Friday, 26 June 2009

BC Thoughts - Early Edition

Whatever you think of Jess Jackson’s decision not to run Rachel Alexandra in this year’s Breeders Cup, or of his tirade against synthetic surfaces (my take: there is a distinct smell of "sore loserism" lingering in the air), the one thing we should agree upon is that his argumentation was disingenuous.

Those types of "plastic" are too different from each other? “Man interfering with nature”? You might wanna take a closer look on that Churchill surface, it’s not your average mid-Kentucky soil either, nor is it identical to the surfaces at Gulfstream or Belmont. Mr Jackson, after all, has become a billionaire “interfering with nature”, as in artificially creating vineyards, where he grows genetically modified grapes that have little more to do with their ancient ancestors than a Tapeta track has with the sand at Del Mar beach.

I’d like to see the BC as an event as close to an American Open Championship as possible, but I'll just skip that argument for now. Interesting takes in support of Jackson’s decision can be found on The Aspiring Horseplayer and Foolish Pleasure blogs. I still disagree, for reasons stated there, but even before reading those I felt far less passionate about the topic than, say, the prospect of Rachel following up her Oaks romp with another one in the Acorn. This is largely because, for all we know, a RA v Zenyatta duel would have only been likely if both had chosen the Distaff, which would have opened up a whole new can of worms.

The self-proclaimed “World Championships” (never mind the title) have recently revamped their Win & You’re In list for the third time in three years, and in the process created a hodge-podge of American and Overseas races that are unlikely to have promotional value and are hard to follow even for the most dedicated fans. If I understand their website correctly, most of the added International races won’t even be broadcast in America. It’s also not quite clear why we need BC W&YI’s at all. Unless you simultaneously limit the BC to a maximum of 10 runners per race, its just an unneccessarily complicated way to determine about half the field (less in some cases).

The most interesting aspect is hidden in the details: not a single one of the races on Dubai World Cup Day will carry W&YI status. Is there any reason other than animosity towards the world’s other “Thoroughbred World Championship”? I don’t think so.

A second line of criticism has focused on the BC’s ignorance of the labels assigned by the American Graded Stakes Committee. True, some of the new W&YI races are entirely ungraded and the grades obviously didn’t play any major role in determining the races, but really, the AGSC’s work deserves to be ignored. Its pattern system is entirely useless to identify the most important races, unless you think that the Prioress, Kings Bishop and Santa Maria really are more prestigious than the Suburban or Oaklawn Hcps, that the Ark Derby and Lexington Stakes are on the same level, or that there really are no less than 115 races in the US which consistently attract several runners of the highest caliber.

Plus, increased incentive even for non-graded niche stakes, especially in the Turf Sprint and Marathon categories, is a good opportunity for all those upstart racinos to establish meaningful races without simultaneously watering down the quality of already established stakes elsewhere.

Wednesday, 24 June 2009

Hypocrisy? You Betcha!

Just a quick thought that popped into my mind as I was reviewing the fallout of Kentucky’s “No!“ to slots:

A common theme you’ll find is criticism of the committee’s Republicans’ hypocrisy, especially Senate President David “Blackjack” Williams, who happily plays the casinos in neighboring states, but doesn’t want to allow them in Kentucky.

I agree it invites ridicule, but since we’re already on the topic of hypocrisy, why not take a quick look in the mirror:

Those racing fans and professionals who support slots want them for no reason other than to fund our sport, yet it would be perfectly within the states rights to legalize slots, VLTs, even full-blown casinos, independently of racing.

Wonder if those Kentucky horsemen and the racing media would be as unanimous in their support for slots then. Or would they suddenly find themselves on the side of the Family Foundation, trumping up the values of the racing-and-lottery-only era and condemning the evils of the highly-addictive slots game?

Hypocrisy indeed.

