Friday, 17 September 2010

Munich's Oktoberfest, A Racing History

Long before it became a favorite opportunity for the rest of the world to make fun of Germans, and for the rest of Germans to make fun of Bavarians, Munich's Oktoberfest had become an interesting footnote in the annals of horse racing.

When it was first held on October 17, 1810 on a large meadow just outside town, there was not a single beer hall on the grounds. The history of the Oktoberfest instead began with a horse race, held as the highlight and final of the celebrations surrounding the marriage of Prince Ludwig of Bavaria to Princess Therese of Saxe-Hildburghausen five days earlier.

Originally the idea of one Franz Baumgartner, a coachman and member of the Bavarian citizens' militia, the concept was presented to King Maximilian I. by Baumgartner's commanding officer, cavalry major and banker Andreas von Dall'Armi, whose personal fortune could also take care of the necessary investments.
Maximilian was all for it. The Duke of Bavaria since 1799, he had been proclaimed the first King of Bavaria in 1806, a title somewhat tainted by the fact that he pretty much owed it entirely to his controversial subservience to Napoleon, who had first stripped the duchy of a considerable part of its belongings, then awarded it even greater lands elsewhere (and the title of a kingdom) after the Bavarians had switched to his side. The result of these turbulent developments was that Maximilian now ruled a country in turmoil, constantly upset by one controversial reform after another, and with many of his subjects not particularly fond of either the king or the kingdom. It was in this light that Max was anxious to use the festivities to present himself favourably to his people. And this was also the reason why he decided to combine the race day with patriotic parades and a huge feast for the populace, which in turn sowed the seeds for what was to become the world's largest fair.

The 1810 horse race itself was in the tradition of the medieval "scarlet races", with the winning jockey being awarded a valuable piece of scarlet cloth. His name: Franz Baumgartner.

A success with both the bourgeoisie and the lower populace, the festival was repeated the next year, and extended by an agricultural fair. Offering a handy and highly remunerative opportunity for brewers to clear out their reserves of last season's Märzen beer at the start of the new brewing season*, the Oktoberfest quickly took off as the almost aggressively convivial swilling-contest we know today (then again, you have to be pretty tanked to look the other way on the clothing, I guess). The original racing component on the other hand became more and more of an afterthought and was ultimately cut off between World Wars.

In 2010, on occasion of the festival's 200th anniversary, horse racing will return for the first time since 1960, and the second time post-WWII in the form of short-circuit races for haflingers and other regional breeds.

* before the advancement of refrigeration and production technology, brewing beer was only allowed between Michelmas (September 29) and St. George's day (April 23); Märzen, which literally translates to an outdated version of March, indicates a beer brewed very late in the season and elaborately stored ('gelagert') all through the summer

(images: Peter Heß: "Das Pferde-Rennen bey der Vermählungs Feyer", depictig the very first Oktoberfest in 1810 [top]; Heinrich Adam: "Das Pferderennen auf dem Münchner Oktoberfest 1823", both paintings are part of a current exhibition by the Münchner Stadtmuseum)

(video of a 2010 Haflinger race; added Sept. 18; 1825 CET, 1225 EST; source:

Tuesday, 15 June 2010

Joe Hirsch Must Be Rotating By Now

The frequently insightful and entertaining Paulick Report is chuckling about a rather bad factual error in racing's paper of note, the Desert Valley Times of Southern Utah. Apparently, the DVT's racing columnist Duke Hunt has suggested the Haskell Invitational as a possible tete-a-tete for Zenyatta and Rachel Alexandra in his latest column, leading Mr. Paulick to suspect that Joe Hirsch must be rolling in his grave.

Now, I can't help but think that Joe Hirsch would be more disappointed that with all the factual errors (to say nothing about leaps of logic) you'll find in an average edition of the DRF or Blood-Horse, the one turf writer Mr. Paulick slams is some retired former USAF sergeant who writes for a minor provincial paper on a hobby basis. Or the fact that Mr. Paulick ridicules this guy on a large racing website without even leaving a comment at the article itself.

For perspective, not to ridicule (no, really), I had already dug up some old fact-checking error from the Paulick Report's archives, remembering that one edition of Mr. Paulick's helpful "Saturday Stakes, Where to Watch" posts had listed the Florida Oaks, Tampa Bay Derby and Honeybee Stakes as turf races, one of them at the wrong time too. Happens to everybody, unless you have an excellent fact-checking department.

And then I decided to google the esteemed Desert Valley Times of Southern Utah (both for info and because it struck me as odd), and wouldn't you know: the Desert Valley Times is a twice-weekly paper from Mesquite, Nevada, right on the Nevada/ Arizona border. To be fair, the DVT is owned and distributed by St. George, Utah daily newspaper The Spectrum, but Mr. Hunt's column, which deals with racing topics and his local race book, is very obviously DVT-produced content.

Yes, sloppy fact-checking is a bitch.

I guess you just have to be lucky that no one notices such easily avoidable mistakes, or that they at least aren't such a dick to write about it on the net, be it on a well-visited aggregator/ news site or some obscure blog from Germany that has made its own share of factual blunders.

