Friday, 29 May 2009

Quarters to Square the Rectangle (And Other Observations)

I was gonna write a piece yesterday about the slightly odd direction the Zenyatta v Rachel Alexandra match debate has taken, but EquiSpace has pretty much said all I wanted say already, kudos!

I would only add that I don’t quite understand why a Belmont-winning RA would be the “challenger” against Zenyatta at all. If she won the “Test of Champions”, the filly would have an Oaks triumph and two Triple Crown wins under her belt. Zenyatta has shown all the potential in the world (or at least the artificially surfaced world), but still hasn’t beaten anyone better than Ginger Punch, especially considering she met Music Note and Cocoa Beach on a tilted playing field. In my understanding of "challenging" a Champion, the one in the challenging position would be Zenyatta. Without the Belmont, I’d regard it a tie, so they may meet each other somewhere half way, like Prairie Meadows (I’m not seriously proposing this, I just desperately needed a segue).


Prairie Madness

When I hear “Racing in Iowa”, the first thing I think about is the tradition-rich Iowa Fairs harness circuit, then comes the tradition of Thoroughbred racing in the Midwest (actually, the first thing to come to mind would be amateur stock car racing, but that’s besides the point).

The "non-profit" Prairie Meadows Racino seems to think otherwise. They plan to shift the focus of their product towards Quarter Horse racing, dropping the equivalent of 10 Thoroughbred racedays in the process, and quit racing Standardbreds altogether.

I feel a bit odd criticizing the switch because I don’t really dislike the result, what bugs me is the method applied, and the logic that I suspect is behind it.

Less thoroughbred racing at PrM is good for the sport (although not necessarily for racing in Iowa), and I guess (really guess, my harness racing knowledge is extremely limited) that Iowa Fair racing is best helped by reverting those racedays to Iowa fairgrounds. Still, this reasoning was obviously not what led Prairie Meadows to propose the change.

What got this non-profit organization to do it then? Well, first of all the fact that non-profit is a clear-cut misnomer, since the racino does make profit for its state and its perpendicularly angled host county. Despite lower handle, the considerably lower cost of QH racing makes it more profitable for the track. So profitable obviously, that they will even change their race dates to Thursday through Sunday, even though their Monday and Tuesday events currently attract more than three times the handle (but probably not enough to outweigh the lure of having a lead-in on the most profitable casino days).

So in essence, what the good folks at Prairie Meadows mean by “promoting racing in Iowa” is to drop the state’s most tradition-rich mode of racing, demote the most popular mode on their track, and concentrate on a mode of racing that has hardly any heritage in Iowa, and has so far failed to gain substantial public interest.

"Non-Profit" never sounded so hollow before. Seems like Iowa is starting to cut off the parasite.

Tuesday, 26 May 2009

10.099 Beats 7.412, But Not By Much

In all the euphoria over yesterday’s atmosphere at Belmont Park, where 10.099 racegoers apparently had a great time, I was relieved that I wasn’t the only one struck by how low this number really was. Just over 10.000? On a public holiday, in beautiful weather, with one of the most prestigious handicaps of the continent on the card? Dresden had 7.412 for this year’s only raceday so far. And horse racing is by no means a generally more popular sport over here.

That’s 7.412 in a city of 500.000, which (no matter how often English-language Wikipedia wants to ignore the objections by me and other editors) isn’t part of any metropolitan area. It’s for a raceday on which the “feature” was a Hcp D for 4.600€, on the same weekend on which Dresden also hosted the largest Dixieland festival outside New Orleans, among other alternatives.

For all they screw up in every other part of marketing the sport, the one thing German racecourses do well is marketing themselves as an outdoor event. There are several thousand regular racegoers (especially families) in any city with a track who don’t have any interest in the sport on any other than raceday, but who attend for the atmosphere and side attractions alone. They will usually only make a couple of spice-up bets at minimum stake amount, spread out over the day. Yet the racetracks profit from the admission and programmes paid and the revenue generated from on-site beer gardens, caf├ęs, vendors, pony rides and other attractions.

Due to the, self-inflicted, absence of meaningful off-track handle (on Dresden’s first raceday, only 40,4% of the 108K total handle were off-site), this source of income is increasingly vital for the continuing existence of the sport in our remote corner of the Thoroughbred world.

Good attendance is great for the horseplayers too. Because a large portion of the handle comes from people who aren’t really dedicated handicappers, it’s much easier to find quality bets at a good price, the level of competition is much lower (although in Germany this is somewhat offset by the difficulty of getting meaningful information).

I’m aware that it’s easier to get good attendance figures if you only have a dozen of racedays per year to promote, but then nobody forces NYRA to run two stakes races every weekend. This way, they’re teaching the audience that a comparable product will be offered all the time, thus diminishing the incentive to attend today, or tomorrow. It would be easier to attract large crowds if they would create several racedays when the product offered (on the courses and around the paddock) far exceeds the usual levels, then promote only those days, and leave the rest to the few that will come anyway and have little interest in the side attractions. This is the way the Paris tracks do it, and it works fine for them.

