Monday, September 1, 2014

Star Power

A couple of years ago Jeff Gural and the decision-makers at WEG instituted sanctions that would punish accomplished horses that are retired after their sophomore campaigns without a waiver from their vet. Gural was motivated by the belief that the sport needs more star performers to help create buzz and build attendance. In the short term results have been less than convincing.  Captaintreacherous has two wins in seven starts, while the rest of the high-dollar members of his class, including Sunshine Beach and Sunfire Blue Chip, have been banished to the preferred ranks. And the same is true on the trotting side, as Royalty For Life struggled to regain his form after sustaining an injury and has been retired, while Breeders Crown winner Spider Blue Chip has been inexplicably awful. Ironically the most inspiring pair has been Sebastian, an eight-year-old European trotter, and his linguistically challenged Swedish trainer-driver, Ake Svanstedt, neither of whom were racing in NA last year.

The jury’s still out on how many fans a four-year-old standardbred with a weighty resume will lure through the turnstiles. On the other hand, there is no doubt that stars drum up business for stallions. Ads plastered with convoluted stats purporting to prove that Slopoke Almahurst is the top sire of three-year-old pacing geldings in Ohio won’t make the phone ring like a superstar trotter or pacer will.

Who are this year’s stars? Cantab Hall passes on star power and he has given us an array of celebrated performers in 2014. Number one son Father Patrick may have imbued the fan consciousness with a strain of doubt when he got his feet tangled up at the start of the Hambletonion, but he’s the fastest member of his class, off a world record 1:50.2 in the Beal at Pocono, and has also won the Stanley Dancer and the Zweig. Patrick has star-power to the Nth degree. And on the distaff side, Lifetime Pursuit, also a Takter trainee, has been dominant in her last four starts, winning the Simcoe, Casual Breeze, a $100,000 split of the PASS and the Hambletonion Oaks. She has more cache than Shake It Cerry right now. Then there’s the undefeated freshman Billy Flynn and first year filly Wild Honey. Outstanding performers, but the sire stakes racing that prevails these days makes it especially difficult for a two-ear-old to claim stardom, and those two are prime examples of that.

What about Cantab’s Pennsylvania based rival at the champagne and caviar pricing level, Muscle Hill? His shining star is obviously Trixton, who is second only to Sebastian in duende. While Father Patrick was king of his freshman class, and has, for the most part, performed as expected the second time around, Trixton was a pricey, oversized mystery entering the season; and he has reeled the public in gradually with the high point being his upset of his more celebrated stablemate in the Hambletonion. Trixton is star power personified. The freshman filly Mission Brief, who was a dominant winner of the Merrie Annabelle and equaled the world record for a two-year-old trotting filly on a mile track at the Meadowlands, is also a star in the eyes of the public. She made a mistake at Tioga, but that hasn’t lessened their fascination with her. Donato’s daughter Shake it Cerry also has star power, and her rivalry with stablemate Lifetime Pursuit will draw more and more attention as the season progresses.

Andover Hall doesn’t have any stars; Nuncio is very good, but no star. It looked like Credit Winner might have one in Perfect Alliance, as her long winning streak caught the attention of the public, but she faltered. Gatka Hanover was on her way to stardom on behalf of Muscle Massive but couldn’t transition from sire stakes racing to the open realm. Market Rally and Gural Hanover have been outstanding in the New York Sire Stakes, but they aren’t eligible to much and never move beyond the program’s boundaries. Majestic Son’s Harper Blue Chip does test his mettle against the best in his division, but the race charts of those forays stand as proof that he’s no star. Lucky Chucky has some productive freshmen, but no stars. The same goes for Kadabra, Muscles and Explosive Matter. There aren’t very many.

On the pacing side Sweet Lou is the King, his loss in the CPD notwithstanding. No pacer has ever won his division at age two and again at five. Barring a catastrophic collapse Lou will be the first. His paternal brother, the undefeated freshman Yankee Bounty, is also a star, although he needs to get past his staking issues and make some noise in the open sector of his class. But Dancin Yankee spends too much time out of the mainstream, beating up on the preferred group, to be a star.

