Friday, August 28, 2009

Monsters have taken over Saratoga

My latest article on

Only seven horses will break from the gate of the 140th running of the Grade I $1-million dollar Travers Stakes this Saturday, and for good reason: it's infested with monsters. OK, maybe not quite saber-toothed monsters, like the kind that lurk in your closet and the shadows under your bed (Go check, I'll wait...), but nonetheless, there are scary contenders to be found within....

Read the rest here.
P.S. Today, jockey Rafael Bejarano is supposed to return to riding for the first time since his accident where he injured his shoulder and basically broke his face. Let's wish him a successful comeback to the races!

Thursday, August 27, 2009

Head West, young man: Mine That Bird flies to Goodwood

As reported on, Kentucky Derby winner Mine That Bird will be targeted toward the Goodwood at Santa Anita on October 11th for his next start in preparation for the Breeders' Cup Classic.

I would like to take a moment out here to applaud the connections of Mine That Bird. Though he has proven to be as hardy a little gelding as they come, the Bird has had a grueling campaign this year and deserves a break. He has raced continuously since February, only skipping the months of April and July, and ran every single race of the Triple Crown, finishing in the money in each classic race. Though is last start in the West Virginia Derby was less than impressive, the race was a testament as to how the gelding needs to be handled. He may not be multi-dimensional, but when he's asked to roll, he will give you all he's got. You can't diss a horse that shows you that much heart. The news that his connections thought about running him in the Travers after his epiglottis surgery had me very concerned, and I'm very pleased they decided to err on the side of caution for this horse we will hopefully be watching in years to come.

On his way back West, Mine That Bird will be taking a tour of his old stomping grounds at Ruidoso Downs. I wonder if he will happily hop back into his old beaten-up stall with his name taped on a piece of cardboard to the wall? After spending his summer at hallowed Saratoga, where the golden light glinting off a pigeon could make a grown man well up with tears, the Bird will be entering the equivalent of a bottom-level claimer's accomodations. But hey, it's where he came from, it's home, right? Maybe the Bird's inflluence will help nicen up old Ruidoso, maybe his millions can spit and polish up the place a bit. After all, you never know if a successor to the throne could come from that very same stable. It would be a nice gesture, anyway.

While at Ruidoso, Mine That Bird will be leading the post parade of the $2 million All-American Futurity for Quarter Horses. He will be doubtlessly be paraded like a hometown hero, and he deserves no less. "The Little Gelding that Could" should be a children's book, if not a Hollywood movie. Disney would be brainless to pass this story by. In a rags to riches story you couldn't dream up, riding in a trailer across-country from a flyblown track to win America's most prestigious race, the Bird has been on one hell of a ride this year and I look forward to watching the rest of his story unfold.

Mine That Bird hasn't been to Santa Anita since his 12th-place finish in the Breeders' Cup Juvenile last October. But he will return a different horse, riding on a wave that has taken him to the pinnacle every 3-year-old horse aspires to sail along. By now, his running style has been tested, and his next start should prove a different kind of story compared to his last race there; he may start out at the back of the pack the next time he's looking upon the palm trees and San Gabriel mountains, but he certainly won't finish that way.

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Roaring 'Road and Ravenous Rachel

Though the field for the Travers diminished exponentially this week when it was announced that Rachel Alexandra would be pointed toward the Woodward with older horses, and today's announcement that Kentucky Derby winner Mine That Bird would miss the Travers thanks to a spot on his recently opperated-on epiglottis, the race will still be a momentus one.

I'll admit, my true objective for Mine That Bird to be in the Travers field was sort of a vengeful one. I spent weeks handicapping the Kentucky Derby to pick three horses I thought stood a chance, and narrowed it down after careful consideration who I would deem "my Derby horse." That horse didn't end up making it into the Kentucky Derby, or any of the other Triple Crown races, thanks to the same problem that almost kept Big Brown out last year: quarter cracks. Obviously, I'm referring to Quality Road. Yes, I wanted Mine That Bird in there, the beaten hero as he is, to be collared by the horse I felt should've won the Kentucky Derby in the first place.

But since the Derby winner will be skipping Saratoga's signature race for 3-year-olds, that still leaves plenty of other formidable opponents in the field with impressive resumes for Quality Road to check off his list. His biggest competition, in this handicapper's opinion, is Summer Bird. The Belmont winner showed a different dimension when he dared to run against form in a bid to keep rocketing Rachel within striking distance in the Haskell, running off the pace instead of from behind horses, which has proved most effective for him in the past. What was most impressive was that Summer Bird was able to maintain the quick pace and battle a game Munnings for second place in the 1-1/8 miles test. So it stands to reason, given this new show of flexibility and maturity, Summer Bird will try the same tactic in the Travers to keep the Road within his sights.

Quality Road can run on the lead, off the pace, or from the middle of the pack, as he showed in the 6 1/2-furlong Amsterdam. He has set track records in the last two races of his career. He's never gone around two turns and let a horse get in front of him (watch a replay of the Florida Derby when Dunkirk tries this going around the far turn and how Quality Road pours it on). Yeah, I'd say he's got it in the bag. Kensei did not pick a soft spot in avoiding his stablemate, Rachel Alexandra. Pointed away from one monster, he's running smack-dab into another one.

