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Chrome Controversy Continues: Press Release Edition

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California Chrome’s courageous 4th place in the Belmont Stakes was achieved despite injury and after a long hard-fought Triple Crown run. Despite this acknowledgement, his reputation has suffered significantly through negative press.

A bit of background before I comment:

It’s not every year that die-hard racing fans are treated to a Triple Crown run. I for one felt very fortunate, getting the opportunity to watch the historic attempt live in the flesh. Alas, despite all of this, the excitement of California Chrome's winning streak and unbridled celebrity came crashing down simultaneously and in the worst way possible. The post-Belmont response of Chrome co-owner Steve Coburn was so negatively charged in the minds of onlookers— both Chromies and outsiders— that the thought of handing Chrome just the top three-year-old Eclipse began feeling distant. It’s worth mentioning that I’ll Have Another achieved the award after a very similar race record without question, even after retiring before the Belmont. 

In the days following the Belmont, Mr. Coburn made a heartfelt apology and all seemed forgiven with the summer and fall classics as well as a four-year-old campaign in the future. Good press continued on behalf of the horse himself, as Chrome returned to training sooner than expected. However, all that good will was tarnished by talk of a $50,000 appearance fee that was required in order for California Chrome to parade at Del Mar. In response, DAP Racing sent out this press release.

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Mr. Coburn was a refreshing change of scenery for fans, speaking out against Churchill Downs and campaigning their tough-as-nails homebred California Chrome. I know everyone at Belmont Park that day enjoyed him.

On to the commentary part…

The thing about the media is that it is a double-edged sword. It can do good, but it can also do much harm. It depends on how you handle it, as demonstrated by the charismatic Charles Howard of Seabiscuit fame. I agree with many points Mr. Coburn mentioned in his press release; I do not think it unreasonable to request some type of aid when it comes time to truck a valuable horse like Chrome out to Del Mar purely for marketing purposes. It was also very unprofessional for a sizeable establishment like Del Mar— which I doubt needs much help breaking attendance records— to let something like this leak out in hopes of pressuring DAP to cave in. They may not have caved in Del Mar’s favor obviously, but judging by the language of the release, they may have sacrificed some of their valor. It is possible to flash a figurative middle finger in public, and I swear by the gods it’s a hundred times classier and more awesome if it reads a little more poetic than prose. [Read: Lebron James’ departure letter from the Miami Heat]

Advice I would like to offer as food for thought:

  1. Treat the places and people who were good to you: maybe Chrome’s home base of Los Alamitos would be a good start.
  2. I realize I have none of the financial success that DAP has had, but I thought to myself the other day how I couldn’t fathom doing much beyond paying off my debts and buying a house if I won the lottery. Perhaps do an appearance or something of that nature for racing’s charities. The Permanently Disabled Jockeys’ Fund as well as the Thoroughbred Aftercare Alliance are good starting points.
  3. If you want another shot at Tonalist, Saratoga will offer some good racing AND great hospitality for you. They may even be tempted to sweeten the deal if Chrome ships out east again.

To close this message out, I am actually glad to see DAP fire back at Del Mar. It creates transparency within racing, which is very much needed in a time plagued by illicit drug use and mysterious injuries/deaths/retirements. In the age of social media and free Wi-Fi, we shouldn’t have to read about this in a book published ten years from now, wondering out loud why we didn’t hear their side of the story for the Del Mar controversy until then. It allows us to see behind the veil, and it would be fitting if California Chrome was the one to level the playing field between the backstretch and the grandstand. 

Belmont at Its Best: The Inaugural Stars and Stripes Festival

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It was good to see ol’ Secretariat again, all aglow in the summer sunshine on Stars and Stripes Day.

I would describe myself as a dedicated racing fan, but in the same breath, mention that I am also a drive-by-myself, full-time floor scrubbin’, just-graduated-from-college kid who drives a duct-taped 1999 Toyota Camry and scoffs at the thought of paying for gas AND the insane bridge tolls in New York. So with that said, I have to pick the days I go to the track wisely where I can get the most bang for my buck, and lucky for me, the inaugural Stars and Stripes Festival repaid me for my efforts.

It’s not commonplace for most U.S. races to attract very many international entries, but the purse sizes of the $1.25 million Belmont Derby Invitational (I), formerly the Jamaica Handicap (I), and the $1 million “Win and You’re In” Belmont Oaks Invitational (I), formerly the Garden City stakes (I), lured a handful of promising three-year-olds from their stomping grounds to Long Island. Attracting just 5 horses last year, the revitalized $500,000 Suburban Handicap (II) drew a full field of routers going the original 10 furlongs again. Even the James Marvin Handicap-turned-$400,000 Belmont Sprint Championship, “just” a G3 status race, beckoned a full field that demanded respect. It was a great day in the making for racing fans, paired with a mystery voucher and T-shirt giveaway and most importantly— food trucks! I’M STILL GROWING! Maybe not any taller, but WIDER!

