Tuesday, July 17, 2012

Why We Love Gatsby

The popularity of (and critical admiration for) F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby has grown, shrunk, and grown again since its publication in 1925. It was modestly successful at first, then nearly forgotten, then eventually recognized by scholars as one of the great novels of the English language. The book’s revival and survival at the top of American literature is certainly due to Fitzgerald’s skill with words, but it’s also a result of his creation of a character who is particularly compelling to Americans. The book also has a theme we instinctively understand.
As the book opens Jay Gatsby is in the process of self-reinvention. He has made a great deal of money in a criminal trade, a business never actually identified but presumed to be bootlegging. He downplays his criminal past and plays up his great wealth to win back Daisy Buchanan, a girl who had rejected him years earlier because of his poverty.
Gatsby embodies much of what we Americans admire. He has succeeded in his business, made himself extremely wealthy, yearns for a rise in social status, and hasn’t forgotten an early love. He ticks all the boxes. So, even though he’s a criminal who’s using his ill-gotten money to steal another man’s wife, we tend to like him and are saddened by his death. Victimless crime is not something we particularly hold against him. Gatsby is not just self-made, but also self-remade, and we admire him for that.
American history is filled with men (and they are usually men) who can be called “Gatsby-like” or “Gatsbyesque.” They’ve made money in some unsavory business and they want to hide that fact in order to be accepted by respectable society. Sometimes they’ve gone straight, while sometimes—like Gatsby—they haven’t entirely left the old life behind. But they’ve learned to compartmentalize and want to be acknowledged as something they’re not. The Gilded Age—the decades before and just after the turn of the last century—was filled with self-made businessmen who hoped people would forget their ruthless business practices and remember their charitable work and their lavish lifestyles. Carnegie, Rockefeller, Vanderbilt—the Robber Barons became the American aristocracy.
Scott Fitzgerald was probably thinking of all of them as he incubated Gatsby and its title character in 1923 and 1924. The Robber Barons weren’t necessarily criminal but they were willing to stretch the bounds of ethics to make their millions, but they each hoped that their sumptuous homes and their generous gifts to worthy causes would mask the origins of their money.  But Fitzgerald also had in mind a character whose scale was somewhere below baronial level, a man who could not just downplay but completely obscure the origin of his money.
When I was researching my book The Best There Ever Was: Dan Patch and the Dawn of the American Century I quickly realized that the great pacer’s second owner, Manley E. Sturges, could easily be described as “Gatsbyesque.” He obscured his early origins and the source of his money (illegal gambling casinos) so well that even his ownership of a celebrated racehorse resulted in entirely inaccurate biographical information about him. As I discovered more about his background, I concluded that he was not only “Gatsbyesque” but may actally have been a model for Fitzgerald’s character. See my earlier entry for more information, check the book’s website: http://www.danpatchbook.com/, or read the book for the details.

Sunday, July 8, 2012

Did the real Gatsby own Dan Patch?

