End of the World as We Know It

About a week ago, I started referring to it as “the end of the world.” Today – Belmont Day, June 7, 2014 — the End of the World.

As a racing fan and participant, I can’t help but think of today as a kind of fulcrum, and no matter who wins, things will never be the same as they were yesterday. Waking up tomorrow, I will have a hangover, and the world, at least the tiny fraction of it where horse racing resides, will have shifted.

If California Chrome wins today, the world will once again know what it’s like to have a Triple Crown winner. Racing fans will be elated (even those who never bet a dime on Chrome), and all of us who have lived in the dark ages will finally have seen the light.

What’s more, should California Chrome win today, the powers that be in racing need to take a long, hard look at what they’ve been doing over these last 36-odd years. Nobody in 1979 would have believed that a Triple Crown hopeful was a Cal-Bred who started his career on synthetic surfaces and ran sans Lasix in his first 3 starts. Heads will be exploding in Lexington, for sure.

But if he loses, things won’t exactly be the status quo, either. Even now, there are those who would use their power to change the Triple Crown as it stands, add an extra week between the Derby and Preakness, even shorten the Belmont distance. Should he lose today, they will have another arrow in their quiver to strike on a heartbroken fan base.

All of this is just a distraction from the real issues in racing that won’t be solved with a Triple Crown winner. And those who have the keys don’t have the will or the backbone to make actual progress. So instead, they’ll fiddle with the superficial aspects that they do have control over, and smile and stand for photos when they push these changes through. But it will be a Pyrrhic victory.

I’ve been a California Chrome fan all along, even wore purple to the Derby. There is no question I’m rooting for him today. After all, it’s the end of the world as we know it. Whether we wake up at the top of the see-saw or sitting in the dirt is up to California Chrome. But hey, I feel fine.

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What Exactly Is American Racing?

I was under the impression that American horse racing was primarily done on a dirt surface, and that our best horses competed at the one mile and one-quarter distance. I was also told that female horses were celebrated for defeating males at any distance, as it was so rarely done here. My other assumption, based on the press, was that the Triple Crown races were at the top of the heap in quality of competition for three-year-olds, and that the winners of those races were the ones to root for and follow throughout the year. I was sold the idea that the Breeders’ Cup was the championship weekend, and that the whole year’s racing came down to these uber-battles. I was also told that should unexpected results come out of the BC, the whole year’s races were still considered in deciding year-end awards.

With that said, what happened at the Eclipse awards last night?

We awarded our top honor to a turf horse who never set one hoof on the dirt, nor did he win one panel over a mile.

I thought this was America!

Ok, so maybe his turf mile record was was fantastic; I admit, the Woodbine Mile was a stellar performance. OK, Turf male, cool – horse of the year: weirder things have happened (Favorite Trick, anyone?). But what about Champion Older Male?

There was no dearth of talent on the dirt last year. Mucho Macho Man had an inconsistent year, but he strung 2 great wins together:  winning the Awesome Again and beating everyone in the BCClassic. Flat Out, Ron the Greek, Cross Traffic, all took turns beating each other in NY and FL. But they all showed up on the dirt, in 1.25 mile races.

Then there’s Game On Dude. The Dude won the Santa Anita Handicap, the (final) Hollywood Gold Cup and the Pacific Classic, sweeping the SoCal Handicap triple. He also took the Charles Town Classic and the San Antonio. He suffered his first loss of the year in the Classic, but avenged that performance with a surprise run and valiant head loss to Will Take Charge in the Clark.

In any other year, the Dude would be a champion. He should have been one for 2013. He ran in open Grade 1 races, supposedly our top level, most prestigious, most valued, all year long. He ran and won on the dirt at 1.25 miles, and also won at that distance against 10 other rivals at Del Mar, a surface he had not performed at his best on in the past.

And he got only 31 votes for champion older male. I’d have been happy with Mucho Macho Man taking the award, after all, he did defeat Dude in the Classic!

And people wonder why our “best” horses retire early. Why keep a good three-year-old in training another year when none of his wins will mean anything? I used to get really ticked off when connections said their retired colt “had nothing left to prove”. Well after this horrendous year, I get where they’re coming from. Why take the chance, why ship, why be a “sportsman” if it doesn’t mean anything?

