Alchemy

Happy Breeders’ Cup Saturday. I’m going to let you in on a secret. Use it if you like, if not that’s fine too, that’s what makes racing fun. Having said that,  the combination of Mr. Prospector sire line runners, trained by Bob Baffert is a proven cross for winning big races. It’s resulted in a Triple Crown winner, multiple Kentucky Derby, Preakness, Belmont, Travers Stakes,  Haskell Invitational and Breeders’ Cup Juvenile champions.

You could say this is simply a result of Baffert being a Hall of Fame trainer, and Mr. Prospector being the best stallion of at least his generation. This certainly says as much. I think it’s a perfect storm of timing, training style and conformational qualities that have made Baffert with Mr. Prospector a perfect partnership.

Let me give you a list of horses this idea applies to: Real Quiet, Point Given, War Emblem, Pioneerof the Nile, American Pharoah, Bodemeister, Secret Circle, Klimt, Lookin at Lucky, Roman Ruler, Coil, New Years Day, Midnight Lute, Shakin It Up, Midshipman, Bob and John, Souvenir Copy. And of course, in the Breeders’ Cup Classic today, Arrogate and Hoppertunity.

Some history: the late 1990’s were Baffert’s rise to prominence, winning two straight Kentucky Derby and Preakness Stakes, and winning the training Eclipse Award in 1997, 98, 99. Mr. Prospector set his standard in the 1980s and 90s, with Gulch, Forty Niner, Seeking the Gold, Gone West, Conquistador Cielo and many others, and capping his career with  Fusaichi Pegasus’ win in the 2000 Kentucky Derby. As the bloodline became wider, and more sons and grandsons became breeding stallions, Baffert utilized the speed and conformational qualities of these runners like a basketball coach with a team full of players that fit his program perfectly.

Mr. Prospector threw horses with an engine, also known as powerful hindquarters, reminiscent of Quarter Horses. Here’s the best example of this  They were able to break from the gate quickly, control the pace, and then rely on their stamina to pull ahead and win the race.

Have I tipped my hand too much on who I’ll be betting on today? Of course, this is what makes racing the great sport it is, the my horse is better than your horse argument. Enjoy Breeders’ Cup Saturday, good luck to all, but just remember who tipped you on that son of Unbridled’s Song. 

 

 

 

 

 

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Giving Thanks

I really loved Hollywood Park.

When I was first getting into racing, I made a point to watch on TV the Hollywood Gold Cup, the Matriarch, the Futurity, the Starlet, the Swaps. Important races from an important track, and I had to see what happened.

I loved that it was across the parking lot from the Forum, the old school former home of the Lakers. I loved watching the Hollywood Park replay shows on TVG, my daily meeting with Kurt Hoover. I loved the Turf Festival in November, where, as a ten year-old boy, I would dream about Southern California Thanksgivings.

I went to Hollywood Park once. It was November 2013, about a month before the track closed for good, making way for, at the time, shops and apartments, and now for a new NFL stadium. They had been playing great music all day on the PA and around the call to post for the last race, “Keep Me in Your Heart” by Warren Zevon came on. It was a stunningly beautiful moment. The sun was going down, I had won some money and I got my chance to say thanks and nice to meet you to a California racing legend.

 

Here are some of the photos I took from that day.

 

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Spreading The Gospel

A few  words about Pulpit, the Claiborne Farm homebred runner and stallion who has always been well-regarded but may need another look. With the Travers Stakes tomorrow, and three generations of Pulpit running in the same race, it’s a good time to consider the impact he’s made on Thoroughbred racing.

Pulpit was a stallion who threw versatile runners, winning races like the Belmont Derby (12 furlongs on grass), Forego Stakes (7 furlongs on dirt) and Florida Derby (9 furlongs on dirt). Pulpit never lead the general sire list, his best showing a ninth place finish in 2007, his progeny earning over $6.6 million that year. Pulpit has sired over forty graded stakes winners, a number that is very impressive, but falls dramatically short of the 82 for Giant’s Causeway, the best stallion of Pulpit’s generation, and is more in line with a stallion like Lemon Drop Kid, an excellent if unspectacular sire who has compiled 42 graded winners to date.

Why the second look at Pulpit?  He has continued to have steady success after his way-too-soon passing in 2012, getting recent graded winners like Fiftyshadesofhay, Mr. Speaker, Lord Nelson and 2016 Travers entrant American Freedom. In addition, his sons have proven to be precocious sires on their own, and this is where Pulpit may ultimately have his greatest influence.

