Tuesday, October 28, 2014

BREEDERS’ CUP FRIDAY

UNTAPABLE VIES WITH GOLDENCENTS FOR MARQUEE STATUS ON DAY 1

Most of the time, having the Breeders’ Cup repeat years at a particular venue could help to predict the second year’s results.  Same distances, same surfaces…but that is only half true when discussing surfaces this year.  Santa Anita Park replaced the dirt course we saw as a very speed-favoring track for half of the action on Breeders’ Cup Friday, 2013, when fast fractions propelled leaders to the winner’s circle.  The weekend prior, early Sprint favorite POINTS OFFTHE BENCH suffered a catastrophic injury in his final ‘Cup workout which put Santa Anita Park on notice to the thoroughbred world.

When longshot HEIR OF STORM posted a huge undercard upset over former G.1 winner TAMARANDO in the Golden State Mile, it seemed closers had no chance.  GOLDENCENTS’ sprint fractions set while winning the Dirt Mile furthered the “speed-favoring” opinion of the main track.  

The condition of the dirt changed enough to produce fair results by the end of the day. BEHOLDER held off CLOSE HATCHES in the Distaff, a credit to the trackman.  

By Saturday, despite SHE’S A TIGER staggering to the wire only to be DQ’d from the win in favor of longshot RIA ANTONIA, closers ruled the day on the dirt culminated by MUCHO MACHO MAN’s win from mid-pack holding off stretch runner WILL TAKE CHARGE and another mid-pack closer DECLARATION OF WAR.

However, the damage to the main track’s reputation was done and there was heavy pressure on Santa Anita Park to make changes to appease horsemen.  Exit the not-so-old dirt and enter El Segundo sand, installed after the winter/spring meeting this year.  While the new dirt surface yields quick times, the track profile seems to promote winners from seemingly anywhere.  The turf course, while fast, has been in fetching condition and has been the constant in Santa Anita Park’s unprecedented run of hosting the Breeders’ Cup; they will have hosted five times in the last seven years, including the last three years.  Only the tight turns could spell trouble for Europeans who raced on undulating courses that, more often than not, resemble a straight line vs. the oval shape they’ll run on this weekend.   

Let’s take a cursory glance at a few runners who caught my eye in Friday’s four Breeders’ Cup races.

BREEDERS’ CUP JUVENILE TURF (read Paul @heylaserbeam analysis here)

It’s been pounded into our heads (and hopefully padded our pockets) how foreign horses, namely European based runners, dominate the turf scene in the Breeders’ Cup World Thoroughbred Championships.  In this year’s Juvenile Turf, no less than six foreign reared males were pre-entered.  Interestingly, of the five in the main body of the race two of them were bred in the bluegrass of Kentucky.  The sire of both THE GREAT WAR and WAR ENVOY is WAR FRONT, the hot sire of the last few years.  So in-demand is he that he’s been mated with the incomparable ZENYATTA.  THE GREAT WAR has the Juvenile as first preference; that leaves only five foreign based horses to decipher against the North American contingent.

Juddmonte Farms’ British homebred COMMEMORATIVE is the most compelling of the lot to me.  Despite a relatively paltry race record compared with other entrants in the race, the ZAMIDAR colt has improved in each of his three successive runs.  Last out he annexed the G.3 Autumn Stakes at Newmarket in wire-to-wire fashion.  Euros that can show tactical speed and sprint home holding off the well-trained closers are ultra-dangerous running against our usually speed-crazy juveniles on turf.

I expect the pace of the race to be honest, given the presence of need-the-lead types HOOTENANY in post two and LUCK OF THE KITTEN in the four hole.  COMMEMORATIVE can allow those speed types to clear and slot into the second flight, before using the potent stretch kick most European juveniles demonstrate.  It would certainly be wonderful to see the pink and green silks of Prince Khalid Abdullah’s farm return to the Grey Goose Breeders’ Cup winner’s circle.

In racing, especially juveniles on turf, it’s never really as easy as one horse…especially not in the maximum 14 horse field with two on the also-eligible list.  If COMMEMORATIVE pens a forgettable performance, Godolphin Racing’s IMPERIA gives the impression of a classy colt with room to improve.  Second, beaten just a neck at 8-1 in his career debut at Saratoga sans Lasix, the son of Godolphin’s talented, G.1 winning broodmare COCOA BEACH put it all together with an electrifying turn of foot to break maiden with the addition of Lasix last out.  He overcame a dawdling early pace to finish the 1 1/16 miles in a sparkling 1:41 1/5.  Folks, that’s race horse time in any terms.  A kick like IMPERIA’s is hard to find in any horse, let alone ignore, in a 2y.o. that’s North American based or not.

Drawn in the 11 hole, the stretch runner will allow the inside speed to clear while folding in to save as much ground around the turns as possible before unleashing his stretch fury.

BREEDERS’ CUP DIRT MILE

People will be lining up to try and defeat GOLDENCENTS, the defending champ.  Last year he produced a speed display en route to a wire-to-wire win that only a speed-favoring track would promote.  I’ve heard many opinions thinking he’s vulnerable without the speed track he won on last year.  In the 2013 Dirt Mile, he was head-to-head with a fast longshot, BROADWAY EMPIRE, for a ½ mile before vanquishing his foe and distancing the field. 

