23 June 2010

Little Festival on the Prairie

Things have been quiet here on the prairie, but at last, heat and humidity -- and frequent tornado watches -- have descended upon the plains. And yes -- the Iowa Festival of Racing is upon us.

Once a year, Prairie Meadows, shoots the moon, and lays out a ton of prize money to draw some big name horses to the middle of nowhere. Last night's Saylorville Stakes, Iowa Distaff, and Iowa Sprint races launched the festival. And tonight, three graded stakes highlight the festivities: the G3 Iowa Oaks (Race 6), the G3 Iowa Derby (Race 7) and the G2 Cornhusker Handicap.

The event always draws a crowd, and this year it has drawn (take a breath) - the winning riders in this year's Triple Crown races. Yup, Calvin Borel, Martin Garcia, and Mike Smith will all be out past the cornfields tonight. Woohoo!

The Des Moines Register, which always provides nice coverage of Prairie Meadows, highlighted the three in an article this week. They've also got it running on the DM Juice website, a chatty, boozy subsidiary website aimed at the 30 and under crowd. And they've made it easy to identify the big names with a guide to the horses they'll be riding this weekend:

Friday: Atta Boy Roy, Iowa Sprint
Saturday: Seeking the Title, Iowa Oaks
Saturday: Down With Dixie, Iowa Derby
Saturday: Brass Hat, Prairie Meadows Cornhusker

Friday: Miss Heather Lee, Saylorville
Saturday: Harissa, Iowa Oaks
Saturday: Concord Point, Iowa Derby
Saturday: Mythical Power, Prairie Meadows Cornhusker

Saturday: All Due Respect, Iowa Oaks

Track commentator John Hernandez (who blogs at John at Prairie Meadows) and guest Joy Rose Murphy of Remington Park spoke with Martin Garcia, but the fans wanted to see Borel. Twenty-five minutes before the race, they were lining the paddock two deep where Borel would await Atta Boy Roy for the Iowa Sprint. (Please note, scale is different here. The King remarked, "In New York, fans would be 10 deep here." Here, two deep is a big deal.)

Borel and Atta Boy Roy finished a disappointing second to the absolutely gorgeous, well-named Majesticperfection, who set a track record. But Borel, ambassador for racing, never disappoints. From his smiles for the crowd to the pat on the nose he gave Atta Boy Roy after the race, he never seemed to think he was a second third class track in a fly-over state.

We watched his race from the rail, and the woman was obviously new to the races, asking simple questions. When Borel dismounted in front of us, I noted that he had won 3 of the last 4 Kentucky Derbies. "Really?" she said. As Borel nodded to us, and walked back down the chute, she smiled. Suddenly, she wasn't just killing time while hubby played the slots inside. "He'll be here tomorrow? We've gotta come back," she said.

Thanks, Calvin! See ya tonight!

Before we dash out to the track, just a quick note: yours truly has at long last ventured into the world of public handicapping. You can check out the results, such as they are, at Thorofan.com. I have a feeling y'all can guess what kind of wager I suggest!

22 April 2010

Monograph Mile: 2010

In 2005, after my first day at the races, still breathless from the rush of the wind at the rail, the sound of hoofbeats still ringing in my ear, I scurried to the racing section of my library where I searched for a suitable introduction to the world of thoroughbred racing. Tucked on the bottom shelf at SF 335 .U5 S56, I discovered Racing Through The Century: The Story of Thoroughbred Racing by Mary Simon. It was an awkward book to carry home on the bus, verging on the coffee-table size, and though my arm was numb by the time my stop arrived, once I was ensconced in my comfy armchair, I simply could not put it down. While it's chock full of photos and illustrations, it was the text, arranged by decade, that held my attention. And scattered throughout an engaging history of racing trends and historic events were wonderfully-told biographies of the sport's stars. Jockeys and trainers and owners ... and horses. Hundreds of horses galloped through the pages, brought to life in succinct and often moving prose. The author was eloquent without being flowery, moving without being maudlin. And she could capture the essence of some of the sport's most beloved runners in a mere page. This was a woman who knew words and could make them count.

So who better to serve as steward of the annual running of the Monograph Mile? Better known as the Dr. Tony Ryan Book Award, this race takes place on -- gasp -- printed pages, and recognizes the best racing-related book of 2009. And since its inception, Mary Simon has been coordinating the award. This year, she's teamed with Kay Coyte and Rudolph Alvarado to select the winner.

