Memorable Memorial Day

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Memorial Day has always been one of my favorite days at the track. I actually make the trip to Hollywood Park to see live racing, rather than staying hunkered down in front of a TV set in the Santa Anita press box. I enjoy watching the good simulcast races from around the country, particularly the Met Mile from Belmont. But this year’s Memorial Day will always hold a special place in my heart and mind because of one particular simulcast race from Golden Gate Fields. The first race of the day was a nondescript 5-furlong maiden turf race featuring seven fillies of seemingly modest ability. But as a part-owner of first-time starter CASCABEL LADY (along with colleagues and long-time friends Jeff Siegel and Jack Karlik), I definitely had the butterflies in my stomach.

Siegel had purchased the filly for $25,000 at the Barretts October sale as part of a Golden Eagle Farms dispersal. By Bertrando out of a Seattle Slew mare, she definitely had the pedigree to be something decent. Siegel thought she had the look of a classy filly and was surprised to get her for such a reasonable sales price. She was shipped to trainer Amanda McKaughan, who trains a small string of Siegel’s horses up north, and began the slow process of learning how to become a racehorse. I had owned small parts of a couple slow horses 8-10 years ago (in fact one of those, THE IKER, who was owned by Siegel and named after me, broke his maiden for $25,000 at Santa Anita in 2000) but had not been involved in the ownership side of the game for nearly a decade. One day shortly after purchasing the then 2-year-old, Siegel came up to the press box and, showing unusual enthusiasm, asked me if I was interested in owning part of a “really nice” horse. He said he was very high on this one and would sell me a share if I wanted. Now, Siegel could sell ice to the eskimos but he didn’t need my money. He has been a major success in every facet of this sport: handicapper, owner, vice president of Team Valor (Breeders’ Cup and Big Cap wins, second in the ’97 Kentucky Derby with Captain Bodgit to name a few accomplishments) and most currently a commentator with HRTV. I thought it over for a few days and decided to take a piece of Cascabel Lady.

Seven months later, after the usual issues with young horses forced a couple minor interruptions in her training pattern, we started looking for a race. ‘Lady was scheduled to have her first real stiff work last Saturday, coming out of the gate while working in company (although she’d had nine recorded works, she had never been set down in the morning and had never done more than pop out of the gate). She would be asked to show something more serious this time. Lo and behold, an “extra” race was written on Friday (for Monday’s card) and it somehow filled with the aforementioned seven runners. We figured rather than work her again, let’s just go ahead and run, setting her up for a longer race next time out.

None of us had any idea how she would run, but our best guess was that she would break slowly, lack early speed, then hopefully she would take hold and finish nicely to get part of the purse and be ready for bigger and better things in the near future. As the horses approached the gate and ‘Lady drifted up to 19-1, Karlik and I wished each other luck (Siegel was up north for the race) and watched as she ran almost exactly how we had hoped. She actually broke fine but lacked speed down the backstretch, hugged the rail on the turn while starting to move up behind the dueling leaders, lugged in at mid-stretch before jockey Juan Ochoa was able to angle her out, then finished full of run to be third, beaten just over a length. Karlik and I were ecstatic, as was Siegel, who called right after they crossed the wire. But wait, the “inquiry” sign was on the board after odds-on favorite Tahoe Dream had been squeezed badly in deep stretch. Maybe we would be be moved up to second, even sweeter, I thought. Press boxer Jerry Antonucci had the audacity to suggest that there might be a double disqualification, moving us up all the way up to first. Yeah right, Jerry. I’ve seen about three of those in my entire career. Well, sure enough, that’s what happened. The stewards ruled that the top two runners had both contributed to fouling the favorite, meaning Cascabel Lady was kissed into the win, returning $41.20 in the process. I didn’t bet a dime, nor did Siegel or Karlik (I can’t speak for fourth partner Mr. Spero—we’ve never met). Apparently our trainer, Mandy Mack, bet $2 across the board. So this was not exactly the betting coup some might have envisioned from three handicappers who have been known to back their opinions at the window.

But what a thrill! I’ve experienced a lot of great things in racing but nothing compared to this. Being in from the beginning—the waiting, the wondering if she would even make it to the races, the optimistic reports on her progress—to then finally running and winning. Is this a great game or what?

