As promised, here’s a belated, and somewhat abbreviated Del Mar wrap up. Personally, I worked way too many hours, each day cursing the six-day schedule and praying for Del Mar to someday go to five-day race weeks; I picked a lot of winners, finishing one behind Mike Superstein among all public handicappers, a group that is shrinking by the minute; I gambled well early, went on a two-week losing streak, rallied strongly again during Week 5, then played too aggressively and plunged hard through the final week to end up in the red. Very disappointing, especially considering the hours and effort invested.

As for Del Mar overall, business was down and traffic (foot and automobile) was much lighter due to the shaky economy and high gas prices. I thought the racing was about the same as normal, top-notch in the stakes divisions but the usual ho-hum weekday cards filled with cheapies and maiden claimers. Rafael Bejarano was outstanding in leading the jockey standings, Joel Rosario showed vast improvement to finish second and Garrett Gomez was tremendous in the big races, leading all riders in purse money. Trainer John Sadler crushed the competition, taking advantage of a “loophole” in the steroid rules to run roughshod over barns that mostly complied with the new rules. How much of an advantage Sadler had by allegedly not withdrawing his horses from steroids is debatable, but it couldn’t have hurt. It will be interesting to see if he can maintain his roll during Oak Tree. The Barber brothers, mostly with horses in the Sadler barn, broke the owners’ record for winners in a season.Â

From the Department of the Bizarre, rider Matt Garcia was arrested and handcuffed in the paddock and Hall of Fame trainer Bobby Frankel didn’t win a race at the meet. Hard to say which of those would have been a bigger price in a future book wager. After taking it on the chin early in the meet, favorites rebounded to win at 33%, including an astounding 44% win rate on turf.Â

Got married the Saturday after the meet ended, honeymooned in Hawaii for a week, went to a friend’s bachelor party in Arizona for two days (Georgia should have beaten ASU by 40, by the way), and here we are the night before the Oak Tree opener with three handicaps in the books and updating the blog. Obviously vacations go way too fast.Â

As for Oak Tree, this should be an outstanding meet, with the Arcadia track hosting the 25th Breeders’ Cup on Oct. 24 and 25. The 26-day meet kicks off with a very competitive Morvich Handicap coming down the hill, and features six Grade I stakes events on Saturday, five of which are designated as “Win and You’re In” BC qualifiers. We’ll all be watching Curlin try to become the richest horse in North American history when he goes in the Jockey Club Gold Cup on Saturday at Belmont. Even though he won last time at Saratoga, he looked to me like a horse that might be “over the top”. Here’s an early prediction: Assuming Curlin were to go ahead and run in the BC Classic, neither he nor Big Brown will win. Someone is going to pop up with the race of his life and pull off the upset over the Big Two. And Oak Tree will card the ultimate old-timers’ race, a pari-mutuel event on Oct. 18 featuring eight Hall of Fame riders from the past. Wonder what the insurance policy on that cost?Â

If the new Pro-Ride surface holds up (third version of this synthetic track, which was installed before last year’s Oak Tree meet), this should be a hell of a meet.

My apologies for not making regular blog postings during the Del Mar meet. With the six-day racing schedule, plus added responsibilities like hosting radio shows and co-hosting the Del Mar satellite television show, there just aren’t enough hours in the day. With three weeks remaining, I will try to post something before the end of the meet, but no promises. I will definitely post a meet wrap-up when the season ends on Sept. 3.

One thought: Richard Dutrow, trainer of Big Brown, has completely lost it. Big Brown is “way better than Curlin”? Based on the skewed logic that Curlin didn’t win the Derby or the Haskell and was defeated by a filly last year during his 3-year-old campaign? How about comparing apples to apples, Rick? Curlin faced one of the best 3-year-old crops in memory last year. Street Sense, Hard Spun and Rags to Riches would have destroyed anything ‘Brown has run against this year as ‘Brown continues to beat up on The Little Sisters of the Poor. After being eased in the Belmont, ‘Brown’s Haskell win can be described in two words: UGG LEEY.

Best line of the year so far came from Nick Zito, who said that Dutrow “should get the phone number of Tony Soprano’s psychologist. Don’t get me wrong, I’m a big fan of Big Brown. But Rick still needs to get that phone number.”

It’s time for Dutrow to put his money where his mouth is. Curlin is scheduled to run in the Woodward on August 30 at Saratoga. The entry box is open.