The Sorcerer's Apprentices

Over the course of this week, the DRF’s Jay Hovdey wrote a great article about Zenyatta; the BC revamped its Win-And-You're In list (again), and Rachel Alexandra is preparing for a paid breezer in the *tongue-in-cheek* Grade 1 middle jewel of the Triple Tiara *giggle*. Meanwhile, the never-ending slots story went into the next couple of rounds in Kentucky, where racing’s corporate welfare mommies were successful in begging the State House for money, but were ultimately turned down by a non-representative Senate committee. A questionable process in a “Commonwealth”, I grant you, but I find it hard to join in the chorus of those crying about the injustice. Even if it was one, that it could happen was the Kentucky racing industry’s own fault.

Probably nothing characterizes the debate better than that in the Paulick Report article linked above, you have to go through 25 comments before #26 is the first one putting the finger on one of the underlying problems: that the Kentucky breeding industry has profited from a market bubble for the last few decades and will finally have to downsize to a level the sport can actually support.

Apart from this, the Kentucky slots drive was marred by several shortcomings. If you want to play up the heritage angle, you shouldn’t allow for the charge to be lead by a company like CDI, which has a long track record of giving an airborne turd about any kind of heritage they can’t directly translate into cash on the first Saturday in May. If your company just sacrificed a track like Hollywood Park (and by extension California racing) after that property turned out to be useless for your thinly-veiled aspirations to become a general gambling enterprise, you’re in no position to present yourself as the Temple Guardian of racing heritage.

However, CDI’s namesake property would have been the main beneficiary of any slots bill passed in Kentucky, a bill that was presented as being about Kentucky’s future as a breeding center, but ultimately was about helping Kentucky tracks and lower-level breeders. Unless huge limestone deposits are discovered in Central Pennsylvania or Indiana, the Bluegrass will remain the main region for top-level breeding in America, especially if Kentucky breeders return to breeding for the racetrack rather than the auction ring. The breeders who will indeed have a problem are those breeding livestock for Turfway and Ellis, tracks that can’t keep up with slot-subsidized purses and statebred bonuses at Mountaineer or PA. Without slots, Ellis is left for dead, while Turfway and Churchill face a major problem.

But, oops, we may have touched on a weak point in the Kentucky industry’s argument right there: It’s largely because Kentucky breeders and CDI have for decades supported the overexpansion of racing that those tracks ever could grow to be a threat to Kentucky racing. Kentucky wouldn’t have “competition” from places like Presque Isle Racino, Hoosier or Mountaineer today if the same industry tycoons that come begging for a bailout today hadn’t spent decades successfully fighting a much-needed regulatory body, which could have prevented such destructive trends as slots racing or overblown statebred bonuses from developing in the first place. Here’s a pointer for all those Kentucky industry members who so obviously missed ECON 101: free markets are dog-eat-dog markets, which is why every other sport of notice avoids them. You wanted it, you got it, don’t come crying when one of the puppies has outgrown you.

Without Slots, these are the most likely prospects for Kentucky tracks:

* Kentucky Downs holds a boutique meeting without any major races it has to bolster, it shouldn’t need a year-round casino to survive.

* Turfway Park is a winter track, and I’m not a friend of Thoroughbred winter racing in places where the most common name is neither Bubba nor José. It might fall by the wayside, but the sport isn't helped by two dozen Winter tracks in the Northern states anyway.

* Keeneland doesn’t need slots, and won’t need them in the future.

* As for Ellis Park, racing will have to downsize eventually. Unless you live in the vicinity of Florence, Ky., what’s the difference if Ellis, Beulah or Fairmount is the first one to go?

* Churchill Downs may have to cut off further race days. It might ultimately be forced to give up its status as a top-tier track and (except for a certain weekend in Spring) become a provincial track, which it actually was for most of its history. Having done little to improve racing's appeal while being one of the most influential powers in the industry, CDI exemplifies the problem of initiating the very problems that will come to haunt you later.

"From the spirits that I called, Sir, deliver me!" (Goethe)

Ultimately, the Kentucky story is representative of a racing industry that for decades has developed a sense of entitlement, a distinct conviction that no matter what problems they assemble (over-expansion, failure to attract customers, lack of direction and integrity etc.) it’s always someone else’s responsibility to bail them out (slots, states, customers etc.). Unlike with Goethe's sorcerer's apprentice however, I doubt that rescuing them now would serve as lesson for them to do better in the future.

