Tag Archives: Claire Novak

Rave Reviews? – Animal Kingdom

Back in 2009, I put together a highlight reel of quotes and prognostications about Kentucky Derby winner Mine That Bird leading up to his upset victory at odds of 50-1. Needless to say, it wasn’t pretty.

This year’s Derby winner, Animal Kingdom, was not nearly the monumental shock Mine That Bird was, but at post time odds of 20-1, he clearly was not on the radar of many bettors.

With that in mind, I decided to again comb the prediction columns of some of the racing media’s most notable figures to see where they stood on Animal Kingdom prior to the big race.

Like the movie Avatar, Animal Kingdom received mixed reviews, but ended up making all the money. In the end, that’s all that matters.

As usual, I will start the proceedings with my own analysis of Animal Kingdom, so as not to give the impression that I am just taking potshots at everyone else.

#16 – Animal Kingdom
Won the Spiral Stakes
Even connections seem tense
About his dirt form

That is what we call a good, old-fashioned swing and a miss.

But it gets worse. Have a look at this post to my Twitter feed just hours before the race…

“Triumph The Insult Comic Dog’s “No Rules In The Animal Kingdom” came on my shuffle on the way to the track. Choosing to ignore that sign.”

That’s not only a swing and a miss, that’s a swing and a miss from a tee-ball stand, then whacking yourself in the face with the bat on the backswing.

Now, let’s take a look at how some of the other members of the turf writing community saw Animal Kingdom. Just for kicks, I have arranged the analyses in a rough order by how favorably they projected the horse’s performance, from non-factor to win threat.

Let’s start at the bottom…

“Bottom line: Can dismiss.”
- Tom Pedulla, USA Today

“Another complete mystery on dirt.”
- Steven Crist, Daily Racing Form

“Still has considerable upside, but didn’t beat much in the Spiral, and that race was six weeks ago.”
- Mike Watchmaker, Daily Racing Form

“Animal Kingdom is bred to run all day long so the 1 1/4-mile distance of the Kentucky Derby isn’t a concern. His pedigree is geared mostly to turf racing, however, so it’s questionable if he’ll take to the dirt at Churchill Downs.”
- Dan Illman, Daily Racing Form

“Brilliant Speed and Animal Kingdom are synthetic/turf horses who may or may not relish the track…Animal Kingdom could be any kind of horse but has trained well and has yet to miss the board.”
- Jason Shandler, Blood-Horse

“Given the dirt question and the fact his major victory came in a Grade 3 race, Animal Kingdom deserves to be 25-1 in a 20-horse field. Animal Kingdom, however, seems to be generating favorable buzz, and he might not offer great value in the win pool. But given his consistency, stamina, and impressive last race, he should at least be an attractive exotic-wager proposition.”
- Marcus Hersh, Daily Racing Form

“Worth using in exotics, for sure.”
- Jay Privman, Daily Racing Form

Exotics Contenders: ANIMAL KINGDOM: In Graham We Trust. The horse looks outstanding in the flesh and should have no trouble with the Derby distance. There’s not a ton to like on past performances to be honest, but there’s an infinite amount of respect for trainer Graham Motion and I love the grassy pedigree on the dam side, so key in past Derby success stories.”
- Jeremy Plonk, ESPN

“I’m certainly going to use him in the trifecta, because people I respect say no horse had a better work than Animal Kingdom at Churchill.”
- Jennie Rees, Louisville Courier-Journal

“Yes, the dirt is a big question mark, and he’s bred for the turf, but he looked good winning the Spiral, and the horse he beat by 6 lengths came back to be beaten a nose in the Blue Grass. He made an impressive early move in the Spiral, so you know he has a turn of foot. And he’s bred to run forever, so you just have to take the chance that he’ll be as effective on dirt. In this kind of year, it’s a chance worth taking if the price is right.”
- Steve Haskin, Blood-Horse

“Trained by the very capable Graham Motion, Animal Kingdom would not be a surprise to hit the board at a big price.”
- Gene Menez, Sports Illustrated

“Love the way he won the Spiral. Watch out if he likes the dirt.”
- Andy Andrews, Kentucky Confidential

“Watch out for Animal Kingdom, especially now that John Velazquez is aboard. After all his bad luck with horses going out of the race, this is one man who is hungry for a Derby win.”
- Deirdre Biles, Blood-Horse

“Animal Kingdom is a beast of a horse who caught our eye last fall. He is long and lanky with a humongous quickening stride.”
- Bruno DeJulio, The Rail Blog – New York Times

“Roared mightily through Spiral field. Worked well on Churchill dirt. Trust in Motion and love the price.”
- John Scheinman, Kentucky Confidential

“Animal Kingdom is capable of a sustained drive for second.”
- Frank Angst, Thoroughbred Times

“I’ve got many questions about Animal Kingdom’s ability to transfer his form onto dirt, but the bottom line is that he’s improved as a 3-year-old, has the pedigree for the distance and seems adaptable to any kind of pace based on his limited starts. If he’s anywhere as good on dirt as he’s been on synthetic, he’ll be a factor in the Derby and that’s a leap of faith I’m willing to make.”
- Chris Rossi, Hello Race Fans

“Animal Kingdom will win the Kentucky Derby. I know this because I didn’t write a feature about him.”
- Claire Novak, Everything (this particular quote in ESPN)

Congratulations to everyone that cashed tickets on Animal Kingdom. To everyone else, the Preakness Stakes is only a couple weeks away. There is always time for redemption.

