Horse Track Blog
By John Day
NEW YORK–The first two legs of the Triple Crown this year produced record crowds in Louisville and Baltimore. Certainly, ideal weather conditions in both cities helped draw those huge crowds.
If Elmont is lucky enough to have similar weather in three weeks on June 9th, then more racing fans may well have seen the three races this year than at any point in the storied history of racing. With I'll Have Another poised to capture the first Triple Crown since Affirmed in 1978, expect the turnstiles to be spinning like 20-inch rims on a lowrider as New Yorkers cram Belmont Race Track to witness one of the rarer events in sport. Wouldn't it be a welcome shot in the arm if all three Triple Crown legs experienced record crowds in the same year?
Bodemeister won't test the Derby and Preakness winner again. Jockey Mario Gutierrez has risen to the epic challenge twice by taking aim at Bodemeister and running him into submission deep in the stretch. However, two highly regarded Derby participants–Union Rags and Dullahan–skipped the trip to Baltimore in order to prep for the Belmont Stakes, fresh and fit.
Racing is under pressure right now all over America. A Triple Crown winner would go a long way toward rekindling the long-smoldering embers of fan involvement.
While I'll Have Another must accomplish far more to be mentioned in the same sentence as Secretariat, just as "Big Red" helped inspire a nation to move beyond the demoralizing Watergate fiasco in 1973, this year's Triple Crown aspirant could help elevate racing and an embattled nation by running fastest for ~2:30 and help remind all of us what we so love about racing.
Wednesday, May 16, 2012
Sunday, November 20, 2011
By John Day
FOREST HILLS, NY--One unusual aspect of New York City living is the fact that you can live next door or across the hall from a person and not even know their last name. There are over 400 units in the building in which we live and I couldn't cite four last names of people living here.
The sad part is that we've lived here for 18 years.
A woman who commutes with my wife and me from Queens into Manhattan either overheard us talking about horses or we may have been in the throes of a pre-Derby frenzy and she couldn't have helped but notice.
One day, she casually asked, "Have you ever heard of a former jockey named Manny Ycaza?"
The shock on my face must have shown. I was barely able to stammer, "Dr. Fager."
"Who?" she asked. "I don't know anybody named Dr. Fager, but there's a guy who lives on my floor who says that he is a former jockey. I saw the inside of his apartment once and there were lots of trophies all over the place so I guess he really was a jockey."
Yes, Manny Ycaza most definitely was a jockey. Some say that he is the pioneer of the "Latin Invasion" of jockeys that resonates to this day.
Below is a link to Dr. Fager's past performances from Horseracing Nation that gives the astonishing record of one of the great horses that ever looked through a bridle.
Beginning in his third race on September 10th, 1966, Ycaza got a leg up on Dr. Fager in the World's Playground Stakes from Atlantic City and romped home in front when he ran seven furlongs in 123.2. Curiously, when one clicks on the details of the race the Horseracing Nation site lists Braulio Baeza as the jockey in the race. That's one problem with archival sources of sports information--each year, fewer and fewer people are around who can confirm such details.
According to the site, Bill Shoemaker replaced Ycaza for the Doctor's next two races (the Cowdin and the Champagne) and when Dr. Fager suffered his first career defeat in the Champagne, trainer John Nerud put Ycaza back on the horse for the Gotham and he beat the immortal Damascus, getting the mile in 136.2.
Nerud then did two curious things, although one of them may have had its roots firmly and bitterly planted in the dirt of the stretch run for the 1957 Kentucky Derby. In the '57 Derby, Nerud's Gallant Man lost the race by a nose when Shoemaker infamously misjudged the finish line, allowing Iron Liege to nip his colt once Shoe sat back down in a duel to the wire.
Reportedly, Nerud siddled up to bar, ordered a tall drink, threw it back and proceeded to "cry like a baby."
Nerud's first unconventional decision was to skip the Derby with Dr. Fager. It doesn't appear that the trainer thought that his colt had distance limitations since Dr. Fager won three times at the Derby's 1-1/4-mile distance. Perhaps Gallant Man's heartbreaking Derby loss soured Nerud on running at Churchill Downs.
Secondly, Nerud ran Dr. Fager in the Withers at Aqueduct and replaced Ycaza with Baeza. If a jockey has ridden a colt twice and won twice, why would the trainer opt to replace the jockey?
Dr. Fager and Baez won the Withers on May 13th and Nerud then once again gave Ycaza a leg up for this third, and final, ride aboard a colt that would go on to become the only horse to win four championships in one season. In 1968, Dr. Fager was named top Sprinter, Turf, Handicap and Horse of the Year. Ycaza guided Dr. Fager to a win in the 1-1/8-mile Jersey Derby, finishing up in 1:48.