Pace winner He’s Watching is the real deal, despite his second place finish in the Cane. Up until now Jewel has been American Ideal’s greatest star; Heston may have won his division, but he spent too much time in the shadows.  McWicked is McArdle’s first star; One More Laugh never achieved that status. Art Major’s son, Cup winner JK Endofanera, is no star, but Nancy Johansson’s JK Shesalady sure is. With Captain T struggling, undefeated Sandbetweenurtoes is SBSW’s only marquee player, but she flies so far under the radar that it’s hard to impart star power to her. The Shalee is her only notable win outside the PASS. Yes, SBSW, the most expensive stallion in the sport, has no stars—plenty of lofty stats, but no stars.

Well Said is a top pacing stallion—but no stars. Sportswriter has taken the OSS program over, but none of his get have had much impact outside the OSS fence. Artspeak has the potential to be a mega-star. His daddy, Western Ideal, has plenty of experience in that regard, having already given us the headliners Rocknroll Hanover, Big Jim and Always A Virgin. Yes, that impressive win in the Metro affixed the star imprimatur to Artspeak.

Bee A Magician was the Queen of the sport last year, but she’s now struggling to claim mastery over her own division. Nitelife was a star last year, but injury and retirement put the kibosh on that. Precocious Beauty appeared to be one her way but has proven herself to be just another pretty good filly. It isn’t easy to stay on top. Foiled was a star last year, despite eighteen losses, but he just dropped his twelfth in a row in 2014. Can you lose that much and still have star power?

It’s doubtful that breeders will be signing petitions to get He’s Watching or McWicked into a stud barn next year. But Trixton and Father Patrick may add some quality to the aged trotting ranks, which are pretty thin after Sebastian. They are both stars, after all.

Joe FitzGerald


The Commander is Coming! The Commander is Coming!

Via Twitter, the connections of Commander Crowe have announced they will do battle with Sebastian K in the Allerage Open Trot at The Red Mile, Yonkers' Invitational, and the Breeders Crown at Meadowlands Racing & Gaming.

At this point it is not known when Commander Crowe is hitting these shores, but if he arrives early enough to get acclimated and not have to race out of quarantine, this may be one series of races.  While Sebastian K has basically manhandled North America's best, back in Europe the Commander has been victorious in some of their match ups.  

How big may this be?  We have the potential to see some races which may equal or exceed the greatness of the March of Dimes Trot held at the long-gone Garden State Park so mark these Saturdays on your calendar: October 5, The Allerage; October 25, Yonkers' Invitational; November 22, Breeders Crown Open Trot.  These are races you don't want to miss.

Sunday, August 31, 2014

Sweet Lou Stumbles, Sebastian K Continues On

In this week's Top 10 Poll, a little more daylight should open up between Sebastian K and Sweet Lou as Lou stumbled in last night's Canadian Pacing Derby, defeated by Modern Legend who tied  the stake and Canadian record of 1:47.2

For the record, Sweet Lou, one of four entries from the Ron Burke Stable was not exactly helped by his stablemates as Sweet Lou got to the three-quarters in 1:20.1 which allowed for the field to come flying late, passing the leader by.  Modern Legend was the beneficiary of a good trip and managed to score the 60-1 upset, defeating the ageless wonder Foiled Again by three lengths.

There is a good chance we will be seeing Sweet Lou in the winner's circle again, but a loss in a high profile stake will cost him votes when this week's poll comes out.  It is just a question of how many.

Meanwhile, on Friday night at Vernon Downs, Sebastian K scored another convincing, albeit  workman-like victory in the Crawford Farms in a pedestrian 1:53 mile (ties the track record for aged trotting horses).  What is amazing about Sebastian is the way he fires out once the gate opens.  I don't recall seeing a horse shoot out like he does, as if a bullet shot out of gun.  At the top of the stretch, Market Share closed in and for a moment you may have thought Sebastian K may suffer a defeat but the Swedish wonder kicked into another gear to separate himself from the field with little if any urging.

Sebastian K is a beast, clearly the best aged trotter I have ever seen.  What is really scary is while he was always a top-tier horse in Europe, he was beatable.  Could you imagine what would happen if more European aged trotters came over to North America to race regularly?  There would be some unhappy owners of North American trotters.  Barring an off-track, I wouldn't be surprised to see Sebastian K running the table the rest of the year.