In previous years, I've handicapped the full field of possible nominations, but this year I found myself a bit too busy to keep up with racetrack reading. At least it's not too late to handicap the three finalists going to the post on Friday:

Beyond the Homestretch: What I've Learned from Saving Racehorses by Lynn Reardon. Reardon was once an accountant in Washington, DC; now she runs LOPE (Lonestar Outreach to Place Ex-Racers) and hangs out with retired racehorses in Texas. Judging by the experiences she relates in the book, the change agrees with her. Reardon's style is engaging, and she tells good stories. This entry has personality in abundance, and the barn seems thoroughly modern, complete with Twitter feed, Facebook page, and blog. If you'd like to see this one in the paddock, the first chapter is online at the Beyond the Homestretch website(pdf). TL odds: 9-2.

Keeneland's Ted Bassett: My Life
by Ted Bassett and Bill Mooney. I usually find autobiographical books from powerful men to be a bit dry, but Bassett wears the prestige of being "one of racing's most revered leaders" lightly. He's joined by one of the best racing writers out there, Bill Mooney, to craft a fascinating look at a life lived well. The book begins with his description of how he became the President of Keeneland, but I found the descriptions of his interactions with Queen Elizabeth even more entertaining. Judging from the interview that Bassett and Mooney did with Bill Goodman (video), the voice in the book is Bassett's own: never arrogant, often wry, and always straightforward. A short excerpt on tedbassett.com offers a peek in the paddock. This entry from the strong University of Kentucky Press barn certainly has the pedigree to be a winner. TL odds: 3-1.

The Kentucky Derby Vault: A History of the Run for the Roses
by Andrew Plattner. There's always one entrant that puzzles me, and this year, it's The Kentucky Derby Vault. I haven't seen a copy of it, but it sounds like the entry is sporting some special equipment:

This attractive coffee-table book is like none other we have
seen, combining strong text, plenty of rich archival photography,
and a playful interactive dimension. Unexpected treats are
tucked away in attached pockets throughout. Among the surprises:
reproduction vintage postcards, reprints of pages from
old programs, and replicas of antique Derby day passes—including
a lady’s complimentary badge from 1911. All look and
feel authentic. (Thoroughbred Times)
"Playful interactive dimension"? "Attached pockets"? Interpreting this is like reading Racing Post speed figs for the 2nd at Ascot. However, last year's winner, The Untold Story of Joe Hernandez also featured extra equipment -- a CD of Hernandez's race calls -- and I swore I would never ignore this kind of thing again. In addition, Plattner won the Flannery O'Connor Award for his short story collection, Winter Money. And the Boston Review noted that of the ten stories in Winter Money, nine mention horses, racing or wagering in the first paragraph! Thus, sight unseen, I'm taking the mystery horse for the win. TL odds: 2-1.

Those lucky enough to be in the Lexington area can check out the jockeys up close and personal, as all three authors will be at Keeneland on Friday from 2:00 to 4:00. The winner will be announced at an invitation-only reception at Castleton Lyons on Friday night.

Castleton Lyons partners with Thoroughbred Times to sponsor the Dr. Tony Ryan Book Award And the award is substantial: $10,000, as much as a Pulitzer Prize! Yet, while Pulitzer Prize winners are always a "must buy" in the library world, you'd be hard pressed to find a library that owns all 3 of the Dr. Tony Book Award winners. (In fact, it appears that even the Lexington Public Library doesn't own last year's winner!)

I mention this because once again, Thoroughbred Times has posted a handy-dandy list of the six semi-finalists (pdf) complete with summaries of the books and a history of the award. Perhaps, if you would like to promote racing at a local level, you might want to send a copy to your friendly neighborhood librarian. Librarians try to collect a wide range of materials, but often the bottom line is heavily influenced by requests from the community. That would be ... you!

Amidst all the laments on how to create racing fans, no one ever suggests sharing a good racing book with newbies. Yet I for one was hooked when I borrowed Mary Simon's Horse Racing Through The Century from the library. And the latest NEA survey on reading found that, for the first time since 1982, reading is on the rise.

Maybe, just maybe, getting racing books into libraries can help create new track-goers. And it's something any racing fan can do, without waiting for the NTRA, the NYRA the governor of New York, the Breeder's Cup committee, or some whiz kid with a killer app for the iPad.

So go ahead, exercise your freedom, preserve a piece of racing history, and make a recommendation to your public library. Better yet, buy a copy of the winner when it's announced and donate it to your library. We'll take good care of it, I promise.

15 February 2010

Remembering a paperback rider

1976 photo of Dick Francis from Chris Capstick-Rex Features via The GuardianOn this day dedicated to some great men, let us take a moment to mark the passing of one of horse racing's greats. Dick Francis, jockey to the Queen, writer for the masses, died this weekend. Author of more than 40 novels which graced the bestseller lists throughout four decades, Francis brought the sights and sounds and language of the track to readers throughout the world.

