Monthly Archives: November 2010

Breeders Cup Mercenary Song – Part 2: The Races

Zenyatta is surrounded by handlers, media and security before the Breeders' Cup Classic at Churchill Downs.

The band was packed up, the Grey Goose ice statues were melted and the school buses were rumbling. It was time for business.

As it was on Kentucky Derby weekend, the day started in the parking lot of Papa John’s Stadium, about a mile away from Churchill Downs. I have come to cherish the school bus ride to the track for two reasons. First, it is the proverbial calm before the storm. The ride to the grandstand is one last chance to collect my thoughts, look over the day’s program and make one last futile attempt to calm the hell down. Second, it allows me to eavesdrop on members of the turf writing community whom I would never hear speak off the cuff otherwise.

My assignments for the day were the Ack Ack Handicap on the undercard and the Juvenile Fillies for the website and TODAY. I was also slated to write the postcard for the daily publication, a more personalized look at the weekend’s events – almost like a blog post. I had known about the last item for a few days, so I already had it in the tank and ready to go.

The card was scheduled for a late start to ensure the marquee races would be run under the lights, meaning I had some time to take care of a little business in the press box – namely, printing out souvenir Zenyatta win tickets and chatting with some nearby friends in the turf writing community before things got crazy. Not only was I in the Churchill Downs press box, but people knew me and wanted to converse with me. I even managed to spread the good word about Michigan racing. It was not long ago that the events in this paragraph would have been unthinkable. To reiterate a point made in a previous post, lucky son of a gun.

Friday’s stakes program started out with the very strong Jimmy V. “Don’t Give Up…Don’t Ever Give Up!” Stakes, including several horses with a presence on this year’s Kentucky Derby trail. Then, it was time for the Ack Ack.

For the race, I decided to take advantage of my media privileges and watch the horses saddle in the paddock. I always feel a bit uncomfortable in the paddock during big race days because the racing networks and in-house feed have the grassy area in the middle staked out like gold miners claiming land. Wandering around the center of the walking ring put me at risk of getting into someone’s shot in front of the camera, or tripping over a wire behind it. Fortunately, I managed to avoid catastrophe on either side.

While most media types use the time in the paddock to pay attention to the horses and connections, I often found myself looking out in the opposite direction at the crowd. I enjoyed a vantage point that many on the other side of the fence may never see. Truth be told, it was a little claustrophobic. The paddock is a few feet below ground level, and when the crowd around it runs several people deep, it can appear rather imposing.

My irrational fears aside, it was always interesting to see how the crowd reacted to each horse and rider as they passed by on their way to the tunnel. True to form, Calvin Borel was the one to elicit the most response from those on the rail, who serenaded him with a “let’s go get ’em, Calvin” or a “Bo-rel”. All the while, the Cajun just smiled and fiddled with his chinstrap.

The Ack Ack was won by Apart, a stablemate of top-tier older male Blame. After the horse was photographed, unsaddled and sent on his way back to the barn, trainer Al Stall, Jr. answered questions for the media. The Ack Ack set in motion a big weekend for the Stall barn.

After getting the information I needed, I ran back up to the press box with superstar freelancer Claire Novak, who was working on the track’s notes team. I’d like to say I was being a good fullback and opening up the holes, but it turns out she was in a much bigger hurry than I was. When one can weave through the crowd with Barry Sanders-like grace and agility, there is no need for a fullback.

As I worked on the story for the Ack Ack, the Breeders’ Cup card kicked off with the Marathon. The race was one of little fanfare, and no wagering interest to myself, so I decided to stay inside and bang out the recap.

And then from the press box arose such a clatter.

I looked up at the TV screen in time to see the Churchill Downs winner’s circle transform into a scene from the Jerry Springer Show, starring a red-faced Calvin Borel grabbing a hold of Javier Castellano and giving him one of the most terrifying stares I have seen in life or film. The video does a better job explaining the situation than I can, but it was indeed a bizarre experience. Over the weekend, the question of where you were and what you saw during the melee became a popular one around Churchill Downs.

A few races later, ESPN ran a delightfully awkward pre-taped feature on Borel, showcasing his happy demeanor and near-invincibility at Churchill Downs. Don’t get me wrong, this is not a rip on Borel. I think he’s still one of the best ambassadors the sport has got, but you’ve got to appreciate the irony in the situation. You’ve also got to appreciate the drinking game that could have easily been formed by the network’s constant replaying of the incident.

