A Ship in Port…
I sympathize with an owner’s desire to protect his horse. It’s downright heartwarming to listen to a man who feels such affection for his animal that he can’t bear to see it lose. That said, Morton Fink’s refusal to let reigning Horse of the Year Wise Dan face off against the best of the best in Grade I races is misguided. Allowing a horse to realize its full potential is not just the sporting thing to do, but also the fairest way to treat an athlete with immense God-given ability.
A parent may want nothing more than to coddle their child and protect it against all sorts of threats, real and imagined, yet there is an understanding that at some point the kid will have to take risks in order to succeed. If your high school senior is offered a full ride to an Ivy League school, do you want to be the parent that says they have to go somewhere closer to home because you’ll miss them too much?
One argument that intrigued me was the suggestion in Marcus Hersh’s excellent Daily Racing Form feature on this topic that these races – on turf, mostly at one mile, against lesser company – are safer and could preserve the horse so he could presumably continue to run at a high level for a longer time. With that in mind, I stopped by trainer Charlie Lopresti’s Saratoga barn as Wise Dan cooled out following a deceptively effortless win in Saturday’s Fourstardave Handicap. Even the trainer, though, took issue with the notion that these spots are safer for the horse and could extend his career.
“They can get hurt just as well on turf as they can on dirt or synthetic or anything else,” Lopresti said.
In the end it’s not up to anybody but the owner. Lopresti, like most trainers, understands that if you fight too hard, the horse could end up in someone else’s barn. If one trainer won’t follow an owner’s wishes, especially one like Fink with horses as nice as Wise Dan and Successful Dan, there are always plenty of other horsemen that would be happy to fall in line.
“I think he’s just got it in his mind that that’s what he wants to do and everybody keeps bugging him because they’re trying to make him do something that he doesn’t want to do,” Lopresti said. “That’s why I tell everybody to just stop doing that to him because the man has told them 100 times that he doesn’t want to do it. How many times do they have to ask him?”
Wise Dan won the Fourstardave for the second year running (Photo courtesy Eclipse Sportswire).
They won’t stop asking. Not out of disrespect, just wistfulness. I keep thinking about one of my favorite quotes, usually attributed to U.S. Naval officer Grace Hopper, which I’ve never really considered in relation to horses before: “A ship in port is safe, but that’s not what ships are built for.”
After carrying 129 pounds in Saturday’s victory, 11 more than any of the rest of the field, Lopresti asked whether Wise Dan might eventually be held in the same high esteem as legendary weight-bearers like Forego (a Grade I winner tacking as much as 137), John Henry (a Grade I winner toting 130) and Kelso (a winner of multiple major stakes, before grading was established, packing up to 134). That is a level worthy of aspiring to, but to be a legend like that Wise Dan will have to test the waters against the best more than once or twice a year.
What We Learned This Weekend (Racing)
In the Fourstardave, we learned once again, obviously, that Wise Dan is really good (see above rant). Runner up King Kreesa, the lone speed, was extremely game holding on for second, especially over less-than-firm going. However, Wise Dan won much more easily than the 1 ¼-length margin suggests. John Velazquez brought Wise Dan off the rail to get rolling into the stretch and for a few moments you wondered if King Kreesa might prove tough to pass, but in reality Wise Dan just needed a little more time to wear him down. Perhaps that was where we saw the effect of carrying so much more weight. Velazquez never had to go to the stick and Wise Dan still stopped the timer in 1:34, a ridiculously fast one-mile time on a dull course.
In Saratoga’s Hall of Fame Stakes, which came off the turf, Notacatbutallama rallied up the rail through “a huge opening,” as announcer Tom Durkin described it in the moment, for his first main-track score. North Slope came off the rail into the stretch, leaving that massive opening for the eventual winner. If the fastest way home hadn’t been offered, I’m not sure Notacatbutallama could have gone around and still gotten up. I am constantly amazed by how readily many riders will move off the rail and let their rivals come through on the inside.