Perhaps Nerud saw something in the relationship that Baez had with Dr. Fager because they teamed up for all but one race for the rest of the colt's career. That included a mindboggling world record 1:32.2 mile at Arlington Park in the Washington Park Handicap.
So, a neighbor of mine rode the great Dr. Fager. I need to stop him in the lobby one day and hear a few horseracing tales.
Our friend who lives near Ycaza explained to us, "To me, he's just Manny. He still tells me that he could ride tomorrow if they put him on a horse. The guy used to be married to Miss Universe and he's still got a body on him at his age."
Thursday, October 27, 2011
By John Day
NEW YORK—As the horses bolt from the starting gate for the first race on Friday at Belmont, what is happening south on the Belt Parkway will have far greater implications for the future of New York racing.
Seven colts will race a one-turn mile at Belmont when the clock strikes 1.
Thousands of fans who normally wouldn't bother to venture to Jamaica, Queens, on a brisk Friday afternoon will race for position in front of the newly minted slot machines that promise to transform racing here and infuse badly needed money that will fund eye-popping purses. Racing fans are far outnumbered by slot machine enthusiasts in Yonkers at Empire City so one can only assume that far more people will show up at Aqueduct since the A train carries them right to the gates.
The Aqueduct facility operated by Genting will officially be known as Resorts World Casino New York City. The tabloid press has already dubbed the place "Racino" and should cover the story with gusto.
Friday's opening will serve merely as a dry run since the Belmont meet ends on Sunday so beginning next week gamblers will have the ability to play slot machines between races as the Big A.
Whether opening the Racino is good or bad for the sport of racing is immaterial. As the latch on the starting gate opens for the first race at Belmont on Friday, racing becomes secondary to slots.
A different type of gambler will be attracted to Aqueduct, the purses will swell and horseracing will never be the same here.
Friday, September 30, 2011
By John Day
ELMONT—As the hammers race rhythmically at Aqueduct to build a racino and infuse new life into New York racing, north on the Belt Parkway they've assembled a staggering array of horses for Super Saturday at Belmont that will have a major impact on the Breeders' Cup races held at Churchill Downs in early November.
Beginning with the Flower Bowl Invitational in the fifth race and punctuated by the Jockey Club Gold Cup in the tenth race, horses that are BC-eligible and some that are simply competing for the large purses as perhaps their last races of the year will clash on a terrific card. Havre de Grace, Trappe Shot, Stacelita, Cape Blanco, Uncle Mo, Stay Thirsty and Flat Out will race in their final tuneups for their various BC races.
Which begs the question: If NYRA is able to attract such quality horses and their connections, why is New York consistently passed over when the BC committee awards racetracks hosting duties for the Breeders' Cup?
Churchill Downs certainly does a terrific job of hosting the Breeders' Cup as they will no doubt demonstrate this year and their annual Kentucky Derby experience in handling massive crowds gives them an advantage. However, Belmont's Super Saturday card can compare favorably with any afternoon of racing around the country other than the Breeders' Cup weekend.
The Flower Bowl is followed by the Joe Hirsch, Vosburgh, Kelso, Beldame and then Jockey Club. The purses will total over $2.5 Million on an October afternoon and the weather is forecast to be perfect so fans should be treated to pulse-pounding excitement conducted by top-flight connections.
Imagine how much money could be on the line for the 2012 Super Saturday once the racino money begins to pour in?
Racing in America's largest media market soon makes sense for the BC. European connections have expressed a preference for New York's climate and facilities when compared to some of the warmer climate traces. After two years in Kentucky and next year in California, the BC committee needs to think about bringing racing's biggest collective event back to New York.
In fact, if the Breeders' Cup truly is the international showcase that it purports to be, then there are spectacular racetracks in Europe, Asia, South America and even the Middle East that have the capability of hosting future Breeders' Cups.
Sunday, August 28, 2011
By John Day
NEW YORK—Legendary trainer Charlie Whittingham certainly knew the agony and elation of winning and losing big races. After one particularly tough loss in California, when asked to comment the former Marine growled, "I hate to get beat by a dirty nose!"
Todd Pletcher must have known how Whittingham felt yesterday afternoon at Saratoga Race Course. Pletcher's horses ran spectacularly well in four consecutive graded stakes and his colt Stay Thirsty won the meet's signature event, the Travers Stakes. However, it was Uncle Mo's excruciating loss by a nose in the King's Bishop that kept Pletcher from standing in the winner's circle after three consecutive Grade 1 races in upstate New York.
Uncle Mo displayed dogged determination in the King's Bishop when he ran down an extremely fast pace in the seven-furlong contest, only to lose in the last jump to Caleb's Posse.
Considering the fact that the 2010 two-year-old champion was returning to the races for the first time since scratching prior to the Kentucky Derby, Uncle Mo exhibited uncommon resiliency in overtaking the pace and digging down when challenged by Caleb's Posse. It was revealed after the race that the colt had thrown a rear shoe at the start.
