What we learned this weekend
With his romp in the Pacific Classic last night, Game On Dude let everyone know that he’s the best horse in North America. What’s especially frightening is that he’s never been at his best on Del Mar’s Polytrack surface before. If he’s even better on the dirt at Santa Anita – where he’s seven-for-eight lifetime – it’s hard to imagine where someone will come up with a horse that can handle him in the Breeders’ Cup Classic. Yes, he lost the Classic under similar circumstances last year, but this is a superior horse to the 2012 model. If Bob Baffert can just keep him happy for the next two months, and his jockey (whoever that might be) can get him away from the gate cleanly, Game On Dude will win the Classic and secure himself a spot in the Hall of Fame. If we’re lucky, though, maybe Baffert will ease off him training up to his next start and he’ll get beat. That would give us a chance at getting something better than, say, 7-5 in the Classic.
Before the last horse had even crossed the wire behind Will Take Charge at the end of Saturday’s Travers, people were already asking who the favorite is for Champion 3-Year-Old in a division without a clear leader. There’s plenty of time for that to be sorted out, as a Grade I win against older horses would give any of four contenders a leg up. If that doesn’t happen, though, then the default choice should be the Kentucky Derby winner. It’s the one race that every top 3-year-old who is able to shows up for in peak form, prepared to do whatever it takes to win. If none among Orb, Palace Malice, Verrazano and Will Take Charge step up to make the choice obvious, then it’s Orb, for coming through on the most important of all of the important days.
Earlier on the Travers Day card, in the Grade I King’s Bishop for 3-year-old sprinters, we were reminded that not all of the most important handicapping information is in the past performances. For major stakes races, it pays to read the news. There wasn’t much in Capo Bastone’s form to suggest a Grade I win at seven furlongs was his likely next step. Several outlets, though, had reported that his last work came in company against Verrazano and not only did Capo Bastone hold his own, by some accounts he out-worked his stablemate. Clockers gave them the same final time for the work, which was all I needed to know in order to take Capo Bastone very seriously. His morning line was 15-1, he went off at 28-1, and the Pick 3 that I hit, which started with two short prices, paid $1,101. A breeze that in the past performances looks like an ordinary half-mile maintenance move in :48 3/5 can mean so much more when you have the opportunity to read how it was accomplished.
Capo Bastone winning the King's Bishop was a surprise to most (Photo courtesy Eclipse Sportswire).
Soup to nuts
Every time we have a major racing day with a speed-favoring surface, chatter starts about the track being “souped-up.” This conspiracy theory, which often comes not only from fans but otherwise seemingly reasonable pundits, goes that racetracks make their surfaces lightning fast to produce faster times, supposedly because track records will generate more buzz in the news, or something like that. Another variation has the motive as an assist from track management to favored trainers with speed horses who would benefit from a harder main track.
Never mind that speed biases pop up at most racetracks on a regular basis all the time. Sometimes it happens on a weekday, sometimes it happens on a weekend, and often it’ll remain prominent for several days at a time before fading away. Yet nobody ever accuses management of souping up the track for that Wednesday card with seven claiming races.
Fact is, it’s challenging enough to get any surface just right under consistent and predictable weather conditions, let alone when dealing with drastic temperature changes, heat waves, thunderstorms and whatnot. To think that a track superindendent would get his surface just where he wanted it, and then go out and tinker with it to produce faster times just doesn’t make sense.
And what, really, would a track have to gain from a souped-up surface? If a horse sets a new track record on Travers Day, are we really to believe that will inspire the masses to show up at Belmont when this superhorse runs back on Jockey Club Gold Cup Day?
And how exactly do we think these tracks soup up their surfaces without anyone noticing? Wouldn’t one of the riders or trainers speak up if they noticed that the water truck didn’t make its usual rounds that day? Or maybe there’s a secret super-sticky additive in the water that causes the dirt to bond.
I once asked a respected general manager about accusations that his main track had been souped up for a major stakes day. He laughed heartily and made two interesting points – 1) he had enough to worry about without ordering his maintenance team to mess with the surface and 2) he wasn’t sure his track super would even know how to accomplish such a thing!
And even if we did accept the notion that track records or other flashy times would excite mainstream media and casual fans, is that worth endangering our best horses with a harder surface that increases the likelihood of injury? Logically, a track looking to promote its stars would aspire to a consistent, forgiving main track with some cushion, so the winners can come back healthy, stay in training and run back as soon as possible.
But some folks find conspiracy theories irresistible, whether it’s JFK’s assassination, the moon landing, 9/11 or track biases. People connect certain dots in their mind, looking for explanations where sometimes there just aren’t any obvious ones. After all these years, if tracks across the country were manipulating surfaces on big days, wouldn’t someone have fessed up by now? Maybe a disgruntled ex-employee? The guy who drove the tractor with the big sled late at night packing down the dirt who has since left the game but still carries a guilty conscience? If someone with any evidence is out there they should let us know, because I imagine most racing commissions would see that anyone who knowingly sought to influence the outcome of major races wouldn’t be licensed to work in the sport anymore.
