JC / Railbird

Square Eddie

Good News Sunday

Doug O’Neill reports Square Eddie is looking good after his first race in a year:

“He came out fantastic, legs ice cold, jogging sound at the shed row and ate up everything,” Santa Anita’s three-time training king said.

Nice to hear! The Donn could be next for ‘Eddie.

This is Todd Pletcher gushing about early Derby fave Uncle Mo:

“Yes, I think he will get better,” Pletcher said. “And it’s kind of scary to think about that.”

The famously cool trainer just can’t contain himself, can he?

Jerry Bossert’s a fan of the Belmont Café:

It’s amazing, but in a month the NYRA put together a better OTB than NYCOTB, which opened its first parlor in 1971.

Almost makes me wish I still lived in New York so I could check the place out.

Saturday Notes

Oaklawn Park opens today. Trainer Larry Jones, refreshed by semi-retirement and recovered from aluminum poisoning, is back. So is Lady Giacamo, one of the first winners for her sire Giacomo and one of the first additions to my juvenile watchlist last year. After going 3-for-3 at Lone Star early in the summer, the filly was brought to Del Mar, where she didn’t race, and returned to the work tab at Remington in November. The six-furlong Dixie Belle Stakes will be her first start since winning the TTA Sales Futurity last June.

Square Eddie, returned to training after a year at stud, set a track record of 1:13.11 for 6 1/2 furlongs winning at Santa Anita on Friday. It’s just the latest record set over the new dirt track, prompting Brad Free to wonder, “when horses run as fast as they have been running this winter at Santa Anita, one has to ask again — at what expense?” I very much hope not at the expense of aggravating the physical issues that sent Square Eddie to the shed. “He had a high suspensory strain and I’ll be very interested to see how he looks in the morning — if he’s knocked out or body-sore,” said trainer Doug O’Neill after. “Hopefully we’ll find an empty feed tub and a bright, happy horse.”

The chipmunks are attacking! How could they not, when provoked like this? According to Santa Anita executive Scott Daruty, handle on Santa Anita was up 5% on the first official day of the horseplayers’ boycott, not down more than 15%. Numbers from the CHRIMS database — numbers not publicly available or reported by Equibase, DRF, or the California stewards, and therefore unverifiable — say so. I’m not a member of HANA, and even though I’ve bet less than $20 on Santa Anita since the meet started, I’m not boycotting. (Short fields dominated by speedballs and favorites bore me.) I’m an observer, and my interests lie in having access to accurate numbers and trying to understand what those numbers mean. If the track handle numbers reported on charts and treated as standard by every trade publication (including the one Daruty is speaking through) are inaccurate, then we have a bigger problem than trying to determine whether Thursday’s Santa Anita handle was up or down — the quality of handle data, as well as all reportage based on it, is compromised.

Champions’ Day

Big changes to the 2011 British racing fixture list, not least a new event:

At long last, racing has officially announced the arrival of British Champions’ Day, with £3 million in prize money making it the richest fixture in British racing history. It will be staged at Ascot on 15 Oct 2011, with a six-race card that officials hope can be built into an extravaganza to rival the Breeders’ Cup and Arc day.

France Galop, which wants three weeks between the Prix de l’Arc de Triomphe and Champions’ day, isn’t happy. BHA is going ahead regardless.

In a move that will seem familiar to even the most casual observer of the Breeders’ Cup, a British Champions’ Series, with five championship categories, will lead to Champions’ Day. It’s a bit of a “red herring,” notes the Telegraph. Not at all, said an executive involved. “They [the races] are signposts for newcomers to racing.” It’s about marketing and branding, of course.

Which reminds me, Bill Oppenheim wrote an interesting, straightforward account of how the recent Breeders’ Cup developments came to pass for the September 23 Thoroughbred Daily News. Emphasis is on the effects to the breeding industry, with glimpses into how the BC “narrative” is being crafted.

The strange career of Square Eddie continues. Retired early this year to stand stud at Vessels Stallion Station in California, the 4-year-old colt has been returned to training. “After he was done breeding, we checked his legs and they were cold and tight,” trainer Doug O’Neill told the Blood-Horse. “We have got him back on the track for Chapter 2.” It might be more accurate to call this episode Chapter 3, since Square Eddie was already returned to racing once after suffering setbacks during the 2009 Triple Crown season. The juvenile graded stakes winner was unplaced in his four post-injury starts as a 3-year-old, prompting the end of his running days. Asked Foolish Pleasure on Twitter, “Why is it always Doug O’Neill? Doesn’t that just say it all?”

Alan Shuback cuts through the surface debate: “[I]nstead of forever arguing over whether we should be racing of dirt or synthetics, we should be building racetracks with long straights and milder turns.” It’s an argument for a more European style of racing, but then, what do we have to lose? Not more horses.

Theyskens’ Theory and undefeated White Moonstone, two very exciting Euro babies out of a bumper crop this year, are set to meet in the Meon Valley Stud Fillies’ Mile Stakes at Ascot on Saturday. Both debuted in July, both will be making their fourth career starts. Also running at Ascot on Saturday is Frankel, who will face five in the Royal Lodge Stakes. The well-regarded Henry Cecil trainee will be making his third start since debuting in August.