The great harness racehorse Dan Patch had three owners during his 20-year lifetime. His first, a small town merchant from Indiana named Dan Messner, was well known locally. His third owner, a patent medicine manufacturer and marketing genius from Minneapolis named Marion Willis Savage, was known nationally, thanks to relentless advertising and promotion. But little was known about Dan Patch’s second owner, and most of what did become public was untrue.
Manley Edwin Sturges was described at the time and since as an elderly bachelor from Buffalo, a broker and a capitalist. He was not from Buffalo, he wasn’t a bachelor (although his wife was kept well out of sight), and–at fifty–he wasn’t elderly. He wasn’t a broker, but he certainly was a capitalist. He was also known as a professional gambler, which was true, although his profession went well beyond placing bets for himself. Sturges, who purchased Dan Patch for $20,000 in March 1903, was the operator of several lucrative illegal casinos in Manhattan, and it was the money earned there that gave him the bankroll to make his big buy.
Sturges’ purchase of one of the best-known athletes in America was part of an effort at personal reinvention. He was in the process of getting out of the illegal gambling business when he acquired Dan Patch and was probably personally responsible for the inaccurate stories about his background. His real back story has uncanny parallels to that of one of literature’s most famous characters.
F.Scott Fitzgerald’s title character in The Great Gatsby has been the subject of speculation for most of the 87 years since the book was published. Most literary scholars consider Jay Gatsby to be a composite character. But most also think that Fitzgerald used aspects of people he knew or knew about to construct a believable man, a criminal who tried to hide his real profession in order to be accepted by society. Several candidates have emerged over the years, but Manley Sturges, whose background most closely resembles that of Jay Gatsby of all of them, has only now been identified as a possibility. Sturges spent his young adulthood in an area similar to Gatsby’s Little Girl Bay on Lake Superior. He was believed to have contact with a Montana copper baron, like Gatsby’s Dan Cody. He was a partner in a casino with a figure a great deal like Gatsby’s mentor Meyer Wolfsheim a character previously presumed to be modeled on the gangster Arnold Rothstein. Sturges’ partner is a closer fit. 
Sturges may have not been previously identified because he was a generation older than Fitzgerald and his criminal activity was gambling rather than bootlegging (liquor was not illegal during the first years of the 20th century). But Sturges and Fitzgerald had several acquaintances in common, one in particular who knew Sturges’ story well and who spent many hours with Fitzgerald during the months that Gatsby was conceived and written. Manley Sturges may be the strongest candidate yet for the title of “The Real Gatsby.”
My book  is The Best There Ever Was: Dan Patch and the Dawn of the American Century. Visit danpatchbook.com.
For more information about me visit sharonbsmith.com.

Friday, June 22, 2012

Racehorses and front bandages

You’ve spent time and energy handicapping a race when you see your choice set foot on the racetrack, whether in person on television. To your horror—or puzzlement—your horse sports bandages on his front legs. Does this mean you immediately change your pick? Does it mean proceed with caution? Or does it mean nothing at all? One thing is certain: front bandages mean something, for both Thoroughbred and Standardbred competitors.

It’s not a great problem if you’re looking at rundown bandages. Rundowns are often used on the rear legs of sensitive Thoroughbreds on deep sandy tracks. The surface can irritate the fetlock, the joint that connects the long cannon bone to the shorter, sloped pastern that leads into the hoof. The abrasion that results is called “running down,” hence the name of the bandage. Rundowns, which consist of normal elastic bandaging tape covering a protective pad, with an additional stick-on pad sometimes added as a top layer, are so commonly used on hind legs that you’ll see races in which every horse has rear rundowns.

Much less common are front rundowns. It’s rare for a horse to run down in front and it’s not ideal for a horse to need rundown bandages, since completely free motion in the fetlock is best. But the Vetrap tape that’s used is light and flexible and has negligible effect on the horse’s stride if it’s properly applied. Front rundowns may only indicate sensitive skin or some kind of minor sore on the fetlock, not necessarily unsoundness. This is a “proceed with caution situation,” if indeed the problem is a horse’s tendency to run down in front.

The difficulty comes because front rundown patches are usually covered by full below-the-knee Vetrap, and it’s hard to tell the difference between a racing bandage intended to support questionable ligaments and tendons and a simple rundown covering. There are trainers who use front racing bandages as a precaution on a fully sound, well-conformed horse, but most trainers prefer the freedom and flexibility of an unfettered leg. Front wraps are rarely there unless there is a problem (or a belief that there might be a problem) with two exceptions: a trainer might bandage a sound horse to prevent him from being claimed or to increase his odds. A horse appearing in front bandages may be perfectly healthy, he may be unsound but fast enough to win anyway, or he may be too unsound to compete.

The situation in harness racing is a little different. Rather than wrapped bandages, trainers are more likely to use the brace bandage, a manufactured device made of synthetic or leather that protects the leg bones, usually from interference by other legs. Used in back on trotters, brace bandages can also widen out and improve their gaits. Used on the front legs of either trotters or pacers, they provide tendon support and usually only appear on horses with previous unsoundness. Standardbreds are generally don’t suffer the catastrophic breakdowns that Thoroughbreds do, but a sore Standardbred is no more likely to win than a sore Thoroughbred.

