As each year comes to its end, I go through all the racing stories I’ve bookmarked or shared over the past 12 months and pluck together a short list of pieces that stand out, whether for great reporting or great storytelling. If you haven’t read the stories linked below yet, take a few minutes to enjoy some of the best turf journalism from 2011 before 2012 begins:
“As 10-year ban hangs over Rick Dutrow, opinions vary about controversial horse trainer.” The definitive profile of the New York trainer, handed a record suspension this year, by Jerry Bossert for the New York Daily News.
“For Pletcher, managing a training empire is all in a day’s work” Joe Drape on how he does it, for the New York Times.
Pletcher was an assistant to trainer D. Wayne Lukas, dubbed “The most interesting man in racing,” by Gary West this spring, in one of the last posts published on his Star-Telegram blog. That the formidable turf writer with the superb flapdoodle detector was let go by the newspaper was a loss for Texas racing. Fortunately for readers, West now appears on ESPN.
Claire Novak won her first Eclipse award this year with “Pressure off Durkin at Belmont,” about the announcer’s decision to step down from calling the Triple Crown races on NBC, but I’m biased toward her terrific Kentucky Derby week story, “The Inside Scoop: Why Calvin Borel owns the rail,” which appeared on Kentucky Confidential. For fun, and a touch of Gay Talese, Novak’s recounting of a New Orleans cabbie’s racetrack story can’t be beat.
At Suffolk Downs, a rider reached a significant milestone: “Piermarini gets win 2000 on Sugar Trade.” Susan Salk of Offtrack Thoroughbreds talked to Tammi Piermarini about becoming only the fifth female jockey in racing to crack 2K.
Ryan Goldberg added context and depth to this year’s intense (and ongoing) Lasix debate with his well-researched and matter-of-fact story for the Daily Racing Form, “Lasix: Demystifying the drug, methods of training without it.”
DRF photographer Barbara Livingston shared some marvelous historic racing photos from her private collection this year, as in this post: “Man o’ War’s funeral: Remarkable final tribute for majestic champion.” The great horse was laid out in a casket for viewing; thousands filed past to pay their respects.
“Gray Thoroughbreds, a precious relic of the breed’s earliest days, became a rarity on the racecourse for a good part of the 19th century.” I had no idea. Kellie Reilly on the revival of grays in the 20th century, on BRISnet.
A preliminary Beyer speed figure of 103 for The Factor in the Rebel Stakes, the sole graded Kentucky Derby prep this weekend. As DRF Derby tweeted, that figures ties “with Soldat for best Beyer by a 2011 3-year-old going mile or longer.” Soldat just happens to be the other War Front colt on the Derby trail, casting doubt on claims by pedigree handicappers that The Factor can’t get the Derby distance. Count me among the skeptical, but on the matter of pace, not breeding. The Derby isn’t kind to front-runners.
Trainer Bob Baffert said that the April 16 Arkansas Derby is a likely next start, but that all options are open to The Factor. “I could go anywhere. He’s nominated everywhere. You never know where I’m going to go.”
Mike Watchmaker favorably compares the Rebel to the Azeri Stakes, impressively won by Havre de Grace: “… you can argue that The Factor had the more demanding trip, and yet still ran almost as fast as Havre de Grace.”
Arienza is off to a promising start after winning her debut following a strong gate work at Oaklawn. “Well, she looked like her mother this morning.”
You’ve probably heard? Zenyatta will be bred to Bernardini. If you’re into nicks, it’s a match that gets an A++ or a B+, depending on methodology. And while the most anticipated foal of the 21st century hasn’t even been conceived yet (that’ll probably happen in February, if all goes as planned), it’s apparently not too early to think of names. (Bernyatta? Zendini?) I don’t know enough about breeding to call the mating conservative or not, but from a handicapping perspective, it’s an intriguing mix of flash and substance, class and speed. Bernardini’s first-crop runners were precocious and versatile juveniles; Zenyatta was sound through a three-year career and never faltered on track.
