Monthly Archives: April 2010

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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Fame and fortune at Beulah Park

Beulah Park's Fortune 6 wager has attracted a great deal of attention for the central Ohio racetrack. So Easy heads out to the track with Ramon Ramos aboard.

Before I embark on my next adventure, it is only fitting to wrap up the one I already finished.

On my way down to Kentucky, I had planned to make a quick detour to watch some races at a fondly remembered pitstop last spring, Grove City, Ohio’s Beulah Park. However, last-minute packing got me on the road too late to make it a worthwhile stop, so it became a priority on the trip home.

While Beulah is a fine place to spend a sunny spring afternoon regardless of the situation, my reason for voyaging to central Ohio was a tad more focused.

In recent months, Beulah had been garnering attention from horseplayers for the incredibly high carryover its Fortune 6 wager had generated. At the time of my visit, the 25-cent pick six wager had amassed a jackpot over $300,000 and growing. The top prize is only awarded if there is a single winner, but for the minimal cost, even the smaller payout for multiple winners is a nice score. That was more than enough reason to make the 100-mile swing off the beaten path to the Columbus area.

In the little time I had between the Keeneland two-year-olds in training sale, eating a Donatos pizza and watching Monday Night RAW the night before, I looked over the two races that were available in the pick six from the Thoroughbred Bloggers Alliance free past performance search (Bob Baffert just doesn’t send that many horses to Beulah Park).

Having those two races in the tank would be vital the next day. The Fortune 6 began in the third race, which meant getting to the track by 2:30 p.m. in order to handicap the remainder of the card and place the bet. After getting my belongings loaded, grabbing some breakfast  and filling up the gas tank, it became clear this would be a photo finish.

After speeding through southern Ohio (which in that state means going about 45 mph on the highway), I got to the track as the post parade headed toward the starting gate for the second race. This meant grabbing a program (and having the vendor tell me to “get lucky” which is awesome), throwing myself at the nearest open table and Rain Man-ing my way through the pick six all in about 25 minutes.

I selected my likely winners with plenty of time to spare and headed to a self-service machine to place my bet. Having never played a dollar pick six, much less one of the 25 cent variety, I was unsure how much the bet would cost, so I slid a $20 bill into the machine and hoped for the best. Beulah Park uses the same self-serve machines as Pinnacle Race Course, and I can’t stand them. Among my many complaints surrounding the machines, chief among them is they do not display the amount of the wager until the bet is locked in (unless I somehow missed it, in which case, I rescind my complaint, though I still dislike the machines). This created quite the surprise when I discovered my pick six ticket was going to cost $81. Even for a shot at 300 large, that was out of my price range.

This new development led to a frantic scramble back to my table (after getting my $20 back, of course) to trim down my picks into a reasonable ticket in the roughly 13 minutes until post time. It took some hard decision-making, but I managed to whittle it down to a ticket in the $20 range with enough time to look at the horses in the paddock.

I have already written extensively about the scenery at Beulah Park, and with the exception of some completed maintenance projects and the trees being a little more in bloom, the place remained largely unchanged. Fortunately, I rather like Beulah’s setup, so this is far from a complaint.

One thing that quickly fell over me as I sat cross-legged on a picnic table near the walking ring was a sense of reverse culture shock. My afternoon at Beulah Park was one in stark contrast to the weekend I had just spent at Keeneland Race Course. Compared to the hustle and bustle of Keeneland, the tranquility of Beulah’s paddock area was a welcome change. One does not truly appreciate the ability to sit down, relax and take in the races until he or she is unable to do so. It took some time to adjust to the horses still hanging onto their winter coats after inspecting barns full of two-year-olds as sleek and clean as they will ever be prior to the sale. It’s a different game here. Neither is better or worse. Both have their pros and cons. It’s just different, and that is why I wanted to visit both tracks.

As can probably be gleaned by my lack of mention earlier in the story, or the day I would have cashed it for that matter, I walked away from my Fortune 6 endeavor empty handed. I was out of it by the second leg of the wager, when Hound Tor – a horse I have tossed at three different tracks now – sprung a front-running upset. The horse was not even on my initial $81 ticket, so at least there is no remorse for having picked him, then taken him out due to my cheapskatedness. I went on to hit four out of six on my ticket, but that pays as much as having every horse finish last (which should have some kind of consolation payoff just because the poor sap holding that ticket could use a pick-me-up). My cold streak at the windows continued throughout the day, and the only return on investment I saw was at the concession stand.

After finishing up one last day at the races, it was time to get back on the road and point toward home. I would like to take this opportunity to once again thank everyone who helped make that weekend one that will not be forgotten.

Now that this voyage is officially in the rear-view mirror, it is almost time to set sail on my biggest one yet. The jackpot for the Fortune 6 on May 1, Beulah’s closing day, is $445,139.20 with a forced payout, and that number will increase with the day’s wagers. If I somehow find the time to look over the program through all the chaos that surrounds the Kentucky Derby, I may take one last crack at it. Expect to hear all about it when things settle down.