I thought this was American style racing. I thought our dirt horses and classic distance runners were sources of national pride.

If we actually don’t value that, then we need to own up to it.

Tear up the dirt tracks and replace them with safer synthetics. Cut the Triple Crown races back in distance and spread them out on the schedule. Strip California of its G1s. Ban Lasix and raceday meds.

Because for so long, this is what we have insisted American horse racing is all about. Last night, we proved that’s a lie.

 

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Beyond The Point Of No Return

Horse racing has spent the past 6 months tied up in a chair in a dark room, a harsh, blinding light in its eyes, with interrogators playing good-cop, bad cop trying to get it to admit it’s corrupt, that it really did kill 25 horses a week, and that the Derby winner really was doped.

For those, like me, who have come into this sport as fans and then worked hard to be a part of the game, it’s a heart-rending time, to have to explain to people why I am so fond of such a dirty, heartless group of nere-do-well horse-killers.

And that was coming from the lady who rode performance Walking Horses!

Horse racing has an image problem, and it’s because of 30 years of inaction, looking the other way, selfishness, and good-old-boy power-tripping. And it has got to end TODAY.

We are past the point for “hands-off” approaches to fixing the drug problems that stain a black mark on the heart of racing. We have missed the chance to actually educate the public, which now cries out for justice for the horses they perceive to be killed while racing unsound and pumped full of painkillers.

There was a time not too long ago that I thought a well-planned, well-researched, expertly-crafted publicity and educational campaign could help the public understand why and how we care for our horses. It is becoming more and more clear that only a complete overhaul of medication rules, testing and transparency will save us now.

For too long, the cheaters have gotten away with murder, literally and figuratively. We must ban them for life, prosecute those who use substances like dermorphin, and fine them with amounts that can be used to perfect testing and help retired horses. We must flush out the cheaters, so that the honest people in racing can survive and thrive.

We must ban all race-day drugs, including lasix. It is too late to argue the merits – too many people see it as a performance-enhancer. While I fully understand the health benefits of the drug, I cannot overlook the questions I get from people I take to the track: “Why do they race horses who bleed out the lungs?” I can’t help but look at our overseas neighbors, who race such magnificent horses as Black Caviar and Frankel, without Lasix. Heck, we did it ourselves for 100 years. We can do it again.

All horses’ medical records should be public. This will protect the wagering public, who, like it or not, are the lifeblood of the sport. I’ll Have Another’s medical records were released to a firestorm of controversy, but we all know he was not treated any differently than any other horse at Belmont that week. But the public will never know that, since none of the other Belmont horses’ records were released. Now we have a “doped” Derby winner, and this magnificent horse’s image, as well as the sport’s, is forever tainted.

I have said a lot about “perception” here, and no doubt there are people who say why should we care what civilians think, they aren’t in the sport, they don’t know anything, the NYTimes is out to get us…

They may be. But we knew we had a problem before the stories came out. We knew we had a problem in 2008. But you all have missed the chance to educate them. With the expansion of social media, criticism will only get more heated. It will NEVER GO AWAY as long as we keep on with the status quo.

Why should the industry care about what I think? I am the future of this sport. I want it to survive and thrive in the modern age. I demand change, now. I will do all I can to force that change to occur, in the voting booth and with my hard-earned money, and as best I can with the platform I help steward. Because if you lose me, you will have lost everything.

 

 

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When Stars Align

I am most sorry for the young ones, the newbies.

They who didn’t sit for 15 minutes knowing unequivocally what it felt like to have witnessed a Triple Crown winner, all unbridled joy and relief and passion, in tears and laughing for that skinny bay colt named Real Quiet. And then, as quickly as it happened, it was stripped away. A hollow, deflated feeling replaced that joy – but the memory of it was still there. We’d finally gotten it – then it slipped away. I wouldn’t wish that feeling on my worst enemy.

