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NTRA Thoroughbred Notebook

News and notes from around the Thoroughbred racing world, compiled by NTRA Communications.

Female superstars Rachel Alexandra and Zenyatta lead an all-star cast of finalists for the 2009 Eclipse Awards, recognizing excellence in Thoroughbred racing. Winners in all categories will be announced at the 39th annual Eclipse Awards ceremony, to be held Monday evening, January 18, at the Beverly Wilshire Hotel in Beverly Hills, Calif.

The announcement of the finalists was made yesterday by the National Thoroughbred Racing Association (NTRA), National Turf Writers Association (NTWA) and Daily Racing Form (DRF), the three presenting organizations of the Eclipse Awards.

The three-year-old filly Rachel Alexandra, winner of all eight of her starts in 2009, including the Preakness Stakes; and the five-year old mare Zenyatta, who won all five of her races last year and culminated her undefeated career by becoming the first female to win the Breeders’ Cup Classic, are the two candidates for Horse of the Year. Rachel Alexandra and Zenyatta were the only two horses to receive votes in the Horse of the Year category.

The Eclipse Awards finalists (in alphabetical order) are:
Horse of the Year: Rachel Alexandra, Zenyatta
Two-Year-Old Male: Lookin At Lucky, Noble’s Promise, Vale of York (IRE)
Two-Year-Old Filly: Blind Luck, Hot Dixie Chick, She Be Wild
Three-Year-Old Male: Mine That Bird, Quality Road, Summer Bird
Three-Year-Old Filly: Careless Jewel, Flashing, Rachel Alexandra
Older Male: Einstein (BRZ), Gio Ponti, Kodiak Kowboy
Older Female: Life Is Sweet, Music Note, Zenyatta
Male Sprinter: Dancing in Silks, Kodiak Kowboy, Zensational
Female Sprinter: Informed Decision, Music Note, Ventura
Male Turf Horse: Conduit (IRE), Gio Ponti, Presious Passion
Female Turf Horse: Goldikova (IRE), Midday (GB), Ventura
Steeplechase Horse: Mixed Up, Red Letter Day, Spy in the Sky
Owner: Godolphin Racing, Juddmonte Farms, Mr. and Mrs. Jerome S. Moss
Breeder: Adena Springs, Juddmonte Farms, Dolphus C. Morrison
Trainer: Steve Asmussen, Bob Baffert, John Shirreffs
Jockey: Ramon Dominguez, Garrett Gomez, Julien Leparoux
Apprentice Jockey: Luis Batista, Christian Santiago Reyes, Luis Saez

The Eclipse Awards are named after the great 18th-century racehorse and foundation sire Eclipse, who began racing at age five and was undefeated in 18 starts, including eight walkovers. Eclipse sired the winners of 344 races, including three Epsom Derbies.
The 2009 Eclipse Awards ceremony will be televised live on TVG.

John Avello, the Director of Race and Sports Operations at Wynn/Encore in Las Vegas, is known as one of Sin City’s sharpest oddsmakers. In addition to the plethora of odds Avello sets when real money is on the line, he also enjoys putting up odds for entertainment purposes only on non-betting propositions like the outcome of political elections or Academy Awards voting. In that spirit, Avello has made Zenyatta a heavy 1-3 favorite to win the 2009 Eclipse Award for Horse of the Year. Zenyatta’s lone foe, Rachel Alexandra is listed at 5-2.

“I like to refer to the expression ‘What have you done lately?’ and Zenyatta’s latest was dominant,” said Avello. “It’s difficult, though, when you have a beautiful lady on each arm and are asked to choose only one. I’m a sucker for West Coast women.”

Bryan Wagner, a 66-year-old insurance executive from New Orleans, used a second-place finish at the December 26-27 Surfside Race Place qualifier in Del Mar, Calif., to clinch the 2009 crown as Daily Racing Form/NTRA NHC Tour Champion and a $100,000 first-place prize. Should Wagner capture the title later this month at the January 29-30 Daily Racing Form/NTRA National Handicapping Championship (NHC) finals in Las Vegas, he will receive a $2 million bonus in addition to that event’s estimated first prize of $500,000.