Until then, here are a few photos from my day at Beulah Park.

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The next adventure

This just a heads-up that things might get a little quiet around here for the next week or so.

Why, you ask?

Next week, I will be heading to Churchill Downs to assist in the coverage of the Kentucky Derby and Oaks for Thoroughbred Times.

This will be the biggest assignment of my journalistic career and arguably the coolest thing I have ever done. Hopefully, I won’t screw it up too badly.

I will try my best to post quick updates on my Twitter feed over the weekend, but those might get few and far between when things get busy. Expect a full recap once everything settles down.

To quote the great philosopher Barney Stinson, “This is going to be legen…wait for it…dary.”

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Michigan horsemen’s groups to buy race dates

Questions and searches keep coming in pertaining to the number of race dates that will be run at Michigan’s racetracks following the Gaming Control Board’s decision to drastically slash the days it would regulate into the single digits. While little has been been put in stone as of right now, here are the latest versions of the projected schedules based on published reports and interviews.

Horsemen’s groups at Pinnacle Race Course and Mount Pleasant Meadows have announced their intentions to purchase additional days of regulation from the state. Actions at both tracks require approval from the state government.

UPDATE: See? I told you things were subject to change. From the Michigan HBPA website

PINNACLE/HBPA: Both have reached a tentative agreement to enable the 2010 season to get underway….backside to open May 15 and track for training Monday 17th…meet will consist of 44 race days thru Oct. 31, 2010. This agreement has been presented to the MGCB for their approval. Live racing to begin June 26th thru Oct. 31, 2010

More information will be made available when the agreement is approved and final.

In an email conversation with Mount Pleasant Meadows mutuel manager Chris Christensen, it was learned that Mount Pleasant Meadows plans to open May 23 for an 11-day meet. Live racing will be held Sundays through Aug. 12.

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Rolling In the Bluegrass – Part 2: The Sale

The Keeneland Two-Year-Olds in Training Sale gives race fans a chance to see the horses that will be making headlines in the coming year, and the well-off a chance to buy them. Hip #61 - a colt by Bluegrass Cat was a horse of interest due to his Michigan ties.

Outside of the racing and all the festivities that come with it, one of the draws of opening weekend at Keeneland Race Course is the Two-Year-Olds in Training Sale.

Prior to this, my experience with horse auctions was limited to Michigan’s yearling sale and the occasional Amish-run Draft Horse sale in Indiana. Attending a sale of this magnitude felt on the same level as visiting a new racetrack, even though I had been to Keeneland many times before.

The sale unofficially began a few days before the auction itself when the juveniles posted public workouts on preview day. Potential buyers and members of the general public gathered on the apron and in the grandstands to watch each entry breeze between one and three furlongs on Keeneland’s Polytrack.

After some wandering around to find a catalog and try to get a feel of what was about to happen, I settled into one of the box seats in the grandstand. I think it was Cot Campbell’s. Unless I come into a considerable sum of money and/or influence somewhere down the road, a day like that was probably going to be my only opportunity to watch a horse do anything meaningful on the track from such a location. The view was nice, but for the money said rich, influential people likely pay for the right to sit there, the seats were rather uncomfortable and wobbly.

Preview Day was a fairly straightforward affair. The announcer introduces the “on deck” horse making his way through the turn and how far he intends to breeze, the horse approaches the pole, he guns it, the announcer goes over his information, the clock stops, the horse gallops out and the process starts over again.

Having just picked up a physical copy of the sale catalog that morning, there was not much time to identify and analyze the horses whizzing past before the next one started to wind up for his workout. Instead, I used the opportunity to work on my camera timing for the weekend’s races.

Shortly after the first intermission, I was beckoned to Zaxby’s by Ed and Tim from Thoroughbred Times. The call came just moments after finishing a large hot dog with sales editor Pete Denk, but I went anyway. I was on vacation.

I returned to the track about an hour later and the juveniles were still breezing. As I fiddled through the program, I realized I may have missed the one horse I set out to see that weekend, Hip #61 – an unnamed colt by Bluegrass Cat out of Maid’s Broom. Regular readers may recall I highlighted this colt for his connections to some of the better Michigan-breds in recent memory, including all-time leading MI-bred earner Tenpins. The horses breezed in random order, so I was unsure if he was in queue or back in the barn.

My concerns were settled when the announcer informed the crowd that Hip #61 was making his way around the turn to breeze. He was gone just as fast as he came, but I got a decent shot and his time was respectable. Preview day soon came to a close and I returned to my hotel with a mild sunburn and a head start on what to look for in the auction.

The day of the sale began for me around 9 a.m. Monday morning, waiting in the Keeneland barn area for sale guru Emily, whom I had met a couple days before at the races. Emily studied the Thoroughbred sale market for her PhD research, so she knew where to go, who to talk to and what to look for in any aspect of the sale in which I was curious.

Throughout the morning, I received a crash course in big sale etiquette and what makes a well-put-together two-year-old. The barns that housed the sale horses were fairly quiet, but many were still busy with horses being led back and forth for inspection by potential buyers and glorified tourists like myself.