(Image of Secretariat winning the 1974 Breeders Cup Classic [source])

Saturday, 12 June 2010

Stand Up and Hide

We know that controversial Southern California trainer Jeff Mullins is not always aware of the rules, but apparently he still doesn't break them, as this wonderful website seeks to convince us. Seems Ole' Jeff is the victim of a conspiracy led by the California Horse Racing Board, an institution not often accused of taking no-tolerance policy a step too far.

I admire the courage of those alleged "horse owners, trainers and friends in support of Jeff Mullins" who so bravely stand up to "do everything in [their] power" to help and "lend [their] voices", well... anonymously.

I agree. Justice for Jeff Mullins by all means. I also agree that it won't come from the CHRB. My choice would be the FBI.

(Image from

Apartheid Ended? Check! Now Get Rid of those Vuvuzelas!

With the World's greatest excuse for public chanting having started in South Africa, there is still one local racing fixture on the agenda today: Dresden Racecourse's main raceday of the year, the remains of the traditional two-day meet.

Surprisingly unfazed by Berlin's big day last weekend, a one-off event that included the G2 Preis der Hauptstadtregion and the G3 Benazet-Rennen (replacement races for the cancelled Baden-Baden spring meet), the Sachsen-Preis (Listed) field is just as outstanding as last year's. I don't think I've seen such an assortment of horses known for both potential and inconsistency before. Of 11 starters, 8 have won or placed in Class A races over their last 6 starts, almost all of them have also ended up up the track in the same class several times.

Best of all: no vuvuzelas (two World Cup games in the books and I already hate those things)

This marks the first time in more than a month that I'll watch a German race live and place a bet on it. Not coincidentally also the first time since all of my ADWs decided not to renew their license for the German simulcast stream. The reason they didn't is quite simple: the German stream costs about five times as much as one of the two British ones, shows roughly 10% of the number of races and - even according to the projections of German Racing, the sport's own promoter - creates far less handle.*

I could of course open an account with one of the ADWs that still keep the German stream. I'll do that at some point in the future, but quite frankly this might be the drop that breaks the camel's water, or somesuch. I'm fed up with running after the providers for the privilege of betting into their pools, which – considering the 30% takeout – I do out of pity more than anything else. On a related subject, I also didn't spend the 10 minutes or so it would have taken to find a P2P stream for ABC on Belmont Day. If NYRA doesn't think it should provide overseas customers with any opportunity to see the main races, it obviously doesn't want overseas business. Must be glorious if you can afford yourself that luxury. I've never said that about a Triple Crown race before, but the 2010 Belmont definitely wasn't a must-see.

* (numbers from memory; German Racing's business concept, which I got them from, doesn't seem to be online anymore)

Monday, 10 May 2010

In Case of Filly Mishandling Accusations, Vodka can Provide Relief

Granted I don't follow the Japanese racing media extensively, but to the best of my knowledge fans and bettors in Nippon did not predict catastrophe in 2007, when 1000 Guineas runner-up Vodka opted to skip the Oaks and later Japan's Distaff Championship to instead compete in the Derby and Japan Cup. And when her winter 07/08 results were not up to previous form, trainer Kazuhiko Sumii and owner Yuzo Tanimizu were not broadly accused of mistreating the filly with their callous insistence on entering a racehorse in horse races. Then again, this being Asian racing, those people are used to seeing their greatest equine stars prove themselves for half a decade, a distant memory for followers of the sport in America (and the times when Europe's absolute superstars were around for more than a dozen races is beyond the recollection of the living). In "proving" themselves, it is obviously implied that some of those who looked like the next Horse of the Decade as youngsters will turn out to be merely good, and that's where we in the quality-starved racing world start to lose grip.

Take Rachel Alexandra for example. Excluding her Kentucky Oaks romp and standard spring campaign for her old connections, the filly's allegedly too hard 3yo campaign consisted of two hard-fought wins (Preakness and Woodward) and one demanding one (the Haskell). Good, very good. But is beating Summer Bird by a couple of lengths and beating Macho Again by a nose really ample proof that she – even at her very best – was as spectacularly great as hype and her ambitious owner Jess Jackson would have us believe? (I want to make it perfectly clear that I found and find her a deserving winner of the 2009 HotY award based on this campaign, just not necessarily the best American filly in decades).

Horses lose former class (or class edge) all the time, especially when turning from two to three and from three to four year olds. This shouldn't be news to anyone and generally isn't, but if the subject in question happens to be last year's "superstar", European and American fans seem to forget the most basic truisms about our sport. We have become so estranged from the experience of seeing a 3yo superstar return that we are willing to buy into the most assinine of theories to explain the most ordinary of developments. Developments that we wouldn't find in any way suprising for a returning G3 horse.

Horsemen of past decades didn't think that you should campaign a good horse as fluffy as possible. This thinking entered the racing world when a speculation bubble started elevating stud fees into ridiculous spheres, paradoxically making "not racing" the most profitable option available for the owners of talented racehorses. It was then that horsemen, in need of a justification other than pure profit, started telling the world that there was something like a moral obligation not to "overexpose" top class racehorses. It was, not coincidentally, also the time when horsemen started to routinely retire horses for injuries that in the past would have been treated with a short period of rest and a couple of changes to the campaign plan.

