Jessica Chapel / Railbird

Blind Luck

Blind Luck to Lady’s Secret

Farewell to the rivalry for this year:

While Blind Luck’s rival Havre de Grace will likely use the Beldame as a prep for the Breeders’ Cup Classic (gr. I) against males, Hollendorfer said there is no way his filly will run in that race.

“I’m not running her in the Classic,” he said. “I don’t believe in that. If others want to do it, God bless them. If we win the Ladies’ Classic, that’s plenty good for us.”

Farewell to Horse of the Year, too.

9/22/11 Addendum: About HOTY, Hollendorfer? Hovdey inquires. “If I did the right thing for my horse, I’d say that nothing would make a difference.”

9/29/11 Update: Interesting — the rivalry could resume in 2012. According to their connections, both fillies are expected to race as 5YOs.

Painful Perfection

Brian Zipse asks why Blind Luck gets a pass that Rachel Alexandra didn’t:

I understand that Rachel was held to a higher standard, as the reigning Horse of the Year, but to what end? Have we become so expecting of perfection of our stars, that they simply can not live up to them. Do we not allow ourselves to fully enjoy the special ones, because of these expectations?

Simply, yes.

There’s something about repeated brilliance that inspires a fear of loss (a fear not specific to racing). It’s sentimental. We can’t stand to lose the magic.

Front Runners

Since the start of the Santa Anita meet, trainer Bob Baffert has once again become a familiar face in the track’s winner’s circle:

It wouldn’t be inappropriate at all if “Happy Days are Here Again” was being piped on a continuous loop at Baffert’s Santa Anita barn. Or if there was the overall feeling that the clock had been turned back a decade or more.

Baffert horses have won 17 races and finished in-the-money in 28 races out of 33 starts. That’s a win rate of 46%, an ITM rate of 76%. Of his 17 winners, all on the dirt, nine have won going wire-to-wire and another five have been within a length of the lead at the start. Always a Princess, winner of the El Encino Stakes on Sunday, counts among the latter. The 4-1 third-favorite chased Champagne d’Oro through early fractions of :22.38 and :45.41, drawing away in the stretch to finish 3 1/2 lengths ahead of favored Blind Luck with a final time of 1:41.47. Blind Luck, making her 4-year-old debut:

… never appeared comfortable in the El Encino as jockey Joel Rosario tried to get her going while racing from well off the pace in a field reduced to five 4-year-old fillies by three scratches. She shied from the whip a couple of times in the stretch.

She also appeared to take a bad step mid-stretch and then stumbled after the wire, dumping Rosario (the rider was uninjured). Despite her apparent dislike of the going, Blind Luck still ran the final 2 1/2 furlongs almost a second faster than did Always a Princess. DRF Formulator gives her closing time as :31.78, Always a Princess :32.73. Being a deep closer on a speed-favoring track is never easy, and trainer Jerry Hollendorfer seemed to be considering his options for the filly after the race, telling Steve Andersen, “We may have to do something else. If the track stays the same way, I don’t think we’ll run here.”

In the Sham Stakes on Saturday, even-money Tapizar went wire-to-wire to win by 4 1/4 lengths over Clubhouse Ride. The race marked the start of Santa Anita’s sophomore glamour series — otherwise known as Kentucky Derby preps — making Tapizar trainer Steve Asmussen’s newest Derby prospect.

If we’re starting to talk about Derby prospects, that means it’s also the time of year I start updating the big Derby Prep Schedule and Results chart.

California Jam

Why gadfly horse owner Jerry Jamgotchian is coming back to California:

… Jamgotchian said he feels California is a better place to race now because the “purse structure is higher” and smaller stakes fields increase the chances of his horses acquiring black-type than, for example, at Gulfstream Park.

“There are less horses in California to compete against. The new dirt track at Santa Anita is also an impetus,” he said.