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The case for small tracks: A Top Ten

Small tracks are not the reason for horse racing's current situation. Shutting them down would only further damage the sport.

To help combat sagging business in the horse racing industry, a growing population of industry members have begun calling for a contraction of racetracks in North America.

In his keynote speech at the University of Arizona’s Racetrack Industry Program Symposium, Churchill Downs CEO Robert Evans presented a plan that would potentially halve the number of racetracks in North America. Evans said this plan would create “a business that is economically viable” that focuses on a “quality product” . That sentiment was echoed by superstar freelancer Claire Novak in a recent debate about whether fans or bettors drive the racing industry.

Allow me to respectfully disagree.

I make no bones about being a small track guy. My home course is a four furlong mixed breed oval in what one pessimistic message board poster called “no man’s land”. My state’s Thoroughbred industry has been in decline for decades, expedited by the addition of expanded gaming in other nearby states. If contraction were to happen tomorrow, there is little doubt Pinnacle Race Course and Mount Pleasant Meadows would be among the first to go.

But does it really have to come to that? Putting my bias aside, there are plenty of reasons why slashing the number of racing venues, especially those on the sport’s lowest levels, would only further damage the sport we love.

To help prove my point in an easy-to-digest manner, I have created a ten-point list, a “Top Ten” if you will, of reasons why contraction would eventually cripple horse racing in North America and why our small venues are worth standing up for against the will of the powers that be.

Please note, this is not a call for subsidization of failing tracks. If a track shows it is not viable and the ownership has no interest in keeping it afloat, then so be it. However, if the will to live among ownership and horsemen remains strong, then no one has the right to strong-arm them into shutting down.

From the top…

10. The Almighty Dollar
Governments typically don’t like to openly admit that they like horse racing. In fact, most are content to watch it rot on the vine as long as they don’t have to spend any money. However, it is no secret that they sure enjoy the tax revenue that racetracks bring in through wagering and other avenues. Threaten that cash flow with a “sweeping industry contraction initiative” and see how those governments, especially on the local level, respond to their track being on the chopping block. Nothing mobilizes an elected official like telling him he can’t make money.

But let’s keep it on the racetrack for now. Many small tracks run their meet for the sole purpose of keeping simulcast wagering in their plant. Not every state has off-track betting parlors or advanced deposit wagering as a source to bet on racing, and if their local bullring closes down, so does their chance to bet on the races. Mr. Evans has made himself the face of the contraction movement with his keynote speech. However, nothing will suffer more from people being unable to place bets than his all-sources Kentucky Derby handle. The Derby is the one day that casual fans brave the smoky simulcast rooms to bet on the horse they read about in the paper. These people probably aren’t going to sign up for TwinSpires or drive another hour and a half or more to go to the next nearest simulcast outlet. That money will vanish into the ether and likely never return.

The remainder of the countdown can be found behind the jump.

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Making the most of 2010: A look back on the year

The days leading up to New Year’s Eve offer a time for reflection on the year gone by.

For most, doing so may conjure up a roller coaster of memories, recollections, emotions and perhaps scars. Some will find they have made the most of the year, while others might discover that they have done very little with the last 365 days.

After doing some searching of my own, I have no problem staking my claim in the former group.

I often carry massive stacks of photo albums and other mementos in my vehicle because I always assume people do not believe me when I tell them the stories of my adventures. To save time and space, I have compiled some of the highlights of my 2010 into a handy bulleted list of links to posts of those stories.

Even after putting it into an itemized list, it boggles my mind that I experienced all of this in a lifetime, much less in one year. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again – I am a lucky son of a gun.

Let’s have a look at some of the things that have gone down since this time last year.

In the year 2010 I…

- Said goodbye to the man who got me into this whole mess in the first place.
- Watched the Michigan Gaming Control Board slash the state’s race dates.
- Checked two tracks off my wish list.
- Watched the Michigan Gaming Control Board slash the state’s race dates again.
- Was told to get out of Michigan by Chris McCarron at Keeneland Race Course.
- Followed a colt with Michigan ties through the Keeneland Two-Year-Olds in Training Sale.
- Gave out 20-1 winner Exhi in my ThoroFan Handicapper’s Corner preview of the Coolmore Lexington Stakes.
- Drove off the beaten path to chase the Fortune 6 wager at Beulah Park…And was promptly dumped out by the second leg.
- Wrote some haikus for Claire Novak’s NTRA blog.
- Lost a Kentucky Derby pin collecting contest against Dr. Sale Guru Emily.
- Got pelted by a flying mint julep on Kentucky Oaks day.
- Roamed the backstretch to gather quotes after the Kentucky Derby.
- Went to Mount Pleasant Meadows a lot.
- Hosted racetrack bucket-lister Tom Miscannon during his visit to Michigan.
- Suited up in the box seats at Arlington Park.
- Broke down a Pick 4 while waiting in line for a cage fight, then did a phone interview about my selections during an intermission for Claire Novak’s Youbet On-Track podcast.
- Watched the next generation of Michigan-breds go through the sale ring.
- Ate, bet and drove my way through Hoosier Park, Ellis Park, Riverside Downs, The Red Mile and River Downs, which earned the attention of Jennie Rees’ blog.
- Severely underestimated the popularity of racing in Montana at Yellowstone Downs.
- Played blackjack and the Quarter Horses at Prairie Meadows.
- Live blogged the Indiana Derby on-site at Hoosier Park.
- Partied with Bo Derek, Toby Keith. Encountered Kentucky’s governor. Visited champion mare Zenyatta in her stall.
- Witnessed one of the greatest races in the history of the sport – The Breeders’ Cup Classic – Even if the outcome wasn’t what we had all hoped.
- Got to pet Zenyatta, cover breaking news in the Churchill Downs press box.