Graded Stakes Winners by State
Last week I erroneously reported that Got Koko was the last Texas-bred to win a graded stakes race. In fact, that distinction belongs to Princess Haya, who won the 2009 Grade II Canadian Stakes at Woodbine. That was the Street Cry filly’s lone stakes win, although she was competitive in several tries against top competition. My apologies to Princess Haya.
I discovered the error upon receipt of a fascinating report I requested from our friends at Equibase, listing the most recent graded stakes winner bred in each state (since 1976, which is as far back as complete Equibase records go, up to Aug. 15). Check it out here.
The best laid post times…
A few weeks ago I made the point that nearly every track pays close attention to its post times, contrary to the belief of many fans who grumble about good races at competing venues running concurrently. Lining up post times on a busy Saturday is never easy, especially when so many occurrences can throw off a track’s schedule – a prolonged stewards’ inquiry, a loose horse, a starting gate mishap, inclement weather, etc. Further, if a track has a huge crowd, they might delay the start an extra minute at the gate to let bettors get through long lines; those minutes then add up over the course of a card, throwing off every other major track’s plans by the time feature races start coming one after another.
A recent example of the concerted effort tracks are making came on Aug. 17, when Arlington Park and the New York Racing Association communicated extensively about post times in advance of their stellar programs, with four major stakes at the Chicago oval and two at Saratoga in New York. Even with national television concerns to factor in, they managed to come up with a timetable that would keep every race from both tracks at least 13 minutes apart through the Arlington Million, the last of the day’s graded stakes. Following those first 21 races, Saratoga planned to wrap up their card just before 7 p.m., a few minutes after the Million would be official.
Owner Ken Ramsey celebrated after Real Solution won the Arlington Million after waiting out an inquiry (Photo courtesy of Eclipse Sportswire).
In practice, though, these types of schedules can be difficult to execute. It takes not just advance planning, but the ability to call the right audibles as the day progresses.
After keeping within a minute or two of the schedule early in the card, Arlington’s fifth race saw two riders claim foul, which meant a lengthy review by the stewards and, ultimately, a disqualification. By the time placing is confirmed and prices are calculated so the race is official, management and stewards have no good options. It’s not fair to the horses in the next race to rush them in and out of the paddock, or shorten the post parade and warm up; nor would it be prudent to push to stay on schedule and lose out on handle from bettors who don’t want to hurry their next wager or can’t get through a line.
The best thing to do is announce an adjusted post and hope to slowly get back to schedule a minute or two at a time for the next few races before your big one. Arlington was now seven minutes behind schedule, which on many days wouldn’t be a big deal, but not only do you want to avoid running at the same time as Saratoga, you also can’t delay all of your races because the Million is supposed to air live on WGN just 15 minutes before the Cubs game.
Meanwhile, at Saratoga, they had a claim of foul in the first race of the day and, as a result, were behind schedule right off the bat, with Race 2 going off six minutes late. They admirably got back on schedule by Race 7, though, and kept one eye on what was happening in Chicago, where the Race 5 objection had just been adjudicated.
Through the rest of the afternoon, Saratoga could have stayed precisely on schedule, but smartly pushed back a few minutes in response to the delay at Arlington, getting more space between them. Even with the incidents, both tracks held their televised races within a reasonable window and, most impressively, never ran two races closer than 10 minutes apart.
Hopefully bettors who were able to play and watch every race throughout both cards without any conflicts took notice that, in this case, two major racetracks had a solid plan and had the right people making the necessary calls. Coordination like this not only makes fans happy, it also puts money in the pockets of horsemen, state coffers and racetracks, the main beneficiaries of maximized handle.
Meet the Press
Notable quotes from last week’s NTRA National Media Teleconference…
Bob Baffert on Mike Smith’s decision to ride Royal Delta in Saratoga’s Personal Ensign instead of Game On Dude in Del Mar’s TVG Pacific Classic: “You know, there's always a woman involved, and it was her. They've got to go with the woman; I can't blame him there.”
Shug McGaughey on five-time Grade I winner Point of Entry, away from racing since June with a condylar fracture: “He was a fit horse when he hurt himself, so I think he's going to be the kind of horse that will come around quickly. Whether we get a prep race in time or not, who knows, but, you know, if he says he's ready, I think I can get him ready to run in the Breeders’ Cup.”
Bill Mott on the possibility of Royal Delta facing males in the Breeders’ Cup Classic: “I'm sure if she gets to that point of the year where she's doing very well, we'll probably nominate her for both races, the same as we did last year. Of course, I was always a little bit on the conservative side and I opted to keep her with her same group last year, but that's a decision that would have to come from between the owners and myself. I would probably lean more towards keeping her with fillies and mares.”
My Latest Favorite Tweet
The best story would be Wise Dan & Royal Delta in Classic MT @BCRacingguy Nobody said it better than Hirsch. Let's root for best story— Ed DeRosa (@EJXD2) August 26, 2013
Even though Bill Mott insists he’s leaning toward giving Royal Delta a chance at a third Distaff win, I’m not buying it. I suspect he just doesn’t see the need to state publicly a desire to try the Classic until the final prep races have been run and they’ve sized it up from every angle. Mike Smith wouldn’t walk away from Game On Dude, the early favorite for the Classic, last weekend unless he believed Royal Delta would be his mount for that race, would he?