Well, another Del Mar and Saratoga summer is over. I was busy, it takes longer to handicap during the summer because the fields are bigger and the races are just tougher to handicap. I can't wait to get to Vegas and chill out for a week.
I haven't had time to do the stats yet, but there's no question that my Sharphorses Selection Service picks showed a substantial profit at both Del Mar and the Spa. Saratoga started off brutally tough so I didn't give that many horses out there the first few weeks. Those of you who subscribe know that my service is not about getting action, we're out to win. I ended up on a nice hot streak at Saratoga and I had a bunch of longshot winners at Del Mar, which is my favorite meet.
A couple of observations. First, Del Mar. I heard a lot of handicappers complaining about the Polytrack, and obviously Bob Baffert and his big owner the Zayat stable shipped some horses to Saratoga to avoid it. But the bottom line is, Del Mar had a hugely successful meet and the handle was up 3% from last year. Obviously the Polytrack didn't scare off that many bettors. The track also played safer, which is why they put it in in the first place. I still think if you have a good horse and you are a good trainer your horse will win over the Polytrack. But trainers do have to learn how to prepare their horses for it. It seems to me that a horse needs to be very fit. On dirt, you'll often see first time starters, or layoff horses, win off only 4 or 5 workouts, and sometimes the works are 3 and 4 furlongs. You don't see that pattern winning over the Polytrack. A horse needs longer works, and more works to be properly conditioned to win at first asking, or off a layoff. Baffert actually ended up having a pretty good meet, after a slow start, even though he shipped some of his best horses out.
Now to Saratoga. They got lucky with the weather this year, which was great because those rainy days really kill the cards because of all the turf races. A few things I didn't like, too many 5.5f turf races. I also didn't like the 5f turf races at Del Mar, most of which were won wire to wire and were not exciting. Personally, I think Saratoga cards too many turf races. The turns are tight and a lot of horses get bad trips. We'll look to bet back some of those wide trips over the bigger Belmont turf courses.
I'm happy for Cornelio Velasquez. He's been the leading rider at other meets, but to win the meet at Saratoga has to be huge for him. What a sensational meet he had. I gauge a rider by how many longshots he wins with, and Cornelio won with so many longshots during the meet that he had a big positive ROI. He's a great rider on dirt or turf. He's aggressive, but I really think the reason why Cornelio is so good is because of natural God given talent. Some riders just get more speed out of horses. Cornelio is a better rider than Johnny Velasquez, who is overrated, in my opinion. A lot of jockeys are overrated and a lot of jockeys are underrated. You can't go by win percentage because once a rider gets hooked up with a major stable, he's going to win a high percentage. Jockeys who consistently win with slow horses are the real deal.
I always wondered why the horseracing industry embraces unscrupulous business people. Some of you may remember Garden State, a harness track in New Jersey. The track was founded by Robert Brennan. The press called him a "financier." My dad was a stockbroker. I remember telling him about the new track and he said, "Oh, year, Robert Brennan. He should be in jail." He then explained to me how Brennan ran a boiler room operation selling worthless junk bonds and penny stocks to unwitting suckers. Well, my dad was right, because a few years later Brennan did get a 9 year sentence and is still in jail. He once tried to buy The Meadowlands for 1 billion dollars. He lived the high life, the life of a multi-millionare. Now he's flat broke and lives in a tiny cell, a common criminal.
What bothered me about Brennan was not that he was a corrupt businessman, the world's full of them. But the racing industry, including the press, embraced this con man. He was lauded in the papers as some sort of Golden Boy who was going to resurrect harness racing in the Philadelphia area. Everyone knew what he really was, but went along with the con.
There are currently thoroughbred trainers who cheat and drug their horses. But, again, the industry, including the media, doesn't seem to care. Many times these trainers are given awards and accolades.
But it doesn't stop there. Hollywood Park has a major stakes race called the "Cash Call Mile." Cash Call is a money lending company that advertises on TVG and sponsors the race. Some of their ads feature Gary Coleman, the dimunitive actor. Another has a guy who looks like he could star in The Godfather who says, in a raspy voice, something like, "You need money, give me a call, I'lll send it to you."
One day I was watching the commercial and I paused the picture to read the fine print. The APR is 99.25%. I'm not making this up. A $2,600 loan for 42 months will cost you over $9-grand to pay off. The company is run by J. Paul Reddam, a major horseowner who formerly ran DiTech, a mortage company which he sold to General Motors. DiTech also had cheap looking commericals, so I guess the secret to marketing success is cheesy advertising. Reddam and his company prey on the poor, or anyone who is down on their luck. He's basically a loan shark, except somehow it's legal, and, of course, loan sharks charge much less interest than Cash Call does.
