JC / Railbird

Goldencents fan at the barn to say goodbye. #BC14Untapable #BC14 #Distaff#BC14 #ClassicInside the sixteenth. #BC14 #Classic #latergramThere was a garden for Baby Z at the #Zenyatta statue shortly after the gates opened this morning. #BC14Santa AnitaThe best find during Thursday's Beacon Hill Stroll was this pencil sketch of Man O'War. Now I just have to figure out where to hang it ...

How Much Is too Much?

Pia Catton rounds up the current discussion regarding riding crop use in a piece for the Wall Street Journal that includes this tidbit from jockey Gary Stevens on how his use of the whip changed while riding abroad:

Scaling back takes attention, but it is doable, said Stevens, who raced in Europe during previous rules tweaks and found a more conservative style. “It didn’t change the outcome of the race,” he said. “I started getting better results.”

Her well-balanced story gets picked up by The Awl with the headline “What is the Appropriate Level of Violence Against Animals?” and tagged “Beatings – Horses.” Tweets one observer in response, “in horse racing, the answer is anything goes.” Ouch! That’s not the nuanced view of most in racing. Yet, while we can talk about padded crops making more noise than causing pain, when the limits for use — in the wake of a display such as the 30-odd strikes rider Victor Espinoza gave American Pharoah in winning the Kentucky Derby — seems to be welts or it’s no big deal, anything goes will be a common perception among the broader public, which is a problem, because social norms re: animal welfare and use for sport aren’t shifting in the game’s favor.

The Thoroughbred Daily News addressed the issue last week with essays from eight contributors — trainers and jockeys, fans and turf writers — covering just about every angle on the debate (the headline is polarizing; the respondents are thoughtful). Pull the Pocket distilled the essential points, including this one, relevant to Stevens’ quote:

We know best — I’ve heard “let the participants decide what to do, the jocks know best.” I think that opinion matters, but it should be taken with a huge grain of salt. If football players made up the rules, clotheslines and leading with a helmet would be legal and more and more players would be eating through a straw. Participants hate change because it means they have to change the way they have always done things. The culture, as Chris Mac notes in his piece, is very strong and these folks need to be listened to for their experience, but they need to be led, not appeased.

California’s revised whip rules, restricting a jockey to three strikes of the crop before pausing for response, go into effect on July 1. Officially, anything won’t go. What follows will be a test of setting and enforcing limits, for stewards as much as for jockeys. There’s potential for California to be a model.

Sunday, Belmont

Sunday at Belmont Park

Caution

Victor Espinoza sums up California Chrome’s 2014 Belmont Stakes effort:

“California Chrome was tired going into the race and his energy wasn’t quite what it was. Also, another horse stepped on his foot and that happens when a horse doesn’t have the energy it should. They do things in slow motion, and that’s what happened.”

The week before, California Chrome was “ready,” had “a perfect work,” was full of “tremendous energy,” and “seemed to have plenty left in the tank.” Pointing those quotes out is a reminder, mostly to myself, not to get too caught up in whatever hype there is about American Pharoah as he preps for the Belmont over the next two weeks. He “looks great,” but he also had to “recuperate” from winning the Preakness by walking for four days at Churchill, and his time exercising each morning is so far being reported in single-digit minutes.

Meanwhile, challengers such as Materiality, who skipped the Preakness, are training like the fresh horses they are. The son of 2005 Belmont Stakes winner Afleet Alex “solidified his status … as the major threat to American Pharoah,” working five furlongs in :59.87 at Belmont Park on Friday (video).

Nothing to See Here

Charlie Hayward on “Big Days” at racetracks:

I believe that consolidating stakes too aggressively can have the opposite of the intended effect — actually reducing customer interest and wagering activity on regular and weekend race days throughout the rest of the meet. “Big Days” are exciting for the casual racetrack customer. However, I would suggest that offering consistent weekend race cards combined with a takeout reduction would be a better way to grow the racing business and make our product more competitive with other gambling and entertainment offerings.

Yes. How easy is it to find something else to do when even a holiday weekend card is full of short fields and/or lacks a classy feature? The many factors making super-cards a trend “may have reached critical mass with Saturday’s card at Belmont,” says Mike Watchmaker, running down an afternoon of racing that’s “a little scary” in its lower-level quality. (Sunday isn’t better.)