The Leandro Mora (ie. Team O’Neill) trainee will vie for “marquee” status with UNTAPABLE on Friday, considering the defections of early Juvenile favorite AMERICAN PHARAOH, defending champ BEHOLDER, and two-time Horse of the Year WISE DAN.

His four races this year have been very, very good.  Unfortunately he’s been rewarded with the spoils of victory only once, finishing second the other three times.  The lone win came in the G.2 Pat O’Brien traveling 7 furlongs on Polytrack two races back.  In fact, GOLDENCENTS has earned four triple digit Beyer Speed Figures (BSF’s) including a 110 earned when 2nd to PALACE MALICE in the G.1 Metropolitan Handicap.  Last out he was run down in the G.1 Santa Anita Sprint Championship despite building a 1 ½ lengths lead at the stretch call.  The nose defeat was no disgrace as the winner, RICH TAPESTRY, benefitted from a ground-saving trip against a favorable race shape.  GOLDENCENTS went wide enough that the ground loss alone could be reason to believe the son of INTO MISCHIEF was best in defeat. 

GOLDENCENTS uses his combination of speed and stamina in middle distance races to put himself into the perfect position.  His only disappointment at the trip was a dull run in the G.1 Cigar Mile which can be explained because it came after he was gutted from the BC Mile win.  From there it took six months for him to race again, returning in the Met Mile in late Spring.  Drawn on the rail, a clean start is crucial.  If he breaks as he usually does, expect Rafael Bejarano to put GOLDENCENTS on the lead to force VICAR’S IN TROUBLE, PANTS ON FIRE and FED BIZ to show their hands or deal with another potential wire job from the defending champ. 

While GOLDENCENTS will likely be favored and could prove a reliable short price, there’s no such thing as a “sure thing” in thoroughbred racing.  Familiar foe FED BIZ from the Bob Baffert barn is in career form and will give a winning account.  He’s authored two triple digit BSF’s in his last three races, plus a 99 when second to GOLDENCENTS two back.  The 5y.o. son of GIANT’S CAUSEWAY nearly spoiled SHARED BELIEF’s unbeaten streak last out, finishing a game second after setting or pressing an honest pace for the 9 furlongs distance.  Cutting back to a mile will put him in a stamina advantage position over sprint-prepped GOLDENCENTS.  If the pace is contested, with GOLDENCENTS giving and accepting heat, expect FED BIZ to have enough late energy to mount a winning bid at him come deep stretch.

BREEDERS’ CUP JUVENILE FILLIES TURF

The “home team” has a strong entry in G.1 Del Mar Debutante winner SUNSET GLOW.  While the daughter of EXCHANGE RATE has yet to try two turns, she passed a herculean test coming from behind on Polytrack last out.  The normally forwardly placed juvenile filly raced in 5th place early, unfamiliar territory inside and behind horses.  Despite enduring a troubled trip and overcome a forced style change, SUNSET GLOW won the most important race of her young life.  She could have been forgiven if she’d lost, despite her heavy favoritism.  However, SUNSET GLOW showed courage and determination beyond her tender years. 

The result wasn’t surprising to the masses who bet her down to 4-5 favoritism but the obstacles in her way, and the desperately close neck winning margin, had her backers worried.  She was regarded so highly by trainer Wesley Ward that she was shipped to Ascot in Great Britain, accompanying Juvenile Turf contender HOOTENANY.  SUNSET GLOW finished a game second to eventual G.1 winner CURSORY GLANCE as a 7-1 chance.  She gives the indication that underestimating her against the foreign invaders could be perilous.

Of the foreign fillies, OSALIA looks from her past performances like she will be triple tough.  A winner of the Tattersall’s Millions 2y.o. Fillies Trophy last out, to go with a G.3 win and a close-up 5th place finish to the aforementioned CURSORY GLANCE in the G.1 Moyglare Stud Stakes, her Timeform figures look very strong.  SUNSET GLOW defeated her in the G.3 Albany Stakes, her second career start when she was still a maiden.  However, comparing the 6 ¼ lengths defeat that day to winner CURSORY GLANCE to the 1 ¼ lengths defeat to that filly two races back is indicative to me that OSALIA is in a progressive mode.  Look for her to legitimize her already solid credentials.

BREEDERS’ CUP DISTAFF 

Thanks in large part to the changes Santa Anita made regarding the main track, UNTAPABLE returns to “The Great Race Place” to atone for her nearly-eased 8th place finish in last year’s Juvenile Fillies.  In that race she was forced to avoid trouble when ill-fated SECRET COMPASS broke down near her.  Earlier this year, UNTAPABLE seemingly blossomed into the next RACHEL ALEXANDRA for Steve Asmussen.  The Winchell Thoroughbreds homebred earned three consecutive triple digit Beyer Speed Figures, culminating with a win in the G.1 Kentucky Oaks. 