Almost immediately upon opening the gates to the track, there was a crowd. Not the massively overwhelming type or the type full of drunk college kids— I saw not a single one all day— but a lot of families and racing fans, many of whom seemed to be there for the first time. Between all the food trucks of virtually every taste and texture and the outrageously perfect weather, the atmosphere of the day was sublime.

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Sam the Bugler gives a bugling lesson early in the card and took some selfies with the kids

Most important aspect of the day that is impossible to leave out: the racing! For the first time in a while, I had a good betting day at Belmont Park although regretfully I did not wager half as much as I should have since for once, I did not sift through the card beforehand. Lesson learned, I suppose! There was a lot of value plays that panned out for the lucky few and so many excellent performances, some of which I think will go down as very memorable moments:

In the Dwyer (III), which was won last year by my guy Moreno— one of my few and proudest straight trifecta victories!— there was a small group of three-year-olds, offering one of the stiffest opportunities at the betting terminals. Kid Cruz, hot off a sizzling Easy Goer Stakes win a month ago, was the horse to beat, going up against undefeated stablemate Captain Serious and the promising challenger Tiz Dark. In the end, the race set up perfectly for the 3-5 Kid Cruz, who swept in late just as he did in June for another deserving graded stakes win. It was a proud moment again for me, after I had to deal with post-Preakness shame after listing him on top, the only career start of his that he totally blew. Watch out for this closer in the coming months! Final say: Kid Cruz is the real deal! Obviously bad betting race!

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I have labeled myself a pretty blah sprint handicapper, and my usual go-to strategy of betting the Speightstown in the race was looking pretty folly as Central Banker, a horse who has grown into his role quite a bit this year, was the likely favorite. The inaugural Belmont Sprint Championship (III) had lots of good horses, but I admit to not really checking it out from a betting perspective. That wound up not being the real draw as the race caught fire in the stretch; Clearly Now came up from off the pace and just plain took off like he was breaking from the gate again, putting some serious daylight between himself and the rest of the horses. I was so flattered and in awe, and it came as no surprise as it was announced that he had broken the track record for 7 furlongs. Amazing. Final say: Clearly Now steals the show! Best performance I’ve seen in a while!

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For older horses, the Suburban Handicap (II) welcomed back the 10-furlong distance much to the delight of traditionally-minded handicappers, with 11 horses entered, with many stretching out from a mile or taking the next step up from the overplayed 9-furlong distance. I’ve long had eyes and heart for Moreno, who broke wonderfully with the blinkers back on and set out to set a very modest pace out on the lead. The son of Ghostzapper held off challenges that came early and late, ultimately falling in the final moments of the stretch to the deep closer Zivo. A 5-year-old bred in New York and trained by Chad Brown, the heart displayed by Zivo did not mar the tough beat that was handed to Moreno. I hope to see a lot more from this gun show, but he certainly won’t be overlooked by anyone again. Betting-wise, I stayed out of this one yet again, sensing an upset somehow but not knowing who it would be; Last Gunfighter always seems to drop the ball in big graded races and I’ve never liked Romansh. (On a side note, Zivo was that type of horse you see at long odds and wonder what was wrong, what you weren’t immediately seeing that you should have. Bettors failed themselves in this race at 13-1!) Final say: Great race with terrifically gutsy top two! Wish I had show-betted Moreno after all. Aw well, I think Saratoga will be kind to him.

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Considered the highlight of the day despite its non-“Win and You’re In” status, the Belmont Derby (I) attracted some classy Euro shippers to fight the American contingent, which featured the prominent speed demon Bobby’s Kitten. Aidan O’Brien’s Adelaide [GB] was the deserving favorite but had some serious challengers in the form of Gailo Chop, Flamboyant [FR], and Pornichet [FR]. The morning line favoritism fell to poly specialist Toast of New York, who’d be getting another shot on the turf after initially failing on it in his debut, off of which he blossomed into a different horse. With so many shippers, it was reasonable to forget about the Americans… but to such disregarding odds, it was unfathomable. The tempo of the Derby built up to a raucous stretch drive with multiple horses flying late; Adelaide’s patient stalking position gave way to a flurried flight to the front, but he was not alone— storming up the rail came the black silks and cherry cap of the Phipps Stable. Mr Speaker! The connections of Toast of New York could be heard down along the rail, “COME ON, JAMIE [OSBOURNE]! COME ON JAMIE!” But the race turned from a scrambled stretch drive to a duel between two, and in a determined final rush, it was Mr Speaker who ebbed and yawed his way through to win. Considered a potential major player earlier in the year, Mr Speaker captured G1 status that day at an unfathomable 23-1 odds, paying out $49 to his supporters for a $2 win wager. Final say: Holy cow Mr Speaker! I dare not compare him to Point of Entry, but he was so game!