Triple Crown Winners, Mad Men, and Rogues

Eleven horses have won the Triple Crown, and seven of those won in a two decade period that began in 1930 and ended in 1948. It would be another 25 years before Secretariat added his name to the list, with Seattle Slew and Affirmed following in quick succession. It’s been 37 years since the last was crowned, and speculation abounds — as it does every spring that a horse goes to the Belmont Stakes a potential winner — about why the gap has grown so long. Maybe the question is, how did we get three in the 1970s?

Thoroughbred owner and famed ad man Bill Backer is enjoying a turn in the spotlight following the series finale of “Mad Men,” which closed on the iconic 1971 “Hilltop” Coca-Cola commercial. It’s credited to him as the originator, for coming up with the concept, “I’d like to buy the world a Coke and keep it company.” Jingles and horses — fun story, right? It is, and both America’s Best Racing and Thoroughbred Daily News have jumped on the pop culture and racing connection. Both also treat the ad as the epiphanic accomplishment of one white man — and, yes, that descriptor is relevant:

Backer wrote, “I’d Like to Buy the World a Coke” on a napkin and the rest is history.

… the next day Backer … wrote “I’d like to buy the world a Coke and keep it company.” The rest of the lyrics and music followed …

But there’s more to the story, and it’s a great read. “We have a long tradition in the United States of erasing the creative work of black Americans,” writes Tim Carmody of noted McCann-Erickson music director Billy Davis, co-writer of the Coke song. We should do better in horse racing, when given the chance.

Rogues or underdogs? Triple Crown connections tend to fall into one or the other in the media. Last year’s storyline was the latter. This year’s may be the former: “Owner of American Pharoah Is Fighting Lawsuit Amid Triple Crown Bid,” is the New York Times headline, “American Pharoah owner didn’t pay $1.6M in sports bets, felon says,” at NJ.com. The best detail in either report is that Ahmed Zayat allegedly offered $1 million to his felon-friend if he would tell the sportsbook to which he owed money that he died in a car accident.

American Pharoah is back on track. He jogged this morning at Churchill Downs after four days of walking, and may start galloping again on Friday.

Withholding rules on winning wagers are outdated and need to be changed, and the industry has a shot at making that happen this year, but more horseplayers have to get involved. While approximately 3,000 4,000 have submitted comments through the NTRA website regarding the proposed rules revision, “Treasury officials have recently told the organization that more comments are needed if the changes are to be seriously considered,” reports Matt Hegarty. I am of two minds re: this angle on seeking engagement — the first is that horseplayers should show their support for the changes, the second is that this sounds like a set-up for putting the blame on players should the campaign fail. “Look,” racing executives will shrug, “gamblers don’t care about taxes,” making it that much harder for future reforms to pass.

Three Days

It looks as though closing day for the 2014 meet won’t be the last day of racing ever at Suffolk Downs: The East Boston track has filed an application (PDF) with the Massachusetts Gaming Commission to hold three days of racing this year. If approved, the cards will be scheduled for July 11, August 8, and September 5, spacing that gives horsemen a chance to run back horses (and in particular, Massachusetts-breds) for the projected $500,000 in daily purses. Lynne Snierson reports that the track anticipates filling 12-14 races each day; Matt Hegarty that takeout on wagers will drop to 15% across the board. Steeplechase races may be in the mix. The MGC will hold a public hearing on June 11 to discuss the application. They’re taking comments now.

5/21/15 Addendum: Not all horsemen support Suffolk’s application:

… which they say would bring few benefits to local horse owners and trainers who need a much longer season to survive. Last year, there were 65 days of racing at Suffolk Downs.

“I oppose the transfer of race horse development funds in consideration of a day or two of racing,” Billy Lagorio, a horse owner, wrote in a letter to the state commission. The letter characterized Suffolk Downs as “uncommitted” to conducting “a meaningful horse racing” season.

Really, the only way to view this three-day proposal is as a life preserver for Massachusetts Thoroughbred racing. It’s a means of tapping the Racehorse Development Fund monies already banked to help keep horsemen afloat until — well, that’s uncertain. It’s not a “meaningful” season — it’s not meant to be.

Be Retired

Well wishes for Be Bullish, who retires a winner after eight years on track. The 10-year-old gelding started in 87 races, won 19, and earned more than $1.1 million. He’s the kind of horse who fills most cards, most days, year after year at racetracks major and minor — sound enough and classy enough to compete at the allowance level or in overnight stakes, but inevitably falling into lower and lower claiming spots as he ages and slows. He’s the kind of horse who becomes a fan favorite, because he’s consistent and game.

All great athletes have to retire some time, and not too many great athletes get to retire at the top of their game,” said owner Mike Repole, who claimed Be Bullish for $16,000 from trainer David Jacobson on Sunday at Belmont Park (quote link subscriber only). His final win was his third this year, his fourth straight. The gelding will be sent to Old Friends Cabin Creek.