Just when we should be celebrating Opening Day at Del Mar, with Saratoga right around the corner, Life reared its head and spoiled the whole thing. The shocking news of the death of track announcer and friend Luke Kruytbosch at age 47 hit me like a ton of bricks. We weren’t best buddies but we saw each other a couple of times a year and stayed in occasional contact throughout the season. The annual “Stay Hungry” trip, comprised of press box buddies and assorted misfits, was not complete without a stop at Turf Paradise and beers with Luke at the Backside Bar after the races. I know it’s an overused cliche, but I don’t think Luke had an enemy in the world. How could you not like this guy? A large teddy bear of a man, with that booming, infectious laugh, he knew and genuinely liked everyone in the game. And I don’t mean just the heavy hitters, I mean the parking lot attendants, backside workers and clean-up crews. He probably knew the name of every so-called “little guy” at every track he worked. I wrote in a Mar. 22, 2007 blog post that Luke Kruytbosch was one of the nicest and most patient guys on the planet. The “patient” part was seen first-hand one night when an overzealous Luke fan who’d had one (or five) too many kept peppering him with questions, imitating his calls and making a general idiot out of himself. Luke hung in there gamely, patiently answering questions, even going so far as to invite the guy up to his booth to watch him call a race sometime. I finally couldn’t take it anymore so I shuffled off and called Luke on his cell phone, trying to give him a much-needed reprieve.

When you get news like this, it’s only natural to reflect back on time spent or conversations with that person. And my sadness only increased when I realized our group didn’t get a chance to spend time with Luke last March in Arizona. Instead of the usual drinking and post-race debauchery, we rushed out of the track to make it back to ASU for a good NIT basketball game. We had great seats and saw a terrific game (ASU vs. Florida). A few of our guys even cashed sizeable wagers on Florida. We whooped it up and talked about how much we had enjoyed the atmosphere and how great it had been to do something “different”, instead of the usual excessive intake of adult beverages and dice games at the ramshackle Backside Bar. Had any of us known we wouldn’t see Luke again, we would have bypassed the meaningless hoops game in a second.

Besides being a top-notch announcer who called 10 Kentucky Derbies, Luke was a friend and mentor to many young, up-and-coming race callers. I know for a fact that he was extremely instrumental in helping guys like Bill Downes and John Lies get their starts. I once ran into Luke at a Breeders’ Cup press party and joked that I didn’t know whether to shake his hand or kiss his ring. Like the Pope or a Mafia Godfather, he was the guy other track announcers went to for advice or career advancement. Tonight after the races, owner Mike Pegram (a close friend of Luke) hosts a big party at his Del Mar home. You can bet your bottom dollar we will toasting and telling Luke stories late into the night.

Right after getting the tragic news about Luke, I got a call from Bob Mieszerski, telling me that he had been laid off as part of the L A Times cost-cutting measures. The Times cut 150 jobs, and Mieszerski and racing writer Larry Stewart were two of the victims. Mieszerski is an extremely talented handicapper and writer who has been in the newspaper business since he was 21 years old. Blessed with an incredible memory and great feel for the game, I consider him one of my main handicapping mentors. While obviously nothing can compare to the tragedy of death, losing one’s job after a 30-year career has to rank second. Mieszerski deserved better—being notified two days before the start of Del Mar showed a complete lack of class by the Times, which will now have no horse racing coverage in the country’s second-largest market. With the Breeders’ Cup coming to Santa Anita this fall, could the timing have been any worse? Let’s hope Bob lands on his feet quickly, making the Times’ loss some other publication’s gain.

Excuse me if I’m not in my usual fired-up-for-Del Mar state of mind. There are some things a lot more important than horse racing.

The American Oaks at Hollywood Park has turned into one of the more important races on the Southern California calendar in just seven short years. The Grade I $750,000 event attracted another strong international field this year, highlighting an 11-race card that also included four other stakes and handicap races. Toss in a three-day Pick Six carryover of nearly $1.2 million—with another $3.7 million bet today—and it was a sensational day of racing and gambling. Here’s a recap:

The first stakes of the day was the Hollywood Juvenile Championship, featuring a modest field of eight 2-year-olds (after two scratches). AZUL LEON, a narrow winner from well off the pace in his only start, looked like he would get a favorable pace scenario and he did, rallying very wide from last to win easily in 1:10.4 as the even-money favorite. He didn’t beat anythying but the son of Lion Heart has a bright future for trainer Doug O’Neill. The Vanity looked like a soft spot for unbeaten and untested ZENYATTA but she had to work much harder than expected to keep her perfect record alive. Moving a little earlier than normal down the backstretch, the amazon Street Cry filly got first run on the leader, moved to a clear lead inside the 1/8-pole, then was straight as a string to hold off an unlucky TOUGH TIZ’S SIS, who was forced to steady and angle out in mid-stretch. She gave trainer John Shirreffs his third Vanity win (Manistique in ’99 and Hollywood Story in ’06) but the final time of 1:49.2 (final 1/8th run in :13.3) was subpar, and ZENYATTA won despite turning in the least impressive of her six wins.