It doesn't take a great thinker to find out that the real reason for this is a different one: by cherry-picking target races, equine stars can go through their career hardly ever facing other top horses and thus end up with stallion ads that make every borderline BC candidate look like the second coming of Man O'War. And by retiring early you don't risk finding out that this youngster of spectacular class was just an early bird with some fine class, after all. In a breeding market in which actual class had become an afterthought to flashy stats and superficial promise, this made perfect sense from an economical point of view.

What we have here then, it strikes me, is a case of believing the cover story you made up yourself. Which, judging from the reaction to Rachel's La Troienne loss, most racing fans obviously do. A current poll over at Fugue For Tinhorns, asking if Rachel's owner and trainer change a year ago was good for the filly, is heading for a resounding victory for "No".
Apparently, there is broad consensus for the theory that her demanding 3yo campaign has taken too much out of the horse, that horses should be campaigned more cautiously. Where does this lack of confidence come from? Or, to put it differently: when the fuck did PETA manage to convince even the fans of horseracing that thoroughbreds are indeed so incredibly fragile that the only responsible way to handle them is to not challenge them at all?

What racing is left with after decades of alienating anyone who likes a little quality with their sports is a fanbase that's eaten up all the excuses. And maybe, just maybe, we racing fans are getting exactly what we deserve – and that's not good.

Even though it largely dealt with self-inflicted proplems – superstitions and anthropomorphisms that never had any logical or empirical basis in the first place – having a three-year-old filly campaigned like a racehorse (until August at least) was probably the only major step forward American racing has done on its own in more than a decade. Given the public perception of her career, if Rachel Alexandra turns out to be less than outstanding it seems inevitable that American racing will take two steps back as a result.
No other sport I'm familiar with has such an incredible talent to create its own problems, and is so insistent on keeping them.

Vodka - a Potent Cure for Problems of Perception

Vodka at the age of two, winning the G1 Hanshin Juvenile Fillies Stakes, one of only two Japanese G1s for 2yo's:

As a sophomore, Vodka won the G3 Tulip Sho (Japan's main 1000 Guineas Trial) from the great Daiwa Scarlet before finishing second to the same filly in the target race. In late May, she took the Japanese Derby from Asakusa Kings and the rest of what turned out to be a very strong crop. In June, she took on older horses for the first time but finished only 8th in the G1 Takarazuka Kinen.
She returned to form after a layoff, finishing third to Daiwa Scarlet in the G1 Shuka Sho (Autumn Oaks, if you will) before a respectable fourth place in the Japan Cup, 1 ½ lengths behind Admire Moon. At the age of three Vodka contested in six G1 races, all of them filled with the maximum number of 18 horses, and against the very best Japanese horses in open company.

Vodka's four-year-old season went off moderately with a 6th place in the G2 Kyoto Kinen and a 4th in the G1 Dubai Duty Free, her first start abroad. The elsewhere oft-maligned Dubai trip didn't seem to hurt the filly at all, as she went on to win the G1 Yasuda Kinen and the G1 Tenno Sho over 2000m (by a nose from Daiwa Scarlet) and in addition finished second in the G1 Victoria (F&M) Mile and the G2 Mainichi Okan before again coming close when third in the Japan Cup.

After another mediocre return in the 2009 G2 Jebel Hatta and G1 Dubai Duty Free, a five-year-old Vodka ran a stellar season which included a 7-length romp in the Victoria Mile and a repeat win of the Yasuda Kinen before being crowned when she narrowly held on for that elusive victory in the 2400m Japan Cup.

How's that for a challenging schedule? To be sure, Vodka was the rule rather than the exception in Japan. Her great rival Daiwa Scarlet ended her career after her 4yo season, which she crowned by winning Japan's second-most important race, the 2500m G1 Arima Kinen (in which she had already finished second as a 3yo).

(Wikimedia Commons image by Goki)

Sunday, 2 May 2010

If It Had Four Legs And A Jockey On Its Back...

... then it must have been at least 30/1 to top the 2010 Kentucky Derby field. Fascinating case study in mass psychology and otherwise, this edition of the Run for the Roses was a strange but enjoyable one.

Super Saver became a worthy if somewhat circumstantial winner employing a strategy that is already hinted at in his name. A clear misnomer however was Looking At Lucky, who first had to be taken back right after the start, then was almost body-slammed into the rail by Stately Victor. That he still came back to finish sixth marks him as the best horse in this race. Devil May Care encountered a good deal of adversity too, but it's hard to say how many places it dropped her. Paddy O'Prado finished third, but should have been taken out of the race after shoving over Stately Victor – the incident that ruined the race for Looking at Lucky and could have easily resulted in a major spill on the rail. A perfect example of reckless raceriding that would have earned Kent Desormeaux a suspension anywhere outside of America.