The bottom line on front bandages is this: they may or may not indicate a problem with potential lameness but they usually indicate that somebody is worried about it. Plenty of horses win with them, but as a casual racegoer or bettor you don’t know what’s going on in the trainer’s mind, making a front-bandaged horse a doubtful bet unless everything else seems correct.

You can find out about the equipment the great Dan Patch used in my new book THE BEST THERE EVERWAS: DAN PATCH AND THE DAWN OF THE AMERICAN CENTURY. Check the book's website at danpatchbook.com.

Monday, June 18, 2012

Does Foaling Date Matter to Race Horses?

An increasing number of racetrack programs and past performance charts now add the month and even the specific day a horse was born to the information you can use to handicap a race. In the early days of organized horse racing, both Thoroughbred and Standardbred, the exact foaling date of the participants didn’t much matter, if such information was even available. Owners and trainers picked races according to the racing quality of the competition, not the age or sex of the participants.  The better the quality, the higher the possible reward in the form of purse size or reputation enhancement. But if you picked too ambitiously, your horse would be unlikely to win. As racing matured, organizers began to add events with age and sex restrictions. Picking the correct level of competition was still paramount, but in the case of age-restricted races, foaling date began to make a difference.

Today, almost all races on both the flat and under harness in which two-year-olds participate are restricted to that age group for the entire season. Races exclusively for three-year-olds are sometimes scheduled throughout the season, although often the sophomores are moved into three-and-up races after mid-summer. It’s only with two-year olds and early-season three-year-olds that exact foaling date is thought to matter at all. To be fair, age does matter with older three-year-olds (they are generally, although not always, not quite as good as older horses at the end of the racing season), but the exact day and month is not so significant.

Exactly how much the foaling date matters depends on the race, the time of the year, and the kind of horses involved. Horses of all racing breeds officially become one year old on January 1 following the year they’re foaled. This means, of course, that a horse foaled early in the calendar year will be older than one foaled later in the year even though they are officially the same age. Horses mature and change very rapidly at two and three, so even a few months can make a lot of difference in size and development.

An early birth date matters most:

  • In two-year-old races early in the calendar year, the earlier the foaling the better.
  • In two-year-old races later in the Thoroughbred season when races stretch out beyond six furlongs, the earlier foals may still have an advantage, although not as great.
  • In two-year-old races, long-bodied rangy young horses may be at a disadvantage to shorter-bodied muscular horses unless they have a noticeably earlier birth date.
  • In three-year-old races early in the year, late foals usually remain at a slight disadvantage, especially at sprint distances.
  • In three-year-old races in which the young horses race a distance for the first time (i.e. Triple Crown races) the early foaling dates don’t help as much, especially if the later-foaled horse has distance conformation, with a longer neck and body and, consequently, a longer stride.

But here’s another point to consider. Mother Nature designed horse reproduction in a way to assure that new foals arrive at the most opportune time in terms of food supply and safe climate conditions. In temperate North America and Europe that usually means May, with its fresh new grass and cool days and nights. Left to their own devices, horses will often mate in June for a May foaling the next year. In commercial operations, the breeding season is pretty much done by June, because most owners want their foals to arrive as early as possible while avoiding the disastrous mistake of a December foal. So is it possible that a May foal, who seems to have a disadvantage as a two-year-old and early three-year-old, might actually be a stronger animal even if he’s a little less mature than a foal born a couple of months earlier? It is possible, and that may also be taken into consideration as you check foaling dates.

Check my website www. danpatchbook.com for the exact foaling date for one of racin's most famous horses, the great pacer Dan Patch!

Friday, June 8, 2012

What role does white on the leg play in racing?

There’s no such thing as a bad color on a good horse. That’s a favorite saying of horsemen and horseplayers alike, and it’s true. Years ago, before the advent of DNA testing, color only mattered if two chestnut parents produced a gray offspring. You’d then wonder about hanky panky in the breeding shed.