NOTES: What a weekend for Thoroughbred Los Angeles radio personalities. Besides my good fortune, Sunday host and Santa Anita publicity director Mike Willman’s MCCANN’S MOJAVE did it again, winning the Grade III $150,00 Berkeley on Monday’s card; and Jon Lindo, Saturday co-host and contributor, is a member of the partnership that owns talented 2-year-old BACKBACKBACKGONE, who ran away and hid in Sunday’s Willard Proctor…BIG BROWN has a quarter crack in one of his troublesome feet (left front) but trainer Richard Dutrow says the horse is doing fine and WILL win the Triple Crown on June 7…tragic news on Wednesday about NASHOBA’S KEY, who kicked the side of her outdoor pen before going out on a scheduled work, fracturing her left hind leg and having to be euthanized at the barn. She won eight of 10 starts and over $1.25 million…Santa Anita cancelled its scheduled flooding and drainage testing of its problematic main track. It was decided that the asphalt base would be torn out and removed. By the way, SA has dropped an $8.4 million lawsuit on the Cushion Track manufacturer…in Monday’s feature races from Hollywood, DAYTONA beat EVER A FRIEND on the square in the Shoemaker Mile and PRECIOUS KITTEN continued her brilliance with another Grade I win in the Gamely…MONTEREY JAZZ came out of his most recent work with a foot injury and is out for the rest of the year…Kent Desormeaux will throw out the first pitch in Sunday night’s ESPN game at Shea Stadium…Tyler Baze will pick up the mount on LAVA MAN next time out in the Whittingham. I’m sure that will turn things around because regular rider Corey Nakatani has done such a terrible job (sarcasm) on him throughout the years.

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After another dominating performance in last Saturday’s Preakness, BIG BROWN is two-thirds of the way towards racing immortality. However, we’ve seen this movie before—starting with SMARTY JONES in 2004, preceded by FUNNY CIDE (’03), WAR EMBLEM (’02), CHARISMATIC (’99), REAL QUIET (’98) and SILVER CHARM (’97)—horses that won the Kentucky Derby and Preakness but couldn’t close it out in the Belmont. The elusive chase to win the Triple Crown, last accomplished 30 years ago when AFFIRMED stuck his nose out to again defeat ALYDAR in the most dramatic of Belmonts, is extremely difficult. That’s why only 11 horses have accomplished the feat. Because three races at three different tracks and distances, crammed into a five-week period, is arduous for any horse, without even factoring in the competition and/or racing luck.

But there’s a real shot this time. Acknowledged by just about everyone as an exceptional animal, Big Brown’s task is made easier by the extremely weak crop of 3-year-olds that he has been facing. Talk about beating up on The Little Sisters of the Poor. Combine an outstanding (perhaps even great) horse with subpar competition, and it’s no wonder ‘Brown has been winning by big margins. But there will be one new shooter waiting in the lurch, CASINO DRIVE, the Peter Pan winner who came over from Japan and toyed with the competition while making only his second lifetime start. He looks like a real horse, with the pedigree to match (against astronomical odds that I can’t even begin to compute, CASINO DRIVE is out of the same mare that produced Jazil and Rags to Riches, the last two Belmont winners). This could be the race where ‘Brown will have to dig down deep and show us what’s inside.

To me, the silliest argument ever is that racing needs a Triple Crown winner to save the sport. What is good for racing is the buildup between the Preakness and Belmont, a three-week timeframe when the sport actually enjoys mainstream sports status. Jockey Kent Desormeaux might be on the Letterman or Leno shows; trainer Richard Dutrow’s guarantees of victory might be compared to Joe Namath in the ’69 Super Bowl. Assuming ‘Brown does win the Triple Crown, where is the windfall to racing when he will retired at the end of the year? Syndicated for a reported $50 million to stand at Three Chimney’s Farm, ‘Brown will run, at most, two more times in his career (that’s being optimistic—horses tend to come up with real or imagined injuries after being syndicated for that kind of money). ‘Brown’s career will be cut short like those of Smarty Jones, Afleet Alex, Street Sense and Hard Spun, just to name a few. Yes, he’ll draw crowds and media attention at Saratoga and Santa Anita (the Travers and BC Classic would be his final two starts) but then he’ll be whisked away to stud, hopefully to produce more champions (that can then also be retired at the end of their 3-year-old seasons). I understand the commercial market but the whole cycle is illogical and does nothing for the “sport” of horse racing. Try to breed more champions, who can then be retired after short, illustrious careers, sent away to stud to try to produce more short-lived stars. That’s the state of racing in the year 2008.

To change topics, I must say that I like the refreshing candor and outspoken nature of Dutrow. Years ago I stopped going to the position draws and interviews that are customary for the big Southern California races because they were so boring. Trainers sitting there like they were on their way to the gallows, uttering unintelligble one-word answers, or really expounding with the occasional, “My horse is doing good. I expect him to run a big race.” No insight, nothing controversial, just a huge waste of time. Dutrow tells you what he thinks, backs it up at the windows, and has been a breath of fresh air. And one more tip of the cap to Larry Jones, who I wrote about last time. Trainer of the ill-fated Eight Belles, Jones has been the most stand up of men, including his participation in a pair of round table discussions featured on ESPN and NBC during their broadcasts last week.

