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Triple Crown Winners, Mad Men, and Rogues

Eleven horses have won the Triple Crown, and seven of those won in a two decade period that began in 1930 and ended in 1948. It would be another 25 years before Secretariat added his name to the list, with Seattle Slew and Affirmed following in quick succession. It’s been 37 years since the last was crowned, and speculation abounds — as it does every spring that a horse goes to the Belmont Stakes a potential winner — about why the gap has grown so long. Maybe the question is, how did we get three in the 1970s?

Thoroughbred owner and famed ad man Bill Backer is enjoying a turn in the spotlight following the series finale of “Mad Men,” which closed on the iconic 1971 “Hilltop” Coca-Cola commercial. It’s credited to him as the originator, for coming up with the concept, “I’d like to buy the world a Coke and keep it company.” Jingles and horses — fun story, right? It is, and both America’s Best Racing and Thoroughbred Daily News have jumped on the pop culture and racing connection. Both also treat the ad as the epiphanic accomplishment of one white man — and, yes, that descriptor is relevant:

Backer wrote, “I’d Like to Buy the World a Coke” on a napkin and the rest is history.

… the next day Backer … wrote “I’d like to buy the world a Coke and keep it company.” The rest of the lyrics and music followed …

But there’s more to the story, and it’s a great read. “We have a long tradition in the United States of erasing the creative work of black Americans,” writes Tim Carmody of noted McCann-Erickson music director Billy Davis, co-writer of the Coke song. We should do better in horse racing, when given the chance.

Rogues or underdogs? Triple Crown connections tend to fall into one or the other in the media. Last year’s storyline was the latter. This year’s may be the former: “Owner of American Pharoah Is Fighting Lawsuit Amid Triple Crown Bid,” is the New York Times headline, “American Pharoah owner didn’t pay $1.6M in sports bets, felon says,” at NJ.com. The best detail in either report is that Ahmed Zayat allegedly offered $1 million to his felon-friend if he would tell the sportsbook to which he owed money that he died in a car accident.

American Pharoah is back on track. He jogged this morning at Churchill Downs after four days of walking, and may start galloping again on Friday.

Withholding rules on winning wagers are outdated and need to be changed, and the industry has a shot at making that happen this year, but more horseplayers have to get involved. While approximately 3,000 4,000 have submitted comments through the NTRA website regarding the proposed rules revision, “Treasury officials have recently told the organization that more comments are needed if the changes are to be seriously considered,” reports Matt Hegarty. I am of two minds re: this angle on seeking engagement — the first is that horseplayers should show their support for the changes, the second is that this sounds like a set-up for putting the blame on players should the campaign fail. “Look,” racing executives will shrug, “gamblers don’t care about taxes,” making it that much harder for future reforms to pass.

Three Days

It looks as though closing day for the 2014 meet won’t be the last day of racing ever at Suffolk Downs: The East Boston track has filed an application (PDF) with the Massachusetts Gaming Commission to hold three days of racing this year. If approved, the cards will be scheduled for July 11, August 8, and September 5, spacing that gives horsemen a chance to run back horses (and in particular, Massachusetts-breds) for the projected $500,000 in daily purses. Lynne Snierson reports that the track anticipates filling 12-14 races each day; Matt Hegarty that takeout on wagers will drop to 15% across the board. Steeplechase races may be in the mix. The MGC will hold a public hearing on June 11 to discuss the application. They’re taking comments now.

5/21/15 Addendum: Not all horsemen support Suffolk’s application:

… which they say would bring few benefits to local horse owners and trainers who need a much longer season to survive. Last year, there were 65 days of racing at Suffolk Downs.

“I oppose the transfer of race horse development funds in consideration of a day or two of racing,” Billy Lagorio, a horse owner, wrote in a letter to the state commission. The letter characterized Suffolk Downs as “uncommitted” to conducting “a meaningful horse racing” season.

Really, the only way to view this three-day proposal is as a life preserver for Massachusetts Thoroughbred racing. It’s a means of tapping the Racehorse Development Fund monies already banked to help keep horsemen afloat until — well, that’s uncertain. It’s not a “meaningful” season — it’s not meant to be.