If he'd never written a word, Francis would still be remembered as a winner of 350 races and Britain's jockey of the year in 1953-54. And after a stunning, calamitous ride in the 1956 Grand National aboard Devon Loch, he may have gone on to be remembered as the fellow who lost the National.

But instead, he retired from racing, and in 1957, published a memoir, Sport of Queens which led to a career as a racing columnist for the Sunday Express. Perhaps his years in steeplechase left him ever ready to jump to new things, for when his wife Mary suggested he try his hand at fiction, he gave it a go, cleared the hurdles with grace, and added "novelist" to his resume.

Perhaps, as the Washington Post obituary notes, his works were formulaic, but they were award-winning as well. He received the Diamond Dagger Award from the Crime Writers Association of Great Britain, and he remains the only author honored by the Mystery Writers of America for Best Novel three times (in 1970 for Forfeit, 1981 for Whip Hand, and 1996 for Come to Grief.)

As so many in the American racing industry deplore racing's declining profile, Dick Francis and his adventure-filled tales kept horse racing alive in the public conscience. Folks who never read a racing form picked up a Francis paperback -- and were transported to the track.

Last year, while handicapping the semi-finalists for the Dr. Tony Ryan Book Award, I remarked that when folks from outside of the racing world understand words like "furlong" and "irons", it's likely because of Dick Francis. I suspect, too, that one reason horse racing has more "buzz" than sailing and boxing is that Dick Francis novels -- with their detailed descriptions of silks and stalls, bits and bets -- reminded the general public that race tracks still exist.

Francis was mainstream in a way that simply dwarfs much of the literature of our sport. Look at these current Amazon ratings for last year's Tony Ryan Book Award semi-finalists:

Twoey and the Goat
- #1,557,541
The Untold Story of Joe Hernandez - #1,292,136
The Last Black King of the Kentucky Derby - #1,145,358
The History and Art of the Travers - #983,334
My Guy Barbaro - #697,040
Beyond the Racetrack - #115,624
by Dick Francis - #55,024
The paperback (#1,449) and the Kindle (#1300) editions are doing even better.

True, none of these books are by authors with the name recognition of Dick Francis, and also true that death of an author often pushes a bump in sales, but still -- it can't be denied that his tales of blood, sweat and horses reach a public that's never heard of TVG or Bloodhorse.

The many books of Dick Francis can be found on the shelves of bookstores and libraries most everywhere, and another collaboration with son Felix, Crossfire, is due out later this year. Many of his works are available in e-book or Kindle format. Even online readers can sample some classic Francis storytelling in "A Carrot for Chestnut", a short story available at the SI Vault. So, I suspect that much like Walter Farley and his Black Stallion, Francis and his tales of trackside skulduggery will continue to inform the public perception of horse racing for years to come. We've been lucky that throughout his dozens of novels, replete with murder, kidnapping, blackmail, doping, and nefarious financial schemes, Francis is still able to convey the thrill of the race and the magnificence of the horses.

Franz Lidz, whose 1993 Sports Illustrated article about Francis was expanded for inclusion in an eclectic 1998 collection, Horse People, quoted Francis as saying,

"Yes, riding was my first love. It's lovely when you're on a good horse, seeing the fence in front of you. Nothing could be more satisfying." He quickly adds, "But writing has its compensations. When a race is over, it's gone for good. A book remains."
Actually, about 42 of them remain. Thank you and God bless, Mr. Francis.

Frank at That's Amore Stables offers a different and eloquent tribute to Francis in his A Way with Horses post.

30 January 2010

Our Groundhog Day: the Sunshine Millions

At the newly redesigned Superfecta site, our favorite archivist laments the lack of fanfare surrounding this year's running of the Sunshine Millions. Let me add my voice to hers in mourning the absence of mainstream coverage of what has traditionally been a rather fun break in the winter blues.

In the past, the King and I have reveled in the quirkiness of a racing program coordinated between two tracks on two different coasts. Our spirits always lifted as the NBC camera panned the warm and sunny track environs. We'd stop at the OTB to make a few wagers on the Florida & California breds, then camp out on the couch with froofy summer drinks to watch racing on the "big screen". Frankly, I thought it was racing's Groundhog Day, a good reason for a party to hurry winter on its way.

And perhaps the fact that the Sunshine Millions is no longer offered on broadcast networks, or even ESPN, is some sort of portent of things to come, but I can't be contemplating such serious stuff tonight. Instead, I've scoured the web for all things Sunshiney, because this Iowa winter has been brutal, brutal, brutal -- and I need to think about spring.