And what about Miss Alexandra? Now being targeted toward her first start against not only older horses, but against older males, Rachel Alexandra is attempting to become the first female winner of the Woodward at Saratoga. It's actually an unprecidented, historic gesture for a 3-year-old filly to be going up against this division in the middle of the summer, a plot worthy of the history books before she's even run in it; but she may not get the welcoming party she deserves.

It appears she is scaring the old men, as well as the boys: Asiatic Boy, the winner of the UAE Triple Crown, who was second to Curlin in the Dubai World Cup and the Stephen Foster, is picking up his bags and hopping on a train to California to face Einstein in the Pacific Classic instead of the 3-year-old filly. "Nobody really wants to face Rachel Alexandra these days, and to think we have to give her eight pounds is a little tough on us older boys," said Asiatic Boy's trainer, Kiaran McLaughlin. “She’s beat everybody that’s gotten in the gate with her this year... Luckily, I haven’t gotten in the gate with her and don’t look forward to getting in the gate with her with Asiatic Boy. She’s a great filly. The word ‘great’ is thrown around too often in our industry, but to me she’s one of the great ones and she’s great for the sport, and it's nice that Mr. (Jess) Jackson chose some of these spots to show how great she is. He said he’s hoping to run her next year as a 4-year-old, and that's nice to hear, but I don’t look forward to running against her ever, with anything.”

So who will Rachel be facing? Right now, the field looks pretty pale in comparison to the Travers. Macho Again, who has yet to be very consistent, but did win the Stephen Foster when Einstein was locked in traffic, may be her biggest threat; there's also Bullsbay, Cool Coal Man, It's a Bird, and oh, how can we forget--DA'TARA?! But let's face it, right now, there are no dominating older dirt horses. At the rate horses with balls and any kind of track credentials are being retired, that leaves little competition in the division. Honestly, who would you try to beat Rachel Alexandra with? Her biggest threats are in the breeding shed. We may very well see a Woodward that hands over the trophy to a capable filly simply because no one wants to take her on. If Jackson is looking to send her against a formidable dirt horse, I can only suggest taking on Einstein after he wins the Breeders' Cup. (Did I just say that aloud?) But, nevermind, he's heading for retirement after the Classic, too.

Anybody overseas listening? We want your champions. Our filly is hungry.

Thursday, August 20, 2009

Where should Rachel run next?

If you ask most people who follow horse racing, including me, they will tell you that Horse of the Year honors have already been wrapped up with one horse alone towering over her competition: the 3-year-old sensation Rachel Alexandra.

In short, she is nothing short of amazing. She's already defeated two top-class fields of three-year-old colts, and has made laughing-stocks of the fillies in her division. So the question remains: where should this dominating filly race next?

According to, Jess Jackson and Steve Asmussen will decide formally on her next race this coming Monday after Rachel's workout at Saratoga.

Blood-Horse veteran turf writer Steve Haskin has already started spreading the word that Rachel will enter the Woodward, a Grade I race for males 3 years old and upward, which has never been won by a female before; but this isn't confirmed by the filly's connections. If indeed Rachel does run in the Woodward, I have to strain my brain as to who would be her competition. As it stands now, there really is no older male dirt star, now that Curlin has been retired. Most of the buzz this year is around turf horses like Gio Ponti, but there is a possibility, with his versatile track record, that Einstein could be game.

In all honestly, Rachel's biggest competition lies in the 3-year-olds she has been facing, plus one giant who is returning to the track to regain his title of 3-year-old King: Quality Road. His first race since winning the Florida Derby marked a cutback in distance (which wasn't in his favor) and setting a new track record of 1:13.74 over 6 1/2 furlongs in the Amsterdam, smashing a record that stood for 30 years. I repeat: not a stakes, but a track record. If Quality Road isn't seen as a threat to Jackson and Co., they need to reassess their Daily Racing Form. Yes, Rachel is brilliant, but so is the 'Road. Both horses are intriguing, both horses look unbeatable. If we never get to see a showdown between Zenyatta and Rachel Alexandra, we should be satisfied if these two Titans ever clash.

Rachel Alexandra is nominated to the Travers, the Woodward, and the Pennsylvania Derby, but as these races are within a week of each other, she will only be pointed toward one. Her regular exercise rider, Dominic Terry, said the filly "was a lot stronger than normal... she was pulling me to the pole. She went really nice and galloped out really strong. I couldn't ask for more." Trainer Steve Asmussen, who watched her working through the fog at the Oaklahoma training track, said of Rachel, "I'll have confidence in her anywhere they want to run her."

How scary is it that she's reported working stronger than ever? After having watched this phenomenal filly work in person, I have to say her competitors should be shaking in their shoes.

You can watch that very work of Rachel before her smashing Kentucky Oaks victory here, from YouTube. She is a bit spooky because of the people watching from the Churchill grandstands, but mainly she's just trying to pull the arms off of her exercise rider. Watch this and just try not to get goosebumps.