Be Retired

Well wishes for Be Bullish, who retires a winner after eight years on track. The 10-year-old gelding started in 87 races, won 19, and earned more than $1.1 million. He’s the kind of horse who fills most cards, most days, year after year at racetracks major and minor — sound enough and classy enough to compete at the allowance level or in overnight stakes, but inevitably falling into lower and lower claiming spots as he ages and slows. He’s the kind of horse who becomes a fan favorite, because he’s consistent and game.

All great athletes have to retire some time, and not too many great athletes get to retire at the top of their game,” said owner Mike Repole, who claimed Be Bullish for $16,000 from trainer David Jacobson on Sunday at Belmont Park (quote link subscriber only). His final win was his third this year, his fourth straight. The gelding will be sent to Old Friends Cabin Creek.

Preakness 2015 Wrap

American Pharoah breaks from the gate in the 2015 Preakness Stakes

Sealed, opened, soaked: The condition of the Pimlico track surface became the X factor in the Preakness Stakes when a torrential downpour turned the dirt to mud minutes before post time on Saturday. If anything, the rain was a boon to the 4-5 favorite, already a winner on a wet track. But nothing can be taken for granted in a Triple Crown race: “I took a chance and sent him as quick as I can,” said rider Victor Espinoza, explaining how he hustled American Pharoah from stall #1 and into the lead from the start, outmaneuvering jockey Martin Garcia and stablemate Dortmund, in stall #2, at the break.

American Pharoah won the 1 3/16-mile race by seven lengths in a final time of 1:58.46, “the slowest for the Preakness since 1956, when Fabius was the winner over Needles and No Regrets on a fast track in 1:58 2/5.” Here are the individual fractions from the Daily Racing Form chart:

Incremental times for the 2015 Preakness Stakes

The winner’s split for the mile was :26.32, and for the final 3/16ths, :20.72 (both those numbers from the official Equibase PDF chart). So, American Pharoah slowed down at the end after a quick opening quarter, and I’m inclined not to read too much into what’s 1) a typical race shape for dirt routes, 2) a pretty good example of what we mean when we talk about tactical speed (see, not only the break, but the way American Pharoah draws away from the others rounding into the stretch), and 3) a finish without challenge (Dortmund checked out, Mr. Z tired out, and Firing Line never fired) over slop.

Jay Privman reports that American Pharoah earned a Beyer speed figure of 102. TimeformUS’ figuremaker gave him 125. He was awarded figures of 105 and 127, respectively, for winning the Kentucky Derby.

“I’ve never won this race as easily and handily,” said trainer Bob Baffert after. The ease does seem almost supernatural, or maybe that’s just the rain:

American Pharoah’s Preakness win was the sixth for Baffert; his Belmont Stakes start will be the trainer’s fourth shot at a Triple Crown, the third for Espinoza.

“It’s hard for me to imagine I’m going through this again,” the trainer told the NYRA press office on Sunday morning, and quipped that he’d like a fast track at Belmont. “Like the one Secretariat had. I’ll take that.”

The Belmont Stakes is June 6, and there are currently eight likely contenders, in addition to American Pharoah, including Preakness runner-up Tale of Verve, Peter Pan winner Madefromlucky, and Kentucky Derby runners Frosted, Materiality, Keen Ice, Carpe Diem, Frammento, and Mubtaahij.

British bookies are taking bets — Ladbrokes has Pharoah at even money.

1:15 PM Addendum: American Pharoah was the only horse to gallop back without a mud mask, thanks to his gate-to-wire run, but he was carrying a little extra water weight via Espinoza’s boots.

