In horse racing terms, Grant and Greta Hays have had a rough trip. They have two young children, both severely autistic.
“After we had Jack, we wanted to have another child,” Grant Hays says. “We thought the odds of having a second with autism were really low.”
Jack is 6, Dylan 2. Neither speaks, except on rare spontaneous occasions. According to their father, they are antisocial kids, which is not unusual with autistic children. Grant says it creates a life of stress and tension, and cites research that says something like 85% of parents with autistic children get divorced.
The marriage of Grant and Greta apparently is going in the other direction. This is the story of how and why. It is also the story of a big, old gelded thoroughbred named Spot the Diplomat, who, through a series of coincidental circumstances, has carried this family to its own winner’s circle.
Spot the Diplomat had 41 races in a decent but unspectacular career. He won seven, was in the money in 14 more and totaled $342,231 in purses. He even ran in a couple of graded races, including the Grade I Bing Crosby at Del Mar on July 27, 2008.
But Spot will not likely make the Hall of Fame, at least not for his on-track performance. In his four-year career, he was ridden by 11 jockeys and ran in claiming races 18 of his last 20 starts.
He was owned most recently by Summit Racing, of which Bob Ike, nationally known handicapper and columnist, is a partner.
After two strong races this spring for Summit, Spot fractured a sesamoid in a workout and his racing career, but not his life, was over. While he healed on a nearby farm, Ike and his partners started thinking about a permanent home for him.
Ike occasionally filled in on one of the Sunday morning racing shows on AM 830, where Grant Hays was a producer. Hays knew lots about radio, but little about racing. But he, like an entire nation, had been captivated by the Zenyatta story and had started to pay attention.
Last spring, Hays took his family to a horse ranch in Texas run by author Rupert Isaacson, whose book on autistic children interacting with animals, “The Horse Boy,” was made into a movie. The Hays family spent time around animals and began to see the positives of interaction that Isaacson wrote about.
“Jack speaks no words,” Grant Hays says, “but we got off the plane and he turned to me and said, ‘Texas.’ I was stunned.”
The family stress level decreased dramatically there, but went right back to normal when they returned to Los Angeles. Hays asked another of the radio hosts, Jay Privman, about the chances of taking his sons to see Zenyatta. Privman arranged it, Zenyatta was quiet and gentle with the boys and they returned for another visit. Trainer John Shirreffs soon had them up and riding on a stable pony.
That experience convinced Hays that his family needed a more rural life. He was also convinced that he needed animals, and probably a horse, for his sons. Deciding to live off savings for awhile, he leased a three-acre plot south of Austin, Texas, and started shedding the trappings of life in L.A.
“We got rid of four TV sets,” he says. “We live in a single-wide mobile home. It is a lot less than we were used to in L.A.”
In a conversation with Ike before he left, Hays said he was looking for a horse. Ike said he and his partners had one.
They all went to see Spot the Diplomat at his rehab farm near Murrieta.
“Jack stood directly behind the horse,” Ike says. “I was kind of scared. Thoroughbreds can be touchy. But the horse never flinched, and I knew then that this might work.”
Grant Hays says, “Dylan ran under his legs and Spot never twitched.”
Spot the Diplomat had a new home. The Hays family had another 6-year-old. The horse was shipped to Texas, paid for by Summit Racing, in late August. That was a month after the Hays family had arrived.
“In Los Angeles, we were a stressed-out family,” Hays says. “Now, we are all happy. The boys are constantly with Spot. They play around him, ride him, sometimes sit on him for two or three hours at a time.
“He is an angel. He is perfectly behaved at all times. He’s protective of the kids. It’s almost phenomenal.”
Hays says they have found a place where his children are happier. He says all the doctors and specialists they saw provided very little direction and insight.
“So we created our own world,” he says.
Spot the Diplomat has no Triple Crowns or Breeders’ Cups in his resume. But he still gets to the wire first every day on the Hays family land in Texas.
On a three-acre patch of Texas ranchland, just south of the city of Austin, a 6-year-old son of Worldly Manner named Spot the Diplomat has found a home with the family of Grant and Greta Hays.