So, where should Rachel run next? Which is more integral to her legacy, a race against a probable soft field of older males, or to go up against the monster in Quality Road in the Travers? While my vote lies in a match-up against the 'Road, I'm all for seeing her make pansies out of the old men. She's already beaten up on the girls and the boys, so why not strike out on a new frontier and check off one more accolade to her growing list of accomplishments?

Friday, August 14, 2009

Rachel Alexandra and Zenyatta: Living Legends

Originally posted here in my column, The Call to the Post

It's hard to get my mind wrapped around the fact that I'm living in an age I've always longed for. Even though the phenomenon has snuck upon us, it's safe to say that right now, this very minute in time, we're witnessing something very unique in the sport of horse racing. At this moment, on opposite sides of the country, are two special horses either getting an afternoon nap or perhaps a nibble of sugar cubes; to the naked eye, oh yes, they would appear to be the kind of race horse any owner or trainer would aspire to have. But looks are deceiving. If every horse could run as good as he looked, there would be Triple Crowns won every year. But these two, one a 3-year-old filly, the other a 5-year-old mare, are exactly as good as they look.

No one ever could've predicted we'd be seeing two modern marvels in the year 2009, two imposing female horses that will undoubtedly leave their impressions stamped in the history books for all of time. I never got to see the great Secretariat. I never got to see Man o' War or Ruffian, Spectacular Bid or Seattle Slew. But I got to see Rachel Alexandra and Zenyatta. Here we are, in a few span of months for the ages, a time when people thirty years from now will be looking at us with wonder in their eyes and whisper, "You got to see Rachel Alexandra?"

I was there. I never thought I'd be able to say I'd seen a Great, because it's so hard to know precisely what that is until you see it for yourself.

Now I know.

I know because of the sort of disbelief that overcame me when Rachel Alexandra swung into the final turn of the Haskell and began to separate herself from the rest of the field. That's not something just any horse could've done. Her competitors were decorated: a Belmont winner, an Arkansas Derby winner, an up-coming superstar. It takes a freak to spit in the faces of horses like that and run away for fun. That's what Greatness is.

The same can be said for Zenyatta, but on a different level. I was shocked after watching Zenyatta's last race, the Clement L. Hirsch Stakes, where she just barely won her twelfth race in a row. To the naked eye, it wasn't clear if she'd actually made it to the wire before the track ran out. Did the undefeated Zenyatta get foiled by a dirty head-bob? The idea that Zenyatta could be beaten by a horse nothing much better than a claimer stunned me so badly, I sat on my couch, jaw ajar, simply staring as the crowd at Del Mar shrieked and ebbed like a cage full of monkeys.

But those people were cheering-that's what stunned me. Zenyatta shouldn't have won the Grade I Clement Hirsch Stakes by a head, she should've won that race by 10 lengths, at worst. What in the heck just happened? Suddenly, this great unbeaten mare looked like a laughing-stock in comparison to the filly two years her junior, Rachel Alexandra, who'd just beaten a field of incomparably tough colts by 6 in the Grade I Haskell Invitational.

In her start prior to the Hirsch, Zenyatta was spotting the rest of the field at least seven pounds, carrying a career-high of 129 in the Vanity Handicap. Handicap races are supposed to make the field more "even" by holding back the horses with a better chance of winning. I understood Zenyatta would have a tougher time winning by much carrying 129 pounds in the Vanity, which she ended up winning by 2 1/2-lengths. But the Clement Hirsch had recently been stripped of its handicap status and had been turned into a stakes race. A stakes race against nobody special, ab-so-lute-ly nobody.

But then I realized something. The way Zenyatta was positioned in the Clement Hirsch, she should've lost. There was absolutely no way a normal horse could've won that race in Zenyatta's position. Just in the same way it took a freak filly like Rachel Alexandra to laugh at that field of colts and win by 6, it took a freak to run the entire race with slow fractions, let the leader run away, go six-wide around the turn while spinning out, and then rocket down the stretch at 40 miles per hour to win the race by a head. That doesn't happen. Not with a five-year-old mare the size of a house, not with anybody.

After the race, Mike Smith said with a smile, "Wasn't that something! I thought I had it... But I've got to admit I underestimated the company we were keeping today. They made her run."

Yes, it's true, Mikey gave her a bad ride. The Clement Hirsch was a reminder of Smith's latest debacle, when he tried a move too early with Mine That Bird in the West Virginia Derby and finished a tired and unimpressive third on the Derby winner. People make mistakes. Freaks fix them.

There's a lot of talk going on right now about setting up a match race between Zenyatta and Rachel Alexandra. I'll tell you why that's a bad idea: match races are inherently a bad idea. No horseman in his right mind would ever want to put his charge in a match race knowing what we do now about those race situations (But that's a whole 'nother article).

I will say a race between these two champions would be the race of the century-but it would have to be a legitimate race with at least three other starters besides them. As to what would happen, I'm leaving that up to the horse racing gods, since both Rachel and Zenyatta seem to have an angel on their shoulder. Until that day happens, and it may never transpire, we should be grateful we are living right now, and can turn on the TV or go to the track and see these living legends do what they do best: amaze us, time and time again.