Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Spa Spa Spa!!

I would do anything to be in Saratoga Springs, New York, this week. I really don't have the words to explain how exciting it would be to see Wednesday's opening day of races with the big two-year-old filly stakes in the Schuylerville, see my boy Pyro's first race since last October when he runs in the James Marvin Stakes, and Quality Road's return to the races since his dominating Florida Derby victory... it's all too much. If I stop to think about all that I'm missing, my mind begins to conjure up ways I can hop a train or a plane to New York. I'll just have to block out all the people who're telling me Saratoga is the place to be, because I can't.

But it still hurts.

And then there's the goings-on at Monmouth. Rachel Alexandra will be schooling between races on Friday, when she arrives from Saratoga. Do I even need to mention how huge this Haskell is going to be? Just don't forget it's on Sunday, not Saturday.

I really hope that Pyro does well in his return race. After seeing the distance, I'm not so sure he's got much of an advantage. At 7 furlongs, the James Marvin Stakes really is too short of a distance for this horse that does his best at 1 1/8-miles. With his late-running kick, and as a horse that takes a while to get going, usually waiting until the last furlong or two to get into gear, Pyro will have to acquire a little get-up-and-go if he's to do well in this stakes. Riley Tucker will also start in the James Marvin, a colt that's been improving in his fourth year. So all in all, a decent place to come back for Pyro, though the odds are stacked against him. Note he will be ridden by a jockey other than Shaun Bridgmohaun for the first time in his career. John Velazquez will be in the irons.

ESPN.com relates all things Spa for the opening week here.

Friday, July 24, 2009

The Family of Kings

Inspired by how shaken I was by Rafael Bejarano's recent accident, I wrote a little on how this sport has become such a part of my life. Here's the original article posted on SmilePolitely.com with pictures (and it's on the cover, thankyouverymuch.)

But if you're a link-a-phobe, here's the article in its entirety:

The Family of Kings

When I got into the sport of horse racing, it was a pretty lonely thrill; few people shared my enthusiasm, or could understand why I got so excited come the first Saturday in May. All I had were my parents and the brief newspaper articles during the Triple Crown, those articles I'd be lucky to find on page three of the sports section. I'd campaign to everyone I knew about the big upcoming races, but most people had never heard of a stakes race outside of the Kentucky Derby and just smiled politely at the little enthusiastic kid jabbering away about horses. (Admittedly, not a lot has changed in that respect.) But when I grew up, I started driving hours away from home and attending the tracks for live racing. I don't know what I expected, exactly, but I never would've anticipated what I found on the track and the backstretch.

It was like coming home.

I have never seen or heard of a sport that appreciates fans so much. Aside from the chronic gamblers who shout at the simulcast TVs all day long, the people who inherently care about the sport time and time again go out of their way to make you feel welcomed, and for you to have a memorable experience. I'm talking about everyone from valets and gift shop employees to million-dollar horse trainers and owners. Maybe it's that they realize they are existing in a sport that lives only in concentric circles, little orbiting worlds that rarely touch people outside of their revolutions, but the fact is, once you experience this phenomenon, you can't help but feel like a part of the family.

During Kentucky Derby week at Churchill Downs, the party atmosphere was infectious. People were dressed to the nines on non-stakes days, smiling faces were everywhere, and people who didn't know each other would rub elbows and chat about the nine horse in race three, and whether his jockey improved his odds. My husband and I took a shuttle from the back of the parking lot to the grandstands, and the valet sneaked us two free tickets to the third level, directly below Millionaire's Row. We didn't ask for the tickets, or hint that we wanted to sit up in the expensive seats; he just wanted us to have a good time. The Sunday following the Kentucky Derby, the connections of Mine That Bird stood outside of the Kentucky Derby museum and handed fans roses from the famous blanket of roses that drapes over the Derby winner's shoulders; just a little memento that will create a lasting memory.

The last thing I expected from the sport of horse racing was the sense of family I would begin to feel at the track. True, it does help if you follow the coverage on HRTV and TVG and get to know the horses, jocks, and trainers, but in person, horse racing is a whole different experience... and it's so much better. You can stand on the rail, as up-close and front-row as you can get, for less than $5 at most tracks, and be right in the middle of the action. You can admire the highest-class Thoroughbreds from only a few feet away, and get a nod from a world-class jockey for simply taking his picture. It's an old-time pastime that doesn't require a lot of spending money, nor any fancy technology to enjoy it.

