Tag Archives: Kentucky Derby

The Dream comes true for Kentucky Derby winning connections

Two sets of longtime friends and colleagues all sat together facing dozens of cameras and reporters on Saturday evening in Louisville. On the far left was a trainer from Texas, and to his right, a jockey from Puerto Rico. Together the two had teamed up to win over 1,600 races over the last 20 years, but this was their first time sitting next to each other on this stage, after this significant of a feat.

To the right of the jockey were two successful businessmen who were childhood friends that grew up in Brooklyn, both of whom remember attending races as kids with their fathers.

IMG_8806.JPG

Together, Todd Pletcher, John Velazquez, Vinnie Viola, and Anthony Bonomo, with the help of their wives, families, friends, colleagues and fellow business partners, had just won the 143rd Running of the Kentucky Derby with a colt fittingly named Always Dreaming.

“Growing up as kids, we’ve won a lot of Kentucky Derby’s, but never in reality,” Bonomo said, yielding laughter from the crowd. “But I think we just knew when we got together that something special was going to happen.”

Always Dreaming had the perfect trip, breaking from post position five with Velazquez guiding him the whole way. State of Honor, who broke just outside of Always Dreaming from the six-post, got out to the early lead, as Velazquez kept his horse close behind in second through the races’ early stages.

“Out of the gate we didn’t have any trouble,” Velazquez said. “The first step, I wasn’t too happy with. The second step I had to ask him to break. And he got into a good rhythm right away. Once I was going forward, for the first time, I was happy where I was. And so the other horse, obviously, showed some speed. So I let him go into the first turn. I eased away from him. On the back stretch, I took a hold of him. And, as soon as I got it in the back stretch, he was going really comfortable.”

Always Dreaming got a head in front of State of Honor with a half-mile left in the 1 1/4-mile Derby, and never looked back, crossing the finish line ahead 2 3/4 lengths.

For co-owners Viola and Bonomo, the dream had finally come true.

“For Anthony and I, I think we represent everybody who went to the racetrack for the first time with their Dads and were just astonished by the brilliance of these equine athletes and never fell out of love with the sport,” Viola said. “To sit up here, you have to say that we’re really still two kids at heart, who grew up in Brooklyn New York in the Williamsburg section of Brooklyn who always dreamed and this was one of the dreams that came true.”

Bonomo elaborated on how the name “Always Dreaming” was conceived.

“For me, it’s just a dream and my wife picked out the greatest name,” Bonomo said. “I mean, how do you pick out a name, attach it to a horse, and this happens?”

When asked what was the inspiration for the name, Bonomo pointed to his wife and said, “you’ll have to ask her.”

When the audience looked to Mary Ellen Bonomo in her white floral Derby hat and white dress, she got choked up for a moment and had to fight back tears of joy before taking the mic.

“I’m a little overwhelmed,” she said. “I just, I always daydream, I probably daydream a little too much and kind of live in Xanadu sometimes and I said, ‘why don’t we name it dreaming?’ Everybody dreams of something, whether its a big event, a special day, the birth of their child, winning the Kentucky Derby…So I just said, you know, let’s just…’Always Dreaming.’ And it just took off. And now we’ve said that when this horse has it’s first baby, we’re gonna name it ‘Keep On Dreaming.'”

It marked the second Derby victory for Pletcher, who had won with Super Saver in 2010. It was also the second Derby win for Velazquez, having won on Animal Kingdom in 2011. But to win it together, after having so much success in other races past, was something special for both of them.

“Very special,” Velazquez said. “Todd mentioned earlier that we had won important races. But winning this one is definitely a big one. And I really think being behind me for 24 years together, something like that, a long time for him to still trust in me and give me the opportunity, it’s not very often it happens in this business.”

Pletcher reflected on his stable’s history in the race before elaborating on the significance to win with Velazquez.

“You know, when you look at it now, we have been here — I think this was our 17th Derby,” Pletcher said. “To be fortunate enough to have two wins in two seconds and I think three thirds, it looked a little better. To me, it felt like I really needed that second one, you know? One more. And the first one was extra special. I have a tremendous respect for the race, tremendous respect for how difficult it is to win.”

“But I felt like we needed another one as a team to put it together,” the trainer added.
“And I felt like Johnny and I needed one together as well.”

The room erupted in applause from family members of the winning connections and reporters/media personalities alike.

“We have had a great relationship for a long time now, and we have won a lot of races together,” Pletcher said. “This one we hadn’t, and this is the one we wanted to win together. And I’m glad we could do it.”

Always Dreaming is expected to be shipped to Baltimore on Monday, where he will begin preparations for the second jewel of the Triple Crown, the Preakness Stakes. The 141st Preakness at Pimlico Race Course will be held Saturday, May 20, and will be broadcast live on NBC.

Advertisements

CoxTalks Kentucky Derby Preview

Featured Image: May 7, 2016; Louisville, KY, USA; Mike Smith aboard Danzing Candy (20) leads Mario Gutierrez aboard Nyquist (13) into the first turn during the 142nd running of the Kentucky Derby at Churchill Downs. Mandatory Credit: Brian Spurlock

The field has been drawn, morning-line odds have been assigned, spring has officially sprung, and the first Saturday in May is rapidly approaching. The 143rd Kentucky Derby presented by Yum! Brands is about as wide open as ever, although the betting favorite has taken the first leg of the Triple Crown in each of the last four editions. Mother nature may look to shake things up this year for Derby athletes and spectators alike, as the forecast calls for a 40 percent chance of showers in Louisville on Saturday, mainly after 8 a.m., with partly sunny skies, and a high near 63.

