JC / Railbird

The Factor

Saturday Notes

The Factor is back in training after missing three days due to a foot bruise. “He had a little setback,” said trainer Bob Baffert, noting that the San Vicente Stakes on February 20 is still a possibility for the 3-year-old colt. But the Kentucky Derby may not be, reports Brad Free. After setting a main track record at six furlongs winning a maiden special on opening day at Santa Anita, The Factor didn’t work again for three weeks. “I will not fry him to make the Derby,” said the trainer. Baffert has other Derby prospects, including one he thinks quite well of, tweeted Sid Fernando:

Bob Baffert’s best Derby hope he just told me is Jay. “He’s by Victory Gallop, who beat me w Real Quiet. The mother Fu*ker owes me,” he said

Jay = Jaycito, the Norfolk Stakes winner moved into Baffert’s barn from trainer Mike Mitchell’s shedrow by owner Ahmed Zayat last fall (with the Derby in mind). Since the start of the year, he’s worked four times, most recently going seven furlongs in 1:25.20 at Santa Anita, and could start in the Southwest Stakes at Oaklawn on February 21. Despite blowing the turn into the backstretch during last year’s Breeders’ Cup Juvenile (in which he finished seventh, 16 lengths off Uncle Mo), the Victory Gallop colt is one of my early Derby favorites, largely on the strength of his for-the-distance pedigree.

In case anyone was wondering about BC Juvenile fourth-place finisher Biondetti as a Derby prospect, the Downey Profile reports that they contacted Godolphin and confirmed that the Bernardini 3-year-old will not be prepping for the first Saturday in May. “He will return to Europe for a summer campaign” (scroll down to the news for Thursday, February 3).

There aren’t enough 3-year-olds to fill races at the Fair Grounds. The Louisiana route to the Derby, which Jason Shandler argues has become less relevant in recent years, is a lot less crowded without trainer Steve Asmussen.

A third claim of copyright violation kills the Partymanners YouTube channel, an incredible source of race replays. Jim Conti, aka Partymanners, said on PaceAdvantage that the video files were mostly backed up and will be uploaded to a second account. Which is … good? When the account was suspended last year, users rallied to save the videos, headed by Thorobase developer Robin Howlett. That’s one reason Conti will be able to restore the channel, but I hope he’ll reconsider where. For all the benefits of the service, posting the replays on YouTube again raises the possibility that new copyright claims will result in another takedown, depriving fans of a valuable resource.

Randy Cohen is out as the New York Times magazine Ethicist columnist, Ariel Kaminer is in, and the only reason I mention the moves is because there’s an unexpected Railbird connection to both. Way back in 2004, when I was a new handicapper, I wrote to Cohen asking about the ethics of betting on horses that may have been mistreated (he thought it best not); last year, I visited NYC OTB parlors with Kaminer as she researched a City Critic column.

Odds and Ends

Blind Luck is raring to go for the El Encino Stakes next Sunday. She worked seven furlongs on Santa Anita on Friday in 1:25.20 and then galloped out another seven furlongs. “For a slightly built filly, she has loads of energy,” observed Jay Privman. On Sunday, it was The Factor flying over the Santa Anita dirt, going five furlongs in :58 flat. “He went a little too fast — he got away from the rider,” said trainer Bob Baffert of the 3-year-old colt.

Culture clash at the Big A? “I feel like I’m in an OTB! I feel like I’m in an OTB!,” LATG overhears an Aqueduct patron telling a security guard. Friday was the one month anniversary of NYC OTB’s closure. Funny, but the parlors already seem like something out of the far past, which I suppose says something about how removed from the mainstream life of the city they had become. (If you’d like to remember days at the OTB, here’s an unexpectedly poignant little video that captures the operation’s waning hours.) While there are some pains as the new element is absorbed into the track scene, NYRA’s efforts to attract displaced OTB bettors are paying off with higher ontrack handle and 2,434 new NYRA Rewards customers since December 8. On Saturday, the new Belmont Café took in a high point $137,889 in wagers from 325 players. “It just goes to show you that simple accommodations — a clean bathroom and a decent place to eat — can go a long way,” writes Jerry Bossert. There’s a still a significant shortfall in NYRA’s total handle, but the trend is positive.