Wednesday, August 27, 2014

Blaming the Right People - Wednesday Briefs

I've been involved in a discussion with individuals who were talking about horse racing 's failure to detect doping cheats, many clearly throwing the gauntlet of responsibility to racing itself.  I need to disagree.  As I said in response to their comments the following.

I think in some way blame is being assigned to the wrong individuals.  The industry is constantly being blamed for the cheating but the problem people tend to forget is the detection of said doping is up to the regulators AKA state government agencies (i.e., the State Racing Commission); the same people who have their budgets cut, operating on a shoestring,   In other cases, these are people who are political appointees who don’t want rock the boat. 

Maybe it is because racing is marginally making a contribution to the states’ revenue stream or is actually a net loser for the state other than it supports the state’s agricultural business.  The drive to improve doping detection is just not there.  If the regulators lack the will to invest in better or new methodologies to identify doping such as biological passports, the best plan in the world will go nowhere..  Rest assured if racing was contributing a significant amount directly to state budgets, the racing commissions would be partners in developing the best testing procedures possible..

Hence, if there is any hope of improving blood doping testing, It lies with Federal oversight through the USADA.

I often thought the casino industry shouldn't be able to get rid of gamblers who are too successful such as card counters as they are doing nothing wrong despite the industry labeling them cheaters.  This is one of the reasons why I prefer race horses.  Well, I guess it is a good thing I don't live in new Zealand where TAB, the only legal wagering firm off-track.  According to Harness Racing Insider, Graham Beirne is being limited by TAB in his wagering as he is winning 6% more than he was last year.  I  understand 6% is a karge amount, but as long a he isn't cheating, he should be allowed to make his wagers.  Hopefully TAB will be able to reach an accommodation.

Congratulations to those who organized the first standardbred show at the Maryland Sate Fair this week.  Not only do those who show standardbreds deserve an opportunity to shine, it gives those who may be looking for a horse of their own an opportunity to be exposed to standardbreds and mak them think these horses have a career outside of pulling a wagon for the Amish.

Big time gamblers will be looking at Saturday's Hi-5 wager at Mohawk Raceway where the guaranteed pool starts at $647,331.72.  Being this is the end of the Mohawk meet, there is a mandatory pay-out.


Tuesday, August 26, 2014

Horses That Have Exceeded Expectations

A couple of days ago I looked at some of the horses that disappointed in 2014; here are a few that have been pleasant surprises of late, exceeding the expectations of most.

Lifetime Pursuit, a Cantab Hall filly out of a sister to The Chancellor and Beer Summit, was a solid PASS filly at two, winning six of eleven starts and earning $270,000. But stablemate Shake It Cerry was top filly in the Takter barn. Lifetime finished a close second to that one in last year’s Breeders Crown elimination but broke in the final. This year started off the same, with Lifetime Pursuit going the sire stakes route while Cerry handled the GC. And Cerry beat her stablemate in the Del Miller and the Oaks Prep, but Lifetime Pursuit upset Cerry at 10-1 in the Oaks. She then won a $100,000 PASS race by 11 lengths; and Friday night Lifetime Pursuit won a $101,000 split of the Casual Breeze, first up and dominant. She set a track and Canadian record of 1:52.1. Shake It Cerry is scrambling for traction at this point.

Trixton has elbowed stablemates Father Patrick, Nuncio, Lifetime Pursuit and Shake It Cerry out of the way and captured the hearts of fans all over the world. The hulking son of Muscle Hill and 1994 HOY in Canada Emile Cas El, is the only trotter to remain standing in a PR battle with FFA king Sebastian. Takter brought him along slowly at two. He did try the Bluegrass and ISS, and Trixton finished second, a neck back of EL Titan, in the latter. He also had it pretty easy for most of this year’s campaign, winning the Simpson, a leg and the final of the NJSS and his elimination and the final of the Goodtimes. He was third behind Patrick and Nuncio in the Dancer and won the Reynolds. This was followed up with his 1:50.3 win in the Hambletonion at odds of 4-1. Not a particularly challenging itinerary, but it’s the way he ripped through it that makes him a fan favorite. He’ll be racing in the Simcoe at Mohawk Saturday.