There is a 70 percent chance of precipitation on Kentucky Oaks Day (Friday), which could make for an already wet track by the time Saturday rolls along. Will it have an affect on the horses? Who knows? But it’s always something to consider when looking at the program.

What makes the race unique?

From a racing perspective, the Kentucky Derby is unique because of the field size and the distance. Most races you see at Keeneland, Churchill Downs, or any other track around the country, limit their field size (number of horses in the race) to either 12 or 14 starters. The Kentucky Derby allows for a field of 20 starters, which makes for absolute chaos in terms of positioning.

The Derby is limited to only 3-year-old horses, which is why you see a new crop of names with each renewal. The earliest you see horses start racing is in the spring of their 2-year-old year, so these Derby horses have only been racing for a year at most. The Derby is also the first notable race for 3-year-olds held at the distance of 1 14 miles, which is a long way to go for any horse in the modern era of racing. It will take endurance, an experienced jockey, a game horse, and the perfect trip in order to take home the roses on Saturday.

How did they get here?

A series of 37 Kentucky Derby prep races were held from September of 2016 through April of 2017. Each race awards a number of qualifying points to the top four finishers of each race. Each horse in the 143rd edition of the Kentucky Derby recorded their final prep start in one of eight significant races. Here’s a look at how each Kentucky Derby contender fared in those eight “final Derby preps:”

Screen Shot 2017-05-04 at 6.46.51 PM

Some notes on the preps:

  • Irap was perhaps the biggest surprise in this series of prep races, upsetting four other Derby contenders in the Blue Grass at Keeneland at odds of 31-1.
  • Always Dreaming recorded the fastest time for 1 1/8 miles of any other prep race at that distance, winning in 1:47.47.
  • Always Dreaming also had the largest margin of victory of any of these eight preps, winning by five lengths.
  • The Florida Derby and the Blue Grass Stakes have each produced 23 Kentucky Derby winners over the years, tied for the most of any other prep races.
  • In the last 10 years, the Florida Derby has produced the most Kentucky Derby winners with three, followed by the Arkansas Derby and Santa Anita Derby (two each), and then the Blue Grass Stakes, Spiral Stakes, and Sunland Derby have each produced one winner since 2007.
  • Seven of the last 10 Kentucky Derby winners also won their final prep race.
  • The last time the Wood Memorial or Louisiana Derby produced a Kentucky Derby winner was in 2003, when Funny Cide finished second in both races (the Louisiana Derby was held a month before the Wood Memorial back then).
  • The UAE Derby, held in Dubai, has never produced a Kentucky Derby winner (best finish from a UAE Derby horse was Master of Hounds, who finished fifth in the 2011 Kentucky Derby).

Derby Betting Strategy

Since the field of 20 horses makes the Kentucky Derby such a crap shoot, I find it best to stick with one horse that you really like, and bet it across the board (Win, Place, and Show). The most money I ever won on a Kentucky Derby was when I picked Orb in 2013. At odds of 5.40-1, Orb returned $12.80 on a $2 win bet.

I really liked Orb that day, because I know his trainer’s two sons very well and had seen him run in past races. So I put a lot of money to win on him and also did two $1 exactas. One exacta was Orb with ALL, and the other was ALL with Orb. Each exacta bet cost me $19, and I was guaranteed to get some money back if Orb finished either first or second. I got lucky because a 35-1 long shot (Golden Soul) finished second, and the $1 Orb-Golden Soul exacta paid $490.80. I ended up betting $120 on Orb to win, and netted just over $1,100 on that one race. This was the height of my horse gambling career, and I gave a lot of those winnings back betting Orb in the Preakness and Belmont.

But I suggest doing a similar set of exacta wagers once you figure out which horse you like the most, and pray for a long shot to finish first or second. The price for each exacta is $19.

Ranking the 2017 Derby Field in terms of Tiers

For this year’s Derby, I have broken down the horses into four tiers and ranked each tier. They are as follows:

Top Tier Horses:

  • 5 – Always Dreaming
  • 15 – McCraken
  • 17 – Irish War Cry
  • 14 – Classic Empire
  • 8 – Hence

Knocking on the Door (2nd Tier Horses):

  • 9 – Irap
  • 11 – Battle of Midway
  • 18 – Gormley
  • 6 – State of Honor
  • 10 – Gunnevera

You Never Know (3rd Tier Horses):

  • 2 – Thunder Snow
  • 16 – Tapwrit
  • 13 – J Boys Echo
  • 7 – Girvin
  • 1 – Lookin at Lee

I’d Be Shocked (But I’ve been ‘shocked’ plenty of times in this race) – 4th Tier Horses:

  • 19 – Practical Joke
  • 20 – Patch
  • 4 – Untrapped
  • 3 – Fast and Accurate
  • 12 – Sonneteer

5-1 co-second choice – Always Dreaming – is my top pick. I thought his Florida Derby performance was the most impressive of the final prep races and his last official training workout at Churchill Downs was among the best of the Derby contenders. He has an experienced jockey in Hall of Famer John Velazquez, who won the Derby on Animal Kingdom in 2011. Trainer Todd Pletcher will tie his former mentor D. Wayne Lukas for most Kentucky Derby starters all-time (48) on Saturday in saddling Always Dreaming, Tapwrit, and Patch. But Pletcher has won only one Kentucky Derby from 45 starters to date, the 2010 edition with Super Saver. I believe he is due for another.

