Tuesday, September 20, 2011

The Horse Racing Roller Coaster

Any long time horse racing fan or handicapper certainly knows the ups and downs that come with this extraordinary game.  But if the past 12 months could equate to a roller coaster, it would be the newest and biggest ride at Cedar Point!

First, let's start last August 2010 just a week after Personal Ensign and the announcement of Rachel Alexandra's retirement .  At the time I had a hard time understanding why they didn't continue to point her to the Breeder's Cup Distaff (Ladies Classic).  But after watching the 2010 Breeder's Cup, I began to see things more clearly.  Rachel Alexandra probably could have won the Distaff or at least finished in the money.  But, when I look through the eyes of her trainer and owner, how could they have really taken her to Churchill Downs that weekend and not run against Zenyatta.  Clearly, she wasn't as the same Rachel we new a year before and that put her connections in a no win situation.  If she ran in the Distaff, though she could win, they would be ridiculed for not running in the Classic in a match up with Zenyatta that the racing industry had been drooling over for a year.  If they ran in the Classic, she was really outclassed at this point in her career and would probably finish well, but out of the money.  If they retired her after the Personal Ensign then they would take flak for not running in either race.  Her connections ultimately ended up retiring her after the Personal Ensign, which in hind site was probably the lesser of all evils.  It was bitter sweet to see her retire, but I guess it always is!

Fast foward 3 months to the Breeders Cup Classic.  In two full days at the Breeder's Cup we always see great racing, but two performances stood out.  First was Goldikova powering past the field in her patented stretch run to win her third Breeders Cup.  Not to mention the tears that came to your eyes watching her groom celebrate as she came down the stretch.  Next came the powerful victory by Uncle Mo in the Breeders Cup Juvenile.  When I saw his performance that day, I thought we had the chance to see something special the following year in the triple crown races.

The anticipation leading up to post time for the Breeders Cup Classic was intense.  We have the likely male 3 year old champion, the likely older male champion and shoe-in older female champion all running in the Classic.  And, one of those three would be named horse of the year.  My wife and I were standing up in our living room trying to will Zenyatta to the finish line.  Though she ran her heart out and showed what she was made of, Zenyatta needed a few more strides and came up just a nose short at the wire.  That was probably the most thrilling race I have ever seen.  We knew this was Zenyatta's last race and Blame's likely too, but I did not see this being Lookin At Lucky's last race.  But just the next week his retirement was announced.  Suddenly, with Blame, Lookin At Lucky and the derby winner Super Saver retired my excitement over the 2011 older male division had dwindled.  But, I still had two horse in that division that excited me looking forward to 2011, First Dude and Paddy O'Prado.

As we turned a new year, there were three horses I was really excited about First Dude, Paddy O'Prado and Uncle Mo.  Oh how things would change by August and there was a rivalry developing right in front of me that I had missed while being down over the retirement of so many horses after the Breeder's Cup.  It would be a few months before I would catch on to the excitement.

Then came the San Felipe Stake at Santa Anita.  When I opened the past performances Premier Pegasus just jumped off the page at me.  I hadn't even kept up with him, but he just seem the best in this race.  When he made his move on the far turn and then kicked away powerfully in the stretch to win by 7-3/4 lengths I was ecstatic.  With that performance he instantly notched a top spot in my Kentucky Derby thoughts next to Uncle Mo.  The week after the San Felipe I logged into the Daily Racing Form to check the racing news, only to read that Premier Pegasus had been injured and was out for the rest of the year.  The roller coast headed down again at this point and then came the Wood Memorial.

Uncle Mo didn't seem his best in the Timely Writer, but nonetheless it was a win and his first race of the year.  So, I forgave that one in my handicapping.  And I thought he was back to his old self as he seemed to kick away from the field just off the turn in the Wood Memorial.  Then Uncle Mo flattened as Toby's Corner came charging and Arthur's Tale squeezed by as well.  Something didn't seem right and the roller coaster continued until the week of the Derby, when it was announced that Uncle Mo would be scratched due to an unknown illness at the time and Toby's Corner would not run due to an injury.  Uncle Mo was later diagnosed with a rare liver disease and would be able to return to racing later in 2011.  The roller coaster is now at the bottom of a steep hill.

Then came Kentucky Derby day 2011.  With Uncle Mo, Premier Pegasus and Toby's Corner sidelined I didn't have a single horse that I was excited about.  I handicapped the race and had Animal Kingdom in my second tier of horses, not good enough for the win, but certainly good enough to complete the exacta or trifecta.  I should have listened to Bruno at Grade One Racing about Animal Kingdom's workout.  Just when I thought Shackleford was going to kick away, Animal Kingdom come roaring down the middle of the track to win convincingly.  With that performance I was an instant Animal Kingdom fan and I already had a ticket to the Preakness in Balitmore. On the same day as the Derby, First Dude won his second race in a row, the Grade 2 Alysheba, with his new style of running.  One of the few horses I was exciting about from the 2010 Breeder's Cup Classic seemed to be climbing the ladder in the older male division.  The roller coaster was climbing fast now.