I don’t always drink beer, but when I do, I prefer Dos Equis…Stay thirsty, my friends.

Okay, perhaps that last statement is not entirely accurate, but it seemed like the right thing to say at the time.

Later today, my travels will take me to Turfway Park. Once there, I will have been to every still-active track I have ever visited within the 2010 calendar year…If that makes any sense. Turfway was the last track I visited in 2009 as well, so it is fitting to bring everything full circle.

This year has been, without a doubt, the most memorable ride of my life. I would like to take this opportunity to thank everyone who shared in my adventures over the last 12 months at the races, in the press box, in meetings, at parties, on the road, on this site and all points in between. You are the ones who make all these stories worth telling, be it as a reader or an active participant.

Now let’s try to carry some of this good mojo into 2011, shall we?

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Breeders’ Cup Mercenary Song – Part 3: The Aftermath

Saturday's race may be the moment history will remember, but the day after is when the real magic happened. The blanket of flowers draped over Blame following his Breeders' Cup Classic victory hang outside his barn.

Over the last couple Breeders’ Cup posts, the recurring theme has been my standing as a lucky son of a gun.

Evidence of this fact was apparent throughout Breeders’ Cup weekend, but at no time was it more clear than on Sunday, the day after the Breeders’ Cup Classic.

The day started around 7:30 a.m. on the Churchill Downs backstretch. It was not warm.

A cold haze had settled over the track as horses headed out for their morning jogs or back to their barns – not quite frost and not quite fog, with a dash of spray from hoses cleaning up the ground near the barns.

I nodded to the backstretch guard as I walked by like I owned the place. After covering three major events at Churchill Downs, the power-drunkenness of having the proverbial skeleton key has yet to wear off.

After some wandering, I came across superstar freelancer Claire Novak and super-skilled photographer Jamie Newell loitering around the barn of trainer Al Stall, Jr.. I’d be lying if I said the Breeders’ Cup Classic-winning trainer’s barn was anything close to abuzz following his charge Blame’s epic victory in the previous day’s race. A few reporters filed in and out of Stall’s office for interviews while another group congregated around the stall of the victorious horse. The blanket of flowers that hung from Blame’s withers following his big win now sat idly on a security barrier, drawing little attention. If I really wanted to, I probably could have made off with it and gotten a few hundred yards before getting tackled by security, but I was on the clock.

As Jamie snapped photos of Claire with the newly retired colt, I overheard someone say Stall was soon to be bound for a plane to New Orleans. As Stall was one of the people I had to interview that day, this suddenly boosted my urgency to around Defcon 3 (I am not sure whether the Defcon scale goes up or down, but three sounds like a number that would be somewhere in the middle).

Shortly after this revelation, Stall emerged from his office and chatted with the people gathered around the horse. As he left that group, I hopped over the ravine that separates the barns from the middle area, flashed my media credential and asked for a chat. We spoke about Blame’s big win, what it meant to him, the horse’s future and the potential of reloading for next year with Ack Ack winner Apart. I knew he had a plane to catch, so I tried not to hold him for too long and let him go on his way with everything I needed.

As I alluded to earlier, the scene was eerily quiet for a barn that just won a race worth two and a half times as much as the Kentucky Derby and beat arguably the best, or at least the most beloved, horse of the last five years, if not longer. In total, I do not recall there being many more than 20 people around the Stall barn at any one time, including myself, security and the trainer’s employees.

Why the lack of fanfare for the colt who could very well end up being named Horse of the Year? Remember that beloved horse from the previous paragraph? Her going away party was in progress just a few barns over.

When I got to Barn 41, a pair of healthy crowds had formed around that horse, some readers may know her as Zenyatta, and her trainer John Shirreffs. The human subject was answering questions outside the barn while his star charge grazed in a nearby grassy area. Shirreffs kept an even keel with his responses considering he missed out on just a little under $2 million by a head. However, after the ride Team Zenyatta has had over the last three years, there was plenty to be proud of.

After Shirreffs wrapped things up, the media types migrated from the barn to the half circle surrounding the champion mare. Compared to the roughly 20 people in the vicinity of Blame’s stall, it would not be hard to venture an eyeball guess of 150 fans, horsepeople, media workers and other interested parties came and went throughout the morning.

Zenyatta’s patch of grass was next to the fence separating the backstretch from urban Louisville. Whether word got out that the mare would be making an appearance that morning or fans just regularly camped out near her barn hoping she would grace their presence, they showed up en masse for Zenyatta’s sendoff.

The fans on the outside looking in crammed against the fence and stuck their fingers and camera lenses through the chain link fence in hopes of getting a brush with the champion or offer her a peppermint (which the horse’s groom surprisingly allowed her to partake). So many cars lined the sidewalk that photographers trying to capture the enormity of it all couldn’t fit them all in the shot.

The give and take between Zenyatta and her separated fans was something to behold. The crowd oohed and giggled at every toss of the mare’s head and poke of her hoof. In return, Zenyatta looked out at the crowd and appeared to make eye contact with each and every one of them. Not to sink too deep into simile, but it was like when the entire section of a concert hall thinks a rock star is singing a song just for them. Whether was inquisitiveness, friendliness or an ego the size of Idaho, Zenyatta repeatedly tugged her groom, Mario Espinoza over to the fence to visit with the masses.

