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.