Sunday, April 29, 2012

The Perfect Trip

Grace Hall

It's that time of year when Chicago moves its collective tack out of Stickney and into Arlington Heights. Much has been made around the contrast between the billowing smokestacks and napalmy breeze of Stickney vs. the weeping willows and sparkling white, angular grandstand of Arlington, but not enough is made about the cultural differences of these tracks. Yesterday, on Illinois Champions Day, I had the good fortune of touring the Crow's Nest, where from the apron I could only glimpse the two sets of binoculars poking through the winter and spring breezes onto the oval and wonder what sort of machinations went on behind the curtain. The binoculars belong to caller Peter Galassi and charter David Miller, two consumate professionals who alchemize the chaos on the track into decipherable, succinct language. You'd think they'd want nothing to do with a couple of curious railbirds on Champions Day of all days, but they were gracious hosts. Affable, funny and yet focused on the tough jobs they do. There's no technology outside a brick toteboard to rest on here, no Jumbotron, no Trakus. Even the timer at one race showed :51 for five-eighths, which simply isn't possible. We were left to the ingenuity and craftsmanship of these men to fully experience the race. And yet they didn't let us get in the way and had no problem with us hanging out.

Peter would break away from conversation, look out over the oval and start calling the race he saw in his head, how he thought it would play out. "Who's the speed in this one? Let's see ... E.T. Baird is the rider. Gee, I wonder what he's gonna do?" We laughed in a nerdy track way at the predictability of Baird's gate-riding (How many people could I laugh at this with? I was in heaven). Peter works out the race in his head and he knew the deciding factor in this contest would be trip. Speed would likely fade and whoever got to sit just off would have the best shot at nailing the wire. "They're off" he called, and we watched with him as seven Illinois breds sprung from the gate brushing each other as they made their way vying for position on the first turn; it was a mile and a sixteenth, if you were gonna save ground you had to get the rail. Meanwhile in the other room the chart writing tanderm were furiously transcribing the action. I don't know how they're able to do this but Dave Miller demures, there's only a set amount of things that can actually happen in a race. Maybe he's right but I still think these men should be allowed to wear capes in honor of their superhuman powers. "Catalina Way feels the crack of the whip as they turn for home." Baird's horse faded pretty badly about halfway through the race, maybe preferring Keeneland's turf to the dirt of Stickney. Last year's winner of the race (Catalina Way) was now carrying the load, looking to repeat, jockey Tim Thornton had switched Seans Silverdancer outside of Catalina's flank, figuring the target for this race was now revealed. The closer America's Blossom ran patiently on the rail. Peter had all the action called in perfect cadence. The race just seemed to flow through him, as if he were conjuring these galloping specs hundreds of feet below. He didn't jump on the race like some callers who crassly inflate the action. America's Blossom, a late runner who had the rail was now moving the quickest but her lane was occluded by a tirng horse and her jock had to make the costly manuever of switching out. It was the gray, Sean's Silverdancer who would enjoy the bounty of a perfect trip. She hit the wire at 7-1. My fellow railbird who had her in his early pick 4 pumped his fist as the clock on the tote froze. Shortly after we knew it was time to leave these men to their work. Peter told my fellow railbird  to come see him if he needed a signer for his pick 4. We laughed and departed down the hall past the charters, past the VIP room filled with septegenarians hovering around a plate of brownies. We walked down the stairs back to our mortal world. Would we ever be granted this type of access at Arlington, would they be able to see our curiosity as the lifeblood of the sport or would we just be an impediment to them doing their jobs? The pick 4 was alive, the day was young and still held promise as we made our way out of the clouds and back onto the apron.   

