Archive for May, 2015

Why Can’t Todd Pletcher Embrace the Preakness?

May 16, 2015

The nation’s top trainer has plenty of horses, but seems to have disdain for the second jewel.

by John Furgele

Today is the second jewel of horse racing’s Triple Crown when the Preakness Stakes is contested at Pimlico Race Course in Baltimore. A solid field of eight will enter the gate and run for the Black Eyed Susans. The usual cast of characters will be there; the big name jockeys, the trainers and the owners. All except one. Todd Pletcher.

Pletcher, for many reasons, doesn’t like the Preakness. And, that’s bad for the sport of horse racing. As a trainer, Pletcher has sent 43 horses into the starting gate at the Kentucky Derby but only seven at the Preakness. He has never embraced the 1 3/16 mile race, even when he won his only Derby. After Super Saver won in Louisville, Pletcher’s less than enthusiastic response about heading to Baltimore was telling.

Pletcher is not ludicrous for not being overjoyed about running horses at Old Hilltop. He is a new school trainer, one who believes that six to eight weeks between races is suffice. To run a horse twice in two weeks doesn’t sit well with him. He is certainly not alone in his thinking. There are no more Woody Stephens in the world, guys that would run their horse once a week if they thought it was worthwhile. Pletcher’s mentor, D. Wayne Lukas is the last of the old guard, a guy who would do anything to get a horse ready for an American classic race.

Pletcher was thrilled to win the Derby in 2010, but only took Super Saver to Baltimore because, as Derby winner, Super Saver was the only horse that could win the Triple Crown. In that way, he was obligated to run the colt back in 14 days to see if history could be made. After the colt finished eighth, Pletcher’s convictions were cemented even more.

In contrast to Pletcher, is the above mentioned Lukas. Lukas is more likely to run a horse that might not be ready for the big stage because at 79 he, enjoys being on the big stage. For Lukas, it’s all about trying to win the big race, and in this land, there are four of them: The Kentucky Derby, Preakness, Belmont and the Breeder’s Cup Classic. Sure, there are other fine races, with million dollar purses and tons of prestige, but to the American sports fan, those four are what matter. Lukas wants his horses to be ready for them. In fact, Lukas wanted Mr. Z to enter the Preakness so badly, he orchestrated a sale from Ahmed Zayet, who didn’t want to run him, to Calumet Farm, who will.

What is even more puzzling is that nobody has more horses in training than Pletcher. He has won numerous Eclipse awards as the nation’s top trainer and when newbie owners want to join the game, they turn to Pletcher. Mike Repole, Don Lucciarelli and Ed Stanco are just three examples. What I don’t fully understand is how Pletcher can send anywhere from four to six horses to the Derby, but zero to the Preakness? Once again, it is easy to explain away why his four Derby horses aren’t in Baltimore, but what about the rest of his stable? Isn’t there one worthy of an attempt?

One would think that Pletcher could go to his owners and tell them simply that it is his recommendation to save their horse for the second jewel rather than the first one. Yes, it is tough to tell an owner that the Derby isn’t in the cards because for most trainers, it is their dream to be one of the 20 to qualify for the Run for the Roses. To win it is almost unfathomable, but getting there can be a realistic goal. And, trainers want to be a Kentucky Derby winner. A win or two there usually is good enough for the Hall of Fame.

Bob Baffert, like Lukas, is the anti-Pletcher. He wants to be there, and has had great success with five Preakness victories. If one of his horses runs well in the Derby, there is a little doubt that he’ll bring him back in the Preakness. When Bodemeister lost in the stretch to I’ll Have Another in 2012, Baffert sent him to the Preakness, where he finished a heartbreaking second. When Lookin at Lucky struggled in the 2010 Derby, Baffert sent him to the Preakness, where he won convincingly. When Dortmund tired in deep stretch to finish third two weeks ago, Baffert had no reservations about bringing him to the Preakness where he will square off against his stablemate, the Kentucky Derby winner, American Pharoah. The trainers work for the owners, but something tells me if Baffert approached Kaleem Shah, the owner of Dortmund and asked him to not run in the Preakness, Shah likely would have respected the sentiment. But, to his credit, Baffert didn’t do that.

