Opening Week at Saratoga and Del Mar

July 21, 2014

Opening week at both Saratoga and Del Mar were as electric as ever. Other than a few “rule” hiccups we’ll discuss later, both venues started with previews of the great racing that will now continue through the end of these prestigious meets. We saw nice handles, good crowds, and most importantly, fast and competitive racing with future stars on both coasts.

At Saratoga, we saw Royal Delta’s half-sister Crown Queen smoke an allowance field from the 11 hole on the grass. Past the Wire pegged this special filly as one to watch back in our June 8th column. After watching her three year old debut, we had little doubt this was a stakes filly which in all likelihood is where she winds up next. She made a bold move into a fast pace on Sunday from a wide slot and just drew off with authority. It’s nice to recognize such talent early and get paid for it.

On opening day at Saratoga we saw Tourist live up to our expectations as well , dominating the Sir Cat stakes in his first foray into that type of company. He’s another you’ll continue to hear from. He’s fast, he’s not speed crazy, he can rate, and has plenty of class.

The Sanford gave us our first troubled trip that, in all likelihood, cost Zayat Stables’ Mr. Z the stakes win. He was sitting in a good spot on the far turn and looked loaded, when he checked hard and lost all momentum. He recovered very quickly and professionally for a 2 year old but found himself bottled up on the rail in the stretch. He bulled his way through, forcing eventual winner Big Trouble out and briefly made the lead but paid the price late for the trip and wound up second. Has the look of a tough and talented colt.

On the west coast at old Del Mar the action was also hot. Bob Baffert unveiled another one we’d been waiting for that did not disappoint. Luminance lived up to the billing, winning first time out.

We also saw Mike Smith put on a turf riding clinic, guiding Enterprising from a last to first Patek Philippe timed victory in the opening day Oceanside Stakes. The colt showed a really nice late burst to get up in the final jumps over the new and widened Del Mar turf course. Mike came back Sunday with another turf clinic with Tom’s Tribute in the Grade 1 Eddie Read Stakes. He got the horse to relax and positioned him perfectly, keeping favored East Coast invader Summer Fun bottled on the inside where he assured he would get the jump on him. Tom’s Tribute thrust himself into the Breeders’ Cup Mile list of contenders.

We also got somewhat of a riding bonus at the Spa when Frankie Dettori flew in to ride the weekend at Saratoga. Frankie rides as much like an American rider as he does a European rider and he showed he can fit in with any colony. He brought in two winners with heady rides. He took Adventure Love to the lead in a grassy sprint and never looked back and gave Jet Majesty another crafty front running ride to win the night cap. He came up about a long neck short of winning the Diana Handicap on Stephanie’s Kitten. Of course we were treated to his famous flying dismount which was actually invented by Angel Cordero Jr., the king of Saratoga. While there is little doubt Dettori is a great rider, I will never understand his ride on Swain in the 1998 Breeders’ Cup Classic. I was alive in that pick 6 with Awesome Again who was part of a three horse entry, and Swain. There was a big difference in the payouts and I think Swain should have won. Dettori went to a left hand stick the entire stretch and must have hit Swain 15-20 times left handed without switching or stopping. Swain bore out the whole stretch and finished close to the outside rail. He got beat a half-length for all the money and was flying home despite the trip and tactics. I always turn the page, but that was a life changer and still stings. To date I have never heard any explanation which made sense.

The racing only figures to improve as we get further into the meets. The Whitney, Alabama, Travers, Woodward and Pacific Classic all promise to be great renewals with major implications towards the Breeders’ Cup and Eclipse Awards.

When you get right down to it, the two groups of people who put money into the game are the owners and players. At times, it seems the rules favor neither of them and there is always some lame excuse as to why. Racing really needs to be cognizant of this and start making some long overdue changes. I have long been a supporter for the idea of a central governing body for racing with a commissioner and board made up of people from all aspects of the game. Maybe if that happened we would see the uniformity the game desperately needs. I was pleased to see and sign recently a petition to change the IRS withholding and take out rules. Anyone familiar with these rules knows how ridiculous and out dated they are. They were made before exotic betting ruled the day and are so preposterous it is difficult to discuss them and maintain a straight face. The prime example in my opinion is on a pick 6. You can wager say $2000 on a pick 6 that pays $1000. To the IRS you won a $1000 and you get a w-2. Talk about bad math, out dated rules and being unfair to the player. You lost $1000 but are taxed as if you won. Who makes these rules anyway?

At Saratoga we saw two horses in separate races lose a shoe in the post parade, resulting in them racing for purse money only. I am not a fan of a horse running for purse money only. It shouldn’t happen except in extremely rare circumstances if at all. While I may be in the minority here, I believe if you have to run for purse money only you should be scratched. Let’s take the Saratoga examples. A horse loses a shoe and has to return to the paddock to be re shod. Sometimes the horse can’t be re shod and runs with three shoes. Who wants that? The other horses stay on the track carrying their riders and the weight. Some get keyed up and antsy. The horse that lost the shoe is in the paddock rider less. This creates a delay and possibly confusion to the horses. It can create some type of advantage or even disadvantage that is hard to identify. The game is hard enough and has to be kept as level as possible. As a player I am not in favor of small fields but as a professional I don’t want to bet into a stacked deck either. Live to fight another day I say, horse, owner and player. The flip side is the effect this has on the pace and race shape scenarios but I feel more often than not it’s the lesser of the two evils. Then you have the scenario that almost unfolded when Tiz Sardonic Joe who had lost a shoe and was racing for purse money only nearly won. How would you feel holding a ticket on him only to get a refund and not the win? Bad rule this purse money only thing. Late scratch and give the player an alternate option.

Possibly the most frustrating of all is the late scratch to the post time favorite in pick 4’s and pick 6’s at Saratoga. Why can we not have an alternate? Sometimes we do not like or want the favorite. Sometimes we already have the favorite and would like another horse. Obviously the technology exists for this so why are the players completely ignored in this area? Who makes these rules anyway?

The entry rule can also be frustrating. Again I am in the minority but if there is common ownership or the horses have the same trainer they should be coupled. Again I understand the reduced field size issue but it really stinks to lose to the guy’s other horse. The game is tough enough and in the long run if you hope to beat it, you need every edge and advantage you can have.

How about owners having to get licensed in every state they compete in? We can drive in every state with a valid driver’s license and it should be the same.

Past the Wire has some new and interesting things coming up. We are planning a live Q and A on handicapping and wagering strategies.

High 5

The High Five goes to Frankie Dettori who jumped off a flight that lost his luggage to ride two winners at the Spa in another rider’s pants, boots and with someone else’s whip. No, that does not give him a pass for Swain.

Low 5

It goes to Johnny Velasquez for three poorly judged rides opening week at the Spa. Nonna’s Boy moved prematurely into a very fast pace and lost what chance he might have had to win. My Miss Aurelia also chased a hot pace off a long layoff and would have been better suited allowed to settle and uncork a strong stretch run which she is capable of. She was not given her best shot to win and had a harder race then necessary. Last but not least Alakazan Alakazan was strangled back full of run off a slow pace and virtually had no chance a half mile into the race. Not to pick on Johnny but we expect better.

Horse to Watch

Mr. Z, one tough customer going forward.

Jonathan Stettin is a New York Legend. He's been a Horseplayer, earning his living at the track, since he was 19 years old. @jonathanstettin

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