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Behold the Sure Thing

Beholder circles on the Santa Anita track as she waits to enter the winner's circle after the Zenyatta Stakes

The easiest 10 cents you could make in racing on Saturday:

It was such a certainty that Beholder would win the $300,000 Grade I Zenyatta Stakes that by the time she had cruised to a 3 1/4-length triumph over second-place My Sweet Addiction at odds of 1-9, Santa Anita was figuring out how much money it had lost. There was a $75,708.52 minus show pool and $4,750.12 minus place pool. Beholder returned $2.10 to win, place and show after finishing the 1 1/16-mile race in 1:42.83.

I cannot wait for this year’s Breeders’ Cup Classic.

Increased Purses, Reduced Takeout

Citing the success of their September 5 program, Suffolk Downs announced the addition of a stakes race, purse increases for Mass-bred stakes, and promoted reduced takeout of 15% for all wagers on the October 3 card.

Saturday’s Suffolk Return

Horse training at Suffolk Downs on September 4, 2015
For the first time in almost a year, horses were training over the Suffolk Downs track on Friday, September 4. Racing will be held on Saturday, September 5.

Live horse racing returns to Suffolk Downs this Saturday, the first of three days scheduled this fall at the East Boston track, with a 13-race card worth $507,500 in purses that drew 111 entries. One race is over hurdles, five are on turf, three are Massachusetts-bred stakes, and two are written for horses who started at least once at Suffolk Downs in 2014. First post is 12:30 PM ET.

Horses with local connections fill the fields — a full 77 starters are state-breds, ran at the track last year, or are owned or trained by familiar names, including Jay Bernardini and Bobby Raymond. Last year’s leading rider David Amiss is back, as is jockey Tammi Piermarini, who has 10 mounts, including for trainers Christophe Clement, Gary Contessa, and David Jacobson.

In the state-bred stakes: 2014 Rise Jim winner Victor Laszlo returns to defend his title, as does 2014 Isadorable winner Doublicious in that race. Plausible, winner of the 2014 Norman Hall, starts in the African Prince.

The Massachusetts Gaming Commission approved on Thursday a reduction in Suffolk Downs’ takeout rates. All wagers on the October 3 and 31 cards — but not on this Saturday’s card — will be 15%, down from 19% on straight bets and 26% on exotics. Matt Hegarty raises the possibility that simulcasting sites may balk at the drop. “It’s certainly a concern,” Lou Raffeto told him:

… when asked whether simulcast sites will bite the bullet. “I think they will, because it’s in the best interests of the horseplayers. And really it’s not like we’re Saratoga or Del Mar, running all summer. It’s two days. It shouldn’t be a big deal.”

With luck, this little horseplayer-friendly experiment will goose some interest.

Tea Leaves

American Pharoah returned to Del Mar on Monday, apparently none the worse for his second-place finish to Keen Ice in the Travers, and the track announced that the Triple Crown winner would parade for fans on Sunday. Should owner Ahmed Zayat decide to retire American Pharoah, as he said his “gut feeling” was in the hours following Saturday’s race, “his Del Mar appearance might serve as a racing farewell.” So, that’s one open-to-interpretation phrase to parse as to the 3-year-old colt’s future.

Jay Privman reports, though (DRF+):

… it appears American Pharoah will be pointed to the Breeders’ Cup Classic on Oct. 31 at Keeneland, and Baffert said Tuesday that he could even have a prep race, though he emphasized it’s “too soon to make that call.”

(Also? Baffert’s as done as anyone with talking about the Travers results. “It’s over with. He just got beat. Time to move on.”)

Trainer Aidan O’Brien added some intrigue to the Breeders’ Cup Classic scene, announcing that star miler Gleneagles would point to Keeneland:

“Given suitable ground, Gleneagles will run in the Irish Champion Stakes on Saturday week,” the trainer said. “Failing that, he will be aimed at the Queen Elizabeth II Stakes at Ascot in October. His end-of-season target is the Breeders’ Cup Classic at Keeneland, where he may face American Pharoah.”

Kellie Reilly wonders if there’s a deeper meaning:

Let’s consider this from the Coolmore chess-pieces angle: the global bloodstock juggernaut owns Gleneagles, and will stand Triple Crown champion American Pharoah upon his retirement to stud. Given the timing of this declaration of intent, it’s tempting to read between the lines and think that the chances of American Pharoah making the Classic may be receding. That’s not to say there can’t be the clash that Aidan O’Brien mentions in his statement on Gleneagles, but doesn’t it maximize the benefit to Coolmore to emphasize the hypothetical for the time being?

I’d like to see American Pharoah make it to the Breeders’ Cup Classic, not least because, as Amanda Duckworth writes, “it would be a shame if he never competed against his elders.” It would be more of a shame if the reason he didn’t compete against older had nothing to do with injury or unsoundness. Zayat has been outspoken about racing American Pharoah through this year for the good of the game and the thrill of the fans. “When Zayat told NBC on Saturday that he was thinking only of Pharoah’s fans and the horse’s legacy, I finally believed him,” Bob Barry writes in today’s Blood-Horse Daily (PDF). I believe him too, I believe he means it. But it’s a fragile trust.

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.


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.

Where are the Women?

My most popular tweet on August 17, 2013, featuring a link to a Teresa Genaro column in the Saratogian about women in racing

Two years ago, Teresa Genaro wrote about the poor representation of women in racing. She’s back this week with an update of little progress, in a Pink Sheet column that concludes with this indictment:

Yet when it comes to putting panels together, or hiring executives, or filling board vacancies, women seem to be elusively difficult to find.

If the problem is a dearth of women on leadership pathways in the industry, current executives should be asking themselves why, and what they are doing to cultivate women and bring them into the sport, as other industries have long done and continue to do.

Instead, racing seems content, for the most part, to pander to stereotypes, to view women as decorations rather than as customers, and to overlook them when putting people in front of microphones and in board rooms.

How many times does this have to be said? (That’s a rhetorical question.) How can we do better? (That’s not.) The issue isn’t specific to racing — it regularly flares up in media and technology (the other industries I closely follow). Does racing need some equivalent of the VIDA Count? (Would be just a start.)

To anyone who scoffs that diversity matters, know this — diversity drives market growth. As the American population becomes more diverse, diversity is only going to increase in importance to any industry’s long-term survival.

Related: “NYRA Board less diverse than GOP primary field.”

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