Sunday, September 28, 2008

Ten Million Reasons Curlin's one of the Best

I'm not much on attending the 'big' events. As a matter of fact I eschew them as a principle. I avoid them because the massive crowds are more about being at the 'event' than the event itself. Those big crowds make it almost impossible to enjoy a day at the races unless one is involved in the races. Yesterday at Belmont was a huge event in my mind. The type of big event I like to attend. There were five Grade I events culminating with Curlin running in the Jockey Club Gold Cup for the North American purse record and to keep his momentum toward a Breeder's Cup Classic repeat and a showdown with Big Brown. So yesterday for the first time since I worked on the backside I returned to Belmont Park. Most of all I went to "see" Curlin knowing that this would be my final opportunity and, to my chagrin, my first time to see him in person.
I have never been to Belmont when I wasn't working on the backside so the simple things were the most confusing; where do I park? sit? etc. It used to be I'd park at the barn walk through the tunnel and I was at the races. But those problems we easily worked out because so few people (8,563) also thought about this as a 'big' day. I don't understand it really. In some sense a historical event was inevitable. And it is likely the last time most would be able to see this great athlete. Unlike results at the B.C. or the K.D. that are historical just because the event itself - and may become a-historical depending upon future performances - this was the real deal. A great horse was striving to attain a great accomplishment. The task was right there in front of him. Those are the most difficult types of accomplishments to attain. The unexpected honors or those secured through opportunistic chance are more easily attained because they don't carry the same burdensome weight and the athlete is not yet a target. Perhaps it isn't as difficult for a horse as it is for a human to prevail in these situations because they don't have the same perspective of history and accomplishment as humans. It's common to see great athletes in sport falter for long periods of time before finally overtaking a great, longstanding record. This is probably because they have to get their head around what they are accomplishing. I imagine in the end they just get so weary from the stress they simply relax so that instinct takes over and their ability prevails. Horses don't have to deal with that but they do have to deal with the people around them. The people do feel stress and tension and nervousness and horses do respond to those emotions. There had to be a lot of pressure at the Asmussen barn yesterday, yet as always they handled it positively, professionally and with the certainty that all hands and Curlin had done all they could in preparation; the rest was just the race. And Curlin didn't disappoint.

Yesterday I wrote that I would have liked to see a little more in some of Curlin's works. But when I saw Curlin in person for the first time he looked to me to carry less weight than I had envisioned him to. Don't misunderstand me, he looked picture perfect, Steve's horses always do. It's just that on T.V. and in stills he looks bigger than life. But it made me think about what I wrote yesterday and realize I was just wrong.

On a very dark overcast day that moved the gloaming up just enough so that the lights of the finish line illuminated Curlin in a gold light as he crossed the wire, history was made. It's amazing how those of us that love this sport can be so moved by the accomplishments of a horse and yesterday was one of those occasions for me. As Curlin crossed the wire to the shouts and applause of the disappointingly small crowd I, and I imagine most of the crowd [fans] on hand, had a tear in our eyes. After the race Curlin looked tired to me. I don't mean blowing hard, I mean weary. Go ahead accuse me of anthropomorphism. But as I was running the images of the race back through my mind I could almost see the weight of all the hopes and dreams of everyone on Curlin's shoulders as Robby Albarado continued to throw crosses to urge Curlin forward. Albarado didn't need to hit Curlin, he probably didn't even need to throw the crosses. Curlin knows what needs to be done and he does it. He saves himself and the team is smart enough to listen to him. The race is over but the hopes and dreams still have to be carried for one more race, The Race. It makes me think about how much he weight he's carrying, how long he's maintained performing at the top level and how much that must take out of a horse even if he doesn't show it on the outside.

Almost immediately after the race Jess Jackson, as I had faith he would, announced that Curlin would be traveling to California forthwith to prepare for the Breeder's Cup. Hooray for Jess Jackson, he doesn't disappoint either! No matter what happens there, and I believe Curlin will win, he is one of the greatest horses I've ever had the honor to see.

It wasn't a great field, it wasn't his best race but it is a great accomplishment. The race unfolded pretty much as it appeared on paper. But with the scratch of Timber Reserve, Merchant Marine was left to put the pressure on Wanderin Boy and that pressure was probably not as hot as it would have been with Timber Reserve so Wanderin Boy had a little more left for the stretch. Robby Albarado kept Curlin a few paths out from the rail as the running on the rail was heavy. In the end Curlin did what he needed to do and left no doubt who was best; the margin of victory being no indication of how much better.

