Monthly Archives: March 2011

The Kentucky Derby costume party

The Kentucky Derby may be known as “the most exciting two minutes in sports”, but it also owns the reputation as one of its biggest party days.

Fans from the infield to Millionaire’s Row take the opportunity to wear outlandish get-ups at the Derby that would draw confused looks in just about any other setting – loud-colored suits for the guys, and elaborate hats of all shapes and sizes for the gals. Along with the mint juleps and the slurred renditions of “My Old Kentucky Home” that they inevitably cause, the Kentucky Derby wardrobe is almost as much a part of the tradition as the race itself.

But what if the outfits had a little meaning behind them?

If done right, the Kentucky Derby holds the potential for a killer costume party. Instead of dull buttons or boring t-shirts, fans could show who they are backing in the big race by wearing a related disguise. It’s an automatic conversation starter, and just imagine the fun NBC’s announcers would have scanning the crowd during lulls in the action for creative outfits.

The ideas for some horses practically write themselves from their name or circumstances. Others require deeper thought to find the right look. To help save time, I have done the legwork and come up with costume ideas for fans of the current top 20 horses on the graded earnings list, according to KentuckyDerby.com. The top 20 will assuredly change between now and the first Saturday in May, so I have also included a few ideas for some horses on the earnings bubble. Better safe than sorry.

Behind the jump are a few ideas for the key players on the Kentucky Derby trail, listed in order of graded earnings. If anyone has ideas of their own, feel free to suggest them in the comments.

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The Haiku Handicapper: 2011 Dubai World Cup Card

Master of Hounds (#5) and Mantoba (#3) will each vie for their first graded stakes victories in the U.A.E. Derby at Meydan Racecourse.

The Haiku Handicapper is mixing it up for this year’s Dubai World Cup.

With solid fields in each of the eight races on the evening’s card, this year’s analysis of Meydan’s signature event will focus on the winners of each race, instead of the individual horses in select contests.

The betting options are robust for this year’s Dubai World Cup, and with so many horses coming from places not normally seen by American bettors, the intrigue level is sky high. If online wagering were legal in Michigan, I would be playing this card with both fists. Instead, I will be making my picks for pride alone, which still isn’t bad if they all come in.

Let’s have a look at the selections…

Race #1 – Dubai Kahayla Classic (Arabians)
Spotlight on Purebreds
No Risk Al Maury looks best
Watch for Dariya

Race #2 – Al Quoz Sprint
J J The Jet Plane
Continues globetrotting run
With a short-priced win

Race #3 – Godolphin Mile
A one-turn mile
Ripe with U.S. invaders
Zafeen Speed upsets

Race #4 – U.A.E. Derby
Field of wild cards
Looks like a g’day for Reem
Who outruns the Hounds

Race #5 – Dubai Golden Shaheen
A Shaheen rematch
Kinsale King and Rocket Man
Title changes hands

Race #6 – Dubai Duty Free
Plenty of options
Mendip’s nice if he likes turf
But Presvis takes it

Race #7 – Dubai Sheema Classic
The marquee turf race
Well-traveled and travels well
Redwood’s roots run deep

Race #8 – Dubai World Cup
A land seeks heroes
Buena Vista tops Transcend
The Rising Sun shines

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“Making Claims” debuts in Arabian Finish Line

Another exciting chapter of my journalistic endeavors kicked off this month with the debut of my monthly column, “Making Claims”, in Arabian Finish Line magazine.

The column’s inaugural entry, which appears in the publication’s April issue, is split into two parts.

The first half introduces yours truly to the magazine’s readers, including anecdotes about my origins in the sport, a few of my qualifications and my experience in Arabian racing. Naturally, I throw in some anecdotes about Mount Pleasant Meadows, too.¬†In the second part, I look back on the Darley Awards weekend, including my evening at Sam Houston Race Park, with the help of a numbered list.

This month’s issue also features several photos I took over the weekend, including ones at the races and a few on the cover.

And now, without further ado…

Click here to read the debut installment of “Making Claims”!

Like what you see? After this post, “Making Claims” will be exclusive to readers of Arabian Finish Line. To keep up with the world of Arabian racing, including my monthly commentary, click here to order a subscription to Arabian Finish Line.

Arabian Finish Line is a fine publication that provides insight on a sector of horse racing that often goes overlooked by the industry’s media outlets. The magazine features articles, commentary, stakes recaps and statistics on Arabian racing in North America and around the world. With detailed stats on every Arabian that leaves the gates in North America, the magazine is quite the useful handicapping tool, as well.

