Jessica Chapel / Railbird

Jockeys

The Must-Reads, 2011

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.

In search of the Kelco.” Bill Christine, at HRI, on the handicapping gizmos of yesteryear (which gave me an excuse to post about the Race-o-meter).

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.

Napravnik on Fire

In March 1969, Diane Crump* became the first female jockey to ever win an American stakes race, taking the Spring Fiesta Cup aboard $21 Easy Lime at the Fair Grounds. On Saturday, Anna “Rosie” Napravnik became the first female rider to win the G2 Louisiana Derby at the same historic track:

Outside the ring of people pressing to get close to her and beyond the insistent clamor of the television cameras, there arose cries of “Rosie.” And there she stood, in the middle of the turbulence, smiling somewhat sheepishly, as if not entirely comfortable with the attention and the outpouring of congratulatory emotion, horse racing’s latest, if somewhat unexpected, star …

Those who have followed the 23-year-old since her start on the Mid-Atlantic circuit in 2005 probably wouldn’t call her new-found stardom unexpected — it seemed only matter of time before people caught on to “the Napravnik magic … that makes horses run like they never have before.” New Orleans horsemen are now well acquainted with the skill and talent (not magic) possessed by the rising jockey, apparent from early in the meet:

… with the young woman from the East Coast becoming the go-to rider for a group of hardened, middle-aged Louisiana trainers. Napravnik’s inroads into this group owe much to her agent, Derek Ducoing, the son of local trainer Sturges Ducoing, who has put Napravnik on eight winners at the meet through Feb. 7. Napravnik also has gone 5 for 13 for native New Orleanian Eddie Johnston and 4 for 14 for another local trainer, Andy Leggio….

“Julie Krone was one of the great female jockeys, and I think this kid is going to be one also,” Leggio said. “She just does everything right.”

If she keeps it up, Napravnik will be one of the great riders of either sex.

In addition to her Louisiana Derby win, Napravnik made history as the first female rider to top the Fair Grounds standings, with 86 wins (13 stakes). Nationally, she currently ranks #4 by earnings and #2 by wins, and plans to ride at Keeneland next month before returning to Delaware. Will a stop at Churchill come between? Trainer Kelly Breen said that Louisiana Derby winner Pants on Fire is pointing to the Kentucky Derby after his Saturday surprise.

The Kentucky Derby and Kentucky Oaks prep schedules have been updated. Beyer speed figures of 94 for Pants on Fire, 91 for Animal Kingdom in the Spiral Stakes, 90 for Twice the Appeal in the Sunland Derby.

At Oaklawn yesterday, Arienza made it 2-for-2 and now points to the Fantasy. “It may be a little ambitious trying to come back in two weeks,” said trainer Danny Peitz, “but we certainly don’t want to rule that out.” Azeri’s daughter by Giant’s Causeway got the final eighth of the one-mile allowance in a superb :12.19, confidently rebuffing runner-up Hidatsa in the stretch.

And at Palm Meadows, Uncle Mo breezed four furlongs in :49.45, taking dirt as part of his training. (Well, if he’s not going to get that experience in racing …)

*Crump was also the first woman to ride in the Kentucky Derby, finishing fifteenth on Fathom in 1970. Owned by Louisville whiskey baron W.L. Lyons Brown, Fathom was one of six field horses entered in that year’s Derby, and not a well-regarded contender, with or without a female jockey. “If she were riding a good horse, I wouldn’t mind betting on her,” a handicapper told the New York Times. “But her horse isn’t much good.”

Saturday Notes

The Suffolk Downs-NEHBPA dispute has made Paul Daley pessimistic:

Sadly, within the next month, live thoroughbred racing in New England may become the stuff of history books.

Despite the resumption of negotiations on Thursday with the NEHBPA, six simulcasting signals are still blocked at Suffolk Downs. For the second consecutive Saturday, Massachusetts bettors will take their money elsewhere: “My good friend, suffolkdownslova, has to drive all the way to Raynham-Taunton Greyhound Park to place the bets he so lovingly needs.”

Monmouth’s experiment has been mentioned as a model for Suffolk’s future, but a more instructive success might be Tampa Bay Downs, where many Massachusetts horsemen winter. Ed DeRosa highlights just one example of what the track has done well — the reduced takeout Pick 4, up 31%.

Orlando Bocachica, Suffolk’s leading rider in 2009, is hot at Gulfstream.

2/20/11 Suffolk Dispute Update: The track has presented the NEHBPA with a new offer for the 2011 meet. More information will be available on Monday.

Congratulations, Ramon

Ramon Dominguez’s 15-year career as a jockey has been more journeyman than money rider. Before moving his tack to New York in 2009, where he swept the leading rider title at every NYRA meet that year and scored his 4000th career win at Aqueduct last March, he dominated the mid-Atlantic circuit, only occasionally breaking through nationally, as he did when Better Talk Now won the 2004 Breeders’ Cup Turf or Scrappy T collided with Afleet Alex at the top of the Pimlico stretch in the 2005 Preakness Stakes.

In 2010, hard work and talent not only made Dominguez one of the most consistent and capable jockeys in the game, it also made him one of the most successful, with earnings of $16,911,880 and 369 wins, including 43 stakes, five of those G1s. Last night, out-polling Garrett Gomez 124-60, Dominguez won his first Eclipse Award. Of the honor, NYRA handicapper Andy Serling said it best: “Glad to see Ramon Dominguez win the Eclipse for Jockey of the Year. People like him make me proud to work in this industry.”

More Dominguez! Here’s a Flickr gallery of the jockey, with stakes winners Better Talk Now, Gio Ponti, Haynesfield, Fabulous Strike …

More Eclipse Awards: Steve Crist counts votes, Claire Novak recaps, Bill Dwyre celebrates with Horse of the Year Zenyatta’s connections (“I’m so happy for the fans”), Foolish Pleasure lists. And even more reactions via Raceday 360 …

A Dapper Man

Tod Sloan on his return from Europe

Tod Sloan, “great jockey, famed rounder, spender, one-time friend of millionaires and occasional toast of royalty,” on his return from Europe, 1898. The portrait is part of the Museum of the City of New York’s photography collection, much of which was recently published online. A quick search turns up approximately 150 photos of New York racing — including Sheepshead and Belmont racetracks — from the late 19th and early 20th century (via Kottke).

Questions, Questions

Steve Haskin keeps up the quest for answers:

Speaking of Rachel’s retirement, some fairly reliable tidbits heard through the grapevine include Jess Jackson and Steve Asmussen knowing she would not race again as of a week or two ago, and that it was nagging foot problems that prompted her retirement. Another cited suspensory issues. See what happens when you are not forthright in announcing the retirement of a horse such as this.

It is hoped one of these, if true, will be made public in the next day or two to give closure to Rachel’s retirement.

Would it make a difference now to learn there was an injury?

Here’s one question answered: Jockey Patrick Valenzuela, who has the mount on juvenile graded stakes winner JP’s Gusto, will be able to ride at Keeneland and Churchill (and in the Breeders’ Cup) this fall. The Kentucky Horse Racing Commission unanimously granted Valenzuela a license on Thursday.

Gary West asks: Can Switch beat Zenyatta? I think not, but if she were to do so in the Lady’s Secret on Saturday, it would highlight a downside to the big mare’s careful California campaign. Zenyatta has more to lose by losing to weak competition than she would in a race such as the Beldame Stakes.

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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