Of course, it would be even better for NYRA to realize that even in the “Golden Age” they ran hardly a third of the number of races, but I’m trying to be realistic here.

Saturday, 23 May 2009

HANA Predictions 09-05-23

Canterbury Park is one of those tracks that I would really love if they ran once a week, instead of four times. Other than that, it’s a reasonably nice track, and one of those that offer free streaming and race replays (always a huge plus). It’s also home to today’s HANA pool party, which will take place in the 8th race:

#1 Darby Lee – Jamie Ness horse that shows no other turf forms on her pp sheet and I initially didn’t like the added distance, but I found some ancient history replays for her turf starts at this track (1 1/16 miles), where she showed a nice finish; had a great winter at Tampa and is worth some thought in this company, although her speed is definitely limited

#2 Jody’s Included – rapidly slipping down the Claiming ranks, as well as the track hierarchy, but at least she didn’t seem to get worse with every start, and a repeat of the TuP form might be enough to be a contender, especially if she gets into the race a little earlier this time; no idea how to rate the stable change or the meager last workouts

#3 Candiquik - warrants attention for the exotics on jockey and trainer angles alone; second off a very long layoff, and on last year’s forms has a chance; seems to need a slower pace and there’s no speedster in the field; switch to turf and the added distance both are concerns, so is the fact that she hasn’t run a decent SF in 10 months despite hugging the rail on most attempts

#4 Lil Crafty – ouch! to those speed figs, let alone stable stats

#5 Devil Not Me – let’s just hope she stays healthy

#6 Fancy N Quick – TuP transfer has by far the best recent speed in this field; constantly competitive in comparable class; the big question is why she has such a low-percentage jockey

#7 Play N Fair – Two starts last June are the only two in 18 months and horrible stats all around combine to make this a throwout

#8 Call Her Broke – would have to step up a lot from her Fonner performances; distance and turf look good, but I wouldn’t take her at 6/1; angles don’t look that good on closer inspection

#9 Rossiya – this one obviously likes turf miles, but it’s a guess if this is a prep start (no official workouts since May 3, are you kidding me?)

#10 Elegant Star – Jamie Ness has cooled down a little lately (gee, wonder if it has anything to do with his little “unmarked bottle” mishap) and this one wasn’t even particularly convincing before Jamie’s labeling malfunction, especially SF-wise

#11 Deb Doright – has indeed done alright at TuP, where she has run consistently high SF’s; on the other hand Eikleberry found a way to go the extra furlong on her in almost every attempt, so I shudder to think what he’ll do from the outside gate; was the favorite four times in last six starts and won only one, plus I don’t think the stable change will help

Summary:

To tell you the truth I’d never play this race if it wasn’t the HANA pool. If taken off the turf, it’ll be interesting to see how this no-frontrunner race develops on a frontrunners’ track. There are just too many questions and maybes to make a compelling argument for the exotics. If the horses look right in the paddock, the best Win selections may be #6 (8/1 ML) and #9 (10/1). Of the favorites, only #1 might be worth the cost, but I don’t think I’ll bet her.

In other news:

Props to Railbird for finding these two articles on Rachel Alexandra’s victory, the first a hilarious one from The Onion, the second one calling racing “one of the last strongholds of entrenched testosterone”. Yeah, it really is just us, Destruction Derby and those underground manatee clubbing tournaments that I visit every Thurs... I’ve said too much.

Result:

Ended up with a single bet on #11 Deb Doright after this race was taken off the turf (I liked her visual improvement when switching to dirt in her last race). Always nice to to bet on an outside post on a track you don’t know just to find out that they’re starting right into the first turn. Great ride this time from Eikleberry, but he still couldn’t prevent her from going 100 extra yards. In the end #1 edged my horse out, #2 was third (wonder why?).

Borderline unsportsmanlike conduct to start races from this position anyway, although it’s just as questionable that American tracks take races off the turf everytime two or three drops have fallen over the last month.

Friday, 22 May 2009

Larry Talkin' Horses Link

Conveniently tying together the first two paragraphs from my last post, Mr Larry King, who won trifectas before they were invented, appeared on The Daily Show last night .

Jon Stewart was obviously unaware of the Calder story's, shall we say, fantastic elements, but the two of them were talking horses quite a bit. And while I don’t entirely follow Larry’s theory that betting the races isn’t gambling, I’m one hundred percent with him in encouraging the audience to visit the track. Anyway it’s a funny bit in its own right and great advertisement for the sport.

