JC / Railbird

Saratoga

On the Backstretch

I tweeted last week about working on the backstretch at Suffolk Downs and Saratoga several years ago, something I’ve talked about here and there before. My time as a hotwalker was a rich experience — I’ll always be glad I did it, not least because it gave me a glimpse behind the scenes and another perspective on racing that still informs my involvement as a fan and bettor.

What led to the thread on Twitter was trainer Gary Contessa’s quoted remarks from the Albany Law School’s Saratoga Institute on Equine, Racing, and Gaming Law Conference. “Nobody in America wants this job,” he said of working on the backstretch and the need for immigrant labor. I wanted to push back on the idea that the fault mostly lies with workers, which is how the issue often seems portrayed to me, letting owners and trainers dodge responsibility for working and living conditions that can be onerous.

I expanded the tweets into an opinion piece for the Thoroughbred Daily News, and now that it’s out there, I have a couple of things to add:

I refer to “passion” toward the end in a half-formed thought. Embedded in that mention was a criticism of how the word gets (ab)used, and not just by people in racing — “passion” for work is everywhere these days, and it sometimes gets twisted to mean that if you’re passionate about work, you’ll tolerate every demand it makes, which is handy for employers — reject some terms, and the problem isn’t with the work, it’s with you, and your lack of passion.

If anything comes of writing this piece, I hope it’s that more stories about working on the backstretch get told, from all different perspectives — major circuits and big barns, small tracks and family-run operations, immigrant and non-immigrant. I also hope it might lead to a constructive conversation about working conditions, backstretch culture, and resources for workers.

2017 Saratoga Babies

They’re off at Saratoga and that means I’m tracking every juvenile race, every juvenile starter in the Spa babies spreadsheet once again. Through the first few days of the meet, trainer Todd Pletcher is, as usual, the leader in number of 2-year-old starters. He’s sent out eight, but won only two races — and neither of the winners were a post-time favorite. Go figure.

I update the spreadsheet after each day’s card. You can sort the sheet by column. You can also download a copy as an Excel or CSV file for your use.

Spa Babies

Saratoga opens Friday, and that means some very well bred, very high-priced, and very interesting juveniles will be running, such as this one (DRF+):

Perhaps the most intriguing colt on the grounds from a pedigree standpoint is Brooklyn Bobby, trained by Brian Lynch. Brooklyn Bobby, named in honor of the late Bobby Frankel, is a son of the undefeated European champion Frankel out of the Grade 1 winner Balance, who is a half-sister to Zenyatta. Brooklyn Bobby has worked well on dirt and had a decent work on turf this week.

Lynch said Brooklyn Bobby could debut on turf Aug. 6.

“He’s the sort of a horse if he was guy, you’d want to hang out with him because he’s a cool, cool horse,” Lynch said. “He’s got a great demeanor, and he’s very unexcitable. He seems to take everything in.”

Frankel is off to a good start as a sire, with seven winners from nine runners through July 11: “The verdict so far is favourable. Mostly.”

The Saratoga juveniles spreadsheet will return this year (the 2015 edition.)

9/6/16 Update: The complete 2016 Saratoga juveniles spreadsheet.

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.

Reality

This may be the truest paragraph in Kay Reindl’s appreciation of horse racing:

The racegoer has made a pact with himself. He knows he’s going to lose more often than he’ll win. He knows that most of the time, he’s going to see ordinary horses doing ordinary things. But he also knows that every once in awhile, he’s going to hit that big payout. And he’s going to see a horse do something that makes him or her seem chosen …

I’ve been thinking about this pact, because racing fans are on a winning streak right now. We’re in that golden glow of our longshots coming in and photos going our way. We have a Triple Crown winner, and he’s racing in the Travers. A two-time champion just became the first distaffer to ever win the Pacific Classic, all but guaranteeing her a third Eclipse title. Wise Dan seems to be his old self and ready to run. The handicap division has bounced back from losses earlier this year with popular Whitney winner Honor Code atop it. It will end, because all winning streaks do. But let’s enjoy the glow as long as it lasts.

8/26/15 Related: “I can’t remember a time when the game seemed more alive. The glow from the Triple Crown has lasted all summer” (DRF+).

“Jess’s Dream is a reality,” said announcer Larry Collmus as Rachel Alexandra’s first foal won his debut, a nine-furlong maiden special at Saratoga on Monday:

The 3-year-old Curlin colt broke slow, fell behind the field by more than dozen lengths, went wide. It wasn’t looking good as he loped along through the first three quarters in 1:13.96 (Trakus time). “I was hoping that he would just hit the board,” said trainer Kiaran McLaughlin. Then rider John Velazquez asked him to go: “At the half-mile pole I started getting after him and he started catching up to horses,” said Velazquez. “Once he caught up to the group, he knew it was time to run.” Jess’s Dream went from last to first, ran the final furlong in :12.03, and earned a Beyer speed figure of 90 for the win. TimeformUS gave him a speed figure of 106. McLaughlin said the colt’s next race would likely be an allowance at Belmont.

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