Preakness 2015 Wrap

American Pharoah breaks from the gate in the 2015 Preakness Stakes

Sealed, opened, soaked: The condition of the Pimlico track surface became the X factor in the Preakness Stakes when a torrential downpour turned the dirt to mud minutes before post time on Saturday. If anything, the rain was a boon to the 4-5 favorite, already a winner on a wet track. But nothing can be taken for granted in a Triple Crown race: “I took a chance and sent him as quick as I can,” said rider Victor Espinoza, explaining how he hustled American Pharoah from stall #1 and into the lead from the start, outmaneuvering jockey Martin Garcia and stablemate Dortmund, in stall #2, at the break.

American Pharoah won the 1 3/16-mile race by seven lengths in a final time of 1:58.46, “the slowest for the Preakness since 1956, when Fabius was the winner over Needles and No Regrets on a fast track in 1:58 2/5.” Here are the individual fractions from the Daily Racing Form chart:

Incremental times for the 2015 Preakness Stakes

The winner’s split for the mile was :26.32, and for the final 3/16ths, :20.72 (both those numbers from the official Equibase PDF chart). So, American Pharoah slowed down at the end after a quick opening quarter, and I’m inclined not to read too much into what’s 1) a typical race shape for dirt routes, 2) a pretty good example of what we mean when we talk about tactical speed (see, not only the break, but the way American Pharoah draws away from the others rounding into the stretch), and 3) a finish without challenge (Dortmund checked out, Mr. Z tired out, and Firing Line never fired) over slop.

Jay Privman reports that American Pharoah earned a Beyer speed figure of 102. TimeformUS’ figuremaker gave him 125. He was awarded figures of 105 and 127, respectively, for winning the Kentucky Derby.

“I’ve never won this race as easily and handily,” said trainer Bob Baffert after. The ease does seem almost supernatural, or maybe that’s just the rain:

American Pharoah’s Preakness win was the sixth for Baffert; his Belmont Stakes start will be the trainer’s fourth shot at a Triple Crown, the third for Espinoza.

“It’s hard for me to imagine I’m going through this again,” the trainer told the NYRA press office on Sunday morning, and quipped that he’d like a fast track at Belmont. “Like the one Secretariat had. I’ll take that.”

The Belmont Stakes is June 6, and there are currently eight likely contenders, in addition to American Pharoah, including Preakness runner-up Tale of Verve, Peter Pan winner Madefromlucky, and Kentucky Derby runners Frosted, Materiality, Keen Ice, Carpe Diem, Frammento, and Mubtaahij.

British bookies are taking bets — Ladbrokes has Pharoah at even money.

1:15 PM Addendum: American Pharoah was the only horse to gallop back without a mud mask, thanks to his gate-to-wire run, but he was carrying a little extra water weight via Espinoza’s boots.

Preakness Day 2015

Tim Layden on the familiar coverage that might accompany American Pharoah if he goes to the Belmont Stakes with a Triple Crown on the line:

The logic behind the Triple Crown frenzy is familiar and flawed—that horse racing “needs” a Triple Crown winner, an equine superstar like Secretariat or Seattle Slew, to save itself from extinction. But would that happen? Suppose American Pharoah romps in the Preakness and then tops Secretariat’s performance in the 1973 Belmont, winning by 31½ lengths in 2:23.99, with the track announcer saying that he’s moving “like an extra-tremendous machine.” Would men weep and women swoon? Would it change the course of the sport, and somehow restore it to a time when fans flocked to America’s giant racetracks on weekday afternoons? I’m going out on a limb and arguing that it would not. It would be very cool. It would create a blip, an uptick on the EKG of the sport. And it would be great for the moment. But it would also be 100 miles wide and two inches deep.

Preakness card picks are up on Hello Race Fans.

The Deal

Eric Crawford on how Calumet ended up buying Mr. Z for a Preakness run:

Working as the go-between, Lukas mediated a conversation between Calumet and Zayat. It began on 7 p.m. Tuesday night. By 8 o’clock Wednesday morning it resumed. Lukas not only was working with a couple of wealthy parties, but against the clock. By 10:10 on Wednesday, he had a deal, and then, with the help of some fast work by Justin Zayat, completed the deal in the 20-minute window he needed in order to get Mr. Z entered …

D. Wayne Lukas likes what he’s seeing from the Malibu Moon colt this week: “He is coming into the race beautifully, the same way Oxbow did.” (Oxbow derailed Orb’s Triple Crown chase with an upset in the 2013 Preakness.) If Mr. Z wins, and that’s a longshot, it’s easy to imagine the stunned reaction — he’s won but once in 13 starts. “We think he can be a pace factor in this race,” TimeformUS handicapper Mike Beer writes, echoing the consensus view. “We would be surprised were he to be more than that.” What wouldn’t surprise me is if he finishes third or fourth; he’s been competitive enough to make the trifecta in races previously won by American Pharoah and Dortmund.