In a quirk of fate, NBC's East Coast coverage of racing from Saratoga was preempted by continuous coverage of Hurricane Irene. Television stations all along the path of the storm showed storm coverage all day long, so New York racing fans were unable to see the national coverage that the rest of the country enjoyed.
Pletcher had saddled Hilda's Passion to victory in the race prior to Unlce Mo's King's Bishop loss, the seven-furlong Ballerina Stakes. The expected speed duel between the winning filly and Tar Heel Mom didn't materialize when the latter broke badly and never challenged Hilda's Passion.
Once Stay Thirsty had dispatched of the Traver's field in a solid performance that perhaps removed some of the sting of his stablemate's loss, Pletcher could reflect on his accomplishment of having put all of his thoroughbreds in a position to win over a two-hour period. In the ninth race, Pletcher's Maple Forest fell a half length short of winning the Grade 3 Victory Ride Stakes.
The afternoon's scorecard was indeed impressive. In four graded stakes, Pletcher sent out horses to win twice and finish second twice.
On this triumphant afternoon, though, Pletcher and owner Mike Repole probably will remember their "dirty nose" loss most vividly.
Sunday, August 21, 2011
By John Day
NEW YORK—Horse owners know how difficult it is to get a colt or filly to the racetrack in the first place, let alone have them arrive fully prepared for a specific race. The percentage that enter the winner's circle is smaller still and those horses that win Grade I races are counted in the single percentile digits.
Imagine your top horse falling by the wayside and having another one under your shedrow that can step in and proudly display your silks on the track, while still earning the favorite's role in one of America's most prestigious races.
It didn't happen in this year's Kentucky Derby. It could happen in the 2011 Travers, though.
Mike Repole and Todd Pletcher may have allowed themselves to dream last Fall about running in the Triple Crown races and arriving in upstate New York with a formidable horse for the Travers. However, most everyone would agree that in their minds the colt would have been Uncle Mo and not Stay Thirsty.
Racing is humbling, though, so after the Derby debacle in which Uncle Mo was scratched on the morning prior to the race and then turned out at WinStar Farms to recover from a liver ailment, the owner and trainer find themselves with the probable favorite for the Travers at Saratoga on Saturday (Stay Thirsty) and also with what could turn out to be the most eagerly anticipated runnings of the King's Bishop on the undercard if Uncle Mo races.
Uncle Mo certainly appears to be regaining his form. He worked 5 furlongs this morning in 59.95 in company. Physically, he has put on much of the weight that he had lost prior to the Derby.
It remains to be seen whether Uncle Mo has rekindled the dominant running style that he displayed as a 2-year-old. Under normal circumstances, an owner and trainer would be ecstatic to have such a strong chance to win the Travers with Stay Thirsty.
The circumstances surrounding Uncle Mo are anything but normal.
Repole and Pletcher might be far more nervous about the King's Bishop than they will be later Saturday afternoon prior to the Travers. Turning back to the seven-furlong distance of the King's Bishop could be viewed as a regression for a colt that at one time had championship aspirations.
Remember, it was at Saratoga last summer where Uncle Mo first stamped himself as a special colt. He may run very well in the King's Bishop and make the initial step toward competing in this Fall's Breeder's Cup at Churchill Downs.
Or, Uncle Mo may be exposed as nothing more than a pawn in the King's Bishop on the undercard of the Travers.
Saturday, August 20, 2011
By John Day
NEW YORK—The Kentucky love affair with horses and racing courses through the Commonwealth like the limestone veins of rock that bookend both shoulders of the expressway along I-64 in the heart of the Bluegrass.
The Derby is the pinnacle of racing-related activity each year in May, but thousands of Kentuckians are both capable of and willing to have an informed conversation about races like today’s Alabama at Saratoga or talk knowingly about the abbreviated meet at Royal Ascot north of London.
In the mid-80’s, I returned to Louisville for a good friend’s August wedding and experienced one of those unrehearsed moments that reflect how deeply thoroughbreds shape daily life there.
Whenever the Alabama rolls around on the Saratoga calendar, it reminds me of how many truly spectacular fillies have run in the race. A roster of past winners—and losers, since Saratoga has been the venue for inexplicable losses ever since Upset beat Man ‘O War—could fill a distaff wing of the Racing Hall of Fame…which conveniently is located across Union Avenue from the hallowed racetrack.
At that long-forgotten Louisville VFW hall nearly 30 years ago, I quietly left the raucous wedding reception just after 5:30 in order to get in front of a television to see that year’s running of the Alabama.
“Could you please put on the horserace?” I asked the bartender in a separate part of the VFW.
“Sure. What race is it?” he asked.
