This past weekend was everything the Sport of Kings was about: competitive championship racing, exceptional athletic performances, great venues, television coverage, rewarding wagering opportunities and, of course, a few blunders. I’ll devote this week’s column to sorting it out and seeing just what we learned.
Let’s start with the bettor. The bettor always comes last. I have discussed how some rules make it more difficult than it has to be, in past columns. This week, we received a little window into why that may be. I am a strong supporter of the NYRA and New York racing, in general. After all, I grew up on New York racetracks, I worked there, and all three NYRA tracks feel like home whenever I walk through the doors. I have also devoted my entire life to studying the game and participating on many levels. I’ve walked hots, mucked stalls, rubbed horses, and was a mutual clerk – all before I was even 20 years old. I’ve owned a few, claimed a few, bred one or two, was a jocks’ agent, and ultimately decided to make my way beating the game we love. It was because of all of this that I took it personally when NYRA leader Chris Kay recently stated “owners are the lifeblood of the game.” That statement is a half-truth and once again the bettors get dissed. It shows a complete disconnect and lack of appreciation for your customers.
While taking nothing away from owners, who are indeed a necessity, I would sooner say bettors are the lifeblood of the game, or at the least that distinction is shared equally. The two groups, owners and bettors, are the only ones who put money into the game as opposed to taking it out. As much as many like to ignore or not talk about it, gambling is a major part of the Sport of Kings, right along with all the other glorious aspects of the game. In equal parts, without one or the other, owners or bettors, the game could not exist as we know it, if at all. In his defense, Mr. Kay has come a long way in a short time for a man who took the reins at NYRA lacking a racing background. While I’ll call him out on the statement, I’ll give him a pass on it as well. It’s obvious he means well for NYRA and the sport.
We saw some revealing performances on the racetrack this weekend. None more impressive than Close Hatches who humbled a stellar group in the Personal Ensign over a wet and sealed Saratoga strip on Friday. She was the best and fastest horse in the division, as pointed out by Past the Wire going into the race and she somehow managed to improve on that classification. No easy feat. She took it to them from the start under Joel Rosario and won geared down. She’s on to the Spinster over the new Keeneland dirt track and then heads West to the Breeders’ Cup Distaff to tackle Beholder. Beholder is regrouping after a subpar and eventful effort in the Ogden Phipps. I’m sure Richard Mandela will have her back in prime form for the Distaff under new rider Mike Smith. The disappointment of the Personal Ensign was Princess of Sylmar. As I expressed in my preview of the race, the blinker change was a concern and something I viewed as a negative. Accordingly, her poor effort did not come as a surprise, despite her short odds in the race. She finished 5th and never looked like a contender at any point in the running.
The Big Beast was just that in the Kings Bishop on Saturday. He stalked a relatively slow pace for the distance and level set by Fast Anna and wore down that rival in game fashion. He has the look of a serious racehorse and has improved every start.
The Travers was an exciting renewal with a furious stretch drive and photo finish. Ultimately, V. E. Day with a perfectly timed ride by Javier Castellano, proved his Curlin win was no fluke as he caught Wicked Strong at the wire. No doubt this was bittersweet to see for Jose Lezcano, who chose to ride Mr. Speaker over V. E. Day, who he piloted to victory in the Curlin. Jimmy Jerkens trained both the winner and second place finisher, the more highly regarded and Jim Dandy winner, Wicked Strong. Belmont winner Tonalist ran a decent third after being taken out of his game a bit keeping pace setter Bayern honest. As somewhat expected, Bayern bounced off his two strong efforts in the Woody Stephens and Haskell. Those races looked easy visually, but those figs take their toll regardless. There is no such thing as an easy fast race.
In the previous Past the Wire column entitled “Did You See That” , I explained how watching a race is a learned art. There is no better example than this year’s Travers Stakes. How many of you watched the race and know what cost Wicked Strong that close heartbreaking photo? I saw it immediately and confirmed it watching the replay in slow motion. I am a big fan of Rajiv Maragh and think he is one of the best race riders in the country. His timing is excellent, he has great hands, finishes strong, and is aggressive and fearless. With that said, he made an understandable mistake Saturday.
