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.