Monthly Archives: May 2010

Opening day at a glance

Later Version and Richard Rettele (blue, inside) battle Luckys Rambler and Amanda Keller (red, outside) in a Quarter Horse race at Mount Pleasant Meadows. Later Version emerged victorious.

With all the activities that comprise Memorial weekend, there is little time right now to look back on opening day at Mount Pleasant Meadows (and finally get around to discussing my Kentucky Derby day. It’s in the works, I promise). Hopefully the photo above will suffice until everything settles down.

While we are on the subject of Mount Pleasant Meadows, be sure to check out the track’s new fan page on Facebook. I have been recruited to contribute to the page, which features updates, photos and discussions regarding Michigan’s only mixed breed racetrack. It sure is fun to watch the fan count rise, so Facebook users are encouraged to add it to their lists.

Have a safe and enjoyable Memorial Day, gang.

Advertisements

Leave a comment

Filed under Mount Pleasant Meadows, Pictures

Pinnacle Race Course sets opening date

From the Michigan HBPA website

MGCB RESPONDS: The Michigan Gaming and Control Board indicated today that “they have no objection to our agreement with Pinnacle.” With today’s action of the MGCB the 2010 season is scheduled to begin Saturday, June 5, 2010. Live days will be Saturday and Sunday.

Even though the race lacks any major drawing points for the fair-weather fan, opening on Belmont Stakes day ought to provide a nice additional bump to Pinnacle’s handle for the first day of the meet.

According to the HBPA website, Pinnacle is scheduled to conduct 44 days of live racing this year. Assuming the schedule stays the way it is drawn up (never a sure thing in Michigan), this equates to 22 weekends of racing through the end of October.

An interesting point to consider is that the schedule, as it stands right now, will require the MGCB to employ two sets of stewards to regulate both Pinnacle and Mount Pleasant Meadows, which will also run on Sundays through August. Last year, in a cost-cutting measure, the former Office of Racing Commissioner scheduled the two flat-racing tracks in a way that allowed one group of stewards to cover both venues. Then again, if the tracks are essentially paying their own ways this year, perhaps a set of stewards comes with the package.

So this gives us two opening weekends in a row; Mount Pleasant this Sunday and Pinnacle next Saturday. After a long, tumultuous winter and spring, it will be good to see the horses back out on the track.

4 Comments

Filed under Pinnacle Race Course

Derby Fever: The Oaks

With nasty weather looming, Kentucky Oaks day drew a record crowd. Calvin Borel walks back to the jock's room after a race.

After a couple days of hard driving, harder partying (for me, at least) and wandering around the Churchill Downs backstretch, it was time to get down to business.

My drive to Churchill Downs that morning was turning out to be a glorious one. The sun was shining, KISS was blaring from my Trailblazer’s speakers and thanks to the fancy new suit I had purchased for the occasion, I was looking very, very good.

This moment of transcendence was quickly derailed, however, when I realized I had left the headphones to my tape recorder back in my hotel room. Going without would not have spelled my doom for the day, but it would have made the simple procedure of transcribing far more difficult and likely quite grating for those around me. Every once in a while, I wonder to myself how I have made any progress at all in the turf writing business. Sometimes I can be really bad at the whole “journalist” thing.

I pulled onto the last exit in Indiana before crossing the bridge over the Ohio River into Kentucky. After a series of turns and on-ramps that required way too much effort to get turned around, I made a quick run back to my room and was on the road again.

Eventually, I made it to the media lot. For Derby weekend, the media is given a lot near the University of Louisville’s Papa John’s Football Stadium about a half mile away from the track and shuttled to the grandstand or backstretch. This brought us into Surreal Moment #2 of the weekend.

Members of the media were shuttled from the parking lot to the grandstand by a fleet of decommissioned school buses. This fact stood out on its own, considering I had not once ridden on a school bus in the five years since I graduated from high school. What put it into the surreal territory was being crammed in a school bus with some of the turf writers I grew up reading. In the same setting where I sat nervously waiting for a football game, I now eavesdropped as Mike Watchmaker reminiced about the glory days of the New Jersey racing circuit. It took longer than it should have for this to sink in.

The bus trips were always mildly terrifying for two reasons. First, to better control traffic (I would assume), the National Guard had shut down certain roads and turn lanes. Many of the drivers were apparently not informed of these blockages, which led to several unexpected detours, especially at night. Second, everyone on board seemed to have the vague sense that the driver might not know where he or she was going. I will restrain from being too critical, because I would have done an infinitely worse job, but people with more experience in Louisville than I seemed to agree that there were better, more efficient routes to take.

The bus ride into the track provided a few moments of calm before the storm to relax, look out the window and do some people-watching. As we drew closer to the property, more and more houses offered parking in their yards and driveways to overflow patrons who could not get into the track’s lots. Judging by the general property value of the houses providing this service, a motorist may have been safer parking in a fire lane, getting towed and having the impound lot serve as his or her valet.

After exiting the bus (those steps are smaller than I remember), I made my way through the ground floor and to the media elevator. The handy media pass that allowed me access to said elevator matched my suit, which seemed to excite only me. Shortly after setting up in the press box, I was approached by superstar freelancer Claire Novak, who wanted to do a brief feature about my first Derby weekend for her Youbet.com blog. Being the attention-starved person that I am, I jumped at the opportunity. I can not speak with certainty, but that may be the first time I have been quoted for a story where I was a more than a random “student on the street” for my college paper. Thanks to Claire for making that happen.

My assignments for the day were to cover the Kentucky Juvenile Stakes, the American Turf Stakes and gather some “scene” quotes from racegoers at Churchill Downs. On a personal level, I made it my business to be as close to the action as possible for the La Troienne Stakes, which featured 2009 Horse of the Year Rachel Alexandra.

By the time the La Troienne came around, the crowd throughout the racetrack had become quite thick. At final count, this year’s Oaks had drawn a record crowd of 116,048. Whether it was the allure of the Oaks itself, the additional draw of a popular Horse of the Year or the impending storm heading toward Louisville the following day, people came in droves, which made it hard to get from place to place, and nearly impossible to do it in a hurry.

The only prior experience I had with shoulder-to shoulder crowds of this caliber was Keeneland Race Course. However, when the attendance figures are stacked up, Keeneland suddenly seems less claustrophobic. To compare, Keeneland is similar to going to one’s local music venue to see the J. Geils Band. It may be a little cramped, and some may be in varying levels of altered states, but everyone knows why they are there and what they are doing. On the other hand, Kentucky Derby weekend felt more akin to the Warped Tour. There were tons of distractions, patrons generally could not handle their alcohol and they had less regard for those around them (this will come into play later) but there were an awful lot of acts worth seeing.

It took some bobbing and weaving, but I finally managed to make my way into the paddock. Judging by the mob of people with less-than-professional cameras in the middle of the walking ring, my plan was not unique.

It became apparent that Rachel was approaching the vicinity by the ever-loudening sound of the crowd as she made the walk from the backstretch. A disappointed groan rolled through the paddock as each new horse was brought in who did not have two Eclipse Awards on her resume. Finally, the defending champ was led into the paddock to the sound of cameras clicking away from the several-deep crowd. One couple with pink shirts and interesting haircuts held high a sign that read, “We drove from Jersey to see Rachel.” It is good to see there are fans out there with dedication.

As Rachel was led out of the paddock with the ever-smiling Calvin Borel in the saddle, I rushed to the same spot I had stood when two-time Horse of the Year Curlin took the same path on his way to winning the 2008 Stephen Foster Handicap and got a couple shots.

The race, expected by most to be a fairly unchallenging victory for Rachel after a necessary tune-up race, did not quite go as planned. Rachel Alexandra was well placed, if a bit uncomfortably ridden, through the first turn and backstretch and appeared primed to pull away at the top of the stretch. However, she was joined by Unrivaled Belle, who engaged her throughout the straightaway and out-kicked the champion to win the race.

There was little time to reflect on the race, as my first assignment, the Kentucky Juvenile, was up next. As the first graded stakes race for two-year-olds in North America, there was little background to draw on for each horse – Mostly just their pedigree, their connections and by how many lengths they won their maiden effort.

The race was won in a fairly convincing manner by Dogwood Stable’s Lou Brissie. Aside from some brief trouble spotting winning trainer Neil Howard (when I cover a race, I tend to root for the Pletchers, Bafferts and Asmussens of the world because I can easily identify them), getting the story together went fairly smoothly. My recap of the Kentucky Juvenile can be read here.

Somewhere in all the commotion during the day, Ed and I found trainer Mike Maker in the paddock. As I have alluded to in previous posts, Maker is a Michigan native and got his start at the Detroit racetracks. So as not to blow any shred of professionalism I may have all to hell, I only briefly talked about being from Michigan with him. However, that face time may have ended up paying dividends later. More on that in the next installment.

The next race I was scheduled  to cover was the American Turf Stakes. I lucked out when Todd Pletcher trainee Doubles Partner took the rail to victory. Pletcher, Gomez, no mystery. I spoke to both of them in the winner’s circle and tried my darndest to get everything done before the main event, the Kentucky Oaks, coming up next. The story on the American Turf can be found here.

For the Oaks itself, I assisted with gathering some quotes from the losing connections following the race. This meant getting to talk to the connections of Evening Jewel, who just had their hearts ripped out after Blind Luck staged one of her trademark screaming stretch runs to just get up at the wire by half a nose hair. Super.

Evening Jewel’s trainer, James Cassidy, went back to the barn with the horse, so that left me with jockey Kent Desormeaux. Understandably, he did not appear in the mood to talk. Fortunately, it’s hard to say “no” to a mob of reporters, so I got what I needed and headed back to the press box.

On my way there, I decided to grab one more interview for my “scene” quotes. I spotted a man who looked like he would provide some intelligent commentary and proceeded to ask him some questions. Remember what I said earlier about how Churchill Downs patrons typically appeared to be inconsiderate and bad at being drunk? My theory was soon proven accurate. As I conducted the interview and the man politely answered my questions, I heard the sound of glass breaking. Then I got very wet.

As I looked up to see what happened, I saw two frat-boy types in pink shirts (normally a distinguishing feature for idiot frat boys, but on pink-themed Oaks day, they were just two in the crowd) getting in each other’s faces. One was bleeding quite nicely from the back of the head. I quickly surmised that one had thrown a commemorative Kentucky Derby mint julep glass, still full apparently, at the other and we had been hit with the shrapnel.

The fellow I was interviewing completed the interview like a trooper and I got out of there before finding out what became of the two bozos. When I arrived back in the press box, I ran my hand through my hair and pulled out a mint leaf. My suit wreaked of alcohol for the remainder of the weekend. Fortunately, I had a backup.

After taking care of a few other tasks, Oaks day had come to a close. Ed, Sale Guru Emily and I then headed to a nearby Vietnamese restaurant where I had some decent General Tso’s Chicken and used the outside of a glass of water to relieve my sunburn, which I had acquired over the day.

Mint julep and sunburn issues aside, Oaks day was definitely a memorable one. However, there was not much time to sit back and reflect. I had to get back to the hotel, wash off the bourbon and get ready for the next day, because it was going to be big.

Behind the jump are some photos from Oaks day and the day of races that preceded it.

Continue reading

8 Comments

Filed under Pictures, Racetrack Visits, Story Time, Triple Crown

The Haiku Handicapper: 2010 Preakness Stakes Recap

Lucky bests the Dude
Finally gets a clean trip
Saver disappoints

– – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – –

In other important news learned from watching the big race at the Mount Pleasant Meadows simulcast, opening day at the Central Michigan racetrack has been pushed back a week to May 30. Be sure to adjust your schedules accordingly.

4 Comments

Filed under Mount Pleasant Meadows, The Haiku Handicapper, Triple Crown

The Haiku Handicapper: 2010 Preakness Stakes

Baltimore’s crown jewel
Maryland, my Maryland
Is “Saver” super?

– – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – –

#1 – Aikenite
A Derby shut-out
Does best work in mid-tier stakes
Wait for Penn. Derby

#2 – Schoolyard Dreams
Has one on the champ
Tends to run into buzzsaws
Something to prove here

#3 – Pleasant Prince
Sunshine-bred and based
Scrambled for earnings but failed
Not too keen on him

#4 – Northern Giant
Ran well in weak preps
Crumpled against top rivals
There are better spots

#5 – Yawanna Twist
Lightly-raced prospect
Better fit in Peter Pan
Has yet to blossom

#6 – Jackson Bend
Mid-pack in Derby
Training well into this race
Could provide value

#7 – Lookin At Lucky
Nightmare trip last out
Parts ways with Garrett Gomez
Not lookin’ for much

#8 – Super Saver
The Derby winner
Could take to the front early
Will be in the mix

#9 – Caracortado
Hard-trying Cal horse
Played catch-up in last two starts
The field’s wild card

#10 – Paddy O’Prado
Off two big efforts
Romans has him dialed in
Primed for breakout race

#11 – First Dude
Dale Romans’ Plan B
Troubled trips look deceptive
Exotic buster?

#12 – Dublin
Gomez takes the mount
Could provide a needed spark
Just seems to lack “it”

– – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – –

Who gets his Preak on?
Paddy spoils Triple Crown
Eight and eleven

1 Comment

Filed under The Haiku Handicapper, Triple Crown

Campbell “indicates” sale of land parcel to Native American tribe

From the Michigan HBPA website

JERRY CAMPBELL SPEAKS TO HBPA BOARD: During agreement discussions, Jerry (Campbell, owner of Pinnacle Race Course) indicated to the members attending the meeting that he is involved in serious effort to offer Instant Racing (pari-mutuel wagering on old races).  In addition, he indicated that a portion of Pinnacle property south of the current structure has been sold to a Native American tribe that may build a “smoke shop” and potentially a casino. According to Jerry both endeavors are to offer millions to our purse pool. It is a an effort to save an industry whose “model is broken and must be addressed or the industry can not survive.”

No other information was immediately available, but if these “indications” are true, this could be a potential game changer. Instead of trying to go toe-to-toe with the tribal casinos, it appears Campbell has cut a deal with one of them. For those unfamiliar with the setup of Pinnacle Race Course, the track itself is built well off the road, leaving plenty of room for expansion on the property.

The tribe purchasing the land was not named in the HBPA’s release. However, it is worth noting that the Upper Peninsula-based Hannahville Indian Community applied last October to build a casino near the Detroit Metropolitan Airport, about five miles away from Pinnacle. Clearly, this is only speculation on the writer’s part, but an agreement of this caliber would have clear benefits for both parties. Pinnacle would get its casino and the Hannahville tribe would have the extra bargaining chips of supporting the racing industry and building on a site that already hosts gambling. Or, the deal could have been made with a completely different tribe and this idea was a complete whiff. One would assume we will find out in the near future.

Another question that immediately comes to mind is how the potential casino money would be distributed. The HBPA’s release suggests the purse pool would be a benefactor, but horsemen’s programs including breeder’s awards are not addressed. Again, additional details are sure to come out as time goes on.

A move like this could explain Campbell’s relative silence in regards to the two casino petitions currently battling for a place on November’s ballot. If the deal with the Native American tribe goes as planned, the track would have no need for racino legislation. If it falls through, Campbell has a safety net in the ballot proposal.

Instant racing has been suggested in Michigan for several years, but its legality in the face of Proposal 04-1 has generated mixed results from attorneys and lawmakers. The poster child for instant racing is the state of Arkansas, whose Oaklawn Park was ready to offer Horse of the Year Rachel Alexandra and undefeated champion Zenyatta $5 million to square off before the former’s connections backed out.

For those with access to the print edition of Thoroughbred Times, senior writer Frank Angst wrote a feature in the April 17, 2010 issue that did a great job of explaining how instant racing works and how it has changed the culture at Oaklawn. Those seeking more information on the issue would be wise to seek out the story.

It will be interesting to see how these stories develop in the coming months.

In related news, the HBPA website also reports…

PINNACLE/HBPA: Both have reached an 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

An agreement has been executed by both parties.

However, an informal meeting was held Friday May 7 to discuss the possibility of changing the current agreement. The Michigan HBPA board will address the suggested changes ASAP.

Suggested changes include the possibility of moving opening day back to June 4 and terms of financial assistance to Pinnacle.

If any changes are made to Pinnacle’s schedule, they’ll be here as soon as they become public.

10 Comments

Filed under Commentary, Pinnacle Race Course, Politics

Derby Fever: The Build-Up

One of the highlights of Kentucky Derby weekend was watching the contenders head out to the track for their morning workouts. Among them was Arkansas Derby winner Line of David.

Historically, Michigan-breds have had little impact on the Kentucky Derby.

Participation in the race by Michigan horses is not well documented, and the only immediately available example is Bass Clef, who finished third in the 1961 installment of the classic race.

With that in mind, there was very little precedence to draw from as I spent the weekend at Churchill Downs reporting, absorbing and just trying to keep up during all the excitement surrounding the Kentucky Derby and Oaks.

The festivities began for me Wednesday night. After a seven-hour drive and paying way too much for the last hotel room in Sellersburg, Ind. (my originally scheduled hotel was in Frankfort, Ky., about an hour from Churchill Downs, which, looking back, would have been nearly impossible for me to pull off), I quickly made myself presentable and headed into Louisville for the Kentucky Derby Media Party.

The party was a cocktails-and-dancing affair, with blinding stage lights and a live band that spread the ball around in terms of lead singers and genres. I spent my bulk of my time with Thoroughbred Times news editor Ed DeRosa, Sale Guru Emily and her friend Natalie trying to spot notable figures in the racing world.

The most immediately recognizable figure of the evening was trainer Chip Woolley, who saddled Mine That Bird to victory in last year’s Derby. His trademark black cowboy hat and mustache easily stood out among the hatless masses, who frequently swarmed him for the chance to have a picture taken together. Woolley did not have a horse on the Derby trail this year, much less one in the race, but his popularity was apparent throughout the weekend by the size of his entourage. Even if he never has another big-time horse, Woolley is the kind of figure who will remain popular around Derby time at Churchill Downs for years to come because he has the right look, a great story and he appears to connect well with race fans. One could only imagine how the sport would be different if it had more high-profile characters like him.

Other high-profile figures seen around the party included owners Ken and Sarah Ramsey and Robert LaPenta. The latter was partially responsible for a wager between Emily and I to see who could procure the most Derby contender pins over the weekend after a member of his group gave Emily one of his Jackson Bend buttons. I regret to say I was soundly blanked by a margin of 3-0. However, in my defense, the rules of journalistic ethics more than likely prohibit me from asking for free swag from connections. That’s the excuse I am giving for my shoddy performance, at least.

The next morning started on the backstretch as the Derby and Oaks contenders headed out for their morning jogs. In the past, I have normally come across big-name horses one or two at a time – perhaps at a stakes race at Keeneland or dropping into lighter company elsewhere. That morning, however, horses I had seen on TV and in magazines were walking by every few moments, made easily identifiable with their named yellow or pink saddlecloths signifying them as Derby or Oaks contenders.

This leads us to Surreal Moment #1 of the weekend. After the horses had returned from their workouts, Ed, Emily and I headed to the barns for interviews with the Derby trainers. Similar to the horses walking out to the track, the sheer concentration of high-profile trainers in the barn area bordered on mind-boggling. Within a span of three barns housed mega-trainers Bob Baffert, Todd Pletcher and Nick Zito – all of whom were mobbed by cameras, microphones and tape recorders absorbing their every thought on the Derby, their charges and whatever else may come up in the course of the conversation. As Baffert mugged it up for the cameras, his two Derby entries, Lookin at Lucky and Conveyance, took turns getting hosed down in the background as photographers snapped away.

Simply put, I was no longer in Kansas…or Michigan for that matter.

After all the quotes had been gathered and the horses put away, we headed over to the front side for the rest of the day.

The Churchill Downs press box is on the sixth floor of the grandstand. It is an expansive area with rows of long tables for turf writers to ply their trade and a row of self-service betting machines for them to practice their hobby. Suspended above the room are television monitors of varying sizes displaying the races from several different venues, though most were tuned to the Churchill Downs signal.

The front of the room is lined with windows which overlook the track, though an even better view can be obtained by walking out onto the balcony. As someone with a mild fear of heights, it took several races before being able to look at the finish line, which is almost straight down, without white-knuckle gripping the railing. Throughout the weekend, I remained terrified I was going to drop something over the edge, particularly my camera, but I made it through the weekend without incident. When the uneasiness finally subsided, the view was breathtaking.

Another perk of the press box was that it was catered. I did not partake as much as I probably should have (especially given my well-noted cheapskatedness), but the fare was varied throughout the weekend and they kept it fresh. Not to sound too much like a bad Yakov Smirnoff joke, but where I come from, the press box is the driver’s seat of my dinged up Trailblazer catered by the hot dog I bought at the concession stand. On my end, everything above a desk, chair and internet access was gravy.

My primary goal for Thursday’s race day was to get a lay of the land and situate myself for what was to come for the weekend. Having gone through a similar experience covering the 2008 Stephen Foster Handicap when I interned for Thoroughbred Times, I had some background on where to go and what to do, but a reboot was definitely needed after a two-year absence. I did not have any responsibilities in regards to producing work for Thoroughbred Times, so I was able to sit back and enjoy the day of racing. Getting that day at half-speed was a big help to prepare for the full-contact days that lied ahead.

This concludes part one of what looks to be a three-part adventure. Behind the jump are some photos from the morning workouts and media frenzy around the Churchill Downs backstretch.

Continue reading

Leave a comment

Filed under Pictures, Racetrack Visits, Story Time, Triple Crown