Oh, and here is my Ack Ack story.

As much as it kills the narrative, the rest of Friday was kind of a blur. When the first race is literally a punch in the mouth, everything following it can kind of lose its pop.

What I do remember is looking out over the grandstands, being very cold and noticing an anomaly exclusive to the Louisville track. Friday’s race card drew over 41,000 fans, enough to choke just about any other track in the country, and the grandstands still looked sparsely populated. The sheer massiveness of the Churchill Downs plant had swallowed up a Breeders’ Cup crowd and made it look like a Wednesday afternoon.

After wrapping up my story on Awesome Feather’s victory in the Juvenile Fillies, I decided to watch the night’s main event, the Ladies Classic, on the ground level and grab some quotes. The thing I liked the most about the Breeders’ Cup was that the average IQ of the fans in attendance was miles ahead of their Kentucky Derby counterparts. Blame it on the weather, the less distinguished tradition or the lack of an infield scene, but the crowd was largely friendly, courteous and not there just to pound brews and fight someone. It’s the little things like that that make it so much easier to come down from the press box.

I watched the Ladies Classic in the grandstand near the winner’s circle. It was an exciting installment of the race, with Unrivaled Belle holding off a late-charging Blind Luck. A fun fact I just realized is these two horses both won races on the 2010 Kentucky Oaks card. Unrivaled Belle upset Rachel Alexandra in the La Troienne Stakes and Blind Luck won the main event.

As I watched the horses unsaddle, I wondered to myself how Life At Ten had finished. I have never been a huge fan of hers so I did not expect to see her on the board, but I did not recall Life At Ten even being a factor in the race. Only when I returned to the press box did I find out the horse had been the subject of some controversy and was through quite early. Through one day of Breeders’ Cup action, there were two major newsworthy events and I missed them both. Nobody said I was good at this.

After the races concluded, I met up with some members of teams Thoroughbred Times and Daily Racing Form, along with a Part-Time Racing Blogger to eat an excellent pork loin at a restaurant whose name I do not recall in downtown Louisville. Then I went back to my hotel for the night.

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

Saturday started on the school bus, the same as the day before. I spent the bulk of the bus trip talking with fellow Thoroughbred Times-associated mercenary John Scheinman about catching up with old friends and longshots in the Sprint. At the end of the day, I realized I had run out of business cards, so I gave him another one of my Mount Pleasant Meadows golf pencils (I take ’em everywhere) and told him to Google it. At the time, I thought I still held on to my position as the search engine’s top result when searching for the track. Shortly after making the claim, I checked again and found out I had fallen to the third result. Close enough.

The day started earlier than the last with the hopes of getting the Classic off at a decent time. With a few more marquee races to cover, my workload picked up to three races – The Sprint, Juvenile and Turf.

Though the weather was more tolerable than the day before, it was still very much jacket weather. This created an interesting phenomenon that turned the seating areas into a sea of black.

I have never been much for spoon-fed foreshadowing. It’s a trick used by lazy creative writing students to score points with their professors. With that said, if the Breeders’ Cup was a freshman college student’s concoction, it would not be hard to see that the crowd was dressed up for a funeral – for something big to come to an end by the story’s final chapter.

Through some tricks of the trade I am not sure the turf writing community would appreciate me spilling, I managed to stay on the sixth floor for the majority of the day. Fortunately, the balconies flanking the press box meant I could check out the scene at the paddock and the track at my convenience.

The day consisted of stepping out on a balcony, watching the horses I’ve seen on TV and in the magazines compete before my very eyes, sitting down, writing about it and repeating the process. Lucky. Son. Of. A. Gun.

The most powerful performance on the undercard was Uncle Mo’s absolute dismantling of the Juvenile field. Seeing him roll down the stretch as John Velazquez looked behind his shoulder to see a whole lot of nothing was among the most dominant performances I have seen at the races. It is a long, hard road to the first Saturday in May, but boy does he look dangerous. My story on the Juvenile can be read here.

I also wrote about the Big Drama’s front-running victory in the Sprint, which can be found here.