One thing I’ll be watching closely is how Always Dreaming acts in the paddock leading up to the race. He has reacted a bit feisty to the big crowds at Churchill Downs since arriving, and Pletcher has had to put draw reigns on him and take him out to the track at 5:45 a.m. most mornings in order to get him to calm down and settle into his routine. So if he’s acting up, bucking, and/or looking a little sweaty or “washed out” in the paddock, I may switch my pick to McCraken.

Bonus – Wet Track Stats

Remember how I mentioned the rain playing a factor? Here’s a look at how horses have fared over a wet surface:

  1. Lookin at Lee – finished second in his only try over a muddy track in the Iroquois Stakes last September at Churchill Downs.
  2. Thunder Snow – won his only start over a muddy track in his most recent effort, the UAE Derby.
  3. Fast and Accurate – has never raced on a wet surface.
  4. Untrapped – finished second in the LeComte Stakes as his only start over a muddy track.
  5. Always Dreaming – has never raced on a wet surface.
  6. State of Honor – has never raced on a wet surface.
  7. Girvin – has never raced on a wet surface.
  8. Hence – Won his maiden race in the slop at Oaklawn Park in January.
  9. Irap – finished fourth in a maiden race in his lone start in the slop.
  10. Gunnevera – Finished second in his maiden debut at Gulfstream Park last June.
  11. Battle of Midway – won his maiden debut over a “wet fast” track at Santa Anita Park.
  12. Sonneteer – Finished second in a maiden race at Del Mar over a “good” track.
  13. J Boys Echo – has never raced on a wet surface.
  14. Classic Empire – Won his maiden debut at Churchill Downs last May over a sloppy track.
  15. McCraken – has never raced on a wet surface.
  16. Tapwrit – Won the Pulpit Stakes at Gulfstream Park over a sloppy track.
  17. Irish War Cry – has never raced on a wet surface.
  18. Gormley – Won the Sham Stakes at Santa Anita over a sloppy track.
  19. Practical Joke – has never raced on a wet surface.
  20. Patch – has never raced on a wet surface.

So if the track is labeled “muddy” or “sloppy” on Saturday, I may look at Thunder Snow, Hence, Tapwrit, and Gormley as potential top picks.

Double Bonus – Kentucky Oaks Picks

Here are my top three picks if it’s a wet track:

7 – Farrell/4 – Paradise Woods/12 – Daddys Lil Darling

And if it’s a dry track:

13 – Abel Tasman/4 – Paradise Woods/10 – Miss Sky Warrior

Good luck to all and happy Derby!

CoxTalks Friday Keeneland Picks

IMG_2306
Back in the glory days when I was the emcee/handicapper on “The Hill” at Keeneland in 2013.

As always, I’m pretty jacked up for Keeneland’s Spring Meet which opens Friday, and I’ve been fortunate enough to have the time over the past few evenings to get some handicapping done, at least for day one.

While Friday doesn’t appear to be the ideal weather scenario for Opening Day, Saturday and Sunday show promise. The latest Friday forecast I’ve seen showed cloudy skies early that will turn into only partly cloudy as we move into the afternoon. The high is supposed to be 54 but it always feels colder at Keeneland. Winds from 15-25 mph don’t help. According to my app, “Winds could occasionally gust over 40 mph.” Yikes.

Luckily for me, I will have the option of staying cooped up in the press box for most of the day, as I’ll be covering the stakes races for thisishorseracing.comWhile I’ve covered the Kentucky Derby every year since 2013, this will be my first time actually covering Keeneland in about four years. It’s fun to go as a spectator, but I don’t pay as much attention as I’d like to the actual racing between casual conversations and cocktails.

Anyway, here are my notes/picks for opening Friday:

RACE 1 – 1:05 p.m.

  • I hate giving out chalky picks, but after looking at this field, how can you get away from Wesley Ward’s pair of fillies 8 – KITTY KAT KATE and 10 – FAIRYLAND? Ward has a history of success with 2-year-olds at Keeneland in the Spring, so why should this meet be any different? Those two are clearly the class of this big field of first timers.
  • I’d go heavy on an 8-10 Exacta Box, expecting the two favorites to run first and second. Looking at the remainder of the field, I circled 3 – BAYTOWN LEX and 6 – JUST BE FRANK as the best of the rest.
  • SCRATCHED: #1a I’m Corfu, #2b Jersey Town Cat, & #5 Mugrosito

RACE 2 – 1:39 p.m.

  • Not a lot of value here and I’m going chalk once again. 2 – RHODIUM has posted the highest speed figures of any other filly/mare in this field, and she’s also been running in more competitive races so far this year. 3 – ANNOY is the other one I like here, as she comes off a 5-length victory at Fair Grounds in her last start. Annoy’s Fair Grounds win on February 28 was the first and only start she’s made under current trainer Eric Heitzmann. Annoy has had more of a layoff than most of her rivals in this one, which makes me think Heitzmann was aiming for Keeneland with her and maybe taking a more methodical approach. Maybe I’m making too much of it, but I like the two favorites once again.
  • 2-3 EXACTA BOX, 1-2-3 TRIFECTA BOX. Put a little more money down on these exotics when you using strictly favorites.

