Race of the Week – Belmont Stakes

BelmontThe rite of spring for three year old thoroughbreds meets its conclusion this Saturday in the Belmont Stakes. With two strong Triple Crown victories in the books, one would think the winners would scare more runners off – not the case. A nearly capacity gate of fourteen is lined up for the final leg of the Triple Crown, including both the derby and Preakness winner. Before we dig into this year’s edition, a short review of the recent fortune of each in recent history:

Year    Kentucky Derby Winner                   Preakness Winner

2012    I’ll Have Another – Did Not Run *

2011    Animal Kingdom – 6th                          Shackleford – 5th

2010    Super Saver – Did Not Run                  Lookin at Lucky – Did Not Run

2009    Mine that Bird – 2nd                             Rachel Alexandra – Did Not Run

2008    Big Brown – Did Not Finish *

2007    Street Sense – Did Not Run                 Curlin – 2nd

2006    Barbaro – Did Not Run                         Bernardini – Did Not Run

2005    Giacomo – 7th                                      Afleet Alex – 1st

2004    Smarty Jones – 3rd *

2003    Funny Cide – 3rd *

2002    War Emblem – 8th *

2001    Monarchos – 3rd                                  Point Given – 1st

2000   Fusaichi Pegasus – Did Not Run          Red Bullet – Did Not Run

1999    Charismatic – 3rd *

1998    Real Quiet – 2nd *

1997    Silver Charm – 2nd *

1996    Grindstone – Did Not Run                   Louis Quatorze – 4th

1995    Thunder Gulch – 1st                          Timber Country – Did Not Run

1994    Go for Gin – 2nd                                Tabasco Cat – 1st

1993    Sea Hero – 7th                                   Prairie Bayou – Did Not Finish

1992    Lil E Tee – Did Not Run                      Pine Bluff – 3rd

1991    Strike the Gold – 2nd                          Hansel – 1st

1990   Unbridled – 4th                                    Summer Squall – Did Not Run

1989   Sunday Silence – 2nd *

1988   Winning Colors – 6th                           Risen Star – 1st

* Designates horse that won first two legs of the Triple Crown.

So do we run to the run-all-day type in Orb or do you go with the school of thought that says he’s on his way down in his form cycle and hope that Oxbow has another rabbit in his hat? The past five years have been brutal on the three-year-olds as far as trail castoffs, but the rubber match more often than not has gone the way of the Preakness winner. Though this is a small sample and in a lot of cases the Preakness winner ended up being simply a better horse in the long run, it is interesting to note.

Fillies are taken seriously if they jump into the TC foray, as shown by the off odds of both victresses in recent times, Rags to Riches and Rachel Alexandra. Todd Pletcher trained the former and sees this as the best possible spot for his Unlimited Budget and Rosie Napravnik… who am I to disagree? I am obviously very biased in this viewpoint, as I’m usually rooting for a filly to beat the boys… but doesn’t she have as legitimate of a shot as any? She was undefeated prior to the Oaks and took on one of the better editions I can remember in 2013. She didn’t run a bad race; it was just her typical, steady effort. Her cruising speed will benefit her more than an explosive kick, and if Rosie can reason with this filly and get her to relax she has every chance to put another Belmont in the girl’s corner. She did get a little antsy in the Oaks but that kind of crowd will do that to a filly. Hopefully the Belmont crowd doesn’t make her go bonkers…

Obviously Revolutionary will get his share of play off his Derby performance, and if Union Rags can do it why can’t he? This was the hype horse for the Derby whose name hasn’t graced many tongues in the media recently, but only probably due to his price in both races. He’s at a lukewarm 9-2 morning line for the Belmont and should end up a tad lower than that simply based on the visual appeal of his last race. Yes, Borel can carve out a trip for a horse at Churchill but does that necessarily translate to a better race with two extra furlongs to get tired? I’m more intrigued by a horse of his type for his ability to make his own trips, and that isn’t always at the top of the list for my criteria in Belmont selections. A mile and a half is enough time to overcome trouble of most sorts (Unless you’re War Emblem) and getting the best trip in the world is irrelevant if you run out of gas. Honestly, if any of Pletcher’s colts blew him away in the past few weeks the filly would not be in the picture.