Funny where horses end up. Funny what they end up doing.
Spot the Diplomat was a real racehorse. He won three of his first four starts, including two small stakes at Del Mar, finished third in the 2006 Norfolk Stakes at Santa Anita, and was favored in the California Cup Juvenile.
Over the following four seasons, Spot the Diplomat appeared in 35 more races, drifting up and down the class ladder for six different sets of owners and trainers until, last January, he was claimed for $20,000 by the Summit Racing partnership and turned over to Jeff Mullins. Spot the Diplomat won at first asking for Summit in March and followed that with a third in April, but he cracked a sesamoid in the process. His days as a racehorse were over.
Around the same time, Grant Hays, a local radio sound engineer, and his son Jack made a pilgrimage to the John Shirreffs stable at Hollywood Park to visit Zenyatta. They were living in Long Beach at the time, so the journey was not far, and for Zenyatta, it was not an unusual event. She does not get as much traffic as Lourdes, say, or the Grand Canyon. But over the past three years there have been hundreds upon hundreds of fans who simply want to drop by and enjoy the view, and, if possible, lay hands upon the remarkable beast.
Shirreffs let Jack Hays get very close and personal, and Zenyatta, as usual, submitted without fuss. With his father nervously observing and Shirreffs as confident guide, Jack poked and prodded the big mare, making the kind of noises associated with a combination of wondrous discovery and delight.
Jack Hays was 5 at the time. He turned 6 on the Fourth of July. He was born in Oregon, but his roots trace to Texas, and to the legacy of his great-great-great grandfather, John Coffee Hays, the legendary Texas Ranger whose mounted likeness commands the plaza in front of the Hays County Courthouse. Hays was hailed across the Texas Republic as Captain Jack, but to the Commanches he battled he was referred to by the tribal honorific “Bravo Too Much.”
At the time he met Zenyatta, young Jack Hays already had been diagnosed with a form of autism. The outward signs include a persistent restlessness, lack of eye contact, little or no verbal communication, and an almost violent resistance to intimate physical approach. Imagine for a moment not being able to caress your child, not having that child want to cuddle in the crook of your arm, lean his head against your chest, fall softly to sleep.
Is it any wonder then, that the parents of autistic children curse whatever fates are at hand, beating their arms against the sky. Grant and Greta Hays, already dealing with Jack’s disorder, soon discovered their second son, Dylan, was exhibiting similar autistic behaviors.
“The divorce rate is something like 85 percent among autistic parents,” Grant Hays noted. “We walked on coals of fire for a long time.”
Neither did they take no for an answer. After watching Jack with Zenyatta and other horses, on several visits to the Shirreffs barn, Grant Hays reached out to horse trainer and author Rupert Isaacson, who has told the story of his autistic son in the book and documentary “Horse Boy.” Inspired by the tale of young Jack and Zenyatta, Isaacson invited the Hayses to join another family with an autistic child for a horse camp in the East Texas hill country.
“They had horses, a trampoline, and a river to play in,” Hays said. “Rupert would have the kids riding three hours a day, and the transformation was miraculous. It was becoming clear to us that such a setting was where our boys needed to be.”
Clear as crystal, especially on the day Jack was bouncing on Rupert Isaacson’s trampoline, when his father heard him say, “Be!”
“Be, Jack, yeah, ‘Be!’” his father replied.
“Be hap-pee!” said Jack.
“Yes, Jack, let’s be happy.”
“Be happy Daddy!”
The epiphany complete, Grant and Greta Hays moved their family to the land of his ancestors. Not long after that, Spot the Diplomat followed. With the noted Southern California handicapper and Summit Racing manager Bob Ike riding point, Spot the Diplomat got the rehab he needed in the wake of his injury, and then was delivered to the freshly settled Hays family at their spread, about 30 miles south of Austin.
“He’s totally okay for walking, and slow trots with the boys riding him,” Hays said. “Dylan runs under his belly and behind his back legs. Jack yanks on his tail, things that would make you cringe in fear. But Spot doesn’t flinch. They have really good energy around Spot. You start to tune into that, and I don’t see the way they are as negative any more. They can be productive, and we can tap into their gifts.