If the notion of reading my column every month is not reason enough to get yourself a subscription, hopefully something in the above paragraph will convince a few readers to give the magazine a try.

I would like to take this opportunity to once again thank the good people at Arabian Finish Line for allowing me the platform to express my views and spin some tales. I hope I can provide a consistent source of engaging and entertaining content for many issues to come.

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Under the lights at Sam Houston Race Park

Sam Houston Race Park takes advantage of its strengths as well as any mid-level track. Shotgun Willis is led in front of the grandstand on his way to the paddock.

Sam Houston Race Park had been on my radar as a priority track to visit for quite some time.

The track’s repeated Gallery Furniture-sponsored overtures to pit the two hot horses of the moment against one another showed the willingness of the mid-sized track to make a splash on the national scene.

Nobody ever bit on the offer, but you’ve gotta love a track with moxie.

The evening at Sam Houston concluded day one of the festivities surrounding the weekend’s Darley Awards – Arabian racing’s version of the Thoroughbred breed’s Eclipse Awards. Consistent with the theme of the weekend, the evening’s dual feature was a pair of Arabian stakes races.

The first, and most defining feature of Sam Houston is its lighting – from the stadium track lighting that can be seen well before the rest of the property comes into view, to the inside of the plant itself, which was lit like a shopping mall. Of the tracks I have visited that host a significant night racing schedule, Sam Houston may be the best illuminated.

Having left Detroit that morning in the midst of sleet weather, the comfortable Houston temperatures put me in a very good mood. A big smile came across my face as I passed through the turnstile. I was in a strange city at a new track. The sky was dark, the lights were bright and the breeze was warm. Yes, this is what it means to be alive.

Admission was free for me, as I had a free pass with the group of Arabian enthusiasts. Upon further inspection on the track’s website, general admission is $6. Kind of steep. Programs were $2, and were made of good quality white paper.

The Sam Houston plant is a very large structure, with at least two sets of escalators. Nooks and crannies were plentiful, with some even offering specialties like Greyhound racing (In retrospect, I wish I would have picked up a simulcast program just to see what Greyhound past performances look like). Business was good enough on that particular Friday night that most of the alcoves had at least a small population.

The ground floor offered bars for the parched horseplayer, but I found most of the major food stands on the second floor. My group had arrived at the conclusion of the third race, and I had not eaten since that morning in Detroit, so I found the nearest hamburger stand (or in this case, a barbecue stand that offered hamburgers) and scarfed one down. The burger was ok to average, but considering the above circumstances, I am willing to award an incomplete grade.

The second floor is a testament to the track’s friendliness to new fans. The track has decorated the walls above the mutuel windows with a glossary of horse racing terms. Basic betting, racing and horse lingo was laid out like it should be in any program worth its salt. Do 90% of the fans in attendance already know just about everything on that wall? Sure. But for that 10% who are standing in line still deciding for whom they want to vote, that information could prove invaluable.

After our in-between-race meal, my group found its way to the grandstand seating. The crowd was good-sized, which is no small feat in a plant of that magnitude (no doubt aided by the 50 cent draft beer and $1.50 wine on Friday nights).

Looking out over the track brought two things to the immediate forefront. First, the track is really good at drawing advertisers. Banners and billboards of various sponsors – with varying levels of local and national recognition and involvement in racing – could be found on the apron, in the paddock, on the rail, beside the tote board and behind the backstretch. As much of an eyesore as that sounds, it was actually arranged to look rather professional. Second, from where we were seated, the auxiliary chute inside the turf course provided an almost head-on view of the break in races that warranted using it. It was a perspective many tracks do not offer.

As the horses entered the gate for the fourth race, what occurred next will stick with me as long as I care about how a racetrack presents itself. When the “minutes to post” number hit zero, the lights dimmed in the grandstand like a movie theater about to play the previews. The buzz that ran through the crowd when this happened was something that I had never seen for an otherwise run-of-the-mill maiden race. It was almost Pavlovian, and it carried on through to the race. It got loud when the field approached the wire – louder than Hoosier Park on last year’s Indiana Derby day, where most of the crowd came inside to seek refuge from the rain – almost “cover your ears” loud. Again, in a grandstand of that magnitude, this was no small feat.

