JC / Railbird

Mongolian Saturday. #BC15#AmericanPharoahAmerican Pharoah kicking up the Polytrack this morning. #Keeneland #BC15Shhh! Liam's Map is napping. #BC15Grand Arch out for a graze. #BC15#WoMile winner Mondialiste. Kinda think he's got a shot in the #BC15 Mile.Honor Code, getting serious. #BC15

Behold the Sure Thing

Beholder circles on the Santa Anita track as she waits to enter the winner's circle after the Zenyatta Stakes

The easiest 10 cents you could make in racing on Saturday:

It was such a certainty that Beholder would win the $300,000 Grade I Zenyatta Stakes that by the time she had cruised to a 3 1/4-length triumph over second-place My Sweet Addiction at odds of 1-9, Santa Anita was figuring out how much money it had lost. There was a $75,708.52 minus show pool and $4,750.12 minus place pool. Beholder returned $2.10 to win, place and show after finishing the 1 1/16-mile race in 1:42.83.

I cannot wait for this year’s Breeders’ Cup Classic.

#ONA15 Notes and Quotes

I’m attending the 2015 Online News Conference (#ONA15) on Thursday and Friday and to keep from over-tweeting — and to gather all the great stuff that’s being said — I’ll be adding notes from the panels and events in the occasionally updated post below. (There likely won’t be much that’s racing specific, although I’ll do my best to make those connections.)

Friday: We Belong Here with Soraya Chemaly (@schemaly), Dr. Michelle Ferrier (@mediaghosts), Amanda Hess (@amandahess), Laurie Penny (@Pennyred), and moderated by Sarah Jeong (@sarahjeong) #ONA15keynote

Whose Idea Of The Future Is This? with Teresa Jusino (@teresajusino), Sherryl Vint, Ytasha L. Womack (@ytashawomack), and moderated by Matt Thompson (@mthomps) #ONA15future

I’m pairing the Friday morning keynote and a panel from the last session of the day because I can’t shake the connections between them. The first was a thoughtful, nuanced, and at times, harrowing discussion of online harassment and its effects. The second was a philosophical conversation about futurism and rethinking communities, media, and technology. Both were very much about who gets to speak, the backlash to diversity, and imagining better.

We Belong Here tweets:

Future tweets:

Thursday: A Three-Part Plan for Audience Engagement with Greg Emerson (@emersongreg), Alexandra Smith (@alexandraleighs), and Carla Zanoni (@carlazanoni) #ONA15plan

Solid advice from all three panelists: Go where your audience is, know what your goals are, and deliver value.

How do you market your journalism? Zanoni talks about how at the Wall Street Journal, engagement editors ask, “Where is the best place to tell the story — and what kind of data can we add to it?”

“Traffic data doesn’t tell you about your content, it tells you about your audience,” says Emerson, who stresses the importance of defining what it means for a piece to “do well.” What does it mean to be successful?

Also: “Your audience does not equal community,” and “Your audience is not one audience,” it’s segmented. Understand those segments. Know that it’s no longer enough to hire digital natives to navigate these channels: “You have to hire social natives, data natives, mobile natives,” says Emerson. “We all need to up our game.” Talks about how everyone is reading on phones, which is nice crossover with the Wednesday night ESPN longform panel and Kate Fagan pointing out how she reads long, deeply reported stories on her phone, but doesn’t want writers to change how they approach their work for that reality. It’s not about how you’re creating the work, but how you’re presenting it and measuring its effect on the audience.

Smith on a related topic: Goals, she says, look different for every newsroom, every beat. “You can’t be everything to everyone when it comes to metrics.”

Zanoni on social media: Stick to being present on the platforms where your users are already spending their time. Smith adds, “Do what you can well.”

What’s most important is that you’re adding value, says Emerson, who gives a few tips for how to do that: “If you give different context than everyone else, you will get more engagement.” Also, it’s no longer about being first, having a scoop [changing idea about what it means to win] — you might be alone out there with a story on Twitter for a few minutes, but you will be overtaken. “Think like a curator, not a megaphone.”

Another tip? Be clear, not vaguely clever or cute [something to balance when it comes to establishing a voice]. Remember that Google is indexing tweets now and people want to know what they’re clicking. “The more specific you are, the more value you bring.”