To remain in and compete at such top condition for such an extended period of time is nothing short of a miraculous accomplishment. Congratulations to Steve Asmussen and his barn for the ultimate accomplishment and to Curlin because he is a great horse. Only a great horse could achieve what he has been able to do. As the Cheif has been quoted saying about Curlin 'to do what he's done he's not one in a million he's one in a jillion.'

I had the honor to work for Steve's family for a short while at El Primero and as I looked down at the winners circle pictures being taken and the trophy ceremony with Steve, his parents and his family surrounding him I felt great pride for them and all of their accomplishments. The Asmussens are the great American horse family!

I really can't end without saying something about Zenyatta! She is just a freak! As much as I deplore those four horse Stakes fields you can't take anything away from her performance. She's just AWESOME!

Saturday, September 27, 2008

Curlin's Final Prep?

Today all fans will be watching to see if Curlin can become America's first $10 million dollar horse. Unless he really regresses off of a Woodward performance that most feel was a regression it seems unlikely he'll be beaten. The field is mediocre to good, not great. Mambo in Seattle is the dark horse here. He is a 3 year-old on a rise that, in the eyes of many, has placed him near the top of his class. But, he's not a super horse, not yet anyway and the reigning champion should be able to dispose of a horse in this class. Wanderin Boy can be dangerous if he gets an uncontested lead. But Timber Reserve and Merchant Marine should be giving him a little company leaving Curlin in the garden spot - mid field, and saving ground - setting him up for a good finish on a track he enjoys. My entry yesterday revolved around Larry Jones, one of my favorite and most respected trainers but I think his charge, Stones River, is out of his league here. Of course the Jim Squires owned Stones River has already claimed some fame for himself as he was the first horse Jones had ever received an accusation of a medication overage on in his 25 year career; an accusation that had the smell of a rotten egg. I read that Asmussen was a bit concerned that Curlin's Woodward was a bit more taxing than he would have hoped for the champ. Perhaps that's something to be concerned about. And after considering that information my next statement may seem ridiculous. Far be it for me to question anything Asmussen does but every once in a while I would like to see him push a bit more in a work, especially considering the way Curlin finished up in the Woodward. I'd like to see something that gets a bit more to his bottom. Yet looking back he did that leading up to the Woodward when, on 8/18 he sent Curlin 7 in 1:24 &4/5! Maybe that took a little too much starch out of him. Every horse is different and he knows him best so that's that. But sometimes familiarity breeds boredom, probably even in horses.

But, if all goes well and Curlin does what Curlin does only Jess Jackson's okay to a Breeder's Cup Classic run stands between Curlin and Big Brown. I think he has to go. It's about racing and doing what's best for racing. That is what Jess Jackson gave as his reason for bringing Curlin back to run this season. So if he doesn't go I will be very disappointed for racing and in Jess Jackson. I have very little doubt that Jackson will do the right thing. The Santa Anita Pro-Ride surface looks very fair so far. I just can't see it being used as an excuse. Great horses do great things. I think Curlin is a 'Great' horse. I think he will win today and run and win at Santa Anita in the B.C. Classic and retire to that rarefied air where only a few horses can graze.

Big Brown's performance was scintillating. He beat some really good older horses with aplomb. One of those older horses, Proudinsky, is back today in The Joe Hirsch Turf Classic Invitational (g.I). It will be interesting to see how he fares against Grand Couturier who ran in Curlin's Man O'War(g.I). Of course it's impossible to compare apples and oranges as both weather and race conditions make true comparison impossible but interesting nonetheless.

Friday, September 26, 2008

The Larry Jones' Precedent

The news that Larry Jones has decided to call it a career by the 2009 Breeder's Cup is lamentable. As far as I'm concerned Jones is one of racing's very greatest assets. He is a singular and recognizable personality that has the ability to transcend the sport to attract new fans. Admittedly this observation is only based on personal experience but it is uncanny how often I am surprised by my 'non-fan' friends' ability to identify him as the trainer with the' white hat' even when he is not wearing it. I chalk this up to the ability of his countenance to transmit the obvious love he has for his horses and the joy that he takes in his work. After reading the BH article one doesn't have to read between the lines to realize that some of the joy is gone. It did not dissipate on it's own but as a result of the changing landscape of the business and his role in it. The Eight Belles tragedy certainly precipitated these feelings even if he was unaware of their influence at the time. It's unfair that many (non-industry members) had placed responsibility of the tragic event of Eight Belles breakdown at his doorstep. Anything that can happen will, especially with horses, and sometimes those events are tragic. It was no ones fault, it was simply a tragic event. But the point of this entry is not to reopen an unneeded discussion to defend or rehash that event. I want to address another issue that I was reminded of by some of Jones' statements:

“I have to become a manager rather than being a trainer. That’s what I want to do, is train the horse. Of course, we’re on a different level now. We’re strung out with divisions in several locations. And no matter where I am on a Saturday afternoon, the other owner thinks I should be there (where their horse is running). I like to be the guy who puts that saddle on the horse. But I can’t do it all. It has a price to pay.”