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The final stake of the afternoon, which would invite its victor to the Breeders’ Cup World Championships in November, was the first-ever Belmont Oaks (I). Considered the easier of the two big turf races by many handicappers, who were mainly leading toward Euro entry Wonderfully [IRE], it was still a very wide-open affair, especially considering the major upset in the Derby. If I liked anyone in the field, it had to be the beautiful Flying Jib by looks and Sea Queen by virtue of her Christophe Clement connections (although Clement had another filly by Arch in Summer Solo). Again, it was the American turf trainers who showed the way on their home course— Coolmore’s Chad Brown-trained filly Minorette, who packed a wicked turf pedigree, flew courageously to the front late and went eyeball-to-eyeball with the always game Sea Queen. It was a scintillating show that paired with the Belmont Derby like a fine wine, each with the top two boxing it out at the end. Longshot and previously undefeated Summer Solo hashed out the trifecta for a day the Americans joyfully dominated. Final say: We’ll get ‘em next time, Sea Queen! Minorette the deserving, good-looking winner!

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I am so annoyed at myself for not doing my homework a little more on the races, which I strongly feel I would have won more on if I had chosen to handicap them beforehand like I almost always do— by nature, I always put down Lezcano-ridden turf horses as well as Clement and Brown horses regardless of surface. But also by law, if I don’t do my homework beforehand, I don’t typically allow myself to bet. I found out too late that Minorette is a half-sister to an old favorite of mine, Master of Hounds. Ugh! I gotta get it together for Saratoga! I can’t complain too much though, since I still managed to profit off that free $5 voucher I got from attending the races, mostly thanks to the 10-1 Michael Matz horse who won race 1.

On the drive home, many questions surfaced: how good did my photos come out? Is traffic on I-91 going to be bad with the holiday rush? And most importantly, how good did Belmont do with today? I begged the racing gods that the Stars and Stripes went very well for the business end of the sport, and it appears that prayer has been answered with some 11,000 in attendance with more than $18 million wagered.

If you didn’t get to go to this event, do try to make it next year! It beat out most other NYRA days I’ve attended since I started going in 2012 and even many Saratoga days. Next time I will surely do my homework…

Racetrack Bucket List

Saratoga will likely always be my favorite racing place as a realized childhood dream, a historically significant place, and a buzzworthy racing scene that envelopes the entire small city which embraces “horses, history, and health.”

Now that Keeneland has been confirmed as the site for the 2015 Breeders’ Cup, it has stirred thoughts as to what tracks I would really love to go to someday within North America. If you told me when I was a kid that I would eventually make it out to Saratoga and Belmont, I would have basically flipped out, courtesy of reading Man o’ War multiple times, and thus inheriting a booming love for those two landmark courses. While I doubt anything can top those two, here are my top 5 “bucket list” Thoroughbred tracks:

  1. Keeneland - Epitomizes what is right within the heart of the Bluegrass, and I haven’t stopped hearing good things about the country’s most historically-preserved race place since I seriously entered the racing world. I’m optimistic the switch to dirt will go well, and even if they never changed it, it still takes the top of the list as to where I would go next if asked to go to a new track.
  2. Arlington Park - Kind of a weird choice, but yes, Arlington. I’ve been fascinated with the idea of one day visiting Chicago among several other metropolitan areas of the States, but I feel like Arlington might be up my alley. It’s another place with historical significance and good racing and I’ve heard a lot of good things about it that convince me that I would really like to pay it a visit.
  3. Churchill Downs - Hard to leave this one off the list as arguably the most famous racetrack in the world. I’d like to go there on an off day, Derby Day, and for Downs After Dark. Seems like it has a lot of fun things going on at its height.
  4. Hialeah Park - I am sad to say I never got to go to Hialeah Park while I still lived in South Florida because it wasn’t reopened for racing until after I left. It looks like a wonderful place to visit with its gorgeous Spanish-inspired architecture and the ol’ Citation statue. I would still go there even if they never pick up Thoroughbred racing again.
  5. Del Mar - I would go here next simply because I want to see which one is the better summer place: Saratoga or Del Mar. (I’m pretty sure I would stay faithful to ‘Toga, but just to test the waters)

To close this out, I am 1132893% glad that Keeneland has been chosen as a Breeders’ Cup site. I was part of the early dissenters that Santa Anita continue being the host site or possibly become the permanent site. While the great weather is a very strong argument for it (even for me, the snowbird-in-hibernation come winter months), no weather scenario is perfect and it doesn’t feel right to keep it on the west coast. I also had a major major problem with the track bias it has shown, which SA is thankfully seeing to fixing, and the effects shipping all the way to California has on European horses. Keeneland seems like the ideal fit, as a place which has long drawn rave reviews, totes a great safety record, and brings everyone back to the home of Thoroughbred racing: Kentucky. 

Grading the Diehard Fan’s Belmont Stakes Experience

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The 146th running of the Belmont Stakes (I) was my third trip out to New York’s toughest race and my first-ever in-person Triple Crown run. The events of the day were as wild— and at times as disappointing— as the end result of the race. Because I used to be a video game writer and in honor of E3 week, I’ll be using the 1 to 10 grading scale. A “10” is the best I’ve ever had and exceeding expectations while a “1” is the worst imaginable.