Plan tweets:

Thursday: Deep Dive into Google with Emily Bell (@emilybell) and Richard Gingras (@richardgingras) #onadeepdive

Emily Bell, Tow Center for Digital Journalism, and Richard Gingras, Google Head of News, get the conference off to a rousing start with a lively hour-long exchange covering such topics as the Trust Project, mobile, ad blockers, local news, and the Google algorithm.

Gingras begins by warning that there will be no letting up in the pace of digital news. Quoting Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf — “[George] can keep learning the games we play as quickly as I can change them” — Gingras says that tech skills are as essential as journalism skills and that “news organizations today have to treat technology equal to writing and storytelling.” Combined tech and journo skills “enable better journalism.”

Re: the Trust Project: Gingras raises the role of editors and the question of making their work more visible. “How can we surface the work that goes into journalistic verification to consumers?”

Moving on to the user experience of news, Gingras jolts the room by declaring, “The mobile web is in crisis.” He cites the the too-common experience of disruptive or obnoxious ads. Users are telling publishers ads have so degraded the experience that they’ve lost trust — “Ad blockers are a symptom of the problem,” he says. “The experience is so egregious, people can’t stand it.” The way forward is open source and open web. “We need to create experiences on the mobile web that are powerful, elegant, and sustainable.” (Google, through Gingras, is clearly staking out a position as being for the open web in opposition to the closed platform of Facebook and now, Apple.)

Bell asks him about Apple News: “Do you think Apple will actually succeed in moving people from the open web to a closed version of the web?” He replies: “I certainly hope not.” (Is this an awkward moment to mention that Railbird is available via Apple News?)

Gingras, though, believes publishers “should use any and all means to build audience,” answering a question about the Washington Post planning to publish all content on Facebook through Instant Articles.

Also discussed: The atomic unit of news. Gingras initially cites the article as the atomic unit (raising questions about what that means for content management/development/reaching readers through alternate forms), pointing to the decline in the website homepage as an entry point for audiences, but later speaks of videos/photos/all types of content as potentially being atomic units.

Audience member asks skeptical question about trust vis-a-vis Google’s algorithm. “We show our work,” Gingras answers. The results can be analyzed. Also says, feed the algorithm: “The more signals we have the better.”

Gingras leaves the audience with questions at the end — “What is the nature of the evolving form of the article?”, “How do we take full advantage of the opportunities in data journalism?” — and wraps up with, “It’s [all the questions that are being asked in this transition] only going to be solved by the collective efforts of everyone in this industry.”

Deep dive tweets:

Enter for the Rippey Award

There’s one week remaining to enter the second annual Ron Rippey Handicapping Media Award presented by Brisnet and if you’ve written or posted any handicapping pieces or multimedia presentations in the past year that you’re proud of, submit by next Tuesday, September 29.

Do it not only because the prize is $1000, but because the award recognizes excellence in an essential corner of turf media — work that educates and informs horseplayers. And to my fellow women handicappers — enter because last year, when I was part of the judges panel, only nine percent of entries were from women. While I don’t know the exact proportion of women vs. men handicappers and analysts, I’m certain it’s a few times greater than nine percent — so, get in there and take your shot at winning!

Increased Purses, Reduced Takeout

Citing the success of their September 5 program, Suffolk Downs announced the addition of a stakes race, purse increases for Mass-bred stakes, and promoted reduced takeout of 15% for all wagers on the October 3 card.

Saturday’s Suffolk Return

Horse training at Suffolk Downs on September 4, 2015
For the first time in almost a year, horses were training over the Suffolk Downs track on Friday, September 4. Racing will be held on Saturday, September 5.

Live horse racing returns to Suffolk Downs this Saturday, the first of three days scheduled this fall at the East Boston track, with a 13-race card worth $507,500 in purses that drew 111 entries. One race is over hurdles, five are on turf, three are Massachusetts-bred stakes, and two are written for horses who started at least once at Suffolk Downs in 2014. First post is 12:30 PM ET.

Horses with local connections fill the fields — a full 77 starters are state-breds, ran at the track last year, or are owned or trained by familiar names, including Jay Bernardini and Bobby Raymond. Last year’s leading rider David Amiss is back, as is jockey Tammi Piermarini, who has 10 mounts, including for trainers Christophe Clement, Gary Contessa, and David Jacobson.

In the state-bred stakes: 2014 Rise Jim winner Victor Laszlo returns to defend his title, as does 2014 Isadorable winner Doublicious in that race. Plausible, winner of the 2014 Norman Hall, starts in the African Prince.