One thing’s for sure… Gary Stevens painted a big bull’s eye on his back a few weeks ago. Don’t count any closer out of this edition of the Belmont, and count on a crowded finish.

The Dark Star Cup

Briefly, I’ll address the Saturday feature this weekend – one very dear to me. The Dark Star Cup has a spiffy first lineup, and one surprisingly not overdone with early speed.

Dark Cheering

Midwest has two entered, the speedy Southern Dude appearing to be the stronger of the uncoupled entry. He’s run before against (and beaten) Signsealndeliver, who enters fresh off a score on Illinois Champions Day. He survived an inquiry that day but was deemed best over his former-claimer stablemate, B Two Special.

Both of these will have to deal with another quality Hawthorne invader named I’ll Show Them. He may have captured the best race of them all over Calmer than You and ANOTHER Brueggemann trainee named Catfienated. His record on our main track is spotless and the six and a half furlong distance shouldn’t bother the son of Smarty Jones. The Robertson’s also bring two into the ring, with new face Ismael Grande in to track down the speedy Bet Seattle – winner of the Honor the Hero Stakes on Memorial Day. The winner of the Dowd Mile, Unsaddled Glory also joins the fray and fast-closing Clear to Canada makes his return to Canterbury as well. Dark may have settled in on the favorite given the chance, but that will be a hard role to establish in a field of this depth.

Good luck this weekend – hopefully it brings us all plenty of wings, wagers & winners!

This blog was written by Canterbury Paddock Analyst Angela Hermann. Angela Hermann serves as the Track Analyst for Hawthorne Racecourse in Cicero, Illinois and the summer of 2013 marks her third year in a similar capacity at Canterbury Park.

New Year’s Horse Racing Resolutions

2013 BlogWe all make them – Lose weight, get out more, travel, kick the bad habit – and we’ve all broken one at some point. While the sport of horse racing has made some vast improvements and successfully embarked on some new safety initiatives, there are just some things that don’t seem to change…

Here are some New Year’s Resolutions for Horse Racing that are long shots to make it through 2013:

1. Triple Crown Contenders will make it to the end of the year – This year in particular depleted the 3-year-old crop early. Both classic winners failed to make a start after their final wins, with much of their competition following the same path to stud. Three of the past five Derby winners have made two starts after the TC campaign, those being Big Brown, Super Saver, and Animal Kingdom. Big Brown of course won his two starts after the Belmont bomb, but was whisked away to stud much like Super Saver. He failed to win after the Derby and quietly slipped into retirement. Animal Kingdom has not retired but took off after the Belmont for the rest of the year. Mine That Bird kept right on chugging but most geldings would have. It’s easy to see why the 3-year-old Eclipse picture gets muddled when 30 names could get tossed into the hat at any given time and retired the next day. Which brings us to….

2. Eclipse Award Voting will go smoothly – That ugly term “East Coast Bias” seems to get slapped on every horse that wins from east of the Mississippi by Pacific coasters. Voters from the East yell “SCOREBOARD!” and go about their day. They claim it is fair, but the East just continues to churn out champion after champion. Yet in the past 10 years the West Coast has the same number of winning representatives in Horse of the Year, Older Horse, Older Female, Turf Male, Turf Female, and Female Sprinter: One (Zenyatta won Older Female three times but was the only mare from California.) The Juvenile categories seems fairly divided, with the fillies right down the middle and the males  swinging 6-4 in favor of the West. That’s about where the equality ends in winners though, with the overwhelming balance awarded to those lining the Atlantic. For the most part the horses from the East were simply best, but there are some tough calls along the way that make one wonder how fair the voting really is. It’s a debate that rages on year after year and never finds a different answer. The end does not appear to be within walking distance.

3. The Breeders’ Cup will stay the same – What was so broken about the concept in the first place? Since its inception in 1984, the Breeders’ Cup has been a marquee event for deciding year-end Championships and seems to have covered most categories, while forcing some out of their comfort zone but into the Winners’ Circle. However, over the past few years what was a five-star, eight course never-changing menu has sort of taken on Burger King’s “Have It Your Way” approach. Year by year, the BC has changed like so:

2007 – The Breeders’ Cup hit a swampy Monmouth Park for the first time and introduced its two-day format, focusing on Friday as “Ladies’ Day”. This particular edition didn’t sit well with me, as the new races added took some intrigue out of certain races. The Dirt Mile stole some 7 furlong type horses from the sprint that always came flying and occasionally got up. The Juvenile Turf made some sense, but all but eliminated the chance of young grass stars from Europe ever trying the dirt again. The Filly & Mare Sprint especially got my goat. Fillies and mares have held their own just fine in the Sprint, and although the distance is different only the severely distance challenged mares will ever face the boys again in November.