For those of you in the same mood, here are some links to the past performances for Saturday's stakes from Santa Anita and Gulfstream:

Sunshine Millions Sprint
Gulfstream - Race 8
Post time ~4:30 ET (3:30 Central, for those playing from Des Moines)

* Sunshine Millions Distaff
Gulfstream - Race 9
Post time 5:08 ET (4:08 Central)

* Sunshine Millions Filly and Mare Sprint
Santa Anita - Race 6
Post time 5:36 ET (4:36 Central)

* Sunshine Millions Turf
Gulfstream - Race 10
Post time 5:43 (4:43 Central)

* Sunshine Millions Filly and Mare Turf
Santa Anita - Race 7
Post time 6:06 ET (5:06 Central)

Sunshine Millions Classic
Santa Anita - Race 8
Post time: 6:38 ET (5:38 CT)

Note: The Magna Pick 5 returns this weekend for $1 minimum, and 4 of the 5 races are Sunshine Millions races. The starting leg of the wager is the 9th at Laurel, followed by the starred races above. Past performances for all 5 races appear to be available from the Magna 5 site, which also provides instructions on how to place the bet: "Play the Magna 5 in person wherever you normally wager on the races. Ask the teller for the Pick Five at Laurel Park." They're plugging it as the $1 National Pick 5, and it seems to me that you gotta love how the Magna folks are bravely muddling through their own special winter.

Meanwhile, if you'd like some suggestions for selections, Superfecta also offers some analysis of the races, as do The Aspiring Horseplayer and Graded Stakes.

So yes, tomorrow, I will don longjohns and legwarmers, thick socks and warm woolen mittens, then scrape the remnants of ice and snow off the car to take a little trip to Altoona, IA. There, the King and I will spend a few hours in the drafty OTB section of Prairie Meadows, drinking cheap beer while we play the Groundhog Day game in which a win by California means that spring is on its way. Not as convenient or fun as days of yore, perhaps, but I learned during visits to Punxsutawney that even if it's six more weeks of winter, we've made it this far -- and that's certainly worth celebrating.

25 January 2010

The Quinella Place

At the Courier-Journal site, Jennie Rees posted a bit of an e-mail she received, describing a reader's visit to the track in Hong Kong. It's a short piece, a postcard, really, from a place that sounds like a railbird Nirvana. One of the more interesting bits is the description of a wagering option:

They had a very interesting bet called the quinella place. You got paid for 1,2 or 1,3 or 2,3. Makes it cool to throw bombs in there and you don't have to bummer out when you run 1-3.

Here at the Quinella Castle, we'd love a chance to play such a wager. We in fact wish such a wager had been in place for the Holy Bull, for then we would have cashed a ticket on Winslow Homer and sweet William's Kitten. Instead, I've an exacta slip now graced with my grocery list on the back.

I know that there are those who feel that the quinella has outlasted its usefulness now that we have the exacta-box, but well, wouldn't it be interesting to see if racing could attract more fans with wagers that are a bit easier to win? Might it not be worth a try now and then to put a few more entrees on the betting buffet?

It seems that much of the world already lives in a state of "permanent beta", and amazingly enough, people seem able to adapt to change. There's less downside now to trying something new, and abandoning it if it doesn't work out. It'd be great if a track somewhere could give the Quinella Place a try.

However, as I understand it, state regulatory agencies determine which wagers their tracks can offer, so trial balloons are a bit difficult to launch. But governments may be interested in change if they feel it might bring in more revenue. For example, Iowa politicians are currently considering a bill allowing poker tournaments in the track ballrooms as well as permitting advance deposit wagering -- all to increase revenue. It's possible that the sponsor of the bill came up with this idea all by himself, but it's more likely that casino and track advocates approached him with a suggestion.

Now might be the perfect time to ask for simple modifications to basic racing rules that might attract more customers. States seem open to change right now, as they scramble to balance budgets. But most track lobbying efforts appear focused on getting slots or table games. Modifications that might affect the horseplayer's experience don't seem to be high on most track agendas.

So I don't expect to see a Quinella Place wager anytime soon. And a single new wagering option won't save racing by itself. But the flexibility to try small experiments just might. Here at the Quinella Castle, we hope track execs are working to convince politicians and regulatory boards of the benefits of permanent beta. We hope this is the year we'll watch little trial balloons launch from racetracks throughout the land.

We hope, we hope.