Of course, there was one jockey this weekend that wasn’t going to give up the rail. Unfortunately, he made that decision a little late. In Saratoga’s Adirondack for 2-year-old fillies, Joel Rosario, aboard Who’s in Town, left an opening on the inside for Fiftyshadesofgold, but then closed the door and forced the heavy favorite to check and lose all hope. Who’s in Town was disqualified to fourth but Fiftyshadesofgold, fourth across the wire, could only be moved up to third. Jockey Corey Lanerie said Fiftyshadesofgold “absolutely” would have won without the incident. Her trainer, Bret Calhoun, who never loses his cool and is always deliberate in choosing his words, said he believed Rosario acted intentionally, endangering horses and riders, and deserves “a long vacation to think about it.” Can’t wait to see if the stewards agree. Meanwhile, Designer Legs got bumped up for the win, becoming the first Louisiana-bred to nab a graded stakes victory at the Spa since Happy Ticket took the Grade I Ballerina as Hurricane Katrina was bearing down on her home state in 2005. Owner Murray Valene, a Louisiana mainstay, believed enough in the filly he bought for $10,000 at the 2012 Breeders Sales Company of Louisiana Yearling Sale to send her to Saratoga off of wins at Canterbury Park and Prairie Meadows.
Designer Legs (middle) got the win after Who's In Town (inside) was DQ'ed (Photo courtesy NYRA/Adam Coglinese).
In Del Mar’s John C. Mabee for older females, winner Tiz Flirtatious exploded in the stretch, powering home her final eighth in :10.57 under Julien Leparoux. This after the field went the first three-quarters in just under 1:18, about as slow as you’ll see with nice horses over a firm turf course. Usually we think of closers as needing a solid pace in order to give their best performance, but in this case the field was bunched up, all of them biding their time until the stretch. Tiz Flirtatious didn’t need the leaders to come back to her and the slow pace could have played into her furious finish, as she hadn’t expended any energy up until the final three-eighths. When Leparoux let her go, it was beautiful to watch, like she was in a different race entirely, going in Quarter Horse time. One more start at Santa Anita for Tiz Flirtatious, then it’s on to the Breeders’ Cup Filly & Mare Turf.
The Saratoga Special for juveniles was the last race I saw this weekend at Saratoga. I watched from the backside picnic area on my way back to the car. Having already tapped my weekend bankroll earlier in the day, I didn’t have much of an opinion in the race. As we watched them warm up and walk to the gate, my brother demanded that I pick a winner based only on looks. The four-horse came past on his toes with his neck bowed, a standout looker in a field of pricey juveniles. That four-horse turned out to be the 6-1 winner, Corfu. It’s nice to be right sometimes, but disheartening when your one decent-priced winner of the weekend is in the only race you didn’t study and didn’t wager on.
What We Learned This Weekend (Matters Pertaining to Racing)
The big news at the annual Jockey Club Round Table on Matters Pertaining to Racing was the announcement of a half-million dollar commitment to out-of-competition testing for horses pointing to graded stakes races over two years. [Read Joe Drape’s New York Times story here]. With about 450 graded stakes per year, and an average cost of $500 per test, the amount is enough to randomly select at least one horse from each race. I would imagine the testing will be targeted differently than that, but it’s reassuring to know that anybody even thinking about cheating in a graded stakes race anywhere in the country will have to think twice considering that an official could show up at their barn looking for a sample at any moment.
My Latest Favorite Tweet
Mike Mulvihill, pres of programming at Fox Sports Media group, related to Jim Mulvihill, new NTRA director of media relations?— Teresa Genaro (@BklynBckstretch) August 11, 2013
Yes, that was my older brother, Michael Mulvihill, addressing the Jockey Club Round Table on Sunday in his role as Senior Vice President of Programming and Research for FOX Sports. Last week his company announced a new series of horse racing broadcasts, focusing on the handicap ranks, to debut in 2014. In the Daily Racing Form story recapping the Round Table, industry writer Matt Hegarty paid my brother a solid compliment, saying he came off “as if he understood the racing business more than most full-time racing commentators.” I couldn’t agree more.
Say No to Toga
When did ’Toga become an acceptable nickname for our most storied racetrack? I hear it everywhere this season. It sounds like a horrible frat party. If you need something shorter than Saratoga, or require an alternate moniker so your writing isn’t so repetitive, then it’s the Spa. Also acceptable, in very limited usage, is the Durkin spelling, the Spaaaaaa.
Stat of the Week
Favorites in the Emerald Downs Derby are only 3-for-18 in the race’s history, with odds-on favorites zero-for-three, after 4-5 Music of My Soul finished fourth behind winner Worldventurer win in Sunday’s edition. Also interesting to note is that the last 10 winners were bred in seven different states or provinces. That sounds to me like a fun race to follow so I just put a reminder on my calendar to pay attention to it this time next year.
SupPortland Follow Up
Last week I gave a shout-out to Portland Meadows for their clever “Sorry About the Long Lines – Customer Appreciation Day” promotion. The locals must be a forgiving bunch because the track posted one of its biggest days in recent memory, increasing on-track handle 181% versus the comparable card a year prior.