2008 – When it rains, it pours. Three more races joined the party in 2008, creating an overstuffed two-day festival of every condition a horse could hope for. The turf sprinters no longer had to face milers, and also had to navigate one of the trickiest turf courses in America (of course a local won). A tiny bunch to begin with, the juvenile turf horses in this country were split by sex. An even smaller group of marathon dirt horses got their own race too. Is it possible that one day Breeders’ Cup races will outnumber bowl games?

2009 – Another new precedent came about – Santa Anita kept the Breeders’ Cup for two years in a row. While this raised few complaints from Europeans (they thrived on the synthetic surface the year before), many American runners began to cry for dirt racing and did not run as a result.

2010 – Dirt is what they got the next year, but the racing card took a new twist and finished at night under the lights at Churchill Downs. It’s hard to gauge how this impacted the card, as America came out to see its girl Zenyatta no matter what time she ran. Although she took defeat, yours truly cannot recall a more excited Clubhouse than the night she took her only defeat. The card dragged on and much of the energy associated with the Cup was absent until the Classic. The Classic went a bit later in 2012, but most of that must be attributed to the venue.

2011 – Just what the Breeders’ Cup needed, another race, the Juvenile Sprint. With endurance problems rampant among American horses, a short race with a huge purse seemed an odd solution. Not that speed isn’t good, but why draw it out of the Juvenile?

2012 – Lasix is no longer allowed in two-year-olds on Breeders’ Cup day. While it’s a nice gesture, most horses in this country run on it and this is not a day for experiments. Debate can be tossed around about race day medication until doomsday, but Lasix is the touchiest of medications. Mike Repole boycotted the Breeders’ Cup with this rule, and with the way his horses ran at Aqueduct they most likely would have added some spice from the East.

4. The UAE Derby will finally produce a winner of the Kentucky Derby – With the new rules for the 2013 Kentucky Derby tossing graded earnings out the window, this race loses even more prestige. It used to be a free ticket for a Godolphin runner every spring, but its history hasn’t exactly got the pulse racing. Seven winners did not even contest the Kentucky Derby, as they either stayed overseas or were too old to compete (Southern Hemisphere winners). Of the contestants that did brave the trip, their finishes have ranged from sixth to twentieth. Whether it’s the ship, the change in company or just bad luck… this race just hasn’t made the impact it was created for.

What do you have to add to the list? What other horse racing events are we unlikely to see in 2013?

Best of luck to all in the coming year at the races!

This blog was written by Canterbury Paddock Analyst Angela Hermann. Angela Hermann just completed her second year as Canterbury’s Paddock Analyst after previously serving in a similar role at Lincoln Racecourse and Columbus Ag Park. She blogs about both local and National racing.

The End of the Trail – The Belmont Stakes

We see overwhelming morning line favorites scratch occasionally. In the Belmont? The eve of a possible triple crown? Once in a blue moon. While one balloon bursts for 2012, another gets a shot of air: The Belmont is now a viable betting race. We’ll have two horses taking the majority of the money as opposed to one, with a few “outsiders” now given a legitimate chance. Unfortunately, 6-1 is no longer a possibility for the one horse yours truly considered competition for I’ll Have Another.

I’ve stuck by Union Rags all spring and donated to the win pool generously on May 5th. He enters this race as a fresh competitor after skipping the Preakness, and is training out of his skin for Mike Matz. Julien Leparoux hit the bench after two troubled trips aboard ‘Rags, as Belmont regular John Velazquez takes the reins. Yes, there is the detention barn hoopla that takes him out of his home base at Fair Hill. Yes, he does not have the record on paper at two turns that he does at one. However, consider the trouble this horse has encountered in those events and you still have a very talented, fresh animal in the best of care. Consider:

1. Union Rags was most likely not cranked to the gills for the Florida Derby. He ran by the field like they were standing still in the Fountain of Youth, but who wants to see two races like that in a row prior to the biggest challenge of his life? Not me.