25 December 2009

2009: Highlights from the Prairie

At last! Wrapping is done, our bags are packed, and the Christmas lights are twinkling 'round every doorway in the Little Castle on the Prairie. Tomorrow, we battle big snow, long lines, and airport security in an effort to return to Pennsylvania for some pierogies -- and a pint from the East End Brewing Company.

But tonight, as I repose in my kerchief, night cap in hand, visions of the year gone by dance through my head. "How many old recollections, and how many dormant sympathies, does Christmas time awaken!" Dickens asked in The Pickwick Papers, and for me, the answer seems to be quite a few.

As I contemplate the year gone by, I've no sugar plum vision of Rachel or Zenyatta to muse upon this Christmas Eve. We didn't make it to a single "big" track this year. Instead, we frequented Prairie Meadows, followed Mountaineer from afar, and took a weekend jaunt to Canterbury Park. We weren't present for any Eclipse-winning moments, but oh! the dormant sympathies that arise as I recall:

* Our first glimpse of Coach Jimi Lee. The race we caught in July was only an allowance for a field of four, but still, the opportunity to see the track record holder for 6 furlongs was hard to resist. It was his second race back after a dismal end to 2008, but he looked rather jaunty in the paddock, and it was a delight to be among the handful of live spectators cheering him on. (And I do mean "handful"; Prairie Meadows start times for Mondays and Tuesdays -- 1/2 of their race days -- is 3:00 local time. The crowds are always sparse for these.) I've an inordinate fondness for track record holders; it seems there's always a little bit of local greatness around these types -- and DRF reports that he holds track records in Illinois as well as Iowa! Icing on this sugarplum: his name has graced a few Mountaineer cards -- in 2007 (I think) he won the Waterford Handicap and placed 2nd in the Christmas Sprint -- and somehow this seemed like a connection to home. Sun on my shoulders, gentle breeze blowing, and a 9-year old champ making a race of it in the stretch; what more could one want? This was the race that convinced me that I could enjoy racing in Iowa, even though Coach Jimi Lee finished 2nd to Celluloid Hero.

* Proceed Bee winning the Prairie Mile. Proceed Bee is a personal favorite, as his win in the Battaglia Memorial kept me in the game in a little KY Derby contest I play. (This year, I came in 5th, and actually received a prize!) Proceed Bee is one reason I felt like a winner all year long, and it was really nice that he made a stop in Iowa.

* Furthest Land. Who would have thought I'd get to see a Breeder's Cup winner while in the midwest? We traveled up to Canterbury Park for the Claiming Crown (where fellow blogger Ted Grevelis showed us the ropes) and had the opportunity to watch Antrim County trounce the latest BC Dirt Mile champ in the Claiming Crown Jewel.

* Red Hot and Gold. A gorgeous gray who grabbed my attention with a win in the Cyclones Handicap in June. Owner Peggy Shattuck hoped he'd be the first Iowa-bred to win the G2 Cornhusker in late June, but it just wasn't his day. He always looked good in the paddock, and the Quinella Crew always enjoyed cheering for him, no matter what, and he repaid us by winning the Ralph Hayes Handicap for the second time in August.

* Native Ruler. It was really rather cool to see owner Maggi Moss at the races, and she always looked ready for the winners' circle photos when Native Ruler ran. His win in the Prairie Express in May was no surprise (he paid $2.60 to win), but in August's Prairie Meadows Sprint, he had to wear down leader Coach Jimi Lee in the stretch to notch another victory.

* Euphony. What a beautiful horse this one is! And what a delight to cheer her to victory in the Iowa Distaff! After conquering Iowa, she went off to the Claiming Crown high on a six-race win streak. What sorrow to see Happiness Is pass her in the Lady Canterbury at the Claiming Crown.

* Shadowbdancing Before the Cornhusker, I watched this horse enter the paddock like some sort of conquering hero, full of himself and ready to run. He finished a fine second to Jonesboro that day, then in August, he traveled to the hills of West Virginia to win the West Virginia Governor's Stakes at Mountaineer. Sleek and black, this horse is the stuff of dreams. I simply adore Shadowbdancing.

* Uh Oh Bango. A phenomenal run in the Iowa Freshman Stakes earned Uh Oh Bango the season's highest Beyer for a 2-year old: 102. He's gone on to compete in some top-notch races, including a recent 2nd place finish to Rule in the G3 Delta Jackpot. Fingers crossed, we're hoping he'll find his way to the Kentucky Derby.

