with this video. Instead of just focusing on mistreatment of one particular horse or a few horses, they felt they also had to address the question of a jockey using a buzzer in a race. There is a poorly shot, dimly lit video at a dinner where Gary Stevens and D. Wayne Lukas talk about this topic; Stevens is quoted as saying he used one.

So PETA can't stop at the undercover investigation of Asmussen's employees, they have to tarnish the reputation of two of the legends of the sport. This is yellow journalism at its worst.

But the absolute lowest point of this video comes with two statements from the narrator. Here's one:

"Trainers will do just about anything to gain an advantage regardless of the consequences to the horses."

Again, if they want to go after one particular trainer and have the evidence, so be it. But to say trainers in the collective meaning of the word is simply wrong. Again, someone who doesn't follow the sport will hear that statement and think every trainer is crooked. Again, we who love the sport know this is not true - not by a mile.

But if you thought that statement was bad, check out this one from the video:

"From birth to death, most horses used for racing are treated like disposable commodities."

Can you believe that? How can PETA make such a claim? Where is the evidence? The statement is clear - most horses are mistreated. Not some or many, but most. What an irresponsible claim. If an attorney made a statement like this in court, it wouldn't be admitted as permissible. But make a video and who checks on these things?

Of course, you'll notice on the PETA website where this video can be found, there is a link for you to donate money to this organization. Talk about blatant.

I'm all for cheaters and unethical people in the horse racing business being exposed and punished. But this must be done in the proper way and not in a manner in which sweeping statements are made to win sympathy so some organization can raise funds.

Wednesday, February 19, 2014

An Exciting Time for West Point

Photo ©Tom Hyland

True thoroughbred racing fans not only know their favorite horses and trainers, they're also familiar with some of the most famous silks worn by jockeys today. Certainly the black and cherry silks of the Phipps family is among the best-known and there's the green and pink of Mr. and Mrs. Jerry Moss, which has become almost iconic over the past decade, especially when their beloved mare Zenyatta was winning all those Grade 1s. 

Of course, the best way for an owner's silks to be recognized is to have their horses win races, especially graded stakes. With that in mind, I'm guessing that the handsome silks of West Point Throughbreds - bright yellow with a large black star - will become known to a lot more racing fans in the months ahead.

West Point Throughbreds has been in business since 1991, when it was founded by Terry Finley, a graduate of West Point - the colors of the silks are those of the Army. Finley is the president of this firm and his wife Terry is Chief Administrative Officer. West Point has become one of the most successful firms dealing with racing partnerships; they currently manage equine portfolios for 400 members, representing 80 horses. They work with some of the finest trainers in the business, such as Dale Romans, Tom Albertrani and Craig Dollase and run horses primarily in Florida, California and New York, although you'll sometimes see those yellow and black silks at other tracks in the east and midwest.

I mentioned earlier how an owner's silks will become well known once they show up in the winner's circle; that being the case, West Point Throughbreds is primed for a big year. The principal reason is a five year-old gelding named Twilight Eclipse, a son of Purim, out of the Twilight Agenda mare, My Twilight Dancer. Last year, Twilight Eclipse had a pretty successful year and that's a bit of an understatement. He's a turf specialist and set the world record for one and one-half miles on the lawn at Gulfstream Park on March 23, 2013, winning the Grade 2 Pan American in 2:22 and three-fifths! He then ran second in two Grade 1s in New York, the 1 and 3/8 mile Man O'War at Belmont in July and then another placing in the 1 and 1/2 mile Sword Dancer at Saratoga in August. He ended his 2013 campaign with a sixth-place finish in the Breeders' Cup Turf, defeated by mere two lengths.

This past Saturday at Gulfstream Park in the Grade 2 MacDiarmida Stakes, Twilight Eclipse ran his usual race from coming off the pace and flying past other horses in the stretch. In the past, some of his races were from far off the pace, but trainer Tom Albertrani has done a fine job getting the horse to settle in mid-pack and even press the pace a bit. Once the horse reached the top of the stretch on Saturday, he accelerated and kept his mind to his business, as he prevailed by a length, his time for the mile and three-eighths was 2:15 flat. 

It was a thoroughly professional performance and showed the true nature of this horse, as he just loves the longer distances; it seems the farther he runs, the better he gets. His next race may be in Dubai and after that, there should be the most important turf races on the East Coast, with the Breeders' Cup Turf the ultimate goal. He seems to me to be in even better condition this winter than he was last, so perhaps that elusive Grade 1 victory will finally come in 2014.

West Point had another winner on Saturday, when their four year-old gelding Brokered captured an allowance race at Santa Anita; his time for the about six and one-half furlongs (a Santa Anita specialty) was a splendid 1:11.41. This was the second lifetime win for the horse in nine races, with two seconds and a third; trainer Craig Dollase has done a fine job with this horse.