But how about white markings? Do white socks or stockings affect a horse’s ability on the racetrack? The answer is not so simple. Centuries ago, most people thought it was pretty straightforward, paying attention to some version of this rhyme:

One white foot, buy it.
Two white feet, try it.
Three white feet, sell it to your foes.
Four white feet, cut off its head and feed it to the crows.

Never mind that this rule would have made your foes pretty rich, having given them Secretariat, one of the greatest Thoroughbreds ever to race, and Northern Dancer, one of the new foundation sires of the breed. The two horses had wins in five Triple Crown races between them, in spite of their three white legs each.

And Commander Crowe, the winner of trotting’s 2012 Elitlop in Sweden is the best trotting racehorse in the world right now. The crows (is the name a coincidence?) would have been feasting on him long since if the old rhyme had been believed. He sports four legs adorned with substantial white.

White on the leg and its connected hoof obviously doesn’t affect speed, but a lot of horsemen believe that it does affect soundness and hoof health, which certainly play a role in a horse’s success at the racetrack. White on the leg that reaches all the way to the hoof, as it almost always does, usually means that the hoof itself is white or at least lighter in color than the normal near-black hoof on a non-white leg. The belief among many highly experienced horse people is that the white hoof is softer than the black one and requires extra care, particularly in wet conditions.

While there is anecdotal evidence on each side (the great Cigar, for example, had problems with a white hoof) there is no proof yet of any structural difference between light and dark equine hooves, all else being equal. It’s possible that light-colored hooves show more bruising, chips, cracking, or spreading and look worse that a dark hoof in similar condition. This visibility may have led to the belief that white hooves are softer than dark ones and cause more problems to a horse in training.

Hoof soundness appears to be no problem to Commander Crowe, who first raced at three and is better than ever at the age of nine. In terms of picking winners, feel free to accept whatever kind of hoof that shows up on the horse of your choice.

Saturday, April 28, 2012

So how do you pick a Kentucky Derby winner?

In the spring both lovers of Thoroughbred racing and casual fans turn their thoughts to one thing: who’s going to win the Kentucky Derby? In early summer the question expands to: who’s going to win the Belmont Stakes? And in the fall, it’s the Breeders’ Cup Classic that draws the question.

The answer to each of the questions is likely to be the same. It may not be the same horse, but it will be the same kind of horse. Here are the principles, with a couple of caveats. The first is that there are exceptions, especially in the presence of a superstar horse. The second thing to keep in mind is that I rarely actually bet, but I do like to pick winners. I’ve been involved with horses and in horse racing most of my adult life and I know too much about the unexpected and inexplicable things horses can do, so I don’t like to risk real money on them.

My first and most important rule is this. A horse bred to go a distance will win these races. In the case of the Derby, none of these young three-year-olds will have ever raced at a mile and a quarter. In the Belmont Stakes, none will ever before have raced at a mile and a half. In the Classic, some may have started at a mile and a quarter but most of their races will have been at shorter distances. So their race records, usually the most important guideline for picking winners, don’t apply quite so clearly.

The horse shouldn’t have been bred strictly for stamina—there has to be some speed in there—but he can’t have purely sprinting blood. The winners usually come out of the group that has horses proven to be able to win at a distance somewhere in the first three generations but also has horses known for speed in that same part of the pedigree. Sometimes horses bred to go short are remarkably alluring, coming out of a spectacular prep race early in the year. Don’t fall for them.

Here’s my second rule. The horse should never have raced more recently than three weeks earlier, and a gap of four or five is far preferable. I believe this is the primary reason there’s been no Triple Crown winner since 1979. The Belmont States comes just three weeks after the Preakness, which is held just two weeks after the Derby.

Third:  the winner of these longer races usually likes to run a couple of lengths off the leader for most of his races. A horse who has to come from far behind rarely gets up in time, even though he would appear to have saved energy in the early going. Not every horse is Zenyatta, who could do it. And occasionally a horse, even a lesser one, will win after leading the entire way, but it’s rare.