Thursday, 21 May 2009

Rachel Alarmista

Quite a few things have happened over the last week here at the corner of Horseplayer Road and Racing Boulevard. Rachel Alexandra proved every bit as good as she looked in the Oaks when winning the Preakness from a strong-challenging non-fluke, catapulting herself into a layer of stardom that reaches the oft-mentioned casual fan, and even achieving that most precious proof of immortality, being photoshopped into a picture with the president on The Daily Show (approx. at the 2:30 mark).

Speaking of political satire and fake stories that make you laugh out loud, we learned that Larry King might find it so easy to avoid obvious hard questions because he has a habit of making up his own reality anyway.

Finally, those who hoped that one filly winning the Preakness would be enough to get some rest from the “fillies-shouldn’t-run-against-colts” debate were seriously disappointed when this one moved right on into either “she shouldn’t be asked to do what we expect of those inferior horses she beat” or “she should be treated as a piece of porcelain and not run ever again”. The latter might be the most stupid opinion on racing I ever read, and that’s against some pretty stiff opposition.

You do realize she’s a racehorse, do you? The class repeats: RACE-HORSE! The word consists of two parts, of which the first, RACE, is referring to racing, which is what racehorses are intended and, theoretically, bred to do. Does anybody suggest that MLB should retire its Rookies-of-the-Year, so we can dabble in memories of Jacoby Ellsbury’s first (full) season on ESPN Classics, instead of watching him actually steal home live on broadcast TV? (To be sure, I’m an Orioles fan, but I do enjoy watching Ellsbury).

Those people who spent the week before the Preakness telling us that fillies are somehow naturally bound to break down when competing against colts (allegedly because they run their heart out against superior opposition, which, I understand, can’t happen in filly races) are now at it to tell us that fillies also can’t run 12 furlongs (as opposed to one-and-a-half miles, the traditional distance for Oaks races). One thing is obvious: should Jackson decide to start his filly in the Belmont (which I would appreciate, provided she is fit), it’s a no-win for him, and for racing. If she wins, she’ll do what was expected of her, if she is injured in any way, the alarmists will pop out of their holes screaming “I told you this race was one too much”, which of course is easy enough to be right about if you predict apocalypse before absolutely every one of her races.

The risk of a horse breaking down or otherwise injuring itself is pretty high in American racing. We all know why (drugs, breeding the infirm to the unraced), and we all should certainly be able to understand that it has nothing to do with the gender of horses a racehorse competes against, nor does it have much to do with the frequency of races. The increasing unsoundness of the American racehorse is a problem that becomes more apparent with every 3yo crop we watch entering the Triple Crown trail, where injury has replaced graded stakes earnings as the main obstacle to enter the Derby gate. It’s a major problem. And it has to finally be addressed in a meaningful way. But not by stopping racehorses from racing.

Fixing A Bet

Within a couple of days, two more tote incidents have further eroded the confidence of horseplayers. One, at Hollywood Park, has already been confirmed to be worthy of further investigation (although nothing so far indicates malicious intent), while little is known about a second one, at Penn National.

At California, the Autotote system failed again. We don’t know exactly what happened at Penn National, where pools were refunded for one race, and a Paceadvantage.com forum contributor reports suspicious late developments in the Exacta pool. Penn National switched from Autotote to United Tote a few years ago.

One interesting sidenote is that both incidents have come to the public’s attention via HANA, which wasn’t meant to be a watchdog site, but seems to have gained weight in a direction they might be surprised by themselves.

California, despite various bad experiences in the past, continues to use the questionable services of Autotote, a company involved in virtually all prominent past-post betting incidents in recent history. Autotote rebranded as Scientific Games after the Pick-Six scandal a few years back, but its original name (which literally means Car Deaths in German) had a much more fitting quality: the company is a wreck. Which begs two questions: a) is Autotote just incompetent or are they "incompetent" for a reason? and b) how is it that so many tracks still work with them instead of the other, better, tote operators around?

While I call the attention of federal authorities to the first question, it’s the second one that specifically interests me as a horseplayer and fan of the sport.

Saturday, 16 May 2009

Get Lucky Laying Rachel?

First of all, I love the Preakness. I admit I’m a bit partial about this race and track.

For the record, the reason is not my secret craving for being part of a frat party, it’s that Preakness Day is one of few events in American racing that manages to attract a huge crowd out of all walks of life, the vast majority of them not being simultaneously drunk and stupid. I also have a general sympathy for Baltimore, which is in part fueled by The Wire, although Pimlico only gets brief stints as a drug-infested neighborhood in what I consider one of the greatest works of art in history.

I guess ultimately the reason is the human inclination to root for the underdog. The Preakness, tucked in between the glamorous Derby and the more prestigious showdown at the Big Apple, is always the ugly duckling of the Triple Crown. Promoters never seem to be quite sure what to make of it, frequently concentrating on the alleged anachronism of the date, or the lack of beauty in the surrounding neighborhood. In any recap of Triple Crown sweeps the Pimlico race is sure to be the one least talked about.