The CashCall Mile was probably the most exciting race of the day with DIAMOND DIVA re-rallying to nip VENTURA after that one had put a neck in front 50 yards from the wire. Both fillies fired big in what amounted to a two-horse race, with favorite LADY OF VENICE finishing a non-threatening third. The American Oaks drew horses from all over the U.S. and Europe, but PURE CLAN showed her class by splitting horses in mid-stretch and defeating perect trip runner-up SATAN’S CIRCUS, with CLEARLY FOXY an unlucky third (traffic trouble probably cost her second money). ‘CLAN, who chased Eight Belles and Proud Spell in her three career losses, remained unbeaten in four turf starts while making 50-year training veteran Bob Holthus one-for-one in California. And finally, STREET BOSS ran to the wagering and won his fourth straight and first Grade I by taking down the Triple Bend. Like Zenyatta earlier, this was not BOSS’s best race, although he did rally from last and ovecome a very wide trip. He looked like he would draw off in the final furlong but never changed leads through the lane and ended up fully extended to defeat stubborn shipper ELITE SQUADRON. He seems better at 6 or 6 1/2 furlongs, where the quicker opening quarter mile better sets up his stretch kick. All in all, a terrific day, with more than $24 million wagered on the card, and a generous $12,827 Pick Six payoff to 257 perfect tickets.

NOTES: What a weekend John Sadler had last week, taking down four stakes races over two days. He won with a 2-year-old filly (EMMY DARLING in the Landaluce), an older male turf runner (WHATSTHESCRIPT in the American), a female sprinter (DEAREST TRICKSKI in the A Gleam) and a long-fused turf mare (BLACK MAMBA in the Beverly Hills). That’s versatility…heading into the final six days of racing Sadler holds a 26-21 lead over O’Neill in the trainer standings…too bad about HEATSEEKER, scratched out of the Gold Cup and subsequently retired due to a suspensory injury. With Curlin trying to go overseas and win the Arc, he might have been the one to beat in the BC Classic later this fall…Garrett Gomez will be returning West to ride the Del Mar meet, which is a change from previous years when he stayed East until the start of Santa Anita…between him and Rafael Bejarano, who else is going to win any races this summer?…after a slow start to the meet trainer Jorge Periban has been on a roll lately, winning with a very high percentage of his starters over the past month…veteran rider Julio Garcia definitely gets run out of horses. Although he doesn’t stay in one place too long, the quirky reinsman has talent…since when did the Detention Barn become the Protection Barn? Protection for whom—horse, trainer or bettor?…radio show “Thoroughbred Los Angeles”, hosted by Jay Privman on Saturdays and Mike Willman on Sundays, can now be heard in the San Diego market at XTRA Sports 1360 from 9-10 a.m. (Pacific)…HP track announcer Vic Stauffer has done a much improved job of calling the “underneath” horses (runners finishing second through fifth for exotics purposes) as the horses cross the wire. I have been very critical of Stauffer in the past, but let’s give credit where credit is due.

Finally, what are the odds of getting two foul balls at the same baseball game? Off the bats of back-to-back hitters no more than three minutes apart? Well that’s exactly what happened to Southern California simulcast host/TV personality Kurt Hoover at an Angels’ game last Tuesday night. Considering that there were about 40,000 people in the stands, the odds of the same person getting two balls in the same night would be about 1.6 billion to one! To be fair, sitting behind home plate on the loge level is a lot more advantageous than sitting in the right field bleachers, but come on. How do I know it happened? I was sitting one seat to his right. The last time I got a foul ball was chasing one down at a Little League game and returning it to the snack bar for a 25 cent piece of candy…in 1975.