And finally, I'm weirdly torn between embarrassment and pride on that handicapping job I did on Ice Box. On the one hand, I did expect him to finish off the board despite a lot of potential, on the other he did indeed lose all chance to threaten the winner by going far too wide on the final turn, and caught on for second with the help of what I see as a visibly firmer lane compared to most other horses (kudos to Jose Lezcano).
I'm not usually a fan of The Toddster, but you had to have some compassion with the silver-haired Ray Barone doppelgänger (I never noticed that before) for having to smile through the same dumb jokes every year, and particularly after the bad luck he had with Eskendereya.

NBC was dealt a good hand starting their program off with a McCarthy/General Quarters victory, but they also did a nice job presenting this race to a larger audience, though they unnecessarily screwed up the audio during 'Old Kentucky Home', and failed to do so when they should have during that bad rendition of 'Star-Spangled Banner'. The camerawork was horrible especially during those crucial moments when the horses entered the stretch and you needed a HD home cinema to see anything, but that's not NBC's fault.

Saturday, 1 May 2010

Derby Brief

After reviewing the card and replays of more than 50 races including at least 3 for every single starter, the draft for my planned Kentucky Derby post died of obesity and still I couldn't pinpoint the one or two golden candidates, mainly because I think there isn't one. Since it doesn't make sense to add a 3-page post when there have been dozens of Derby previews all week, here's just the gist of it in brief:

The possible burn to start it off: I toss out Ice Box – talent, pedigree, pace scenario and form be damned. He isn't good enough to make it from the 6-path, and Zito has always ordered his numerous jockeys to go "in the clear" with him. My approach is simplistic but quite successful: "In the Clear" in the Kentucky Derby translates to "Off the board", unless your horse is far superior to their opposition.

The question who wins could easily come down to a more or less coincidence-based 'the one who gets through relatively unscathed on or near the rail' when the early birds are fading out. Looking at Lucky is the most likely candidate for this, especially since Gomez/Baffert will be searching for the inside route, which is not nearly as common as it should be. Plus, he does have superior class and seasoning compared to most of his opponents. Also, I agree with Sarah Palin (I gotta shower now), Devil May Care is in it with a chance (like Sarah Palin, unfortunately) and not just a choice for the mentally disadvantaged (unlike Sarah), although there is a huge question mark behind her ability to handle adversity.

If you like Mine That Bird odds, the entirely unheralded Dean's Kitten is one I wouldn't toss out. Yes he has lost against some of the weaker ones in this field, but looks to be perfectly primed for this race. He's got nice turn-of-foot and has settled down well over his last three starts, now showing enormous strategic range. Has to step up considerably, but then who in this field doesn't?

And of course: keep an eye out for track conditions (or rather, track maintenance/manipulation) during and especially between races. My guess: it will once again be sealed up like a Chinese dissident, which usually means the inside becomes even more favorable than it would generally be in an overpaced 20-horse field.

Wednesday, 14 April 2010

45 Days to Go... Or 136... Or...

Iffezheim Racecourse near Baden-Baden, by far the most important track in Germany, has been slipping in out of bankruptcy for about a year now (publicly; much longer behind the scenes). Its most recent (potential) savior is Infront, a renowned Swiss-based sports promoter, more exactly its Chairman Andreas Jacobs, who also part-owns Deutsche See (Germany's leading wholesaler of frozen seafood), but more importantly is also the Chairman of Gestüt Fährhof, one of Germany's most important thoroughbred owners and breeders.

Fährhof, which took the unusual step of turning into a not-for-profit foundation a few years before the passing of its founder Walther J. Jacobs (Andreas' grandfather), is currently represented Internationally by Quijano and has also campaigned the likes of Silvano, Sabiango, Borgia and Black Sam Bellamy in not-too-distant memory. Still, it may be most prominent as a breeder, the place where such sires as Acatenango, Lomitas and Surumu left their mark on the breed.

On March 23, Baden-Baden Racecourse's prospective new operator issued a press release which was, for whatever reason, received very positively by most of the International racing media, although it didn't announce any substantial new developments, other than finally confirming the open secret that Baden's highly important Spring meet was indeed cancelled (read the Racing Post's account).

What first dampened my enthusiasm about the "upbeat" announcement is the fact that, as of April 14, the club's own website is the only one in the world that still announces the next race date for May 22, and has a countdown ticking for a long-cancelled race date. In fact, the Internationaler Club's news section has not been updated to include anything about the press release.
The news coming since then (and also the news NOT coming) is some cause for alarm, because as of yet absolutely nothing – incl. Baden's summer meet – is definite, other than the fact that the "hope that all the legal niceties have been sorted out" was unjustified. An important notary meeting set for last Thursday was postponed until today. The city (which owns the property) and investor still have not come to definite terms on a lease and therefor on the contract itself.
Meanwhile, the Direktorium's (racing board's) plan to transfer as many as possible of the spring meet's feature races to other tracks had an official deadline set for April 11, but did go into overtime, with a final result to be expected tomorrow (Update: as of April 27, it's still not 100% airtight, but it seems very likely that all Group and a couple of the other races will be run on other tracks).*

In local news, Dresden Racecourse's high-flying dreams of installing a large photovoltaic system in the infield (and thereby making roughly the handle of one of their racedays in annual profit) were pretty much scrapped by the city. In response to the discontinuation of the Listed Preis der Dreijährigen, Dresden Racecourse has announced a new Listed race, the Dresdner Herbstpreis, to be run on the traditional final date in mid-November, over 2200 meters for 3yo's & up, thereby adding actual sporting importance to what has already become a favorite day for most racegoers.**

* Thanks go out to Rüdiger Schmanns, Manager Racing Department at the Direktorium, for giving me this information in the form of a prompt email response to a question asked via their website's "contact" box.