I count myself among the few that could be labeled as “diehard, kind of selfish young racing fans.” I would rather glue myself to the rail all day then retreat inside for a beer and a hot dog, and would rather my beloved heart pick look straight at me than cash in a longshot. In that sense, Saturday’s Belmont Stakes card was like dying and going to heaven with more graded stakes action and racing superstars in one day than I’ve ever seen before. Triple Crown run or not, I was running to make it out to Long Island and drove the 3-hour drive back home with mixed results.

The Drive, Entering, Parking, and Leaving Belmont: 8.0

Thanks to my rampant problems with my car (I still love you, Cammy!), I had to drive my dad’s boat down to New York, which sucks because it’s really difficult to see around the car when I have to change lanes. The drive to was nearly flawless except for heavy bridge traffic on the Throg’s Neck, and more traffic than I expected coming into the peasant parking lot at Belmont. Upgrade this year: they had a few nicer shuttle buses to bring you to the gate! Unlike a lot of other people, I had next to no notable issues leaving Belmont when it was time to go and had a way easy time getting back onto the Cross Island Parkway since police had shut down the merging lane just for us, something they didn’t do last year.

Energy!: 9.0

One thing that immediately stood out this year for me: the excitement and enthusiasm I saw everywhere. So many fans dressed up in purple and green and some went the extra mile wearing elaborate costumes, hats, and made really neat signs. California Chrome’s co-owner came out and waved to fans and autographed items thrown up to him in the owner’s box, which was cool and really livened things up. This is what you come TO the races for.

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The Lineup of Races: 9.0

I was not a fan originally of smushing the Memorial Day card with the Belmont Stakes card, but it was probably a good idea in the long run just by looking at the quality of contenders that ran. I think I looked forward to every race leading up to the Belmont, and I commend the 30-minute or so wait between races (except the Belmont) as opposed to the past couple of years when it was 40-50 minutes between EVERY race. The Met Mile was stacked and the Ogden Phipps attracted the best mares in the country.

Handicapping: 9.5

I was very impressed with the fair track bias at Belmont Park that day and I was all-around very pleased with racing results which birthed very good if not excellent payouts and worthy winners as well as exciting performances. I unfortunately did not spread to Coffee Clique in my pick 4 ticket in the Just a Game (I), so thus I did not cash in. Can’t win ‘em all, but I am very happy with how my selections ran as well as horses I praised on this blog ran. Bayern finally made me a very proud supporter cutting back to the 7-furlong Woody Stephens (II), blowing Social Inclusion out of the water like I knew he could. Preakness pick Kid Cruz also made me ecstatic winning the Easy Goer Stakes, and a horse who failed me and a Moreno double wager last year, Wabbajack, cruised to victory in the first race. I wagered ahead of the crowd rush and on mobile, so my thoughts are untarnished by the long lines.

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Events: 6.0

There were several goings-on and giveaways that made the day a bit of a spree affair. I was able to pick up a California Chrome poster thanks to TVG and got autographs from the Triple Crown jockeys that were set up. Unfortunately, the crowds were too massive to take advantage of everything without missing a lot of racing; I waited an hour and a half in line for the jockey signing which I don’t think was worth it. And of course, you throw in the word “free” and people will try to grab 10 of everything only to abandon much on the grandstand floor. That’s people for you. I can’t say I was that excited for the music guests, but I appreciated the gesture of having something going on in the hour between the Manhattan Handicap (I) and the Belmont (I).

My Own Experience: 6.0

Loved getting to see so many greats, loved slithering my way down to the finish line once again this year, loved getting to see a Triple Crown attempt. I experienced very little of the tense interactions others had throughout the day. However, my time was marred thanks to a number of things that could have been prevented:

  • The laughable extended security ban: Does nothing, and it will never do anything except harm the experience of the average fan/racegoer and bring down handle and attendance. Every other person was trying to bring in contraband items at the gates and many prevailed somehow. It does not work and NYRA would be better off doing common sense inspections next year.
  • Getting ill because of above ban: Other than the Belmont, I was looking forward most to the Ogden Phipps, but I didn’t even get to see the post parade because I was sickened by heat exhaustion to the point where I threw up over the rail and had to be carted out by the medics. If I could have brought my sparkly new mini cooler with me, this wouldn’t have happened. Could I have bought ice or other? Yes… if I cared to wait 45+ minutes. The medics even advised me to get lunch but we wound up discarding the idea because of the lines. A big thank you to Bismarck and those around me who helped stabilize and comfort me.
  • Media interference: I feel for those who got stuck behind the speakers for the concert, which were originally raised but then lowered down right before the Belmont, obstructing the view of many. Even worse, that impacted myself and those around me, some Channel 10 guy from Albany thought it was suitable to set up shop on our side of the fence with a massive TV camera. I don’t give a damn if this guy would get fired for not getting his shot, we were there since 8:30am. Have some respect. You have a press pass. I do not like paying admission and sickening myself all day only to have some camera guy obstruct my view.

