Jessica Chapel / Railbird

Monmouth Park

Glittery

A big Beyer speed figure of 116 for Verrazano’s Haskell win*, which is second only to Game on Dude’s 117 for the Santa Anita Handicap, ties the Dude’s 116 for the San Antonio, and tops Fort Larned’s 115 for the Stephen Foster this year. If all three keep running like that, it’ll be a great Breeders’ Cup Classic. But what to make of Verrazano? He’s 6-for-7 in his career now, his 14th-place finish in the Kentucky Derby his sole loss (and the sloppy track gives him an excuse there), and he was the one Haskell starter running in the stretch:

No wonder he was able to open up 9 3/4 lengths over Power Broker — both the second- and third-place finishers were running a :27+ quarter. Verrazano was the only one coming in under :26 (watch the replay). In that way, the Haskell looks to me a bit like the Wood Memorial: it’s hard to tell, from the performances of the other contenders, just how well Verrazano actually ran.

Gary West saw a division-topping win:

Verrazano not only moved to the head of the 3-year-old class, but he also put himself in the discussion for Horse of the Year.

Ranking the 3-year-old males by wins through the weekend’s racing, I’d put Verrazano second to Orb, still hanging out at Fair Hill, with his Kentucky Derby and Florida Derby victories, and ahead of Palace Malice, with his Jim Dandy and Belmont Stakes scores. The Travers, which trainer Todd Pletcher said “would be a logical next spot” for the Haskell winner, should clarify where Verrazano fits, assuming the other division leaders show up. Maybe he is as brilliant as he appears, or maybe it’s that his rivals have been so dull.

Preakness winner Oxbow, who suffered an ankle sprain while finishing fourth in the Haskell, may or may not make the Travers, Jerry Bossert reports trainer D. Wayne Lukas saying, but the Breeders’ Cup is still his year-end goal.

*He ranked high on other scales as well: Brisnet, 111; TimeformUS, 124.

3:30 PM Addendum: More on Oxbow from Lukas, via the NYRA press office:

“The X-rays were all perfectly clean,” Lukas said. “It’s what you guys would call an ankle sprain, it looks like. I was more concerned with a condylar [fracture] or something like that but, boy, he had a pretty set of X-rays. It’s amazing. For a horse with that many [starts], they were really clean.”

This is great news, especially since Oxbow has been such a stalwart this year; the Haskell was his eighth start in 2013, his 13th career start.

Saratoga vs. Monmouth

There’s no need for competition, Ed Fountaine writes:

NYRA should embrace the Haskell — which is, after all, merely a prep race for the marquee event of the Saratoga meet, the 141st Travers Stakes on Aug. 28. Since the same all-star horses that face off at Monmouth on Sunday will renew their rivalry in the “Midsummer Derby,” NYRA should start beating the drums now. Advertise that the local fans can watch and bet on the Haskell at Saratoga on Sunday. Show the race on the infield TV screens. Turn the tables on Monmouth Park by using their signature race to promote yours.

Especially if you’re NYRA, and you’re likely to win the numbers game: The test of Monmouth’s “elite meet” handle figures was always going to be the opening of Saratoga. Friday, when the Spa kicked off its 40-day meet, the New Jersey track took in $5,515,194, a decline of 20% from $6,898,633 the previous Friday, while attendance remained roughly the same. Sunday, Monmouth was down 11% compared to the previous Sunday. Saturday was the odd day out, as Haskell day will certainly be next weekend. With the Lady’s Secret and Rachel Alexandra featured, handle was up 25% and attendance up 37%, which tracked nicely with on-track handle, up 35% over the previous Saturday.

At Saratoga, the first four days of this year’s extended meeting have been declared satisfactory: “Average all-sources handle, wagers on Saratoga races both on-track and from simulcast outlets nationwide, came to $12,834,190 daily, for a total of $51,336,758.” Attendance averaged 18,133 per day.

Related: Steve Zorn offers a more comprehensive comparison.

A Matter of Perspective

Which recap best captures Rachel Alexandra’s three-length win as the 1-10 favorite in the ungraded Lady’s Secret Stakes at Monmouth this afternoon?

Rachel Alexandra has to work in Lady’s Secret victory (Blood-Horse)
… it was not a walkover for the reigning Horse of the Year …

Rachel Alexandra cruises in the Lady’s Secret (Thoroughbred Times)
Rachel Alexandra turned in a performance befitting a Horse of the Year …

Rachel Alexandra takes care of business (Daily Racing Form)
… a solid win, considering the conditions.