** Race not officially announced yet and therefor subject to change (although it seems safe it will be scheduled). Distance and age group info as per phone conversation with the club's executive director, Uwe Tschirch (here too, thanks for a thorough update are in order).

(Panoramio image on top is by Sigi2)

Friday, 9 April 2010

The Cigarilla

When five horses enter the gate for the Apple Blossom Invitational Handicap today at Oaklawn, none of them will be named Rachel Alexandra, and therefor the race will be run for a purse of 500.000$, rather than the proposed 5 million. Though the costliest part of Oaklawn's questionable stunt* will go down as a historical footnote, the race will still be run over 9 furlongs, almost a week after the originally given date, and the word 'Handicap' was obviously left in the title just for a chuckle. The "Invitational" part is to be taken literally though: it pretty much is an open invitation for Zenyatta to hit the magical 16 consecutive wins at minimal risk.

No race is ever won before the result is final, but Zenyatta will definitely not be 'beaten' by any of her opponents. Fate and Team Zenyatta themselves are the only ones who can cause the great mare to lose in this race.

As for the 5-million proposal: a historical footnote it may be, but an isolated oddity it certainly isn't. This year's Apple Blossom marks the current nadir of a trend that spans several decades and may most aptly be called "the horseman's condition book". The trend is characterized by an ever-increasing tendency to write stakes books and assigning weights according to the interests of influential – or in some cases merely very vocal - owners, trainers and breeders rather than the interests of fans, bettors or the sport, let alone the principles of sportsmanship.
The late Robert Frankel elevated badgering racing secretaries into an art form back when he had superstars like Ghostzapper and Empire Maker in his stable. Who could forget the time when he let it be known that his reigning HotY Ghostzapper would start in, of all races, the Oaklawn Handicap – but only if "the greatest racehorse in 20 years" (according to one R. Frankel) was assigned no more than 121 pounds. 2005 Oaklawn sent Bobby back to NYRA, where he always found an open ear. 2010 Oaklawn assigns 123 to Zenyatta - a virtual walkover. As if that wasn't enough, never before has the conditions sheet for a major race been mutilated so heavily to accommodate the interests of one or more specific horses.

Going forward from here, connections of superstar horses know that they can get the purse, date, distance and conditions of even major fixtures changed at short notice (a side issue of course, but should a race that has all but one of the basic conditions changed after publication of the Graded Stakes Schedule not be stripped of its grade?). Inclusion criteria for this new class of platinum customer equine star seem to be based on hype, which is a problem for a sport known to overhype horses on a regular basis.

So why is this post headlined "The Cigarilla"? Simple: as great a feat as Zenyatta's is, when Cigar tied Citation's winning streak in 1996, he did so beating nine opponents, giving 12 pounds to Unbridled's Song, 14 to Honour and Glory, 12 to Dramatic Gold. Zenyatta will give 3 pounds to War Echo and Just Jenda, and give new meaning to the old Soccer saying that "a tie is often a moral victory for one side".

Trivia Corner: there actually was a racehorse called Cigarilla once, a 1979 daughter of Banderilla (by Native Dancer).

* Several good reasons to call the proposal questionable can be found in this post on the great, recently revived (well, more or less) Thoroughbred Blog.

(section added April 10; 1025 CET, 0425 EST)

No surprises here. The race was written for Zenyatta, and she effortlessly won it going away. That's it in showbiz news, now on to horse racing.

Sunday, 28 March 2010

The Passion of the Steven

Steven Crist is often one of the first and most effective in pointing the finger at some of racing's ills. Even if you disagree with him, his columns and posts are usually informative.

Unfortunately, he also has a tendency to become excessively adamant on some of his pet causes, to the point where his articles on the subject not only become repetitive, but where his passion for the cause gets the better of his reasoning. A particularly egregious example of this could be witnessed in the wake of yesterday's Dubai World Cup. Crist's DRF-hosted racing blog is one of the most-visited on the net, and therefor I think that a post like yesterday's Tapeta-bashing "World Cup Crapshoot" warrants closer examination (quotes from his post are in Italic):

"The winner, front-running Gloria de Campeao, is an admirably durable Brazilian 7-year-old who was beaten 16 1/2 lengths by Curlin in the 2008 World Cup and 14 lengths by Well Armed in the race last year"

Of course he was the runner-up in 2009, beaten 14 lengths by Well Armed, but 4 ½ in front of everyone else. Crist doesn't mention that. Admirably durable he is indeed, but such a characterization seems somewhat understated for a horse that can also be summed up like this: "Gloria de Campeao obviously scored the signature victory of his career, but he has been successful all over the world. He was a Grade 2 winner at a mile on turf in his native Brazil, was sent to train in France with Bary, won the Singapore Airlines International Cup-G1 in 2009, and for the third consecutive year has won or placed in graded stakes in Dubai", the latter characterization is quoted from the Fugue For Tinhorns blog.