The day was about the potential three-peat by Zenyatta, but it was preceded by an actual three-peat by European super-mare Goldikova in the Mile. The winner’s dramatic stretch drive completed the exacta with the other half of her entry, the horse’s groom, who sprinted down the dirt track in jubilation. This is another timeless Breeders’ Cup moment I failed to catch until I saw the replay. I am Gump-like in my stumble through history.

Between then and the Classic, I covered the Turf, which can be read here.

But let’s face it, no one is here to read about Dangerous Midge, so we’ll get to the good part.

It was a long wait between the Turf and the Classic. I liked it because it gave me time to work on my story, but it also meant lots of time to generate a buzz in the crowd. By the time Zenyatta made her way from the barns, the spectators could hardly contain themselves.

The roar of the crowd followed the giant mare as she passed in front of the grandstands and she reciprocated by striking out with her front hooves and tossing her head. Hawaiian football teams have their war dances to pump up themselves and the crowd, and Zenyatta has hers. I alluded to it in a previous post, but things like this are what make Zentatta the kind of horse who steps up a level when one of her races is experienced live. “Electricity” is rarely a word that can truly be applied to any situation in horse racing, but seeing that horse own the crowd and absolutely know what she’s doing was nothing short of that.

I made the mistake of going back inside to chip away at my story as the horses saddled up. This ended up costing me prime real estate on the balcony. By that point, I could not tell whether I was shivering from the cold or from the jitters. Perhaps I should not have had the jitters, being as though I did not have a meaningful stake in any of the horses in the field, and the unwritten rules of journalism dictate I remain reasonably neutral in situations like this. However, when one is on the verge of witnessing something this potentially big, it is hard to keep the butterflies in check.

The horses paraded in front of the grandstands to varying degrees of cheers (no need to guess whose was the loudest) and headed behind the gates. If the Kentucky Derby is considered the most exciting two minutes in sports, the two minutes before this race had to be the most agonizing.

Finally, the horses were loaded into the gate (even Quality Road this time) and released. The entire grandstand let out a chuckle as announcer Trevor Denman (who I am all but certain was brought in specifically to call the race for Zenyatta) informed the crowd that the champion mare was in last place as the field crossed the wire for the first time.

However, that moment of lightheartedness was soon replaced by concern as she kept falling farther and farther behind the pack. The late move has been Zenyatta’s bread and butter from day one, but with so many new variables in the race (see: Dirt Surface of Doom) and her absolute emptiness going through the first turn, there was legitimate cause for uneasiness. But still, we stayed faithful.

Zenyatta was still well out of striking distance in the final turn and only showed signs of making a run as the field turned for home. By that time, however, traffic down the middle of the stretch had become heavy, and holes were closing up before jockey Mike Smith could get his mount’s nose into them. He was forced to take Zenyatta almost out to the middle of the track, but when she had daylight ahead of her, every person in the stands knew what was coming.

This set up the epic stretch battle between Zenyatta and Blame. As they came down to the wire, the leader was fully extended to avoid falling to the green and pink reaper coming up to his outside; and a mass of 72,739 people leaned to the right to make sure he did.

Then they hit the wire.

It was a photo finish, but anyone with a clear view of the line knew who got there first. The vacuum-like suction of clamor was enough of an “official” sign to figure it out.

Zenyatta came back first. The applause she and her rider received was comparable to that of a winning effort in any other scenario but this one. I have never shed a tear over a horse race, and that streak lives on to this day, but witnessing that outpour of affection in a losing effort was among the most powerful things I have experienced.

Smith pat Zenyatta on the shoulder before dismounting in front of the grandstand for the first time in the horse’s career. As Smith unsaddled her, someone put his arm around the rider. However, once the horse was gone, Smith stood alone on the track, surrounded by a ring of lights and cameras. No one tried to interview the jockey or offer him a consoling shoulder to lean on, the latter of which he probably could have used. He walked off the track and to the scales essentially by himself. After that, I lost track of him.

Blame was greeted to the winner’s circle with a smattering of applause. It is hard not to feel a little bad for the horse that takes down the fan favorite, even if he does cash a $5 million check along the way. At the time, though, it was just too soon to forgive.