This is especially weird because the Preakness is often the most meaningful 3YO race of the year, returning the top finishers from the Derby to race under more conventional circumstances, with less of the trip trouble and destructive pace scenario that usually characterizes the Run for the Roses.

This year’s edition looks like a potential one-for-the-ages:

#1 Big Drama – not confident he’ll stand the distance; really hasn’t done anything wrong so far, but somehow I’m far less impressed than most observers are

#2 Mine That Bird – Fool me once... As I said before, I don’t expect him to win this, but I wouldn’t be shocked; hard to handicap a horse that improved so much on his last start; he won’t have such a favorable trip twice, but his Derby move was too good to be explained away as merely a circumstantial fluke, figures to be a contender again

#3 Musket Man –I had him sized up for an honest racehorse who could get into the money, but not one to really menace before the Derby, which may have been underestimating him a little; went spectacularly wide for the final turn, but then again several outlets mentioned that 6 or 7 wide may have been better than 3 or 4 wide on that CD track; all in all I don’t have him on the shortlist this time either, but would consider him if playing the trifecta

#4 Luv Gov – broke his maiden on the 10th attempt; his undercard win on Derby Day was nothing to write home about; he went clear late on a muddy track after a perfect trip, but didn’t beat much and did it in less-than-impressive time, giving his opposition much more headway than he can afford this time; horrible stable form in Graded Stakes, too; frankly I don’t see why he’s entered in this race

#5 Friesan Fire – I share the concerns about him returning so soon after suffering an injury in the Derby; pretty much depends on whether you think the quarter crack story was overblown; starts from a tricky post statistically

#6 Terrain – stable drops sharply in Graded Stakes, plus there is no real reason why he should suddenly improve over horses that have distanced him before

#7 Papa Clem – nice effort in the Derby, but he was true to form there, and being true to form again isn’t enough here; I think he’s a fine racehorse, but a level below the creme of this crop, also starts from a tricky post statistically

#8 General Quarters - As great a story as he is, I never shared all the optimism; the reason is simple: I think those Keeneland preps are way overblown because of their historical importance, in the Polytrack era they have so far been entirely meaningless for the Classics; the Blue Grass aside, he’s shown some useful performances, but none that make him a contender in this field.

#9 Pioneerof The Nile – ran a very good race in the Derby and may find it a bit easier here (although his Derby trip was far better than it could have been); if RA fails, he’s the go-to candidate, although he might be singled out (hence bet) more than he should be; I don’t find his speed figs too slow at all, he got a 95 Beyer or 103 BRIS going 3 wide both turns on a rail-favoring track, which translates into a very reasonable performance

#10 Flying Private – didn’t like him in the Derby, and I’m starting to think D. Wayne Lukas (who trains Luv Gov too) is going for the tail end exacta here. To be fair, he faced adversity in pretty much all of his starts, but his running style and post do little to inspire hope for a reversal of fortunes.

#11 Take The Points – the return-to-dirt and return-to-winning-jock angles are working in his favor; has shown some potential and at 30-1 ML he might provide good value, but may well be parked wide again and needs to step up anyway.

#12 Tone It Down – Well, he was competitive at Laurel, wasn’t he? Pacesetter who doesn’t nearly have the early speed to overcome post 12, let alone the quality to finish it off.

#13 Rachel Alexandra – By far the most important question concerning this race: will she boom or bust. To repeat from an earlier post: “if there’s one race Rachel Alexandra looks vulnerable in, it’s the Preakness. The filly has been re-directed to this race less than ten days before post time, her previous owners obviously never entertained the idea, whereas it must have been lingering in the back of any Derby owner’s or trainer’s mind to some degree. Plus she has changed stables in between, adding an extra stress factor that should more than offset any advantage she may have gained by not running the Derby”. Add the fact that she hasn’t been seriously tested all year, she might get surprised this time. Plus, Borel is the best squeezer around, but squeezing is always a risky tactic, and not one I like to see when I rate a horse superior to the field. Not sure if Borel will try the rail, though.

The more general question: how good was her Oaks win? After a perfect trip she pulled off for a record-shattering 20 ¼ lenght romp, Borel didn’t push her in the stretch. But to assume that a horse could have gone much faster just because it wasn’t urged to is one of the most frequent mistakes in handicapping. Besides, victories by a canter can be deceptive, I’ve seen 6yo Class 3 handicap horses look like the second coming of Eclipse when cantering home in a weak field. I expect her to be at the very least one of the best of this crop, but with all of the above plus the trip scenario from gate 13 going against her, I guess she won’t prove it today.

Summary:
Pretty wide open for a Preakness,
Considerations for the Win: #2,9,13, of which I wouldn’t play the 13, rest may only be played if Betfair offers some good value, or if you’re a fervent believer in the the get-lucky-laying-Rachel theory; Longshot bet #11 if available for 30-1 upwards.
Exacta: any combination of the above, add #5
Trifecta: add #3 and #7 to the pool

Best Bets: Definitely in the exotics range, I might try a 2,9,11 with 2,5,9,11 with 2,3,5,7,9,11,13 trifecta. If you have more money to spare, consider backing this up with smaller trifectas singling the show-spot horses for win and place.