There are few sports as simple as a man on a horse trying to win a race, but there's an unspoken serenity in its simplicity. You can enjoy the same pleasure someone experienced in the 1600's, with little difference. Yes, there are times when it's not all gloss and fancy, much in the same way a family has its trials and black sheep. But that's life, isn't it? Nobody is perfect, and no family is perfect.

But then, there is the family that is perfect for you.

Thursday, July 23, 2009

Rafael Bejarano suffers bad fall on Del Mar opening day

Rafael Bejarano, one of the leading jockeys in California, was badly injured in a claiming race yesterday when his mount, Mi Rey, broke down in the middle of the stretch.
Full details can be found at this link on Blood-Horse.
Raf's jaw, nose, and orbital bones were fractured in the fall; he also hurt his left shoulder. Mi Rey, an 8-year-old gelding, was euthanized.

Rafael was Del Mar's top jockey last year, and will likely be out for a week or more to recover. So far, it's unclear if he'll have surgery to his face.
After Rene Douglas's horrible accident, this is just one more scare that drives home how dangerous this sport can be.
Let's wish Rafael a speedy, full recovery.

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

A trip to Hollywood Park

The idea of someone wanting to demolish Hollywood Park is a gruesome thing in my eyes, something that can’t quite be believed after taking in the opulent landscaping and distinct character of the park first-hand. I can’t quite grasp the sort of people who would want to turn a place of such beauty and history into retail trash. Hollywood Park boasts the most impressive paddock I’ve ever seen in comparing landscaping and layout, and it champions the heroes of its signature race, the Hollywood Gold Cup, with plaques all about the park. The park is a testament of a bygone era, but it is far from the dump that some tracks have become. My trip to the Friday night racing was a testament to how successful the sport could be if only an effort were made to cater to a different sort of crowd. Yet, we are losing a significant piece of racing history with the knell of Death’s bell for Hollywood.

I paid strict attention to Hollywood Park itself on my brief visit there, taking in the abundant palm trees, the honor bestowed upon the Gold Cup winners, the monuments, and the track itself. I felt I was going as a sort of archaeologist, trying to preserve in pictures something that wouldn’t be there when I next returned to California. I took pictures of the Swaps statue from just about every angle I could think of, and paid my respects to the grave of Native Diver (follow the link for a great video on this amazing horse), who has one of the most lovely memorials I’ve ever seen.

The track itself has already been ruined by the installation of the abhorrent Cushion Track, a surface that by all means is nothing more than ground-up tires (pick up a handful of it and not only will your hand turn black, but you’ll find tire segments an inch long). The dirt on which Seabiscuit which ran is no longer there, but the skies, the elegance, the aura is the same (though it may be slightly tarnished by an age of neglect).
When I arrived at the park, I was blown away by the Vegas-like style of the grand entrance, and equally hit with a pang of sorrow that this place would be thrown such a fate as the old Yankee Stadium. The two are similar in many ways.
I’d never attended night racing at a Thoroughbred track before, and the experience was one I’d like to have again. The crowd turned out to be larger than the day of the Hollywood Gold Cup, sadly enough. It seemed whoever these patrons were were there for the $1 beer and hot dogs, and possibly to see the live act scheduled for after the races, Eek a Mouse. But the nice thing about the crowd was that they seemed to be enjoying themselves, and heartily cheered claimers as they rounded the historic track.

The Tuesday of that week, I called in for credentials and easily got them, which made me feel pretty special. When I arrived at the park, I picked up my press pass from Diane in the office and looked across her office to find one of the free Zenyatta posters they’d handed out on a day designated in her honor last winter. Can you believe she actually had leftovers and readily scrounged me up two of them for free? My day was completely made by that point, and I’d yet to start shooting. I had slim hopes of seeing Zenyatta while I was there, since I did know regular shooter at the park, Charles Pravata, who, in our circles, is referred to as “Zenyatta’s personal photographer.” But I didn’t get my hopes up. It turned out to be a good thing.

Charles didn’t show up on Friday, but he let me know that Bob Mayberger from New York (yes, the same Bob whom I shot with at Belmont!) was in town to shoot the Gold Cup. Bob didn’t end up showing until the short card was about halfway over and the daylight had failed, so he missed the beautiful sunset. Meanwhile, I introduced myself to the track photographers and tried to stay out of their way. Since my boss told me he wanted me to shoot from the inside rail for the Gold Cup, I tried to practice some from that position on Friday. Let me tell you, taking photos at night directly into spotlights is absolutely no fun. Taking photos from the outside, however, is pretty cool and challenging, because there’s only one point where the spotlight is on the horses: just on the finish line. At no point is it nice to shoot from the inside during night racing, unless you’re cool like that and want to shoot an “atmospheric” photo. That may work for one race, but I don’t recommend it for a full card.
When Bob finally found me, the night picked up a little bit and I started chatting with him about how gorgeous Hollywood was. Someone had told him that Hollywood Park was “the Aqueduct of California” and we both thought whoever said that was out of their gourd. Maybe it’s that we’re not from California and are used to the ugliness of Aqueduct and/or Turfway Park, but Hollywood would put those tracks to shame in a beauty contest.