Classic Martine was a very productive filly the past two years in the PASS and the Weiss series but she has really come into her own in her aged form. Prior to the season most would be shocked if heading into September neither Bee nor Maven sat atop the aged trotting mare division, but lo and behold, it is Chris Oakes’ Classic Photo mare who rules the roost off wins in the Armbro Flight and Ima Lula. In the latter she equaled the world record for a trotting mare on a mile track—1:51.1. Not her only record setting performance, as she won a preferred at Pocono in May in a world record 1:51.2 (4YOTM on a 5/8). And last week she beat the boys, including Uncle Peter and Spider Blue Chip, in a track record 1:52 at Harrah’s. Classic Martine should be facing off against Maven Monday in the penultimate leg of the Miss Versatility at Tioga. Bee is doing the boys in the Crawford Friday night at Vernon.

Gural Hanover, a three-year-old Crazed gelding, is a NYSS creation, having won seven in a row in that program. He set all age track records at Buffalo and Saratoga and generally wins his races for Jim Morrill Jr and Ron Burke by four or five lengths. He’s banked $275,000 on eight wins and trails only Trixton, Father Patrick, Nuncio and OSS hotshot Harper Blue Chip money wise in his division. He’s not staked to much so we may not see him transition to the open ranks after the NYSS championship, but there’s no reason he can’t find his niche and be productive when the sire stakes gravy train runs dry.

Market Rally is the top point getter in her NYSS three-year-old filly division. She was a bargain $7,500 yearling purchase at the Morrisville sale and earned $282,000 for her connections in the NYSS last year. But this year under Ron Burke, who acquired her in December, about the same time he got her paternal sister Cowgirl Hall, she has terrorized her division. She won seven of her last eight in the program, earning almost $550,000. Market Rally broke in that one loss, falling back to last, then looping the field to finish second. She won a $111,500 split of the Goldstein at Yonkers by seven lengths in 1:55.4. Prior to that Market Rally broke the track record for three-year-old trotting fillies at Saratoga with a 1:55.4 mile over a good track in a $91,000 split of the NYSS. Like Gural Hanover, she isn’t staked to much, so we’ll have to wait and see where she slots at four.

Datsyuk, an Explosive Matter gelding, didn’t race at two, but he’s earned almost $240,000 on five wins and nine board finishes in ten starts in 2014. He has a couple of wins in the PASS but has spent most of the season chasing Father Patrick and Nuncio around the track. Until August 17, that is. On that Sunday his trainer-driver Charlie Norris sat back as Yanick Gingras cut a leisurely pace in a split of the Tompkins, only to pounce on that one when they hit the stretch and pull off an upset, at a generous $52.00 price in 1:53.1. And he just followed up that upset win with another win, at 2-5 albeit, in a $100,000 split of the Hickory Smoke at The Meadows, this afternoon. He’s staked to the Kentucky Futurity, Bluegrass, Yonkers Trot and Breeders Crown, so we should be seeing him around.

All Bets Off, a sophomore Bettor’s Delight colt purchased by Ron Burke last summer, has been very successful in both the restricted and open realms. Most horses are pointed to one or the other due to the effort it takes to accumulate enough points to qualify for the lucrative finals in most states/provinces. He won his Rooney elimination, as well as the $300,000 final; his Hempt elimination, and finished third in the final; and most recently he upset McWicked in the $400,000 inaugural edition of the Milstein. And while he wasn’t busy with the opens he set a three-year-old track record in a $40,000 SS race at Batavia; finished second to Capital Account in a $74,000 SS split at Yonkers and just today was an easy winner of a $39,000 split at Monticello. So, All Bets Off will have enough points to make the lucrative NYSS final on September 13 at Yonkers. Folks keep asking Burke if the colt will be supplemented to the Jug, which is five days later. Hell no! He’ll be chalk to win that big pot of gold at Yonkers. This colt isn’t staked to the Bluegrass, Tattersalls Pace or Breeders Crown—you get the picture.

Sportswriter isn’t dominating the OSS to the ridiculous extent he was during the first couple of weeks, but he’s still way ahead of the rest. He also leads the NA sire standings. I’d be remiss if I left him out of a list of horses that have exceeded expectations in 2014.

Joe FitzGerald