At least someone sees a silver lining in the horse shortage plaguing SoCal. More than 2,400 horses stabled at Santa Anita and Hollywood, and Saturday’s Sham Stakes, the first of the track’s Kentucky Derby preps, only draws five — all maiden winners, but for Clubhouse Ride. What is really going on? Foolish Pleasure would like to know:

Can anyone explain exactly what is the real story behind California’s so-called “horse shortage”? Reading Steve Andersen’s piece in the DRF this morning it struck me once again that all we ever hear out of that state in recent years is excuses why they can’t fill cards.

Field size, reports Blood-Horse in an article on the horseplayers’ boycott of California, “is averaging 7.69 horses per race, down from 7.91 from the same period last year.” That’s with one fewer day of racing a week.

I’m not sure how much longer the higher purses drawing Jamgotchian will be around, if the boycott succeeds. It does seem to be attracting attention. It also may be making a noticeable impact. Thursday was the first official day of the action, and compared to the previous Thursday, handle was down 15.26% (from $5,454,129 to $4,621,858), despite steady attendance, the same number of races, and a difference of five starters. The decline was striking, after a couple weeks in which figures were down, but difficult to interpret.

Five for the Sham, but eight for Sunday’s El Encino Stakes, which features certain 3-year-old filly champion Blind Luck making her first start of the year. She’ll be running against the new dirt’s speed-favoring profile and front-runners Champagne d’Oro (the other G1 winner in the field) and trainer Bob Baffert’s Always a Princess, coming off a fourth in last month’s La Brea Stakes.

Odds and Ends

Blind Luck is raring to go for the El Encino Stakes next Sunday. She worked seven furlongs on Santa Anita on Friday in 1:25.20 and then galloped out another seven furlongs. “For a slightly built filly, she has loads of energy,” observed Jay Privman. On Sunday, it was The Factor flying over the Santa Anita dirt, going five furlongs in :58 flat. “He went a little too fast — he got away from the rider,” said trainer Bob Baffert of the 3-year-old colt.

Culture clash at the Big A? “I feel like I’m in an OTB! I feel like I’m in an OTB!,” LATG overhears an Aqueduct patron telling a security guard. Friday was the one month anniversary of NYC OTB’s closure. Funny, but the parlors already seem like something out of the far past, which I suppose says something about how removed from the mainstream life of the city they had become. (If you’d like to remember days at the OTB, here’s an unexpectedly poignant little video that captures the operation’s waning hours.) While there are some pains as the new element is absorbed into the track scene, NYRA’s efforts to attract displaced OTB bettors are paying off with higher ontrack handle and 2,434 new NYRA Rewards customers since December 8. On Saturday, the new Belmont Café took in a high point $137,889 in wagers from 325 players. “It just goes to show you that simple accommodations — a clean bathroom and a decent place to eat — can go a long way,” writes Jerry Bossert. There’s a still a significant shortfall in NYRA’s total handle, but the trend is positive.

So, the investigation into the l’affaire Life at Ten is ongoing, with the Office of the Inspector General in the Kentucky Transportation Cabinet being brought in “to have some independent review for certain aspects of it.” That’s KHRC executive director Lisa Underwood talking to Jennie Rees, who also reports that the KHRC has conducted 90 interviews regarding the Breeders’ Cup Distaff Ladies’ Classic fiasco. Ninety? Once this investigation concludes, how about another into what’s been a frustratingly opaque and slow process.

A New Year’s resolution particularly relevant to the above: “Protect the punter.”

Final handle numbers for 2010 were down 7.3% from 2009, to $11.4 billion from $12.3 billion. That’s the lowest annual total since 1995. “Obviously, we are losing bettors to other forms of gambling,” TRA executive vice president Chris Scherf tells Janet Patton. “We are in the midst of an unmanaged, market-driven contraction touching most aspects of the racing business.” Unmanaged is the key word, and nowhere is that more apparent right now that in the date dispute shaping up in southern Florida between Calder and Gulfstream. As for losing out to other games, sports bettors and poker players are pretty upfront about why they’re not paying much attention to racing.