We eventually made our way to the Kirkwood Stables barn, which housed the Bluegrass Cat colt that caught my eye in the sale catalog. He was a strong-looking colt with solid hindquarters and a nice walk. Judging by his looks and pedigree, I would expect him to succeed as a hard-knocking allowance horse on the Kentucky circuit. The few moments I saw of the colt up close were enough to make me wish I had some of that previously mentioned money and/or influence to promote my bid on the horse from “pipe dream” level to a reality (pending the proper check of his X-rays and such, of course. I liked the horse, but I’m not that irresponsible with my imaginary money).

After looking over a few more horses, Emily took me down to the sale pavilion for a quick tour. Throughout the sales ring and walking areas, she pointed out all of the dents and divots in the walls, some of which were surprisingly high and must have required some effort to accomplish. The tour was also useful for two reasons: 1) It showed me the best places to get run over by a freaked out two-year-old if I should choose to do so, and 2) It helped ease my doubts about where I should and shouldn’t be. Had Emily not shown me around and answered all of my silly little questions, I would have wandered behind the sales ring, seen the likes of Steve Asmussen, Bob Baffert, Todd Pletcher and Wayne Catalano, and immediately assumed I did not belong there. Instead I found myself writing down the outs next to Asmussen prior to the sale and scoping out horses on the same rail as the others. A tip of the hat goes to Emily for being an outstanding teacher/tour guide/giver of confidence.

Shortly after Emily and I parted ways, I headed back up to the barn area to look at a few more horses I had singled out in the sale catalog. One of the things that surprised me about the sale was the amount of access the general public was given to the potentially valuable horses. For the most part, all I had to do was fill out a card at the horse’s barn and hand it to the person in charge to see whomever I wanted. I often felt guilty for doing it, as I had no intention to buy whatsoever, but I chalked it up to gaining valuable learning experience. I was learning how to be a buyer so I might someday make the consignors lots of money. The consignors were friendly and very generous with their time.

I returned to the sale pavilion later that afternoon for the main event – the auction itself.

To describe the atmosphere of the pavilion in one word, it would be “buzz”; from the buzz of the chatter in every corner of the building, to the buzz of the rain on the roof as a storm grew near to the buzz many were trying to obtain in the pavilion bar.

I made my way behind the sales ring to catch a glimpse of some of the horses on my watch list. The pavilion area is divided into several walking rings as each horse gets closer to his or her moment in the spotlight, with each ring smaller than the last. I positioned myself on the ledge of the furthermost ring, where the horses enter from the barns. This was the best opportunity to see each horse before they split into odds and evens on different sides of the pavilion.

After some horse watching, I returned to the sales ring to see how the show looked from the front of the stage. Every seat in the sales ring was marked with a piece of paper reserving it for a farm, buyer or other person of interest. However, entire sections sat empty and no one was checking reservations, so I grabbed a seat in the back row and tried not to draw attention to myself.

At times, this can be difficult. At auctions where I have no intention of bidding, I live in constant fear that an itch on the top of my head will lead to the purchase of a six-digit horse. My scalp knows this and will become tingly at the most inopportune times to test my will. Fortunately, I managed to keep it under control for this sale and did not have to inquire about hiring a van to haul home any new purchases.

I eventually decided to head back out to the pavilion, but before that, I ran into Pete, who invited me to the press box to watch the remainder of the sale. For the most part, I had paid little attention to who was placing the winning bids, so being in the press box provided yet another layer of intrigue to the sale (FYI, French mystery group Prime Equestrian was by far the leading buyer).

Soon, the sale drew to an end. I circled the grounds one more time to grab any free trade publications sitting in the racks (because I am a cheapskate), took one last look over the pavilion, now empty and almost dead silent except for the bar, and headed back to my car. I aimed to be at Beulah Park the following afternoon to try my hand at the Fortune 6 wager, so I had to get things in order to move out. But that’s another story for another day…

Behind the jump are some photos from the various stages of the sale. Enjoy!

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Lexington Stakes preview for ThoroFan

Can Bushwhacked parlay his maiden victory earlier this month into a win in the Lexington Stakes? Check out my analysis on ThoroFan to find out.

I am still chipping away at my post about the Keeneland Two-Year-Olds in Training Sale, so look for that early next week, along with a look back at my stop at Beulah Park.

Until then, be sure to check out my preview for the Coolmore Lexington Stakes on Thorofan’s Handicapper’s Corner.

Check back every week or so as a different member of the Thoroughbred Bloggers Alliance breaks down one of the showcase graded stakes races on that weekend’s card.

I got the chance to interview ThoroFan chairman Michael Amo for a story about newly-created fan initiatives back when I interned with the Thoroughbred Times. It pleases me greatly to see the strides ThoroFan has made in the time since then, and I am honored for the opportunity to contribute to its website.

There does not appear to be an option for leaving comments on the ThoroFan page, so if anyone wants to discuss the Lexington Stakes, my picks or anything else related to the race, they can do so here.

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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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