West Point also looks to have another star on the West Coast, as they recently purchased Anniversary Kitty, a three-year daughter of Tribal Rule out of the Bertrando mare JustAnotherBlonde. Anniversary Kitty won the first race she ran in, a six-furlong turf event on the final Saturday of racing (December 21, 2013) at Hollywood Park. She exploded in the stretch for a very convincing win and was arguably even more impressive in her next race, the one mile turf event, the California Cup Oaks. In that race, leaving the 14th post position, Corey Nakatani - who is clearly one of today's finest turf riders - kept her relatively close to the pace and also kept her from going too wide down the backstretch. At the top of the stretch, Nakatani was forced to take her to the seven or eight path for a clear run at the leaders and she finished up strong, just getting her nose ahead of the third-place horse. The horse that beat her that day was in the number two post position and her victory (at a cozy 65-1) was no doubt due in great deal to the fact that her jockey kept her on the rail as long as possible; clearly Anniversary Kitty had to cover much more ground that race and it's not a stretch to think that had the post positions been reversed, so too the result of the race might have been altered.

After that race, West Point purchased the horse; Craig Dollase, who is the firm's regular West Coast trainer, will continue to train Anniversary Kitty, so there will be a nice continuity. The next race scheduled for the horse will be her dirt debut in the Grade 3 Santa Ysabel Stakes at Santa Anita on March 1; this is a local prep for the Santa Anita Oaks. Looks like an ambitious schedule for the horse, but when you've won your debut and then placed in a marvelous effort in your second race, why not?

So 2014 could shape up to be quite a year for West Point Thoroughbreds. If you don't recognize the yellow and black silks now, you will soon!

Thursday, January 30, 2014

Let's Hear it for Mike Smith

Photo ©Tom Hyland

Last year, the comeback of jockey Gary Stevens at age 50, was one of the major stories in thoroughbred racing. After not having ridden competitively for eight years, Stevens came back with a vengeance, winning the Preakness Stakes as well as both the Breeders' Cup Distaff and the Breeders Cup Classic; overall, he was 12th on the money earnings list for the year and was one of three finalists for an Eclipse Award for the best jockey of the year. 

But there's another jockey who had a hell of a year in 2013 and really all throughout the past decade and even longer. That would be Mike Smith, who captured the Belmont Stakes and then won three Breeders' Cup races at Santa Anita. No other jockey won as many races at last year's BC - his total number of career Breeders' Cup wins is now a staggering 20! It will be a long time before anyone breaks that record.

Just to prove that wasn't a fluke, Smith is still going strong now that 2014 racing has been underway for a month. At the age of 48, he continues to excel in his craft and he's riding with as much enthusiasm and talent as ever. Through his first 70 mounts at the current Santa Anita meet that began on December 26, Smith has won 23 races for an amazing 33% win rate; his in-the-money percentage through those first 70 races was 56%. As a comparison, the meet's leading rider Rafael Bejerano had only eight more wins from another 67 mounts, a win percentage of 23% (still quite impressive) with his in-the money percentage at 65%.

Over the weekend of January 25 and 26, Smith captured the Grade ll $200,00 Santa Monica Stakes on Scherzinger in an effort that track handicapper John White labeled a "hall-of-fame" ride. You get the feeling that there are a lot more "hall-of-fame" rides left for Mike Smith and as he's doing this at his age, you just hope that he can continue his winning ways for another four or five years, if not longer! It couldn't happen to a nicer or more professional guy- way to go Mike!

Smith aboard Midnight Hawk in the Santa Anita winner's circle after capturing the Sham Stakes on January 11. (Photo ©Tom Hyland)

Tuesday, January 21, 2014

Gotta Love those First-Timers

Vegas Bound, a first-time starter, winning the 9th race at Santa Anita on January 12 (Photo ©Tom Hyland)

Every January, you can count on it at Santa Anita - there will be a good percentage of first-timers that win races. I've been following this meet since opening day on January 26 and there have been numerous first starters that have won both maiden special weight as well as maiden claiming races on the dirt and the turf, in sprints as well as distances.

The photo above shows Vegas Bound, a 3 year-old filly winning the 9th race on Sunday, January 12 at Santa Anita. This was a $30,000 maiden claiming race, with Vegas Bound going off at 16-1; this despite her morning line of 6-1. Why didn't the betting public think she had much of a chance? Two main reasons: one, there was a filly from Carla Gaines named Moscato Girl that was dropping from special weight to the claiming level and bettors were quick to spot this as usual. I see it as a red flag when a top notch trainer drops a horse from a $46,000 MSW to this level, but the public almost always makes a horse like this the favorite or one of the chalks. 

Add to that the fact that the trainer of Vegas Bound was Richard Rosales, a good conditioner, but not one of the more renowned in California. So the odds went up and up. I bet on her anyway, if only to win some money the last race and walk away with a little cash in my pocket. Long story short, the two of them battled for the lead right from the start, Vegas Bound took the lead just before the top of the stretch and won by several lengths over Moscato Girl.

Just the other day on Monday, Carla Gaines had a first-timer win a MSW turf race at the distance of one mile; the colt, named Texas Ryano, is a son of the great Curlin, while the mare is an Irish bred named Blending Element. Certainly, this is a horse bred to go long, so the distance wouldn't be a problem. Also, Carla Gaines does have a very good record with first-timers, so here was a horse that should have never gone off at 24-1. But he did and won by just getting up in a furious rally, while the two chalks finished 3rd and 5th (incidentally, another first-timer, Cowtownmary, ran an excellent race, as he had the lead in deep stretch, before tiring slightly to finish a close fourth, beaten for all the marbles by only two lengths.