Curlin: Oui, Oui

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It’s not exactly news now, but CURLIN looked every bit the best horse in the world with his authoritative win in last weekend’s Stephen Foster Handicap at Churchill Downs. Toting 128 pounds and making his first start since winning the Dubai World Cup, CURLIN, who was bottled up behind horses along the rail most of the way, found a seam at the top of the stretch and powered away from his overmatched opponents. He showed no signs of Post Dubai Syndrome, appearing as if the Mideast trip took nothing out of him. But rather than take a traditional route through the rest of the year, culminating in another Breeders’ Cup Classic, his connections are anxious to try him on turf with a possible run at the Arc de Triomphe in France this fall.

Although this is a very lofty plan, owner Jess Jackson has proved himself to be a true sportsman. By just keeping his very valuable commodity in training this year he is losing money, as well as risking injury to a colt whose worth as a stallion must be in the $50-60 million range. Curlin has some turf breeding and will test the grass in upcoming workouts before a planned grass start in the middle of July. If all goes well, next would be a possible start in the Arlington Million, and then bon voyage. If the grass experiment doesn’t work, there would be nothing wrong with coming back to defend his Classic title, although is seems clear that his connections are not anxious to run him over a synthetic surface. While a Curlin-Big Brown matchup looked so tantalizing just two short weeks ago, the chances seem pretty remote now. Plus, based on what we saw on back-to-back weekends, does anyone really doubt which is the better horse?

Post Triple Crown Thoughts: After thinking things through a little more, I’m not sure the five-week span between the three races is the most significant reason we haven’t seen a Triple Crown winner in 30 years. There have been 11 horses in history that won the Preakness and Belmont after failing in the Derby, including five since Affirmed last won the Triple Crown in 1978. So if the grind is so taxing, why were Risen Star (’88), Hansel (’91), Tabasco Cat (’94), Point Given (’01) and Afleet Alex (’05) able to compete in all three events while being plenty strong for the final leg? In fact, thee of those winners—Risen Star, Point Give and Afleet Alex—romped home far in front of their nearest Belmont rivals. And don’t forget, Curlin ran great in all three legs last year. Factor in all the reasons (three different tracks at three different distances in five weeks, pedigree, injury, luck, human error), mix it all up and here’s my conclusion: For 30 years, we just haven’t had the right horse to do it.

NOTES: If you have followed the recent Congressional hearings on horse racing, you probably knew things weren’t off to a good start when committee chairwoman Jan Schakowsky opened up with comments like “horses are doped up on cocaine” and that ill-fated Eight Belles was a “genetic disaster”. Sheer ignorance…it looks more and more like LAVA MAN will duck out on trying to win his fourth straight Hollywood Gold Cup and wait for the Eddie Read at Del Mar. His connections, fearing a quick three-week turnaround, are in no hurry to take on HEATSEEKER…trainer Doug O’Neill has begun running his horses out of the detention barn (60 days), penalty for a high bicarbonates test from January…last Sunday’s Affirmed winner TWO STEP SALSA is the real deal for Julio Canani. Look for him to become a very important runner in the second half of the year…CEDAR MOUNTAIN loved the 1 3/4-mile distance in Saturday’s Round Table, romping home like a true stayer…recent Hall of Fame inductee Milo Valenzuela isn’t well enough to travel to Saratoga later this summer, so the Hall of Fame will come to him. Santa Anita will host his induction ceremony tomorrow night in the Chandelier Room.

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Another One Bites the Dust

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The next time someone tells you the result of an upcoming race is a “forgone conclusion”, run away, far away. We all know there is no such thing in this sport. But trainer Richard Dutrow had been so prophetic during this year’s Triple Crown run that you wanted to believe that is was a forgone conclusion that BIG BROWN would become the first Triple Crown winner in 30 years. After all, he said his horse would win the Derby, picked the 20-post at the draw and bet a reported $100,000 on the nose. Bingo. He said the same thing would happen at the Preakness before ‘Brown toyed with his overmatched opposition. Dutrown even called out Japanese invader CASINO DRIVE, telling the media that his main foe wasn’t doing well and posed no threat a week before that one was eventually withdrawn on Belmont Day.

But as we’ve seen now 11 times since Affirmed won the Triple Crown in 1978, a Derby-Preakness parlay certainly does not ensure victory in the Belmont. There’s a reason only 11 horses have won the Triple Crown—it’s hard. When ‘Brown came up empty on the far turn and was correctly eased by Kent Desormeaux, I thought to myself, I’ll never see another Triple Crown winner in my lifetime. In the 1970′s, I watched Secretariat, Seattle Slew and Affirmed rattle off Triple Crowns like it was commonplace. Spectacular Bid should have joined those three but a safety pin and poor ride cost him his chance. Little did I know as a 15-year-old watching Affirmed nose out Alydar that I might not ever see another.