Saturday, 13 June 2009

Still Sitting Empty, But...

(Panoramio image by Helmut Fischer)

We’re finally there. Dresden Racecourse’s greatest weekend of the year has arrived, and so have Dresden’s two Listed events of the the season.

Saturday’s feature is the 20.000€ Freiberger-Premium-Preis, historically known as the Preis der Dreijährigen, a Derby prep over 2000m. The relatively high prestige of this race is based mainly on producing back-to-back Derby winners in 1994's Laroche and 1995's ill-fated supertalent All My Dreams. The latter was the last Derby winner to prep at Dresden, although Derby runner-up’s Night Tango (2005) and Dickens (2006) came awfully close.

Of this year’s starters, only the unbeaten Navajo Dancer could be on somebody’s Derby shortlist, but it’s a fine field anyway. There’s no one who has won anything of real importance yet, but there are two or three very promising stayers who are just one or two steps away from entering the Derby picture. After all, that’s what you want to see in a 2000m Listed event for 3yo’s at this time of year.

What you wish for in a 2000m Listed race for older horses are starters who have been reasonably close in Group races, or who have proven competitive on this level before. The Sachsen Preis, Sunday’s 20K feature, far exceeds that standard. 4yo filly Goathemala starts for the first time this year, she won the G3 Frankfurter Stutenpreis last time out. Other season debutants are Schützenjunker (who is extremely inconsistent, but hasn’t earned 130K in eight lifetime starts for nothing) and Andre Fabre transfer El Comodin, who finished on the board in a French 52K Listed race on his last attempt. El Comodin was bred in Ireland, but is by German-bred champion sire Monsun and out of German-bred three-time G1-winning mare Elle Danzig (by Roi Danzig), which makes his current record of a won Listed race at Chantilly and a fourth-place finish in the G2 Prix Guillaume d’Ornano at Deauville almost disappointing. More International color is added by Classical Word (by El Prado), one of the top Danish horses in training (admittedly that doesn’t take very much).

N.B.: You gotta love this lifetime record for 13yo gelding Aladan (by Danehill, no less) heading into Saturday’s 3rd:
143 (12-10-13)

HANA Predictions 09-06-13

After I had to skip the last installment of HANA’s Pool Parties, I’m back for this one. There are a lot of nice things to say about Monmouth, but other bloggers have done so in abundance over the last couple of weeks. I'm pretty sure none of those glowing reviews was triggered by anything but honest opinion, nevertheless it does leave a sour taste to read a glowing review of a day at the track, then see a Monmouth ad an inch to the left. In light of recent discussion, I’m not sure if the few bucks the TBA makes by selling ad space are really worth the cost.

My favorite TBA ad, btw, seems to have disappeared recently: the one for Mark Ripple’s Ü (“Handicapping the Wall Street way”). I’m pretty sure the guy regrets that subtitle by now (I mean, the going broke part is easy, just not sure if begging for bailout money will work as well for horseplayers as it did for Goldman Sachs).

Back to the issue at hand: tomorrow’s Race 9 from Monmouth, the cleverly-named Monmouth Stakes, is a great choice. It’s 9 furlongs over the turf at Monmouth, which means you can almost completely discount starting positions 7 and higher. Moreover, there are a number of starters that seem to use this race as a mere stopover on the UN Hcap trail. Among those are #4, 5 and 7. I don’t think Fearless Eagle and Banrock (whose stakes wins have come exclusively in NY statebred turf races) will be a factor. Same goes for Richard’s Kid, who is obviously hoping for this race to be taken off-the-turf, but even then he would need the added assistance of several scratches. Which leaves the following:

#1 Proudinsky – pretty much every conceivable angle points to this horse, plus the race could set up nicely for him; he isn’t a world-beater, but here he looks in the right place at the right time

#4 Grand Couturier – I love the way this horse is campaigned, and it paid off last season with two G1 wins; trainer has given him a prep race the last two years though, and this almost certainly is one too; may be good enough to hit the board on class alone, but he most certainly will be an underlay

#5 Strike A Deal – bit of a sucker horse, plus he is one of several who seem to need a longer distance; nevertheless, shouldn’t be overlooked here

#6 Buddy’s Humor – would have to step up some from his Elkhorn performance, but has shown he can live with Presious Passion opening up (i.e. doesn’t absolutely need the lead); seems to be in the right spot

#7 Presious Passion – really like this horse, but I doubt his running-style is fitting here, especially from this post

A more detailed analysis can be found on the Monmouth Park blog.

