Monthly Archives: December 2010

Michigan HBPA to consider Thoroughbred meet at Mount Pleasant Meadows

Mixed breed track Mount Pleasant Meadows could play host to Michigan's Thoroughbred meet in 2011.

The Michigan Horsemen’s Benevolent and Protective Association intends to “pursue the possibility” of conducting its 2011 Thoroughbred meet at Mount Pleasant Meadows.

From the Michigan HBPA website

HBPA BOARD LOOKS TO 2011 SEASON: With the 2011 live racing season at Pinnacle Race Course looking more dismal everyday, the Michigan HBPA Board of Directors approved a motion, during a Dec. 29 conference call, to pursue the possibility of racing at Mt. Pleasant Meadows during the 2011 season. The board feels it very important to attempt pursuing the issue now, rather than being faced with the same circumstances that faced our horsemen last spring, when Pinnacle did not open for training, as provided in our contract.

Of course, there are many questions that need to be answered, but the possibility needs to be addressed now.

Mount Pleasant Meadows is a mixed breed track in central Michigan. While it plays host to Thoroughbred racing at its lower levels, along with Quarter Horses and Arabians, the track has never hosted a meet of this caliber.

Mt. Pleasant is a four furlong sandy loam oval with a six furlong chute for quarter horse races. The grandstand consists largely of aluminum bleachers, which are plentiful and offer adequate sight lines, with a few reserved sections for tables. It was built to host various county fair-related events on top of racing; including demolition derbies, rodeos and concerts.

Located on the Isabella County Fairgrounds north of Mount Pleasant, the track became a home for pari-mutuel racing in 1985 after previously serving as a fair circuit track. The move was also done to help replace racing lost by the shuttering of Glendale Downs in southern Michigan, which offered a similar level of racing.

Any updates on this story will be posted as they become available.

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Filed under Mount Pleasant Meadows, Pinnacle Race Course

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

In the year 2010 I…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Filed under Commentary, Mount Pleasant Meadows, Story Time, Triple Crown

A friendly reminder

With your help, my photo of Zenyatta and super-skilled photographer Jamie Newell, “Consolation”, made it to the final round of the Thoroughbred Bloggers Alliance photo contest. Now, I need your assistance one more time to finish the job.

As of the time this was posted, the photo was sitting in third place, well back of the two leaders. It’s going to take some doing to catch up, but it all starts with one vote – Yours.

To vote, just follow the link here, go to the bottom of the page and select “Joe Nevills – Consolation”. Then, click “Vote” and get on with the rest of your day knowing you have my deepest thanks.

Voting for the TBA photo contest ends Dec. 31, so don’t delay!

In case you are not familiar with the contest or my entry, here it is one more time…

"Consolation" - Zenyatta nuzzles against Jamie Newell the morning after the Breeders' Cup Classic.

Also, don’t forget time is running out to decide Michigan’s Thoroughbred of the Decade.

Four-time Sire Stakes winner Meadow Vespers continues to hold a commanding lead heading into the poll’s final days. This poll will close sometime Jan. 1 once the dust settles from the previous night’s happenings. The choices can be found on the left side of the page.

Just check a few boxes for me and I promise I won’t ask you to do anything else for the rest of the year.

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Filed under Pictures, Polls

The Haiku Handicapper: 2010 Malibu Stakes

It’s the last hurrah
For the class of ’07
A loaded sprint field

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

#1 – Paris Vegas
Life imitates name
Big spots haven’t been his best
Wouldn’t have high hopes

#2 – Alcindor
Late-blooming prospect
He’s going for the gusto
Off two career starts

#3 – Thiskyhasnolimit
Second-tier circuit
Well-traveled colt tries west coast
Should like shorter task

#4 – Caracortado
Ex-claimer’s comeback
Dirt, top-tier form is shaky
Look for him next year

#5 – Noble’s Promise
Reborn in sprint ranks
Came back strong from Euro trip
Very dangerous

#6 – Setsuko
Back from eight-month rest
Needs some time to get rolling
Not feeling this spot

#7 – Don Tito
Calder vibes are hot
Nice surprise in first stakes try
Worth note for supers

#8 – Thomas Baines
Tried Cal Derby trail
Then sank back to claiming ranks
Nothing’s changed since spring

#9 – Twirling Candy
High upside speedball
Brings it at one turn or two
Won’t melt on the pace

#10 – Our Minesweeper
No-Cal-er tries dirt
Didn’t light up overnights
Sweep him to the curb

#11 – Smiling Tiger
West coast’s top sprinter
Beat older foes all summer
Solid as a rock

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

Who’s best in the ‘Bu?
The five horse looks promising
Nine and eleven

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Filed under Stakes Races, The Haiku Handicapper

Rock the vote

The end of the year brings with it the annual Thoroughbred Bloggers Alliance photo contest and once again, I have thrown my hat into the ring.