After earning 1,383 NHC Tour points for his efforts in Del Mar, Wagner finished the 2009 contest year with 11,425 points. Finishing in a tie for second with 10,000 points was Wagner’s wife Judy. She and fellow runner-up Steven Hartshorn of Newport Beach, Calif., each received $37,500. Judy Wagner, who finished third in the Surfside qualifier, also received a big contest payday back in January 2001 when she earned $100,000 for becoming the first — and still only — woman to win the NHC finals.

Rounding out the top five in the 2009 NHC Tour standings are Mike Labriola of Richmond, Calif., (9,422 pts., $10,000) and Shawn Turner of Middletown, Md., (9,275 pts., $5,000). The top five overall NHC Tour point earners also earn automatic berths in the 12th annual NHC in January 2011. Only a player’s top five scores count toward his or her overall total.

“With so many excellent Tour players I feel very fortunate to have finished at the top,” said Bryan, who is a Republican Party leader in New Orleans and helped guide the successful Congressional campaign of Rep. Anh “Joseph” Cao. “The excitement of this gets better every day. Those who know Judy know she is a fighter to the end. She did just that at Surfside until the last race. Seeing her move from fifth place to a tie for second made my victory even better. After Judy won NHC II, I thought I would forever be ‘Mr. Judy Wagner’. I hope the NTRA is as thrilled as I am that I can finally have my own identity and be a good ambassador for the horseplayer.”

More than 380 NHC Tour members earned points in 2009 handicapping qualifiers hosted by 39 different NTRA-member organizations. Red Rock Casino, Resort and Spa will host a “Last Chance” qualifier on January 27 that will offer the final berths for the January 29-30 NHC at Red Rock, where 302 contestants will compete for an estimated $1 million prize pool. But that Last Chance qualifier on January 27 will not award NHC Tour points.

The Daily Racing Form/NTRA National Handicapping Championship is the most important tournament of the year for horseplayers and is the culmination of a year-long series of NTRA-sanctioned local tournaments conducted by racetracks, casino racebooks, off-track betting facilities and horse racing and handicapping Web sites, each of which sends its top qualifiers to the national finals. This year, more than 100,000 people attempted to qualify for the 2010 NHC at Red Rock Casino, Resort & Spa in Las Vegas.

The NHC Tour is a yearlong bonus series offering additional prize money and qualifying berths to the DRF/NTRA National Handicapping Championship. Tour members receive NHC Tour points for top finishes in NHC qualifying events held during the year. In addition to potential prize money and berths in the NHC, benefits for NHC Tour members include automatic enrollment in the Horseplayers’ Coalition, which seeks legislative and regulatory solutions to tax and business issues that impact pari-mutuel racetracks and their customers and provides grass roots support for the NTRA’s lobbying efforts on Capitol Hill. Registration for the 2010 NHC Tour will begin in late January.

An affinity for Santa Anita’s Pro-Ride racing surface has hastened the return of Breeders’ Cup Dirt Mile winner Furthest Land in Saturday’s 73rd running of the Grade II, $150,000 San Pasqual Handicap at 1 1/16 miles at Santa Anita.

Based in the East prior to his stellar showing in the Breeders’ Cup, Furthest Land will carry high weight of 121 pounds among seven entrants in the event that dates to Santa Anita’s opening season in 1935 and that has come to serve as the first major stepping stone to the Grade I Santa Anita Handicap, scheduled this year on March 6.

A 5-year-old gelding owned by Ken and Sarah Ramsey and trained by Michael Maker, Furthest Land maintained a perfect record in his third start over a synthetic surface and first over Santa Anita’s Pro-Ride in the Breeders’ Cup.

At odds of 21-1 with Julien Leparoux in the saddle, the Kentucky-bred son of Smart Strike took the Dirt Mile by three-quarters of a length over 24-1 shot Ready’s Echo.
“That was incredible,” Maker said in the Breeders’ Cup winner’s circle. “His record on synthetics speaks for itself.”

Garrett Gomez, who rode Furthest Land to victory in the Grade II Kentucky Club Classic over Turfway Park’s synthetic surface prior to the Breeders’ Cup, will regain the mount on Saturday. Claimed for $35,000 by the Ramseys on October 24, 2008, Furthest Land has career earnings of $863,689 from an overall record of 8-2-1 in 16 trips to the post.