Finally, I swear this post was all but written before I found out that several parts look like I copied them right out of Joe Drape’s or the DRF’s analysis.

No Infield Trouble Expected Over Here

Today, this season finally kicks off at Dresden-Seidnitz Racecourse, about five weeks later than usual. Dresden, which usually started in early to mid-April, always tried to get its first race date later in the year, because of the lower likelihood of bad weather. It never got its will though, since other tracks insisted on their traditional claims to those dates at the annual meeting of Eastern German racing secretaries (because Eastern German racecourses are considerably better managed than Western, Southwestern and most Northern tracks, they are effective in avoiding conflicting dates, which unfortunately is worth special mention). So eventually they got rid of the date by striking the raceday all together, which follows the general trend, although the reduction in race dates is far less dramatic in Eastern Germany.

They may have kicked themselves for doing it though. We had great weather practically all through April (its not that good today), and a race day on the traditional date would have been a dunker. Also, I would have preferred to get rid of today’s date, which directly competes with Dresden Dixieland, the biggest jazz festival outside North America, which is expected to attract more than 500.000 visitors again, and should draw away at least a thousand from the track. That’s bad news, because with German racing’s ineptitude to market its product and the declining off-track handle this causes, German racedays are increasingly dependent on on-track handle and attendance.

And because I know it’s the race you all have your eyes on today, the play of the day is #1 First Lilly in the third, one of two 3yo races with quite attractive fields.

I planned on taking a few photos and posting them this evening, but unfortunately my new camera, a bold 12,08€ investment on eBay (includes shipping), hasn't arrived yet.

Friday, 15 May 2009

Trojan Horse Racing

The last few days have seen a resurgence of the ongoing discussion of the merits and potential of slot-subsidized racing, stirred up first by Power Cap, then on the HANA blog and on the Pull the Pocket blog. All of these posts are strong in analysis, and the first two both try to push a concept for a more productive way of doing business.

Power Cap’s currently Utopian idea of a Mid-Atlantic circuit not relying on slot revenues and HANA’s proposition of a slot-revenue system more in tune with the interests of racing are both good in concept, but their chances of ever becoming reality are next to zero.

The reason is that both don’t address the heart of the matter, which is that slot racing has never been intended to help the sport, it has been intended to help current horsemen, state coffers and the casino industry. The difference is not a small one.

Proponents of Slot Racing come from three different camps. First there are the breeders, trainers and owners of thoroughbreds. Since the forces of the market demand that racing (at least in its current state) has to decline in size, their business is doomed, and the lower the quality of horses they handle, the more pressing this problem becomes (which explains why those states offering the worst product were the first to legalize slot racing).
It also poses a problem for state regulators, who are used to the income generated from the sport and whose attempts at getting more out of it than the industry can support is the main reason for the inflation in race dates and the horsemen ranks.
The final camp are gambling enterprises, which have no interest at all in racing, but to whom subsidizing it in exchange for opening up new markets is an investment well worth the cost.

Newsflash here, Casino operators aren’t the most socially-spirited of guys, they’re in the business of tricking you into spending your money on games you can't win, then throwing you out. Sure, if you’re completely broke they might sponsor your trip home, but they don’t do it because of their human qualities, they do it so the sight of your destroyed little remains in front of the glitzy main entrance doesn’t keep their next victims from entering.

Of course the casino industry isn’t interested in playing welfare system for the ailing horsemen population in the long term, but they figure they won’t have to. A couple of decades from now, I’m sure that historians will look back at slot-subsidized racing in disbelief. How could the racing industry not detect one of the most obvious Trojan Horse schemes in world history? The casino industry is promising a couple of frightened horsemen El Dorado, and the horsemen are happily inviting them in.

Once the casino industry has established itself in the state, once public interest in the racing product has further eroded (as it undoubtedly will in an environment in which racetracks are uninviting run-of-the-mill extensions of buzzy casinos), the time has come for them to cut off the costly leech attached to their casino empires. The state governments will be glad to help, by then they’ll have come to think of racing only as a nuisance cutting into their takeout rate too. The horsemen population, and to a large degree the sport so violated, will be spit out and left facing an environment much worse than what they started from.

"It's only a matter of time before they stop racing horses all together and just use them to cart around free booze to the gamblers."