The Massachusetts Gaming Commission approved on Thursday a reduction in Suffolk Downs’ takeout rates. All wagers on the October 3 and 31 cards — but not on this Saturday’s card — will be 15%, down from 19% on straight bets and 26% on exotics. Matt Hegarty raises the possibility that simulcasting sites may balk at the drop. “It’s certainly a concern,” Lou Raffeto told him:

… when asked whether simulcast sites will bite the bullet. “I think they will, because it’s in the best interests of the horseplayers. And really it’s not like we’re Saratoga or Del Mar, running all summer. It’s two days. It shouldn’t be a big deal.”

With luck, this little horseplayer-friendly experiment will goose some interest.

Tea Leaves

American Pharoah returned to Del Mar on Monday, apparently none the worse for his second-place finish to Keen Ice in the Travers, and the track announced that the Triple Crown winner would parade for fans on Sunday. Should owner Ahmed Zayat decide to retire American Pharoah, as he said his “gut feeling” was in the hours following Saturday’s race, “his Del Mar appearance might serve as a racing farewell.” So, that’s one open-to-interpretation phrase to parse as to the 3-year-old colt’s future.

Jay Privman reports, though (DRF+):

… it appears American Pharoah will be pointed to the Breeders’ Cup Classic on Oct. 31 at Keeneland, and Baffert said Tuesday that he could even have a prep race, though he emphasized it’s “too soon to make that call.”

(Also? Baffert’s as done as anyone with talking about the Travers results. “It’s over with. He just got beat. Time to move on.”)

Trainer Aidan O’Brien added some intrigue to the Breeders’ Cup Classic scene, announcing that star miler Gleneagles would point to Keeneland:

“Given suitable ground, Gleneagles will run in the Irish Champion Stakes on Saturday week,” the trainer said. “Failing that, he will be aimed at the Queen Elizabeth II Stakes at Ascot in October. His end-of-season target is the Breeders’ Cup Classic at Keeneland, where he may face American Pharoah.”

Kellie Reilly wonders if there’s a deeper meaning:

Let’s consider this from the Coolmore chess-pieces angle: the global bloodstock juggernaut owns Gleneagles, and will stand Triple Crown champion American Pharoah upon his retirement to stud. Given the timing of this declaration of intent, it’s tempting to read between the lines and think that the chances of American Pharoah making the Classic may be receding. That’s not to say there can’t be the clash that Aidan O’Brien mentions in his statement on Gleneagles, but doesn’t it maximize the benefit to Coolmore to emphasize the hypothetical for the time being?

I’d like to see American Pharoah make it to the Breeders’ Cup Classic, not least because, as Amanda Duckworth writes, “it would be a shame if he never competed against his elders.” It would be more of a shame if the reason he didn’t compete against older had nothing to do with injury or unsoundness. Zayat has been outspoken about racing American Pharoah through this year for the good of the game and the thrill of the fans. “When Zayat told NBC on Saturday that he was thinking only of Pharoah’s fans and the horse’s legacy, I finally believed him,” Bob Barry writes in today’s Blood-Horse Daily (PDF). I believe him too, I believe he means it. But it’s a fragile trust.

The Runner-Up

American Pharoah and Frosted go head to head around the stretch turn of the 2015 Travers Stakes at Saratoga
Frosted and American Pharoah, on the rail, turn into the stretch of the Travers Stakes. Keen Ice is to the outside. Photo credit: Arianna Spadoni/NYRA

Steve Haskin had concerns before the Travers Stakes. Gary West felt a shiver of apprehension. Trainer Bob Baffert thought the Pennsylvania Derby was, possibly, better timing for the Triple Crown winner. “I just hope I don’t have to say, I should have gone to Parx,” he said to Sean Clancy. He had been leery of bringing American Pharoah to Saratoga: “I don’t want to find any Onions.”

In the air-conditioned chill of his family’s Saratoga clubhouse box, awaiting the Travers, Justin Zayat predicted the future:

“What is everyone expecting right now? They’re expecting Pharoah to win. My experience in racing is when everyone is hoping for something, it never happens.”

When did American Pharoah lose the Travers? He came out of the gate well and went to the front. So far, so good. He clipped off :12 second furlongs through the first half, just as he had in the Belmont Stakes. But he wasn’t alone. Frosted was to his outside, and as they moved down the backstretch, the gray pressed for more speed. Trakus records them as running the same time in the third quarter — an even :23 seconds. “Frosted is taking it to him,” called Larry Collmus. More than four lengths back, Keen Ice was matching their velocity.

