Friday, June 26, 2009

Ladies weekend?

This weekend should belong to racing's leading ladies on both coasts.
Rachel Alexandra is set to run in the Mother Goose at Belmont Park and champion Zenyatta risks her unbeaten record under 129 pounds in the Vanity at Hollywood Park.
How many female potential racing fans know this? Has Thoroughbred racing, Belmont Park or Hollywood Park tried to reach sports-minded women and horse-loving young girls with ads?
Well, I don't live on either coast, so I can't answer that question myself, except to say that I have been watching Wimbledon on ESPN and haven't seen anything there. And if I did live in New York or California, past experience says I would see nothing directed at potential female fans there either. Heck the last time I went to a Breeders' Cup in New York (Tiznow, Fantastic Light, etc.), I didn't see a single ad on local TV advertising racing's championship event and barely any signage except right around the track. That did a lot of good.
There are a lot of reasons for the declining popularity of Thoroughbred racing, but there is absolutely no doubt that the sport's ineptitude at promoting itself ranks near the top of the list. Racing's powers that be killed perhaps the most effective ad in racing history (the original Lori Petty Go Baby Go ad), apparently because they thought Petty looked too much like a lesbian. They were a lot more comfortable with the painful Rip Torn ads that followed.
Rachel Alexandra in particular offers an opportunity to pull in female sports fans because she has already beaten the boys. We may live in a post-feminist world, but the battle between the sexes never ends, and women everywhere ALWAYS pay attention when a girl beats the boys at their own game—no matter what game it is.
If Thoroughbred racing is aware of this, I have seen no signs of it from my outpost here in the hinterlands of Tennessee. Anyone out there on the coasts seen any evidence?
Rachel Alexandra did racing a huge favor by winning the Preakness. Will that moment of glory be just another wasted opportunity?

Saturday, June 20, 2009

Speed kills...but tactics win races

Thoroughbred racing is not simply about which horse is the fastest—but that's a damned good headstart.
That is the lesson to be gleaned from the adventures of American trainer Wesley Ward at the just concluded Royal Ascot meeting. Ward took six horses to Ascot and ran them in seven races. He won a listed race and a Group 3, and finished second in a Group 1, earning a total of about $217,000.
Ward is something of a specialist with fast 2-year-olds and five of the six horses he took to England were juveniles. Ward is also a smart and observant man, and he perceived that European-trained horses simply are not trained to break from the gate as quickly as are American-trained runners.
Four of his five juvenile runners at Ascot had led from the start in their most recent starts in America. Those four had run the first quarter-mile of those races in :22.64 (Strike the Tiger), :21.70 (Jealous Again), :22.17 (Yogaroo), and :22.71 (Honor in Peace). The fifth, Aegean, had run the first quarter of her maiden victory on the lead in :22.14. European juveniles never go that fast at the start of their races.
Ward and American jockey John Velazquez reasoned that their horses would naturally outbreak their European counterparts, and if they let them run an American-style race, the European horses might be taken out of their game. If that happened, even with Ascot's uphill finish, the American horses could win.
It worked brilliantly for the first two juvenile races. Strike the Tiger led all the way in the five-furlong Windsor Castle Stakes on opening day, and Jealous Again simply scorched her opponents in the prestigious Queen Mary Stakes-G3 on day two, winning by five lengths.
European jockeys may not be one-trial learners, but they are not stupid. After those two lessons in early speed, they stayed closer to Ward's other three juvenile runners and swamped them in the end.
Ward's only older runner, the 4-year-old Cannonball, is a confirmed come-from-behind turf sprinter, a listed winner who has been narrowly beaten in Grade 3s—in other words, not a Grade 1 horse in America. Cannonball found himself well behind early in the five-furlong King's Stand S.-G1 on opening day, but, with Velazquez scrubbing on him practically from the spring of the latch, he finished with a purpose along the stands rail, winding up sixth, beaten about six lengths.
He ran much the same race in the six-furlong Golden Jubilee-G1 on closing day, hustled along at the back of the field from the start, but closing relentlessly all the way to the line to finish a neck second to Art Connoisseur.
Royal Ascot is the most prestigious race meeting in England and attracts the very best English, Irish, and (sometimes) French racehorses, but no one would have ranked any of Ward's horses anywhere near the top of their divisions in America. With the possible exception of Cannonball, the Ascot results did not change that perception.
So does this mean that—at least over sprint distances—the best American horses are that much better than the Europeans? Not so fast. Speed kills, but intelligent tactics can win races. All credit to Strike the Tiger and Jealous Again for being fast enough to run away from their opponents early in their races and brave enough to keep going up the final hill. Aegean, however, had beaten Jealous Again in the Kentucky Juvenile Stakes-G3, but she could never get away from her field at Ascot and was simply outrun at the finish. The European jockeys declined to be embarrassed again.
Still, Ward's triumphs—and the $217,000 he earned with what are probably second-rate horses—should encourage other American trainers to venture abroad with better horses. Americans have too long been spoiled by having higher purses than most of the rest of the world. Especially for top-level races, however, that is no longer true.
European, Dubaian, South African, and Australian trainers have raided valuable races all over the world for many years now with little to no opposition from American trainers. How much longer will American owners allow the Todd Pletchers, Bobby Frankels, and Steve Asmussens to ignore the money to be plundered abroad?

