Thursday, May 27, 2010

Colin's Ghost

Any of my intrepid readers who have not yet found Colin's Ghost should surf on over and read Kevin Martin's excellent history of the original Monmouth Parks (yes there were two). Terrific piece sourced to original newspaper articles and maps that shows, among other things, where the 19th century facilities were compared to the modern racecourse.


Monday, May 24, 2010


I've been spending most of my time on the couch this week recovering from minor hernia surgery, but that doesn't mean that the rest of the world has been just as supine. No, the blogosphere has been aTwitter, as it were, about subjects we've been curmudgeoning about lately.

Stephen P. Harrison, founder of England's Thoroughbred Genetics company, filed a US Patent application on processes for DNA testing in general and mtDNA testing specifically....or at least I think that's what this is about. And there's no information on filing date that I can find on that web page, so it's impossible to tell how recent it is. We discussed Harrison's Irish competitors here, here, and here a few months ago, and I've since learned a lot more about some other competitors, which, unfortunately, I'm not yet at liberty to discuss.

The bottom line for all four of the genetic testing companies I know about so far is that the genetic tests currently available certainly have some utility. Just how much utility, and just how much better they might be than a really competent expert opinion is a matter for each breeder to decide. There are currently at least three different kinds of tests on offer at wildly varying prices, so the sensible thing for the thoughtful breeder to do is investigate what is available for themselves and make an informed decision.

Then today, Frank Mitchell led me to Bill Finley's excellent article on about Lasix. I had my say about that a couple of months ago as well, but Bill says it better. If you read the comments, Bill got a lot of the same kind of quasi abusive response some of my gentle readers hurled my way a few months ago. Not that I'm still pouting about that or anything. I'm the curmudgeon, dammit, not you! (Must be the medication.)

Well, they're wrong and Bill is absolutely right. We simply cannot continue to destroy racehorses and horse racing with drugs, and that is exactly what is happening. Banning Lasix, Bute and everything else from the Triple Crown races is a very modest start....way too modest in my not so humble opinion. How about banning any horse who has run on Lasix or Bute or Kentucky's infamous "adjunct medications" during the calendar year from running in a Breeders' Cup race?

Is there anyone with any guts left over at the Breeders' Cup?

I'm still resting on the couch, but I'm not holding my breath on that one.

Hook me back up to the feel-good juice please!

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Time travel

My first trip to the Preakness Stakes at Pimlico was hardly as amusing as my first trip to the Kentucky Derby.

In the fall of 1968 I moved to Baltimore to attend graduate school at Johns Hopkins University. I made my first trip to Pimlico that November to witness the Pimlico Futurity. In that era, the Pimlico Futurity ranked behind only the Champagne and perhaps the Belmont Futurity in prestige among juvenile races, and the 1968 edition attracted a field for the ages. With the exception of eventual champion two-year-old Top Knight and the then unraced Majestic Prince, it included what turned out to be the best members of the 1966 generation, but I was primarily interested in one horse: Paul Mellon's Arts and Letters. A beautiful, perfectly conformed liver chestnut, he was from the fifth American crop of my all-time hero *Ribot and had shown enormous promise in his first five races. Arts and Letters was a bit unlucky in the Futurity, getting caught inside in the stretch with no room, but finished a close fourth to King Emperor, by Bold Ruler (2nd only to Top Knight that year and winner of 6 of 8 2yo starts), the leggy, lightly made Dike, by *Herbager, and the dour Mr. Leader, by Hail to Reason.

By the time the Preakness rolled around the next spring, Top Knight had disappointed in the Kentucky Derby, King Emperor was running in shorter races, Mr. Leader was getting ready to run on grass, and Arts and Letters and Dike had just run a close second and third to Majestic Prince in a thrilling Kentucky Derby. Naturally, the unbeaten Majestic Prince was favored to win the Preakness, but, needless to say, my $2 was squarely on the nose of Arts and Letters.

