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.