Jessica Chapel / Railbird

Fond of Sarah and James Vail heading to the winner's circle. #SuffolkDownsDubai Sky in the paddock before the first race at #Saratoga on Saturday. Was really looking forward to seeing what Twirling Candy's little brother would do in his debut.The Sanford field entering the stretch. Mr. Z is caught in traffic ...Be Bullish heading back to the barn after finishing second in the fifth at #Saratoga on Saturday. Such a fan of this game 9YO gelding, who's on the verge of reaching $1 million in earnings.Waiting for the bell.Macho's barn. #BC13Wise Dan finds the Santa Anita grass to his liking. #BC13 #americasbestracing

Moving On

What’s next for some Suffolk Downs backstretch families?

She said her father, who is an outrider at the track, has been going to Maryland for the winters over the last several years, and will likely have to go down there for nine months now and then go further into the south for the remaining three months …

More than anything, though, she said she feels for her uncles, who are all in their 40s and 50s and are facing the end of their life-long trade.

“For my uncles, that’s all they know how to do; that’s their trade,” she said. “They have done nothing else their entire lives, just that one trade working with horses. I guess they could work at a gas station or as a cashier somewhere, but that’s kind of demeaning for them after so many years working so hard in their trade.”

New England HBPA president Anthony Spadea plans to file a “placeholder” application with the Massachusetts Gaming Commission on behalf of the horsemen’s organization for 2015 Thoroughbred racing dates by tomorrow, October 1. The move will give the group time to explore their options for making a meet economically feasible. “The issue is extremely complicated, and we need to see if the simulcasting laws in the state can be changed,” Spadea told Lynne Snierson after a meeting with Suffolk Downs officials on Monday.

10/1/14 Update: Carney has filed for Brockton dates.

Super Saturday Aftermath

Two weeks ago, the Breeders’ Cup Classic looked as though it would be a showdown between two California 3-year-olds. Now it’s setting up as an East Coast vs. West Coast sophomore clash, after Belmont Stakes winner Tonalist exited a troubled Jockey Club Gold Cup with his second Grade 1 win and an improved, blinkers-off running style, and undefeated Shared Belief was tested, but not bested, by trainer Bob Baffert’s duo of Fed Biz and Sky Kingdom in the Awesome Again. Both winners reportedly came out their races in fine shape.

That’s the good news. The bad is that jockey Rajiv Maragh is out indefinitely with a broken arm after falling from Wicked Strong during the first half of the Jockey Club Gold Cup. Junior Alvarado, aboard Moreno when he veered into Wicked Strong’s path, causing the two to clip heels, is due before the stewards at Belmont Park this Wednesday to discuss the incident. [10/1/14 Update: Alvarado has been suspended for 15 days.]

At Santa Anita, the stewards have already handed Victor Espinoza a seven-day suspension for the Awesome Again, in which his mount, Sky Kingdom, the longest shot in the field, steered Mike Smith and Shared Belief toward the center of the track on the first turn and then kept them running wide until he tired on the far turn and fell back to finish last. Trakus shows Shared Belief running 66 feet more than runner-up Fed Biz, who had a rail trip.

“It’s ridiculous,” Espinoza told Art Wilson on Saturday, responding to the allegation that Sky Kingdom was acting as a foil for his stablemate’s competition. “I would never try to hurt anybody or bump somebody, especially a horse like that. He’s an amazing horse. My horse, he always runs on the outside. He doesn’t like having dirt kicked in his face.”

Whether intentional or not, writes Mike Watchmaker, “what Espinoza did in the Awesome Again looks bad. Really bad. It appeared unprofessional.” You can judge for yourself: Watch Santa Anita’s HD replay.

While Smith was hotly deriding his rival’s post-race explanation, trainer Jerry Hollendorfer was playing it cool. “We’re all big boys,” he said. “It’s no big deal for me. Mike [Smith] will have to settle up with Victor [Espinoza]. It’s not the worst thing in the world to have a tough race and be double fit for the Breeders’ Cup. That race will be tougher, so we’ll need to be tougher too.”

Beyer speed figures and TimeformUS ratings for Super Saturday’s Belmont Park and Santa Anita graded stakes winners:


Figure sources: DRF stakes results (Beyers); Craig Milkowski (TimeformUS)

Re: Shared Belief’s 114 for the Awesome Again, Craig Milkowski tweeted, “If our figures included ground loss, particularly ground loss in relation to pace, Shared Belief would easily be 125+ …”

Super Saturday 2014

Today’s group and graded stakes with potential Breeders’ Cup implications from Newmarket to Santa Anita, listed in order of approximate post time:

Charts, replays, and occasional updates to be added through the day.

4:25 PM: Stephanie’s Kitten, the 2011 Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Turf Fillies winner, just earned her way into this year’s Filly and Mare Turf with a win in the Flower Bowl at Belmont Park as the 6-5 favorite (following second-place finishes in the Beverly D. and Diana this summer). You know Stephanie’s Kitten will be at Santa Anita so long as she’s sound, but the same can’t be said for Kelso Handicap winner Vyjack — according to the post-race quote sent out by NYRA, trainer Rudy Rodriguez had been targeting the Cigar Mile. “I have to talk to the owner and see what his plans are now,” said Rodriquez. Woodward winner Itsmyluckyday, not Breeders’ Cup nominated, finished third in the Kelso. Said Jockey Paco Lopez after, “He tried really hard, but I don’t think he liked the track.” Woodward runner-up Moreno is pegged as the 7-2 second favorite on the Jockey Club Gold Cup morning line.