(Greg Wyshynski, seriously under-estimating the introduction of slots to racing at rank #58 in “Glow Pucks & 10-Cent Beer – The 101 Worst Ideas in Sports History”)

Monday, 11 May 2009

Enter the Geldings: From MTB to Zayat

At the end of the day, Mine That Bird co-owner Mark Allen took a hiding. Well, not a hiding, but a PR release in which he contradicted everything we already know has happened and still found the time to come across as the stereotypical hillbilly millionaire. He might have been surprised how much harder behind-the-scenes fixing is in the Triple Crown as compared to what he’s accustomed to from Alaska.

Even so, Borderland Mark couldn’t help slipping in a cheap shot, mentioning that he doesn’t believe in running a filly against the boys at this stage. One could go into a lenghty off-the-racing-topic discussion about judging others based on one’s belief rather than reason here, but let’s just say he also is a man who calls Steve Asmussen “a great trainer” and believes that Mike Smith has “got some Cowboy in him”, which he knows because he’s seen Smith’s boots.

Allen thus accomplished the challenging feat to out-dumb Pioneerof The Nile's owner Ahmed Zayat, who earlier in the day had explained to the world his theory that it’s just unfair for someone else to have a better horse, that it’s not okay for a new owner to change the direction of their horse’s campaign, that horses shouldn’t skip the the Derby to run in the Preakness (which of course is precisely what his placeholder horses would have done), repeated the notion that the Triple Crown was for stallion prospects (such as MTB?) and finished it all off by working in the scare card (“Two weeks for a filly? Does our sport need another Eight Belles”). Now that’s true, our sport could use another Eight Belles incident about as much as the one Ahmed Zayat it’s already stuck with.

What’s most stunning about this affair is the chutzpah by which two millionaire owners not only regard a Triple Crown race as somehow belonging to them (“I think this match is between us, it's a rivalry” – Mark Allen according to Ahmed Zayat) but also conspire to keep a horse they both regard as superior out of the race, then defend it with what can only be described as a public relations nightmare at the expense of the sport.

All this chickening-from-the-chick biz is especially remarkable and foolish because if there’s one race Rachel Alexandra looks vulnerable in, it’s the Preakness. The filly has been re-directed to this race a mere less than ten days before post time, her previous owners obviously never entertained the idea, whereas it must have been lingering in the back of any Derby owner’s or trainer’s mind to some degree. Plus she has changed stables in between, adding an extra stress factor that should more than offset any advantage she may have gained by not running the Derby. If you can't see a chance to beat her in Baltimore, where are you gonna hide the rest of the year?

Between Zayat, Allan and Mine That Bird, the gelding is the only one who's got some balls.

Saturday, 9 May 2009

HANA Predictions 09-05-09

More a reminder than a true attempt at predicting the outcome:

Tonight’s Pool Party, Race 6 at Prairie Meadows, brings the HANA train back to the netherlands of American racing (no offense intended; being from East Germany, I don’t share the West German love-hate relationship with our oranje neighbors). This will be my first ever bet at PrM. In fact, I wasn’t even aware one of my ADW’s carried the track until I checked last night. I didn’t spend much time handicapping this (without replays or knowledge about track and horsemen) and felt a little lost with this Clm7,5K for 10K, but here it is for the sake of it:

#1 Courtney J: weird improvement in her speed figure despite allegedly going 6 wide last start while returning to this track (again, I don’t have the replays); has repeatedly been competitive here in roughly comparable class last year.

#2 T C’s Sweetie: returns to track, re-united with last winning jock, won Alw races here last year and regularly sports SF’s beyond today’s competition, but is the only one off a layoff (since January); switches to a high-percentage stable that drops with first-out winners but rises just as much in first-out placed starters, suggesting they don’t send out horses for a prep.

#3 Ekberg: returning form Oaklawn, has won her last two starts at this track; second off layoff since last August, could go either way.

Of the rest, #5 and #6 are a little intriguing, while #8 is the only one showing any consistency SF-wise, but for 7/2 I wouldn’t take my chances with her.

Summary: For what it’s worth, I’ll go with #2 for a Win from 3-1 upwards, #1,3 and 8 might be the best considerations for the Exacta.

Friday, 8 May 2009

Could Jess Be Our Savior?

The racing world suddenly looks several shades brighter since Jess Jackson’s Stonestreet Stables, no doubt inspired by my repeated whining about the path lined out for her, purchased Rachel Alexandra. And things got even better when today it was announced that the standout filly will be pointed to the Preakness next, with Calvin Borel aboard. According to Jackson, Borel’s decision “came down to the facts that he knows and loves this horse, that he knows how to get the most from her and he knows how to win”. That he knows she’s the better horse compared to the Derby winner might have been a factor too.

Like most people, I’m not exactly euphoric about seeing great horses in the care of Steve Asmussen, but having this horse owned by Stonestreet is about the best thing that could happen to the sport. RA was looking to be a lost opportunity for racing, now she could become the sport’s best (and fastest) PR campaign.