Pletcher is hurting the Triple Crown. Before the last hour sale of Mr. Z, there were only seven horses readying for the Preakness. That’s not enough. Eight horses is a nice number, but with Pletcher’s barn, there should be more. Why not run at least two? If you can run four at the Derby, why not one or two for the Preakness? A full field for the Preakness is 14 and while that is not necessary, it would be nice to have at least 10 each year.

Pletcher’s disdain for the Preakness has rubbed those at the Maryland Jockey Club the wrong way. They have mildly threatened to move the Preakness to July, well after the Belmont Stakes in an attempt to get more runners in the race. While this is not likely to happen, the message is clear: run the Derby, run the Preakness because it’s good for the sport. Some say that the mild threat is aimed at Pletcher and truth be told, because the Derby, Preakness, and Belmont Stakes are three separate entities, the Preakness could move and not face any sanctions, because there is no national governing body like an NHL, MLB, NFL or NBA. In fact, some owners—Pletcher for sure—would embrace the move because it would allow sufficient rest between races.

The Triple Crown is the magical time of the year for a sport that sits on the fringe. The big players need to do what’s best for the sport and that is to showcase themselves and their horses in the three signature events. There are only three of these races and to see perhaps the most talented trainer skip the race at will each year is disturbing. He can’t be forced to run horses in the Preakness, but he could and should be encouraged to do so because the sport needs him and his horses.

I’m sure the Maryland Jockey Club has spoken, encouraged and even begged Pletcher to bring a few horses to Pimlico, but he continually balks at the notion. Maybe somebody else can get to him, to convince him that the sport will benefit greatly with his presence at all three races, not just the Derby and the Belmont.

The Kentucky Derby Does it Once Again

May 4, 2015

Sport may not be at the top of the lists, but Americans embracing Derby more and more

by John Furgele

Horse racing may have seen its best days, but one thing becomes clearer and clearer each year, and that is that Americans love the Kentucky Derby.  The 2015 edition generated a 10.8 TV rating and 24 share and was attended by a record crowd of 173,000 plus.  On most days, the crowds are sparse and the off track parlors are filled with guys generally over the age of 60.  I went to an off-track betting parlor on Friday to make my Derby bet, and at age 47, I was the youngest by at least 20 years.  But, the Derby has taken its rightful place as a true American event.  I’m not sure why this is but as our lives become more hectic and more separated, I believe that many are trying to instill old American values into their kids and younger people in general.

The sport was much more popular in the 1940s, 50s, 60s and the 70s, when we saw three Triple Crown winners, yet there was never 173,000 people at Churchill Downs to see the classic races and the  horses like Secretariat, Seattle Slew and Affirmed.    Now, when Churchill Downs resumes racing this week, the crowds might be lucky to reach 5,000, but an event is an event, and people want to be there and watch it.

The Preakness will be another classic event.  The TV rating will be lower, but there will be at least 110,000 at Pimlico on the third Saturday in May.  The city of Baltimore should look forward to the celebration.  The last few weeks have not shown Charm City in its best light, but those who know the city, know it’s a great town and Baltimoreans have always done right by the second jewel of racing’s Triple Crown.  Furthermore, the right horse won the Derby in American Pharaoh.  For the first time, he was hooked and he responded, pulling away from the feisty Sunland Derby winner, Firing Line and another toughie in Dortmund.  Because he was the favorite and not some 50-1 shot, the country, at least until 7 pm on May 16 believes that he can win the elusive Triple Crown.   The belief brings the hype and for the next 12 days, it will be felt.

