Wednesday, May 3, 2017

Mud on Derby Day

     As I write this, it appears likely that there will be a muddy—or at least wet—track for the May 6 Kentucky Derby. So how much is that going to affect who’s going to win? A lot. The only problem for bettors is that at this point in their careers we don’t have much of an idea of just who benefits and who suffers as a result of the mud.
       Horses tend to be insecure about footing and very few actually like running on a wet track. But some mind it less than others and will turn in a performance as good as their usual. That’s often enough to win over a better horse who is less comfortable on muddy surface.
     Most of the 20 horses expected to start in the Kentucky Derby have limited racing experience in general and even less experience racing on wet tracks. Eight (including the morning line favorite Classic Empire) have won on off tracks, but only Gormley has won a stakes race in the mud.
      In lieu of actual experience on wet tracks, handicappers look at the wet-track success of the parents, particularly the sire, since ability in the mud is sometimes, but not always, inherited. There are a number of ways to analyze wet-track pedigrees, but the most respected system—that of Lee Tomlinson—gives the nod to Irish War Cry, Tapwrit, and McCraken.
     One other fact to keep in mind: sometimes a horse who otherwise can’t handle the mile and a quarter distance of the Kentucky Derby—one who speeds away from the gate to an early lead and is likely to get caught in the stretch—can sometimes persist on a muddy track. It’s probably a function of avoiding the mud thrown back from horses in front. A likely early leader is Irish War Cry, interestingly the horse at the top of the Tomlinson ratings for wet-track pedigree. On the other hand, Irish War Cry has a terrible post position.  Battle of Midway also qualifies on both fronts. He has a high Tomlinson rating and likes to run on or near the lead.
     Of course, this works the other way too. A horse like Gunnevera, who is expected to come from off the pace, may have trouble making up ground late in the Derby.
     Remember that both the weather and horses are fickle. The track may end up fast and the horses may run nothing like they are expected to. That’s horse racing--and that’s what makes it interesting.

Wednesday, October 5, 2016

Tragedies and Miracles

Word came last week of the death 2015 Florida Derby winner Materiality, who went into that year’s Kentucky Derby with plenty of support. He was unbeaten until the first Saturday in May and, after starting poorly, finished well to be sixth. Nobody was likely to beat eventual Triple Crown winner American Pharoah that day, and Materiality left the race still among the best three-year-olds of the season.

Two months later, Materiality ran well in the Belmont Stakes but again, all eyes were on American Pharoah. Then, Materiality fell off the racing radar. In August his people announced that he had suffered “soft tissue injury” and wouldn’t race again. He then not only fell off the radar, he disappeared into some dark, deep hole.

Then, the last week in September 2016, it was reported that Materiality had died two months earlier. The cause was laminitis, the great scourge of horses, ponies, and some other hooved animals, from which Materiality had been suffering for a year. The disease causes a breakdown of the tissues of the hoof and is a painful, often incurable, and often fatal condition. Secretariat died of laminitis, and if the efforts put into treating him weren’t enough, imagine what happens with a lesser horse. Sometimes the treatment works, but often it doesn’t.

A severe case of laminitis can cause permanent damage to the bones of the foot. Even if the horse survives the critical phase, the disease often returns. We know a lot about causes—or rather, circumstances that lead to increased risk. Over-grazing in new grass, too much rich grain, infections elsewhere in the body—there are literally dozens of causes. What often affects racehorses is concussion and weight. We don’t really know why Secretariat came down with the disease. He was a heavy horse and although his pasture was grassy he may have suffered from excessive impact as he galloped.

In the case of Materiality, the soft tissue injury in one leg probably led to excessive weight-bearing and subsequent laminitis in the other—a situation that occurs with most young race horses who fall victim to the disease. It famously happened to Barbaro, the unbeaten Kentucky Derby winner who was injured in the Preakness and battled for nearly a year from the laminitis that soon appeared, ultimately unsuccessfully.

And that’s what happened to the unbeaten Lady Eli, who suffered a minor injury—she stepped on a nail—in July 2015 and came down with laminitis in both front feet soon after. People who follow racing watched the news from Belmont Park with increasing dread over the next couple of months. Her case was severe; her racing career was certainly over and there was limited hope that she would even survive. Unlike Materiality, Lady Eli didn’t fall off the radar. Her people did regular updates of her condition, and within a couple of months it seemed probable that she would live. It was very good news to hear that a horse could win a battle of the laminitis war.