Perhaps this is the secret to horse racing’s never-ending quest to crack the “new fan” demographic – psychological reactions. Clearly, nobody is going anywhere just because of some dim fluorescent lightbulbs, but those dim bulbs tell people that something is going down and it is time to be excited. All attention is turned to the starting gates. If the decades-long success of the laugh track proves anything, it is that if they are already in the seats, people will get excited if you tell them to get excited. If we, as an industry, can find a way to harness these natural reactions, we might be on to something.

Anyway, I hit my first bet on Texas soil – a 5-1 shot that fell to 5-2 by post time. It would also be the last bet I hit on Texas soil. Fortunately, I like to bring home a ticket from each track as a souvenir, so that is not an entirely bad thing.

After a couple races in the grandstand, I decided to venture out on my own and explore the facility. First stop was the paddock. It was a fairly simple stalls and connected walking ring setup behind the grandstand. Horses entered and left by going around the plant.

When the horses emerged at the front of the grandstand to meet the awaiting ponies, they had to pass by a section of the apron. This provided some entertainment as the night wore on and the 50 cent drafts accumulated. A group of guys had gathered by the path and asked each entry arguably the most important question in handicapping, “You gonna win, number five?”, “You gonna win, number six?”, and so on. Most of the riders carried on with their business without paying much mind to the group on the other side of the fence, but when one rider near the end of the procession was asked the question, he turned to them, flashed a smile and thrust his arm out with a resounding thumbs up. This got a huge reaction from the gathering on the apron. The horse didn’t win.

Out front, the track was elevated a few feet off the rather expansive apron. Separating the masses from the running surface was a dirt path where horses were led from the barn area to the paddock without interfering with the horses unsaddling on the track. It was a novel idea, but there was one drawback. The elevated track, along with the walking path, meant the outside rail was prominently placed in the line of sight. Aside from the general difficulty of photographing a speeding horse at night without the benefit of flash photography, the rail made composing a good on-track photo difficult-to-impossible.

The Arabian stakes races kicked off with the seventh race – the Texas Yellow Rose Stakes. Headlining this heat was multiple stakes winner Sanddpiper, who would take home the Darley Award for top three-year-old female the following evening. Very rarely does a horse strike me with that indefinable “It Factor” on first sight, but Sanddpiper has it. The gray Burning Sand filly is incredibly photogenic – definitely not to the “camera aware” level of a Zenyatta, but still pretty good. Her sloped nose gives Sanddpiper the distinct look of an Arabian that makes her stand out from the crowd. Plus, she wins a lot, which never hurts. If I were given the task of selecting Arabian horses to market to a national audience, I would choose Grilla, based on the exposure from his big win last year at Keeneland Race Course, and Sanddpiper. Sanddpiper kept up her end of the deal with a dominant 8 1/2 length score in the Texas Yellow Rose.

After a Thoroughbred buffer race in between, the field arrived at the paddock for the Texas Six Shooter Stakes. The race was another blowout affair, this time by Darley Award nominee T M Fred Texas, who won by seven lengths.

There were signs throughout the grandstand providing a number to text for information regarding the movement toward slots in Texas. Like Michigan, the state is surrounded by racino-enabled jurisdictions and is suffering because of it. Regardless of where one stands on the issue of slots as a long-term solution to racing’s ailments, it is no stretch of the imagination to say that Sam Houston is one of the most natural fits for adjacent gaming I have seen.

Sam Houston Race Park appears to have grown itself the right way. The fields are as ample as the attendance, the track setup is well-designed and the marketing efforts and fan experience are superb. With an infusion of that sweet, sweet slots money at Sam Houston, there would be no stopping it.

I’m pulling for them. You’ve got to root for a track that works hard.

Behind the jump are photos from the evening at Sam Houston Race Park.

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The Haiku Handicapper: 2011 Tampa Bay Derby

Ho-hum installment
Of Tampa’s signature race
Earnings up for grabs

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

#1 – Striding Ahead
A Juddmonte prospect
Huge score off a rank debut
Worth spots on tickets

#2 – Economic Summit
A New York snowbird
Hasn’t shown graded stakes chops
Needs a big debut

#3 – Beamer
Finished behind three
That he will face Saturday
Doesn’t jump off page

#4 – Uncle Mo
Chose to face cupcakes
In lieu of graded debut
Cross his number out

#5 – Too Experience
A local fixture
Progressing nicely, hot jock
There’s plenty to like

#6 – Crimson Knight
Wins came in claimers
The air starts to get thinner
Climbing the mountain

#7 – Free Entry
Moving up the ranks
Lone loss is to Uncle Mo
Overlay hazard

#8 – Moonhanger
Big maiden winner
Other efforts are shaky
Hopes are not sky high

#9 – Watch Me Go
Sunshine stakes mainstay
Best efforts came a class down
Nice allowance horse

#10 – Brethren
Derby pedigree
Plowed through shaky opponents
Still seeking first test

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

Predictable tilt
No one touches number ten
Five, one and seven

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Five reasons why Michigan’s Thoroughbreds should look west

As of right now, the Thoroughbred racing business in the state of Michigan is an industry without a home track to call its own.