I should have collected too. Arts and Letters' jockey Braulio Baeza had let Bill Hartack on Majestic Prince get the jump on him at Churchill Downs, and he was determined to take position to the Prince's outside and at his saddle girth at Pimlico. That plan went awry at the break, when Al Hattab, drawn to his outside, bumped Arts and Letters solidly. Al Hattab was a good horse, but something must have been bothering him that day, because he laid on Arts and Letters all the way down the stretch the first time by the stands, making it impossible for Baeza to place his *Ribot colt where he wanted to be. That allowed Majestic Prince to take perfect position once again, just off the pacesetter's flanks with no pressure on him from the outside.

Arts and Letters finally shook free coming off the final bend, but by that time, Majestic Prince had accelerated to a comfortable lead. Arts and Letters closed steadily all the way to the wire. One jump past the finish he was in front and going away, but at the wire, Hartack, riding at his powerful best, still had Majestic Prince's head in front.

That was the end of Majestic Prince. He had given everything he had to give and trainer Johnny Longden knew it. He announced that Majestic Prince would return to California and not run in the Belmont, but, with a Triple Crown on the line, owner Frank McMahon overruled him, as indeed he had to do. Arts and Letters ran right past Majestic Prince at the top of the stretch in the Belmont, and never lost again until his final start, when he pulled a suspensory ligament. Majestic Prince never ran again.

Pimlico, regrettably, hasn't changed much since 1969. It's still the same old ugly, ramshackle building, and still the same working-class neighborhood, the same shabby backstretch. That's why attending the Preakness is a little like time travel.

Look closely this Saturday.....Perhaps you'll see the shades of Majestic Prince and Arts and Letters illustrating for their literal and metaphorical descendants what it means to be a Thoroughbred.

Monday, May 3, 2010

Once you get to the bottom of the well...

As a reporter at the 1994 Belmont Stakes, I rushed down to the track after the race to greet the connections of the winner, Tabasco Cat, but I was immediately struck by the condition of the second place finisher, Go for Gin. I, of course, had a special interest in Gin, having helped buy his dam, Never Knock, for Pam du Pont and having arranged the mating with Cormorant that produced Go for Gin.

Go for Gin had tried to lead all the way in the Belmont, setting honest fractions of 23.80, 47.53, 1:11.36 and 1:35.48, but Tabasco Cat simply had a better turn of foot than Gin did and ran by him in the stretch. In fact, Go for Gin had been on the pace or battling for the lead throughout each of the Triple Crown races of 1994, winning the Kentucky Derby (with Tabasco Cat sixth) and grudgingly conceding a 3/4 margin to the same horse in the Preakness.

Go for Gin did not go very far past the finish line in the Belmont before he pulled up, and when he returned to the scales, he stopped and stood for a very long time, every muscle trembling, the very image of a totally exhausted racehorse. Go for Gin had given every last ounce he had to give in his Triple Crown efforts, and he was never the same horse after that. Nick Zito brought him back at Saratoga, where he ran well enough to finish third in the Forego, but he showed none of the old spark in the Woodward, Jockey Club Gold Cup or Breeders' Cup Classic. Zito tried him three times at four, with two seconds and a third over distances short of his best.

The point of the story is that once you get absolutely to the bottom of a gutsy, genuine, generous racehorse, it takes a very long time for them to get over it--if ever.

Watching the last furlong of the 2009 Woodward Stakes, and watching the winner Rachel Alexandra come back to the stands after the race, I was immediately reminded of that day at Belmont in 1994. I thought Rachel was absolutely all in at the finish, without another ounce of energy to give.

I applauded Jess Jackson's and Steve Asmussen's decision not to race her any more in 2009, because I was convinced it would ruin her as a racehorse if they did.

It also follows that I'm not at all surprised that Rachel has not been quite herself in her two starts this spring. Asmussen himself has referred to a "hangover" from her hard season in 2009, so he pretty clearly understands the potential problem.

Once a horse has felt as much pain as Rachel is bound to have felt at the end of the Woodward, it is doubtful they will ever be willing to put themselves through that much pain again. Maybe she'll make it back. Maybe she'll become once again that beautiful girl who skips along so joyously in front of the pack and then fights to the death when somebody tries to pass her.

Maybe not.