At the top of the list of sons by Pulpit has to be a member of his third-crop at stud, Tapit. Tapit was the first ranked stallion on the general sire list in 2015, 2014, and is on top again in 2016. He has one of the best runners in the world in Frosted, a Travers runner (and Belmont Stakes winner) in Creator, and graded/ group winners Cupid, Lani and Mohaymen. He is the sire of the promising Trappe Shot who in turn is the sire of My Man Sam, another Midsummer Derby entry from the Pulpit line. Tapit is represented on the 2016 first-crop sire list by sons Tapizar and Breeders’ Cup Juvenile winner Hansen.

Lucky Pulpit has sired California Chrome, the highest Thoroughbred money winner of all time. Sky Mesa has sired two runners with over a million dollars in earnings. Claiborne Farm homebred Stroll has been a useful sire, getting five graded stakes winners and a Canadian champion two-year old. Breeders’ Cup Mile winner Corinthian sires excellent two-year olds and is very popular with mid-Atlantic breeders. Add in Power Broker, Mr. Speaker, Lord Nelson, American Freedom, and the future’s bright for sons of Pulpit.

Pulpit didn’t win the Travers, and none of his progeny, or theirs, have either. Frosted was third in 2015, Tonalist third in 2014, Pyro third in 2008, and you get the idea. Still, Tapit is having another incredible year, California Chrome is the leader in the clubhouse for Horse of the Year, and Pulpit himself is having a nice late career push. You’ve got three generations to choose from in the Midsummer Derby, and it may just be the family’s year. Enjoy the race everybody!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Ten Races

Ten races I look forward to every year:

Kentucky Derby– The Run for the Roses. Over one hundred forty years of tradition. Mint juleps. Louisville in May. Past winners’ names in the Churchill paddock, watching over each Derby field like knowing mentors. Negotiating a field of twenty, having enough left for the stretch run. A winner’s circle used only once per year.

Preakness Stakes- Triple Crown dreams become tangible or fizzle, all at that interesting distance of a mile and 3/16. Two years older than the Kentucky Derby. The middle child of the Triple Crown. A Baltimore party. The blanket of “black-eyed susans.”

Belmont Stakes– Where Triple Crown winners are immortalized, or where we have to wait for next year. Secretariat winning by 31 lengths. American Pharoah making the grandstand shake. The Test of Champions.  Big Sandy. A mile and a half.

Breeders Cup Classic- The stretch duels. Sunday Silence and Easy Goer. Blame and Zenyatta. Ferdinand and Alysheba. American Pharoah, Ghostzapper, “Tiznow wins it for America.” Awesome Again, Skip Away, Cigar. Arcangues wins at 133-1. A.P. Indy. Wild Again!

Travers Stakes– The Midsummer Derby. The painted canoe in the lake. Man O’ War. Whirlaway.  Jaipur and Raidan. Easy Goer. Alydar.The storm clouds overhead Birdstone. Alpha and Golden Ticket dead-heating. Keen Ice rolling on the outside to beat a Triple Crown winner.

Dubai World Cup– A presentation and setting like nothing else. Cigar putting the world’s richest race on the map. Silver Charm. Dubai Millenium. Curlin. California Chrome becoming the highest earning Thoroughbred ever.

Santa Anita Handicap-The Hundred Grander, The Big Cap. The San Gabriel Mountains watching the best older horses in the country. Whittingham, Shoemaker. Seabiscuit, Affirmed in 1:58 3/5, a record that stood for 36 years. Game On Dude. Shared Belief.

Pacific Classic-Best Pal. Dare and Go beating Cigar, stopping a sixteen race win streak. Bobby Frankel winning five in ten years. Beholder making that move on the far turn. California Chrome in “one of the greatest performances you’ll ever see.”

Hopeful Stakes-The Labor Day bittersweet goodbye to each Saratoga season. The promise and potential of a two-year old Thoroughbred. Maybe the next Man O’ War, Nashua, Secretariat, Foolish Pleasure, Affirmed, Summer Squall?

The next race- Always looking ahead. The racing fan’s blessing and curse.