On Preakness day we all know Animal Kingdom didn't quite have enough and lost by 1/2 a length to Shackleford.  Nonetheless, I was proud of his effort because he had to work around some traffic on the turn  and I thought he would be the best in the Belmont.  But, I have to be honest the horse I was most excited about on Preakness day was Paddy O'Prado making his 4 year old debut on the Turf in the Dixie Stakes.  Being a son of El Prado, the turf was his preferred surface and he seemed a shoe-in.  He lived up to everything I expected making a strong move off the turn and through the stretch for the win.  I drove home from Pimlico excited that I got to see him run and making plans to go to the Colonial Turf Cup to see him run again.  Later that week I logged into the Daily Racing Form and there it was starring me in the face - Paddy O'Prado had been retired due to an injury.  The roller coaster just made another sharp drop!

Next I focused on the the Belmont Stakes.  I was excited about Animal Kingdom, I thought the distance suited him, Shackleford was not going to last the 1-1/2 mile distance and I didn't see another horse that had proven they were going to run better.  Only moments after the gates opened did another jockey move his horse over on Animal Kingdom causing him to stumble and nearly throwing off John Velazquez.  He lost 10-15 lengths due to the stumble and while John Velazquez was desperately trying to get his feet back in the irons.  Though Animal Kingdom made a serious run at the leaders the best he could do that day was 6th.  The next week I once again logged into the Daily Racing form, and you guessed it, Animal Kingdom was out for the year due to an injury sustained in the stumble at the beginning of the Belmont.  The roller coaster is now doing a cork screw toward the ground.

On July 9th, First Dude, won another nailed biter as he made a powerful move in the stretch to get up by the smallest of margins in the Hollywood Gold Cup Handicap, a Grade 1 race.  With this game effort I was excited about seeing him in the Breeder's Cup Classic.  His new stalking running style fit and he had powered home in three straight wins.  He had already proven he could run on the dirt and at this point I had him at the top as the horse to beat in the Classic.  Anyone want to guess what happened next?  First Dude's win in the Hollywood Gold Cup had sent the roller coaster heading up hill again, only to have it plummet a few days later when I read on the DRF website that he had been retired due to an injury.  It took me a few days to get over the retirement of First Dude, I really liked this horse.

But as the summer moved on I began to hear more and more about the rivalry between Havre De Grace and Blind Luck.  To be honest and to my own fault, I had not kept up with these two fillies.  I only knew they had finished 2nd and 3rd behind Unrivaled Belle in the Breeder's Cup Distaff.  But just a week after First Dude had won the Hollywood Gold Cup these two amazing fillies squared off in another match up in the Delaware Handicap.  I had picked Blind Luck to win.  Due to the distance I thought she held a very slight edge over Havre De Grace.  As I watched these two beautiful fillies battle down the stretch in a duel that would rival some of the best stretch drives I seen, I was reminded of why I truly love this sport.  Some times it's about simply watching these amazing creatures do exactly what God intended them to do and that is to run!  While Blind Luck did nose out Havre De Grace and my bet won, I was less excited about that as I was these two horses moving forward toward the Breeder's Cup Races.

Along with several other horse that I am looking forward to watching, Winter Memories, Uncle Mo, Stay Thirsty and Shackleford to name a few, the roller coaster is climbing again.  Horse racing is always up and down.  From wins and loses, to retirement and injuries.  I don't want to give the impression to anyone that I am not thoroughly enjoying horse racing in between these ups and downs, because that would be far from the truth.  And, there are a lot of other horses that I keep up with, but for this blog I just focused on the ones that were the hardest to see retire or my major players for the year.  Experiencing loses, retirements and injuries is part of horse racing and we fans have to learn to take it in stride just like losing a Pick 4 you thought was a sure thing.  Because, just when you are down, you see a horse do something amazing, like Winter Memories exploding past the field in the last 1/16 of mile in the Garden City Stakes at Belmont Park.  And it is that roller coaster ride that makes this game the greatest game in the world!

Saturday, September 17, 2011

Winter Memories Explodes Late

In my Post Woodward Thoughts blog I said I couldn't wait for Winter Memories to run again because of her troubled trip in the Woodford.  She did not disappoint in my desire to see her return to the winners circle, but it wasn't just another win.  She exploded past her rivals like they were standing still, going from last to first all inside the 1/16 pole.  Coming into the far turn I thought what is Castellano doing - Winter Memories was losing ground with nowhere to go.  On the turn and into the stretch when the other horses started to move it seemed Winter Memories was not going to fire as she was last tucked behind a wall of horses.  Then finally late in the stretch, as my heart had dropped into admitted defeat, Hungry Island cleared on the outside and Javier Castellano moved Winter Memories quickly to the outside and asked her to run...and WOW did she ever!  I'm not sure if I have ever seen a horse accelerate like that.  I'm sure her connections were near cardiac arrest as Winter Memories crossed the finish line a neck in front of Theyskens' Theory.  Hungary Island, her rival from their last race the Lake Placid, was very wide on the far turn and placed fourth.  Thank you Winter Memories, I can truly say I was speechless!

Friday, September 9, 2011

Post Saratoga Woodward Stakes...