With question marks surrounding most of the big names, this race should be Proudinsky’s for the taking. I see Buddy’s Humor’s as the only real threat.

Best Bets:
A bit risky to throw out what may be the two best horses in this field (#4 and 7), but all the more rewarding if it works. I’ll wait to see how my candidates look in the post parade before settling on a bet, but a Win bet on #1 Proudinsky and an Exacta with him on top and a combination of #5 and 6 looks most likely.

This will be the last installment of my HANA Predictions. Starting this segment, my goal wasn’t to show off my handicapping skills (I’m perfectly aware there are far better guys and gals out there), but to spread the word about HANA’s Pool Parties. I think they’ve reached everyone you can reach via the blogosphere by now. Also, not surprisingly, readership numbers for this feature have been extremely poor. If you’ve reached here: congrats! You’ve hit the board. If you haven’t, well, that’s my point.

Looked good at the top of the stretch with Proudinsky taking the lead and Buddy's Humor charging for second, but Proudinsky left too much energy when pulling to catch Presious Passion over the first five furlongs and faded a bit at the end. Clear-cut handicapping error on my side for underestimating this factor. Congratulations to Elvis Trujillo, whose ride on Presious Passion was one of the best jockey performances I've ever seen on a front-runner. After going clear in the early stages, Trujillo gave his horse a breezer through the final turn and conserved enough energy to come back in the stretch. Perfection!

Saturday, 6 June 2009

Triple Crown Alive In The UK

A strong field of opponents wasn’t enough to keep Sea The Stars from impressively winning the Epsom Derby under moderate urging from Mick Kinane. The John Oxx-trained son of Cape Cross became the first horse since Nashwan in 1989 to win the first two legs of the English Triple Crown. If he starts at Doncaster in September, he’d be the first Derby winner to contest there since Reference Point in 1987, and the first one since TC-winner Nijinsky in 1970 to start with a Triple Crown sweep on the line.

The second-to-fifth finisher were all trained by Aiden O’Brien (in this order: Fame And Glory, Masterofthehorse, Golden Sword, Rip Van Winkle) and all of them looked classy even in defeat. O’Brien predictably played stable tactics, sending Golden Sword and Age Of Aquarius to set a near-insane pace, but none of this could stop Sea The Stars, who has to be considered a great one. Slight disappointments were Dante-winner Black Bear Island and Guineas-third Gan Amhras (needless to say, both are Irish horses) who never got into the race today.

Well-beaten sixth-place finisher Crowded House was the first British horse to pass the post, although eighth-placed Debussy may be the only one worth a mention. The winner of the Blue Riband Trial had a remarkably bad trip and ultimately fell victim to the pace scenario, but showed some potential to build upon (and for the few remembering my post about the Epsom Trial, my favorite, Mustaqer, unfortunately finished distressed and hasn't returned to the races since).

After Galileo, Sea The Stars is the second Epsom Derby winner for recently-deceased broodmare Urban Sea. And for those who think great female racehorses make lousy broodmares: Urban Sea won a little something called Prix de l’Arc de Triomphe in 1993.

Epsom And Elmont

The last days have seen such a flurry of Belmont Stakes predictions and analysis that it would almost be ridiculous to post another one. And that’s where I come in:

It’s been slightly more than a week ago that Rachel Alexandra’s connections informed the racing world about their filly skipping the Belmont in an announcement that obviously lacked a sentence. Something along the lines of: “And by ‘she is in great shape’ we mean from a medical standpoint, yet we as the people in everyday contact with the horse feel she isn’t as fresh as we had hoped for, and therefor won’t contest another tough race at this point in time”. With that qualifier fallen victim to the “delete”-button (Microsoft- or mind-wise), the remaining parts of the announcement read like Stonestreet aren’t starting a perfectly ready horse (after all, a bit of attrition is supposed to be a factor in the Belmont) and inexplicably delayed the announcement for two weeks.