“The Alabama,” I told him.
He obligingly walked to the other end of the bar and changed the channel on the television. “How many fillies are running?” he asked me casually when he returned. The fact that the bartender knew the conditions of the Alabama without having to ask is impressive in and of itself.
The bartender quietly reached under the bar and proceeded to place five numbered pills on top of the bar. He looked across at those seated and said, “You five,” pointing at me and four others. “Five dollars each on the bar.”
We reached into our pockets and fished around until we each produced a $5 bill. We placed the worn bills next to our beverages and Kentucky native son Abraham Lincoln’s face shared our view of the post parade on the TV. The bartender systematically placed all five pills into a shaker, gave it a few martini-worthy tumbles and then pulled out one pill per bettor and put it in front of each of us.
I can’t recall which horse won the Alabama that year, but I do recall that I didn’t have the winning pill in front of me. The woman who had been lucky enough to win jumped up and down excitedly, claimed her winnings from off the bar and tipped the bartender $5 before returning to the reception.
Thursday, August 04, 2011
SARATOGA SPRINGS, NY–If there is a horseracing equivalent of a "bucket list," then sitting in the pole position would have to be a visit to Saratoga while thoroughbreds are running at America's oldest racetrack.
Del Mar is delightful and Keeneland is cosmic, but Saratoga towers over both of them with its unparalleled history of epic races and unapologetic culture of "all about horses, all the time."
The fact that potato chips debuted in this bucolic Adirondack town only adds to the luster.
Destinations like New Orleans cultivate a decadent food mindset and Las Vegas wouldn't exist without gambling. During late summer, Saratoga Springs wakes up to workouts on the Oklahoma training track, segues to racing in the afternoon, parties hearty in the evening amid backstretch gossip and rumors of fast runners and then goes to sleep with dreams of boxcar payoffs.
The New York Racing Association launched an innovative online program yesterday called, "Play Saratoga." Using their web site and Facebook, NYRA is sharing the daily gift that graces its entry box by allowing horseplayers around the country to sign up and select the Win, Place and Show results in each race. They make further use of a player's selections by rewarding Exactas and Trifectas (boxed exotic bets included in the price of admission, which is free).
Don't be surprised if you see regally bred, first-time starters compete in two or three races on the same card with a stakes race punctuating the action. On a random Wednesday.
The "Play Saratoga" program is ingenious because it draws fans from around the country and the world to familiarize themselves with the ebbs and flows of the Saratoga meeting–somebody during this meet will have their inspired betting selections rendered useless when the inevitable ominous thunderstorm rolls through town and all the turf races move to dirt–and helps build an additional layer of excitement that will crest in the showcase Travers Stakes on Saturday, August 27th.
Anyone who has ever plunked down $2 at Beulah Park or bet $1,000 on a Breeder's Cup race should go online and explore the "Play Saratoga" social racing league. It's an addictive habit that will help underscore the prominence of Saratoga as the best racing meet in the country and possibly reveal future racing and breeding superstars.
Whether you're sitting at a computer in Iowa City or Istanbul, the magic of Saratoga in summer is only a mouseclick away.
Monday, July 04, 2011
ELMONT, NY—Even racetrack hardboots shake their heads in disbelief on occasion.
Sometimes, the "smart money" sure does look dumb once the OFFICIAL sign flashes. In the Bed O'Roses Handicap at Belmont Park Sunday, July 3rd, the bettors made Hilda's Passion the prohibitive 1-5 favorite and then collectively watched in horror as she beat exactly one horse home.
The Show prices were $53, $53.50 and $64.50 for a $2 bet in a seven-horse race.
Always remember that banks don't have to go around two turns. Or, in this case, only one huge turn since the layout of "Big Sandy" for a seven-furlong race merely requires that horses navigate one turn.
The same trio that got Uncle Mo within 33 hours or so of starting in this year's Kentucky Derby (although one might need to make a Clintonian distinction for the word "scratch") unveiled an impressive first-out winner on Friday when 3-5 Overdriven dueled with JC's Pride into the stretch of Belmont's second race and then drew off to win and stop the timer in 56.2 for five furlongs.
Overdriven (sired by Tale of the Cat) was a $350k yearling purchase for owner Mike Repole and trained by Todd Pletcher. The two-year-old colt's odds had drifted to even money just before post time, but late money collapsed the odds back to 3-5.
It takes significant wagers to move pools late at any racetrack, but that is especially true in New York. The pools are large and risk/reward ratio is high. Sunday's handle was $1.4 million on-track, $8.5 million total.
Those backing Overdriven on Friday reaped the reward. Show bettors on Hilda's Passion on Sunday paid the price.
Fourth of July fireworks aren't always only in the sky over the Hudson River this time of year. At times, there are equine fireworks in the afternoon.
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