The Breeders’ Cup Dirt Mile champion will have to contend with hard-hitting California-bred millionaire Bold Chieftain in the San Pasqual. Trained by William J. Morey Jr. for a partnership, the 7-year-old son of Chief Seattle is on a roll with three straight wins to bring his career record to 14-6-4 in 32 starts for earnings of $1,122,411.

Russell Baze, North America’s all-time winningest rider who has been aboard for all but two of Bold Chieftain’s wins, will be back in his usual spot astride the bay horse who is 3-2-0 in eight starts over synthetics. In his most recent start at Santa Anita, Bold Chieftain captured Oak Tree’s $196,000 California Cup Classic on October 3. His millionaire status notwithstanding, Bold Chieftain will be searching for his first graded stakes victory in the San Pasqual as the second high weight at 119 pounds.

Munnings, ranked among the nation’s leading 3-year-old sprinters last year with victories in the Grade II Woody Stephens Stakes at Saratoga and the Grade II Tom Fool Handicap at Belmont Park, is set to make his 2010 debut as the likely favorite in the Grade III, $100,000 Mr. Prospector Stakes Saturday at Gulfstream Park in Hallandale, Fla.

The Mr. Prospector is among five stakes worth a total of $475,000 to be run on the first ever Gulfstream Sprint Showcase card. Regular jockey John R. Velazquez will be aboard Munnings for trainer Todd Pletcher as he makes his first start since finishing third in the Grade I Vosburgh Stakes over a ‘sloppy’ track at Belmont on Oct. 3.

Munnings faces eight rival older horses in the six-furlong Mr. Prospector with Custom for Carlos certain to attract his share of support with jockey Julien Leparoux in the saddle for trainer Eddie Kenneally. He is making his first appearance since a sharp 3 ¼ lengths victory in the Bet On Sunshine Handicap at Churchill Downs on November 21.

Tar Heel Mom and Bold Union each won stakes at Aqueduct in their last starts of 2009 and will be among the choices in a field of nine fillies and mares entered in the Grade III, $100,000 Sugar Swirl Stakes at six furlongs. The Sugar Swirl was formerly known as the First Lady Stakes.

Jockey Jose Lezcano rides Tar Heel Mom for trainer Stan Hough after an impressive four-length victory in the In Her Glory Stakes at Aqueduct on November 11. Jockey Joe Bravo gets the call on Bold Union after they teamed up to win the Tate Stakes on the inner track at Aqueduct on December 2 by 1 ¼ lengths going wire-to-wire.
Something will have to give when seven undefeated fillies face off in a field of 11 for the Grade III, $100,000 Old Hat Stakes. Cuff Me will most likely rule the choice under Ramon Dominguez. The daughter of Officer seeks her fourth straight tally after winning the Silent Turn Stakes last time out at Aqueduct on December 4.

The $100,000 Spectacular Bid Stakes for 3-year-old colts and the $75,000 Gulfstream Turf Sprint for older grass sprinters round out the Saturday stakes action at Gulfstream.

As a Thoroughbred owner, David Milch has won Breeders’ Cup races with Gilded Time (1992 Juvenile en route to Eclipse honors as Champion Two-Year-Old Colt) and Val Royal (2001 Mile). As an executive producer, he has brought TV viewers such popular series as “Hill Street Blues”, “NYPD Blue” and “Deadwood”. Now Milch will marry his two loves as he prepares for HBO a pilot episode for a series called “Luck”. The show would focus on a character named Ace Bernstein, a well-known railbird at the track who’s just finished a prison term for securities violations.
“The pilot is about a bunch of intersecting lives in the world of horse racing,” Milch told Daily Variety. “It’s a subject which has engaged and some might say has compelled me for 50 years. I’ve joked that if I just can make $25 million on this show, I’ll be even on research expenses. I find it as complicated and engaging a special world as any I’ve ever encountered, not only in what happens in the clubhouse and the grandstand, but also on the backside of the track, where the training is done and where they house the horses.”