“Spot’s brought a lot of peace to our world,” Hays went on. “Just being around him, when I’m under stress, or I’m frustrated with autism, or life in general, I just hang out with Spot and it seems to just go away, just giving him a hug, talking to him. This whole experience has brought us over the mountain. I know we’re a rarity, but it’s made us better people. We’re not sad anymore.”
And what they learned, they plan to share.
“What we discovered, after all the tests and all the doctors, is that nature is the best cure for these children, and horses can be a big part of that,” Hays said.
“Thoroughbreds are notorious for being extremely difficult, for being hypersensitive, unpredictable, very hard to understand,” Hays added. “That is exactly how autistic kids are. And when you bring them together, you get this harmonic. This peace. I think there’s a real future for Thoroughbreds and autistic children. I’d like to adopt more, create a program for other autistic families.”
Be happy Daddy. Bravo too much.
Summit Racing LLC was only fortunate enough to own Spot the Diplomat for the final two races of his 41-race career. A career that saw him win seven races, including a stakes race as a 2-year-old, while earning more than $342,000 over five seasons.
After winning a Cal-bred allowance race at Santa Anita first time off the claim in early March, the 6-year-old gelding came back a month later and ran a terrific third against similar, earning a 91 Beyer speed rating–his best figure in nearly two years. We were riding high, having earned back our $20,000 investment in two races, and owners of a horse who clearly was in top form.
However, three weeks later the bad news came. He had fractured a sesamoid bone in a workout at Hollywood Park and would have to be retired.
After letting him rehabilitate at a farm in Murietta, we were able to find him a home with the Hays family, who would be relocating from California to Texas in August.
Grant Hays and his wife Greta are not your typical “horse people”. Grant was working as a producer at a radio station; Greta, in the fine dining business and a mother of two young boys, Jack, age 5, and Dylan, 2. But as the parents of two severely autistic children, they were moving to Texas so their young boys could be around horses, which are known to have a tremendously therapeutic effect on autistic kids.
“Spot” is enjoying his retirement in a large, shaded paddock and the Hays family is thriving. “Our family is so happy to be adopting Spot. All of us feel the good energy,” said Grant. “Being around these horses has changed my perspective on life. He is an angel around the kids. Worst he ever does is being too friendly and social!”
Trainer Jeff Mullins put it best. “He is one of the coolest horses I’ve ever trained, and he deserves a good home. Hopefully he can make a difference in these little kid’s lives. Thank you all for giving him a great life.”
And a special thank you to our partners Neil Haymes, Jeremy Peskoff and Selman Shaby, who continued paying bills after Spot’s racing career was over while we waited to find him that good home, one this old warrior richly deserved.
LOUISVILLE, Ky. – When it is so perfect that everybody at the track is looking down the stretch gauging the distance from the closing horse to the frontrunning horse to the wire and screaming for something far more significant than a horse race or history or really anything tangible, you almost want to freeze the moment, never knowing how it ends.
Zenyatta was a feeling. Just like Smarty Jones was a feeling at the 2004 Belmont Stakes. And every time you are there for something you may never experience again is a feeling, along with a concern that you may never get it back.
You can’t script horse racing’s storylines. The best of them have more than a bit of fantasy. The action on the track consists of a few minutes so the opportunity to feel it must be developed over time, the years it took to develop a champion, the weeks leading up to a big race, the final moments when the horses come on the track.
The one thing the sport consistently gets wrong is the endings. The humans can only do so much. Sometimes, the racing gods determine the outcome.
Zenyatta passed 117 horses in her brilliant 3-year-career. If just about everybody in the Churchill Downs crowd of 72,739 had their way early Saturday evening, it would have been 118.
The great mare, however, finally found two obstacles she could not overcome – racing reality and a really tough colt named Blame.
Jockey Mike Smith wanted to take the blame for Zenyatta’s first defeat, but there was none to be ascribed. The shock wasn’t that she finally lost. The miracle was that she won for so long.