RACE 3 – 2:12 p.m.

  • 1 – MONEY FLOWS has been working well since finishing a respectable third beaten 4 1/2 lengths in the Maxim Gold Cup at Sam Houston on Feb. 25. He probably would have run better had that race been only a mile. I like the fact that he’s cutting back to a mile today and think he should be able to stalk 3 – CLEAR THE MINE and 5 – DECEMBER SEVEN for most of the way and make a late charging move with Joel Rosario in the saddle.
  • If I’m only using two horses in an exacta box here, I’m taking the second and third choice in 1-3 EXACTA BOX and leaving out the favorite for the first time today. I’d also maybe bet the 1 to WPS.
  • CHANGES: #6 Rated R Superstar, Medication change: no Lasix

RACE 4 – 2:45 p.m.

  • With my first somewhat long shot play of the day, I’m taking a shot on 8 – BARRY’S SWING here for Mike Maker and Jose Ortiz. Barry’s Swing placed third and second in his last two starts at Gulfstream, knocking on the door late. Without a ton of speed in this one, I think he has a big chance. My second choice would be the favorite 1 – ROUSTABOUT for Al Stall Jr. I could see Roustabout going to the lead early and I’m hoping Barry’s Swing can stalk and get him at the wire. I might also throw 3 – STARINTHEMAKING into the exotic mix, hoping he can improve when stretching out to 1 1/16 miles for the first time.
  • WPS on 81-3-8 EXACTA/TRIFECTA BOX.

RACE 5 – 3:18 p.m.

  • Once again, I found it difficult to get away from the chalk here. 7 – DELUSIONAL K K, 8 – SMART KIT, and 9 – LOVETHISLIFE all seem to be a step above the rest of the field. But at least with 10 horses in here (hopefully) we can get some value. If you’re looking for more value with some of the others, or if any of those three scratch, I’d say 6 – PRINCESS DINAH and 3 – SECONDHAND JUSTICE are the best bets of the rest.
  • 7-8-9 EXACTA/TRIFECTA BOX.
  • CHANGES: #6 Princess Dinah, jockey change-Corey Lanerie will ride

RACE 6 – 3:51 p.m.

  • I look for this one to be the most fun betting race of the day, simply because there are so many promising fillies and I think all but four have a chance to win. The four NOT to bet: 1, 5, 6, 7.
  • When making a case for the best one of the eight contenders I think are legit, I had to give the advantage to 4 – DANCELAND. I would say she is my PLAY OF THE DAY. I don’t know what will happen with the others, but give me Shug McGaughey with a 3-year-old filly in her 2nd start off the layoff against most of the other contenders making just their first start off a layoff. The also-eligibles are a different story, but if I had to categorize the other seven of the ones I think have a shot, 9 – TALAAQY and 3 – CHUBBY STAR are the ones I would put into the second tier right below Danceland.
  • My third tier fillies here are as follows, in this order: 8 – FOLK MAGIC, 12 – SWEEPING DADDY,  10 – LIPSTICK CITY, 13 – SUMMERTIME SKY, and 2 – JOUST is literally my least favorite of all those mentioned, even though she’s listed as the morning-line 4-1 actual favorite.
  • So I’m definitely putting some WPS on 4. Then I may do some exotics where I do a $2 EXACTA 4 with 3,8,9 ($6) and $2 EXACTA 3,8,9 with 4 ($6). If there are a ton of scratches, you’re on your own to make due with my analysis.
  • SCRATCHES: #5 Sky Flower, #11 Enstone, #14 Coco Channel, #15 Grateful, #16 Enchanting Kitten,

RACE 7 – 4:24 p.m.

  • Maybe I should have titled this post, “CoxTalks Chalk at Keeneland Friday,” because I have the morning-line favorite circled as my top choice once again in this one. 6 – TIGER EYES is the only horse in this field that has done anything to really impress me in a prior start, finishing second by a half-length in her debut at Fair Grounds last month. As for my second choice, I’ll roll the dice on a first time starter in 2 – MISS ADELE for trainer Roger Attfield. Attfield has a decent in-the-money percentage with first timers this year and the filly has logged some solid works of late down at Payson Park. I also think that 11 – TRUE BOOTS has improved with each start of this year and could run even better going an extra furlong.
  • 2-6-11 EXACTA/TRIFECTA BOX and maybe throw some WPS money on 2 with hopes she hits at a price.
  • Oh yeah, and if we’re looking to play a ticket in the $200,000 Guaranteed Pick 4 ($0.50 minimum), here’s an impromptu ticket using not much effort:
  • $0.50 Pick 4: 2,6,11 w/2,3,8 w/4,5 w/3,7,9,11 – It’ll cost you $36.
  • SCRATCHES: #10 Fairybrook and #14 Shoyoya

RACE 8 – 4:57 p.m.