Sunday, April 15, 2012

I'll Have Another

I'll Have Another had a good second to Creative Cause in the Best Pal then ended his first year with a miserable run in the Hopeful over a sloppy Saratoga track and was pretty much forgotten about. At over 40-1 he won an ugly iteration of the Robbie Lewis at Santa Anita. A jockey got tossed, there was a DQ and no one in that field has come back to do much of anything. Rousing Sermon got the show money in the Louisiana Derby, but that's about it for what was a touted field. After the Lewis I'll Have Another's owner (Paul Redddam) decides he wants an unusual two-month layoff for his horse and they work him stoutly into the Santa Anita Derby where he wins again, this time he beats the mighty Creative Cause whose trainer offers no excuse, just that his horse was outrun.

Trained by Doug O'Neil, I'll Have Another has proven himself over and over, and yet he will be somewhat of a longshot. He'll go off longer than Creative Cause and much longer than Bodemeister (who lost  to Creative Cause). More important, IHA's running style gives hin catbird positioning in the Derby, just a spot off the pace, which should be lively given Bodemeister and Hansen's likely dual. So keep an eye on this sprightly Canadian chestnut. He can get it done.

Recap of the Blue Grass and Arkan Sas
I forgot to post my picks but I would have had the chalky exactas. They paid fairly well though given their predictability, especially the Arkansas which hugged the script perfectly with maybe Bode more overwhelming than expected. Dullahan had absolutely explosive turn of foot in the stretch at Keeneland. It wasn't like Hansen folded, Dullahan grew afterburners. The somewhat strange and abrupt pullup at the end by KDesormeaux caught my attention. But apparently he was just worried after that huge run and the vet says everything is A OK. I'll talk more about Dullahan and Dale Romans who is twisting his moustache with his fingers thinking about the Roses.

Next  up is the Lexington. The make-up exam for those that didnt get their homework in on time. Entry to the Kentucky Derby may hinge on it. I think El Padrino is the big one trying to get in. Is Baffert gonna send four? that's one more than stents put into his heart. Gonna be tough to unpuzzle this polytrack affair.    

Monday, April 9, 2012

Illinois Derby Sets Stakes Record -- Slowest Ever

By more than a second and a half. From the apron, the tote lit up opening fractions of :22:1, but this wasn't right. In fact, it's hard to tell what the actual fractions were. It was still an amazing sight watching them rush by under brilliant silks, and maybe I'm different from other railbirds in that I think speed is the most overvalued aspect of racing. Consistency and stamina are way cooler. If I could turn back the quarterhorse influence of trainers like D Wayne Lukas and Bob Baffert, I would. The good news is the European tradition seems to be wending its way back in with top trainers, like Mott and Motion, not relegating their talents strictly to turf. Motion took dirt's grand prize last year with Animal Kingdom (who ran a nice second to Wilcox Inn in an impressive maiden race at Arlington in the fall).  The horse seemed to make a trenchant statement about domestic breeding and the creep of drugs hiding our ability to evaluate bloodlines. If it weren't for the lead-tongued Barry Irwin telling people he couldn't trust any American trainers on the biggest day for the sport then saying America can't pay me enough to have me run my champ in the states ... Don't get me wrong, he makes great points both about our trainers telling owners only want they want to hear and purse structure for 4YOs, not to mention breeding and drugs. Unfortunately thanks to bad luck Animal Kingdom appears to have nagging injuries, which just plain sucks because it undercuts the new dawn this horse might have revealed.

OK, let's talk Illinois Derby and Wood and Santa Anita. Done Talking Now will not run anyone off their feet, but he'll likely pass tired rivals. And who knows what this injection of confidence will do for him and his all-Maryland connections. Best of luck to him.

The Wood: No real surprises here. Both Alpha and Gemologist ran good races, though this also was a plodder's fest. But I'll take a nice dual like this with Gemologist making the last push to put his foe away. Santa Anita is a different story. There's a lot of speed out there. I'm not a fan of the surface and the disarray with synthetics. One way to fight this overvalue of speed is to tame tracks that have ridiculous speed biases. Santa Anita is getting better, but would have liked to see the synthetics given a better chance to influence racing and breeding, as well as handicapping. 