On my side of the fence, a flurry of cameras clicked and snapped, from professionals with foot-long lenses to people with camera phones. Because I wanted to maintain a shred of professionalism during my time on the backstretch, I decided to leave my camera in the car, not knowing this was going to turn into such a love-fest.

The blob of credentialed individuals shifted as Zenyatta decided to try new patches of grass to chomp or examine something that captured her attention. That movement was instigated by the nearby security, both uniformed and personal to the horse.

While we were shuffled back to make way for the mare, Claire informed me that Zenyatta’s personal security guy had previously worked for such popular figures as Jennifer Lopez and Tom Petty. How one goes from overseeing international musical artists to livestock is beyond me, but all three remain alive and uninjured, so clearly he is good at what he does.

Before he left, Shirreffs walked out to meet his star pupil to the sound of more furious camera clicks. To borrow a phrase from author Malcolm Gladwell, this was the tipping point from “look” to “touch”. Soon, people who looked like they had some kind of connection with the connections gathered around the horse to nuzzle her nose, pat her neck and pose for a photo op. For a horse that appears so fearsome when she struts from paddock to post, Zenyatta was surprisingly gentle with the strange people, including small children.

After the people who looked like they may have had ties with the horse filed out, Zenyatta was greeted by some higher-ranking members of the group surrounding her – the ones who had been dealing with the mare from the beginning – most notably HRTV analyst Zoe Cadman.

At this point, people started getting brave.

People in the blob began asking Zenyatta’s security guard for a photo op, and soon enough, a queue was formed. There were plenty of exceptions, but the order of visitation was largely parallel to the unwritten totem pole of racing media types. I don’t know what belittling title Ray Paulick would give my status in the turf writing community, but I knew I had no business demanding to be anywhere near the front of the line.

The encounters with Zenyatta ran the gamut of emotions, from joy to awe to tears. This horse meant different things to different people, and after such an emotional final race, it all came pouring out outside of Barn 41. Watching it all unfold with so many of the friends I had made during my short time in the professional turf writing community was the mother of all “lucky son of a gun” moments.

Meanwhile, I began to face a significant personal dilemma. Arguably the most photogenic horse on the planet was right in front of me mugging it up for any piece of curved glass within a half mile radius and my camera was in my car on the other side of the backstretch. I could have gone and grabbed it, but risked her being put away and missing what was sure to be a dramatic farewell; or I could have stayed there and taken it all in, but had nothing to show for it, save for other people’s pictures. My photographic memory stinks. I booked it.

As I power walked through the shedrows, I glanced over at Blame’s barn. Compared to the scene I just left, it was a ghost town. Who says money can buy popularity?

Fortunately, the only thing I missed was a few more fans getting to meet the mare of the hour. Now that several of us in our little group were wielding cameras, we each handed off our equipment to whomever was not currently behind a lens before getting in line for a multi-pronged photo assault.

While we watched the legion of lanyard-wearers file to and from Zenyatta, we were joined by the most perfectly-timed backstretch tour van in the history of Churchill Downs. I was far from the only lucky son of a gun on the backstretch that day.

After watching enough others get their brush with greatness, I finally worked up the nerve to get in line. It was a bit of a wait, and it took some effort to remind the security guard that I was in line in the middle of the commotion, but I finally got to the front.

I wish I could say I was blown away by the monster mare’s physical presence, but I deal with Belgian Draft Horses back home, so big horses are kind of par for the course. However, the ones back home weren’t nearly as smooth to the touch as Zenyatta. When I got to pet Funny Cide during my visit to Ellis Park last year, I considered finding a container to save the gelding’s hair that had accumulated on my hand. That was not an issue with Zenyatta.

After that initial pat on the neck, I felt in a bit of an awkward position. While this was unquestionably the “Tell the Grandkids” moment that I was striving for in my Thoroughbred Times TODAY postcards, I was not sure what else to do but pet her on the neck. While everyone else had done everything short of hop on her back and shout “Giddy Up”, the thought lingered that I would be the one to accidentally trigger something that sets her off. I’ve seen what those front hooves can do. With so many cameras pointed in my direction, it would have been a moment that would live in infamy.

So I stood there and stroked her neck while repeating the only phrase that came to mind at the moment, “Nice mare.” Smooth.

Soon enough, my turn was over and it was time to congeal back into the blob.

The festivities continued for another 20 minutes or so before Zenyatta was taken back to her barn. She was given a farewell of cheers and applause, which brought a look of mild panic to the faces of her handlers, who implored the crowd to tone it down. When the noise made it through the cotton ball barriers and into her eardrums, the docile mare who just shared a calm, tender moment with everyone in a quarter-mile radius turned into the aggressive, front-hoof-striking warrior of legend. She strutted her stuff and gave her handler the business until she disappeared into the shedrow.

The moral of the story? To turn Bruce Banner into the Incredible Hulk, all you have to do is believe and clap very hard.

The crowd stuck around for a little while to collect their thoughts and perhaps wait for an encore, but they eventually dispersed.

After the love fest reached its conclusion, I took one last stroll around the backstretch and out to the rail for a glimpse at the massive Churchill Downs grandstand. In a few moments, I would be on its sixth floor writing about everything I just saw.