The trainer, though, didn’t pull off this caper only for Saturday — he has a plan for Mr. Z that involves running a mile and maybe on the turf.

California Chrome’s next turn on the turf is coming up in the Prince of Wales’s Stakes at Royal Ascot on June 17; from afar, trainer Art Sherman dreams of having him back. A hint, for fans, that he may return to run at Keeneland: “We’re sure looking at the Breeders’ Cup, hopefully the Classic.” I think that may be the first mention this year of a BC tilt — co-owner Perry Martin earlier sketched out a schedule mostly abroad. But then, who knows? The Chrome team seems disjointed, a state Dick Powell would have liked to see delved into during NBC’s Kentucky Derby coverage:

I was frustrated by the piece done on CALIFORNIA CHROME (Lucky Pulpit)’s ownership problems. They implied that Perry Martin and Steve Coburn are not getting along due to a disagreement on where the horse is going to run but there was not enough depth to the coverage. They interviewed the loquacious Coburn but never asked him any specific questions about when and why did the relationship go wrong. It made Martin, who is anything but loquacious, seem like the villain but he does own 70 percent of California Chrome and, thus, calls the shots.

There was a brief mention of him racing at Royal Ascot next month but they never really got into trainer Art Sherman’s feeling of not having him back at his home base. Plus, no video of him training in Newmarket. They tried to re-visit last year’s feel good story but didn’t develop why the relationship went bad. Considering how long the show is, no real excuse not to answer why it went wrong.

Chrome’s first race back in the US will be the Arlington Million, says Martin.

Everything is hunky-dory in the American Pharoah camp. “AP best he ever been,” owner Ahmed Zayat tweeted at Ed DeRosa when he floated some “anti-American” buzz. “Just ask all … at Pimlico he is A BEAST.” Dave Grening confirms: “Baffert is indeed correct when he says Pharoah floats over the ground. Man, he is an impressive individual.”

But the whip issue has not gone away: “Whether you vilify Victor Espinoza’s Kentucky Derby ride or defend it, this much is clear,” writes Pat Forde, “all eyes in Baltimore will be on the jockey’s right arm, and how many times he brings his riding crop down on the flank of American Pharoah on Saturday …

Whether he wins the Preakness or not, says Bob Ford, he lost the Triple Crown in the Kentucky Derby:

From a tactical standpoint, Espinoza did what he thought necessary to get American Pharoah home and that is his job. It has also been said by jockeys and trainers that the lighter, softer whips used now often act as more of a metronome than a bludgeon, tapping out the stride and keeping the horse aware of the job at hand.

Unfortunately, Pharoah is not able to corroborate this theory and define whether that final stretch run was accompanied by an excited urging or something more terrifying. He arrived at the finish line spent, even though the Derby was the second-slowest running over a fast track and the third-slowest last two furlongs since 2000. American Pharoah really didn’t have it on Derby Day, but still won …

Jay Hovdey comes down on the side of what he calls the “rational” insider view: With today’s padded crops, whipping is no big deal. That Espinoza was so free with his stick (subscriber only):

… was an issue only because it was the Kentucky Derby, which 16 million people watched on NBC, although I’m guessing not many of them noticed or even pretended to care until the whip count was brought up in Derby postmortems.

The Churchill Downs stewards decided that the rider did nothing wrong, and Espinoza was unapologetic, which made sense because no apology was required. Jockeys are handed the whip and told to go win the race, only now it is in an atmosphere of ever-changing rules governing the use of the stick.

His column does highlight just how subjective it is, assessing whip use, referencing, as others have done, how many times rider Calvin Borel struck Rachel Alexandra in the 2009 Woodward. Quantitatively, the 21 hits Borel gave the filly is closer to the approximately 20 Espinoza gave California Chrome in the 2014 Kentucky Derby. But those wins look nothing alike. Qualitatively, the 2009 Woodward and this year’s Derby do — both riders determined to win, both horses giving their all. Emotion influences perception. It’s enough to make what’s a 50% increase of one over the other seem equal.

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