Haskell Success in the Details
In any customer service-oriented business, it’s a series of small details that add up to a truly memorable experience. This is what was on my mind as I soaked in my first trip to the $1 million Haskell Invitational at Monmouth Park on Sunday.
From the very start I could not have been more impressed with the casual, family friendly atmosphere.When I asked a greeter how to find the press box, he didn’t bother trying to point or offer convoluted directions. Instead he said, “It’s confusing, so just follow me.” And with that he led me from the entrance to the elevator. Other details that impressed were the ample free parking, the hundreds of gorgeous flower boxes hanging from the Grandstand, the fresh crab cake sandwich and – the piece de resistance – an open bar in the paddock! The crowd of 36,294 was large enough to create a daylong buzz worthy of a million-dollar race, but not so massive that you couldn’t move around or had to suffer unreasonable lines. As far as big racing days go, the Haskell is one of the most enjoyable and well-executed you’ll find.
The only thing missing from Sunday’s Haskell Day card was suspense. None of the major stakes ended with a close finish, so instead of drama, we basked in awe from some of the jaw-dropping performances. In the graded stakes you had Verrazano by 9 ¾, Silver Max by 5 ¾, Pants On Fire by 1 ¾ and Joyful Victory by 7 ½. Most satisfying for me was Silver Max, who paid $10.80 to win in his first victory on grass in more than a year. I bet him to win, figuring that this was a classy horse who had excuses for all of his losses in 2013: long layoff, off track, pressured on a boggy track, prefers turf. On Sunday he finally had the right conditions, against a competitive field without any standouts, and put forth a top-class effort. The Badge of Silver colt set very fast fractions, including a second quarter-mile in :22 3/5, yet still managed to spurt away off the turn and was widening his margin at the wire.
JOYFUL VICTORY PUT IN A DOMINATING PERFORMANCE ON THE HASKELL UNDERCARD
Photo courtesy Penelope Miller/America's Best Racing
Earlier, Joyful Victory showed she belongs with the top distaffers. Rosie Napravnik had her so completely geared down the last sixteenth that she might have walked across the finish line. I couldn’t help but wonder if 2012 Kentucky Oaks winner Believe You Can might bounce back similarly. The two Larry Jones trainees finished last (Believe You Can) and second-last (Joyful Victory) in the May 27 Ogden Phipps at Belmont. My impression watching them train all winter in New Orleans was that Believe You Can was the more talented of the pair.
With the untimely passing of nationally syndicated radio host Kidd Kraddick this weekend, I couldn't help but recall my one brief appearance on his show. About 10 years ago, Lone Star Park hosted bugler tryouts a few weeks before the season opened. When my boss got called into a meeting, I somehow ended up on the judges’ panel. Toward the end of the tryouts, a self-serious young trumpeter showed up and painstakingly went through the motions of preparing to awe us with his "Boots & Saddles," more commonly known to race fans as the call to post. He took his instrument out of its case with great care, inserted his mouthpiece, loosened his shoulders, lifted the brass to his lips, and then proceeded to blow a horrible cacophony. Suddenly we realized this guy couldn't play a note. After maybe a minute of noise the guy quit playing and, completely winded from the effort, asked eagerly, "Well, how'd I do?" We politely thanked him for his time and told him we'd be in touch, but this just furthered his resolve, like some of those crazies you see on American Idol who can't accept the reality of their averageness. He pleaded for another chance, and when we asked him to leave, he refused. The situation went from amusing to awkward to annoying as this prospective bugler continued to insist he could nail it with another chance. Finally, we summoned security, who chased the guy around the Winner's Circle. Once they were about to lay hands on him, he finally shot upright, put his hands up, and confessed that the whole thing was a gag for the Kidd Kraddick show. He pulled a pen out of his pocket that was actually a mic, and he busted up laughing at the way me and my fellow judges -- two sweet young women from the marketing department -- had fought to keep our cool. At that moment I really wanted to hurt this jackass, but when the whole thing was replayed on air the next morning I had to admit that it was a pretty funny gag. The track got some valuable exposure for its opening and tens of thousands of weary commuters got a good, genuine laugh on their way to work. In the wasteland of morning radio, Kraddick's show was a relatively wholesome exception that will be missed.