Thinking Ahead

Zipse at the Track picks up on the argument advanced earlier this month by Steeplestakes (via Equidaily), that Zenyatta has not done enough at this point in the year to be considered a Horse of the Year candidate. I suppose it’s a pleasantly diverting debate to have while we await the Breeders’ Cup, but it’s also kind of meaningless. After all, Zenyatta’s connections have made it known all along that her goal was a repeat win in the Breeders’ Cup Classic (which Zipse does acknowledge). They’re all in, and their strategy will probably pay off; unlike last year, this year’s Classic will decide who’s Horse of the Year.

It’s more interesting to me that Zenyatta will likely repeat as champion older female without having started against most of this year’s top distaffers. Of the 10 Ladies’ Classic contenders ranked by DRF (PDF), she’ll have met Rinterval (second in the Hirsch, entered in the Lady’s Secret) and Zardana. She won’t have raced against Life At Ten, Unrivaled Belle, or Persistently (entered in the Beldame) or Blind Luck and Havre de Grace (entered in the Cotillion). That’s nothing to hold against Zenyatta, who can only run against those entered against her, but it is a depressing comment on how rarely the best racehorses meet on track, as is Blind Luck shipping to Parx for a stakes restricted to 3-year-old fillies instead of Hollywood or Belmont to challenge her elders.

As Chris Rossi, aka o_crunk, commenting here and in a recent Thoroughbred Times Today piece, has pointed out: The game is getting watered down. Steven Crist lays the blame partly on slots-fueled purses.

Related: There’s a very civilized discussion about Zenyatta and Andrew Beyer’s recent column happening in this comment thread.

ESPN Is to Sports …

College football fans tuned into ESPN this Saturday will get a chance to see Zenyatta. As part of a Breeders’ Cup Challenge telecast running from 6:30 to 8:00 PM ET on ESPN Classic and ESPN360, ESPN will break in between games at 7:15 PM to air the Lady’s Secret Stakes from Oak Tree at Hollywood Park.

I can’t knock exposure, especially for a champion with a story fit for Oprah and a game that has such loyal fans, but I keep thinking about a comment by Ed on the Plonk post of last week: “it’s hard to believe that it was just 12 years ago that ESPN was still televising the Little Brown Jug LIVE.”

Well into the 1990s, you could say ESPN was a true sports network, with an eclectic line-up that included football, baseball, soccer, golf, bass fishing, and the X Games. If people played it, ESPN aired it. Changes came with ABC/Disney ownership, competition from other networks, and an ambitious expansion plan that rode the rise of cable and the web, turning ESPN into the TV-radio-digital-print behemoth it is now. There’s a downside to this dominance, though, a homogenizing of sport, an emphasis on the popular and lucrative.

Think of it this way: ESPN is to sports as Playboy was to sex.

Like Hugh Hefner’s groundbreaking men’s magazine, ESPN transformed an industry, becoming hugely influential to a generation of young men and radically reshaping their perceived interests. Along the way, it became less a celebration of all that is athletic than a platform for aggregating massive advertiser-friendly audiences. That means fewer small-market sports, whether hockey or horseracing, and more major league sports and specious “news” coverage. When all of sports was a niche, more sporting niches thrived. Gone mainstream, broadly appealing sports “narratives” gain prominence.

What that means for racing is that events such as the Breeders’ Cup need ESPN to reach the largest possible audience of sports fans, but ESPN has no need for horseracing — which is why on Saturday, Zenyatta will be the entertainment between football games, not the main attraction.

It’s not a BC Challenge race, so it won’t be appearing on any ESPN channel, but Blind Luck versus Havre de Grace in the Cotillion Stakes at Philadelphia Park Parx on Saturday looks like a must-watch race. It’ll be the third meeting between the two 3-year-old fillies. Stakes winner Awesome Maria, making her second start of the year, is also entered. The Cotillion is part of the second annual Lady Riders Challenge, a very cool, under-reported event.

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