The real blame here goes to the government, because Cash Call, and other businesses like it, should be illegal. Cash Call also has a reputation as a hard pressure company that assigns sales people to harrass its customers when they miss a payment. Not surprisingly, the Better Business Bureau gives Cash Call an "A" rating. I worked for the Better Business Bureau for a while and in my opinion, the BBB is a joke. The only thing the BBB is interested in is collecting the fees from businesses. People think that the BBB is reputable because it's a non-profit organization. But it's just a privately run business that looks to put money in its owner's pockets and doesn't care about anything else.
But money rules in this country. Hollywood Park should not have a million dollar stakes race, or any kind of race, sponsored by a horrible company like Cash Call and a bloodsucker like Reddam. This company and it's association with horse racing and Hollywood Park is a black mark for the sport. As for those sickening ads on TVG, I just wish they'd go away. Horse Racing is supposed to be the Sport of Kings, not crooks.
Yesterday, Wednesday, November 1, 2006, was the first day of racing on an artificial racetrack surface in Southern California. Hollywood Park's 8 million dollar Cushion Track is similar to the surfaces that are now being used at Turfway Park and Keeneland in Kentucky, and at Woodbine in Canada. Keeneland, which used to be an extremely speed favoring track, now is extremely closer favoring.
Opening day at Hollywood was quite interesting. The Southern California tracks have always been speed favoring. Consequently, the style of racing out west was rodeo style, run and gun. As the gate springs open, riders out west have traditionally been whipping and flailing, hoping to either get the early lead, or establish early position. The result has been brutally fast opening fractions. This aggressiveness has not proven good for the physical well being of the horses. I've seen 2yo fillies making their first lifetime start go under the gun from the rail and forced to battled through a :21.2 opening quarter. Talk about gutting a 2yo.
Today's thoroughbreds are not built the same way that horses were designed years go. Because of in-breeding speed to speed, horses have frailer bodies, particularly skinnier legs than they used to. With the emphasis towards short sprint races on dirt, I guess that type of pedigree makes sense. But it has really hurt the thoroughbred industry, as countless future stars have broken down over the past 10 years.
If you doubt the pedigree aspect, just look at some old photos or tapes of horses like John Henry and Seabiscuit, both short, stocky, muscular horses. Or some big horses like Affirmed, Citation, Man O War, Secretariat. These horses were big and strong and had wide, muscular legs.
The new artificial surfaces have proven to be much more kind to closers and to one-paced horses. Opening day at Hollywood Park was no exception. Not one horse raced wire to wire, no horse that lead at the quarter won, and no horses that had the lead at the pace call won. Only one winner even had the lead coming into the stretch.
The Cushion Track alone will not save racing. Breeders have to get smarter and start breeding horses the right way, for class and stamina, not short run speed. They may have to. As more and more tracks change over to the soft, all-weather surfaces, the horses that are bred for speed are going to have trouble winning. These new surfaces favor horses that are bred for routes, or turf.
As for the jockeys, they will also have to adjust. It will be interesting to see how Pat Valenzuela does. P. Val is perhaps the best speed rider in the sport, but he may have to change his style if he wants to remain at the top of the jockey standings at Hollywood Park.
Some things are certain. 1). Less horses will break down over the Cushion Track. 2). Closers will do much better than they did on dirt. 3). Hollywood Park will have more horses in the races because trainers will ship in from New York and other places to race there. Trainers love the Cushion Track. If their horses keep breaking down, they are out of business.
Barbaro, a potential superstar thoroughbred, has joined the club of broken down potential champions. For the past 10 years or so, quality thoroughbred horses have been breaking down at an alarming rate. The breed has obviously changed. The horse's legs are not as strong or thick as they used to be. This is most likely caused by in-breeding and in-breeding for speed. The idea is to breed a horse that works out fast as a 2 year old in traininig, because they can be sold for a nice sum of money. No one seems to care if the horse has any class or endurance anymore, even though the crown jewel is the 10 furlong Kentucky Derby. Horses like Smarty Jones, Funny Cide and War Emblem, all recent Derby winners, were actually not bred well for a 10 furlong race. They were bred for speed and should've been best up to about a mile or perhaps a little longer. The fact that these speed-bred horses won is not a good sign for the sport. It will only make breeders even more short sighted than they already are. In each of those Derbys, several 3 year olds broke down before the Derby. Consequently, horses that weren't well bred for the distance were able to beat watered down competition. Smarty Jones was a nice horse, but he was not a great horse. What did he beat?
There could be other factors contributing to the physical problems of the modern day thoroughbred. Perhaps drugs and steroids are hurting the breed as well, it's hard to tell. My guess is that in-breeding is the main cause. Everyone knows that when you constantly in-breed, you can get the best and the worst. If you take two cousins that are physically beautiful and strong and breed them, you will probably get a beautiful looking result. But will it be healthy?