This statement addresses one of my pet peeves with the industry: the mega-barns. Obviously I am talking barns like Pletcher's, Asmussen's, Frankel's etc., the Google's, You Tube's and IBM's of the industry. Of course these days even the smaller quality barns often have more than one division. It is my position that they are bad for the business.

It was probably Jack VanBerg that first trained at the 'mega' level and certainly others like D.W. Lukas followed him with great success, however, I see the practice as being contradictory to the essence of the business and to the ability for the industry to use its greatest attribute -mythicism - to promote itself. I use the word contradictory because the image of training horses is intimately tied to an extremely close bond between horse and man. If you are able to train horses over the phone it distorts the image and reality more than a little.

For any trainer the secret to success is to have good horses. Certainly they need to be good horsemen but it's likely any competent horseman would win with Curlin or Secretariat or Big Brown. But when all the best horses go to a handful of barns where is the opportunity or interest in that? Anyone trying to break in is left to scramble for what crumbs have fallen. Certainly this does not mean that 'diamonds in the rough' are not discovered and turn up in unexpected barns. But even when this occurs most often crazy money is thrown at an owner who can not turn down a once in a lifetime opportunity and the horse will end up in one of the mega barns. In fact IEAH prides themselves on the ability to recognize early quality that has fallen through the cracks of sales and private breeding industry to purchase these very diamonds. I don't see any way or need to limit how many or how much someone can pay for horses but it is possible to limit the amount of horses in a barn. But why would we do that?

First for legitimacy. To make certain that the trainer of record is the person responsible for the horse and that it is their skills not just their program that is the cause of success. Obviously in the mega barns there is great talent in the assistants ranks. I would argue that often that talent is at least equal to that of the trainer themselves. We have to look no farther than Van Berg and Lukas to see the evidence of this. As a matter of fact I would argue that Lukas' greatest gift to racing is his ability to produce great trainers, not great horses. I do not in any way mean to impugn the skill or ability of the mega trainers. They are certainly terrific horsemen and also absolutely wonderful managers.

Second for the image of the sport. One of the most interesting, if not the most interesting aspect of the sport is the image of the mythical trainer. The person that can transcend the man/beast threshold and communicate with the animal. Would Seabiscut still be Seabiscuit without the attached story of the cantankerous, secretive Tom Smith? Would he really have done what he did without Tom Smith? We'll never know. How about Charlie Whittingham? H. Allen Jerkens? And the list can go on and on. Somehow it's just not the same when a trainer flies into town to saddle a horse for a big race when it's obvious his assistant has taken on the daily duties (the most important duties) . Again, I don't question for a moment that a trainer is in daily contact with their assistants, but, I don't think that [m]any of the 'critical' decisions are made by the assistant's - but they could be.

As another reason I would list is for the health of the industry. Not unlike the situation our nation is in at the moment where too few have had the ability to ruin an entirety the same can be argued for the racing industry. If too few trainers are taking the lions share that leaves less and less for the nuts and bolts of the industry - the small barns- with which to make ends meet. More and more will be forced to close shop because there is simply not enough left to make it feasible to continue the struggle. When one considers the amount of time and effort that is required to train it is amazing that so many barns persist. However, more and more frequently the choice becomes the same one Larry Jones is making. It forces one to either go for the big time -for those few that can even seriously entertain this, based on financing or clients - or become a manager. In short order racing may return to being the 'Sport of Kings' where there are only a dozen or so owners with their personal trainer.

Another reason is the future of the industry. Not all but very many of those with an aspiration to train are very competitive. But, if luck is the only opportunity to get good horses so that they can compete at the highest level many will look elsewhere for a vocation. And if the structure is such that even making ends meet is going to be a struggle how do we expect to attract the next generations of horsemen to the industry?

I think there should be a limit on the horses one is allowed to train. I would like to see a limit of around forty but I know that is unrealistic. Perhaps sixty? I don't have an answer. I do think that the number should reflect a number that is reasonable to assume a person can 'personally' oversee. Perhaps, also the definition of 'trained' should be tied to attendance. To have a limit of 80-100 horses at five different circuits does nothing to address this issue. Perhaps in order for a horse to be considered 'trained by' a trainer must be present at that track for 12 days a month (during training hours) or some such number that will effectively limit the number of horses and locales they can be credited with being trainer of record. All these offerings are obviously problematic. For instance a trainer travelling with a horse for a distant stakes would probably have to be able to have those days counted as being at their base barn. This would be especially necessary with a barn made up of many stakes caliber horses. Of course this arrangement would likely result in those barns being at the "A" tracks anyway.