  • I went with the 2 – FORGE AHEAD FRANKI in this one as my top choice. Can’t go chalk on top every time and his last start was against as good of competition as any of the rest of the field has seen. I thought he ran well last out and I think he should improve in his second start off the layoff. You’ll notice that is a bit of a theme for my picks today, taking a horse in its second start off a layoff. My second choice was the favorite, 3 – MUTARAAMY who was pretty impressive in taking his maiden in February at Gulfstream by 3 1/2 lengths. I think 8 – LOOKIN FOR A KISS has the ability to win this, but his style has been inconsistent and I just can’t really figure him out. He tries to stalk, he tries to come from behind, he runs at 1 1/16 miles, 6 furlongs, and 7 furlongs. He just seems like a wild card.
  • 2-3-8 EXACTA/TRIFECTA BOX

RACE 9 – THE TRANSYLVANIA (G3) presented by Keeneland Select – 5:30 p.m.

  • There’s a pretty decent chance the 2016 Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Turf winner 4 – OSCAR PERFORMANCE gets out to an early lead as the lone speed in this race and goes wire-to-wire. But if anyone in this field can beat him, it’s the 5 – TICONDEROGA, who I am circling as my pick to pull off a slight upset in the featured race on Friday. Remember how I said you’d see a theme with horses in their second start off the layoff? That happens to be the case for Ticonderoga, who enters the Transylvania off an impressive victory in the Grade-3 Palm Beach Stakes at Gulfstream on March 4.
  • While Ticonderoga finished fourth 4 3/4 lengths behind Oscar Performance in the Breeders’ Cup, he got a crappy break and a less-than-ideal trip overall, starting the race in 14th and last and going into the stretch six-wide still trailing by 10 lengths in 12th. It certainly benefits Ticonderoga to have less horses (nine total) in this one.
  • Oscar Performance is the lone speed in this race, but he’s going an extra eighth of a mile longer than he did in the Breeders’ Cup. If Ticonderoga is going to challenge Oscar Performance late, he needs a decent break, and needs someone else in this field to press the pace a little in hopes of wearing Oscar Performance down with a :22 opening quarter-mile. Will it happen? Who knows? But I’m still going to take a chance on TICONDEROGA.
  • WPS on 5EXACTA BOX 4-5.
  • CHANGES: #2 MaKarios, jockey change-Corey Lanerie will ride

RACE 10 – 6:03 p.m.

  • It’s late and I’ve already spent entirely too much time on some mediocre handicapping for the past couple evenings. I like 3 – HEARTBREAK HILL and 7 – BAYSHORE DRIVE in the Friday finale. Just because.
  • EXACTA BOX 3-7.
  • SCRATCHES: #13 Cold Hearted Pearl and #14 Score Babe.

American Pharoah crowned

For a constantly criticized and often forgotten sport, that had not seen its most-significant feat accomplished in nearly four decades, the thirst was real.

We had come so close, so many times, to witnessing a horse claim the elusive Triple Crown, only to have our hopes torn in half and taken by the wind along with our losing tote tickets.

Then finally, after 37 long years, we were ultimately rewarded with a two minute-26.65-second glimpse of greatness, as American Pharoah became the first horse to sweep the Kentucky Derby, Preakness and Belmont Stakes since Affirmed in 1978.

I do admit to purposely down-playing American Pharoah’s chances of winning the Belmont. I wrote some bold statements in a piece on this blog, because sometimes it pays to challenge authority.

Now, I don’t really give a damn if I was right or not, because I got to see the first Triple Crown winner of my lifetime and it was every bit as glorious as I had imagined.

Trainer Bob Baffert and jockey Victor Espinoza won it their way, ignoring the grief given to them by people like, well – me. To have been in this position three and four times before, makes them deserve it that much more than anyone else. It must have made them appreciate this, their defining accomplishment, that much more. It took patience, perseverance and dedication to achieve what this entire team achieved, and they earned it.

So hats off to the Zayat family, Baffert, Espinoza and American Pharoah. Hopefully we will see him run a few more times before sending him off to stud.

Late ship to Belmont gives ‘Pharoah’ connections an easy out

Once a 3-year-old colt captures victories in both the Kentucky Derby and Preakness Stakes, various Thoroughbred owners, turf writers, and everyone in between, begin to weigh-in about the Triple Crown’s structure and why racing a horse three times in five weeks is no longer a healthy format for the modern Thoroughbred.

I tend to take the position of leaving it the way it is. I don’t think there’s enough unity within the industry for the format to ever change. It’s not supposed to be easy, which is why only 11 horses have ever done it.

That said, running a horse three times in five weeks is very difficult; It’s a very demanding schedule for all parties involved. So when trainer Bob Baffert made the call not to send Triple Crown contender American Pharoah straight to Belmont Park following his victory in the Preakness at Pimlico, I found it hard to get on board with his decision.

IMG_5632
L-R: Bob Baffert, Victor Espinoza, Ahmed Zayat & Justin Zayat following American Pharoah’s win in the 2015 Kentucky Derby (John Cox photo)

Instead, the Hall of Fame conditioner decided to send ‘Pharoah’ back to Churchill Downs, where he trained prior to the Preakness, adding an additional element of travel to the horse’s potential Triple Crown equation.

Horses travel on planes pretty regularly, but one has to imagine his chance of injury is increased significantly by taking two additional flights, as opposed to simply vanning American Pharoah from Baltimore to Long Island following the Preakness. Luckily, it sounds like he made it to Belmont safe and sound.

USA TODAY‘s Dan Wolken published a story on Sunday titled “Baffert trains American Pharoah his way for Triple Crown try.”