But the story went from happy to miraculous in August when Lady Eli appeared, 13 months after contracting a career-ending and life-threatening disease, in the Ballston Spa Stakes at Saratoga. She lost her unbeaten record that day, losing by less than a length, but everybody who saw her knows she was a winner. As was her sport and her species. 

Sunday, January 31, 2016

Time to talk Triple Crown

In 2015, when American Pharoah ended the long, painful absence of a Triple Crown winner, it seemed possible at last to relax. Nobody was going to fool around with the format of the three preeminent races for three-year-old Thoroughbreds. Nobody was going to advocate that the Preakness be moved be further away from the Kentucky Derby. Nobody was going to suggest that the Belmont Stakes be shortened, since no modern three-year-old could be expected to win at a mile-and-a-half as well as at the shorter distances of America’s other important races. Somebody could, and did.

But respites never last, and a lot of us would like to see a reprieve with legs. Do we dare hope for a second Triple Crown in the next few years?  Secretariat broke a 25-year drought by winning the Triple Crown in 1973, and he was followed four years later by Seattle Slew, who was followed just the next year by Affirmed. When 1979 saw a near miss by the overwhelmingly superior Spectacular Bid, the Triple Crown appeared to be a very easy thing indeed.

Then came the 37-year gap. There's now a question. Are we in another period like the 1970’s or are we looking like another long drought and a revival of the complaints about the difficulties of the series? So what are the chances this year?

Last year’s two-year-old champion Nyquist is unbeaten and, until he loses, he could be anything. But his brilliantly fast sire Uncle Mo proved unable to win past 8.5 furlongs as did his dam’s sire Forestry.

Today, three months before the Kentucky Derby, another unbeaten colt is getting more attention. The handsome gray Mohaymen has already won at 9 furlongs, just 1/8 mile short of the Kentucky Derby distance. His sire Tapit won at 9 furlongs as did his dam Justwhistledixie. Could either of those play Seattle Slew to American Pharoah’s Secretariat? Maybe. And hopefully.

Wednesday, April 29, 2015

On this Wednesday before the 2015 Kentucky Derby, here’s my secret tip on how to pick a horse who can successfully negotiate 10 furlongs for the first time in his life. Yes, speed is important. And equally important is the breeding to go a distance. Race record is most important of all, especially the proven ability to run a final quarter faster than the other quarters of the race.

But here’s something that experts never talk about. The Kentucky Derby is almost always won by a horse whose dam was a good racehorse. In fact, the racing quality of the dam may be the most significant factor in picking a horse to run well in the Derby. Notice I don’t say “win.” Just “run well.” In a 20 horse field the most you can realistically hope to choose is a horse who will perform well.

With the glaring exception of California Chrome last year, almost every winner in modern history has been a horse whose dam has performed well herself on the racetrack. Looking at the history of the race you’ll find an occasional winner with an unraced dam or one whose dam had a brief (but usually promising) career. In general, the racing quality of the dam plays a surprisingly significant role in the success of the horse the first time he’s asked to run a distance.

It could be coincidence, but there equally could be a real reason for it. Winning at any distance, but particularly the longer ones, requires toughness and determination, not just speed. A good racing mare might be expected to pass that on to her offspring.

So what does that mean for this year? Unfortunately the likely favorite American Pharoah is out of a mare who failed on the racetrack. Upstart’s dam was unraced. Mubtaahij’s dam failed to win in nine starts.

Among the top choices, Frosted is out of Fast Cookie, the winner of more than 500 thousand. Firing Line is out of the good stakes winner Little Girl Blues. Materiality is from a stakes winner named Wildwood Flower. Dortmund is out of a stakes winner named Our Josephina.

But remember this: a great horse can rise above anything. Secretariat’s dam never won. American Pharoah, if he truly is great, can rise above his mother’s racing record.

Wednesday, March 4, 2015

I love this time of year!