Following all the commotion of Saturday’s Classic card, Sunday’s press box population was sparse. My worktab consisted of a postcard for TODAY and a “morning after” update on Blame, which is where the interview with Stall came into the equation. The deadlines were lax, the weather was getting warmer and when I felt like a break was in order, a day’s worth of races were waiting for me on the other side of the balcony door. This day just kept getting better.

My first story in the tank was the one on Blame, which can be read here.

Shortly after I turned that story in and started chipping away at the postcard, I saw out of the corner of my eye a congregation of people with recorders or steno pads in hand surrounding a guy who looked pretty important. Then I heard that pretty important guy, otherwise known as head steward John Veitch, talk about punishments for the Calvin Borel/Javier Castellano fight. I grabbed my recorder and joined the group.

After gathering the necessary information, I asked around to see if anyone at the Thoroughbred Times office already had the same info and was working on the story. As it turns out, I had something of a scoop, so I can add “breaking news” to the skills on my resume. That story can be read here.

I wrapped up my postcard and sent it in shortly after that, finishing my official duties as a Thoroughbred Times mercenary. I was once again a civilian abusing a media pass. At this point, the feeling was akin to a winning football team taking a knee at the end of the game. It was time to soak it all in for one last time knowing I was in the clear.

For the card’s feature, Claire (who was pitching a story about the morning’s Zenyatta-Con to ESPN: The Magazine and did a better job of describing it over the phone than I just did in 2,000 words) and I took the elevator down to enjoy the the race from ground level. We took one of my signature “set the timer and run” photos by the Breeders’ Cup statue in the paddock and spent our walk through the tunnel debating which of us was the luckier son (or daughter) of a gun.

Soon, the day’s races had come to an end, and so had my Breeders’ Cup weekend. A better writer than myself would insert a sentence or two here pulling together the roller coaster of events, emotions, celebrities, stages and shedrows that those five days were – but condensing it all down into that would be doing it an injustice. You just had to be there, and I am a lucky son of a gun for having been there.

I would like to take this opportunity to thank Thoroughbred Times for allowing me to contribute to their coverage of the Breeders’ Cup and letting me tag along to access people and places that I will be telling others about for a long time to come. I would also like to thank all the friends – old, new or just new in person – that I crossed paths with at one point or another during the whole ordeal. Let’s all do it again sometime. Deal?

Behind the jump are some shots of Zenyatta’s going away party, including photographic evidence that I am not making this all up.

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Guest interview on Youbet On-Track

At about 3:45 p.m. Saturday afternoon, I got a message from superstar freelancer Claire Novak asking to appear on her podcast, Youbet On-Track, later that night to break down the late Pick 4 at Saratoga. At 5 p.m., I had to be in line for a cage fight.

This led to one of the most furiously-paced ventures of my handicapping career, as I examined four races from a circuit I have barely followed amidst a crowd of people clamoring to see two guys beat the hell out of each other. Plus, I had to make it sound like I knew what I was talking about to a worldwide audience.

Good thing I work well under pressure.

I managed to decipher the races to the best of my ability, took copious notes, and waited cageside for the call to come in. Shortly after the conclusion of one of the undercard bouts, my phone buzzed and I shuffled off to a quiet spot far from the heavy metal music that could be heard from blocks away.

The interview went very well. Claire and I shared stories of Mount Pleasant Meadows with co-host/producer Joe DePaolo and I gave a brief rundown on the state of racing in Michigan. Then we looked at Rachel Alexandra’s campaign leading into Sunday’s Personal Ensign Stakes and examined her chief competitors in the race. After that, I gave my picks and analysis for the remainder of the Pick 4.

Fortunately, I was at the MTOBA Yearling Sale (which I managed to sneak in a plug on the podcast) most of Sunday, so I did not get the opportunity to back up my predictions at the windows. My Pick 4 ticket was cooked by the second race, and I ended up going one for four and losing a pair of heartbreakers in the final two legs.

My shoddy handicapping aside, getting the chance to chat on the air with Claire and Joe was a fantastic time and I am grateful that they gave me the opportunity to do so. I’d be happy for the opportunity to redeem myself in the Handicapper’s Corner anytime – even if it means missing a fight or two.

To listen to my interview on Youbet On-Track with Claire Novak and Joe DePaolo, click here.

To listen to more podcasts with Claire and Joe, click here.

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Arlington Park raises the bar

Arlington Park rightfully earns its reputation as one of America's best venues for fans and handicappers. Holy Thursday returns to unsaddle from a race with Inez Karlsson aboard.

With so much negativity surrounding the state of racing in North America, sometimes it’s refreshing to see a track that just gets it right.

After a weekend at Arlington Park, I found the track did so many things right that my bar for what makes a good racetrack has been set at a new level.

The trip to Arlington came to be after I landed some box seats on the cheap in last December’s Michigan Thoroughbred Owners and Breeders Association year-end silent auction.

After a bit of planning and schedule aligning, I got to cash in those tickets a few weeks ago. It was a day of racing and fancy dress (not going to lie, I suited up) with assistant trainer Emilie, superstar freelancer Claire Novak and some of her friends, followed by a night on the town in Chicago.

Arlington’s grandstand was a massive, silver-colored structure with a lean-to roof that hangs out over the grandstand. For some reason, I found the roof fascinating. I repeatedly pondered how much more fun watching the races would be if the fire sprinklers that were dotted across the roof went off at random intervals, climaxing with all of them going off at once for the duration of the day’s final race. Ideas like this are what will keep racing alive in the 21st century.