The newbies now only know the heartbreak – War Emblem, Funny Cide, Smarty (oh Smarty!), Big Brown – and now I’ll Have Another. The tyranny of “What If?” will follow him for all time, for unlike the others, he didn’t even get to try his luck at Belmont Park.

The newbies now know what that dread hollowness feels like. They now have a piece of the cynicism that infects us long-timers, the first of what will be a deeply-rooted infestation should they show up again in the years to come. Oh, how wonderful would it have been had these youngsters seen a Triple Crown winner so early in their fandom! It’s what we all wish for, right?

And yet –  with each Triple Crown season I am renewed as a racing fan. I carry all the emotional battle scars of watching these horses, and have learned who to put my faith in when the big race rolls around. Despite all the naysayers, I am certain that the 12th Triple Crown winner is close at hand. I’ve stayed up late to see the Super Moon. I’ve looked through a pinhole camera to watch the solar eclipse. And I will never forget where I was during the Transit of Venus. The stars will align for that most rare of equine accomplishments. I want those new fans to feel the excitement of a Triple Crown, and like an addict looking for the next high, I want to feel it again, too.

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Revenge Of The Dude

My favorite older horse, Game On Dude, returned to the races a winner today in the G2 Californian. He only faced 3 other rivals, but they were proven G2 horses: Morning Line, highly-regarded winner of the G2 Mervyn Leroy; Prayer For Relief, G2 Super Derby winner, and Kettle Corn, an up-and comer from the Sadler barn. Arizona-bred Uh Oh Bango scratched. It was expected that Game On Dude should run well in this spot, but only his die-hard fans could have predicted just how stellar he’d be.

With Chantal Sutherland in the irons, Game On Dude took the lead from the start as he usually does, but he was flanked by Morning Line in the early stages. On the backstretch run, Sutherland gave rein and the Dude drew off from the rest, leaving Morning Line in his wake. Prayer for Relief battled late-running Kettle Corn for second, but it wasn’t even close. Game On Dude hit the wire 7 lengths in front, easily.

People are saying Game On Dude is the best older horse in the country, possibly only behind I’ll Have Another in top rank of all active horses.

My, how far they’ve come. At this time last year, to suggest Game On Dude was a top tier older male was to be subjected to ridicule. Remember, Tizway had won the Met Mile & was at the top of the heap. Then, First Dude, next, Flat Out.

Game On Dude’s talent was viewed with suspicion. He’d won the Big Cap by a short margin and despite a long inquiry. Many felt he’d been the one to cause the squabble at the top of the stretch, when it was the “better horse” Twirling Candy who grew leg-weary and began the bumper cars.

When Game On Dude ran second by a scant nose to the (big-headed, roman-nosed) First Dude in the Hollywood Gold Cup, some saw it as not a confirmation of Game On Dude’s true ability, but proof that the California contingent as a whole was weak. Dude didn’t do much to change that view when he ran second in the slop at Charles Town, and he simply hated the polytrack at Del Mar.

But I had seen his grit in the Big Cap, loved his run in the HGC, and kept him among my top horses all last year. The eastern-based Tizway flaked out, Flat Out got beat by Havre de Grace, and First Dude got injured and retired. But all the while, Game On Dude kept on running, and trying, and getting better and better.

By the end of 2011, the older male division was in shambles. But when the SoCal circuit returned to Santa Anita for the final Breeders’ Cup preps, Game On Dude had his official coming-out party in the Goodwood. Facing Haskell winner Coil, old warrior Awesome Gem, and the filly, Miss Match, Game On Dude strutted his stuff on the lead in scintillating style and in a wicked time to match. It was a performance very like the one he gave today in the Californian. He entered the Breeders’ Cup the only older male to win multiple G1s, and a serious threat for Horse of the Year.

Of course, the Breeders’ Cup Classic was not supposed to be for Game On Dude – that race was Havre de Grace and Uncle Mo’s to win… except… Game On Dude, in his signature move, led the field from the gate, turned back challenges from Uncle Mo, To Honor and Serve and So You Think, then drew off in deep stretch… Only to get passed at the wire by Drosselmeyer. The Dude had proven without a doubt that he was the real deal.