The ironic thing is that no one in the thoroughbred industry seems to be giving this problem the attention it deserves. There hasn't be a bonafide star in the sport in 10 years. The last great thoroughbred was Cigar. Since Cigar, there have been horses that appeared destined for greatness, but they all either broke down or were retired early to breed.
Everyone who is seriously involved in the sport, from breeders, owners, racetracks, should be doing something about this. If the sport never has any heroes, it could collapse. I honestly believe that thoroughbred racing could see a serious decline if this trend continues.
But the sport is in denial. Just imagine how many baseball fans there'd be iif there were no great players who had long careers. I became a baseball fan because of Mickey Mantle. I became a racing fan because of Secretariat, but I enjoyed many years of watching some of my favorites thoroughbreds like Forego, John Henry, Seattle Slew, Affirmed, Alydar. Affirmed, John Henry, and Secretariat all won two Horse of the Year titles, and Forego won 3 times. Cigar was Horse of the Year in 1995 and 96. My favorite thoroughbred of all time was Ruffian, but unfortunately she broke down and had to be destroyed after she took a bad step while travelling at world record speed in an ill-advised match race over a track (Belmont) that had been in bad shape (a lot of horses breaking down) all meet.
Ruffian was the fastest horse I ever saw. At least she ran enough times to prove that she was the fastest filly of all time. Many of today's stars never get that chance.
This year's Kentucky Derby looked like a stellar field but most people who watched the race will tell you that Barbaro was clearly the best horse in the race. I have to admit that coming into the race, Barbaro looked like a potentially great horse. And he won the race impressively. But, let's not forget that there were 20 horses in the race and several had brutal trips. Considering the fact that it was a 20 horse field, Barbaro had a dream trip, an easy trip. A horse that impressed me was Brother Derek. He also came into the race showing the potential to be a great horse. Starting from a very tough outside post 18, Brother Derek raced anywhere from 6 to 10 wide the entire race including around the turns. Despite that brutal journey, he rallied wide coming into the stretch and finished 4th. And now we find out that he lost a shoe on his front right foot during the race. I thought that Brother Derek ran one of the most impressive wide trip races I've ever seen in a stakes route race. I can't remember ever seeing a horse race that wide for that long and still make a strong run. If Barbaro and Brother Derek both run in the Preakness, they should put on quite a show.
So far every professional analyst on TVG, NBC, and print media, has only talked about Barbaro as if all the other horses in the race did nothing. Some have already declared that Barbaro is going to win the Triple Crown. Although I understand their enthusiasm, it was a strong performance by Barbaro, I feel that they are jumping to conclusions. Maybe it's because of my years of chart calling. When I watch a race, I watch all the horses in the race. This is difficult in the Derby, but this year I have the race taped and NBC provided an aerial view as well as the regular shot, plus another view with the camera isolated more on the winner.
Some people have mentioned that the pace was "brutal." Was it? Coming into the race, everyone expected a hot pace. But the pace was about what you'd expect from top colts. I checked over the Derby splits for the past 10 years, dating back to the 1996 Derby, and there were 6 Derbys that had faster spllits. Last year, for instance, they went 22.1, 45.1, 109.2. This year the fractions were 22.3, 46, 110.4. Althought that's pretty quick for a 10 furlong race, we have to realize that these are supposed to be the best 3yo's in the world. Barbaro has to be given credit for tracking an honest and fairly quick pace and still having a strong stretch kick.
But before jumping to conclusions, let's see what the Beyer figure is. I think the race will come up with a strong figure, but not a Secretariat-like number. Barbaro did not prove that he is a superhorse. He proved that he is a very good horse. Maybe a great horse.
Other horses besides Brother Derek had bad trips. Sweetnorthernsaint got all messed up at the start and made a powerful middle-move to reach contention but flattened out. He could be dangerous in up coming races.
Showing Up had a decent trip and no excuse, but he finished 5th, and considering the fact that it was only his 4th lifetime start, he is a horse with uptapped potential.
Barbaro still has a lot to prove before he can be mentioned in the same breath as Secretariat, Seattle Slew, Citation, etc. Personally, right now I'm not convinced that he's better than Brother Derek. Think I'm crazy? Well, let's say we reverse the posts, and Barbaro starts from post 18 and races 6 wide the entire race and 10 deep around the turn, and Brother Derek starts from post 8 and gets the same dream trip that Barbaro did.