A troubled win in the G.1 Acorn, despite a BSF regression, prompted Asmussen and Winchell to try the boys in the G.1 Haskell Invitational.  However, Monmouth Park and the pace the Haskell field allowed BAYERN to set were conducive only to the winner’s route tour d’force.  Back with her friends, UNTAPABLE overcame a severely speed-favoring Parx dirt surface to post a popular win at 1-2 odds in the G.1 Cotillion.

This year UNTAPABLE gets Lasix and a dirt surface that seemingly rewards speed combined with class.  Her works suggest that a winning run is on the menu.  Drawn nicely in the 10 hole, Rosie Napravnik will get a good look at the inside speed comprised by TIZ MIDNIGHT, IOTAPA, and BELLE GALLANTEY while watching what CLOSE HATCHES will do under Joel Rosario.

Don’t rule out the chances of DON’T TELL SOPHIA.  A winner on dirt from 6 ½ furlongs to 1 1/8 miles, the 6y.o. mare will find the potential race shape favorable to her style.  She’s never finished off the board in 12 starts on a “fast” dirt track, culminated by the come-from-behind win in the G.1 Spinster last out.  Her form this year, and her last win, is a credit to trainer Phillip Sims’ patience and horsemanship rather than CLOSE HATCHES’ low odds failure. 

DON’T TELL SOPHIA has been consistent in 2014, never off the board in five starts including four wins, but she has not proved very fast in terms of BSF’s.  The daughter of CONGAREE does not have a BSF higher than 94 this year but has a 100 from last November to run back to given the favorable race flow.  She and journeyman jockey Joe Rocco, Jr. deserve and will make the most of what could be DON’T TELL SOPHIA’s only Breeders’Cup experience before heading off to the breeding shed.



There you have it; my preview of four Breeders’ Cup Friday races.  What do you think?  Am I off base or do you agree with some of these early ideas?  Send me a tweet @ThoroFan, use #BC14Friday to identify the conversation, or leave a comment below.

Saturday, October 4, 2014

THOROUGHBRED RACING NEEDS WISE DAN TO SHINE

Much like Major League Baseball, the National Football League, and the National Basketball Association need marquee talent to sell their sports, the Breeders’ Cup World Thoroughbred Championships need the final weekend of preps to be carried by thoroughbreds with “name” recognition to hold serve. Without them, casual sports fans and major sports news outlets will not consider the World Championship weekend worthy of consideration or mention.  

Wise Dan capturing the 2012 Breeders' Cup Mile, John Velazquez up.

Reigning two-time Horse of the Year WISE DAN is the equine version of Derek Jeter, Jim Brown, and Michael Jordan…once-in-a-generation athletes that give gravitas to their respective sports.

Wise Dan and John Velazquez.

A winner of a remarkable 22 races in a 30 race career, including a near-perfect 14 of 15 starts on the turf, seven year old gelding WISE DAN is a throwback.  He’s the sort of race horse that deserves the accolades afforded great geldings such as SEABISCUIT and FOREGO during the salad days of the sport.  He’s shown himself beatable on rare occasions, only to recover winning form in brilliant fashion leaving calloused horseplayers smiling in respect as they tear up tickets that were fashioned to defeat him.

Wise Dan winning the 2013 BC Mile.

Adding to his lore is WISE DAN’s recovery from at least career threatening, possibly near-fatal, colic surgery earlier this year.  For a lesser horse, surviving to live out life frolicking on a farm would be considered success.  WISE DAN will not enjoy dates with well bred broodmares when he runs his final race.  Is it folly to think that Morton Fink’s pride and joy senses his legend will be his accomplishes on the track?  Perhaps one day, next to the term “race horse” there will be a picture of WISE DAN.

Wise Dan in 2013, Jose Lezcano fills in for injured John Velazquez.

‘DAN didn’t just acquit himself well in his return to the races, he did what he usually does…win.  Under the patient and skillful guidance of Charles Lopresti, WISE DAN overcame the post-surgical effects to capture the Grade II Bernard Baruch at historic Saratoga in upstate New York on August 30.  The way he carried jockey John Velazquez into the breach of competition, then dug deep to fend off OPTIMIZER, was remarkable.  His vanquished foe received a 11 pound weight break but was defeated by the champion in a time just .17 seconds off the track record.  The result left the thoroughbred racing industry agog.  If ever WISE DAN would have been forgiven for a loss, it was under those challenging circumstances. 

There are select horses we recall in a lifetime for remarkable accomplishments.  Often it’s after-the-fact, because these true champions make possible what’s unfathomable for others.  They aren’t remembered because they offered tremendous value and windfall payoffs.  WISE DAN makes the cost of admission, inflated beer prices, and the losing wagers look like value.



Try to beat him if you feel there’s a valuable alternative…it’s what the horse racing is about.  If he defeats you, again, smile and try to enjoy having watched a true champion.

Friday, July 18, 2014

ThoroFan's Saratoga Diaries - July 19, 2014





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The Wit and Wisdom of Howie Pixum:

Race track legend, Howie Pixum, shares his wit and wisdom on a variety of Saratoga and race track topics.