In the press box, the aftermath of the race was fairly solemn, but there was too much work to be done to dwell on it for long. That did not make Mike Smith’s tearful press conference any less difficult to watch. As the replay of the race looped on a monitor next to the one displaying the press conference, I found myself leaning into the finish each time as if I could will the mare into putting a nose in front this time. It didn’t work.

It took a moment after the race for me to realize I was holding a winning ticket. As per my traditional big-race wager, I boxed five horses in a $1 exacta; Zenyatta, Blame, Quality Road, Musket Man and Lookin At Lucky. It was a chalky bunch, but with the large pools, it stood to make a profit – small as it may be.

However, I could not cash the ticket. Don’t read too deeply into this. I didn’t fail to cash the ticket out of some kind of guilt for profiting at the expense of immortality. The mutuel teller’s machine just wouldn’t take it. I took this as a sign that the racing gods were angry at the outcome of the Classic and decided to cash it the next day.

I was not scheduled to write a postcard for that day’s issue of TODAY, but I was slated for the Monday issue, so I decided to get that out of my system while everything was still fresh. I felt good about the finished product. Then, I was informed that I would indeed be needed to provide a postcard for the upcoming issue. No one ever regrets being over-prepared. Thoroughbred Times TODAY is a subscriber benefit, so posting the whole thing is a no-go, but a portion of the piece was selected as a “Quote of the Day” by the blog Horse Circle, and that was my big hook anyway, so be sure to check that out.

After the races, Thoroughbred Times editor Ed DeRosa and I went to Za’s, a Louisville pizza establishment. It was pretty good.

After over 3,000 words, one may think this was a full weekend, but as will be seen in the next installment, things were just starting to get interesting.

Behind the jump are some shots from Friday and Saturday’s races.

Continue reading

1 Comment

Filed under Pictures, Racetrack Visits, Story Time

The Haiku Handicapper: 2010 Clark Handicap & Cigar Mile

Clark Handicap

Clark, sales, leftovers
Post-Thanksgiving traditions
The fall meet’s feature

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

#1 – Dubious Miss
Gelding with girl’s name
Dirt looks like his third surface
Steps up at Churchill

#2 – Apart
Stablemate of Blame’s
Could be deja vu for Stall
Hot at the right time

#3 – Successful Dan
Rolls on the fake stuff
But he can ball at Churchill
Could collar leaders

#4 – Giant Oak
Illinois’ finest
Lacked killer instinct this year
Would love a class drop

#5 – Redding Colliery
A lead-grabbing colt
Solid in mid-level stakes
Live if he can last

#6 – Brass Hat
Popular geezer
Better efforts were on turf
Should take bettors’ cash

#7 – Stately Victor
A second-tier soph
Built resume on poly
Outlook’s not rosy

#8 – Win Willy
Gray Oaklawn hero
Faces his toughest challenge
Worth a ticket slot

#9 – Regal Ransom
Break on top or bust
Taking a chance with young jock
Won’t run off with it

#10 – Demarcation
Ack Ack runner-up
Big player in overnight stakes
Graded gets dicey

#11 – Duke of Mischief
Handicap stalwart
Capable of stealing one
In between cold snaps

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

Who’s the Clark winner?
Apart separates from foes
Five, three behind him

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

Look behind the jump for the Haiku Handicapper’s selections for Saturday’s Hill ‘n’ Dale Cigar Mile Handicap at Aqueduct.

Continue reading

2 Comments

Filed under The Haiku Handicapper

Breeders’ Cup Mercenary Song – Part 1: The Build-Up

Zenyatta oversees the happenings in her barn the Thursday prior to the Breeders' Cup Classic at Churchill Downs.

Sometimes I have to step back and marvel at what a lucky son of a gun I can be.

It happened when I was roaming the backstretch after the Kentucky Derby watching the competitors cool out and seeking out quotes from their connections. It happened when I was sitting at the top of the bleachers at Yellowstone Downs, looking over the track and wondering how I ended up in Billings, Mont. Heck, it even happens sometimes when Mount Pleasant Meadows puts out a seven-horse field.

This feeling might occur two or three times over an especially good weekend of racing.

However, the feeling became almost routine during my recent weekend at Churchill Downs assisting with coverage of the Breeders’ Cup for Thoroughbred Times.