With Curlin, Jackson gave the racing world an almost forgotten sensation – the sight of a Horse of the Year being campaigned like a Champion. Curlin took on all comers in Dubai, California, Kentucky and New York. He won a lot and lost a few, but his defeats came because Stonestreet didn’t duck a challenge and never pampered their horse by entering races they couldn’t lose. I loved how Jackson pointed his horse to challenge the world’s best turf horses in the Arc. It ultimately turned out Curlin didn’t like the turf, but even so it assured that fans got an exciting season out of the HOTY. Most owners would have rushed him off to stud or, like Ghostzapper, campaigned him in races tilted towards his interests, all the while patting themselves on their back for how great a gesture it was to show up at all. I will always take a horse that lost a couple of big challenges over one that avoided them in the first place. If this decade has produced one true Champion, Curlin was that.

I also loved how Jackson challenged Big Brown to a pre-BC match, first in the Woodward, then in the JC Gold Cup. Big Brown’s owners, IEAH, on the other hand weren’t that sporting. Their attitude is typical for most of today’s big-time owners: seeing a great challenge as nothing more than a great risk to their horse’s value at stud. As long as the breeding industry is the tail wagging the dog, this strategy makes sense. After all, Big Brown was syndicated for over $50 million, amazing for a horse that battled soundness issues all through its career.

Fans of the sport can only hope for owners who put sportsmanship first and financial considerations second. Right now, no major owner represents that spirit better than Jess Jackson.

Wednesday, 6 May 2009

So There’s That Birdstone Gelding

I’m still recuperating from last Saturday’s Derby. I could have kicked myself that night for not placing any kind of crap shot bet on Mine That Bird after declaring the Derby a “Borel race”, strongly assuming that the rail would once again be wide open for the final turn and learning that there was a rail bias at Louisville. This first rush of frustration has waned by now, and made room for the realization that, really, I didn’t do anything wrong. In fact I layed off any exotics (thanks CD for being so arrogant as to require a $2-minimum on Exactas in a 19-horse field, you sure helped) and just lost $8 on four crappy sympathy bets (FF, DP, PoTN for a win at nice betfair odds; Papa Clem for a Show); could have been worse.

So MTB was a champion in Canada. He achieved it by winning four in row, three of them stakes races. But the best he did up Nord was a G3, and he didn’t win by more than two lenghts in any of these races. Then came a miserable BC and two now-famous mediocre performances in his only dirt starts at a backwater racetrack.

So he didn’t look quite that enchanting when suffering from bad moves at Sunland. I didn’t watch those races and likely wouldn’t have even if I had the race replays available. That‘s because even if they had been horrible trips he still should have distanced his opposition to figure as a Derby candidate. He moved up 24 points from his Sunland Derby Beyer, although in light of my last post I can’t help noticing how much the BRIS speed rating kicked the DRF’s butt (they had MTB rated at 88 for the Sunland Derby, and consistently about 10 points higher than the DRF). Pioneerof The Nile meanwhile was impressive in finishing second after the predictable wide trip. Not that I want to blame Garrett Gomez, who did the best he could with trainers’ orders to stalk but stay clear of kickback, which is a surefire way to make your Derby an 11-furlong race. Friesan Fire is excused because of his early accident.

So MTB was lucky in several ways on Saturday, but that doesn’t mean he’s a fluke. His rail move was thoroughly impressive and there’s no denying he did step up several levels from all of his previous attempts, which makes him a conspiracy theorists wet dream, but also American racing’s best story in years. I don’t expect him to be victorious at Pimlico, but I wouldn’t be shocked (again) either.

Sunday, 3 May 2009

A Bogus Beyer

Mine That Bird got a Beyer of 105 for his upset win in the Derby. That's four less than Big Brown, five more than Giacomo. Is it enough to win the Preakness? Let's skip this question and concentrate on a more fundamental one: Why would you assume he ran a 105?

Determining a speed figure is a tricky and partially subjective task under any circumstances, and the certainty with which the DRF is advertising and comparing them may sell their paper, but is way overblown. The fact that BSF's can frequently be questionable, misleading or plain false is something Andy Beyer has acknowledged himself, although you wouldn't think so from the way he sometimes touts his system. But assessing one for a race like yesterday’s Derby comes down to an exercise in guesswork rather than science. Anybody who has ever looked up the process of determining a Beyer (basically by relating the times of the day’s card, or parts of the card, to expected times) should realize immediately that the Derby had to be practically rated against itself, with few clues provided.

Gaps between races on Derby Day were just short of one hour, and track maintenance was done between races, with officials specifically aiming to make the track faster. The last race before the Derby was on the turf, and the only other two-turn dirt races on the card had been run more than six hours earlier under very different track conditions. Which means the earlier dirt races cannot safely be used as a comparison. As with any such procedure, speed figures get ever more questionable the smaller the sample you draw from is (a fact that sometimes renders BSF's from racedays with sudden changes in weather essentially meaningless).