Zenyatta’s career will end with those 19 consecutive wins and one loss, by a head to Blame in the $5 million Breeders’ Cup Classic. Blame likely will be voted 2010 Horse of the Year and that is fine. The colt had a terrific year and won the sport’s championship race.
That will be just an award. There is one of those every year.
What will linger is the emotion of anybody who saw Zenyatta charge at Blame, the wire and perfection in those final yards. That she didn’t get there will matter in some historical context. That she was trying so hard to get there will matter more.
Which is why the great mare’s trainer John Shirreffs removed the barricades around Barn 41 yesterday morning. He wanted anybody who was there to get right next to Zenyatta while she was grazing. It is why dozens of cars stopped on Longfield Avenue to take in the scene outside the barn.
Asked if he had watched the replay, Shirreffs said: “Well, maybe later. It was her last race. It’s all over. Why watch it again?”
He will watch it someday and he will see the horse of his lifetime stroll out of the starting gate. By the time the field had gone a quarter-mile, Zenyatta was 10 lengths behind the second-to-last horse, seemingly startled by the amount of dirt coming her way.
Zenyatta had only raced on dirt twice before and that was against a six- and then five-horse field. There were 11 horses ahead of her in the Classic and the dirt was flying back. Smith went through all six pairs of goggles. Kickback was never an issue on the synthetic surfaces in California where she raced the other 17 times.
The field consisted of three divisions – the four frontrunners, the next seven and Zenyatta. As the horses ran around the far turn, the first four began to retreat. The next seven were closing on them. And Zenyatta was in gear.
By the quarter pole, all 12 horses were within 5 lengths. It was very congested. Quality Road backed up into Zenyatta’s path. Smith had to alter her course slightly. Then he had to swing her outside a few other horses for a clear path. Blame, meanwhile, found a crease. And was gone. At least he looked gone.
Zenyatta had to make up 5 lengths in the final 440 yards. She ran the last quarter-mile of her career in a tick under 24 seconds, about as fast as a horse can go at the end of a mile-and-a-quarter race. She rolled past Preakness winner Lookin At Lucky. In the final yards, she seemed to be gaining a few inches with every stride. She fell maybe 6 inches short. The wire came too soon.
“I feel like I let her down,” Smith said. “I left her too much to do.”
Really, bad racing luck got her squeezed at the break, the flying dirt put her too far back and the traffic is just part of racing. Smith and Zenyatta were simply victims of circumstance.
“I truly believe I was on the best horse today,” Smith said. “If I had to blame anybody, it would be me.”
He shouldn’t. But his emotion is understandable. When perfect is that close, who doesn’t want perfect?
Horses run as fast as they can. Zenyatta was different. She ran as fast as she had to. She would beat inferior opponents by small margins and confuse the unknowing. The mare simply was determined to pass all the horses in front of her and do nothing more than necessary.
When it seemed impossible for her to catch Blame and she had to run really fast just to get close, she did it, just like she did when she won the 2009 Classic. She earned a 111 Beyer speed figure in defeat.
Zenyatta was to be flown back to California last night. She will be there a month and then head to Kentucky where she will be bred next year.
If you’ve seen the movie “Secretariat” you saw an actor playing the young Seth Hancock when he took over Claiborne Farm in 1972 and put together that syndication deal after Secretariat’s memorable 2-year-old season.
Blame is co-owned by Claiborne. Blame will stand stud next year at Claiborne in Paris, Ky. Thirty-eight years after he took over the farm where Secretariat lived out his life, Hancock very likely has the farm’s first Horse of the Year in its 100th year.
“I’m just proud to win the race,” Hancock said. “I take no pride in beating Zenyatta. She is what she is. She’s awesome. She’s been great for racing. Her human connections are wonderful people and I feel bad for them.”
Blame has raced five times at Churchill and won four. It was Zenyatta’s first start under the Twin Spires.
$1.8 million was bet on Zenyatta to win, and $163 million on the 14 races over 2 days.
