Of Wise Dan, Zenyatta, and Strategic Campaigns

June 2, 2014

Arcadia, CA – Santa Anita – Zenyatta with Mike Smith aboard wins the $2 million Breeders’ Cup Ladies’ Classic for trainer John Shirreffs and owner Mr & Mrs Jerome S Moss here today, Friday October 24, 2008 during the Breeders’ Cup World Thoroughbred Championships. Photo by © Breeders’ Cup/Todd Buchanan 2008

The entire racing community is focused on the epic card coming up Saturday at Belmont Park, highlighted by a run at the 2014 Triple Crown. Rightfully so we are even getting some attention from the mainstream. There is not much left to be said about it at this point except “can’t wait”. This promises to be a great day of racing.

Does anyone know when plotting out a strategic campaign for your horse became a negative thing? Was it always this way and it just never came to light until social media gave a voice to just about every fan and we just didn’t know it? I really don’t think so as I remember when the savvy campaigning of your horse was looked at as a crafty thing and a plus in the trainer’s column. Has social media ever changed that? It has given a voice, a loud one at that to those who know a clever campaign in the horse’s best interest and also to those who don’t.

The two biggest recent examples of this are Wise Dan and Zenyatta. Both champion horses boast impressive resumes; however, both of their connections have taken a world of criticism on how they campaigned their horses. I never understood that, as their records and championship seasons speak for themselves. I get the whole fan thing and understand what they want to see, but horse racing is a different kind of game and if you understand it and the horse you have to respect trainers like Charlie Lo Presti and John Sheriffs who, regardless of public demand and pressure, do what is best by their horse.

Managing Wise Dan

Let’s take a look at Wise Dan first. If you had a dollar for every tweet and Facebook post criticizing his campaign and calling for him to run in the Breeders’ Cup classic, you’d be quite comfortable right now. This is a brilliantly versatile horse that is gifted enough to compete on any surface at any distance at a very high level. You would be hard pressed to find any Breeders’ Cup race Wise Dan would not at least be a contender in, let alone one of the favorites. That does not mean you race him where he has the least chance of winning, or the better chance of getting beat or hurt, to the contrary, you find the best spots for him at his level where he has the best chance of prevailing and showing his stuff. Charlie Lo Presti did this masterfully this horse’s entire career to date as evidenced by his championships, record and trophies.

Wise Dan has been brilliantly managed and that is in part why he has enjoyed the longevity he has. To criticize his campaign makes no sense at all. While very good at many distances and over different surfaces, he’s best at a mile and up to a mile and an eighth on grass. There is nothing wrong with that and it doesn’t mean you can’t or shouldn’t be Horse of the Year if you’re worthy.

Managing Zenyatta

Zenyatta was treated even worse. True she had her loyal fans and supporters but she and her connections also took a world of heat over her campaign and even withstood ridiculous allegations she ducked horses. What more could a horse have done? She was brilliant and again showed longevity like Wise Dan which, by the way, is rare in the sport today and these same critics also call for more of it. Stevie Wonder can see the hypocrisy in that, no offense meant. Zenyatta’s longevity was also in part to her well managed campaign which, by the way, ducked no horse or track. Look at her resume, it is world class strong. She lost one race her entire career, and for a horse that comes from behind and often winds up pace disadvantaged ,that type of record is harder to achieve than for a horse with speed. Her one loss was probably her most impressive race, similar to the great Seattle Slew’s loss to Exceller. When a horse can look great in defeat, it shows heart.

Make no mistake about it, if they ran that Breeders’ Cup classic ten times, Zenyatta would win nine of them. She wasn’t right or at her best that night and showed she was one of the best regardless. She ran in two Breeders’ Cup classics against the boys, winning one, and just missing in the other in a strangely run race, she won a Breeders’ Cup distaff, she won the Apple Blossom twice, which is a pretty prestigious race and last I checked, like her final Breeders’ Cup classic, is run on dirt. As for ducking, three Breeders’ Cup races and going to her second Apple Blossom with the intent of facing Rachel Alexandra can hardly be called ducking anyone. While I don’t intend to open the whole Zenyatta and Rachel Alexandra debate again, only one was standing when the smoke cleared.

In contrast to the brilliant campaigns of those two champions, there are also some that are not so brilliant and don’t put the horse first. You have to realize racing has changed from what it was. Commercial breeding, Lasix and race day meds in general have very much contributed to this and until race day meds are eliminated and commercial breeding changes, things may never go back to what the Sport of Kings once was. The proof is in the pudding and what better example is there to use today than the Triple Crown.