The last two weeks also made it hard to defend against the widespread public perception that racing is a fundamentally elitist sport.
First, Paul Moran declared there were several better riders than Calvin Borel in the New York jockeys room but didn’t feel the need to name a single example (much less any actual argument) even after repeated urging. Moran sounded even more like he just wanted to vent some frustration when adding that Borel wouldn’t have ridden Mine That Bird any better in the Preakness, which of course can’t be disproved, but isn’t exactly convincing given that the gelding went from a perfect Derby trip to a decidedly sub-par one in the Preakness. Add the fact that Borel was in a tough spot of his own in said race, and he mastered it perfectly.
After that, a number of racing fans used Moran's sentiment (opinion minus argument = prejudice, as Aristoteles never quite said) as proof for their theory that MTB’s connections are a couple of rednecks who aren’t up to the challenge.

The main backwoods redneck, Chip Woolley, has had one really good horse in his life, and he trained him to win the Kentucky Derby, after which only a bad trip provided MTB from really challenging RA in the Preakness (insert your own Toddster reference of choice here). He may still be prone to make a beginners’ mistake or two on this level, but so far he has outsmarted all of us, so you better wipe that smug look right off your face!

With those thoughts off my mind, let’s have a look on the two main races today. The Epsom Derby shapes up as a virtual added-distance re-run for the 2000 Guineas. As always, handicapping the English Classics (except the St. Leger) comes down to an exercise in guessing at horsemen and pedigree angles rather than comparing actual forms, but Guineas winner Sea The Stars looks to be the one to beat. He’s a half-brother to Galileo and his pedigree doesn’t include too many stamina question marks. Still, with no less than six horses in a twelve-horse field, Aidan O’Brien has a lot of options, even though his first jockey (Murtagh) skipped what would be his logical first two choices (Fame And Glory and Black Bear Island) for Rip Van Winkle, whose last two disappointing performances aren’t helped by his doubtful pedigree. The first six choices are all Irish raiders, and there’s only Godolphin’s Kite Wood to hold up the Emirati flag, but he was beaten decisively by Black Bear Island in the Dante Stakes.

As for the Belmont, I find myself underwhelmed by this race now that RA is out of the mix. It’s not that no Triple Crown is on the line (I wasn’t particularly thrilled by last year’s edition either), it’s just that there isn’t too much sporting interest left. Mine That Bird could once again cement his status, but anyone who still doubts that he is the real deal probably can’t be helped anyway. If he gets beat by one of the fresher horses, he’ll have enough excuses.

#1 Chocolate Candy – unusual comment for an Argentine-sired horse, but I doubt his stamina; also, he was beaten quite decisively in the Derby, and I don’t see enough reason for a reversal of fortunes

#2 Dunkirk – probably the only interesting non-Borel storyline left: will he disprove his meager Derby performance? I doubt it, but I was never on the Dunkirk bandwagon; Pletcher indicated his colt might not like wet ground, but he may have been just scrambling for excuses; all in all I consider him an underlay at a 4/1 ML

#3 Mr Hot Stuff – sorry, but 1-from-8, trained and run almost exclusively on artificial surfaces just doesn’t translate into Belmont victory for me

#4 Summer Bird – has the pedigree, and by my long-standing policy to automatically bet any horse that ran okay going spectacularly wide in all of his last races, this 12/1 ML horse is a “buy”

#5 Luv Gov – unless I’m completely missing something here, his 20/1 ML would make him the underlay of the day; trainer has proven often enough that he WILL send out horses with a snowball’s chance.