If one star left the stage, another may have emerged. Uncle Mo overwhelmed the Juvenile, earning a Beyer figure of 108, the kind of number that could win the Kentucky Derby in 6 months. And if the colt improves, watch out in 2011.
The amazing Goldikova won her third straight Mile. As fast as Zenyatta was running at the finish, Goldikova was going even faster, running her final quarter-mile in 23 seconds.
Maybe we can split the distances, conjure up a surface and have an imaginary race between two of the greatest mares in history.
That new fall-racing bonanza at Parx Racing paid national dividends. Chamberlain Bridge, who won the Turf Monster on Labor Day, took the Turf Sprint. And Pennsylvania Derby winner Morning Line led until the final strides of the Dirt Mile.
Zenyatta’s presence overwhelmed the event. She was the story. And who knows when or if there will be another like it.
Man o’ War lost once. Native Dancer lost once. Now,
Zenytta has lost once.
Those horses are still considered among the all-time greats. They just were not perfect. Zenyatta was perfect from November 2007 until November 2010. She will be great forever.
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Joe Harper has decided to spend more mornings on horseback during the Del Mar Thoroughbred Club’s annual racing season and less time dealing with paperwork.
Harper, who turns 67 on Saturday, relinquished the titles of president and general manager to Craig Fravel on Tuesday. Harper will maintain the title of chief executive officer. Fravel, 53, previously held the title of executive vice president.
“This has been in the works for a while,” said Harper, who is known to travel the Del Mar backstretch on his horse in the mornings to talk to horsemen. “I’m not getting any younger. Craig is a smart guy, and he deserves the title.
“I’m going to stick around as CEO just to bug him.”
Harper said he has no plans to retire from Del Mar, but he decided to cut back on his day-to-day duties.
“Craig has been handling the nitty-gritty stuff lately,” Harper said. “He will be able to get more done now with the title. Everyone is happy.”
Fravel has been groomed for Harper’s job since being hired by Del Mar in 1990. Fravel is a graduate of the University of Virginia law school and practiced law in Washington and San Diego before coming to Del Mar.
“I don’t expect things to change,” Fravel said. “I see it as part of a seamless process. We both work well together. I think it will just be a subtle shift.
“When you have a small company, everyone is involved with everything already. This gives some younger people a chance to move up.”
Fravel was instrumental in Del Mar changing its main track from dirt to the controversial Polytrack synthetic surface, which was installed in 2007.
The change in job titles was approved Monday at a board of directors meeting. Fravel and Harper will both report to the 11-person board, of which Harper is a member.
Two other promotions were announced. Mike Ernst now carries the title of executive vice president for finance and chief financial officer, while Tom Robbins is executive vice president for racing and industry relations/racing secretary.
On the racing front, Harper said Del Mar will ask for the same 37-day meet it requested last year despite the fact that Hollywood Park announced last week that it’s going to a four-day race week for part of its meet, dropping six Thursdays.
“We are not contemplating (dropping days),” Harper said, “but we’ll see what the horse population is in July.”
California racing has been fighting smaller fields and a lack of horses due to multiple factors.
Del Mar could be further hurt this summer by the fact that Monmouth Park in Oceanport, N.J., will offer an average of $1 million a day in purses during its meet. Monmouth Park will race on Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays, along with certain holiday Mondays.
Jockey Garrett Gomez, one of Del Mar’s leading riders, has already announced that he will ride this summer in New Jersey. Some Southern California horsemen are expected to consider sending horses to compete for the large purse structure.
“Obviously, that’s a concern for us,” Harper said of Monmouth Park’s announcement.
A group of about a dozen Southland trainers showed up at Santa Anita on Monday to discuss the track’s racing surface with owner Frank Stronach.
Wow, and I thought my bank account was in disarray.
Raise your hand if you think the California horse racing industry could get any more messed up than it already is today.
Didn’t think so.
Let’s start with two of the licensed Advance Deposit Wagering companies.
I’m no genius, but it seems to me this is a sport that should be bending over backwards to attract new fans. Yet TVG continues to gauge its customers by charging them a small surcharge per bet and then making them pay even more if they want to watch their horses run on the Internet.