Affirmed was my favorite horse then and nothing has changed 30 years later, which led me to root against most of the last 11 Derby-Preakness winners trying to join him on the list of racing immortals. But I broke down in 2004 and rooted for Smarty Jones, who I thought was a terrific horse and very deserving of Triple Crown status, and I believed ‘Brown was an exceptional horse running against poor competition, which, despite his quarter crack issues, would indeed make him the next Triple Crown winner. But lo and behold, there was Nick Zito playing giant killer again, sending out DA’ TARA to pull off the front-running win in a painfully slow 2008 edition. I know one thing, the next time a horse goes for the Triple Crown, from a gambling perspective, I’m “all in” against that happening. History has proven once again that it’s a terrible betting proposition to take a short price in the Belmont.

Whatever the reason for ‘Brown’s poor performance last Saturday (pick one or more of the following choices: a) quarter crack b) missed training time c) third start in five weeks d) heat and humidity e) being taken off the anabolic steroid Winstrol in mid-April f) didn’t handle the track g) the Racing Gods had heard enough from Dutrow—particularly his comments about the way Smarty Jones had been trained and ridden leading up to the Belmont, and a snide comment about Curlin being beaten by a filly—and decided to teach him a lesson), I have been very disappointed in Dutrow’s comments and reactions since. I cut him some slack for shunning the media (“Don’t even think about it” was his response to one reporter trying to get an immediate post-race comment) directly following the race. He probably was in shock and concerned about the welfare of his horse, and he did meet with the media back at his barn later.

But what about his ludicrous comments in the past few days that blame Desormeaux? Since the horse has been checked out thoroughly and his connections can find no medical issue (unless it shows up later), the finger pointing has begun. According to Dutrow, “I don’t see the horse with a problem, so I have to direct my attention toward the ride. That’s all I can come up with…as along as the horse stays the way that I see him right now, then things are going to keep building up for me to know that it was the ride that did him in.” Say what? Did Dutrow even watch the race, or at least a replay? The horse was done, finished, cooked on the far turn. Anyone who has watched 20 races in his life could tell that much. Desormeaux, knowing the horse was going to finish last, wrapped up and eased him through the lane, protecting the horse and the sport from another major black eye. Can you just imagine if the jock had continued to ask and whip the beaten horse through the lane, only to have him break down in the stretch? So long horse racing, if that had happened. So, after praising and lauding Dutrow for his horsemanship and bombastic style up till now, the trainer showed his true colors in the face of adversity. Like so many before him have shown, it’s easy to be a good winner. Being a good loser takes something called class.

NOTES: Check out Bob Mieszerski’s excellent online article in Monday’s L A Times (,0,7065433.story). As Mieszerski so correctly notes, there doesn’t have to be a sinister explanation for everything in horse racing…LAVA MAN showed some of his old fight with a good third-place finish in the Saturday’s Whittingham Memorial at Hollywod Park. Put on the lead by new rider Tyler Baze, ‘MAN showed aggressiveness to open up a big lead, looked like he might get swallowed up by the field at the top of the lane, but dug in gamely is his best perfomance since last year’s HP Gold Cup. I have to admit, rather than retire and parade him on Gold Cup day (which I had written earlier), he deserves a shot at winning his fourth straight Gold Cup…favorite CHAMPS ELYSEES apparently came out of the race sick, showing a high white blood cell count and excessive mucus…in other stakes that day, MISTY OCEAN went wire-to-wire in the Honeymoon Handicap, PASSIFIED ($26.00) got no respect again but took the Redondo Beach, and REBELLION charged from far back to win the Ack Ack…there was one horse covered in the last race of Saturday’s Pick Six, meaning a return of $400,000 to a single-ticket holder when favorite DOWNTOWN LOVER got home…on Sunday, LETHAL HEAT stretched out and gamely won the Hollywood Oaks, running her record to four wins from five starts…her rider, Rafael Bejarano, holds a commanding 37-24 lead in the jockey standings…Doug O’Neill has a 16-12 lead among trainers.

Finally, the next time you hear a horse compared to Secretariat, here’s a piece of trivia: Big Red still holds three track records after being retired 35 years ago.

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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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To probably no one’s surprise, there is a carryover into Wednesday’s Hollywood Park Pick Six of more than $555,000. With large fields and incredibly competitive races on Sunday’s Gold Rush card, there was only one winning favorite in the Pick Six sequence (and on the card), one second-choice winner and four double-digit winners. Predictably, no one was able to isolate all six winners, meaning Week 2 kicks off with the best possible scenario for small to mid-size Pick Six players: a huge carryover into what normally would be a small pool.