* Missile Impossible I didn't get to see this one in person, but I've been getting a kick out of watching her races at Mountaineer on the Calracing.com website. (What a wonderful site this is! Thank you, California!) A dead cold closer, win or lose, her Mountaineer efforts have all been a thrill to watch. If you'd like to give yourself a little gift today, take a peek at her race from 10/13. She's 20 lengths off the lead at the top of the stretch, totally out of the picture -- and, yes, she wins! Peter Berry's call is great; I like the way he pronounces "Missile" with a long I, and I love the inadvertent "No way!" he exclaims at the end.

* Mine That Bird. A Kentucky Derby winner raced at Mountaineer! Yes, the loss to Soul Warrior was disappointing, especially for those of us who weren't all that impressed with Soul Warrior's second place finish in the Iowa Derby. But the little horse and his black-hatted connections bucked the common wisdom, and gave Mountie a try. I saw it as a good thing for fans at small tracks everywhere. Whether his Derby win was a fluke or not, in my opinion, Mine That Bird was the blue-collar horse of the year.

Well, the night cap's just about gone, but the visions of 2009 remain, sentimental reminders that even in tough times, life can be good, and victory is sweet, no matter the size of the purse.

"'This,' said Mr. Pickwick, looking round him, 'this is, indeed, comfort.'" Awash in memories of the year gone by, the Quinella Queen concurs.

19 September 2009

End of the meet at Prairie Meadows

Ah, fall is in the air, and soon, the only racing in town will involve wheels. So tonight, we're heading out to say so long to some of our Prairie Meadows favorites: Royal Move, Silverbdancing, Highest Degree. And while we're there, we'll say hello to an old friend from the Derby prep races: Theregoesjojo.

And of course, we're looking forward to the final thoroughbred stakes for 2009: the Prairie Meadows Oaks (past performances; pdf) and the Prairie Meadows Derby (past performances; pdf)

The Oaks looks wide open to me, and with a full field, it's likely to have a nice payoff. DRF covers the contenders for both races in a track report. Me, I gotta get out of here -- we're headed to the track, one last time.

Here comes JoJo

Tonight marks the end of the thoroughbred/quarter horse mixed meet at Prairie Meadows, and while there are some Turf Luck favorites on the card, the big name of the day must surely be Theregoesjojo, morning line favorite in the $75,000 Prairie Meadows Derby.

Once upon a time, Theregoesjojo was on the Derby Trail, battling Quality Road in the Fountain of Youth and the Florida Derby. After a disappointing finish in the Blue Grass Stakes, in which "his stifle locked up twice," trainer Ken McPeek gave Jojo some time off, and contemplated an attempt at turf. (Bloodhorse.com)

But instead, here he is, out where the tall grass grows, facing the likes of Minnesota Derby winner Perfect Bull, Iowa Breeders' Derby winner Potanio, and Manitoba Derby winner Smuggler's Hold. His stiffest competition may be Dumar, a Steve Asmussen runner who's shared a starting gate with some of this year's finest -- Mine that Bird at Sunland, Friesan Fire at the Fair Grounds -- but has yet to score a stakes win.

And though one might be tempted to go with Smuggler's Hold on Talk Like a Pirate Day, here at the Little Castle on the Prairie, we're hoping Jojo's trip to the heartland heralds a return to the winner's circle:

31 July 2009

WV Derby Day -- almost heaven, West Virginia

Hundreds of miles away from the West Virginia panhandle, my heart still flutters as the first Saturday in August approaches. WV Derby Day! This year, the race has been upgraded to a G-2, and just in time, as the reigning Kentucky Derby winner Mine That Bird drops by to make a run for the $750,000 Derby purse.

While the Derby, race 8, is getting all of the attention, the undercard features shippers from Todd Pletcher and Steve Asmussen as well as some longtime local favorites. Here's a brief look at the day:

Race 1 - Mountaineer Juvenile Stakes - $85,000.
6f, dirt. 2yo. (Past performances; pdf)
Seven entries, including Pletcher-trainee Zip in Time. Pittsburghers love the Rooneys, any Rooney, so it's quite possible that final odds on Asmussen's Prince Rooney will be even lower than the ML 7-5.

Race 2 - West Virginia Legislature Chairman's Cup - $85,000.
4-1/2 f, dirt. (Past performances; pdf)
This is the race of the day! EZ Warrior, who ran third to Hard Spun in the 2007 Kings Bishop, ships in take on Charles Town Dash winner Trust or Bust. Speedy Piratesonthelake gets Mike Smith in the irons. The lone female entrant, La Chica Rica won the Hancock County Handicap over this track in May. Lots of good entrants, lots of angles, but here at Turf Luck, we'll be cheering for the Morning Line favorite, our beloved Bernie Blue who scored a 103 speed figure winning the Dale Baird Memorial last out. He's won this one before, here's hoping the 7-year old can do it again.