Before the Triple Crown, Game On Dude was the most exciting horse in America. He had the trainer, Bob Baffert, a telegenic jockey, Chantal Sutherland, and among his ownership group was  baseball great, Joe Torre. I began planning my dream HOTY campaign for him… Instead, he went to Dubai and had a disastrous run in the World Cup.

There is a long-held belief that horses don’t come back from Dubai the same as when they left, that it takes something out of them that they never get back. SO it was with bated breath that I waited for Game On Dude to return to the worktab after Dubai, and hopefully, to racing. Would he still be that sharp, gritty front running gelding I’d grown to love?

I shouldn’t have worried. And should I’ll Have Another fail at his quest to become the 12th Triple Crown winner, I will root for the gelding to take the year-end championship crown that he so richly deserves.

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On The Cusp Of A Crown

I’ll Have Another defeats Bodemeister in a thrilling Preakness! Photo by Eclipse Sportswire

We are on the cusp of a Triple Crown, ya’ll.

I never would have picked I’ll Have Another in February for this Herculean task, but as the races have progressed on this well-trod road, he has developed into a true, classic racehorse. One that has the tactical speed, athletic stamina and heart to prevail in the three toughest tests in all of horse racing.

The ease with which he has won the Derby and Preakness is astonishing and is a testament to the wisdom of his young jockey, Mario Gutierrez. When others would have moved prematurely, or hung too far back, “Super Mario” put his charge right where he would be at his best when the real running started. Again, going into the Triple Crown, Gutierrez was a liability, an unknown going up against the top jocks in the land. Never would have picked him in February.

The Belmont is called the Test of the Champion because it is a 1.5 mile marathon in an age of glorified sprints, at a track that laughs at the naive and rewards the clever and savvy, no matter how many fans are there to cheer for them.

Why do I think I’ll Have Another will prevail where so many other greats have failed?

Simply, he has proven to be the best of his generation. His only serious rival, Bodemeister, is skipping the Belmont after three grueling efforts. With Bode out, who in this class of 2012 is good enough to challenge?

In the Derby, none of the projected closers were able to gain on the leaders, despite a sizzling early pace, the 5th fastest in Derby history. Dullahan? Only proven on polytrack and is ineffective against even a moderate pace. Union Rags? Could be a threat, but he finds too much trouble and hasn’t yet passed a horse in deep stretch.

As lone speed in the Preakness, Bodemeister had the race his own way at every call, but he still couldn’t hold off I’ll Have Another. The next-best colt, Creative Cause, could do nothing but give chase, finishing 8 lengths behind the top two.

There is no Touch Gold, who in 1997, ran a deceptively good Preakness after a bad stumble at the start – he ran down Silver Charm in the final furlong at Belmont.

There is no Victory Gallop, who in 1998, denied Real Quiet the Triple Crown after running second to him in the Derby and Preakness, thanks to a well-timed ride by his masterful jockey.

There is no Lemon Drop Kid, who in 1999, defeated Charismatic after the Derby and Preakness winner was thoroughly softened up by the speedy Silverbulletday – he had lost the race long before he suffered his career-ending injury.

I’ll Have Another is no War Emblem, who in 2002, was an aggressive pacesetter who sulked when he didn’t have the early lead and was rendered impotent after a stumbling start.

I’ll Have Another is no Funny Cide, who in 2003, was outclassed in the Belmont by the regally-bred Empire Maker.

I’ll Have Another is no Smarty Jones, who in 2004, broke America’s heart when he ran second to Birdstone, a classy but underrated closer.

I’ll Have Another is no Big Brown, who in 2008 outran his generation in the Derby and Preakness, but didn’t have the stamina to run big at the Belmont.

There is no Curlin or Rachel Alexandra this year, no Lookin At Lucky and no Shackleford to throw wrenches in a Triple Crown bid.

All the rest of this promising three-year-old crop have shown their best, and they all have fallen short against I’ll Have Another. Is he the best of a weak crop? Only time and experience will reveal that, when these youngsters take on their elders in the summer stakes and the Breeders’ Cup.

Until then, I’ll Have Another stands alone, a mere lap around Belmont Park between him and immortality.