NOTES: It seems that Scientific Games is in hot water again, this time because its “quick pick” feature malfunctioned and left out the number “20″ on Derby day. That just happened to be Big Brown’s number, right? Isn’t it time for California to start looking for another provider, one that can perhaps incorporate separate Pick Six pools in the case of dead heats or give us consolation Pick 4 payoffs in the event of a scratched horse?…Corey Nakatani fired agent Craig O’Bryan and switched to Ronnie Ebanks, who also handles business for Tyler Baze…Patrick Valenzuela finally made it to Louisiana and has begun working horses there. He supposedly will start riding on May 31, under a license that is valid through the end of June. Wonder if he’ll last that long?

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I was fired up and ready to update the blog after watching BIG BROWN crush his opposition in last Saturday’s Kentucky Derby. Even had the title in mind: “Horse of a Different Color”. I’m not sure what it means but it sounded catchy. My point being that Big Brown stands out from this crop, and he showed it from his very first start last summer. I wanted to gloat a little bit—you know that racetrack gloat where you can’t understand why what seemed so obvious to you wasn’t unanimously embraced by everyone you know. Of course Big Brown would win the Derby, I wrote in my last posting. He’s the fastest, most talented horse in the group. And isn’t that who usually wins a horse race?

But the tragic breakdown of the filly EIGHT BELLES, who ran a sensational race in finishing second, and the subsequent firestorm from People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) changed everything. Instead of celebrating the incredible performance by ‘Brown, winning the Derby in only his fourth start—and from the 20 post to boot—racing had once again been dealt the unfortunate hand of a fatal breakdown on a showcase day. Two years ago it was BARBARO in the Preakness, last fall GEORGE WASHINGTON in the BC Classic. It seems almost like there can’t be a nationally televised race without one of the participants getting catastrophically injured, once again showing the casual fan the worst part of our sport. And in the case of Eight Belles, the injury occured at the most unlikely time and place, as she galloped out at half-speed two furlongs after crossing the wire.

My first thought was “not again, not on national TV”. I knew there would be backlash but I wasn’t prepared for what we saw and heard this week. PETA, an organization that holds no credibility with me (not after their 2003 campaign called “The Holocaust on Your Plate”, which compared the killing of chickens for human consumption to the Nazi Holocaust), went on full-force attack. Initial statements such as, “[Eight Belles] was doubtlessly injured before the finish”, and calling for the suspension of jockey Gabriel Saez, who they claimed “beat” the filly with his whip despite knowing that she was injured. Even going so far as to upbraid Hillary Clinton for putting a symbolic $2 bet on a filly running against the boys.

Spokeswoman Lisa Lange, on Neil Cavuto’s Fox TV show made outlandish statement after outlandish statment. She wanted the 20-year-old jockey suspended and purse money revoked; abolish the use of the whip; not allow horses to start training, let alone racing before the age of 3-years-old (despite veterinary opinion to the contrary that says horses need to start training earlier in order to form good bone mass); and finally, the jockey, trainer, owner and anyone who bet on the horse “has a role in that horse’s painful death.” When pressed by Cavuto about the logic of trying to taint the young rider’s career because of the unfortunate injury and death of the filly, Lange replied “I don’t care about that jockey’s future, no.”

There undoubtedly are many facets of the horseracing game that animal rights activists could appropriately question. In order to satisfy the commercial marketplace, are we breeding animals that are too fragile? Why don’t horses stand training and racing the way their counterparts did 30 years ago? Has legal or illegal medication contributed to weakening the breed? Is the whip overused by jockeys, either out of their competitive fire to win or frustration? All good questions that could be talked about in a rational dialogue, not the hysterical and unsubstantiated claims of PETA.

The truth of the matter is that 95% of active racehorses are extremely well taken care of. The best diet, the best veterinary care, the best exercise regimen, the best teeth and hoof care. Thoroughbreds are bred to run and compete, not be farm animals. That’s what they do, and most love their “jobs”. Anyone who saw the ESPN piece on trainer Larry Jones and Eight Belles saw the camaraderie between man and horse, and the love he had for his star pupil. Jones, by the way, is not only an outstanding trainer but a stand-up man’s man. He met the media, with tears in his eyes, and answered every question thrown his way.

Unfortunately, injury is always part of the equation because these are fragile animals moving at a high rate of speed. But, ironically, the Derby has been an incredibly safe race, especially given the usual large field size. According to an excellent article by Ray Kerrison in the NY Post (click here for article), Eight Belles is the first fatality in 134 runnings of the Kentucky Derby. I caught Andy Beyer on NPR radio the other day and he believed she was the first fatality since 1932. Whichever is correct, the point is that the Derby has been a safe race.

Yet PETA, an organization that, according to Newsweek, euthanizes 85% of the animals it “rescues”, saw fit to throw out reckless and uninformed statements. It’s co-founder and president, Ingrid Newkirk, said, “If we suddenly make [horse racing] kind of tainted, it will not really be the place to be seen. We want other politicians, other people not to wish to be associated with it.” To me, that sounds more like a political agenda than concern for animals.

I’ll give the final word to trainer Jones, appearing on Cavuto’s show in order to refute PETA’s claims: “They [PETA] don’t love animals, they hate people.”

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