I was raised on the philosophy that if one can not say something nice, he or she should not say anything at all. With that in mind, I will refrain from comment about the tape recorded version of the national anthem played before the races.

After a few races, Claire, being at her home track and having connections everywhere, got our group into the paddock area. The structure itself was a tall, solid-looking wood building offering enough cover to walk a horse around in a rainstorm without feeling a drop. The walking ring and surrounding area were verdant and well landscaped, punctuated by the gorgeous Jessica Pacheco wandering about the ring and breaking down the field for the upcoming race. Between Pacheco and the cute bugler who played crowd-pleasing tunes (Little Spanish Flea!) and waved to the camera after each call to post, Arlington was not lacking for talent that was easy on the eyes.

On the way back to our box, we ran into Eclipse Award-winning trainer Wayne Catalano. Catalano was once a regular rider on the Detroit Race Course/Hazel Park circuit, so I was excited to meet him, but for different reasons than most. Unfortunately, our introduction was fleeting, so I did not get the chance to talk to him about his time in Detroit. As if I needed another reason to go back to this track…

My betting ventures on the weekend were largely forgettable. Over two days’ worth of racing, I cashed one ticket for about 20 bucks. My toughest beat came in the nightcap of our day in the box seats. While perusing the program, I noticed a gelding named Doublefour who ventured out to Will Rogers Downs for a start in April…and missed the board. Badly. He recovered with a decent second at Arlington in his next start, but that Will Rogers debacle and the considerable class jump he was attempting stuck in my mind. Despite Claire’s goading to support my small track roots and play the Will Rogers horse, I looked elsewhere. Doublefour ran away with it. Contrary to popular logic, I should never trust my instincts.

While my day in the not-so-cheap seats was unquestionably awesome, I knew I had not consumed the full Arlington experience. I had to return the following day and take everything in from the ground floor.

For attendees whose tickets were not awarded to them in a silent auction, a general admission ticket commanded eight dollars. While this is the most I have ever paid for a admission into a racetrack (remember, I had a media pass for Kentucky Derby weekend), the sticker shock was eased by the fact that a $3 program was included in the cost.

The plant’s ground floor was anchored by its mall-style center food court. There were no brand-name booths, but plenty of variety. After trying the requisite cheeseburger on Saturday (pretty good, but not quite Ellis Park good), I came across an item called Loaded Mac n’ Cheese that combined two of my favorite items – BBQ pulled pork and good old cheesy mac. Right in my wheelhouse. Did it usurp the third spot on my still-developing Holy Trinity of racetrack concession food (alongside the Ellis Park burger and Turfway Park grilled cheese)? Not quite. Was it still among the better meals I have had at a track? Yeah, probably.

Venturing outward from the food court on either side will lead to rows of mutuel tellers and self-service terminals. The track seemed to rely heavily on the self-service machines, which could be found just about anywhere on the grounds, and because they can be rather intimidating to a novice bettor, this meant the lines to place a bet rarely ran more than one or two deep, if that. I didn’t get shut out once, although with my lousy handicapping, I probably would have benefitted from missing the cut a few times.

The apron was multi-tiered with benches on every level. Not only did this ensure there were no bad sight-lines for people in the cheap seats, it also provided plenty of angles for photographers and tourists who think they are photographers like myself.

As one ventures from the grandstands toward the quarter pole, he or she will find a picnic area similar to Ellis Park’s, but on a grander scale. The grassy area hosted rows of shaded picnic tables, pavilions, food stands, and most importantly, gazebos with multiple self-service betting machines. A good racetrack gives its patrons an opportunity to bet around every corner. Arlington Park is a very good racetrack.

Among the various activities in the picnic area was a table sporting the logo of the Major League Soccer franchise Chicago Fire. Seated behind the table were three gentlemen who could easily pass for professional soccer players. Considering the fact that any United States-based player with any kind of name recognition was busy packing after squandering a golden opportunity against Ghana the previous day, the sparse attendance around the table was not unexpected.

At the end of the picnic area set a pair of festival tents teeming with children. One offered pony rides, complete with numbered saddlecloths on the miniature steeds. In the other was a petting zoo. I’ve seen a lot of awesome things at the races, but “petting zoo” is a new one. If taking pictures of strangers’ children didn’t make me feel really creepy, I’d show you myself.

The one thing I kept noticing as I walked around Arlington was how much fun everyone seemed to be having. Tables lined the apron with birthday and graduation parties. Kids rushed over to the tunnel between the paddock and the winner’s circle in hopes of snagging a pair of signed goggles from the winning jockey (which is a great idea for everyone involved from a marketing perspective) or enjoyed something in the picnic area. The racing was of good quality, but the experience of being there, “the show” if you will, is what put the track in a class of its own. Putting horses in a starting gate and letting them go will draw some gamblers, but it’s “the show”, the racetrack experience, that puts butts in the seats and keeps them coming back for generations. From what I have seen, no track has grasped this concept better than Arlington Park.

When I told my friends in the racing business I was going to visit Arlington, those who had been there unanimously gave it glowing reviews. They almost made it sound too good to be true. However, after seeing what the track had to offer from the box seats and the apron benches, Arlington absolutely lived up to the hype. The streak of glowing testimonials lives on.

Photos of my weekend at Arlington Park can be found behind the jump.