I give NYRA credit for going big, and I blame inexperience and moments without tact for ultimately garnering a lot of poor publicity. Regardless, if this was a purely racing crowd we wouldn’t have heard half of the complaints. Dismiss the security ban and consider doing an infield type location/setup for “mild” or newbie fans bothered by normal major sporting event woes. Advice to those coming out to big stakes days: come prepared, and if you don’t like the baggage of lines, expenses, and travel hiccups, you can always wager from home.

Against History for the Crown

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California Chrome hopes to continue the A.P. Indy classic dominance in the race that the sire line has dominated the most throughout its existence: the Belmont.

A major upset can— and frequently does— happen in any of the three Triple Crown races, but often the biggest surprises happen in the Belmont Stakes, which is less than 2 weeks away on every racing fan’s calendar. While I’m firmly rooted in the California Chrome cheering camp, the colt will face his greatest challenge in “the Test of the Champion.” Historically, he is up against a lot but has a few things going for him:

  • No horse since Affirmed in 1978 has won the Triple Crown
  • Horses who have won the Derby-Preakness double and have gone on to fail in the Belmont: 22. That equates to less than a third of all Triple Crown runs ending in success.
  • Affirmed was riding on a 7-race win streak with 15 total starts before winning the Belmont. Chrome enters with 6 straight wins and 12 total starts. Both raced in the Santa Anita Derby and San Felipe Stakes.
  • The largest Triple Crown-winning field in the Belmont was 7 horses. Chrome looks to face 9-10 horses.
  • In the past decade, only one horse has beaten the “fresh” contenders: 2005’s Afleet Alex, who lost the Derby but won the Preakness and Belmont handily.
  • 11 favorites have won the Belmont in the 41 edition since 1973’s run where Secretariat lapped his competition. The average odds for the Belmont winner in that block of time: about 11-1.
  • California Chrome’s winning race margins average to about 3 3/4 lengths. The average Belmont winner in the past 10 years won by about that much.
  • Past Santa Anita Derby-Belmont double winners: Affirmed, Point Given, A.P. Indy, Avatar.
  • A.P. Indy has factored into the pedigree of at least one winner of every TC race. Indy is by Belmont winner Seattle Slew, who is by Belmont winner Secretariat, and Indy sired Belmont winner Rags to Riches.
  • "C" is the most common first initial of Belmont winners (Creme Fraiche, Conquistador Cielo, Caveat, Commendable, Colonial Affair, Coastal, Chateaugay, Celtic Ash, Cavan, Capot, Citation, Count Fleet, Chance Shot, Crusader, Colin, Commando, Commanche, Cloverbrook, Calvin) [Thanks to Ryan Patterson of Gradedstakes.com for noticing this]

Soapbox Time: Chrome’s “Slow” Beyer Doesn’t Matter

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I’m talking to you, Mr. Andrew Beyer, who may I remind everyone openly doubted California Chrome's chances of doing remotely well in the Kentucky Derby because of his… *drumroll*… pedigree. If you reread my pre-Derby analysis, I was pleasantly surprised at the back-class of Chrome’s family tree. And any half-enlightened turf writer would know that out of the two, the dam side is the most important when sifting through pedigrees, and this colt has La Troienne written down multiple times and Numbered Account twice, who practically bled blue! COME ON!

And it comes out of absolutely no bias that I ascertain that California Chrome’s 97 Beyer speed figure for the Kentucky Derby— historically one of the slowest figures— does not matter. Let me count the ways factually and hypothetically:

  1. Speed figures are not the end all, be all to handicapping. In fact they should be used if you cannot determine who to pick after considering everything else, or are looking to see who has the slightest bit of edge in a wide-open race.
  2. Numbers are not indicative of potential, they only account for displayed effort. A horse who was kept in check, or like Chrome who was EASED at the end, will not give out an accurate speed figure that shows how good they really are. Only horses who are going all-out at the end will provide accurate figures.
  3. While many horses spit out the same figures again and again over their careers, three-year-olds in their spring season are at the stage where they are changing their form and showing their long-term potential as the distances change. A horse who ran a 100 Beyer going a mile in April can really take a nose dive going just another furlong a month or two later. This is how we get overhyped horses and upsets.
  4. There was a notably strong headwind in the stretch of the Kentucky Derby. I know because I keep hearing about it. That might help explain Chrome’s slow final time, why few horses were moving forward in the stretch, and the resulting slow Beyer. Again, he wasn’t all-out while most others were.
  5. If Chrome DID for whatever reason give a Beyer higher than his career best 98, we would all be biting our nails as to whether he could maintain that lunge forward heading into the Preakness and then the Belmont. 
  6. The old “let’s blame the track” always works. But honestly I’d rather have a slow track versus a fast one, the latter of which we’ll probably get in one or both of the next legs.
  7. Yes, the last quarter was run in a sedated:26 1/5. But if you can win in that kind of pace pulling up, why not save it for next time? 

Perhaps in a sense I am searching for reasons to excuse California Chrome, but at the same time, it feels unfair to assail the winner for not being a super horse straight out of the gate. It would be overkill to keep comparing him to Secretariat or even someone as recent as Barbaro. But make no mistake— Chrome is the real deal.

