08 July 2009

A horse, a horse -- my kingdom for a horse!

The Iowa Festival of Racing has come and gone, and still, I haven't made up my mind about Prairie Meadows. Numerous visits to the track, on race days big (KY Derby day, the Iowa Festival of Racing featuring the G2 Cornhusker) and small (a rainy stakes-free Friday night), have sparked neither enthusiasm nor venom here at the Quinella Castle. I'm still trying to find the best words to describe Prairie Meadows, and all I'm coming up with is: well, it's ... ok.

First impressions are that it's a prettier track than Mountaineer. No one needs to carry in their own lawn chairs as Mountaineer regulars do, for here in Iowa, rows and rows of benches cover the apron. Tricked up with red benches and crisp white paddock fences, one senses echoes of Saratoga, but a Saratoga without trees or hills -- or a turf course.

When racing actually begins, however, you come to realize that, as elsewhere in Iowa, there's no slope here. Watching the race outdoors is tough, even from the deck area, where a viewer seated at one of the tables is unable to see the field around either turn. Pretty much, if you're outside, you'll miss much of the action, unless you point your eyes towards the Jumbotron, because the apron is flat, flat, flat. (Iowans seem to believe that their state has contours throughout. "Iowa is not flat. Now, Nebraska, Nebraska is flat!" they tell me. However as a transplant from the hills of Western Pennsylvania, I beg to differ.)

I might also note that if I wanted to watch a race on a screen -- I'd stay home.

That said, what I'm finding I miss most is, of all things, a horse. Perhaps you know what I mean: that horse you cheer for, whether the odds are 30-1 or 4-5. That horse you tell your friends about, even though it's never mentioned in those articles in the Daily Racing Form or Thoroughbred Times. That horse like Lady Grace or Chelsea's Grey Boy or Punk -- former Mountaineer runners all -- who somehow surfaces on your radar and makes you smile every time you see its name in the entries.

That horse who lands in your Virtual Stable -- and your heart -- and never quite leaves.

So far, I've not found such a horse at Prairie Meadows. Which is rather surprising, considering how much local media coverage Prairie Meadows receives. Dan Johnson at the Des Moines Register posts picks for every race, and there is periodic coverage in the Register of leading trainers like Lynn Chleborad (who at one point, was claiming horses on a credit card) and owners like Dennis Albaugh and Jason Loutsch (who spent a cool quarter of a million to breed Miss Macy Sue to A.P.Indy.)

Despite the bounty of media buzz, I've yet to find that special horse who captures my imagination and won't let go.

Meanwhile, this past weekend at Mountaineer, two Quinella Castle favorites returned to the WV track. Beautiful Venue, who set a Mountaineer record for 1 mile 70 yards on turf in 2007 was back in Mountaineer's Firecracker Stakes. Her last victory was a surprise win over Equispace favorite, La Chica Rica, in a Mountaineer allowance.

Periodically, Beautiful Venue ventures south to Keeneland where she generally seems to run hard but falters in the stretch. She's never been completely embarrassed in Bluegrass country, though I've yet to see her win at Lexington. Nonetheless, she always looks pretty in the post parade.

(The proof: this photo of Beautiful Venue waiting to load in the 2007 First Lady Stakes at Keeneland. Facing the likes of Vacare, Precious Kitten, and Lady of Venice, she went off at 99-1, finishing 6 of 9, and beating Ermine in the process.)

This weekend, she faced Lindelaan, a Christophe Clement trainee, who beat her last time out in the Decoration Day stakes at Mountaineer. Third place finisher in the Decoration Day, Si Si Mon Amie, returned as well to go off as the 1-1 post-time favorite.

Though the final time for the race was 1:39, we paid little attention to the clock once Beautiful Venue, ridden by Rex Stokes, caught Hungry Tigress in the stretch and -- finished first by nearly two lengths.

Later in the first running of the Dale Baird Memorial Stakes, our beloved Bernie Blue returned to the dirt after a sad outing on Presque Isle's Tapeta surface. Favorite Trust or Bust was getting all the publicity, entering the race on a five-race win streak, but with a nine pound advantage, one could hope that 7-yo Bernie might make it back to the winner's circle one more time, right?

One could hope, indeed. Trust or Bust faltered at the top of the stretch behind front-running Run Brother Ron, and Bernie Blue drew off to win by 4 lengths, earning a 93 Beyer Speed Figure, and topping a $153 exacta with longshot Wise Answer.

Lovely victories both -- all the more sweet because these longtime runners seem like old friends. Victories we savored here at the Quinella Castle, though both are relatively lacking in news value. It seems that there is joy to be had in the seemingly insignificant, and tracks might consider highlighting this value periodically. While the industry media do a fine job of following the stories of the superhorses, news about these hard-knocking runners is sorely lacking. Racinos especially might consider telling the tales of the unsung veterans going to post at their tracks. After all, they have websites -- and surely the story of a favorite local runner can be as interesting as the description of a slot machine?

Racinos like Mountaineer, Prairie Meadows, Presque Isle, and likely a host of other tracks, have long had this mysterious "night racing" that Churchill Downs has so recently discovered. While the industry now cheers this startling innovation, trackgoers who frequent these smaller venues can smile to themselves, having long ago learned the joys of sunset on the rail. The beer tastes better after dark, the wins are sweeter, and the world beyond the track lights drifts away. Troubles of the day are gone, blown away by cool evening breezes -- and yes, by the hopes pinned on a familiar name in the 9th.

While it's nice to see large crowds visiting the track in the evening, I'm hoping the next big thing in horse racing might just be ... the horse!

The crowd for the 2009 Cornhusker Handicap


Teresa said...

Great stories about your favorites, QQ. And why not talk to PM? Maybe they'll give you space on the website to write a couple of horse profiles? A few hours on the backstretch might just help you find that horse you're looking for...

suebroux said...

Nice post. Perhaps it won't be long before a nice Iowa-bred captures your imagination, and as Teresa pointed out, a little time amongst the backstretch and rubbing elbows with Iowa Racing Folk might help. When I spent an afternoon at Prairie Meadows just to tour the facility, I found the employees very helpful and friendly. Look up Deb Moss - great gal. Well, of course she's nice because she's from Iowa.

And to the rolling hills of Iowa, Altoona clearly is situated between "rolls".

BTW, did you get any sweetcorn on Cornhusker day??

gib. said...

Buy Beautiful Venue, she may be awsome on a corn fed diet . . .