Friday, April 6, 2012

Blame the Frenchman? and the Urban Trifecta

Florida Derby Recap
Was that Borel pumping his fist and screaming "the precious" past the finish line at Gulfstream last weekend? It had to be an extra emotional win for him, returning to the oval he left mid-meet with head low. And it was a great win. Take nothing from him; he had the golden rail, he took it and had just enough to get Take Charge Indy home. Union Rags. Was the frenchnan too polite and restrained? Too refined? He broke well then tightened the reins in a vice. Then comes Castellano lasering a target on the mustard silks of Union Rags. Race riding and blowing his chances to even hit the board. Borel was not in his grill shouting motherfucker at him after this race, that's for sure.

So what does this do to the Union Rags bandwagon? Nothing really. He's still the favorite for the big dance. What does this do to the Railbird's winning streak? Smoked!

Illinois Derby
Would have liked to see Paynter and Arms Race in this. I wish there were better ways to limit the oversubscribed field. It might have been one of the only races to see Bob and Todd in the same sandbox before the big day, and Harty actually showed up two years ago when American Lion cleared the field.

Let's get to cappin. Z Rockstar out of the Hemel barn just ran a very fast race, but class dogs him. Hard not to cheer for this barn that sent out one of the only consistent top-tier runners last year in Caleb's Possee. Hakama has a nice post and early speed, and speed has won over 40% of the time in all routes at Hawthorne this meet, which is a pretty startling figure for a track with the second longest stretch. But back to Hakama, I'm not sure what happened in the Withers, was it the light bump or is he more of an allowance horse? Hard to tell, though I like his name, which is a samurai garment -- a nod to his sire First Samurai (Giant's Causeway). Our Entourage gets a pretty crummy post, which shouldn't matter so much given his style. He seems like more of a grass horse and I'm surprised he's not in the Bluegrass next week. I expect him to hit the board, maybe because he is the only one without any distance questions. Finally, I'll try to beat favorite Currency Swap who won the G. I Hopeful at Saratoga last summer but didn't beat much and ran a final furlong in just under 15 seconds. And that was at 7 furlongs. He was second to Gemologist in his sophomore debut, but it was seven lengths back, so he doesn't get to ride those coattails. And that was out of the chute at Gulfstream, so the second turn has been elusive. I may change my mind, but here's what I got so far.

Z Rockstar
Our Entourage

Santa Anita Derby
Creative Cause sheds his blinkers and hopefully his jock gets smarter with his crop. He looked fantastic, though green, in the San Felipe and draws the rail here. He'll meet up with surprise R Lewis runaway winner I'll Have Another who could get the jump on him. The diminutive Midnight Transfer gets Mike Smith in the irons and Baffert saddles both Liaison and the speedy Paynter If you're looking for a price then don't listen to me. Paynter could step up big, but I'm not banking on it. Look for Creative Cause to continue his streak, dueling with either I'll Have Another or Paynter. I should toss Liaison after consistent subpar performances, but maybe Bejarano makes a difference and he hits the board.

Creative Cause
I'll Have Another

Wood Memorial
Yes all three previous winners did not make the gate for the Derby. Jinx? Bad luck? Troubled surface? Who knows. Alpha comes in needing a win as does Gemologist (I think). And those two seem to be a level above the rest of the field. Pletcher has said Gem is the best 3YO in his barn. Alpha seems to have an excuse built in to this, but he's gotta hit the board here and I think he will. Finally my man Junior Alvarado who's been winning at the Big A at a 20% clip gets the smartly bred Street Fight who had the Youtube highlight in his first win when he streaked from very far back to shred a field that seemed to be standing still. And to be fair, they were almost standing still. These were not fast horses, but he took the next step and had a nice stakes win, though not as visually stunning. I look for him to complete the frame. Yeah, my capping and two bucks gets you on any subway. Call me Chalky McChalkerson. Lord knows I've been called worse.

Street Fighter