Horse racing has done many good things in the last 25 years.  More tracks have become family friendly, knowing that to exist long-term, they have to get younger people to venture out a few times a year and do some betting.  Another great thing is the creation of syndicates.  Most of us can’t plunk down $250,000 to buy a yearling, but through groups like West Point Thoroughbreds, you can pay a monthly fee and get in the game.  The sport will continue to get the wealthy involved.  These people have earned that right.  They’ve made their money and when you have money, there has to be something that excites you enough to spend it.  Despite that, the bluebloods and those of high society have seemed to have made peace with the commoners buying into a syndicate to get involved in the game.  The scions of American racing can’t live forever and we need the Mike Repoles as well as the syndicates to get involved in the sport.  The Sport of Kings is allowing the bishops and knights and a few peasants in and overall, that’s a good thing.

Many of the 173,000 at Churchill Downs might not have seen the race.  Let’s be honest, for many, it is a great party, a great excuse to get drunk, stumble around and have some fun.  And, does any country like a party more than the United States?  That said there is something for everyone.  For me, it was like Christmas Day.  I wake up excited and earlier than usual for a Saturday, but what I cherish is sharing the joy with others.  It is the one time of the year where I can profess my love for horse racing and my friends, colleagues, co-workers and even my mother actually seemed interested.  I received several texts from friends asking for my Derby winner (for the record, I picked Firing Line) and that never happens the rest of the year.  What does that tell you?  That people care enough to seek a horse racing lover and ask that question.  And, as those texts came in, my face lit up with joy because they were sharing—if only for one day—in the big race.

I don’t expect to get those same texts for the Preakness and if American Pharaoh doesn’t win, they surely won’t be coming for the Belmont, but as a fan of the sport, you take it when you can get it.  But, if Pharaoh pulls it off at Pimlico, then, once again, America will get jacked up for another run at the Triple Crown, which is never a bad thing.  The great thing is the resolve of Americans.  Twelve times since 1978, a horse has won the Derby and the Preakness and 12 times, they have been denied in the Belmont.  But, despite the letdown, Americans gear up and hope that the next time will be the charm.  They refuse to be deterred and say that it won’t happen.

As much as fans of the sport want a Triple Crown, I have concerns about it if it happens.  America loves its suffering.  Red Sox fans suffered for 86 years, White Sox fans for 88.  Cleveland baseball fans have suffered since 1948 and Cleveland Browns fans for another 50.  If American Pharaoh wins the crown this year, what will happen in 2017 when another horse wins in Louisville and Baltimore?  Will we wave a collective hand and say, I just saw that?  As the drought gets longer and longer, the suffering becomes a rite of passage.

I believe that the sport receives more attention when the horse is denied because, invariably, the sports talkers and writers bring it up the Monday after the Belmont.  The failures generate conversations that last for a few days.  Would success generate as many?  Of course, most of us would like to measure that after one horse sweeps the three and joins that elite group.

All in all, we, as a country embrace the big events.  My dad wanted us to watch the Derby and I make my kids watch it because someday I’ll be gone and hopefully my kids will make their kids watch and pass on not a love of horse racing, but a love for America and its traditions.  And, May is good month for traditions with the Derby and the Indianapolis 500 at the beginning and the end of the month.

As we grow more diverse, there has to be something that can bring us together if just for a few moments, hours or days.  The Kentucky Derby did that again and for a nation, that’s all good.

Five Weeks of Spectacular

May 2, 2015

Horse Racing no longer mainstream, but America still likes big events

by John Furgele

For youngsters, Christmas may be the most wonderful time of the year, but in the sport of Horse Racing, the most wonderful time of the year is now. The next five weeks not only is a time for fans of horse racing, but the only time of the year where the sport takes it place on the national landscape. When ESPN sends a crew to cover the Kentucky Derby, you know that America cares.

What will we see in the next five weeks? As is always the case, there are many that are hoping that this is the year when the Triple Crown drought of 37 years will finally end and one of these colts will be able to string victories in the Derby, the Preakness and the stumbler of recent times, Belmont Stakes.