While the clock ticks down to the summer racing season, the state Attorney General’s office is taking its sweet time deliberating on whether Pinnacle Race Course is worthy of its conditional racing license. Meanwhile, any immediate alternative (Mount Pleasant Meadows, one of the state’s three harness tracks) will take time to build up into the kind of facility needed to host a meet of the Thoroughbreds’ caliber. Until a decision is made, it is difficult for the decision-makers in Michigan’s racing industry to pull the trigger on either option.

From this writer’s perspective, Pinnacle is at best a 50-50 proposition for opening its doors in 2011. The Detroit-area track closed down all of its operations at the end of last year’s meet under a mountain of debt from municipalities, tax collectors and simulcast providers. Even the track’s website has been offline for over a month, now. A recent story by Crain’s Detroit Business about a looming job-creation audit by Wayne County only heaps more on the pile.

Perhaps it is too soon to simply give up on Pinnacle as a long-term home for Thoroughbred racing, but with the track’s unstable past, present and future, it is not beyond the realm of possibility to consider an alternative.

On the Michigan-Bred Claimer Facebook page, I asked readers where they thought the 2011 Thoroughbred meet would be held, where they would like to see it held and where the long-term future of racing may rest. When presented with the options currently available, the conversation quickly shifted to building a new track in a centrally located area РGrand Rapids or Lansing. Looking at the current situation, it is not hard to agree.

Clearly, this idea is little more than a pipe dream. Pulling it off would mean convincing another wealthy investor that horse racing in Michigan is worth the risk, which at this point is admittedly a hard sell. This, along with a litany of other factors, would make the idea difficult-to-impossible. The following discussion is strictly hypothetical. However, if done correctly, a move west could help drastically improve the health of the state’s industry.

Another aspect discussed in the Facebook conversation was combining the breeds at said centrally located track. From an exposure standpoint, the harness tracks are doing just fine in Detroit. Keeping them there keeps the simulcast dollars flowing in their area. However, it would not be difficult to transition the Quarter Horses and Arabians to this imaginary track, as well.

Before I continue, I realize this plan flies in the face of my 3,000-word manifesto against the contraction of small tracks, effectively shuttering the two tracks I was trying to defend. Don’t worry, I have a plan.

Pinnacle and the proposed track cancel each other out, so there is no loss there. Mount Pleasant would be gutted with the loss of Quarter Horses and Arabians. However, the track represents the only pari-mutuel outpost in central and northern Michigan, so it is important to keep around. Plus, with the track suddenly much closer, there may be more interest to watch the races via simulcast in Mount Pleasant by those who can not make it to the live races every day, but want to play and keep tabs on the track.

To keep the simulcast going, the new track would split itself into a spring/summer and a fall meet, divided with a short mixed breed meet at Mount Pleasant to coincide with the Isabella County Fair. Mount Pleasant gets exposure at a time when the most patrons are on the property, the simulcast can stay open all year, and there is incentive to keep the track up to code to use as a training center. Damage is minimized and everybody wins.

Want to keep Pinnacle in the mix? Give Pinnacle and the new track each one of those meets, then either give Mount Pleasant back the mixed meet horses to run their usual schedule or keep the county fair plan. That way, Pinnacle can continue to stay in business, it gets some time off to ease the cost of hosting a live meet and perhaps it can finally work on finishing the “Phase Two” construction.

Both Grand Rapids and Lansing are viable and acceptable options for such a venture, but there are a few factors that make the state’s capital city particularly attractive in this scenario. To illustrate this, I have outlined five reasons why a move to Lansing might be in the best interest of flat racing in Michigan.

Keep in mind, this is not a call to shut down any track, but simply a scenario to consider in the wake of current events. It’s always better to have a plan than not.

The five reasons why Michigan should consider a racetrack in the Lansing area can be found behind the jump.

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