For my money (figure of speech because I rarely bet) the first week in March is the most exciting time of the year in Thoroughbred horse racing, more so than the week leading up to the Kentucky Derby. By Derby Week we may not know who’s going to win the big race, but we generally know who could be great and who will never be. The “could be great” crowd of three-year-olds is pretty small by that week and may be nonexistent after the race.

It’s a much bigger crowd at this point, but it’s probably going to get a lot smaller by this coming weekend so I’m spending time savoring the possibilities. There are still some unbeaten horses of quality and a few more once-beaten who can be forgiven for their losses. The next Secretariat or Man o’ War could be in the group. Okay, probably not, but we don’t know until they prove otherwise.

Saturday’s Tampa Bay Derby has two of the “until they prove otherwise” possibilities. Carpe Diem, who cost $1.6 million as a yearling, has won two of his three starts. But the sole loss came in the $2 million Breeders’ Cup Juvenile, puncturing his reputation as a possible super horse. Still, he closed well to be second and is, by all standards, bred to go the classic distances.

He’ll face another horse who hasn’t yet proved he isn’t great. Ocean Knight, who cost a mere $320,000 as a yearling, is unbeaten in two starts. He hasn’t faced top level stakes company yet, so a major question will be answered Saturday. He is a son of the great Curlin, the winner of $10 million, able to get the classic distances and then some, and now a great source for stamina at stud. A lot of us would be thrilled to see Curlin become the sire of a great horse.

Probably the most interesting horse in the great-or-not showdown this weekend is Dortmund. He won his first two starts as a two-year in spectacular fashion, then won two stakes races through determination as much as speed. In his last start, Dortmund did what horses—especially young ones—never do: he came back to win after being passed in the stretch. He didn’t show breathtaking speed, but his level of fortitude is remarkable Dortmund remains a candidate for greatness, at least until Saturday’s San Felipe Stakes at Santa Anita.  I love this time of year!

Wednesday, October 15, 2014


 The announcement earlier this week that two-time defending Horse of the Year Wise Dan had suffered a leg fracture caused a collective gasp throughout the world of Thoroughbred racing. There is no more admired creature—human or animal—in the sport. He’s the subject of a new advertising campaign that identifies him as “the most interesting horse in the world” and few people would disagree with that description.

To be sure, there are those who think Wise Dan doesn’t qualify as Horse of the Year, at least this year, since he’s been limited to mile races on the grass. Never mind that Frankel, the European horse of the decade, was equally specialized, as was Goldikova, the European horse of the previous decade. It’s an old debate. Is the Horse of the Year the one who would beat all others at the American classic distance and surface—10 furlongs on the dirt? Or is it the horse who most dominates his or her division, or the one who most captures the public imagination, or the one who best personifies (horseifies?) what it means to be a Thoroughbred? I am a supporter of the latter definition. In fact, years ago when I had a vote for Horse of the Year, I voted one year for the steeplechaser Flatterer.

Wise Dan certainly qualified the last two years by that second definition. This year I would argue the same. He won his first two races, then underwent colic surgery. His abdomen was cut open in May. In August he was back on the racetrack at Saratoga, winning a major race in superb time. On October 4 he easily won the Shadwell Turf Mile at Keeneland against a fine field, in spite of a terrible start. His season would be admirable for a four- or five-year-old. Wise Dan is seven.

Now we have the terrible news of the fracture. There are two positive aspects of this injury, even though it came just a few weeks before Wise Dan’s try for a third straight Breeders’ Cup victory. The most interesting horse in the world had the sense to limp just a little, so the fracture was first noticed while he was walking in the stable area, not at 30 miles per hour on the race track. And the fracture as discovered was minor, just a little saucer fracture of the lower cannon bone. Because of this, trainer and owner are talking about a month or two off and then a possible return to training.

Please, no. He’s a seven-year-old horse whose injury tells us that perhaps he’s had all the racing his legs will allow. What Wise Dan has done for racing could be undone in a second on the track. A catastrophic breakdown by any horse is a tragedy but if it happened to Wise Dan it would be beyond bearing. Here’s a look at Wise Dan headed to saddling enclosure in August at Saratoga. A horse hasn’t caused such excitement at the venerable racetrack since Rachel Alexandra’s appearance in 2009 when she sealed her Horse of the Year honors in the Woodward.

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:, or read the book for the details.