"Before the Weekend" Derby Top 10

This will probably be my last Derby list before the profiles are started for the big race. This was a bit tougher to make since there are still a lot of major points races left to be run and things could easily get complicated. Ranked in order:

10) Commissioner - Got going too late after a bad start in the Sunland Derby to be up for second. If he can get a clear run to get some point gains in the Arkansas Derby, he’s a candidate.

9) Hoppertunity - Gets a big boost if Mike Smith sticks around as a horse who clearly wants more ground. 

8) Social Inclusion - If he shows something in the Wood— and by something I mean a first or second place finish— I’ll become a believer. Fast, late-improving son of Pioneerof the Nile.

7) Bayern** - Hope he goes to the Arkansas Derby and wins. He’s talented enough for it. I’m stubborn to completely drop him out of sight.

6) Samraat - Stays on the list if he can show me something in the Wood tomorrow. I need to see him not immediately go to the lead and try to hang on.

5) Strong Mandate - Whether or not this Tiznow colt shines in May, he’s a legitimate 10-furlong horse who doesn’t really display any pickiness in regards to surface conditions or what kind of trip he has to make.

4) Candy Boy - His win in the Robert B. Lewis told me all I needed to know. He’s been in my top 10 for the bulk of the year and there’s little telling me he won’t yield at 10 furlongs. My biggest concern is the Candy Ride curse…

3) Tapiture - This horse just needs a better jockey and he’s very game to do well and even show yet another dimension. His off-the-pace style and tactical speed speaks for itself.

2) California Chrome - Brilliant horse who I’ve been watching for a while… but I admit, I was too stubborn to include immediately in the very first top ten list as he hadn’t shown me enough to include a California-bred. He looks like he just needed some time just like another really good California horse who won a couple years ago…

1) Ring Weekend - I can’t really explain this one much more beyond a good feeling and all the right subtle winks. He’s chestnut, he’s by Tapit, trained by Graham Motion, and the thing that really sold me after his impressive Tampa Bay Derby (II) win was the fact he’s being sent to the Calder Derby instead of the Blue Grass. They’re giving this colt time to develop— not throwing him into a huge field in a big points race— and chances to boost his confidence before shipping to Churchill. He’s getting better and better and has some tactical speed to boot.

Derby Top 10: February List

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I’m making this list a bit later than I originally anticipated, but a constant flow of races, injuries, and other shortcomings have altered the January list quite a bit since I first edited that top 10.

10) Samraat - A game horse who dug in all the way last out to win a stubborn edition of the Withers Stakes (III) like a champ. I’m interested to see if he stretches out from here and if his undefeated class will hold up.

9) Dance With Fate - He narrowly lost the El Camino Real (III) to a poly specialist and should get better from here on out. I’ll be daft if he falls short somehow in the Blue Grass (I) and doesn’t make the Derby gate.

8) Candy Boy - The Candy Ride [ARG] colt often makes a stirring move too late, and it appeared to be too little too late in the Robert B. Lewis (II), but he got up just in time to take that race despite a bit of a messy trip getting stuck behind horses. Keen to see how he does going forward, he looks like a happy little horse.

7) Conquest Titan - The Birdstone colt made up very substantial ground late in the Holy Bull (II), and had just too much to do by the time he caught up with Cairo Prince to be 2nd. He’s made a lot of progress since turning 3 and shouldn’t shy away from getting more ground next out in the Florida Derby (I).

6) Cairo Prince - Brilliant in the Holy Bull (II), the Pioneerofthenile colt looked the part of a nearly undefeated Derby contender when romping home by 5 lengths, practically unopposed. Trainer Kieran McLaughlin is pushing for his Derby start to feel more like a “2nd off the layoff” than trying to build him up anymore than he currently is. I have to disagree with Prince not needing to improve in order to win, because this is a very good group of three-year-olds.

5) Tonalist - On my radar because of my great love for his trainer Christophe Clement— who is usually armed to the teeth with grass horses— the bay Tapit colt made an impression closing in to win a dirt allowance race at Gulfstream going 9 furlongs. His family looks awesome too: his dam is out of Toll Fee, a half sister to Havre de Grace’s dam Easter Bunnette. There’s too much to like and not enough room to list it all.

4) Top Billing - It’s tough to avoid mentioning such a good-looking colt by Curlin, who is on the precipice of proving himself worthy of a starting spot in May. Stacked with Northern Dancer and Nashua references, Top Billing is a half to the dam of Bodemeister and on paper, looks the part of a Derby winner even more so than his trainer’s call to fame from last year in Orb. Can he keep winning, starting with Saturday’s loaded Fountain of Youth (II)?

3) Strong Mandate - I hoped and prayed we would see a similarly talented colt when the Tiznow trainee of D. Wayne Lukas made his sophomore debut, and I doubt anyone was disappointed by his run in the Southwest Stakes (III). Had he had a shorter trip, he would have made a case for the win first off the layoff, and was phenomenally better than the rest of the field. Everything about this horse STILL looks very solid, and he’s keen to improve next out.