The result would be more opportunity for the many able people that seek opportunity. It would also result in a more egalitarian distribution of purse money - because there would be more trainers and [in theory] those trainers would have access to more horses - in the sport adding to the health of the industry overall. I believe it would also have the effect of keeping more money at the locality of the tracks as it would cut down on the mega barns shipping in just to swipe a big purse and then leaving. It would do this because more barns would have to decide where they are going to be based in effect spreading out the quality horses. It would certainly result in a much more diverse and interesting industry.

The day Larry Jones hangs up his hat for the last time is going to be a sad day. Unfortunately I think because the way the industry is structured in the near future we will be losing more and more really quality people in the sport. And we will likely lose would-be greats that may go elsewhere for lack of opportunity.

Saturday, September 13, 2008

The Big Brown Stakes (a.k.a. The Monmouth)

IEAH got their race, on the date they requested with a purse they are happy with, now all that needs to happen is that the Big Brown has to run the race. I'm not so sure that IEAH got the field they wanted to run against. I think they believed BB would scare most of the competition away. But 500,000 reasons later and we have ourselves a race. While maybe not stellar, The Big Brown Stakes drew an extremely respectable field, worthy of a ranking in my opinion. So much so that if Monmouth continues the race for a few years it may get a ranking. But the suspicion that the Brown team didn't get the field they had hoped for comes from Michael Iavorone's stated conditions for claiming victory without crossing the wire first. Quoted in the DRF (Vol. CXIV no. 257 NY) he uses the industry standard doublespeak euphemisms -usually reserved for situations where one is trying to snatch moral victory from defeat- before the race is even ran, such as "We made it very clear that this race is a prep race" and "We're not looking for his best race here, we're looking for his best race in October... We could run second in this race like Curlin did [in the Man O' War] and be happy knowing we're going to move forward."

Well, there are a few differences between Curlin's run and this one. Curlin ran in a Grade I against two Breeders Cup winners in a race that Mike Watchmaker references as the "best U.S. turf race so far this year," in his Wathcmaker Watch rankings. While I'm not sure I would call the Man O' War this years best U.S. grass race, it nonetheless was a contentious grade I event that horses were pointing toward and had prepared specifically for. Big Brown's race was dictated by only his schedule. That is not to say that it won't work out well for the others as well but that doesn't detract from the benefit of having a race written for you. The other difference is that there were no excuses being made for Curlin before the race. They went into the race ready to raise the victory flag or shoulder the burden of a the failed experiment. In hindsight if the Man O' War was the best U.S. race on grass then it was a terrific result for Curlin! Especially in light of Asmussens assertion that he always runs better second time around on any track. Perhaps that would prove to be the case on any surface as well.

This sounds like a lot of Brown bashing and I suppose it is. But it's not the horse I'm bashing. I want to root for the horse because he's good for racing and because as a fan I want to be able to see horses that will be considered the sport's all time greats. For me it's just indigestible to hear claims akin to how he's the best horse the world has ever seen but then hear the management making those claims continually backpedaling with excuses, especially before the even have to!

I know Curlin is one of the best horses I've ever seen. I know that especially because he has danced all the dances for more than just his three year old season and has continued to be the top performer in the sport. I do know Big Brown is a good horse, has been precocious in his three year old season compared to his crop and has only one blemish on his report card. He can boost himself a lot in my eyes with a win today. I don't expect him to win. I think the race sets up best for Shakis (Ire*) but I wouldn't be shocked if he's good enough to win. I also wouldn't think that he's a bust if he runs a good second or third. But I want him to win. I want him to go out and create some excitement for racing and the Breeder's Cup.

If Big Brown does win I feel it will be the first time that team IEAH has the right to throw down the gauntlet to Jess Jackson and require him to send Curlin to the Breeder's cup to settle the debate. And if Jess Jackson wants to walk the walk he talks - to do what is best for racing - he will send his champion into the arena for the showdown everyone wants to see. A champion doesn't turn away from a fair fight. Champions find ways to overcome adverse conditions and circumstances. Neither Curlin or BB have run on synthetics, so a meeting at Santa Anita would be on a level playing field. If Big Brown goes out today and puts in a performance that inspires that punches his ticket as the number one contender to Horse of the Year then they both need to show up and face the flame!