2. I am sick of hearing excuses in the derby too, but the horse really didn’t get a clear run until the last half of the race. He didn’t give up in defeat, and who’s to say how much was left in the tank afterwards?

3. A lot of horses in recent history have won the Belmont after skipping the Preakness. Most trainers would give their horse a similar window of time (five weeks) to rest after the grueling Derby, and without a triple crown to race for Mike Matz laid U.R. off with the Belmont as a target.

Horses like Dullahan and Street Life take a lot of money in the Belmont, but generally are so exhausted by the quarter pole that their late kick is all but done. Paynter is bred for this much ground and then some, but like stablemate Bodemeister is pretty much raw talent at this point playing catch-up with the seasoned three year olds. My Adonis will be underneath in my tickets simply based on connections and breeding. Kelly Breen obviously knew more than most with Ruler On Ice, and while he didn’t turn out to be a superstar he was prepared for the race of his life on Belmont Day. He’s not up to par on class with some of these but his tactical speed with give Ramon Dominguez options.

This is what the end of the trail looks like when the driver of the bandwagon is gone. Good luck to all in the Belmont!

This blog was written by Canterbury Paddock Analyst Angela Hermann. Angela Hermann is entering her second year as Canterbury’s Paddock Analyst after previously serving in a similar role at Lincoln Racecourse and Columbus Ag Park. She blogs about both local and National racing.

History Says We’ll Have Another… Near Miss

Many racing (and non-racing) fans would be thrilled to witness the first Triple Crown winner since 1978. They clamor for this unlikely accomplishment to boost racing’s national profile. I’m not one of those people. For the record, I’m rooting against a win by I’ll Have Another on Saturday. I believe the elusiveness of such a feat is the allure. Once obtained, especially by a previously unheralded runner with somewhat questionable connections, it loses its grandiosity. When it does happen, I’m hoping the winning horse mirrors the great Secretariat, who broke a 25 year Triple Crown drought and turned into, most believe, the greatest race horse of all-time.

Let’s take a look at the six runners to have this shot since 1997:

1997 – Silver Charm

Silver Charm was very similar to I’ll Have Another. Both were stationed in Southern California and both were game in the Santa Anita Derby. Silver Charm lost by a nose to Free House and I’ll Have Another won by a nose to Creative Cause. Silver Charm won hard-fought victories in the Kentucky Derby and Preakness before losing a late battle to Touch Gold in the Belmont. There was nothing tinny about the ’97 Triple Crown talent. Silver Charm went on to win 7 more graded races, including the Dubai World Cup, and retired with almost $7,000,000 in earnings. Touch Gold won the Haskell in his next start and has turned into a top-notch sire.

1998 – Real Quiet

Real Quiet was the first of many to come head-scratchers aiming for a Triple Crown. Bob Baffert (who trained Silver Charm to a narrow miss in 1997) was right back in 1998 with this colt. Real Quiet required 7 starts to break his maiden, had been drilled in an allowance race at Santa Fe, had lost the Golden Gate Derby by 23 lengths and was winless in his three-year old season before taking down the Derby and Preakness. A win by Real Quiet would have been a travesty for racing purists. Real Quiet, ironically, came closer than any non-Triple Crown winner has ever come.  He lost a nose in the Belmont after leading by 4 lengths in the stretch. He actually won the Grade 1 Pimlico Special and Grade 1 Hollywood Gold Cup to finish his career which legitimizes him to some degree.

1999 – Charismatic

For the second year in a row, a pedestrian looking runner made it to New York with a chance of taking down the Triple Crown. This horse had performed poorly enough to be entered (and lose) a claiming race just five starts before winning the Derby. He had only a maiden claiming win to his name prior to winning the Derby and was on a 7 race losing streak. It is likely that both Real Quiet and Charasmatic were products of the era…  Charasmatic was injured in the Belmont finishing third and never ran another race.