The only other race to compare the Derby to was the 13th, a 7f allowance for 3yo fillies won wire-to-wire by the favorite, who ran the whole race on what seemed to be a highly favorable rail. Results behind her didn’t match well with previous forms. Previous numbers are even less helpful for the Derby itself, as freaky trips, surprise performances and added distance necessarily result in a contradictory outcome.

The assessor, and I don’t know who it was in this case, had to completely turn the process on its head. Judging from only two races (both of them 3yo races with somewhat odd results) he can’t have done anything more than an educated guess on how fast the top finishers may have run, then deduct from there. Mine That Bird’s 105 could be correct, it could just as well be off by 5 points in either direction. Under such circumstances, a speed figure is a guess, not a handicapping tool. This isn't news, but it’s nonetheless an important fact that many racing fans too often forget about.

UPDATE: Steve Crist has written a piece on his DRF blog in which he provides a brief explanation of the methodology used to come up with the 105. It's definitely worth reading, but I don't think it devalues my arguments.

Saturday, 2 May 2009

Great Oaks to Little Acorns Spells Missed Opportunity for Racing

"Great oaks from little acorns grow" is the phrase the Acorn Stakes have been named after, a reference to the race's status as a prep for the CCA Oaks, which were traditionally considered the real Oaks race of America. According to an article by Paul Moran, that's the road that yesterday's phenomenal Kentucky Oaks victress Rachel Alexandra will take. The race's name thus takes on a different but very symbolic meaning; Rachel Alexandra will go from Oaks glory to a race in which she can't win anything but money.

From there her connections will likely take the route Moran has outlined in an earlier article. They might start her in the Mother Goose, CCA Oaks and Alabama, then run a BC prep against older fillies, then the BC Distaff, where if everything goes right (and it so often doesn't) we may just see a duel against Zenyatta, last year's pampered filly sensation. "What is to be gained, actually, by running her against males?", Moran asks. How about public interest, in and outside the shrinking pond of racing enthusiasts?

Racing insiders and fans frequently bemoan the fact that the mainstream media only focuses on the negative stories that racing creates, but this case shows one aspect that they continue to ignore: racing doesn't produce many positive stories, even when it could.

Realistically, Rachel Alexandra will not always have such tremendous form, such a favorable trip or such favorable conditions, but under any conditions she is superior enough to all other fillies on the East Coast to discourage any meaningful opposition. Unless something goes wrong (a possibility that always exists) one of the greatest fillies in decades will cruise home in the Acorn, then beat virtually no opposition in the Mother Goose, CCA, Alabama and her BC prep.

Do you think any major newspaper will care, or that any TV station would spend hours of Saturday afternoon broadcasting on races about as engaging as "John Kerry Comedy Hour" when they have dozens of other sporting events with more appeal to choose from? You know why that Seabiscuit v War Admiral match race captured the nation? It's because people wondered who would actually win! I doubt we would have seen a movie about it had Seabiscuit run some mid-level claimer into the ground that afternoon at Pimlico. The lure of great sporting events is the lure of a great challenge, not the repeated thrashing of your overmatched opposition, no matter how huge a feat it may be in its own right.

Face it, if Rachel Alexandra wins the schedule outlined above by an average of eight lenghts, the mainstream media won't care. That is unless she gets injured somewhere along the way, in which case she might be a negative story. In both cases, racing loses. Is it really so much asked that a filly that has proven vastly superior to her crop at least tries the Belmont instead of the Acorn and Mother Goose?

"We still don’t know how good she is", trainer Hal Wiggins says. One thing is for certain: they won't find out in the Acorn.

See You in Baltimore, Rachel!

The morning after Rachel Alexandra pulled off what might be the most impressive Kentucky Oaks win in history, the racing world is glowing in appraisal, with Railbird going so far as to compare the feat to the great Regret's of 1915.

Such comparison, however, misses the big difference. Regret won the Derby, Rachel Alexandra took off after a textbook trip to stun an Oaks crop we already knew she was superior to, although few had expected her to be that overwhelming. Others have pointed out that it would likely be unfair to criticize her connections for not running her in the Derby, but they won't have any excuse from here on. If wherever her career takes her next is anything but a Triple Crown race, the filly might be peerless among her sex, but her connections will have denied her a chance to show how great she really is. This filly can win against any opponent and should be campaigned that way.

In a related story, kudos again to last year's Eclipse voters. You decided against hyped supertalent Zenyatta for HOTY, figuring she really hasn't proven herself to be a Champion, despite her connections having every chance to do so. This weekend should have silenced your critics. True Champions don't hide from an opposition several levels below their class just because the track isn't absolutely perfect for them. Sorry, but if you don't have enough confidence in your horse to overcome a slightly off track against such opposition, I'm guessing we'll see another season of statistical stardom and all-female romps out of a horse that could have the talent to become an American Zarkava and help the sport overcome some of those stupid prejudices about fillies running against colts.