Participants are allowed to enter two photos. My selections reach across the spectrum of the racing world, from the aftermath of the Breeders’ Cup Classic to the preparations for a speed index race at Mount Pleasant Meadows. Let’s have a look at the pair I sent out…

"Consolation" - Zenyatta nuzzles against Jamie Newell the morning after the Breeders' Cup Classic.

This one is my “A” entry – The ultimate example of everything coming together at the best possible time. With your help, I think this one could make some serious noise in the competition.

"A Leg Up" - Jose Beltran gets some help aboard HQH Dashing Zorro from fellow jockey Lee Gates.

This one may not be the most technically sound photo, but I defy you to find another shot in this contest that showcases the quirks and tight-knittedness of small track racing better than this. There are plenty of shots from Churchill Downs and the New York circuit, but this is something photographers won’t see at either of those scenes.

To vote, visit the TBA Photo Contest page, scroll down to the bottom and vote for up to ten choices. The top ten vote-getters on Dec. 25 are entered in the final round, which runs through Dec. 31. If you like a photo, be sure to check back next week in case it needs your vote again.

I am not going to twist anybody’s arm here, but if readers appreciate tender moments with the all-time greats or want to strike a blow for small-track racing, I would appreciate their votes.

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

Also, don’t forget to cast your vote for Michigan’s Thoroughbred of the Decade. The poll will remain up until roughly Jan.1.

Four-time Sire Stakes winner Meadow Vespers has ridden a wave of support to earn 48.33% of the vote. Multiple graded stakes winner Tenpins is in second with a 25% share, and Grade 1 winner Cashier’s Dream sits in third with 6.67% of the pie.

If you want to lock those results down or do something to change them, just head over to the poll on the left side of the page and pick the horse you feel is the most deserving of the title. For more information on the ten finalists, the original post can be read here.

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Filed under Mount Pleasant Meadows, Pictures

Breeders’ Cup Mercenary Song – Part 3: The Aftermath

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

At this point, people started getting brave.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Filed under Pictures, Racetrack Visits, Story Time

Michigan Thoroughbred of the Decade (2000-2010)

Another year is quickly coming to a close.

Year-end honors are being awarded or debated, while racing fans and participants alike are reflecting on the 2010 racing calendar.

The end of 2010 also allows for the opportunity to reflect on a much bigger scale. Depending on one’s guidelines for defining the decades, we are either wrapping up the current ten-year stretch or we are in the midst of the ’10s.

Either way, enough time has elapsed to discuss the last decade in Michigan Thoroughbred racing – the highs, the lows and all points in between. For the purposes of this post, we will focus on the highs.

Over the last 11 years (to account for both schools of thought and avoid confusion we’ll include 2010), Michigan has produced solid runners on the local, regional and national levels. Michigan has proven it can produce a Thoroughbred that compete anywhere.

This state has had some good ones in the ’00s, and it is time to decide who is the Michigan-bred Thoroughbred of the decade?

Behind the jump are ten horses whose careers have put them head and shoulders above the rest of their Michigan-bred counterparts. Some have exemplified dominance at Michigan’s Thoroughbred ovals, Great Lakes Downs and Pinnacle Race Course. Others have competed, and won, at some of the most prestigious racetracks in the world.

Each horse on the list has a reasonable claim to the title. The resumes for each candidate are included to display that claim and help voters make their decisions.

Does the flash of brilliance Cashier’s Dream showed in her tragically short career put her over the top? Tenpins’ graded stakes coups? Secret Romeo’s regional dominance? Valley Loot’s success in the latter half of the decade? Meadow Vespers’ near-invincibility in the Sire Stakes? That Gift’s transition from a stakes-level competitor to a hard knocker? Rockem Sockem’s staying power in the middle of the decade? Sefa’s Rose’s ownership of her division? Weatherstorm’s quick start? The early-decade success of Born to Dance?

To make your selection, just go to the poll on the left side of the page and click on the horse you feel is the most deserving of the title “Michigan Thoroughbred of the Decade”. Feel free to back up your vote or campaign for a horse in the comments. I look forward to hearing some constructive debate on the subject and reminiscence on the careers of the state’s best.

And the nominees are…

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Filed under Great Lakes Downs, Pinnacle Race Course, Polls