Finally, I believe that experience over the racetrack matters and matters a lot. All else being equal, the horse that wins the Kentucky Derby will probably have raced at Churchill Downs previously, the horse that wins the Belmont Stakes will have had experience with that long stretch in an earlier race, and a horse familiar with whatever surface the Classic is being run on will have an advantage.

There are sources for this information. Bloodhorse.com, thoroughbredtimes.com, and the Daily Racing Form's drf.com will give you information about stamina and previous races. You'll find that several horses may qualify. I would then eliminate those whose jockeys have little big race experience,

Occasionally you must also pay attention to post position, which usually doesn't matter in these longer races, Drawing into the auxiliary gate is a disadvantage for any horse, particularly those who like to race on the lead. Take all these factors into consideration and you'll have a short list of horses who can win. Unfortunately, this method (or any method) can't tell you who actually will finish first. That's wny they take bets.

Monday, April 23, 2012

Havre de Grace retired

The reigning Thoroughbred Horse of the Year, the five-year-old mare Havre de Grace, has been retired with an ankle injury. If the injury is as bad as her connections announced, they certainly did the right thing. But it does make you wonder if their loud complaints about her modest 123 pound weight assignment for the Apple Blossom at Oaklawn, which they dodged, masked other concerns. Maybe they knew she wasn't the same horse she was last year, in spite of her win in her first start of 2012. There was a precedent. 2009 HOY Rachel Alexandra wasn't a fraction as good in her final, shortened, season as she was in her championship year.

It all makes you admire 2010 Horse of the Year Zenyatta all the more. After a short season at 3, she raced full campaigns at four, five, and six, and she was as good the day she retired as she was in her debut. She certainly was one of a kind.

Wednesday, April 11, 2012

Hansen's color

There was an interesting story in the April 11 New York Times about Hansen's extraordinary color. He's registered as "gray or roan" but to most eyes he's a gray who's turned white unusually early. Grays almost always become white if they live long enough but generally not by the spring of their three-year-old year.
The most famous gray of modern times, Native Dancer, appears no less than six times in Hansen's pedigree, but the color comes from elsewhere. His sire Tapit's dam was gray and her color can be traced back to Alcock's Arabian, foaled about 1700. To be fair, so does Native Dancer's color and that of every other gray Thoroughbred of today.
Native Dancer has become a figure of incomparable importance to the modern Thoroughbred, appearing in the pedigree of almost every successful horse foaled in recent years. If they don't have Native Dancer blood, like AP Indy, they are immediately bred to mares who do. I think if you examine the bloodlines of every Kentucky Derby contender you will find the Gray Ghost. But you won't find his color, as least not because of him. His genetic importance is mostly due to two horses, his chestnut son Raise A Native and his bay grandson Northern Dancer, and they inherited--and passed on--his speed and the ability to carry it a distance but not his coat color.

Monday, April 9, 2012

Derby Picture Shapes Up

After this weekend's three-year-old races you could make a strong argument for any of four horses as the likely winner of the 2012 Kentucky Derby. Gemologist and Alpha in the Wood Memorial as well as I'll Have Another and Creative Cause in the Santa Anita Derby were all impressive, with Gemologist the most impressive of all.

In fact, Gemologist ticks all the boxes. He was good at two, better at three, bred on his sire's side at least to get the distance and had his final prep start four weeks before the big day. Possibly most important is the fact that he has a win over the sometimes idiosyncratic Churchill Downs track. He ran an excellent Beyer as well.

Somehow, though, I still think I'd take Union Rags if they were giving away free Derby contenders. Sure, he finished third last week in the Florida Derby, but he actually ran a really good race considering the trouble he had. If he wasn't Union Rags and was instead a previously little-known horse, we'd be talking about him as a colt who surely looks like he could get a mile-and-a-quarter. I think what intrigues me is the sudden burst of speed he can come up with. I'm a sucker for horses who have the additional gear and I still think we may see it at Churchill Downs. As for the third-place finish, remember the 1973 Wood. The horse who finished third that year was named Secretariat.