Then just three races later, a 3 year-old filly named Wonderful Lie, trained by Dan Blacker, won a 5 and 1/2 furlong sprint on the main track. Her morning line was 12-1, at post time the horse went off at 17-1; she won by a half-length and the $1 trifecta payout was $3484.40!

So keep an eye out for 3 year-old first timers at Santa Anita (and other tracks) for the next few weeks. Generally the trainers have these horses primed to win early, as chances are the horse had a minor injury or condition that prevented it from running as a 2 year-old. And remember, these first-timers, - no matter the morning line or odds at post time - haven't done anything wrong yet!

Thursday, January 16, 2014

A Weekend at Santa Anita - Part Two (Images from January 10-12)

Rafael Bejarano guides Jet Warrior to victory in Friday's 5th race (Photo ©Tom Hyland)

Trainer John Shirreffs (Photo ©Tom Hyland)

Early Saturday morning workout for a Doug O'Neill-trained horse (Photo ©Tom Hyland)

Hall-of-Fame trainer Ron McAnally (Photo ©Tom Hyland)

(Photo ©Tom Hyland)

Jockey Tyler Baze after Saturday's 1st race (Photo ©Tom Hyland)

Photo ©Tom Hyland)

Wednesday, January 15, 2014

A Weekend at Santa Anita - Part One

Photo ©Tom Hyland

Being a racing fan living in Chicago in January can be a bit depressing. The wintry conditions don't allow for a local meet, so you have to watch races on the internet (or at an OTB). Or you can do what I did and get out of the cold and snow and head to Santa Anita in beautiful Arcadia, California.

Anyone who follows thoroughbred racing knows Santa Anita, so there's no need for me to write much. I'll just let my images do the talking.

Mike Smith in the paddock before Sunday's 5th race (Photo ©Tom Hyland)

Final few strides of Saturday's 7th race (Photo ©Tom Hyland)

Bob Baffert in the paddock before Saturday's 5th race (Photo ©Tom Hyland)

 Is there a more beautiful setting for a thoroughbred track? (Photo ©Tom Hyland)

A special thank you to Mike Willman and Debbie Olsen at Santa Anita for their cooperation and courtesy.

Tuesday, January 14, 2014

Baffert's Latest Star

Midnight Hawk, Mike Smith up, on the track before the Sham Stakes (Photo ©Tom Hyland)

Now that the calendar has turned a page and we're in January, Derby fever has begun in earnest. At Santa Anita this past weekend, the first in a series of Derby trials - the Sham Stakes at a distance of one mile on the main track - was held. 

Of course, you can't have a Derby trail in Southern California without Bob Baffert, who routinely seems to have three or four valid candidates for an appointment at Churchill Downs on the first Saturday in May. That's true again this year, even after Baffert's best young horse, the Breeders' Cup-winning New Year's Day had to be retired due to injury. 

He's got a few colts lined up; Chitu, who is 2 for 2, Tap It Rich (who has been acting up in his races), The Admiral and Icy Ride, who are both 0 for 2, but have run in two very tough maiden races (The Admiral was third to Chitu in his debut, while both horses were defeated by Cool Samurai from the John Shirreffs barn in a December 27 maiden race), and now, Midnight Hawk. The son of Midnight Lute, who won the Breeders' Cup Sprint twice for Baffert and owner Mike Pegram (Pegram is co-owner and breeder of Midnight Hawk), Midnight Hawk is out of the Wolf Power mare Miss Wineshine. Other co-owners of the horse include Mike Tice, currently offensive line coach of the Atlanta Falcone, Joel Queneville, head coach of the Stanley Cup champion Chicago Blackhawks and his assistant coach Mike Kitchen.

Trainer Bob Baffert with co-owner Mike Tice in the paddock (Photo ©Tom Hyland)

This was the second race for Midnight Hawk; his first was impressive, to say the least. On December 13 at Hollywood Park, he broke slowly, but soon gained momentum and swept by the other five horses in the field, winning this 7 and 1/2 furlong race by a resounding 6 and1/4 lengths in 1:29.1. Baffert had fitted the horse with blinkers for that race, but removed them for the Sham, as he believed the horse wanted to show speed. His decision was a wise one, as Midnight Hawk went with Kristo, a John Sadler-trained colt to the front in this two-turn mile. The horses stayed on even ground for much of the race, with each taking the lead at some point, but when Mike Smith asked Midnight Hawk for more at the top of the lane, the horse took command, charging home for a 1 and 3/4 lengths victory. 

Photos ©Tom Hyland

So Midnight Hawk is on the Derby trail, but before anyone gets too excited, let's note that he only beat three maiden winners in this race; also the final time of 1:36.48 was hardly earth-shattering. Still the horse has done everything asked of him in his brief career to date and given that Baffert is his conditioner (he has won the Kentucky Derby three times), you certainly has to like his chances on the road to Louisville.