An eight hour drive from central Michigan to southern Indiana on Wednesday left little downtime before that evening’s National Turf Writers Association dinner. Because I am not yet a member of the organization (more of a hanger-on), my admission was earned by being the event’s photographer. At a party including several professional photographers, the guy taking the pictures was using a camera purchased from Wal-Mart. Again, lucky son of a gun.

The dinner was held at the Muhammad Ali Center in Louisville, and the night’s host was close friends with the building’s namesake. Between presentations, the host began an anecdote about The Greatest’s crush on actress Bo Derek. As he spun the tale, I began to wonder what it had to do at all with horse racing, turf writing or anything in particular. That question was answered when he yielded the podium to Derek, who somehow managed to sneak in under my radar. The actress was there to present retired jockey Richard Migliore with the Mr. Fitz Award for “typifying the spirit of racing.” Like a good musical act, I highly recommend seeing Bo Derek in person.

After all was said and done, I headed back to my hotel. As I gathered my belongings to take to my room, I reached for my camera case and found nothing. The camera left the party around my neck, but the case, holding many of the tools that make me a less incompetent journalist, apparently did not.  I had left it back at the Ali Center tucked behind a column so no one would take off with it. Mission accomplished. After driving back to the center to find the front door locked, I conceded defeat and pledged to pick it up the next day.

Thursday started early on the Churchill Downs backstretch. Much like Kentucky Derby weekend a few months back, the opening to the track became a much longer chute courtesy of the camera-toting credentialed individuals lined up to catch a glimpse of horses under the purple Breeders’ Cup saddlecloths. Each horse entered in one of the weekend’s marquee races sported a towel bearing his or her name, which made for easy identification, and one would assume a nice keepsake for the horse’s connections.

While the horses scheduled for the undercard Breeders’ Cup races were a sight to behold in and of themselves, few, if anyone in the row of spectators was there to see the contenders for the Juvenile Turf. Consistent with the theme of the weekend, everyone was there to see champion mare Zenyatta make her way out to the track for a jog.

The mare showed up with an entourage of handlers and security not unlike a boxer heading to the ring. Cameras blew up like popcorn and Zenyatta ate up every bit of it. Ever since the horse hit the national spotlight, fans have gushed about her awareness and adoration of the spotlight. Prior to that day, I dismissed it as horse-crazy fans looking to give human characteristics to a potentially all-time great horse. Those few moments between the barns and the track, however, verified all of it. Over the course of the weekend, it just became more and more apparent.

As Zenyatta made her way onto the track and down the mile chute, I tried to find a spot on the rail. No such luck. With two years worth of photos at Keeneland Race Course obscured by the backs of people’s heads, I knew my best course of action was to find the shortest person on the rail, stand behind them, shoot over his or her head and hope for a good sightline. Did it make me feel really creepy? Kind of. So much so it warranted passing up an opportunity to get a shot of Zenyatta in action? Nope.

All she gave the crowd was one lap around the track, so it was literally a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. I tried rushing back to the gap to get some shots of her returning to the barns, but the crowd was too big for me to get any decent shots. The horse is kind of a big deal.

With the main attraction tucked back in her stall, the crowd dispersed by the gap and on the rail. I took the opportunity to wander back out to the rail and watch a few of the stragglers finish out their breezes.

A handful of European turf writers stood nearby. Throughout the weekend, much ado was made about the critical feelings of the Euro writers toward the North American way of doing business. So as not to appear xenophobic, I quietly dismissed those notions and passed it off as two groups who approach the same thing from different angles.

While these thoughts were passing through my mind, one of the European horses tossed its rider on the track. It stayed in the general area, and was swooped down upon by a few outriders, which mildly startled the loose horse. Back near my post, the writers from across the pond bemoaned the “cowboy” methods of wrangling the horse employed by the outriders and suggested a calmer method may have led to an easier recovery. I am not saying he was right or wrong – just two different ways to grab a loose horse by the reins.

Soon, it was time to head to the grandstands to prepare for the day’s races. I did not have any assignments for the day, so I took the opportunity to explore the scene and get situated. The press box at Churchill Downs is on the sixth floor and leads out to a balcony overlooking the track. The finish line is almost straight down, which can be moderately terrifying if there is not a race to distract from the drop. Taking that into consideration, it was still unspeakably cool to be able to walk through a doorway and have a graded stakes race unfold right in front of me.