"The runner-up, Lizard's Desire, came into the $10 million race with a field-low bankroll of $207,442, having finished 10th and 11th in his two prior starts in Group 1 company in his native South Africa."

True; but the horse had also won a South African G3 by 5 lengths and finished second to Dan De Lago in a South African G2, both on turf. After the latter race he switched into the hands of Mike De Kock, who, they tell me, is quite good at prepping horses for the Dubai carnival. Lizard's Desire went on to win his first two Dubai starts comfortably, then finished 5th, beaten 1 ½ l. in the World Cup's major prep race, the G2 Maktoum Challenge Rd3.

"Allybar, who was third, was 0 for 6 in graded or group races of any kind"

This is flat out false. Entering the gates yesterday, Allybar was 1-for-7 in group races, a winner of the G3 Maktoum Challenge Rd2 over this very course in February. An oversight like this can happen to anyone, but there are other things that can not be explained so easily:

First: Yesterday evening, I left the following notice on Crist Blog:
"Allybar was 1-for-7 in graded stakes of any kind. He won the G3 Maktoum Challenge Rd2 over this course in February. He also finished on the board in 4 of his 5 French group starts on the turf and was beaten all of a length when fourth over this course and distance 3 weeks ago. Yeah, he really came out of nowhere."
It takes a special kind of dickishness to block this comment and not even correct a clear error of fact in the post. Of course, correcting this mistake would undermine Crist's argument, and given that Allybar also finished on the board in 5 of 7 group races, it never was much of an argument to begin with. It is common these days for so called "political commentators" to shamelessly contort reality into the shape that best fits their narrative, but for a racing essayist to slip into this kind of propagandistic rabble-rousing is more than a bit questionable.

"America's supposed synthetic specialists -- BC Classic runner-up Gio Ponti (who finished 4th), Goodwood winner Gitano Hernando and Pacific Classic winner Richard's Kid -- had no impact on the finish."

So what's your point? Would Tapeta have been acceptable if Gio Ponti had won? Aren't you just making a circular argument here? Richard's Kid, last seen winning a slow San Antonio Handicap by a neck after being without a chance in the BC Classic, should never have been anywhere near a 5/1 morning line to begin with. Gitano Hernando was the upset winner of last year's Goodwood Stakes at OSA, by a neck. He spent the winter in England, where he won the all-important Winter Derby Trial (Listed) at Lingfield. If you had him rated above Gloria de Campeao or Allybar for yesterday's race, the fault may be with your handicapping rather than the Tapeta. For the record, he's not an American horse. Gio Ponti's 4th place behind three horses specifically aimed at this race is not exactly catastrophic.

"In the past, the World Cup was a true showcase for champions, such as Cigar, Silver Charm, Dubai Milennium, Invasor and Curlin. Now? Step right up and spin the wheel."

Actually, the result matches better with previous forms than last year's edition, but why let reality interfere with our narrative. If your argument is that the 2010 World Cup lacked a superstar or two: the same is true for last year's edition. Well Armed became a superstar for a breathtaking romp on the old dirt track at Nad Al Sheba, but he went into that race a 10/1 shot and off-the-board in two of his last three starts, including a 9th place in the BC Dirt Mile.

As for the other Tapeta races:
The UAE Derby – perfectly true to form; great race
Golden Shaheen – good performance by 7/1 Kinsale King, but if Robbie Fradd had settled into the race half as well as his mount, 7/4-favorite Rocket Man would have cantered home
Godolphin Mile – Desert Party and Cat Junior failed to perform, which made this race a wide-open affair. The top three had all won at Meydan and were 3rd, 2nd and 5th over this course and distance in the G3 Alhaarth on March 4.

Both the Godolphin Mile and the Dubai World Cup were very hard to handicap. But that was because of the depth of the field and the questions surrounding many of the shippers. A tough handicapping task is not the same as a crapshoot handicapping task (go handicap a German Hcp F or a bottom-level claimer at Mountaineer next and you'll notice the difference).

"[The race] was a $10 million advertisement for how synthetic surfaces can make a complete mess of so-called world-class championship racing. For all that it proved about the quality of the contestants either individually or as a group, the results of the Dubai World Cup might as well have been drawn out of a hat."

Ladies and Gentlemen, we regret to announce that Steven Crist's sense of reason had to leave tonight's event early.

Friday, 26 March 2010

The Dubai Sheema Classic: Handicapping in a Vacuum

Shd, shd, ¼, ¼. Those are the winning margins of all stayer races run so far over Meydan's Turf course. In more detail:

February 4 (2800m): Age of Reason wins by a short head from Titurel (who, btw, won a Hcp C at Dresden last June), the third is Mojave Moon, distanced by another short head.

February 11 (2485m): Globetrotter Halicarnassus adds another track to his CV, beating Mourilyan by a short head.

February 25 (3200m): Sabotage goes clear by a full quarter of a length to take the DRC Gold Cup from Age of Reason.

March 4 (2485m): Campanologist beats Turkish sensation Pan River by ¼.

In all but one of these races, the 6th-place horse was beaten less than 2 ½ lengths by the winner. If we include all three races from the next distance run (1800m), it adds wins by 1 l., a short-head, and a whopping 3 ½ l. (by Alexandros on Feb 4, after what must be one of the most picture-perfect trips in the history of racing).

I learned all of this when I was trying to handicap tomorrow's 2400m Dubai Sheema Classic, probably the least predictable G1 race I have ever encountered. You get used to the fact that half the field in DWC races has not run in months, or has run a continent or two away as recently as two months back. But this year, even the Dubai forms are a clear case of "definitely maybe, if..." . I think I'll put my faith in Buena Vista. Or Spanish Moon? Dar Re Mi? Deem? Presious Passion?

(section added Mar 27, 2320 CET, 1820 EST)

Once again it proves true: never trust in anything John Gosden says. The new conditioner of Dar Re Mi was interviewed minutes before the race, mentioning that Dar Re Mi was not in peak form, was more of a horse that "gets better as the year goes by", and also noting that the harsh winter hasn't helped.

One stadium lap later, Dar Re Mi (9/1) held on to take the race from Buena Vista (6/1) by 3/4 l.; Spanish Moon (6/1) was third a head behind the second. Deem (50/1) finished fourth, Presious Passion (12/1) came in last of 16.

Tuesday, 16 March 2010

Oaklawn Dodged a Bullet

There could be some debate about whether or not the connections of Rachel Alexandra must be considered the big losers of last Saturday. However, there can be no question about who the big winner of Monday was: Charlie Cella, the mastermind of Oaklawn Park.

And he is a mastermind indeed. During the decades of his ownership, the Arkansas track has fared remarkably well from both a sporting and a financial standpoint. It is a racino, but one of the few which are actually a racetrack with a casino, rather than the more common alternative of "a casino with lots of horses in the backyard".

Cella has never been afraid of going his own way, as when OP continually got snubbed by the AGSC. To their credit, the committee finally gets the relative strength of the Ark, Illinois and Ohio Derbies right this year, but Oaklawn still continues its policy not to mention the grades of their stakes races in their condition books or stakes schedule.

So it wasn't a huge surprise to see Charlie tackle the Rachel v Zenyatta question on everybody's mind head-on. Personally, I don't like Oaklawn's 5-million-Invitational proposal at all, but that's a topic for another post. More importantly, I'm sure that as of Saturday evening, nobody liked the proposal less than Charlie and the good folks at Oaklawn. After all, nothing in the revised conditions sheet demands that Rachel or Zenyatta turn up for the race with their respective winning streaks intact.

The fact is: after Rachel's hapless performance in an ungraded stakes race, the great duel that we've been waiting for has (at least temporarily) lost a lot of its appeal. What Oaklawn would end up with isn't worth half of the 5-million-tag.

Sure, it was a loss in a race off a long layoff, a race in which Rachel's camp employed a pretty overconfident race strategy. Sure, racing fans would still be excited about the matchup. What's more, I don't think it would necessarily be a foregone conclusion. But as for the mainstream appeal ... well, mainstream might not be the right word to describe ESPN News or Fox Sports Southwest.

The other fact is: Oaklawn has a wonderful storyline at the original purse, as long as Zenyata shows up. For 500.000$, Oaklawn is the place where Zenyatta can tie Citation and Cigar for 16 consecutive wins. (Even though the exact nature of the "record" is a bit cheesy; "modern day consecutive wins on major or mid-major racetracks", maybe? Oaklawn tries it with "consecutive unrestricted victories", but personally I'd say that "F&M" is quite a restriction. Regardless, it would be a great feat).
Tying Citation and Cigar should be enough to have the eyes and minds of racing fans focussed on Hot Springs on April 9. Rachel Alexandra would add another dimension, but basically the race would attract almost the same public attention with or without Rachel, the only difference being the 4.5 million more that Oaklawn would have to spend for the privilege.

As for the fans: we were robbed of the great duel that should have happened. But that was last November, not so much on Monday. Time will tell if there will be another chance to see a peak-form Rachel race against a peak-form Zenyatta. Time has told racing often enough that you shouldn't let such opportunities slip when they're there.

Saturday, 13 March 2010

Back from Hibernation

I believe that sports, much like bears or squirrels, do much better if they allow themselves an annual period of rest and recovery (ask a panda!). Every fan knows that there are two outstanding days in any sport: opening day (when the whole season is ahead and everything is possible) and finals day (when a story that has been unfolding all season finds its conclusion).

Horseracing, with its global, diverse heritage and its rootedness in nature, does not allow for a true World Championship or a uniform opening date, but it evolved from regional, strictly seasonal circuits. Yet, with the notable exceptions of Hong Kong and Ontario, all major racing jurisdictions today refuse to even give their followers any time to rest and reflect.

In North America, the introduction of winter racing to Northern states and the simultaneous year-round expansion of Western and Southern circuits has pushed the sport into a downward spiral (in destroying season structures; economically; but even more in pioneering a destructive approach to business strategy) which the sport has never recovered from.

In Europe, it was only over the last one or two decades that "winter racing" was introduced and gradually expanded – enormous numbers of dirt or artificial surface races of little sporting value. The effects are more subtle, but essentially the same.

Racing fans therefore have to take their off-season breaks on their own, which I usually do from December to February. I went a step further this year by completely avoiding any racing media since early January (in Germany this is easily done by stopping outright effort to the contrary, you won't just stumble over racing updates). I was aided by the fact that we had a real winter for the first time in over a decade (or – in the words of the media – a "snow chaos"; because for the media on both sides of the Atlantic there is, apparently, absolutely no state in between "no snow" and "SNOW CHAOS – hide the kids and run – we're all gonna die --- and these goosebumps here prove that global warming is a sham made up by a billionaire scientist cabal out to destroy our defenseless mom-and-pop industrial corporations").

Anyway, my rather extreme Off-season seems to have worked, I don't think I've been this excited about starting into a season in years. After spending last evening re-watching "Seabiscuit" (The Movie) and "Seabiscuit" (the related PBS docu)*, I intend to spend much of this weekend reading up on TDN newsletters, Turf-Times newsletters and half a dozen blogs.

P.S.: I would have announced this blogs hibernation beforehand, but it was a slightly forced, spur-of-the-moment decision, and while I have received vastly different assessments about the size of my ego, it was in any case not large enough to dedicate a Raceday360 post entirely to such an announcement, particularly for a blog that's only updated once a month or so anyway.

* - On a sidenote: how can PBS, with its tiny, constantly-threatened budget continually produce better work in almost all fields of documentaries (history, science, art, social, nature) than either of Germany's two public broadcasting behemoths with their 7.2 billion € annual battle chest?** And does it make things better or worse that, with the exception of the BBC, every single one of Europe's giant national broadcasters can't even begin to challenge PBS in this field?

** - They're currently in the habit of just pretending they did. [As you can tell from the opening sentence] I bought the German-market DVD-Sets of PBS' superb "Evolution" series as well as the BBC's highly-acclaimed "Blue Planet" and "Planet Earth" series this winter, and in each case every episode ends with a "presented by ARD"-screen, as does every single BBC or PBS docu they broadcast on TV. It does not specifically mention that the ARD's involvement was limited to contributing the German-language audio track. I'm sure if they ever produce a German audio track for "Ken Burns Baseball", this one will be tagged as 'co-produced by Berlin-Brandenburg Broadcasting' too.

(Image: 1963 race at New Orleans' Fair Grounds Race Track in the snow; Source: the N.O. Public Library)

Friday, 1 January 2010

'10 Predictions

Silvester, the annual ritual of Germans quite literally blowing up millions of Euros in the form of fireworks, had a foggy renewal last night. Unlike most other countries, German New Year's Eve fireworks are an amateur event, meaning millions of cheap rockets being launched by tipsy family fathers and close-to-passing-out youths. Not coincidentally, Silvester is also the mother of all paydays for the German hospital and firefighting supply industries. As well as the German producers of sparkling wine (there may also be a causal connection there). But frankly, after witnessing the bright boredom of organized fireworks on New Year's Eve in other countries, I absolutely prefer our customary mayhem.

In the spirit of randomly launching missiles for entertainment purposes, let's start this year off with a couple of random thoughts, labeled "predictions" to mask the fact that most of them aren't new:
  • Several more states will team up with casino operators to increase their respective gambling gains by cutting off the leech known as racing...
  • ... Horsemen will be shocked, while the racing media will act as if you couldn't see this one coming a mile away
  • The 2010 BC at Churchill Downs will produce about as many odd results as both Santa Anita Pro-Ride editions combined, and that's if there is no increment weather
  • Yet, haters of artificial surfaces will continue to think of OSA as the "weird" one
  • There won't be an American Triple Crown sweep this year (this is the only prediction I don't feel very confident about), which is why the media will once again go through its own annual firecracker ritual of declaring the series anachronistic and practically impossible...
  • Based on those articles, casual fans would never guess that only one Belmont mishap and a less-than-daring filly owner prevented us from very likely celebrating back-to-back Triple Crown sweeps in 2008 and '09
  • There also won't be a British Triple Crown sweep (let's face it, if an overwhelming Guineas and Derby winner skips the St. Leger in a year when all they have to beat are Mastery, Kite Wood and Monitor Closely, it's not gonna happen)
  • If there isn't a very public, very graphic breakdown of a prominent horse, we will hear a lot about the necessity of a major overhaul of American racing, but not much about actual reforms
  • Alex Waldrop will see it differently
  • I will once again find it hard to explain to friends and family why I keep following racing when I'm aware that almost every other sport does a better job at putting up a product worth following
(Image: New Year's Eve fireworks 2008/09 in Dresden; image from