I’m partial to the last. She tracked an unexciting pace, responded when asked, looked comfortable, despite the heat. She won by open lengths, even if not by a great margin. (And really, what would have been gained by a blowout?)

Final time for the nine furlongs was 1:49.78 (final furlong :12.75).

With Rachel Alexandra running, Monmouth racked up phenomenal handle numbers, taking in a record $11,421,794 on its 12-race card. The WPS pool in the Lady’s Secret hit $1,593,662, the exacta pool $343,968.

At Saratoga today, first-timer Wine Police turned heads with a wire-to-wire win in the seventh, a 5 1/2 furlong maiden special, which the 2-year-old Speightstown colt took by 7 3/4 lengths in a final time of 1:03.36 (watch the replay). He’s the latest addition this summer’s buzz babies list.

7/25/10 Addendum: A Beyer speed figure of 110 for Rachel Alexandra in the Lady’s Secret, 105 for runner-up Queen Martha. That’s a big number for ‘Martha, who was making her second US start and her first on dirt. Rachel Alexandra’s BSF revised to 105, per Mike Watchmaker (DRF+).

Managing Expectations

Trainer Linda Rice on defending her 2009 Saratoga title:

“A lot of people are expecting an awful lot, but realistically I just hope we go there and have a good meet, the horses run well and we win our share of races, have good racing luck and try not to embarrass myself.”

Since her history-making win last summer, Rice has picked up a few new clients, but she’s still seeking owners offering the sort of financial backing that would allow up her to acquire and train top-class horses. Somewhat ironically, her current stock, largely comprising turf horses and NY-breds, may actually better position her for a repeat title than would a barn full of champions, as 2009 runner-up trainer Todd Pletcher tacitly acknowledged:

“What we need to be successful at Saratoga is to be able to participate in open allowance races. If the cards are weighed heavily with a lot of New York-bred races and sprint races on the turf, we just don’t have the horses to participate in those categories.”

The trends of the past decade aren’t in Pletcher’s favor.

The headline says it all: “Rachel towers over Lady’s Secret field.” Monmouth anticipates the reigning HOTY will go to post “at the absolute minimum price” of 1-20. “I think we are running for second,” said trainer Patrick Biancone, who will saddle Queen Martha on Saturday. “But second would be good.”

The Place to Be

That’s Monmouth, this weekend and next. Rachel Alexandra arrived at the track on Tuesday morning for the Lady’s Secret Stakes on Saturday (she may paddock school on Friday, reports Monmouth), and the likely field for the Haskell on August 1, which already included Kentucky Derby winner Super Saver and Preakness winner Lookin at Lucky, gained Derby runner-up Ice Box. “It’s everything you hope for,” Monmouth general manager Bob Kulina told the Star-Ledger. “It’s shaping up to be the premiere 3-year-old race after the Triple Crown, after the Derby.” (And what about the Travers, the mid-summer Derby? “… we will just have to wait and see what happens in Jersey.”)

Not to slight glorious Saratoga, which opens Friday and drew 127 entries for its 10-race card. Seven are entered in the Schuylerville Stakes, including Belmont maiden winner Stopspendingmaria, one of the buzz babies I’m following here, and Rick Dutrow trainee Le Mi Geaux, one of the first winners for freshman sire First Samurai. He did quite well at Saratoga in 2005, winning an allowance and the Hopeful Stakes.

Speaking of juveniles attracting buzz, Date With Destiny, the only foal of the late champion George Washington, is pointing to the Group 1 Meon Valley Stud Fillies’ Mile on September 25 after her impressive maiden win. The Fillies’ Mile is a Breeders’ Cup Win and You’re In Challenge race, but even if Date With Destiny does win, she’s a longshot for the Breeders’ Cup. Trainer Richard Hannon, addressing talk of sending his star milers to the event, said last month, “I am not interested in what they have to offer across the pond.”

Getting back to Monmouth, somehow I missed Dick Jerardi’s DRF+ column of last week. Per the Beyer speed figure makers, “Monmouth is getting faster (and better) horses at this meet than it got over the same period last year.” The only group not running to higher pars? Jersey breds.

Weekend Notes

Buzz builds for “Luck.” A producer claims, “it will be the greatest show on TV.” TV critic Alan Sepinwall (who writes some of the best “Mad Men” recaps out there) is excited — and worried — about the HBO drama, noting that it “may have the most prominent creative firepower, in front of and behind the camera, of any show in the channel’s history,” but what about Dustin Hoffman? Entertainment Weekly tabs the Oscar winner’s presence as a “breakthrough” for TV, while Santa Anita reveals what Variety didn’t, that the first season will consist of the pilot and “seven to nine additional weekly episodes.”