Looking out over the track, it was apparent that the infield had still not recovered from the Derby festivities, partially due to a summer-long drought in the Ohio Valley region. A long patch of dead grass served as a reminder of the mudslide that ensued during the mint julep-fueled debauchery on the first Saturday in May.

After a few races, I decided to wander around the ground level. This was the day to do such things before the crowds got unbearable. As such, there were open seats right at the finish line. I watched the race next to a guy who happened to be from Michigan. We discussed the University of Michigan football program (of which my knowledge pretty much begins and ends with Denard Robinson) and exchanged a celebratory high five when I realized I had the winning exacta. After the race, he went off to find his friends and I went to cash a ticket.

Meanwhile, I received a text message from upstairs asking if I’d like to join Thoroughbred Times editors Tom Law and Ed DeRosa on a trip back to John Shirreffs’ barn to chat with the trainer and get some face time with Zenyatta. I decided to get a hot dog instead.

For those of you who did not exit out of this page after reading that last sentence, thank you for understanding my sense of humor.

To get to the backstretch, we took the shortest distance between two points – across the track between races. No matter how many times I do this, be it during the races or after all the horses are put away for the night, this never stops being a big damn deal for me.

We got back to Barn 41 and learned that Shireffs was in the middle of another interview. While the time standing out in the cold was rather unpleasant, it did provide the opportunity to soak in the scene. A pair of police cars sat outside the barn. Two or three guards were in the vicinity, mostly chatting with bystanders like myself. A case of Guinness beer sat on a box outside Shirreffs’ office. After a 60 Minutes feature made light of the fact that the brew is Zenyatta’s favorite, it became one of the most endearing aspects of the horse’s camp.

Eventually, we were allowed into the barn. While Tom chatted up Shirreffs, Ed and I recorded the mare in her natural habitat. Zenyatta is enough of a goliath on her own. Putting her on top of a mountain of straw is almost unfair.

While it was certainly an unforgettable moment to get some time with Zenyatta, it was also a rather grounding one. As she stood in her stall and took gobs of hay from the netting outside her door, the thought came over me that through all the victories, the stories, the dancing and the photographs, this is still a horse. She puts hay in one end and someone has to clean up what comes out the other just like the ones I have at home. This seems like a pretty obvious statement to make, but through all the hoopla surrounding Zenyatta, it can be easy to forget that she essentially lives the same life as the horse two stalls down. She just gets photographed a whole lot more along the way.

I had to make my exit from the track shortly after getting back to the press box in order to pick up my camera case at the Ali Center before it closed. Fortunately, security had it waiting for me. While I was waiting for it to be retrieved, Kentucky Gov. Steve Bershear passed by and headed toward an elevator. I have officially seen the Governor of Kentucky in person more times than I have seen the Governor of Michigan. I am OK with this.

The day concluded with the Breeders’ Cup welcome party at Louisville’s KFC Yum! Center. Several of racing’s notable figures were in attendance, including many of the young local jockeys, who had a disproportionate number of the good looking women around them.

The evening’s entertainment was provided by country music superstar Toby Keith, who is a racehorse owner himself. During the buildup to the show, I wondered to myself if he would be bold enough to play a song like “Courtesy of the Red, White and Blue”, where Keith suggests applying boot leather to the posterior of anyone who should threaten the U.S. of A., to an audience that included a significant international population. Thankfully, Keith decided to keep that song on the shelf, but he did play just about every other radio staple over his career and wrapped up with a surprisingly faithful version of Ted Nugent’s “Stranglehold”. Say what you want about Toby Keith, but you’ve got to appreciate anyone who pays tribute to the Motor City Madman.

I mingled for a time after the concert, then headed back to my hotel to get some sleep. Business was going to pick up tomorrow.

Behind the jump are some photos from the Wednesday and Thursday of Breeders’ Cup week.

Continue reading

4 Comments

Filed under Pictures, Racetrack Visits, Story Time

Michigan Notebook: November 15, 2010

According to the track’s Facebook page, Pinnacle Race Course will be featured in Tuesday’s episode of police drama Detroit-187. It is not known whether scenes will take place on location, or if the track will simply be mentioned by one of the show’s characters. The press release for the upcoming episode does not mention the track, but one of the characters is a high-stakes poker player. The show will air at 10 p.m. Eastern on ABC.