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Kentucky Derby 2012 – Random Pre-Race Thoughts

I feel like I know these Derby horses better than any year since probably 2007. As the posts were drawn today, I shivered with excitement. I like this feeling!

I think the draw was pretty fair. Horses who most likely wouldn’t factor got non-factor posts, ie, Daddy Long Legs – I love it when international horses come over here, but the Derby is really a different animal from any of the big stakes overseas. As Godolphin painfully learned over a decade of trying to win it, the Derby is a stubbornly American race. Horses must be prepped in the states to be competitive, to experience the unique pace, surface and riding style that is commonplace in the Derby. I hope Daddy Long Legs runs well, but I don’t see him winning.

Liaison, the “other Baffert”, drew post 20. I like Liaison, but his 2-year-old form hasn’t progressed to 3, and I am not really sure why he’s here. Of course, he could win the whole thing, as “other” horses are wont to do (Thunder Gulch, Real Quiet, Super Saver, Charismatic…). It doesn’t help that he’ll be breaking from the parking lot, though.

Bodemeister has gotten some flack for being “inexperienced” since he didn’t race at 2. He has run 4 times in 2012, more than Union Rags and Take Charge Indy, and he has run at Oaklawn Park on its biggest day, which draws huge crowds. Curlin only ran 3 times before making the Derby, and I don’t think he had to face a horse like Creative Cause in a stretch duel. Breaking from post 6, Bodemeister has a great chance of busting a 130-year old jinx.

 

Hansen has been the most entertaining horse on the Derby trail. He is a Type-A standout in color and attitude, and with a brassy, frontrunning style to match. It was a delight watching his owner, Dr. Kendall Hansen, react to the post position draw when he knew Hansen wouldn’t draw the #1 (he got post 14). Sure, the blue tail idea turned into a fiasco, but the “Hansen Girls” with their own blue tails & matching peep-toe heels were a fantastic diversion. Dr. Hansen has truly enjoyed every minute of owning the horse Hansen, and I hope someday to do the same with my own race horse. It won’t be hair dye, but I can totally see a winners’ circle ritual involving Elvis-style shades & curled lips!

I am having a hard time settling on a top horse. That’s why I am so glad I can make multiple 50-cent Tris with different combinations! I have liked Union Rags since the Champagne. He is a magnificent specimen, with chiseled physique and always an alert look of intelligence. Also, his owner, Phyllis Wyeth, is a cool lady. Union Rags has been unable to show his talent in clutch situations, however – his BC Juvenile run wasn’t enough to pass the tiring Hansen, and in the Florida Derby, he lacked the kick that impressed everyone so much in the Fountain of Youth. Union Rags has started a pattern this year of grand runs followed by flops – the Derby is on his “up” slope. He will start from post 4.

Gemologist and Alpha are the two I can’t separate. Their Wood Memorial was a clash of titans, with Gemologist fighting out the win. Alpha has been plagued with minor setbacks and a sort of indecisiveness from his connections – two strikes against the son of Bernardini. Gemologist is a brilliant athlete (plus I like his name!) but he had a long layoff after his KY Jockey Club win in November. I see these two as winners, but with an edge to Gemologist.

Daddy Nose Best has been my top closer all year long. He has a grit and grind that will be valuable in the stretch at Churchill, and I definitely see him hitting the board. He has inhaled the track in the mornings, always a good sign. My other closer candidate is Daddy Nose Best’s stablemate, Sabercat. Sabercat was impressive in the Delta Jackpot last year, navigating traffic on the backstretch and closing sharply to win. He is return races haven’t been stellar, but he looks to be rounding into form for a huge effort Saturday.

 

How great would it be for longtime trainer Mike Harrington to score a Derby with Creative Cause? The big grey colt has run like so many other “almost there” closers – he runs brilliantly sometimes, but gets into trouble in others. In a 20-horse field, I don’t trust luck to keep him out of a mess.

 

Don’t let anyone fool you – with Trinniberg, Hansen, Bodemeister and Take Charge Indy all in this race, the pace will be fast.

Finally, I really hope it doesn’t rain this year!!!

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