But at least TVG knows how to distribute its product, unlike Horse Racing TV, which continues to snub its nose at DirecTV and its potential 18 million viewers.
Santa Anita president Ron Charles has been telling me for three or four years it was only a matter of time before HRTV and DirecTV reached an agreement, and yet we’re still waiting for that announcement.
Of course, TVG and HRTV don’t have a monopoly when it comes to head-scratching decisions.
Can anybody tell me why Fairplex Park began racing this year the day after Del Mar closed?
Did somebody on the California Horse Racing Board mandate that the Southern California tracks have to race as many days as possible, or were those rulings limited to our wonderful synthetic surfaces?
Trainer John Sadler does not work for Santa Anita, Hollywood Park or Del Mar, but maybe he should. He’s a guy who knows horses and is smart enough to realize we’re racing them way too often.
“I’ve preached for years to the blind if we don’t cut our dates a little bit we’re going to be in trouble,” Sadler said. “These (horses) are not machines. They can’t run a hundred million times.
“I think Del Mar was a success this year. For this economy, it was really good. I think a lot of that had to do with the fact they took a little initiative and didn’t race that sixth day. But you shouldn’t have to wait until you’re down in the dumps to do something.”
Then Sadler got really wild and crazy.
“I’d love to see a rule go into Del Mar that you can’t run more than three times at the meet,” he said.
Of course, he’s bright enough to know management will never allow that to happen.
“It’s funny, but anything that you say that affects anybody’s money line, they don’t like,” Sadler said. “When it comes to (management), they like field size, so they don’t want anything to discourage that. In an ideal world, you’d run every week in a 10-horse field. But that’s just not reality.”
No, reality is the current skirmish between the California Thoroughbred Trainers and the newly created California Horsemen for Change, the latter group comprised of some of the most prominent trainers in the Southland who believe a more aggressive approach is needed while confronting the problems they face.
CTT president James Cassidy might be right when he says this isn’t the economic climate for horsemen to be seeking more money or working to get the artificial tracks ripped out and replaced with traditional dirt surfaces.
After all, Santa Anita is embroiled in bankruptcy proceedings and might be under new ownership sometime early next year, Hollywood Park will fall victim to the wrecking ball when the economy improves and Del Mar’s license is running out. Money is in short supply.
But maybe if the CTT and CHC banded together with the Thoroughbred Owners of California, sort of the way it used to be before the old Horsemen’s Benevolent and Protective Association (HBPA) was disbanded in the early ’90s and the trainers and owners went their separate ways, the horsemen would be better equipped to confront their many problems.
“It seems like it would be in the interests of both owners and trainers because they’d have a lot more negotiating leverage,” said Chris Knight, interim executive director of the CHC. “If the owners and the trainers stand together, we can hopefully push everything in the right direction.
“When you work together, you’re always stronger.”
When was the last time those two words were used in conjunction with California racing?
Now, about that synthetic tracks mandate, those shrinking purses, the rising costs of workman’s compensation …
DEL MAR â€” As much as racing at Del Mar is about the beach atmosphere, the pageantry and the beauty of thoroughbreds racing at 40 mph, it’s really about the action.
That would be the betting action.
It’s the toteboard, the trip to the window and then collecting on the winning ticket or tossing the losing one.
It’s not exactly the halfway mark of the Del Mar meet. That happens Saturday, fifth race. But it’s close enough to look at the racing trends over the first 16 days of the 37 days at the beach. Also, new harrowing machinery might impact the second half of racing and influence a player’s pick of a winner.
After a slow start, favorites are finding the winner’s circle at Del Mar.
â€œThe first week here, favorites were winning at like 14 percent,â€ said Bob Ike, one of The San Diego Union-Tribune’s on-site handicappers.
Bleary-eyed chalk players who studied the Daily Racing Form needed ATMs. Long-shot hunch players who bet favorite numbers, names or colors loved it.
After Wednesday’s races, favorites have won 31.8 percent of the time (47 of 148). The winning percentage for favorites on Polytrack is slightly lower at 31 percent (35 of 113).