2) Bayern - Now, I don’t like horses who only have a couple of starts and aren’t battle-tested And Kaleem Shah horses have already burned me in the past (Fed Biz!). But 2-for-2 so far and armed with an effortless, powerful turn of foot and early speed, the son of Offlee Wild grabbed my attention in his most recent allowance win, reminding me of Big Brown. He demolished allowance company at a mile, and should keep on progressing from there despite being a May foal (a May 3 one at that, Derby day is his birthday).

1) Honor Code - It’s tough to topple what I perceive to be the perfect package in A.P. Indy colt Honor Code, who has flashed speed, stamina, heart, and an easygoing mentality with no real preference for positioning or surface condition. All signs point to a really promising colt come his three-year-old debut, which ought to be coming sooner than later. However, if he’s delayed any later than he is, he’s almost as good as out.

Honorable Mentions

Mexikoma has been training very well at Palm Meadows, being brought along slowly prepping for his first start of the year.

Loved Tapiture's defining move to win the Southwest Stakes (III), but I'm waiting on him to not have such an easy trip.

I want Commissioner to show me something else before I decide how much I like him. Constitution, too, as much as I enjoyed his last race.

Matterhorn keeps his mention, and will run in a tough allowance race on Saturday.

Mosler looks ready for a race and keeps a mention.

Shared Belief's gone missing from the track and from this list.

Tourist drops off the top 10 but keeps his mention. He finally broke his maiden at Aqueduct and will hopefully pursue a stake soon.

Wicked Strong's stocks drop after a messy Holy Bull (II), where his stretch drive suddenly went missing despite two horses making a very strong case coming from way back.

Casiguapo: A wrong equipment change and hopefully a better trip can leverage the Sightseeing colt.

Hartford looked splendid gearing down to win his first race at competitive Gulfstream. I’m very interested to see if he wants any part of two turns, and that is going to be the question of the day for him.

I have to include No Nay Never after the turf colt has been producing great workout reports on the dirt. Plus I got to talk to one of his part-owners at Sequel Stallions, and it’s inevitable he’ll at least try dirt.

The Return of Birdstone

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As a racehorse, he was neither tall nor impressive. The son of Kentucky Derby winner Grindstone made headlines the day he upset Smarty Jones in the Belmont Stakes— ending the chestnut bullet’s Triple Crown dreams— and again when he sired the 2009 Derby and Belmont winners in an unlikely freshman sire’s first assault on American classic breeding. Birdstone has had a few good ones since Mine That Bird and Summer Bird graced us with their presence, but is this the year where his progeny make a serious comeback?

February is a bit early to make any Birdstone assumptions, as most little Birds don’t spread their wings until later on. Many past hopeful sons made their mark later on than February— Mountain Eagle was on the tip of many a tongue last year— but this year, as soon as Breeders’ Cup time there was at least one Birdstone making the rounds, catching even my attention.

Mexikoma is a beautiful example of a Birdstone, albeit the definition of “the little engine that could.” (Photo by Dana Wimpfheimer)

I wrote about Mexikoma with high regard going into the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile (I) back in November. Here was a small but good-looking colt out of Team Valor’s barn who wasn’t flashy like Havana, but offered a glimpse of a good two-year-old with the potential to be a nice three-year-old. Like many, he didn’t have the best race and finished 7th. But beforehand, he progressed much switching from turf to dirt to break his maiden at Delaware Park, roaring home by 14 1/2 lengths, after which he was privately acquired by Team Valor. He took the race over on the turn despite breaking from the 8-hole, and romped from there in the 1-mile event. And surprise! Through his dam, he is related to Juba! He has yet to make his three-year-old debut, but he is looking more ready every day, with 5 and 6-furlong breezes at Palm Meadows. He is entered for an allowance race on Fountain of Youth (II) day at Gulfstream Park, although he will break from the far-outside #10 post.

Conquest Titan looks to be the narrow, leggy type. Physically, he looks likely to get the distance and mature into a nice three-year-old. (Photo by BloodHorse)

The second, and one of the most interesting to burst off the Breeders’ Cup scene and into finer flesh, is Conquest Titan. He was an also-ran up until his most recent Churchill Downs race, where he crushed a field that included Gulfstream Park Derby winner General A Rod running from last to first despite slipping at one point. Racing just beyond that mark at Gulfstream in the Holy Bull (II), Conquest Titan made another impressive run from way back but was too late to catch Cairo Prince in another great effort. Imagining how much closer he could have been had he not had to circle the field so late makes me think even more highly of him. The plan for Titan is to skip the heavily-attended Fountain of Youth (II) this Saturday in favor of the April Florida Derby (I), a move that will also be mimicked by Cairo Prince.

It seems every year has a top sire or two when it comes to dazzling three-year-olds. Last year it was Midnight Lute and Into Mischief. Can this be Birdstone’s year again, during a trend where Fappiano-line horses have been prevailing very consistently? (And while perusing PedigreeQuery, I also can’t wait for a horse named Larry Birdstone to debut!)