Before the Woodward I thought it was Havre De Grace's race to lose - and she did not disappoint!  But looking forward where does this leave the divisions?  Who leads for Horse of the Year?  What about older female?  Will Havre De Grace run in the Classic?  If she does how does Blind Luck run in the Distaff?  Personally, I think it will make for as exciting a build up to the Breeders Cup this fall as we could have hoped for without Zenyatta.  But great horses always retire and horse racing always goes on and go on it must because we have a lot of questions to answer!

Below I've listed some of the top horses and how I view them at this point in the year:

First Dude -  Mid summer he was my pick to win the classic this year, but unfortunately he retired early.  He and I were going places at the betting windows!
Shackleford - Looked tired in the Travers and at this point doesn't seem to want the distance of the classic, though I am excited about him at shorter distances and as a 4 yr old.
Animal Kingdom -  Had a convincing win in the Kentucky Derby, just missed in the Preakness, but I think the Belmont showed his heart.  While most horses raced toward the first turn trying to get position and settling into the race Animal Kingdom's Jockey was still trying to get his foot back in the irons after a near disastrous stumble just after the break that was caused my another jockey.  The stumble cost Animal Kingdom 10-15 lengths and that is a huge margin to spot horses on a wet track in the grueling 1-1/2 mile Belmont Stakes.  But, there was a moment on the far turn when John Valezquez had Animal Kingdom moving on the leaders that every horse racing fan thought, "Is Animal Kingdom really that good?"  Of course we all know he wasn't that day, but we found out later he had been injured in the incident after the break.  I think he would have been a lock for divisional leader had he been able to finish his 3 year old season, but he will surely be passed now.   I have to say, I am really excited about his return next year!
Stay Thirsty - Moved up the ladder with an impressive Travers win that was his race to lose.  Has a serious shot in the classic which would secure him at the top of the 3 yr olds and give him a good chance at Horse of the year.
Uncle Mo - Was glad to see him back in the Kings Bishop and though he got beat by a nose he showed some guts laying close to a blistering pace then kicking away only to be caught by a horse who had an ideal pace scenario for his running style.  Pletcher has not ruled out the classic which would be an amazing story if he pulled it off.
Havre De Grace - Made a bold move running in the Woodward!  The main question is can she hold off Blind Luck if they both run in the classic...I'm not so sure.  But regardless, with the Woodward win I think she went a step ahead of Blind Luck in the older female division.  But there remain a lot of questions that need to be answered between this rivalry that will probably continue well into January 2012 before the ballots are cast.
Blind Luck - I have to say I really like this horse, maybe it is the come from behind style, but I think she has a lot of heart, which showed in this years Delaware Handicap.  If Havre De Grace runs in the classic I don't see how her connections can run Blind Luck in the Distaff.  Honestly, at this point in the year with First Dude out Blind Luck is my pick to win the classic if she goes.  She'll have to run down Stay Thirsty and Havre De Grace, but I think the 1-1/4 mile distance fits her.  To win older female she has to take down Havre De Grace again and to have a shot at Horse of the Year she needs to win the classic, which I think could be hers to lose, esp. at Churchill the sight of her Oaks win!
Winter Memories - Can't wait for her to run again after her troubled trip in the Woodford.  I love an El Prado turf horse and it took me a few days to get over the retirement of Paddy O'Prado this May.
Tizway -Has definitely made a name for himself as a Grade 1 winner with impressive wins in the Met Mile and Whitney Handicap.  Not sure how he'll like the distance of the classic if he goes there.
Acclamation - Turf/Artificial runner was very game winning the Pacific Classic on the lead while holding off a run from Twirling Candy.  Also, has stacked up 3 grade 1 wins in a row.  Connections have been noted as saying they will not run him on the dirt.
Royal Delta - This Black Eyed Susan and Alabama winner ranks among the leaders for 3 yr old female.  She'll need to step up again this year to solidify that title over It's Tricky.  And if Blind Luck and Havre De Grace both go to the classic, then at this point I like her chances in the Distaff though she'll have to beat It's Tricky at a distance that suits.
It's Tricky - Coaching Club American Oaks and Acorn winner - both Grade 1's.  I think her and Royal Delta are neck and neck for 3 yr old female.  And just like Royal Delta she'll need to step up again this year to get that title as there are a few more horses out there who have a shot. 

Woodward, Forego Recaps -
First of all I want to thank the betting public for allowing Jackson Bend to go off at 3-1 and Jersey Town at 4-1.  Jackson Bend ran a great race and I'm glad Nakatani  was patient on the rail and didn't rush him early.  My thoughts were if Jackson Bend can get through on the rail he is the winner, if he gets caught up then it is Jersey Town's to lose.  I played a few exactas and hit the 1/4 at $30.

I love a filly taking on the boys.  Havre De Grace fired big to hold off a late charging Flat Out, but this race was really hers to lose and she reached up and grabbed her class for the win.  From a future betting angle, I think the thing that was most notable about the race was that Flat Out was wide all the way.  I'm not sure that would have made a difference in the outcome because Havre De Grace seemed to dig in late, but in his next race against a similar field he might be a good bet.

More to come later...

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