– The Little River Band of Ottawa Indians has unveiled a website outlining its plans for a casino and resort on the former site of Great Lakes Downs. The site includes concept art of the casino, endorsements from local and state government and the steps necessary to make the casino a reality. A compact amendment was signed between the tribe and Gov. Jennifer Granholm to proceed with the casino, but it has not been carried through by the state Legislature. The Muskegon Chronicle reports that if the compact amendment is not acted upon by Dec. 31, it will die in committee. Additional discussion on the proposed casino can be found in the Chronicle story, including arguments for and against the plans.

– The Michigan Thoroughbred Owners and Breeders Association is collecting donations for its annual year-end silent auction. If any readers or their businesses are interested in donating an item or service, feel free to contact myself or MTOBA directly. For more information on the MTOBA banquet, and for contact information to make reservations, click here.

– In a small bit of chest-thumping, a snippet of my epitaph on the Breeders’ Cup Classic in Thoroughbred Times TODAY was listed as a “Quote of the Day” on Horse Circle, a blog operated by an Ocala, Fla.-based Thoroughbred breeder. I am honored that readers find my work quoteworthy. I hope to supply bulletin board material to you all for years to come.

11 Comments

Filed under Great Lakes Downs, Pinnacle Race Course

Michigan mares bred totals down in 2010

The Jockey Club reports the number of Thoroughbred mares bred in Michigan, a key indicator of a state racing industry’s health, was cut almost in half from last year.

Preliminary figures recently released by the Jockey Club indicate 152 mares were covered by Michigan sires in 2010, a 49% decrease from the 2009 total of 297.

To view a sire-by-sire comparison of mares covered in Michigan over the last two seasons, click here.

Before discussing the figures in detail, it must be noted that the 2010 numbers are based on reports received on or prior to October 13, and several thousand more reports are expected to come in later, undoubtedly some of those from Michigan. Last year, several Michigan sires were unreported in the initial Jockey Club release, but appeared in the foaling report statistics some months later.

To put it in a better perspective, last year’s preliminary report tallied 240 mares bred by Michigan sires, which constitutes a 37% drop between this year and last. Assuming there is a similar proportion of stragglers to turn in reports, (and judging by some of the notable no-shows on the list there should be a few), the final total should be higher, but still signify a major drop.

From the figures provided, only nine of the 27 Michigan sires to cover a mare in 2010 had a book of five or more.

Arnold Farm’s Meadow Prayer, who died over the summer, led all Michigan sires with 25 mares covered. The Meadowlake horse currently leads the state in Michigan-bred stakes wins (four) and stakes winners (three).

Hubel Farm’s The Deputy (IRE), by Petardia (GB), was second with 18 mares, followed by Comedy Show (Distorted Humor, 16), Equality (Mt. Livermore, 15) and Diamond Strike (Allens Prospect, 14) to round out the top five.

Baptistry, standing at Sprintland Training Center, was the only horse to see an increase of more than two mares from 2009, going from two mares to five in 2010. Of the sires to report mares bred in both years, Equality and Syncline took the biggest dips, both breeding six fewer mares.

The reasons for the decline are not very different from last year, just given more time to fester; ever-increasing competition from surrounding racino states, an unstable climate in the State Capitol, a decrease in race dates and declining purses to keep the dates that were run. Pinnacle Race Course’s highly scrutinized situation with its creditors and local government adds another element of uncertainty to the situation.

Below are a couple charts showing how Michigan’s breeding totals stand up against other states, and against history. Click on the charts for an enlarged view.

Mares Bred in the Great Lakes Region, 1991-2010

X Axis = Year; Y Axis = Mares Bred

Consistent with previous years, the top three states on the list feature casino gaming, while those who are behind the curve are sputtering. A fun-size candy bar goes out to anyone who ever imagined Minnesota would breed more mares than both Ohio and Michigan. Ten years ago, that thought would have been inconceivable.