Early Kentucky Derby favorite Uncle Mo is listed as the 128-pound highweight on the 2010 Experimental Free Handicap, announced today by the Jockey Club. That’s the highest assignment since Favorite Trick was weighted 128 in 1997.
Boys at Tosconova will miss the Holy Bull at Gulfstream on Sunday. The Rick Dutrow trainee hasn’t seemed himself since a work on January 13. Santiva will also pass on the Holy Bull. The Kentucky Jockey Cup winner, just getting back into training, could make his first start of the year in the Fountain of Youth.
Recovered from the hind ankle injury that knocked him out of Saratoga and a fall campaign, Sovereign Default returns on Saturday at Gulfstream in race five, a seven-furlong allowance for 3-year-olds over the main track that drew seven starters. The colt attracted attention after winning his well-bet debut by two lengths at Belmont Park last July 15, a maiden race that yielded two next out winners in Stay Thirsty (who followed his maiden win with a second to Boys at Tosconova in the Hopeful) and Air Support (who won the Pilgrim Stakes).
4:30 PM Addendum: Entries are now up for Sunday’s Holy Bull and Forward Gal Stakes. As often in recent years, the potential Oaks fillies look like a more interesting bunch, with Pocahontas Stakes winner Dancinginherdreams and Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Fillies runner-up R Heat Lightning, both making their first starts since November, topping the seven-horse Forward Gal field. The Holy Bull drew nine, including Dialed In, Mucho Macho Man, and Major Gain.
Frankel could be a superstar. “A lashing, slashing hunk of horse, he looks the part and acts it too,” gushed Steve Dennis of the Henry Cecil-trained colt who’s done everything right in his three starts, picking up fans with every easy win. Watch him open up 10 lengths on his four rivals in the Royal Lodge Stakes at Ascot on Saturday (the segment begins at :38 seconds):
The Royal Lodge was a Breeders’ Cup Win and You’re In race for the Juvenile Turf, but Cecil won’t be shipping the colt to Churchill Downs. The trainer plans one more race this fall, at Newmarket or Doncaster in mid-October, then a break until spring. “I’d rather finish his season in the earlier race, the Dewhurst, but if he tells us he needs more time after today, then he’ll get it.”
Bettors responded to yesterday’s win by making Frankel the 2-1 early favorite for the 2011 2000 Guineas, 4-1 for the Epsom Derby. Cecil, agreeing the juvenile is “exciting,” tempered enthusiasm by expressing doubts about Frankel’s potential stamina:
“It’s difficult to say whether he could get a mile and a half. There’s no guarantee that he would. The dam was a six-furlong filly, and the dam is important in a horse’s pedigree. If he did stay a mile and a half, he would be something out of the ordinary,” he said.
Oh, to have to worry whether a horse can get 12 furlongs; it is a different game across the Atlantic. But is it a different breed? That’s the provocative question Scott Giles poses over on the Blood-Horse MarketWatch blog.
9/27/10 Addendum: Chris McGrath on Frankel. “A saviour is constantly sought, constantly imagined, but seldom arrives in the manner expected. And that will never be as true as when you depend on the random agency of horses. Take the emergence of this coruscating animal, Frankel. The ‘narrative’ could scarcely be richer, or more satisfying.”
Frankel wasn’t the only buzz baby to run this weekend. In the Fillies’ Mile at Ascot, White Moonstone kept her record perfect with a win over Together and Theyskens’ Theory. Both ‘Moonstone and ‘Theory are unlikely for the Breeders’ Cup. At Monmouth on Saturday, Curlinello, Astrology, and Tiz Blessed finished 2-3-4 to Sweet Ducky in the Garden State.
Big changes to the 2011 British racing fixture list, not least a new event:
At long last, racing has officially announced the arrival of British Champions’ Day, with £3 million in prize money making it the richest fixture in British racing history. It will be staged at Ascot on 15 Oct 2011, with a six-race card that officials hope can be built into an extravaganza to rival the Breeders’ Cup and Arc day.
France Galop, which wants three weeks between the Prix de l’Arc de Triomphe and Champions’ day, isn’t happy. BHA is going ahead regardless.