Preakness Day 2015

Tim Layden on the familiar coverage that might accompany American Pharoah if he goes to the Belmont Stakes with a Triple Crown on the line:

The logic behind the Triple Crown frenzy is familiar and flawed—that horse racing “needs” a Triple Crown winner, an equine superstar like Secretariat or Seattle Slew, to save itself from extinction. But would that happen? Suppose American Pharoah romps in the Preakness and then tops Secretariat’s performance in the 1973 Belmont, winning by 31½ lengths in 2:23.99, with the track announcer saying that he’s moving “like an extra-tremendous machine.” Would men weep and women swoon? Would it change the course of the sport, and somehow restore it to a time when fans flocked to America’s giant racetracks on weekday afternoons? I’m going out on a limb and arguing that it would not. It would be very cool. It would create a blip, an uptick on the EKG of the sport. And it would be great for the moment. But it would also be 100 miles wide and two inches deep.

Preakness card picks are up on Hello Race Fans.

The Deal

Eric Crawford on how Calumet ended up buying Mr. Z for a Preakness run:

Working as the go-between, Lukas mediated a conversation between Calumet and Zayat. It began on 7 p.m. Tuesday night. By 8 o’clock Wednesday morning it resumed. Lukas not only was working with a couple of wealthy parties, but against the clock. By 10:10 on Wednesday, he had a deal, and then, with the help of some fast work by Justin Zayat, completed the deal in the 20-minute window he needed in order to get Mr. Z entered …

D. Wayne Lukas likes what he’s seeing from the Malibu Moon colt this week: “He is coming into the race beautifully, the same way Oxbow did.” (Oxbow derailed Orb’s Triple Crown chase with an upset in the 2013 Preakness.) If Mr. Z wins, and that’s a longshot, it’s easy to imagine the stunned reaction — he’s won but once in 13 starts. “We think he can be a pace factor in this race,” TimeformUS handicapper Mike Beer writes, echoing the consensus view. “We would be surprised were he to be more than that.” What wouldn’t surprise me is if he finishes third or fourth; he’s been competitive enough to make the trifecta in races previously won by American Pharoah and Dortmund.

The trainer, though, didn’t pull off this caper only for Saturday — he has a plan for Mr. Z that involves running a mile and maybe on the turf.

California Chrome’s next turn on the turf is coming up in the Prince of Wales’s Stakes at Royal Ascot on June 17; from afar, trainer Art Sherman dreams of having him back. A hint, for fans, that he may return to run at Keeneland: “We’re sure looking at the Breeders’ Cup, hopefully the Classic.” I think that may be the first mention this year of a BC tilt — co-owner Perry Martin earlier sketched out a schedule mostly abroad. But then, who knows? The Chrome team seems disjointed, a state Dick Powell would have liked to see delved into during NBC’s Kentucky Derby coverage:

I was frustrated by the piece done on CALIFORNIA CHROME (Lucky Pulpit)’s ownership problems. They implied that Perry Martin and Steve Coburn are not getting along due to a disagreement on where the horse is going to run but there was not enough depth to the coverage. They interviewed the loquacious Coburn but never asked him any specific questions about when and why did the relationship go wrong. It made Martin, who is anything but loquacious, seem like the villain but he does own 70 percent of California Chrome and, thus, calls the shots.

There was a brief mention of him racing at Royal Ascot next month but they never really got into trainer Art Sherman’s feeling of not having him back at his home base. Plus, no video of him training in Newmarket. They tried to re-visit last year’s feel good story but didn’t develop why the relationship went bad. Considering how long the show is, no real excuse not to answer why it went wrong.

Chrome’s first race back in the US will be the Arlington Million, says Martin.

Everything is hunky-dory in the American Pharoah camp. “AP best he ever been,” owner Ahmed Zayat tweeted at Ed DeRosa when he floated some “anti-American” buzz. “Just ask all … at Pimlico he is A BEAST.” Dave Grening confirms: “Baffert is indeed correct when he says Pharoah floats over the ground. Man, he is an impressive individual.”