With the arrest of harness driver Eric Ledford, as well as three other people associated with the Ledford barn, drugged horses are back in the news. As of this writing, the actual trainer of record. Seldon Ledford, has not been arrested. Obviously, the Ledford stable was improving horses dramatically the past couple of years. One of his recent claims, Allstar Blue Jean, was claimed from successful trainer named Ettore Annunziata. In his last start for his old trainer he paced in 1:51.3. In his first start for Ledford he paced in 1:48.4. He also jogged in his next start. He went from a 50k claimer to one of the fastest horses on the grounds. When things like this happen, everyone suspects--really knows--that the trainer is using some sort of illegal drug. From a handicapping perspective, I don't think its hurts bettors that much. I've been following racing since 1971, and in that time period there were always trainers who improved horses suspiciously. If you snapped your fingers and erased all drugs from racing, you wouldn't miraculously turn losing bettors into winners.
The real losers are the honest horsemen who play by the rules. And the horse, of course. Put yourself in an owner's shoes who has horses that are trained by a honest trainer. How many times have you finished 2nd to a horse trained by an obvious juicer?
It's a vicious cycle we have in today's sociey. Cheating. It's not just a problem in sports. In one sales job I had, there was a salesman who was getting a lot of his sales by cheating. I was working for Verizon and according to the company's rules, if they caught you churning sales, you'd be fired. Churning was cheating. Here's how it worked. A customer comes in wtih his wife and wants to buy two cell phones, one for his son and one for his daughter. That's 2 sales for the honest salesman. For the cheater, it's 4. He closes the two current accounts, and creates 4 new accounts. This gives him 4 sales instead of 2. It's called false churn.
Everyone knew that this guy was cheating, but the manager turned her back because she wanted the numbers, too. But who got hurt? The other sales people. The quotas were based on past sales. Since the sales were artificially high because of all the false churns, everyone's quota was much higher than it should've been. This meant lower commisions for the honest sales people.
The cheaters don't see themselves as crooked. They rationalize it. Barry Bonds knew that he was a much better player than Mark McGwire, and he knew McGwire was using, and showing him up, so the next thing you know, he's cheating himself. Vicious cycle. Cheating begets more cheating by more people. The salesman I'm referring too seemed like a really nice guy. But he was one of those bottom-line type of guys who would do anything to be the best, and really didn't see anything wrong with it. Eventually, the manager started to take heat and finally fired the guy.
There's really no other way to stop corruption and cheating in corporate America, sports, and society in general. You have to make the cheaters know that if you break the rules, you'll suffer the consequences.
Get rid of them.
Unfortunately, our society often rewards cheaters. When Mark McGwire hit his 62nd home run of the year, he was put on a pedestal. Even the family of Roger Maris was at the game to shake his hand. What a joke. Maybe we wanted to believe that we were witnessing history. But it was a sham. Roger Maris was a fantastic athletic, not a drug user. As for Babe Ruth, well, he was in a class by himself.
There were some really nice horses at Belmont Sunday. Shug McGaughey unveiled another one of his regally bred homebreds, Winner, a 3yo filly out of Pennant Champion who crushed her rivals without need of urging. Winner should prove to be a stakes winner for the Phipps clan...Mr Congeniality has really improved. I thought that Saint Anddan would beat him, but he was no match. The exacta price of $19.80 was actually pretty good for a 6 horse field. That was one of the toughest NW1 fields I've seen this year. The top two look like stakes quality 3yo's....Melhor Ainda lived up to expectations in the GR3 Sands Point, winning with ease again. Frankel doesn't usually brag about his horses, but he was raving about Melhor Ainda before the race on Sunday, saying that he thinks this is one of the best he's ever trained. It will be interesting to see what Europeons show up to compete with her in the Breeders Cup.
There was some good horseracing over the holiday weekend, and the best horse in the country finally returned. Ghostzapper zapped his 5 rivals. He saved ground early, brushed to the lead at the three quarters, quickly opened up 8 lengths and won under wraps in a quick 1:33.1 for the mile. The race was easier than expected when Forest Danger was rank, drifted out, and did not show his best.
Hall of Fame trainer Bobby Frankel is one of the trainers that can win with older horses, and can get a horse good and keep him good. As I mentioned in an earlier post, some trainers can only crank them up for a few starts. After the race, Frankel made a point to credit owner Frank Stronach for passing up potential tens of millions in stud fees to race Ghostzapper as a 5yo.
"He took a bigger gamble than anyone else will ever take," Frankel said. "If this was someone else, they would have retired him. He wanted to bring him back so the fans could watch him another year."
Stronach owns several major racetracks through his Magna Corp. Some critics have questioned his motives and even his business savvy. But Stronach has spent millions resurfacing and renovating tracks like Gulfstream and Laurel, mainly to make the tracks safer for the horses. Plus he has shown good sportsmanship by bringing Ghostzapper back in an attempt to become the first horse to win back to back Horse of the Year titles since Cigar, the only horse to repeat as champion in the past 20 years. I hope he gets it. Ghostzapper looked like a total monster yesterday. If he stays healthy, he'll be tough to deny.