Friday, June 19, 2009

Amazing speed

Did anyone else notice this rather interesting statement by trainer Aidan O'Brien from the June 19 issue of Thoroughbred Daily News in their story on the Yeats's fourth consecutive victory in the Ascot Gold Cup?
“He's very clever and has gone wise, but the boss [John Magnier] pointed out the other morning that, in his last work, he put in four 11 1/2-second furlongs one after another. When a stayer can do those times, all the class has to be there.” (, but you have to be a subscriber to read)
Four 11 ½-second furlongs. That equates to breezing a half in :46....without much doubt uphill (have you been to Ballydoyle?). And without any doubt whatsoever, not as fast as he could have gone that half mile if he had been asked for all his speed.
We're talking about an 8-year-old horse probably a week out from winning the world's greatest race for stayers, a race run over 2 ½ miles, for the fourth consecutive year. Breezing a half in :46 at Ballydoyle has got to be something like the equivalent of breezing a half in :45 over an American dirt or synthetic track. Again, we're talking about an 8-year-old horse that I guarantee you every American (and virtually all European) commercial breeders would dismiss as a plodder, simply because he won over 2 ½ miles.
Please explain to me why that attitude makes any sense at all in terms of genetics.

Thursday, June 18, 2009

Do we have to go through this every year?

Every year that passes without an American Triple Crown winner seems to amp up the criticism of the series. Trainers, pundits, owners....everyone seems to have ideas to “improve” the Triple Crown.
What is wrong with it as it stands?
The primary problem critics seem to have is that no horse has won it since Affirmed in 1978. Is that, in fact, a problem? Or is it an opportunity?
As racing's popularity has declined many within the sport seem to have fixated on a Triple Crown winner as an anodyne for the sport's problems. Why? How is a Triple Crown winner supposed to solve our problems? Yes, a triple hero (or heroine) would probably draw more television viewers to their subsequent performances for the remainder of their racing career. That period would likely extend, at most, another four months until that year's Breeders' Cup.
Any male winner (except possibly a gelding) of a Triple Crown would almost certainly retire at the end of their three-year-old season. Any female winner, well what else could she possibly accomplish by staying in training?
The racing world appears to believe (or perhaps just hope) a Triple Crown winner would serve the same function for racing that Tiger Woods serves for golf, Kobe Bryant or Lebron James for basketball, or Peyton Manning for football. Superstars sell tickets. But Woods, Bryant, James, and Manning can sell tickets (as well as shoes, cars, and soft drinks) largely because they have been superstars for many years. That simply is not going to happen with racehorses...except in extraordinarily rare cases like Yeats's four consecutive Ascot Gold Cups.
So, it seems probable that a Triple Crown winner could provide racing with a temporary publicity boost, but then what? Have the caretakers of the sport (such as they are) shown any marked ability to leverage the obvious assets we already have? How many times have the powers that be ignored or perverted the ideas of daring thinkers like Fred Pope? Would actually having a Triple Crown winner be a better marketing opportunity than the annual possibility and the obvious difficulty of the achievement are now. Racing has an opportunity to leverage those aspects every year, but they do not do so effectively.
So, if the value of a publicity boost seems to be overvalued, are their other valid reasons for supporting either of the two changes in the Triple Crown put forward most frequently: 1) increasing the intervals between the three races; or 2) reducing the distance of the Belmont Stakes.
America's Triple Crown has been crammed into a five-week interval in May and June for about 70 years. From 1919, when Sir Barton completed the first sweep of the Triple Crown until 1978, when Affirmed became the 11th Triple Crown winner, that was not a problem. Thousands of good, sound horses raced three times—or often more—within a five-week period, regardless of whether they were running in classics or not.
Not long after Affirmed retired, however, American training methods changed. Emphasis shifted to spacing races further apart and running the best horses only in the best races instead of allowance preps. Allowance races are MUCH tougher nowadays than they were 30 years ago as the average ability of the breed has improved. Trainers are MUCH more protective of their winning percentages since owners now pay closer attention to those statistics in choosing trainers.
There is no doubt at all that changes in training methods have made winning the Triple Crown more difficult. Against the same group 30 years ago, Mine That Bird might well have won the Triple Crown (if you take Rachel Alexandra out of the mix) since Dunkirk and Summer Bird would almost certainly have run in the Preakness as well.
I simply cannot agree with those who would shorten the Belmont. That argument is based mostly on fashion and a misunderstanding of genetics. Just because 1 ½ mile races are currently out of fashion does not mean they are not valid and valuable exercises for racing. The sport already suffers greatly from way too many races that look just alike and cover the same narrow, boring range of distances, so why get rid of something that is different and thus more interesting? Makes no sense.
Trainers in particular argue that the modern American racehorse is not bred to run 1 ½ miles. Truth is, any horse can run 1 ½ miles, it's just a question of how fast. And, in terms of genetics, even sprinters can (and not infrequently do) sire 1 ½ mile horses. It's all about probability, and there are still stamina genes in the Thoroughbred genotype. A certain—though admittedly diminished—percentage of the breed will always be able to carry their speed further than others. Why should we be averse to identifying the best of those horses?
So, yes, if you want to make the Triple Crown easier to win, spread the races out over the calendar, yes, even shorten the Belmont.....if you want to make it easier to win.
But why on earth would you want to do that?