It’s a good read, where Baffert defends his position of not sending American Pharoah to Belmont Park earlier to train on the New York track prior to competing in the biggest race of his life. Here’s Baffert’s direct quote from the story:

“Every trainer has their own philosophy and I feel more confident doing that than if I was up there sitting around,” Baffert said. “I know what I’m dealing with and what to expect so it makes it much easier to go through this. All my staff, we’ve been through it, so we just treat it like it would be a Breeders’ Cup or anything else, we just stick to the game plan and hope there’s no hiccups.”

Baffert and his team have been through this before. The camp has sent three horses to Belmont with a Triple Crown on the line, and all three have fallen short. I have no doubt Baffert and his staff know what to expect from Belmont Park, but do they truly know how American Pharoah will respond to the track?

If you’ve been through it three times, and come home empty-handed in those three attempts, why not switch up your strategy and send American Pharoah up to New York immediately following the Preakness?

I’m all about promoting Kentucky, but by sending the horse back to Churchill Downs, it is difficult for me to argue that Baffert did everything in his power to put the horse in the best position to win the Belmont Stakes. People will disagree with me, and I sincerely hope I am proven wrong come Saturday, but isn’t the Triple Crown a prize worthy of making sacrifice?

Bob Baffert and American Pharoah (Garry Jones Photo)
Bob Baffert and American Pharoah (Garry Jones Photo)

I don’t even know that Baffert would have to be the one “sitting around” in New York as stated in his quote. Couldn’t he have sent his main assistant, Jimmy Barnes, up with the horse after the Preakness? I understand Baffert has several clients to please beyond the Zayats, so perhaps having his main assistant tending to a single horse at Belmont might not be an ideal situation…

But the Triple Crown is a once in a lifetime opportunity, and if you truly want to do everything within the legal realm to win, couldn’t you come up with an arrangement that works for just those three weeks? Maybe you have to be willing to step out of your comfort zone in order to win the Triple Crown, which could be the same reason why I have yet to see the feat accomplished in my 27 years.

SI.com‘s Tim Layden also wrote a great piece titled, “American Pharoah’s entourage faces very public journey to Belmont Stakes.” Layden’s story brings up the wonderful and seemingly obvious point that horses can’t talk. Here’s a quote:

And because horses do not speak, and because most human journalists are limited in our ability to describe the talents of horses, we talk to the people.

Layden then goes on to describe all the crazy storylines related to the human connections of horses like Funny Cide, Smarty Jones, Big Brown and California Chrome, all of whom were in American Pharoah’s very same position within the last 10-15 years, and did not get the job done in the Belmont.

LaydenLayden points out that whenever a horse wins the first two legs of the Triple Crown, the attention from national and local media skyrockets for the next three weeks leading up to the Belmont. He then says that since horses can’t talk, the media exploits every controversial or relatively interesting story about the horse’s human connections in those three weeks. Spoiler alert; but here is Layden’s final line, which I love:

And late Saturday afternoon, if American Pharoah ends the 37-year Triple Crown drought, it will be all about the horse. Finally and blessedly.

This is a great point, and I think it adds fuel to my fire. Also in Layden’s article, he writes about how once Baffert gets to New York, he “essentially will act as the face of an entire sport for the better part of a week- which he has done on three other occasions since 1997. So he knows what he’s getting into.” He then quotes Baffert:

“By the time we get there,” says Baffert of New York, “we’re all going to just want to run the race.” He looked over Churchill’s historic twin spires and beyond. “But it’s nice up here right now, isn’t it?”

I have zero clue what it would be like to be a Hall of Fame trainer, traveling to New York for the Belmont Stakes with a Triple Crown on the line. So I sympathize with Baffert, because I’m sure having cameras and reporters in your face every waking minute for five plus days would not be ideal for most people. But let’s not forget what the Triple Crown is all about: the horse.

To his credit, I cannot think of another trainer out there who handles the media better than Bob Baffert.

The purpose of my piece is to stir conversation, not to claim that I know what is best for American Pharoah’s Triple Crown chances. I have the utmost respect for the horse’s connections, who clearly all know far more about the game than I ever will.

Yet, my same argument can be made of Southern California-based jockey, Victor Espinoza. The Washington Post did a story about the same time Espinoza was trying to win the Triple Crown on California Chrome this time last year, titled “California Chrome jockey Victor Espinoza has a terrible record at Belmont Park.”

Victor Espinoza waves to fans after winning the 2015 Kentucky Derby aboard American Pharoah (Rob Carr/Getty Images)
Victor Espinoza waves to fans after winning the 2015 Kentucky Derby aboard American Pharoah (Rob Carr/Getty Images)

Espinoza obviously did not complete his quest for a Triple Crown in 2014. The jockey’s Belmont Park-record entering the same week last year, was just two wins out of 67 races, according to the Washington Post.

Espinoza’s record at Belmont Park in 2014 was two wins in eight mounts. According to Equibase, Espinoza won an allowance race and a maiden special weight on the Thursday and Friday leading up to last year’s Belmont, bringing his career mark at the track to four wins in 75 starts.

The Big Apple and “So Cal” are two completely different racing circuits, and perhaps the connections of Espinoza’s agent in New York are few and far between. But we’re talking about a jockey who had won the Kentucky Derby and Preakness twice entering Belmont Stakes week last year. And he was on just eight mounts in three days? Am I missing something here?

In response to the Washington Post story, Espinoza said “That’s my record? I don’t even know. I don’t follow records and I don’t really care about records. I just care about the horses I ride.”

