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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


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