 

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A Golden Day

Horse racing is a sport that exists on the periphery, below the fold, on the back pages. Sure, the Kentucky Derby is glamorous, a national event. The Breeders’ Cup is due the primetime slot it’s received since its inaugural running thirty years ago. Still, packed clubhouses at most tracks are a memory. Tuning in to major TV networks happens only a handful of times per year. Racing was alive Saturday at Golden Gate Fields, and I was there to see it.

In the backyard, past the parking lots, were the San Francisco Bay, the Golden Gate Bridge, and the Pacific Ocean. From the seventy-year old grandstand, you can trace the geography of the East Bay from the ports of Oakland, past Sather Tower at UC-Berkeley all the way to the shipyards of Richmond.

Altogether, probably no more than 3,000 people were in attendance. A fair majority are middle-aged men, dressed in tennis shoes, jeans and any combination of pro-sports teams’ jackets and sweatshirts. They studied their programs and racing forms, yelled for their horses on TV monitors showing races from hundreds or thousands of miles away. Many smoked, most kept to themselves. A few noble parents brought their children along.

The track bugler calls the horses to post prior to each race, but before the official tune, he throws in a few bars of Stevie Wonder, Louis Armstrong, or The Champs.

My first wagering event is the third race, a mile on the turf. I go with an exacta of two fillies who run third, and off the board. Russell Baze, a Racing Hall of Fame jockey who has won more than 9,000 races at Golden Gate Fields, went to the lead and faded.

Seeing familiar names in the program makes for good memories, if not necessarily shrewd betting strategy. I make a win bet on a colt in the fourth race because my dad and I saw his grandfather sell for $4 million as a baby, and then two years later, as a mischievous, underachieving college freshman, I saw that baby grow up and win the Kentucky Derby from the Churchill Downs infield. There may have been local bourbon involved that May Saturday. Unfortunately, my colt didn’t live up to family expectations on this Saturday.

It’s now the fifth race, another mile on the turf. With twelve runners in the race, I try to get some value with an exacta box, wheeling Russell Baze’s favored mount with several interesting long shots. It’s only 2:45 in the afternoon, and the shadows are settling in, making it suddenly quite chilly.

The on-track experience reminds me of those small, often-forgotten moments like the cracks of the jockey’s whip against the horses’ flanks and the yells for random numbers from three feet away. Watching at home on TV or the Internet, you don’t see a groom heading straight for the betting windows after leading his horse to the track, or a jockey handing his used goggles to a six year-old fan.

The mile grass race is over in less than a hundred seconds. Another beaten favorite. Another losing ticket to put in my pocket. Now, I’m cold, and several bucks down.

Just like at another San Francisco park, seagulls descend around this time to scavenge. I listen for my name to see if I’ve won the $50 wagering voucher. No luck, but congrats to the lady from Oakland who won it. I try a daily double with four horses in the sixth and single an 8-1 runner in the feature stakes race. My first sign of hope all day. I get home the first half of my daily double, after a close photo finish.

Anticipation is so much of life, horse racing especially. The races themselves are rarely more than two minutes in length. You normally have about a half hour in between, to imbibe, handicap, pray. Many tracks have installed slot machines to help pass the time. At Golden Gate, we’re left to our racing forms and our own devices. In the minutes before a race, we’re all winners, knowledgeable handicappers. Before the seventh race, I look down on the ground at some of the losing tickets that litter the track apron. They were once hopeful investments, now worthless remnants. Someone had $5 to win on “Life Is A Stone.” Showing why he’s the tracks all-time leading jockey, Russell Baze boots home a promising, even-money two-year old to win the feature race. My daily double is a loser.

Is the thrill, the high, of winning what keeps horseplayers coming back? When one stops to think of their personal Return on Investment, most get depressed. But that’s the thing. Where else would you rather be? You’re left alone to study the form, you’ve got a bar nearby, and the concession stand serves food that’s hot and tastes good. And good or bad, there’s another race coming soon. I decide to go to my old stand-by, the exacta box, in the eighth race. And just like that, the day turns around. I finally cash a ticket. After losing all day, I go home up five dollars.

As I leave, the sun is setting on a choppy San Francisco Bay, with the Golden Gate Bridge and Pacific Ocean shining in the distance. I thought about how racing lives on in the personalities and moments that make up a day at the races. It lives in racing fans, it lives in the horses. Hard to ask for more from my Saturday at Golden Gate Fields, just next time I’ll wear another layer.

 

 

 

 

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