Race 3 - West Virginia Secretary of State Stakes - $85,000.
6f, dirt. Fillies & Mares. (Past performances; pdf)
Nadeshiko was a surprising second to Lady Chalice in the Saylorville at Prairie Meadows in June, but in this spot, she's the ML favorite.

Race 4 - Mountaineer Juvenile Fillies Stakes - $85,000.
6f, dirt. 2yo fillies. (Past performances; pdf)
Four of the entrants are coming off a winning debut, including For Royalty. With Mike Smith on board again for Todd Pletcher, she looks like a serious contender to ML favorite Bronx City Girl, who ran third in her first stakes attempt, the Prairie Gold Lassie at Prairie Meadows.

Race 5 - West Virginia Senate President's Breeders' Cup Stakes - $110,000.
1 mile 70 yards, turf. Fillies & Mares. (Past performances; pdf)
First turf race of the day, and another opportunity to cheer on a longtime favorite as Beautiful Venue. She won this two years ago, and she's been in the money at Mountaineer 10 of 11 times. Mike Smith rides yet again for Pletcher, this time on Mega. I'm still rooting for Beautiful Venue. (Cat-xacta alert for Madison and Floyd: Lady Cat and Cat Hop.)

Race 6 - The Harvey Arneault Memorial Breeders' Cup Stakes - $110,000.
6f, dirt. (Past performances; pdf)
Graded stakes winner Ravalo returns to the Mountain as a heavy favorite in this spot. Yes, Mike Smith has the mount, though amazingly, Ravalo's trainer is not Todd Pletcher.

Race 7 - The West Virginia Governor's Stakes - $125,000
1-1/16 miles, dirt. (Past performances; pdf)
Shadowbdancing looked simply magnificent in the paddock before the G2 Cornhusker at Prairie Meadows; though he finished a length behind Jonesboro, he filled in a nice little exacta for the Quinella Crew. Somehow, I always thought Dubious Miss was a mare, but no, he's a gelding, a rather speedy one who's been winning with Calvin Borel in the irons. Today, like Mine That Bird, he's ridden by Mike Smith.

Race 8 - The West Virginia Derby (G3) - $750,000.
1-1/8 miles, dirt. (Past performances; pdf)
Only 6 entrants this year: Awesome Rhythm, Big Drama, Mine That Bird, Monty's Best, Soul Warrior, and Sunday Sunrise. (The last two are coupled, leaving just five wagering opportunities.)

Year in and year out, the journalist who seems to offer the best insights into the West Virginia Derby is Bill Mooney, whose articles appear on both the Review (WV) and Mountaineer's website. Mooney's most interesting is this observation:

"On June 7 at Woodbine, Awesome Rhythm drew off to an 8 ½-length victory in the Victoria Park Stakes, which is a 1 1/8-mile race. It was the colt’s third consecutive stakes triumph, with the prior two having been achieved at 1 1/16 miles. In all three races, Awesome Rhythm was never more than four lengths removed from the lead. It is a similar pattern to that of several recent West Virginia Derby winners, Sir Shackleton (2004), Zanjero (2007) and Ready Set (2008)." (Mountaineer site)

Race 9 - The West Virginia House of Delegates Speaker's Cup Stakes - $85,000.
1 mile 70 yards, turf. (Past performances; pdf)
The Morning Line favorite is Blues Street at 7-5. Of course he's trained by Todd Pletcher. Of course, that's Mike Smith holding the reins. With this much Mike Smith, I wouldn't be surprised to see a crew from Animal Planet filming an episode of Jockeys.