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The Haiku Handicapper: 2010 Kentucky Derby

Thank you, Mario
But all the haikus are in
Another castle

Click on the haiku above to see my Kentucky Derby picks on NTRA.com. As always, a huge tip of the hat goes to Claire Novak for allowing me to pollute her blog with my scatterbrained thoughts about the Derby.

In other Derby-related news a Mt. Pleasant, Mich. woman was featured in a Des Moines Register story about her special connection to Kentucky Derby starter Paddy O’Prado.

The story focuses on Adrienne Goffnett, and her quest to see the horse in person following the Blue Grass Stakes at Keeneland Race Course. Goffnett suffers from a rare lung disease, which made the trip a difficult, but necessary, one after becoming a fan of the El Prado (IRE) colt last August.

For those looking for a local angle for the Derby and don’t like the chances of Michigan native Mike Maker’s entries (Stately Victor and Dean’s Kitten), this might do nicely.

As the Derby draws closer, I have declared two goals for myself on the big day to gauge my success:

1) Make myself look as good as possible on a national stage, be it through my conduct in interviews, the copy I produce or the suit I intend to wear.

2) Don’t start weeping like a baby when they play “My Old Kentucky Home” during the post parade.

If I can do those two things, everything else should fall into place. See you at the races!

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Rolling in the Bluegrass – Part 1: The Races

Keeneland Race Course's high-class, yet accessible, atmosphere and enthusiasm for the sport of horse racing make the track a priority destination

Despite what any calendar suggests, the first day of spring for residents of Lexington, Kentucky and the surrounding area is opening day at Keeneland Race Course.

At least once during the track’s month-long meets in April and October, I try to make a pilgrimage down to Central Kentucky to catch up with friends and take in everything that comes with the Keeneland culture. An invitation to a party following the opening day’s races was all the excuse I needed to make the trip.

Opening day was foreshadowed by the lengthy backup on Versailles Road to enter the grounds. The issue was not so much one of traffic congestion as it was a lot of people wanting to go to the races – a lot to the tune of an opening day record-setting 24,734 fans of horse racing, tailgating, alcohol or a combination of the three.

Before even leaving the vehicle, it quickly becomes apparent that Keeneland is not like any track around. The physical plant is preceded for about a mile by well-kept rolling hills on both sides of the road, dotted with barns and fences that make the property resemble one of the surrounding Thoroughbred farms.

The opening stretch of road is highlighted by the Keeneland Library, an archive of racing literature and information which sits on top of a hill about a half mile from the grandstand. Because I was a little slow getting to the track that day, this was where I was told to park.

Standing at the top of the hill provided a spectacular view of the sea of vehicles that led up to the grandstand. The ones that were not parked filed through the drive-through betting lines (you heard me) to get a taste of action before heading on their way. Coming from a state where the average racetrack attendance hovers in the hundreds, seeing all of this never gets old, even if it meant I had a significant hike ahead of me.

After finding my parking spot and surveying the area, I partook in arguably the greatest of Keeneland’s traditions – tailgating before the races. As the first outdoor event on the social calendars of many in the region, the tailgate draws college students from many of the local schools together to eat snacks, listen to music and participate in one of the many games of cornhole going on across the property. The setup of the typical Keeneland tailgater may not be as elaborate as those at your local National Football League stadium, but they are more refined. The drinks are a little higher on the shelf. Dress shirts and ties are the norm for the males, while females are normally seen in tight sundresses.

Before long, it was time to get down to business. There a select few tracks where I have no issue paying a $5 entry fee to visit, but Keeneland is on that list. The building is primarily a stone brick structure with ivy creeping up many of the walls. The saddling area is dotted with trees sporting numbers to correspond with the entries in the races. Shrubbery surrounds the paddock and walking ring, which becomes a natural countertop for horseplayers to rest their programs while they browse the field.

The only complaint I could find about Keeneland’s aesthetic setup is the Polytrack course; not because I have a problem with racing on synthetic surfaces, but because I think I might be allergic to the stuff. In my life, I have been to two racetracks with Polytrack surfaces, Keeneland and Turfway Park in Florence, Ky. Whenever I am on the apron at either track, I get watery eyes and the uncontrollable urge to sneeze.

Keeneland is almost always crowded on race days, but the record crowd made it even more so. This meant weaving through masses of people like Barry Sanders was necessary to get to any desired point on the track. Despite the crowds, I was never shut out at a window, despite my best efforts to make it happen. The track employed a legion of mutuel clerks who were, for the most part, very good at keeping the lines moving. Truth be told, I probably would have ended up a lot less in the hole for the weekend had I failed to get a few of those bets off, but I suppose blaming good customer service for my lousy handicapping is quite petty.

As the country’s major spring boutique meet, Keeneland draws many of North America’s best horses and horsemen. Most of the cards feature at least one graded stakes race, and many of the undercard races include at least one horse that draws a memory from the national scene, be it fond or otherwise.

This gathering of the sport’s best and brightest brought about one of the events I will remember most about my time at the races that weekend. While hanging out by the paddock bar with Ed DeRosa, retired Hall-of-Fame  jockey Chris McCarron walked by on his way to the saddling area. We were introduced, and McCarron asked me where I was from. When I said “Michigan”, a sympathetic look fell over his face and he replied “Man, you’ve gotta get out of there.” I seem to get that a lot when I venture out of state.