“The one thing that we’re doing a little bit differently this year is skipping the last possible prep for some of the horses and going into it with a little more time,” trainer Todd Pletcher informs readers of the At the Races UK blog dedicated to the barn’s Breeders’ Cup contenders. “Of course, with our two-year-olds, most of them will need another start.” So, wow baby Uncle Mo will get his second career start and final Breeders’ Cup prep in the Champagne at Belmont, Curlinello will make his second start in a Monmouth stakes, and Stay Thirsty, who has run three times, may or may not train up to Churchill.

It’s Derby Time

It's Derby time chalk drawing adorning Floyd's bar window

But first, a bit about the Oaks (“Just another pretty race“? I prefer not to think so). Post positions for the race, which grew to eight starters, were drawn this morning, with 3-5 morning line favorite Rachel Alexandra landing in stall six, just to the outside of likely second-favorite Justwhistledixie. The rest of field: Tweeter (1), Be Fair (2), Stone Legacy (3), Gabby’s Golden Gal (4), Nan (7), Flying Spur (8).

Rachel Alexandra worked a flying four furlongs in :46.40, the fastest of 26 works at the distance, then galloped out six furlongs in 1:10.60 at Churchill on Monday. “I thought she went too fast, but Calvin swears she does that every time,” said trainer Hal Wiggins, who’d been looking for something more like :48. On an earlier post, Bill, an equine exercise physiologist, remarked that he has a theory explaining the spectacular breeze — “She was properly warmed up for the first time in her life.” I am not an equine exercise physiologist, so really can’t comment, but it does seem plausible that the 30-minute walk she took before working — due, sadly, to a training delay caused by a catastrophic collision — may have had an effect.

Whatever the reason, the work had DRF’s Mike Welsch gushing:

Rachel Alexandra’s final Oaks prep was one of the most eye-catching Derby Week drills witnessed here in recent memory…. The move was reminiscent of, if not even better than, Street Sense’s final Derby prep, right down to the presence of Borel in the saddle…. Rachel Alexandra has been a joy to watch training here all week, and off this work would have been my pick had she taken on the boys in the Derby.

If only she had been nominated to the Triple Crown … instead, she should run away with the Oaks, a prospect that gives me less a case of “Oaks Blues” than “complacent chalk syndrome.” Rachel Alexandra is an exciting sophomore; she’s on the path to 3-year-old filly champion honors. Eventually this year, she’ll meet competition — such as Zenyatta, making her first start of the year on the Oaks undercard in the Lousiville Distaff — that gives her something to do other than cruise down the stretch. It just won’t be in the Oaks.

In Derby news: Two defections, one major, one minor, both sensible. Amid the Twitter discussion regarding trainer Jimmy Jerkens’ decision to pull likely favorite Quality Road from the trail after his second quarter crack trickled blood following a Sunday gallop (“It’s not terribly bad; it’s just not right,” said the disappointed conditioner) Nick Kling pointed me to a column he wrote last year about horses who either never ran again or never returned to their previous form after the Derby. Pulling together data on 78 starters over four years, Kling found a startling percentage essentially ruined by the experience:

A staggering total of 14 came out of the race either never racing again, or starting just a handful of times, unable to regain anything resembling decent form. That is 18 percent of ALL horses who started in the race.

Considering just the horses who had zero, one, or two starts after the Derby, the rate came down to 12.8% — still pretty shocking — strongly suggesting that a Derby start can have a negative effect on an unqualified, under-prepared, or delicate horse, as many observers believe. Not that that’s going to keep a few connections from entering their horses — who realistically have no shot — on Wednesday.

Square Eddie would have been among that group in my handicapping, but the colt developed heat in his previously injured left shin this morning and has been ruled out. “We are extremely disappointed but at the same time extremely grateful that he’s sound,” said trainer Doug O’Neill. It worried me, after reading about Square Eddie’s seemingly rushed convalescence and then the two-week Lexington turnaround, that he’d be pulled up during the race because of a problem. Consider me grateful that he won’t be starting on Saturday.

Odds and ends: So that you don’t miss any Derby coverage, Saratoga Spa has helpfully put together a TV guide for the week. And pay attention to the weather: Rains and thunderstorms are possible through the weekend in the Louisville area. (By the way, did you know that Derby winners on an off track historically pay an average shorter price than those on fast?) New Churchill Downs track announcer Mark Johnson calls Pioneerof the Nile ugly:

I may get told off for this, because I’ve had one or two discussions with people who totally disagree with me, but I think that Pioneerof the Nile has got to be the ugliest horse in the field. It looks like a gawky teenager. It’s got a really thin tail, it looks as though it’s only got half the hair in the tail that it should. It’s got a really long neck and a really small head, and it looks like if it were a human being, it would be a really spotty teenager.

I didn’t notice, watching his Monday work — all I saw was an easy stride and peak form. I did catch, though, General Quarters’ odd gait — his right foreleg appears to have an eggbeater action, which Kerry of Thoroughbred Brief suggested could be because he “looks base narrow and/or toed in.” If ‘Quarters does win the Derby, as Billy Reed says he needs to, that would be another quality he shares with Seabiscuit. Finally, if you’re a New Yorker subscriber, or near a newsstand, check out the profile of trainer Larry Jones in this week’s issue. Also, the notice for a Brooklyn Derby party.