DRF incremental times for the 2015 Travers Stakes at Saratoga
DRF incremental times for the Travers / View the official Equibase chart (PDF)

Turning into the stretch, Frosted crowded Pharoah on the rail. At the top of the stretch, Frosted headed Pharaoh. Jockey Victor Espinoza alleged rider Jose Lezcano, who had picked up the mount on Frosted after Joel Rosario went down in the Forego Handicap, was being aggressive, reports David Grening:

Espinoza claimed he felt Frosted’s chest hit his horse’s hip, and “he turned me sideways,” altering American Pharoah’s stride. Espinoza said Frosted hit him five or six times, though replays don’t bear that out.

Said Lezcano: “He started to get out a little bit, and he touched my horse. I never crossed the line. I never touched him.”

American Pharoah dug in and took the lead again. It didn’t look easy for the 1-5 favorite. It didn’t look as though he had much left. He had shown the same heart at Churchill Downs, fought to get past Firing Line in the final yards of the Kentucky Derby as Espinoza wildly asked him for more with reins and whip, but the reserve he had on the first Saturday in May was missing.

“After he finally shook Frosted off, I really thought, well, maybe there’s a chance,” said Baffert in the post-race press conference. “He just fought back valiantly, and he just — it wasn’t his day today.”

It was Keen Ice’s day. The maiden winner had finished seventh in the Kentucky Derby, third in the Belmont Stakes, second in the Haskell. He was rising, and his rider, following trainer Dale Romans’ instructions to put him in the race, wasn’t about to miss an opportunity for a win.

“I just kept tracking and following with them,” said Javier Castellano. “At some point when turning for home, I saw the horses slow down and start coming back to me so I knew that I had a chance to win the race.”

Keen Ice passed both to win the Travers by three-quarters of a length over American Pharoah in a final time of 2:01.57. The 16-1 shot paid $34.

“Maybe it’s just arrogance, but I felt good about today, I really did,” said Romans. “He had just trained too good. I knew he was going to run really big and I just couldn’t imagine Pharoah taking another step forward.”

He didn’t, if Beyer or TimeformUS speed figures are your measure — he ran at about the same level he has been this year. Keen Ice was given a Beyer speed figure of 106 for the Travers, which would make American Pharoah’s 105, the same as he ran in the Kentucky Derby. TimeformUS rated American Pharoah 128 (Keen Ice 127), in line with his Derby 127.

American Pharoah is consistent — for that matter, so is this crop. Along with Keen Ice, how Frosted and Upstart — fourth in the Travers and third in the Haskell — ran validates the results of earlier races and confirms what so many were saying before the Kentucky Derby about the depth of the this year’s field. Chaos would have been Mid Ocean jumping up for a win; these 3-year-olds are running true to their demonstrated abilities and following form cycles. Yet we’ve come to expect so much of the Triple Crown winner, that a solid second, on a day he clearly he wasn’t feeling at his peak, or didn’t like the track, or got a little hot and bothered by the crowd, is a letdown:

These horses, they will fool you. We tend to become so infatuated with them that we start to believe they are invincible, that all you need to do is put the saddle on them, turn on the ignition and watch them motor around the racetrack on their way to once again dominating those silly enough to get in the starting gate with them. We lose our sense of logic.

But sooner or later, we find out there are no perfect horses.

Dejected owner Ahmed Zayat suggested after the Travers that his homebred colt would be retired. “My gut feeling is if this horse is one percent not the American Pharoah that we cherish, that’s it. The show’s over.”

Mike Watchmaker would be okay with that: “… let’s be honest: The American Pharoah we saw Saturday just was not the same American Pharoah we saw in all of his previous races this year.”

Tim Layden likened the aftermath of the Travers as a muffling of what “has been a racing season defined by living sound.” (What that sounds like.)

Oh, and the winner? His people are celebrating. “Allen told me he never once felt sorry about beating Secretariat,” said Romans to Mike Welsch, referring to the late trainer Allen Jerkens, who won the 1973 Whitney with Onion:

“And I started thinking about Allen and that conversation as soon as my horse crossed the finish line in front of American Pharoah. And you know, I don’t feel sorry either.”

Onions can be sweet.

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