Ike said the slow start for favorites on Del Mar’s synthetic surface had a lot to do with more horses competing here the first few weeks, leading to larger fields that were more difficult to handicap.
â€œThat was a reflection of changing tracks and full fields here after Hollywood Park,â€ Ike said. â€œIt wasn’t a reflection of the track. It was just more competitive here. And it’s a lot harder to pick winners when there are 12 horses in a race as opposed to four or five.â€
The perception that the race cards are fuller this year at Del Mar after the track dropped one racing day a week is true â€“ but just barely.
Tom Robbins, Del Mar’s racing secretary, said Del Mar averaged 8.3 horses a race last year compared with 8.6 horses per race this year.
If there has been one trend, it’s that the track has started to get more consistent, Ike said. Times are faster and more consistent than they were the first two years of Polytrack at Del Mar and even better than they were at the beginning of the meet this year.
â€œI just went though all my programs and I found maybe two days where there was a closer’s bias on the track this meet,â€ Ike said. â€œSome days it plays on the slow side, especially early in the week.â€
Jon Lindo, another of the Union-Tribune’s handicappers, said new machinery brought in from Canada has produced a more consistent Polytrack surface. But Lindo said bettors should check the first couple of races each day to see if speed horses are holding or closers are chasing them down. He’s always looking for trends during a day’s races.
â€œYou need an open mind,â€ Lindo said.
Robbins said the track’s newest machine is a â€œkinderâ€ one that doesn’t dig up the track as much. He said the track crew here continually is learning how to adapt to the changing conditions of the coastal weather and the sea-level track. The latest machine is another part of Del Mar’s â€œarsenal,â€ Robbins said.
â€œIt’s a cultivator,â€ Robbins said. â€œWe can quantify how deep we want to go into the surface. On Mondays and Fridays we go a little deeper .Â .Â . They’ve been using it at Woodbine and Arlington Park, and Keeneland just got one.â€
Ike said all this plays into how handicappers pick.
â€œAs long as the track stays fair and consistent, as long as times are relatively normal to what we’re used to on a regular dirt track, I don’t have a problem with it,â€ Ike said.
Ed Zieralski: (619) 293-1225;
Okay, so maybe my Derby analysis wasn’t so great. Fortunately, I wasn’t alone. While I thought one of the four favorites (three after theÂ early morning scratch of I Want Revenge) would win, I had picked Mine That Bird to finish last. Like someone said to me later, “Turn the paper upside down and you had the winner.” At least the Derby wasn’t one of those heartbreaking photo-finish losses or won by a horse that I had considered and crossed out to save money. I could not have picked this year’s romping winner in 100 runnings. In fact, I would pick him last every time, unless I knew the track was going to come up wet again. I truly believe he “freaked” in the mud, probably improving his form 15-20 lengths.
And I will be extremely surprised if Mine That Bird wins again in Saturday’s Preakness. Like many of of those bands from the 70′s and 80′s, I think he might be a one-hit wonder. This race features one potential superstar against the remainder of what appeared to be an excellent 3-year-old crop. But with the two most talented membersÂ of this classÂ (Quality Road and I Want Revenge) on the sidelines, this group suddenly isn’t looking all that great.
Pioneerof the Nile is a nice, hard-knocking colt that gamely held second in the Derby despite drifting out and somewhat impeding Musket Man and Papa Clem. Those three were part of a good battle for second and third as ‘Bird splashed away by nearly seven lengths. Friesan Fire deserves a chance to snap back in the Preakness, ala Snow Chief and some others who didn’t fire at Churchill Downs but came back with top efforts two weeks later. New shooters traditionally have not fared all that well in the Preakness, but I do believe Big Drama is a major player in here. Fast early, drawn inside and freshened off his monster effort (DQ’d out of track record-breaking winÂ in the Swale), ‘Drama looks very dangerous.