According to his Twitter feed, Espinoza arrived in the Big Apple on Monday, June 1.
According to his Twitter feed, Espinoza arrived in the Big Apple on Monday, June 1.

A horse Espinoza rides has given him a third chance to make history, at a track where, historically, he has performed below his potential. Very few jockeys get one chance to win the Triple Crown. One would think that after two misses, you would take every measure possible to put yourself in the best position to win the big race.

I understand that for Espinoza, it is more difficult for him to leave his Southern California base than it is for Baffert. Baffert could have sent an assistant to look after the horse in New York for the last two weeks, but for Espinoza, moving his tack to Belmont for three full weeks, means the likely forfeiture of several more clients at home.

But could he eventually get those clients back? It would be the same if he suffered an injury for three weeks, wouldn’t it? Wouldn’t other owners and trainers be more likely to give him mounts if he returned home a Triple Crown winning-jockey?

Time will tell the answers, but I guarantee if American Pharoah does not win the Belmont Stakes on Saturday, these questions will resurface. But, as I said, I hope that’s not the case. I am interested in your perspective on this topic, so feel free to weigh in on the comments section below.

See also:

American Pharoah logs final pre-Belmont workout

Triple Crown hopeful American Pharoah posted his final pre-Belmont Stakes workout Monday morning at Churchill Downs, where he breezed five furlongs in 1:00.08 with jockey Martin Garcia in the saddle and Hall of Fame trainer Bob Baffert on hand from California to watch.

This is what the Daily Racing Form‘s Mike Welsch had to say about the workout, in a post titled, WOW!!!:

Hard to find any better description for AMERICAN PHAROAH’s performance this morning. Breezing five furlongs with Martin Garcia up, his final Belmont work couldn’t have been any more perfect, five furlongs in 1:00.08 as easy as he pleased with a tremendous gallop out, six furlongs in 1:12.82, seven eighths in 1:25.94, up a mile in n 1:39.59, AP seemingly getting stronger the further he went while giving the appearance that he was just galloping the entire way. All he seems to need now in New York is a clean trip to complete his Triple Crown sweep in the Belmont.

And a look at the reaction from a few other racing media types this morning:

Tim LaydenAliciaMiles

American Pharoah is scheduled to ship up to New York on Tuesday, June 2, and I will continue coverage of the Belmont Stakes throughout the week, so stay tuned!

UK Football Update, Triple Crown Takes, NBA Draft & More

KENTUCKY FOOTBALL
Stoops 2
Mark Zerof / USA TODAY Sports

For many Wildcat fans, the upcoming 2015 season is make-or-break for Head Football Coach Mark Stoops. Although he inherited a program in shambles, Stoops will need to get to six wins and a bowl bid in 2015 in order to keep any recruiting momentum alive.

HORSE RACING
TWEET OF THE DAY:

PharoahTriple Crown hopeful American Pharoah is back on track at Churchill Downs, galloping for the first time since his seven-length win in the Preakness Stakes.

A couple of the  articles I’ve linked below offer two conflicting views of what a Triple Crown would mean for the sport of Thoroughbred horse racing.

I don’t really believe a win or a loss makes or breaks horse racing. I’m not sure one horse can save the major problems horse racing faces, but I haven’t seen a Triple Crown winner in my lifetime, and I sure as hell am tired of waiting. See articles below:

NBA DRAFT 2015

NBA DraftThe 2015 NBA Draft Lottery was Tuesday night, and the Minnesota Timberwolves walked away with the first pick in the 2015 Draft. With their acquisition of Andrew Wiggins, the first pick of the 2014 NBA Draft, and their selection of Anthony Bennett as the number one pick in the 2013 edition, the T-Wolves will presumably have the last three number-one picks on their roster entering the 2015-16 season.

The Draft will take place Thursday, June 25, and as many as four University of Kentucky players could be taken as lottery picks, including Karl-Anthony Towns, who is expected by several predictions to go to the T-Wolves  with the number one overall pick.

Here’s a look at some Kentucky-related story lines coming out of Tuesday’s Draft:

KENTUCKY BASKETBALL

I was wrong on Tuesday when I wrote “let’s hope that Calipari physically signs his contract extension as soon as possible” (see first article below); and what about the basketball team being mentioned in the same headline as Duke for academic achievement??

UPDATED: ‘Pharoah’ Breeding Rights Sold, will stand at Ashford

HORSE RACING

A report came Tuesday night from ESPN’s Darren Rovell that Kentucky Derby and Preakness winner American Pharoah‘s breeding rights had been sold by owner Ahmed Zayat. Rovell’s original report did not say where the horse would stand, but we found out this morning from Mr. Zayat, himself:

ZayatZayat told Rovell that “the offer put on the table Tuesday was too good to pass up.” Zayat will retain 100% of the horse’s racing rights, and the horse will not retire after the Belmont Stakes, even if he becomes the first Triple Crown winner since 1978.

This comes as no surprise whenever an individual owns a horse of this magnitude. Stud farms start chomping at the bit when they start to see a young colt get this sort of national attention.

Originally I said WinStar Farm had to be the favorite of the Kentucky-based stud farms, since they stand Pioneerof the Nile, who is Pharoah’s sire, at their state-of-the-art facility near Versailles, Ky.

Speaking of Pioneerof the Nile, check out this hilarious piece about his rising stock as a stallion from TMZ Sports.