While looking through the figures, I decided to also examine whether expanded gaming had an effect on the number of sires standing a given state. Below are my findings…

Stallions Covering Mares in the Great Lakes Region 1991-2010

X Axis = Year; Y Axis = Stallions Covering Mares

An interesting wrinkle of racino states is that they do not appear to guarantee a significantly greater stallion population once expanded gaming is implemented. What it does change, however, is the quality of stallions standing in the state.

Consider Indiana’s state-bred program, which emphasizes success in open competition instead of state-restricted fields. Because Indiana-breds must succeed against open fields, namely Kentucky-breds, to earn the most lucrative incentives, many farms must trade up from state-level sires to regional-level ones. The quantity of sires may remain steady, but the quality spikes. With lingering concerns about whether racinos actually lead to an improvement of the breed, it appears Indiana has found a way to at least point the state in a good direction.

To view the detailed spreadsheets for the above charts, click here.

1 Comment

Filed under Commentary

Michigan Gaming Control Board approves 2011 racing dates

The Michigan Gaming Control Board recently approved the 2011 racing schedules for Michigan’s five pari-mutuel racetracks.

The schedules are significantly larger than those run in 2010, but as it has been proven in previous years, these dates are far from written in stone and are subject to change at a moment’s notice. Any modifications in the flat racing schedules will be reported as they become official.

The Michigan HBPA website reports the dates for Pinnacle Race Course…

The Executive Director [Richard Kalm] has determined and concluded that the applicant complies with the standards and the requirements for granting a race meeting license and simulcast permit under the Act and Administrative Rules.” The order indicated that the licensee is subject terms and conditions.

84 race days approved: Begins May 27, 2011 through October 29,2011.

– 3 days a week Tuesdays, Fridays and Saturdays from May 27 through June 25
– 4 days a week Tuesdays, Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays June 28 through October 29

From the Mount Pleasant Meadows Facebook page

Mount Pleasant Meadows has been granted a total of 23 Mixed Breed race dates, from Saturday, May 14, 2011 through Sunday, August 21, 2011;

– One day per week, Saturdays, from Saturday, May 14, 2011 through Saturday, June 4, 2011;
– Two days per week, Saturdays and Sundays, from Saturday, June 11, 2011 through Sunday, August, 21, 2011;
– No racing on August 7, August 13 and August 14, 2011.”

The Michigan Harness Horsemen’s Association reports the schedules for the state’s three Standardbred racetracks…

Hazel Park (50 dates)
Friday May 6, 2011 through Saturday August 27, 2011
(Mondays, Fridays and Saturdays)

Sports Creek (33 dates)
Saturday January 1, 2011 through Sunday February 6, 2011
(Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays) 17 dates

Friday November 25, 2011 through Saturday December 31, 2011
(Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays) 16 dates

Northville Downs (24 dates)
Friday February 11, 2011 through Saturday April 30, 2011
(Fridays and Saturdays)

Northville Racing Corporation (24 dates)
Friday September 2, 2011 through Saturday November 19, 2011
(Fridays and Saturdays)

4 Comments

Filed under Mount Pleasant Meadows, Pinnacle Race Course, Politics

Pinnacle Race Course suspends simulcast operations

Effective immediately, Pinnacle Race Course will cease simulcast operations until 2011, a track press release announced Tuesday.

The release cited Michigan’s difficult economic conditions, the Michigan Gaming Control Board’s drastic reduction of race dates, made up with funds from the state’s horsemen’s groups, and the board’s rescinding of funding from the state’s simulcast tax as reasons for the closure.

The track will remain open to cash out tickets Nov. 3-5 from noon to 6 p.m. and Nov. 8-12 from noon to 2 p.m..

A specific date was not given for the track’s re-opening next year. The MGCB recently approved an 84-day live meet at Pinnacle for 2011.

Pinnacle’s hiatus will also have an effect on the payment of outstanding purse money expected to be covered by incoming simulcast funds.

From the Michigan HBPA website

The loss of simulcast purse revenue will have an impact on issuing the balance of purses earned to the horsemen and women. Purses will be paid, but it may take a little longer.

Closing down simulcasting for the winter is a tactic that has been employed by other tracks in the midst of economic difficulties. Last year, Ellis Park in Henderson, Ky. suspended simulcast operations from Nov. 8, 2009 to April 1, 2010 to cut costs.

To view the track’s full press release, click here.

4 Comments

Filed under Pinnacle Race Course