But the whip issue has not gone away: “Whether you vilify Victor Espinoza’s Kentucky Derby ride or defend it, this much is clear,” writes Pat Forde, “all eyes in Baltimore will be on the jockey’s right arm, and how many times he brings his riding crop down on the flank of American Pharoah on Saturday …

Whether he wins the Preakness or not, says Bob Ford, he lost the Triple Crown in the Kentucky Derby:

From a tactical standpoint, Espinoza did what he thought necessary to get American Pharoah home and that is his job. It has also been said by jockeys and trainers that the lighter, softer whips used now often act as more of a metronome than a bludgeon, tapping out the stride and keeping the horse aware of the job at hand.

Unfortunately, Pharoah is not able to corroborate this theory and define whether that final stretch run was accompanied by an excited urging or something more terrifying. He arrived at the finish line spent, even though the Derby was the second-slowest running over a fast track and the third-slowest last two furlongs since 2000. American Pharoah really didn’t have it on Derby Day, but still won …

Jay Hovdey comes down on the side of what he calls the “rational” insider view: With today’s padded crops, whipping is no big deal. That Espinoza was so free with his stick (subscriber only):

… was an issue only because it was the Kentucky Derby, which 16 million people watched on NBC, although I’m guessing not many of them noticed or even pretended to care until the whip count was brought up in Derby postmortems.

The Churchill Downs stewards decided that the rider did nothing wrong, and Espinoza was unapologetic, which made sense because no apology was required. Jockeys are handed the whip and told to go win the race, only now it is in an atmosphere of ever-changing rules governing the use of the stick.

His column does highlight just how subjective it is, assessing whip use, referencing, as others have done, how many times rider Calvin Borel struck Rachel Alexandra in the 2009 Woodward. Quantitatively, the 21 hits Borel gave the filly is closer to the approximately 20 Espinoza gave California Chrome in the 2014 Kentucky Derby. But those wins look nothing alike. Qualitatively, the 2009 Woodward and this year’s Derby do — both riders determined to win, both horses giving their all. Emotion influences perception. It’s enough to make what’s a 50% increase of one over the other seem equal.

Case-by-Case

Daniel Ross reports on how horse racing is handling domestic violence:

Unlike the NFL, where the sport’s awesome revenue-generating capacity appears to be a driving factor behind their decision to initially go easy on Rice, horse racing is perceived as a different sort of beast, the close-knit confines of the racetrack and the familial atmosphere it can foster seem to have a noticeable impact on the way in which jockeys charged or convicted with domestic violence are treated within the sport.

In 2010 for example, Albarado’s mounts garnered over $10m in collected earnings. In 2011, the year of his first domestic abuse charges, his mounts earned a little over half that. In 2012, his business had been more than halved. The past two years, however, have seen a gradual uptick in his earnings once more, though not to 2010 levels.

California is leading on the issue, just by talking about it.

Pletcherology

Trainer Todd Pletcher has decided to pass on the Preakness Stakes, declining to enter either of his two Kentucky Derby finishers, or potential contenders who skipped the Derby, and could, presumably, be Preakness ready, such as Stanford. Materiality, sixth at Churchill Downs, will point instead to the Belmont Stakes. “If you come back in two weeks and you turn out to be wrong,” said Pletcher, “not only could you not run well in the Preakness, it could compromise your chances in the Belmont as well.”

That puts the likely Preakness field at seven*, a short number that inspired Brian Zipse to speculate that the trainer is sending a message, a message that it’s time to alter the Triple Crown schedule:

It should be crystal clear to us all that America’s top trainer is making a strong statement that the Triple Crown races are too close to each other on the calendar. Because of this, the Middle Jewel, the Preakness, is the odd race out for the powerful Todd Pletcher stable …

I’m not sure we’ve ever seen such an obvious example of why the timing between races of the Triple Crown should be expanded. Todd Pletcher, America’s most influential trainer, is not running any of his horses in the Preakness — Not Materiality — Not Carpe Diem — Not Competitive Edge — simply because it is too close to the Derby.

Right.

Tom Jicha makes a related point:

It isn’t just the Preakness that gets short changed … the Kentucky Oaks got Alciabides winner Lovely Maria, Louisiana Oaks champion I’m a Chatterbox, Gulfstream Oaks victor Birdatthewire and Santa Anita Oaks winner Stellar Wind. The Black Eyed Susan is getting none of them.