2002 – War Emblem

Baffert again came to NY with an unlikely candidate for the Triple Crown. He had War Emblem in his stable only days prior to this colt starting in the Derby.  The runner was trained by Frank Springer for the first 7 races of his career, including a 6 ½ length romp in the Illinois Derby a month before the Kentucky Derby.  However, War Emblem, like the two most recent colts that lined up with a shot in the Belmont, had a less than stellar resume heading to the Derby. He was soundly drilled in the Manilla, Lecomte and Risen Star. The Illinois Derby win marked his first stakes victory and was the reason bettors allowed this runner to get away at 21-1 in Kentucky. He stumbled at the break in the Belmont and was not heard from throughout. Sarava scored a 70-1 upset and keyed boxcar payoffs in the exotics. War Emblem was soundly drilled in three of his last four starts including a 20 length defeat in the BC Classic of 2002.

2003 – Funny Cide

Funny Cide was a great story. A modestly bred gelding owned by a bunch of guys who had been friends since childhood. They didn’t invest a lot but experienced a ride of a lifetime.  But had Funny Cide won the Belmont, could you honestly place his name alongside War Admiral, Citation, Seattle Slew and Secretariat?  Those names are the cornerstone of racing lore. Funny Cide is a good barometer to I’ll Have Another. Both Funny Cide and I’ll Have Another were game in grinding away a Kentucky Derby win. Both made exhilarating moves in the Preakness to win (Funny Cide by nearly 10 lengths and I’ll Have Another to catch a clear leader Bodemeister, who was a mile in front of the rest of the field). After a 10 length win in the Preakness, the public made Funny Cide even money to win the Belmont. He was passed early and finished a weak 3rd in the field of 6 behind Empire Maker. While Funny Cide won the Jockey’s Gold Cup of 2004, he would finish his career nibbling on state bred type stakes races in NY. This would have hardly been the type of company we would expect a Triple Crown winner to keep. The “racing gods” stepped in yet again and reserved the Triple Crown for a more meaningful type.

2004 – Smarty Jones

Smarty Jones was certainly deserving of the Triple Crown. He had won all 8 of his races prior to the Belmont. He had won by a combined 50 lengths in 8 starts and had come to the Belmont off of 12 length score in the Preakness. As Funny Cide the year before him, it appeared the ease of which he scored in the Preakness made him a cinch in the Belmont. He went off at 1-9 and was run down by the Nick Zito trained Birdstone. The atmosphere was so sullen after Birdstone won (at 35-1) that the owners of Birdstone actually apologized in the post-race interview. Smarty Jones never raced again so there is no way to know if he would have been as great as Secretariat, Seattle Slew and Affirmed. He had bruises on all four shins… as was the excuse for retirement. It was more plausible the allure of breeding money took Smarty Jones from the racetrack. This would have likely been the same plan had he won the Belmont and we would have never been treated to a deserving encore.

2008 – Big Brown

Finally, there was Big Brown. I doubt there ever was an animal more distained for his connections than Big Brown. He was owned by a syndicate of smarmy investors and trained by possibly the most despised person in the industry, Rick Dutrow. Dutrow had numerous violations and a hard to like personality. He boasted to NBC about giving his horses steroids prior to the Preakness. He crushed in the marred running of the 2008 Derby. His win and subsequent defeat of runner-up Eight Belles (who died on the track following the race) prompted congressional investigations into horse racing at the highest levels. Big Brown destroyed the Preakness field and was a can’t miss in the Belmont. At 1-9, he was so far back on the backstretch that jockey Kent Desormeaux cried uncle and gave up. It was the only loss for Big Brown as he would win the Haskell and Monmouth Stakes to close out his career with 7 wins in 8 starts.

Interestingly, the last three colts mentioned came into the Belmont off of sensational, jaw dropping scores in the Preakness. I’ll Have Another never looked a loser when he made his move in the Preakness, either. Many won’t forget and will push his post time odds into the 6-5 range. Can he win? Of course. But history says we’ve seen this movie before. There will be some low hanging fruit on the tote board tree. Runners like Union Rags and Dullahan will see inflated odds due to the “Triple Crown phenomena”. Both will finish in front of I’ll Have Another. The favorite will make a bit of an early move, take the lead in early stretch and then be run down like he’s tied to the fence in the final furlong.

There will be groans from the crowd… but not from everyone.