The 10-race Gold Rush card featured good, competitive racing, with Cal-breds divvying up more than $1.3 million in purses. Although every race on the card was called a stakes, two were maiden races and two were first-level allowance contests. But of the six legitimate stakes, jockey Michael Baze was the star of the day, winning three races worth $550,000 in purses. Baze had a mediocre Santa Anita meet but busted out in a big way here, taking the B. Thoughtful with SPENDITALLBABY (the Barry Abrams/Unusual Heat combo just keeps on rolling); the Khaled with MR. WOLVERINE; and the Snow Chief with longshot maiden HARLENE. In other stakes, TUTTA BELLA wired the Fran’s Valentine field; STELLA MARK pulled off another upset in the Tiznow; and BEL AIR SIZZLE, wheeling back in just three days for Abrams, was moved up by the stewards after the correct disqualification of GAMBLER’S JUSTICE in the Melair. The real victim in that race was favorite FINAL FLING, who almost got put over the rail in mid-stretch, so ‘SIZZLE inherited the win as the third-best filly in the race. Again Abrams and Unusual Heat. When you’re going good…

The disappointment of the day was once again LAVA MAN, who was returning from a near five-month layoff but working splendidly by all accounts. Ending last year with three terrible efforts after his dramatic third straight HP Gold Cup win in June, it seems abundantly clear that Lava Man no longer has what it takes to compete with good Cal-breds, let alone the top echelon of the handicap division. We wrote extensively at the time of his Gold Cup win that it was an exciting but objectively lousy race, which failed to produce a single next-out winner. His Pacific Classic, Oak Tree Mile and Cal Cup Classic efforts were abysmal, producing Beyer speed ratings of 89, 90 and 92, respectively. This time, after a perfect trip pressing a very soft pace, ‘Man was blown away by Mr. Wolverine and could never get by pacesetter EPIC POWER for second.

Decisions to retire obviously are difficult ones (see the scores of athletes who have “retired” only to come back time and time again), but in the case of a thoroughbred, that decision has to be made by his connections, not the horse himself. Hasn’t Lava Man, undoubtedly the greatest claim in racing history with earnings of over $5 million, brought enough money and glory to his connections? What better way to go out than retiring him now and parading him in front of the fans on Gold Cup Day?

NOTES: The very first race of the meet started off with SEISMOMETER getting (correctly) DQ’d after veering in sharply and wiping out the two horses to his inside…DIAMOND DIVA made it two straight in this country, taking the Wilshire Handicap for trainer Jim Cassidy…short fields and formful results produced a whopping $315 Pick Six payoff on Thursday. Favorites won six of the eight races on the card…Friday night’s announced attendance was 10,212. There was a definite buzz in the air as SKY CAPE stormed home to win the featured Harry Henson…once again, Friday night lights produced a P6 carryover into Saturday…SURF CAT won his second Mervyn LeRoy Handicap, with Alex Solis up. ‘CAT is one of the few mounts Solis has retained for Headley since the rider’s blow up at The Derby Restaurant on George Woolf Award day…I like that HP is showing replays of historical races and horses during its 70th anniversary season.

Finally, the Kentucky Oaks post position draw was held today and with EIGHT BELLES drawing the extreme outside, it looks like a cinch that she will also be entered, and most likely start, in the Derby. What again must be addressed for next year’s Derby is the need for also-eligibles in case of late scratches. Why not just draw 24 (four also-eligibles) and allow a horse or two to scratch into the field in case of late defections? After watching BIG BROWN’s races on tape again yesterday, it’s obvious that he is the most talented horse in the race. He showed he was something special in his first start at Saratoga, debuting in a turf route and destroying the competition with a devastating turn of foot in the final furlong. He’s never been in a dog fight, true, but that’s because there might not be anything out there able to give him a fight. If he runs his race (hey it’s the Derby, there are no cinches), it’s all over. COLONEL JOHN for second, with GAYEGO, Z HUMOR, SMOOTH AIR and DENIS OF CORK to fight out the trifecta/superfecta spots. Readers in the Reno/Tahoe area, please join handicapper Steve Fierro and myself at the Grand Sierra Resort at 6:30 Friday night for a free Derby handicapping seminar. Perhaps we can get lucky again like in ’06, giving out the trifecta in Barbaro’s year.

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