After delivering a flawless ride into the stretch, Rajiv looked inside at Tonalist, whom he no doubt regarded as the horse he had to beat, and saw he had him licked. After that he went back to riding Wicked Strong hard and I’d bet thought he had the race won, as did most of us. Nearing the finish line, V. E. Day came into view and Rajiv saw him peripherally and probably heard and sensed him, as well. After thinking he had his first Travers, in a split second it was a horse race again. Rajiv should have gone to the left hand immediately and herded V. E. Day just a tad to encourage him to hang a second or at the least stay on his belly and ride constant. Instead, in those last seconds and strides prior to the wire, Rajiv looked over in surprise at who was now snatching victory away. He did this three or four times and only lost in a photo. Had he stayed on his belly or went left hand, that close decision may have gone the other way. Subjective? Maybe. But it is hard to argue those looks did not cost at least a few inches in a very close race.
If you saw that during the running of the race, it was good looking out. It is those kinds of observations that will lead to good notes on your horses to watch list. Trip note handicapping is a tremendous tool. It might sound like nit-picking, but this is a game of inches and those inches determine the exchange of millions of dollars, so they do count. The entire racing world’s racing eyes were on it but how many of you saw it?
There are no free squares in horse racing. None, not ever. Whenever I hear that term or anything similar, I can’t help but smile. Classy Grade 1 miler Obviously, training in peak fashion and unbeaten this year, was the lone speed in the Del Mar Mile. He was breaking from the rail under Joe Talamo over a speed friendly turf course. He was odds on at 1-2 and was picked by every public handicapper I saw, by every commentator on TV and was pretty much taken for granted. He finished off the board in a small field. There are no free squares in horse racing. None. Not ever.
Shared Belief has been a well hyped and well regarded horse from early on in his career. I never thought he was the Kentucky Derby winner but may have been wrong. We’ll never know but he is certainly emerging as a serious threat for three year old champion despite missing the Triple Crown series. He’s the fastest three year old right now and heading toward a run in the Breeders’ Cup Classic relatively fresh and peaking. A sure credit to the patience exercised by his connections in not rushing him early on and passing up some enticing races. His compelling victory against older horses in the Pacific Classic puts him right in the mix for top three year old and maybe more. While most regard California Chrome a tad higher, I would argue the field in the Pacific Classic not only consisted of older horses, it was also stronger than the fields in the Kentucky Derby and Preakness. Shared Belief did not get the best of trips from his wide slot and actually hit the side of the gate at the break, knocking his feet sideways. How many of you saw that? That caused him to be much further back than he ever was and also left him between horses for a good part of the way. He nevertheless unleashed a strong rally, inhaling the field and went on to a fast and impressive victory. Good call by Mike Smith opting for the young up and comer, as opposed to accomplished Game on Dude.
This week it goes to Jerry Hollendorfer for the fine handling of Shared Belief, and showing the racing world that patience pays.
This has to be shared by Saratoga and Del Mar, equally. Somehow despite being on opposite sides of the country, the tracks managed to have the horses for the respective Del Mar Mile and Albany Stakes load at the same time and break seconds apart.
Horse to Watch
If you don’t follow and read Lauren Stitch, you should. She has a world of pedigree knowledge and knows how to apply it to wagering. She is always willing to share her vast knowledge and I absorb as much of it as I can.
Lauren pointed out a first time starter I had my eye on Monday, Complicated from Shug and Phipps. She gave a detailed analysis of the horses pedigree including how and why Blame is a hidden turf sire, she explained the RF Rasmussen factor as it applied to this filly, and had her pegged as one to watch before they ran. She ran huge, losing by a nose in the last jump to the even money favorite while she was 16-1. She has a future.