My trip to Sequel Stallions

Let it be known that I had a lot of farms I wanted to visit, but ultimately couldn’t because a) I’m dumb and I think I can handle 132843729x more than I probably should in a given day and b) because of a, I didn’t take a personal day from work and didn’t take into account that I would have had 6 or 7 hours of sleep tops over the weekend heading into the school week. I’m dumb, like I said. Now on to pony!

Hudson, New York is a very very farmy place. You drive west on the Mass Pike, get off of I-91 onto the Taconic Parkway— which is a very remote highway traveling through the mountains, or at least it is on the weekends, then you hop off to follow more country roads full of snowy fields, cattle, and grain mills. Normally I enjoy this type of scenery, but I had to drive 5 miles out of town just to find a bathroom. Sequel Stallions is a very nice place though, a world of reaching pastureland and a brand-spanking new stallion facility that currently houses Emcee, Mission Impazible, Freud, Noble Causeway, Forty Tales, and Desert Party. I first heard of the farm about a year or so ago and originally loved Noonmark, who is no longer at the farm unfortunately as well as Girolamo. Daaaang!

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Hey look it’s me photobombing the stallion show narrator. She was a nice lady, among the other nice people working at Sequel.

The folks at the farm put together a nice event inside the stallion complex, part of which was partitioned off for the show attendees (I do believe it’s the actual open breeding area during the season) and the partition was HEATED! BONUS POINTS, especially when it’s in the teens and snowing outside! We also all got a lovely catered lunch before the show, and I was so lucky to be seated next to the owners of Forty Tales! They’re really lovely people, and we got into how they’re originally from New Zealand and that Forty Tales was the first Thoroughbred they ever bought and how exciting it was when he won the Woody Stephens (they weren’t expecting him to win either!). I’m a bit of a shy fly at times, and it can be somewhat awkward going to these events attended by cliquey breeders, most of whom have money and they all know each other. Thus, it was a relief and a delight to connect with great owners of a horse I know.

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The first one out to show was the man of the house: Freud! Responsible for passing on many a blaze face in the New York circuit, Freud was a big sturdy-looking guy with an authoritative personality and plenty of spice. You just gotta love him and what he’s done for New York Thoroughbred breeding. He looks like he just got into a bucket of cream!

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Mission Impazible made it a mission to try and blur all of my shots. Watch out Freud! Bad boys are always a temptation!

Keeping everyone on their toes, Mission Impazible was one of the big reasons I wanted to come out to the stallion open house here. He was a favorite of mine in his racing days, and I recall plugging away for him to win the Clark Handicap won by Wise Dan. A very fit horse, Impazible bucked and reared impatiently and hated to stand still. We were informed he looked so good because his owners had swam him over the summer after he was announced as retired. I imagine a lot of people who were also there to inspect him were very pleased. His owners also mentioned that his first crop ought to be very good, and one horse that is in foal to him is a half-sister to Shared Belief.

Next out was a horse I was also excited about seeing in the flesh: Sanford Stakes (II) winner and my 2009 Kentucky Derby rooting interest, Desert Party! A handsome son of Street Cry [IRE], Desert Party looked like the complete package coming out: relaxed, attentive, good size, and an even better build to compliment the speed he showed as a young racehorse. I’m looking forward to seeing the first Desert Parties race this year.

Also gracing everyone with his presence was the underdog of the barn whose offspring are just starting to race: Noble Causeway. A $1.5 million sale yearling and a son of Giant’s Causeway, his bloodlines are already being very well-received among New York breeders, and I think he will be getting some more attention soon. I read somewhere that his first crop was very small… something like 20 horses… but has yielded Damon Runyon winner Samraat (who is racing in the Withers this Saturday!). He was a nice big chestnut and reminded me a bit of Eskendereya.

They saved the “new boys” for last, and the first one out was a bit hesitant to do so. Emcee lit up the New York scene in his racing days, and is most remembered for his runaway win in the 2012 Forego Stakes where he romped over Jersey Town, Caixa Eletronica, Jackson Bend, and others. Unfortunately I’m not sure what my flash card did with any of my Emcee files or my Noble Causeway shots…

Last of all to come out was Forty Tales, who had possibly the most calm demeanor of the bunch and certainly for a new stallion off the track. He was small and finely manufactured, and granted me special permission to take his picture, posing for several seconds.

All in all it was a nice afternoon, inhibited by a small snowstorm and colder than normal temperatures and then hampered more by camera equipment/short amount of time and access per stallion (I’ll accept fault with that though, it was a new camera that I hadn’t had the time to fully learn first coupled with a slower lens than I’m used to). I hope to share one more farm with everyone before I call it a season!

Going to the Thoroughbred races, keeping "track" of the memories. Obsessively providing a comprehensive and personal glance at the sport of kings through original photography, handicapping analysis, editorials, and much more.

Tracks visited: Calder, Saratoga, Belmont, Suffolk, Aqueduct.


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