But if Rachel Alexandra runs back to any of her last four performances, this race is history. She’s won those four races by a combined total of nearly 40 lengths while never being asked for her best. Yes, she wheels back in 15 days (which gives her one day more than her Derby counterparts), drew the 13-post and faces a quicker pace scenario. But, in horse racing, the best horse wins most of the time. And there is no question in my mind that she is the best horse.
Prediction: Rachel Alexandra, Big Drama, Pioneerof the Nile. And since I can’t imagine her new connections wanting to runÂ back in the Belmont three weeks from now, we’ll very likely have three different winners in this year’s Triple Crown series.
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MyÂ Saturday Premium Play selection sheet for Hollywood Park will be available late Friday night and will include Preakness selections and betting strategy.
Last year’s Derby was easy. Big Brown stood out a mile over 19 overmatched 3-year-olds. This year’s Derby, however, is another story altogether. Whether you’re betting at a racetrack, simulcast facility or online, true horseplayers are playing the Derby. Even the most casual racing fan puts at least a few bucks down on Derby Day—it’sÂ almost un-American not to.
So here isÂ how I see this year’s running. It may be a bit chalky and lacking in creativity but I believe one of the top four morning line favorites will win: I Want Revenge (3-1), Dunkirk (4-1), Pioneerof the Nile (4-1) or Friesan Fire (5-1).
I was all set to pick Dunkirk, believing he might be this year’s edition of Curlin—lightly raced but the most talented of the bunch. However, I’m hearing that the $3.7 million colt is not handling his Churchill Downs surroundings all that well. If you’re washing out in the morning and in a paddock schooling session, what happens on Saturday in front of 150,000 rabid rans? I still have to respect him, however. His three races have been too good (backed up by a big speed figure in the Florida Derby) to deny that this is one talented runner.
Â I Want Revenge doesn’t have any holes. Everyone saw his monster effort in the Wood, he has trained forwardly and is great hands. My one concern is that young jockey Joe Talamo might get the jitters and make a mistake. However, with ‘Revenge’s tactical speed and outside post, I think he might get the “Big Brown trip”, stalking the leaders while outside in the clear. He’s fast and consistent, so he shouldÂ run his race.
Pioneerof the Nile has not blown me away despite winning four straight in Southern California. However, my gut feeling is that we haven’t seen his best yet. He will get more pace at which to run, might move up on a traditional dirt track and is trained by three-time Derby winner Bob Baffert. Whatever is he is capable of, he will show it on Saturday.
Finally, Friesan Fire. To me he’s a bit of an X-factor. The king of Louisiana swept the Fair Grounds series, topped off by a romping 7-length win over a muddy track in the Louisiana Derby. He has tactical speed, tries hard every time out,Â probably moves way up over a wetÂ trackÂ and is trained by one of the best in the business,Â Larry Jones. How fitting would it be to see Jones win this year after all he endured last year with the breakdown of Eight Belles?
There are some longshot fringe players that I think could impact the trifecta and superfecta, including my preferred longshot Hold Me Back (15-1). Others with a chance at a price include Papa Clem (20-1), West Side Bernie (30-1), Chocolate Candy (20-1), Summer Bird (50-1) and General Quarters (20-1). I will try to devise some betting strategy that will use these bombers in the “underneath” slots for the exotics. Here is a listing of more Kentucky Derby Odds.
Or I may just resort to a self-serving hunch play. I am one of two managing partners (along with Brett Lindenbaum) in a new racing syndicate called Summit Racing. We currently have three horses in training with three different trainers: Bob Baffert, Jerry Hollendorfer and Jeff Mullins. It just so happens that each has a horse in this year’s Derby. How can I not key my plays around Pioneerof the Nile, Chocolate Candy and I Want Revenge?
However you play it, this year’s DerbyÂ features a very talented group while offering up the chance for a big-time score. Good luck on Saturday.
NOTES:Â Bodog Racebook is offering a special Kentucky Derby deal. Make a $100 deposit and a $100 match bonus will automatically be issued to your account. Click here for more details.
MyÂ Saturday Premium Play selection sheet ($10) for Hollywood Park will be available by 10:00 p.m. (Pacific) on Friday night and will include Kentucky Derby selections and betting strategy.
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