(My opinion re: a schedule change hasn’t much changed since last year.)

The quick return doesn’t scare trainer D. Wayne Lukas, who had Mr. Z, 13th in the Derby, vanned to Pimlico. “He’ll run in the Preakness or he won’t run at all,” Lukas told Alicia Wincze Hughes. There’s just one problem — owner Ahmed Zayat, also the owner of Kentucky Derby winner American Pharoah, doesn’t want him entered. “Can’t stop that man,” he tweeted. “Wow. Mr. Z not running.” Zayat was further “completely unambiguous” when asked if the colt would start on Saturday, reports Marty McGee, saying Mr. Z “does not belong in the race on his merits.” But someone’s signals are crossed: “Oh, he’s running,” said Lukas. The Preakness draw is today, beginning at 5:00 PM ET.

2:45 PM Update: “Lukas was not to be denied.” Calumet has purchased Mr. Z for a Preakness run. “They gave us an offer we could not refuse,” said Zayat.

*6:00 PM Update: The Preakness drew eight. Here’s the field with morning line: 1. American Pharoah (4-5); 2. Dortmund (7-2); 3. Mr Z (20-1); 4. Danzig Moon (15-1); 5. Tale Of Verve (30-1); 6. Bodhisattva (20-1); 7. Divining Rod (12-1); 8. Firing Line (4-1). (Get the Hello Race Fans cheat sheet.)

5/14/15 Addendum: Pletcher, asked about altering the Triple Crown schedule:

“I’m torn on what’s the right thing to do,” Pletcher said last month at Churchill Downs. “I think you lose the historical significance if you [change the schedule]. I think you can argue as the breed has evolved and trainers have evolved, [there should be] more time for the horses between races.

“There’s a far better chance we’ll have a Triple Crown winner if we do that, but will it have an asterisk next to it? I don’t know.”

Whose Party?

Reporting from Baltimore’s Park Heights neighborhood, home to Pimlico:

A gigantic banner hanging above the racetrack’s main entrance declares the Preakness to be “the people’s race” and “the people’s party.” But those people, for the most part, aren’t from the largely black community around the track, where just gaining admission to the clubhouse and the grandstand will cost you $25 (much more if you want a seat), and where an infield ticket will set you back $70.

“For 50 years, I’ve sat on this porch and have seen people come and go on Preakness day, and most of them are white and rich and look all fancy in their dresses, neckties and shorty-shorts,” said Ruth Spencer, 87, who lives near the corner of Hayward and Winner Avenues, across the street from the track. “But I do love watching the people come by. I feel proud that they’ve come here to my backyard.”

Move the Preakness to Laurel, says Andrew Beyer.

Pop, Pop, Pop

Steve Haskin on the 32 strikes debate:

Did Victor Espinoza overdo his use of the whip in the Kentucky Derby? It would certainly appear that he did. In his mind, was it abuse or mistreatment? Of course not …

So, while Espinoza is guilty of overuse of the whip on Stellar Wind, and arguably American Pharoah, and deserves to be punished, incidents like that are going to continue unless we adopt policies like the one they have in England. Not because of any cruel intent, but because of the natural act of using the whip to urge on a horse. You can’t just tell a jockey to stop something he’s done all his life. You have to make penalties serve as an inducement where he at least thinks about what he’s doing and learns to control his actions. The British jockeys have learned it; so can ours.

It sounds as though the stewards’ review of the Kentucky Derby is over:

“We have [reviewed the ride again] and we have the same feeling we had after the race was over: It’s within the boundaries of our regulations. He did hit the horse quite a few times but it was all within the rules of the state.”

Calvin Borel explains why jockeys may use padded crops more:

“You have to hit them six times to one times to the old crop; that’s what it amounts to, because they really don’t feel it,” Borel said. “With that kind of crop [padded], you have to — not hit them hard — but keep popping them.

“Riders hit them more often probably because of the pop, pop, pop; it keeps making noise. And it probably looks worse. With the regular whip, you get their attention when you hit them one time.”

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