Pioneerof the Nile also raced for Zayat, and the owner still maintains an interest in the stallion. Money has never seemed to be an issue when it comes to attracting stallions to WinStar.

The other local farms that came to mind on my short list were both held by international interests: Jonabell Farm, also known as Darley America, owned by UAE President HH Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum; and Ashford Stud, also known as Coolmore America, owned by John Magnier, a native of Ireland.

Ashford
Coolmore’s Ashford Stud in Versailles, Ky.

Ashford obviously ended up being the winner.

Rovell pointed out in his article that “The breeding rights to the last Triple Crown winner, Affirmed, sold for $14.4 million in 1979, which would be about $46 million today when factoring for inflation.” Pretty crazy.

For further reading, check out “How 11 Triple Crown Winners Spent Their Retirement Years,” from Mental Floss.

Two down, one to go for American Pharoah

HORSE RACING
American Pharoah wins the 140th Running of the Preakness Stakes

American Pharoah’s impressive, seven-length Preakness Stakes victory Saturday, that came over a sloppy Pimlico track, now puts trainer Bob Baffert, jockey Victor Espinoza and all of America in an all-too familiar scenario. On June 6, Baffert and Espinoza will get yet another shot at history, entering the Belmont Stakes with a chance to become the first Triple Crown winner since 1978.

“It’s gonna be tough,” Baffert said to SI.com’s Tim Layden. “I know they’re sharpening their knives. Two weeks (after the Preakness), that’s when you see how the Triple Crown (chase) is affecting them.”

Since Affirmed became the 11th Triple Crown winner in 1978, 13 horses have won the Kentucky Derby and Preakness, and traveled to New York with a chance to seal the deal on history. Of those 13, only 12 made it to the actual race, and all 12 came up short (2011 Derby/Preakness winner I’ll Have Another came up with an injury and was scratched from the Belmont).

Espinoza finds himself in the exact same position as last year; Today Show interviews, throwing out the first pitch at Dodgers games back home in California, and undoubtedly the first pitch at Yankee Stadium in a couple of weeks. Espinoza and California Chrome were close, but didn’t quite have enough in the tank, as Tonalist pulled the upset and ‘Chrome’ finished fourth.

2014 Belmont – Tonalist

Espinoza and Baffert teamed up with War Emblem to win the 2002 Kentucky Derby and Preakness, but were disappointed as Sarava took the 2002 Belmont and War Emblem dropped to eighth.

2002 Belmont – Sarava

Baffert finished second in the Belmont with the 1998 and 1997 Kentucky Derby and Preakness winners, Real Quiet and Silver Charm. Side note: I cannot watch the 1998 Belmont without getting goosebumps because it was so damn close. I can’t imagine how many times Baffert has run that one back.

1998 Belmont – Victory Gallop
1997 Belmont – Touch Gold

Below is a list of Triple Crown near misses since 1978, courtesy of the BloodHorse:

Near MissesIt’s going to seem like a long wait now for the Belmont, but the best part is how much national attention the sport of horse racing will get over these next two and a half weeks. So sit back, relax and enjoy the ride.

More American Pharoah/Preakness/Triple Crown links:

Cal’s new deal, Preakness notes & more

KENTUCKY BASKETBALL

News erupted on Twitter Tuesday that Kentucky Basketball Coach John Calipari was expected to sign a new deal with UK, which would extend his contract through 2021-22. The contract is worth $54 million over seven years, with a $1.6 million longevity bonus effective July 1.

Matt Jones of Kentucky Sports Radio was the first to break the news:

KSR 1KSR2KSR 3The perennial rumors of Calipari leaving Kentucky for the NBA began at their usual time, immediately following the Wildcats’ exit from the NCAA Tournament. Does the new contract extension put the rumors to rest? Check out Jones’ article below and decide for yourself.

In other news surrounding University of Kentucky Athletics – UK Athletic Director Mitch Barnhart was named Athletic Director of the Year Tuesday, a well-deserved award for a man who has overcome early adversity and taken UK Athletics to a new level in recent years.

HORSE RACING
May 17, 2014; Baltimore, MD, USA; An overall view of the track during the sixth race of the day before the 139th Preakness Stakesat Pimlico Race Course. Mandatory Credit: Winslow Townson-USA TODAY Sports
May 17, 2014; Baltimore, MD, USA; An overall view of the track during the sixth race of the day before the 139th Preakness Stakesat Pimlico Race Course. Mandatory Credit: Winslow Townson-USA TODAY Sports

If you’ve ever attended the Preakness, you know it’s a great time eating, drinking and watching races, at a track that is extremely doctored up for one weekend. I have attended Pimlico Race Track in Baltimore on a weekend when other than Preakness weekend, and let’s just say it could use some of work…

Pimlico is owned by The Stronach Group, who has decided it finally time to make an investment to renovate and restore the historic track nicknamed “Ol’ Hilltop.” The Stronach Group toyed with the idea of moving the historic race to Laurel Park, a racetrack they also own located halfway between Washington, D.C. and Baltimore, but an article Wednesday morning posted by USA Today shut that idea down.

Preakness contenders shipping from Churchill Downs are expected to arrive around 2 p.m. Wednesday and Pimlico will host the post position draw for the 140th Preakness Stakes beginning at approximately 5 p.m.

Other Preakness links: