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)