This blog was written by Canterbury Regular “Track Phantom”. Track Phantom has been a dedicated handicapper, writer, blogger, bettor and fan of racing since 1986 and has analyzed virtually every Canterbury race since. He particularly focuses on his home track of Canterbury Park and offers free daily analysis of Canterbury’s live racing at www.trackphantom.com.

Triple Crown Hysteria

Before I keyboard another sentence, I want to say that I think that all this Triple Crown hysteria is pretty stupid. I say this for two reasons: first, I’m going to get a lot of clicks on this piece, because everyone who Googles “Gelfand stupid” will read this monograph. Second, I really do think that the Triple Crown is a horrible excuse for its intended purpose, which is to define the best three year olds in America and, with any luck, produce a Triple Crown winner who would, in turn, guarantee a publicity jackpot.

This is the point at which I remind you that no one has won the Triple Crown since Affirmed in 1978 and then I talk about Seattle Slew and Secretariat and all that, but you know all this stuff. This isn’t The Huffington Post, for God’s sake; it’s a horse racing blog.

Now, I think all of us would agree that a Triple Crown champ would be wonderful, and that we could use some good news these days. If I’ll Have Another wins the Belmont, we’re not going to return to the glory days of 1938, when the nation stopped to listen through the radio static to the match race between War Admiral and Seabiscuit. But we’d get some feel-good stories and maybe a few more people in the grandstand. (Please, dear racing Gods, don’t let some Middle East oil billionaire snatch up I’ll Have Another before the Belmont.)

Having said that, I have to add that by my criteria, Bodemeister is still the best three-year-old out there and that folks have been mighty kind to Mike Smith, who tried to win the Kentucky Derby by sprinting, quarterhorse style, from beginning to end. I think the world, or at least an entire hemisphere, of Mike Smith, and you could argue that he’s as good as anyone else out there except Rafael Bejarano. But please… Smith did everything but scream “Wahoooo!” as he raced around the Twin Spires.

A guy who has been riding horses for 35 years can probably tell if his charge is on a pace to run six furlongs in 1:09 and change. I know some folks say that the trainer told him to let the horse set his own pace, but it takes a mighty stupid (more clicks) jockey to stick with a mighty stupid strategy. I always thought the most worthless thing any trainer could say to a jockey was “Get the lead, but don’t go too fast,” but those words are like wisdom handed down from Zion compared to “Let him set his own pace.”

So, in my mind, the Triple Crown isn’t really going to prove much of anything, except that the day is long gone when a horse can run the Kentucky Derby as if it were a five furlong dash and then come back two weeks later and win the Preakness.

The problem with the Triple Crown in general is that it long ago ceased to be a valid test of greatness and, instead, turned into a battle for survival. Even though we don’t precisely know why, we know that horses can’t run as far or as often as they once did. In terms of fitness and endurance, the breed in general has regressed to the mean. The American classic distance is now a solid six furlongs.

In 1823 – going back just a hiccup in time, at least in anthropological terms – Eclipse and Sir Henry turned out 60,000 spectators in New York for the Match Race of the Century. Not only did they race four miles, but they did it three times in one day, pausing just long enough to cool down and allow rival fans to call each other names, exchange blows, and bet even more money against each other.

So, if your argument is that we can’t change anything about the Triple Crown because we have to stick to horse racing tradition… I got your tradition right there. The paradigm has already shifted.

Now that we all agree on that, a fellow could probably make an argument for running all three Triple Crown races at, say, a mile, but that might be going too far (irony intended) and it would never happen anyway.

Still, we can find a compromise that allows a more realistic test of greatness by providing horses with reasonable and ordinary recovery time between races. I say run the races five or six weeks apart. Just for starters, we’d have a lot better chance of producing a Triple Crown, and the horse that won said Triple Crown might even be the best of his generation. We’d also build up the anticipation to the races, which is mostly the idea anyway. And more time would allow other three-year-olds to pad their resume, simply get better, and make each race more meaningful and competitive than the last.

For those who cannot abandon tradition, I understand. But horse racing tradition these days means weak fields and, ultimately, no Triple Crown champion since Affirmed.

I still say Alydar was better.

This blog was written by Twin Cities Radio Personality Mike Gelfand. Gelfand can be seen at Canterbury on Today at the Races every Friday night with Paddock Analyst Angela Hermann.