We all know how difficult it is to do and we all know the reasons why. Horses are trained differently and because they are, they can’t withstand the grind of three races in five weeks. Horses are bred more for speed, and to ask one to win the first two legs and then go 1 ½ miles in the Belmont is far too arduous a task. The answer to this is very simple and that is the reason why the Triple Crown hasn’t been completed since Affirmed in 1978 is that there hasn’t been a good enough horse.

The chase begins at Churchill Downs when 18 horses (El Kabeir was scratched) line up for the 141st time in the Kentucky Derby. It is an American tradition, always the first Saturday in May and even people in the Northeast actually believe that spring is indeed, finally here, so in a sense, the Derby is the start of something most look forward to. The Derby is hard enough as 18 of the 19 entered have never raced more than 1 1/8 miles. As good as Dortmund, American Pharaoh and others have looked in their prep races, can they get that last eighth of a mile?

We have seen great horses come and go. In 2004, Smarty Jones looked great in the Derby, even better in the Preakness but was gunned down in the final strides of the Belmont Stakes. A year earlier, Funny Cide had good fortune in the Derby, backed that up with a 9 length victory in the Preakness before fading to third at Big Sandy (home of the Belmont). Barbaro looked like the real deal in the Derby, but never even finished the Preakness after suffering an eventual fatal leg injury.

To me, American Pharaoh has looked the best. His victory in the Arkansas Derby was breathtaking. Jockey Victor Espinoza’s biggest challenge was to stay on the horse. The colt glided down the stretch and looked like he could run forever. To me, the others have to come and get him. I would never say he is the class of the field, nor would I call it an upset if he gets beat, but to me, he is the one to catch, the clear favorite.

Dortmund is another tough horse. Like American Pharaoh, he is trained by Bob Baffert, and is perhaps a bit more tested in his races. He has been looked in the eye, but each time he’s been able to thwart all competitors. It would surprise no one if he won the race.

The Derby is so tough for these horses. The first time going 10 furlongs, the crowd, which will exceed 150,000 and 19 horses to is a lot to deal with. America loves an underdog, but it would be better suited if one of the favorites wins the Derby. If that happens, America will begin to believe that a Triple Crown is in fact a possibility. When a longshot wins, it often doesn’t translate television wise to the Preakness because Americans think that the longshot was lucky to win the Derby and they don’t believe that the luck can continue. America believed in Smarty Jones, they believed in Big Brown and those horses ate up the competition at the Preakness and by Belmont, the hype was more than on.

The Derby is the best race of the three, but the Preakness is the most important. That sets the table and that’s why it’s so vital and of utmost significance. If the Derby winner wins there, the ballyhoo to the Belmont Stakes begins; if he doesn’t, than the Belmont is just another major stakes race on a Saturday in early summer.

A Triple Crown winner will not save horse racing, it will not rekindle interest and put the sport on the front of sports pages and websites. It can be argued that the sport is better off with the near miss. The close-but-no-cigar theory works because lamenting is good for business as any Chicago Cub fan will tell you. Think about it; if the Cubs win a World Series, what will Cub fans have to be miserable about? The near miss scenario keeps people hopeless, yet interested.

I will spare you with my predictions because unlike most fans, I don’t love the sport because of the handicapping aspect. Sure, I’ll wager a few bucks on Firing Line, the Sunland Derby winner, but to me, it’s about the event, and the Kentucky Derby, is an event. There will be 150,000 at the track and another 12 million watching on television, making Derby Day very much a part of Americana. The Preakness will exceed over 100,000 when it is contested in a hopefully healing Baltimore and depending on what’s at stake, another 50,000 to 100,000 will descend upon Belmont Park on June 6.

In the 1970s, we saw three horses (Secretariat in 1973, Seattle Slew in 1977 and Affirmed in 1978) win the Triple Crown. It looked so easy and when Spectacular Bid won the Derby and Preakness in 1979, most thought a threepeat was in the bag. Little did we know how good we had it. If three could win it in a five year span, then surely it would keep happening with regularity. Obviously, that has not been the case, but tomorrow is the start of another year and another attempt at glory.