Through the big names, the big bucks and the fancy dress, the thing that consistently stands out is the incredibly high percentage of young people who attend the live races. With no major collegiate sports to occupy their attention and a winter’s worth of pent-up energy and wardrobe, students from the University of Kentucky and other neighboring schools appear in full force. They all have tickets in their hands, many have programs, and some of them even sound like they know what they’re talking about. These kids may not all become racetrack lifers, but they’re pumping money through the windows hand over fist, and more than a few of them are likely to stick around. Whatever Keeneland is doing right, racetrack marketers need to take note.

Guys in suit coats and aviator shades congregate in front of television monitors to get a look at the payouts of the last race with a beer in one hand and their impossibly gorgeous girlfriend’s hand in the other. Fortunately for the rest of us, the impossibly gorgeous female ratio at Keneland is shockingly high. If the head bob doesn’t come through on the track, there are far worse consolations than the head-turners that can be found all over the grounds.

Readers may have noticed I have spent very little time discussing the races themselves. That is because what happens on the track is almost secondary to what happens on the apron, in the grandstands, in line at the windows and anywhere else track patrons can see and be seen. Though I saw my fair share of races, I spent much of my weekend as a social butterfly, hanging out with the likes of DeRosa, Thoroughbred Times Managing Editor Tom Law, superstar freelancer Claire Novak, Ryan Patterson of the Graded Stakes blog and sale guru Emily Plant.

Instead of a day at the races, Keeneland’s live meets more closely resemble a racetrack convention. People wait in long lines dressed up in things they don’t normally wear to discuss and participate in an activity that is largely misunderstood by those out of the know. Sure there is always the keynote speaker (in this case, the races themselves), but the best part of any convention is perusing all of the different booths, taking a little from each and perhaps parking at one that catches the patron’s fancy.

Racing, betting, drinking, fashion, tailgating, socializing, people watching, things for the high-class and the t-shirt and jeans crowd – Keeneland has more booths than any track I have ever seen. For the experience alone, Keeneland Race Course is highly recommended. The world-class racing is a nice bonus.

Tune in next time for a look back at my experience with the Keeneland Two-Year-Olds in Training Sale. Until then, here are a few photos I have taken over my last couple visits to the track.

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Michigan Notebook: March 8, 2010

Michigan-based jockey T.D. Houghton has not been allowed to ride at several racetracks since his involvement in a still-pending investigation was announced in 2007.

Michigan-based jockey T.D. Houghton has not been allowed to ride at several tracks since his involvement in a still-pending investigation was announced in 2006.

- When it comes to bad news in Michigan, the hits just keep coming. Various news sources report over 30 people are being investigated by the Michigan State Police and Michigan Gaming Control Board for alleged race-fixing schemes at harness racetracks in Michigan and Ontario. According to the Associated Press, the management at Michigan tracks Hazel Park Raceway, Northville Downs and Sports Creek Raceway are not being accused of any wrongdoing and are cooperating with the investigation. The Flint Journal reports the investigation has been ongoing for about 11 months.

UPDATE: It seems this story has garnered some national exposure. ESPN’s Bill Finley has commented on the situation on the sports network’s website. In the piece, Finley suggests the pools at Michigan’s harness tracks are too small for any sensible race fixer to bother with. He also questions if authorities, who don’t know enough about the intricacies of the sport, are too gung-ho in approaching this situation and predicts little will come of it.

Hat tip to Longshot for sniffing out the ESPN story.

- Jockey T.D. Houghton, who grew up in Hazel Park, has been grabbing headlines following the Kentucky Horse Racing Commission’s Feb. 25 deferment of his request to ride in the state. His primary reason for applying was to ride at Turfway Park in Florence, Ky.. Houghton has been denied access to ride at several tracks across the country after he was named in a race-fixing investigation in 2006 involving seven riders at Great Lakes Downs and Tampa Bay Downs. For more information, an article by Thoroughbred Times can be read here and the Blood Horse’s take can be found here.

- In a bit of lighter news, I was quoted last week in a piece on ESPN.com by Claire Novak. The blog post addressed recent suggestions by Vic Zast and Paul Moran to “dumb down” horse racing to appeal to today’s ADD-riddled youth. As one of many contrarian examples, I discuss how social media may actually make understanding the sport easier for young people with short attention spans. Be sure to check out Novak’s work, as she is the best turf writer in the country under the age of 25 – and that’s including myself, so you know she’s got to be good.

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The Haiku Handicapper: 2009 Breeders’ Cup Classic & Sprint

Classic

Guest for Claire Novak
Click the link to check them out
Once you’re done below

Sprint

#1 – Zensational
The other “Zen” horse
Untouchable at one turn
They’ll have to catch him

#2 – Cost of Freedom
A Cal circuit vet
So-so after year-long break
Not gonna happen

#3 – Fatal Bullet
Last year’s runner up
Deadly in all-weather sprints
Could avenge his loss

#4 – Crown of Thorns
Ex-Derby dropout
Came back well from long layoff
Mark for exotics

#5 – Gayego
Godolphin purchase
Time in desert did him well
A serious threat

#6 – Dancing in Silks
A Cal-based sprinter
Lots of wins, but none graded
He’ll need to step up

#7 – Join in the Dance
Owner’s a baller
Bland on state derby circuit
Will need some magic

#8 – Capt. Candyman Can
Runs with heavy heart
Does best at seven panels
Can he scale it back?

#9 – Fleeting Spirit (IRE)
A Euro filly
Holds her own in open fields
An upset special?

- – - – - – - – - – - – - – - – - – - -

Who’s the top sprinter?
Bullet wins: Fatality
One, nine will follow

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