If you plan to go:
  • Bring sunscreen. It's a long day, there's little shade, and the forecast calls for mostly sunny with highs in the low 80s.
  • Eat before you get to the track. While Mountaineer offers some fine dining in its trackside restaurant, and its La Bonne Vie recently received an Award of Excellence from Wine Spectator, it's been impossible to get a reservation ever since Mine That Bird's appearance was announced. Keep in mind that you likely won't be able to bring in your own cooler. You may call Mountaineer at 1-800-80-40-HOT to protest inquire about this policy.
  • Bring your own chairs. Seating will be at a premium. Even in the best of times, Mountaineer has trouble handling the crowds on Derby Day; this year, I'd expect it to be standing room only. In the past, the outdoor deck seating has been full by noon. (The Derby is slated to be run around 5:40.) The outdoor "grandstand" consists of approximately 50 seats. Most days, Mountaineer regulars carry in their own lawn chairs and settle in on the apron. There are indoor grandstands which are not air-conditioned. Traditionally, the highest indoor level has not filled until after race 1 or 2. While they're a long hike up the stairs, there is one added benefit: the windows on the upper deck offer a view of the paddock.
  • Add a half-hour to your ETA for parking. Though there is no fee for parking, the lots will be packed. One year, one non-MTB year, we spent a full 20 minutes being directed to a spot that seemed to be a country mile away from the track. Check with Mountaineer, but usually a shuttle bus runs from the casino to the track every 10 minutes or so. For folks who have difficulty walking distances, this might be an option.
  • Enjoy the fine stylings of Mountaineer's announcer, Peter Berry. While Mountaineer does a lot of things wrong, it knows how to hire talent. Berry is the standard by which track announcer's should be measured. He's that good.
And finally:
  • Buy a Derby drink. Mountaineer seems to change its "signature" drink every year, but whether its called a "Blue Derby" or a "Perfecta", you'll pay around $4 for a cool, tasty drink served in a souvenir derby glass. Hmmm....maybe you should buy two. You'll probably need the extra liquid refreshment. And if you happen to find that there's no room in your cupboard for all of your souvenir glasses, there's a homesick librarian in Des Moines who would be glad to take one off your hands.

29 July 2009

Racinos: delivering the big horse for the little guy?

Fresh off a trip up I-35 to Canterbury Park's fine presentation of the Claiming Crown, where the kind and courteous Ted Grevelis took time from his preparations for live blogging of the day to show a few out-of-towners the best seats in the house, I'm trying to catch up on the racing world news I missed while dodging deadlines at work.

As far as I can tell, the only things worth mentioning this week are: Saratoga, Rachel Alexandra, Saratoga, Del Mar, some podunk race in WV, Saratoga, racing is dying, Saratoga, Rachel Alexandra, neverending NYRA saga, Rachel, Saratoga, Rachel, Saratoga...

This glut of East Coast-centric coverage is mildly irksome since out here in the cornfields, we are far, far from the likes of Rachel Alexandra or the Saratoga crowd of big-name trainers, owners, and jockeys. I'll not get a chance to visit the Spa this year, and every bit of Saratoga coverage serves to remind me that trying to follow along from home is vastly inferior to being there. (You might recall William Murray has an apt metaphor for viewing races on a screen.)

To add to my chagrin, quite a bit of the racing world seems to fault Mine That Bird's connections for depriving the racing public of a showdown at the Monmouth Corral. It seems like every journalist on earth is now asking Chip Woolley, "Why West Virginia?" Bloggers whine that a win in the WV Derby means nothing, and that the move detracts from the Kentucky Derby winner's already dubious stature. An underlying tone in much of the Mine That Bird coverage seems to imply that running in a G-2 at a racino with slots-inflated purses is not really racing.

To which, I say: Pshaw! Or, in modern terms: Give me a break! Mine That Bird's visit to West Virginia might be the best thing that could happen to the racing industry this year.

While the Internet, advance deposit wagering, and off-track betting parlors have allowed track handle to defy geography, I suspect that true fans -- committed, wagering fans -- are created at the track, where the oft-majestic presence of the horses, the roaring cheers of the crowd as the runners head down the stretch, the high-fives of victory and even the crumpled tickets of defeat result in an impression that lasts much longer than the experience of listening to a tinny racecall on a laptop or clicking the tv remote.

While Saratoga and Del Mar (and, yes, Keeneland) are heaven on earth for a racing fan, those of us living far away from such divine tracks often have little choice but to frequent racing's limbo land of racino racing. Limbo land covers some pretty big acreage in horse racing nation, and many of these second and third tier tracks are located near substantial metropolitan areas.

As the racing industry bemoans its continued irrelevancy to the general public and longtime horseplayers focus on relatively obscure issues of little interest to the man on the street, it's been purses at racinos that have actually helped to draw big-name horses to the small-time venues. And big horses at little tracks get attention. The mainstream media comes to call. Folks learn that something special might happen in that oval off Route 2. They mosey over on race day, they place a wager, they catch the fever.

And it's easy to return to a racino: no admission charges or parking fees stand in the way of a return visit. There's much I dislike about racinos, and there's certainly much to criticize about how seldom racino management pays attention to its racing product, but one must admit they offer a largely untapped opportunity for the growth of the sport. A Kentucky Derby winner who barnstorms the racinos of the land might just attract the fans, attention, and handle the industry so desperately needs.

Meanwhile, this Saturday, race fans in western Pennsylvania, southern Ohio, and the West Virginia panhandle can rejoice in the gift those slot machines have wrought: a big horse is in town!