Sure, bring the kids for a day at the races. But don’t let them bet at Saratoga. (A trespass charge and an anti-gambling class? Oh, come on.)

Wow. Monmouth Park reports incredible results for the first 24 days of the “elite summer meet,” with attendance up 13% over comparable days in 2009, on-track handle up 43%, and total handle up an amazing 118%. The average field size is also up over last year, to 9.0, compared to 7.44 in 2009. Monmouth doesn’t mention claiming activity in its press release, but that must also be up by a huge amount, with 215+ claims so far. At the start of the Monmouth “less-is-more” experiment, Steven Crist wrote, “Gov. Chris Christie has said his goal is to make the racing industry ‘entirely self-sustaining.’ Unless handle increases from last year’s $3.1 million a day to $10 million, that isn’t going to happen.” That hasn’t happened, but with average daily handle of $7.6 million, Monmouth is still in a very good spot. [7/19/10 Addition: Business of Racing digs into Monmouth claiming activity vis-a-vis Belmont.]

By Ragozin figures, Blind Luck tops 3-year-olds of either sex.

After the Massachusetts state senate approved a casino bill 25-15 earlier this month, expanded gaming looked almost certain. There were just a few differences with the house bill to reconcile in committee, and a tight deadline for getting legislation to the governor. Difficult, but not impossible. Now, State House News Service reports, “… serious people are talking in somber tones about a two-week stare-down that yields nothing in the way of major legislation. The unimaginable — failure to sanction casinos despite Big 3 ardor and at least $1.8 million spent on lobbying during the first six months of the year — looms.” It’ll be a tense watch for slots supporters …

Yes, a gentleman!” I never tire of the General Quarters story.

‘Rachel’ Returns to Monmouth

The day after Rachel Alexandra settled into her Saratoga stall for the summer, Monmouth Park tweeted that the reigning Horse of the Year would make her next start at the track on July 24, causing some confusion since there was no suitable stakes race scheduled for that Saturday. After looking at the schedule on the Monmouth website, and then checking for nominations on Equibase, I assumed she was starting in the ungraded Lady’s Secret Stakes on August 1, which would have been especially fitting, coming one year after the filly’s victory in the G1 Haskell.

I was half-right. The race was the nine-furlong Lady’s Secret, moved to the week before, as reported by Jeff Lowe. Majority owner Jess Jackson confirmed the planned start through a press release:

“We had a great experience at Monmouth Park … and we appreciate the overwhelming show of support the fans there have given us. It’s the perfect place to start what we hope will be another championship run.”

It’s strikingly strange that Jackson and trainer Steve Asmussen would choose an ungraded race for distaffers, even one with a purse bumped to $400,000 from $150,000 (as long as Rachel Alexandra starts) for a filly chasing a second HOTY [or even champion older female honors], but Monmouth general manager Bob Kulina told the Thoroughbred Times it was all about timing:

“They’re very interested in keeping Rachel [Alexandra] on a five-week schedule,” Kulina said. “They worked back from the Breeders’ Cup because that’s their objective, and July 24 worked well for Steve’s pattern. The distance of 1 1/8 miles was what they wanted. We had contact with them long before this and told them we’d do whatever to make a race work with their schedule.”

The track also tried to entice Zenyatta to New Jersey, according to the Times, without success. Said racing manager Dottie Ingordo-Shirreffs:

“They were nice about it, and they did call, but at this point in time it didn’t fit into what we want to do at this point in time.”

The SoCal star could start next at Del Mar.

So close! At this point, it’s starting to look like the only time Rachel Alexandra and Zenyatta could meet is in the Breeders’ Cup Classic. That’s a daring plan, if it’s what Jackson is thinking. But you have to wonder if he really is — running Rachel Alexandra in an ungraded stakes after her win in the G2 Fleur de Lis at Churchill Downs last month isn’t much of a vote of confidence.

7:10 PM Update: NYRA reacts:

“We are puzzled and disappointed that Rachel Alexandra, who performed so well at Saratoga last year, is passing up the Grade 1 Ruffian to run in a non-graded race at Monmouth over the same distance,” NYRA president Charles Hayward said in a prepared statement. “We remain hopeful that the Saratoga fans will have the opportunity to see Rachel later in the meet.”

Maybe she’ll appear at Belmont.

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