So, the investigation into the l’affaire Life at Ten is ongoing, with the Office of the Inspector General in the Kentucky Transportation Cabinet being brought in “to have some independent review for certain aspects of it.” That’s KHRC executive director Lisa Underwood talking to Jennie Rees, who also reports that the KHRC has conducted 90 interviews regarding the Breeders’ Cup Distaff Ladies’ Classic fiasco. Ninety? Once this investigation concludes, how about another into what’s been a frustratingly opaque and slow process.

A New Year’s resolution particularly relevant to the above: “Protect the punter.”

Final handle numbers for 2010 were down 7.3% from 2009, to $11.4 billion from $12.3 billion. That’s the lowest annual total since 1995. “Obviously, we are losing bettors to other forms of gambling,” TRA executive vice president Chris Scherf tells Janet Patton. “We are in the midst of an unmanaged, market-driven contraction touching most aspects of the racing business.” Unmanaged is the key word, and nowhere is that more apparent right now that in the date dispute shaping up in southern Florida between Calder and Gulfstream. As for losing out to other games, sports bettors and poker players are pretty upfront about why they’re not paying much attention to racing.

Speed Up, Handle Down

So, was the horseplayers’ boycott a success before it even began? I was among those who thought that anticipation for the first day of racing at Santa Anita in eight months and pent-up dirt demand would lead to a surge in opening day handle. That’s not what happened. From every angle (opening day last year, the last opening day on Sunday, the last opening day with a dirt track), handle was down across the board. Compared to 2009, attendance was off 4% (from 35,292 to 34,268), on-track handle down 15% (from $4,531,236 to $3,851,594) and total handle down 21.5% (from $14,913,953 to $11,707,276). Several factors surely affected the numbers: The track ran nine races this year, 10 in 2009; all the turf races were moved to the main track; there was no handle from now-closed NYC OTB; rain in California and snow on the East Coast may have kept some bettors away. But it also seems likely that a notable percentage of players held back bets, whether to protest the takeout increase or to watch how the reconstructed surface performed.

Santa Anita gave a brave spin to the day’s numbers, issuing a press release in which track president George Haines said, “I think it’s safe to say that we again demonstrated in a very profound way that our fans will continue to support Santa Anita in a big way on our big days. We’re very hopeful we can build on the momentum we generated today and carry it through the entire meet.” That might be difficult, if there are too many cards like Wednesday’s nine-race 61-horse line-up ahead. For comparison, Tampa drew 100+.

The new track looked like the Santa Anita dirt of old on Sunday, with California speed back in style and favorites winning four of nine races (and finishing in the money in eight of nine). “Southern California racing has been a soap opera the past few years,” writes Jay Privman. “Sunday made it feel even more so, as if the past three years at Santa Anita, under a controversial synthetic surface, had merely been a dream.” Trainer Bob Baffert, who might be more inclined to call the past three years a nightmare, was in the winner’s circle after the fourth race, posing next to a freakishly fast 2-year-old named The Factor. “If he’d have lost today, I would have quit training,” said Baffert. Going gate-to-wire, as did the winners of all three six furlong races on the card, The Factor set a new track record of 1:06.98 for the distance while winning a maiden special by 8 1/4 lengths as the 3-2 favorite, his time good for a Beyer speed figure of 102. Switch, the first of trainer John Sadler’s three stakes winners on the day, bested the stakes time of 1:20.45 posted by Mamselle Bebette in 1993 by winning the G1 La Brea Stakes in 1:20.33. Twirling Candy, finishing a nose in front of Smiling Tiger, broke the track record of 1:20 for seven furlongs set by Spectacular Bid in 1980 by winning the G1 Malibu Stakes in 1:19.70. That the Bid’s record was in danger was anticipated early in the day, and not with much joy. “I kind of have a problem with that,” said one of the house handicappers on the track’s feed, talking about Santa Anita’s decision to restore the old dirt track records, ignoring the differences in the surfaces and the synthetic interlude, and I kind of agreed. Twirling Candy is no Spectacular Bid, even if he — like Sir Beaufort winner Sidney’s Candy — is now an Omnisurface Star.

1:45 PM Addendum: Jay Hovdey posts re: Sunday’s lickety-splits: “Meanwhile, up in his booth at the top of the stretch, track superintendent Rich Tedesco was banging his head against the desktop, knowing full well that too fast is just plain too fast when it comes to protecting the frail infrastructure of the Thoroughbred racehorse from his own natural instincts to flee. He also knows that horses like Spectacular Bid don’t come along every 30 years.”

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