4:55 PM: Private Zone must like Belmont. Winless in three starts since last year’s Vosburgh Stakes, he became the first horse in 24 years to win the Vosburgh for two consecutive years (the last was New Jersey-bred Sewickley in 1989-1990, whose broodmare sire was Dr. Fager, a back-to-back Vosburgh winner in 1967-68). Too bad for Private Zone that the Breeders’ Cup is at Santa Anita again. He finished 10th in the 2013 Sprint.

5:47 PM: Wow — 10 minutes to post in the Zenyatta Stakes and 95% of the show pool is on two-time champion Beholder, making her first start since sustaining an injury while finishing fourth in the June 7 Phipps at Belmont:

The pools for the Zenyatta Stakes by percentage, 10 minutes before post time

6:10 PM: You have to admire a filly as game and classy as Beholder:

10:00 PM: Here’s how much further Trakus says Shared Belief had to run than runner-up Fed Biz to win the Awesome Again after Sky Kingdom (the other Baffert and the longest shot in the field) forced him wide on the first turn:

Trakus numbers for the 2014 Awesome Again finish

Bleak State

How’s this for a depressing flashback? While looking for something else in the Railbird archive, I came across this April 2005 post about Suffolk Downs, “It’s Dying,” written during an especially pessimistic spring:

… expanded gaming won’t solve New England’s long-term racing woes … Thoroughbred racing will leave New England. It’s inevitable.

Yikes. There’s no satisfaction in being proven right.

Although, I haven’t been, not quite yet. Live racing ends at Suffolk Downs on October 4, and simulcasting at the track will cease sometime in December, but the Massachusetts Gaming Commission is “trying to keep the door open” to Thoroughbred racing, approving a more flexible application process for 2015 on Thursday. Commission chair Stephen Crosby sees possibility:

“There’s the Brockton Fair, there’s the Northampton Fair, there’s fairgrounds all over the place, where there are tracks that can accommodate a thoroughbred race. So that’s one of the issues. And plus, you can create a new thoroughbred track. So there are plenty of options out there. How good, which is the better, I don’t have any idea but there are options out there.”

Sure, options. And any proposals submitted for a meet next year are sure to be creative and take into consideration the realities of the current game. After all, as racing director Jennifer Durenberger told the Commission yesterday, horse racing is “a nimble, flexible, and adaptive industry.” (Stop laughing.) One possible option for next year is a meet run by the New England HBPA, which used a letter to the Commission retroactively approving a 65 day meet this year to press its ultimate claim for a “reasonable” 125 days (PDF, page 103).

Sincere Interest

Caught between state law and desperate horsemen, the Massachusetts Gaming Commission agreed on Thursday to “finesse around the regulatory process,” as commissioner Bruce Stebbins put it, and accept “placeholder” applications for a possible 2015 Thoroughbred race meet, so long as “a sincere description of interest” was submitted by the state-mandated deadline of October 1.

“Give us a concept plan, get it into us by the 1st,” said commissioner James McHugh, “and we’ll figure out what to do with it.”

The New England HBPA, which has proposed leasing Suffolk Downs for next year, is expected to submit an application after its officers’ election concludes this week. Suffolk Downs COO Chip Tuttle expressed some skepticism of the group’s plan in a conversation with WBUR’s Jack Lepiarz:

The current operating structure is that they’re losing $10 million a year … you need to erase a $10 million dollar hole and somehow create a $2 million profit. He said to me: “I see no credible way that that can happen right now.”

In 2002, all-sources handle at Suffolk Downs reached $303 million. In 2000, on-track live racing handle totaled $27.6 million. It’s been decline since.

A Runyonesque Farewell

Bill Littlefield:

Some citizens with so many potatoes it does not occur to them at any time to multiply them at Sufferin’ Downs say the race track is no place for a casino, and they are correct on this proposition, and also a blind pig sometimes finds an acorn. I always say ringing bells and other noise such as weeping men losing their homes and families is irritating no little and quite some to citizens whose noses are in the racing form. They are about the difficult business of finding a horse that will not fall down or stop to eat or otherwise occupy itself with business other than running six furlongs or maybe more, and they do not need to be told that Wayne Newton’s show begins …

Last Saturday

It’s official, the last day of live racing at Suffolk Downs — “very likely … the final racing day of the 79-year-old track’s history” — will be Saturday, October 4, instead of Monday, September 29. Come, say goodbye. (You probably won’t get another chance, Shirley Leung.) It’s very likely, and probably, the last day ever, even though the Suffolk horsemen, through the New England HBPA, have raised the prospect of leasing the track and running next year. Let’s call that a longshot, but an interesting one — and obviously, a reaction to the specter of the defunct Brockton Fair track being awarded Thoroughbred dates.

Unsurprisingly, Penn National has ruled out Plainridge as a possible site for a Thoroughbred meet, reports State House News Service (sub. only):

“Our focus is on harness racing, and we are looking forward to a successful season,” Eric Schippers, senior vice president for public affairs at Penn National, said in a statement to the News Service. “Thoroughbred racing would require a one mile track and due to site constraints and wetlands issues, we would not be able to construct one at Plainridge.”

The Massachusetts Gaming Commission holds its first open meeting since granting the Boston-area casino license to Wynn last Tuesday on Thursday: Horse racing is item #4 on the agenda (PDF). Expect a crowd.

Fond of Sarah and jockey James Vail head toward the Suffolk Downs winner's circle

Fond of Sarah draws away to a 7 1/2 length win
Top: Fond of Sarah and James Vail head towards the Suffolk Downs winner’s circle. Bottom: Fond of Sarah draws away from the field.

In the seventh at Suffolk Downs last Saturday, Yasou Stable homebred Fond of Sarah made an impressive debut, winning the 5 1/2 furlong maiden special for 2-year-olds by 7 1/2 lengths in 1:05.45 time — and that was after jockey James Vail wrapped her up in the final sixteenth. Blood-Horse has the replay.

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