I ended up leaving before the card was over. I'd actually hurt my ankles walking down steep slopes at Yosemite National Park two days prior, and then not helped them by hiking around Sequoia National Park the previous day, and I was not as fresh as I'd been in my Belmont adventure. I needed all the energy I could get the next day, but it was still hardly enough!

Friday, July 10, 2009

Bitter "Sweet" Gold Cup for Hollywood

I started thinking about what to write for my latest article and thought I'd talk about what the column is geared toward, the three-year-old campaigns. But I just so happen to be in Santa Monica California right now, anticipating my first trip to Hollywood Park, and I was overcome with anger about the race track's impending demolition, and I had to go with my heart. It's not long, and it hardly says what should be said about the tragedy of destroying this historic establishment, but here's my article about the last Hollywood Gold Cup.

I wanted to rant about how ridiculous it was about Pioneerof the Nile's sudden retirement after it was discovered he had a "soft tissue" damage in one of his legs. Can somebody please explain to me if this is really a life-threatening injury, nevermind a career-threatening injury? This horse looked to become a great synthetics specialist, and maybe even a good turf horse. Now we'll never get to see him try to make up for his losses in the Triple Crown. I just can't believe how we're losing horses. Musket Man isn't retired, but he won't be racing for the rest of the year. Monba was retired after he was found to have an injury in his leg. And then I discovered the winner of the Golden Shaheen, in which Indian Blessing finished second, died of a stomach ailment.

What's going on in our sport? When the horses are dropping like flies, whether it be dying or retiring prematurely, something is amiss. No wonder people aren't following horse racing like they used to.

As for me, I am going to visit Hollywood Park for the first time today. It's going to be night racing for my inaugural visit, something I've never seen before. It's going to be extremely bittersweet, but I'm looking at it as a mission to photograph anything worth remembering.

I'm going to be taking a LOT of photos.

I can't wait for tomorrow. I have credentials for the Hollywood Gold Cup. I didn't know I'd be having this chance, or I'd've been looking forward to this. I can't wait, it's going to be just glorious!

Now, onto the traffic jam of L.A....

Friday, July 3, 2009

Rachel and Zen prove girls rule the world

The results of the great virtual match race, plus discussion on the Rachel vs. Zenyatta debate:

I was so excited to finally find a picture of Zenyatta doing her little Spanish walk/boxer strut for this article. For you link-a-phobes, here's the picture, author unknown:

In other news, I'm sure most of you have heard by now that Calvin Borel has been permanently taken off Mine That Bird, at least for the rest of the year. I'm a little saddened by this news, as horse racing had gotten a boost in the public spotlight with this Derby-winning team. Hopefully, any new fans who might've been recruited thanks to the hype will stick around to watch Rachel kick some tail in the remainder of her 2009 campaign.

As of yet, no jockey has yet been found to replace Borel, as trainer Chip Wooley is looking for a jock who can commit to the rest of the year, including the Breeders' Cup Classic. Mike Smith was asked, but declined because of his conflict of interest should Zenyatta face the boys for the first time in the Classic. Who would you name to replace Borel? Part of me wishes they'd call on Chantal Sutherland again, since she already knows the horse and wasn't given the opportunity to ride him in the Triple Crown. It would certainly give her career a boost to become a regular rider for the Derby winner if he stays in the same form he was in from May-June.

And in other news, Churchill Downs experienced fantastic results with their final test of night racing yesterday. I'm sad to have missed it. According to Blood-Horse, the attendance Thursday was 33,481 spectators--more than any other race day outside of the Kentucky Derby, Kentucky Oaks, or Breeders' Cup days. That means more people showed up to watch claimers than to see Horse of the Year Curlin in his comeback race from the Dubai World Cup. It seems that Churchill has struck gold here in whatever they've been doing. You can vote on whether or not you want Churchill to continue night racing as a part of the regular meet here: http://www.churchilldowns.com/ I voted "yes," because whatever is bringing in more people to the sport, we can definitely support!