In a move that will seem familiar to even the most casual observer of the Breeders’ Cup, a British Champions’ Series, with five championship categories, will lead to Champions’ Day. It’s a bit of a “red herring,” notes the Telegraph. Not at all, said an executive involved. “They [the races] are signposts for newcomers to racing.” It’s about marketing and branding, of course.
Which reminds me, Bill Oppenheim wrote an interesting, straightforward account of how the recent Breeders’ Cup developments came to pass for the September 23 Thoroughbred Daily News. Emphasis is on the effects to the breeding industry, with glimpses into how the BC “narrative” is being crafted.
The strange career of Square Eddie continues. Retired early this year to stand stud at Vessels Stallion Station in California, the 4-year-old colt has been returned to training. “After he was done breeding, we checked his legs and they were cold and tight,” trainer Doug O’Neill told the Blood-Horse. “We have got him back on the track for Chapter 2.” It might be more accurate to call this episode Chapter 3, since Square Eddie was already returned to racing once after suffering setbacks during the 2009 Triple Crown season. The juvenile graded stakes winner was unplaced in his four post-injury starts as a 3-year-old, prompting the end of his running days. Asked Foolish Pleasure on Twitter, “Why is it always Doug O’Neill? Doesn’t that just say it all?”
Alan Shuback cuts through the surface debate: “[I]nstead of forever arguing over whether we should be racing of dirt or synthetics, we should be building racetracks with long straights and milder turns.” It’s an argument for a more European style of racing, but then, what do we have to lose? Not more horses.
Theyskens’ Theory and undefeated White Moonstone, two very exciting Euro babies out of a bumper crop this year, are set to meet in the Meon Valley Stud Fillies’ Mile Stakes at Ascot on Saturday. Both debuted in July, both will be making their fourth career starts. Also running at Ascot on Saturday is Frankel, who will face five in the Royal Lodge Stakes. The well-regarded Henry Cecil trainee will be making his third start since debuting in August.
“The one thing that we’re doing a little bit differently this year is skipping the last possible prep for some of the horses and going into it with a little more time,” trainer Todd Pletcher informs readers of the At the Races UK blog dedicated to the barn’s Breeders’ Cup contenders. “Of course, with our two-year-olds, most of them will need another start.” So, wow baby Uncle Mo will get his second career start and final Breeders’ Cup prep in the Champagne at Belmont, Curlinello will make his second start in a Monmouth stakes, and Stay Thirsty, who has run three times, may or may not train up to Churchill.
I always think of 2005 Kentucky Derby winner Giacomo as a late bloomer, remembering his string of second-, third-, fourth-place finishes in the run-up to May, overlooking that he won his second start as a 2-year-old (by 10 lengths, going 1 1/16 mile at Hollywood in October 2004). The first-year sire’s first two offspring to hit the track have proven a touch more precocious, both winning first out. Blushing Sis, out of the unraced Carson City mare Three City Sisters, debuted on April 3 at Manor Downs and won by eight lengths as the 3-2 favorite for trainer Cash Asmussen; she returned two weeks later to finish second in the Manor Downs Futurity. At Lone Star on Saturday, Lady Giacamo, 11-1, took a maiden special weight by 4 3/4 lengths after getting bumped at the start, then running wide into the stretch (replay). She’s out of Lady Gallapiat, a winner of five races from eight starts (no stakes) and dam of three other foals, two winners; her third dam is Inreality Star, dam of Meadow Star, the 1990 juvenile filly champion, and turf stakes winner Optic Nerve.
The first starter for First Samurai, winner of the 2005 Hopeful and one of the most physically stunning juveniles I’ve seen, finished third in a maiden special weight at Hastings this afternoon. This 2-year-old caught my eye not only because of his sire, but because of his name — Hornblower, which readers of Jane Smiley’s “A Year at the Races” may remember as the registered name of her homebred, Wowie, who finally won in his 11th start. The two might share more than a tag: “Weakened in the stretch” is the chart note for Hornblower ’08’s first run. Maybe he’ll improve next out. The colt is a half-sibling to graded stakes winner Spice Island, dam of Kentucky Derby runner-up Ice Box.
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