What would most of the Twitter and Facebook voices say if Art Sherman decided to run California Chrome in the Peter Pan against Tonalist in-between the Preakness and Belmont while going for his triple crown? Heck they might take the horse away from him. No question the “voices” would have their say and it probably wouldn’t be pretty. That’s the new commercial breeding and race day meds way. Let’s look at the prior way when the Sport of Kings was just that with some things I bet many don’t know. Sir Barton won the Withers between the Preakness and Belmont in his Triple Crown season. That was 1919. Count Fleet did the same thing in 1943. Omaha tried it in 1935 but actually got beat in the Withers but came back to win the Belmont and the Triple Crown. Whirlaway won an allowance race between the Preakness and Belmont in his season and Citation also won a race between the last two legs of his Triple Crown.

Again the game has changed and so the campaigning must change with it to be successful. Rachel Alexandra’s campaign was old school and probably a bit too much for her. They only have so many in them and if you go to the well one too many times the bottom of the bucket will fall out. Rachel ,while brilliant, was never the same after her Woodward victory, her third against colts I believe. That’s a strong argument against the voices who automatically call for a horse like Untappable to automatically run against California Chrome. Maybe Steve Asmussen learned something from the Rachel campaign, maybe not. You have to know and then do what is best for your horse. Horse and stable management is an art that requires talent and know how like a bloodstock agent or pinhooker. I’m pretty sure I could have gotten Godolphin a Kentucky Derby by now but I’d have to be allowed to do it my way, which would not include prepping in Dubai or buying maiden breakers for millions more than they are worth only to see them not make the race.

Two more examples of talented but mismanaged horses of late would be Social Inclusion and Ria Antonia. No disrespect meant to their connections but I think both could do much better with a different approach.

Ladies first. Ria Antonia is an impressive looking filly. She was fortunate to be awarded a Breeders’ Cup victory but has really been a bust since. Running in the Preakness off the dull Kentucky Oaks was a mistake for a filly that already needed a confidence builder, or maybe even two. Changing trainers, thus training methods and riders didn’t help a filly who probably already wasn’t sure what she was supposed to do. Going from one trainer who had a barn full of top horses to another in a similar position wasn’t the best move either. She looks too slow on paper and the sheets to win where she is being asked to. This equates to a mismanaged campaign. If I were calling the shots I would turn her over to Peter Walder who already trains a few for this barn and who did a masterful job with Force Freeze at the highest level. She’d get the attention she needs. I’d let him freshen and get her right, run her once or twice where she is going to win and get her confidence back and then let her roll. Then we’d see what she can or cannot do, the way it went she had no chance.

Social Inclusion is another who could have been handled better. I thought taking him away from Gulfstream where he obviously liked it to run in the Wood Memorial was a mistake. If you were going to throw him to the wolves off a bias aided win, then at least it could have been over his home track. Missing a prep and instead going in the Preakness off since the Wood Memorial was again throwing him to the wolves. He handled it all credibly for his experience level which speaks of his talent but he also needs some seasoning and confidence. Even if he wins in the long run what could he be with the right handling is the question. We all love to be on the big stage but it’s best to be there at your best as the ones you will be facing will be. At this point the connections are undecided between the Belmont Stakes at a mile and a half, or the Woody Stephens at seven furlongs. I guess they train him the same way for both distances. While I’m no trainer I would bet Charlie Whittingham didn’t do it that way. All the while the “voices” say he belongs in the Met Mile, possibly the worst of choices at this point for him. I would say he also needs some confidence before getting thrown in the heavyweight ring again. There are only so many trips to that well nowadays.

As one of the “voices” on Twitter this week, I tweeted two lighthearted things, both accurate and for the most part overanalyzed and misunderstood.

Two thirds of the Triple Crown have been won, but three quarters remain”. This was meant more along the lines of a Yogi Berra quote than one meant to have my percentage calculations questioned and analyzed in detail, subsequently to be told they were wrong. They aren’t wrong and it is true. The Derby and Preakness have been won but the toughest and longest test remains.

The next was “Odds are California Chrome won’t win the Triple Crown but he will be odds on to do so”. I found that an interesting gambling quirk, something being odds on to happen that the odds are won’t happen. Again I was misunderstood and my calculations were questioned way too much for how the tweet was intended. The simple truth is, the odds are against it and he will be less than three to five to do so. This also has absolutely nothing to do with whether I think he will win or not.

I hope I clarified the tweets for those who didn’t get them. This is an exciting week for the racing world and I hope we all enjoy it whether there is a Triple Crown winner or not. I’ve seen three and hope to see more whether it’s now or in the future. It will happen.

High 5

The High Five goes to the Timeform US people for getting advance pp’s out for the big stakes on Belmont day. Thanks for helping get us through the week.

Low 5

None. This is a Crown potential week. All the games on a high.

Horse to Watch

California Chrome. Who else?

Contributing Authors

Jon Stettin

Jonathan’s always had a deep love and respect for the Sport of Kings. Growing up around the game, he came about as close as anyone...

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