#6 Charitable Man – won well in the Peter Pan, but wasn’t too impressive; may profit from added distance and likes this track; needs the race to set up for him to beat MTB, but may get it

#7 Mine That Bird – almost looks like a sucker bet, but I just don’t see a better horse in this field, only a couple that could be more fortunate; I’m not concerned about the distance, but the track and level of attrition are concerns, though wet-fast would help; with RA out, his opposition might concentrate on making this tough on Borel and his horse

#8 Flying Private – ran well in the Preakness, but won only one of twelve LT starts and doesn’t look to be the greatest fighter of all; at 12/1 ML he is worth consideration for the exotics, but I wouldn’t rate him a real threat; as a fan, I find Lukas horses an automatic “root-against” after he once again proposed his TC extension plan.

#9 Miner’s Escape – Federico Tesio to Belmont may be stepping up a bit too fast

#10 Brave Victory – a Zito-horse like #9, he has yet to hit the exacta in five graded stakes attempts; highly doubtful he’ll do so here


Plenty of things could go wrong for MTB, but as a racing fan I hope he wins it. If he doesn’t, I doubt that a new star will be born as the rest of the field (with exception for Summer Bird and Dunkirk) is rather playing the angles than actually Triple Crown material. I’ll just try to get some small bets on the 'Birds for a good price (both are attracting too much in the early market at betfair, actually below their ML right now) and leave it at that.

If you want to bet more, I recomend you single #7 for a Win, #4 and 6 for the Exacta spot and #2,4,6 and 8 to hit the board. You might switch #7 and #4 for a value bet.

Tuesday, 2 June 2009

Lost In Translation

As fortunately as it is surprising, no one around here seems to be in the early stages of hysteria in anticipation of this week’s visit of the American Messiah-elect to our (really not that) humble town.

Unlike the prophets of old however, Obama is poised to block our way through the raging waters (or over them, for that matter), as the bridge I would usually take to my job will be closed for security reasons on Thursday.

Anyway, the reason I posted today is that Pull The Pocket has brought it to the blogosphere’s attention that Poker Channel Europe yesterday started to televise American racing in a daily hour-long show. PCE is an extremely remote digital channel available on a very limited number of cable systems, but one that can be viewed using Zattoo.

Poker and Racing, by the way, are a natural match. Both are the only two forms of gambling in which skill and determination can give you a winning percentage. Both are also the only ones in which the house (at least theoretically) can be neutral towards the result as long as the handle is high enough.

I was intrigued by the concept for a couple of minutes, even more so when I clicked the link on PCE’s website to get further information and realized that their program is actually presented and produced by Equi8, a relatively new and very promising German web channel/ADW which is for the most part a continuation/copy of defunct Premiere Win. P-Win was a German channel dedicated almost exlusively to American horse racing run by pay-per-view service Premiere, but it was actually available for free and streamed its entire program (6pm-2am weekdays, ca. 2pm-2am weekends) online.

It had its pitfalls, but nevertheless it was easily the best of several failed attempts at establishing a racing channel in Germany. One of its best features was a crew of really good commentators, ranging from longtime analysts to active jockeys and trainers.

After watching half an hour of the “Equi8 Happy Hour”’s lead-in program (virtual poker, no kidding) I was sure I knew what to expect, and that it wouldn’t be bad. After all, what could go wrong with a studio crew of longtime veteran Michael Luxenburger and Thorsten Castle, the track announcer at Munich Racecourse and a brilliant promoter at times (both are P-Win alumni)?

I was gonna find out soon enough: they were forced to moderate in English. Both aren’t bad at English, but both aren’t nearly good enough to go On Air speaking it, mainly because they have too detectable an accent and lack the easy slap-of-tongue they master in their native language. The program had a studio crew that can be a joy to listen to, and used it in a way that made listening to them an ordeal. That’s wasted talent, and a textbook case of offending two audiences by trying to be everything to everyone.

Let’s be honest for a second: how large does PCE assess the market in Cyprus, Croatia and Belgium to be? As long as they aren’t allowed to show it in the UK or Ireland, the market for this show is Germany. And if they would be allowed, they’d find out the hard way that no native speaker would listen to a bunch of accent-plagued Germans using mispronounced English to discuss American racing. If you assemble a team of some of the best German racing analysts, why not use that potential rather than have them struggle uncomfortably through moderations that end up lacking, or worse?