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.

1 comment:

  1. 123 "highweight" is a joke....agree. Nice title!