Stat of the Week
Javier Castellano is easily the dominant turf rider at the NYRA tracks this year, and this is holding true at the current Saratoga meeting, where he has eight winners over the two grass courses, versus five on the main track. At the NYRA tracks in 2013, Castellano easily boasts the most turf wins of any rider (42), and the highest win percentage (22%, 42-for-191). This is the type of stat that is made more useful by the fact that it won’t show up in most past performances. When Castellano rides in three turf races at Saratoga on Wednesday and three on Thursday, most players will only be looking at his stats for the meet and calendar year, which are very good, but do not reveal his propensity for turf racing. Be sure to give Castellano extra consideration on the grass and always keep an eye out for specific situations where certain trainers and jockeys excel.
Photo courtesy of Eclipse Sportswire
Lingering thoughts from opening weekend at Saratoga…
Get your eat on
Saratoga gets it, but why hasn’t every racetrack figured out that nobody wants regular old concession-stand grub anymore? Ballparks know it, arenas and stadiums have caught up, the best casinos have always understood it, and yet there are still tracks and OTBs that only want to offer you burgers and dogs (and not even quality ones). In addition to the Saratoga standbys like Shake Shack and Carolina Barbecue, you can now get a lobster roll (or a grilled cheese with lobster) or Hattie’s Famous Chicken or gourmet mac and cheese from a food truck, not to mention locally produced craft beers. We’ve been in the midst of a food revolution in this country for several years now and standards have changed. Shame on any sports or entertainment venue that thinks it’s OK to just sell mediocre food and domestic beer. Please, please, try a little harder.
Look out for a Tom Amoss-trained 2-year-old named Kendall’s Boy that will debut before the end of the meet. Not only is he talented (he’s already posting half-mile bullets in the mornings) but he’s got someone watching out for him. Owner Jerry Namy named the Sky Mesa colt for Kendall Hill, who was Namy’s business and racing partner before being killed in a 2009 plane crash that Namy survived. The story of the plane crash was written a few years ago by Jennie Rees for her Courier-Journal blog when Namy’s Shared Property was making noise as a juvenile, but the story is sure to resurface now that a horse has been named in Hill’s honor. And as runners like Frankel have shown us, if someone honors a deceased friend by naming a horse for them, chances are they’ve waited to do it until they had a really good one. To be clear, I’m not saying this colt is the next Frankel, but I am saying that it’s likely this is the best horse Namy has had.
NAMED AFTER LEGENDARY TRAINER BOBBY FRANKEL, FRANKEL WON ALL 14 OF HIS STARTS
Photo courtesy of Eclipse Sportswire
Big Easy Attitude
The large contingent of native Louisianan trainers at Saratoga this season might not be found atop the standings but, not surprisingly, they do appear to be leading in the all-important category of life contentedness. When I showed up on Saturday, my favorite track security guy, Charlie Fay (he’s a story in himself that I’ll save for another time), offered to show me to the “New Orleans section” of the backyard. Holding court with a cooler full of cheap beer (Bud Light Lime, anyone?) were three accomplished trainers who shall remain nameless, with about 4,500 wins between them, none of whom even had a horse in that day. These guys were hanging out and throwing back cold ones as if they were on the neutral ground waiting for the Endymion parade to roll by. If I owned a horse I’d want it to be trained by … well, OK, probably Todd Pletcher. But if I couldn’t get him, I’d want a good old Louisiana boy who brings his own beer to the races.
I cashed my first ticket of the meet on opening Saturday with a seemingly easy Double that paid $139.50. The dumbfounding part was that the longer-priced winner was a David Jacobson-Drawing Away Stable entrant. I’m not the sharpest handicapper out there, but when the high-percentage leading trainer (26% for Jacobson) and owner (31% for Drawing Away and Jacobson) from the Belmont meet have something in, I’m using that horse on my tickets and I don’t really care what else the past performances tell me. Tycoon Cat, the 8-1 sixth choice, started my double before the longer of my two horses in the next race, Night Maneuver, who had just won a similar race at Belmont, drew off as the 5-1 third choice. If only it were always so easy to cash a $139.50 double. But this is why betting Saratoga is fun.
With due respect to everyone in the press box, there still is no better way to follow the meet than The Saratoga Special. Am I biased? Sure, I spent a few seasons working for them. But that’s how I know so well what goes into every issue. If you browse through all of the racing media’s many recap stories the morning after a major stakes race, 90 percent will have the same quotes from the winning connections. There’s nothing wrong with that, necessarily, because everyone has deadlines and, these days especially, most writers can’t afford to waste even a moment when people are waiting to read the details online ASAP. But the Special has always taken pride in using different quotes from everyone else. A lot of the time you won’t see a Special writer mixed up in the media scrum in the winner’s circle, but you will see them shortly after trailing a trainer to the Trustees’ Room for the champagne toast, or back to the barn with the horse and an assistant. With their patience and tenacity, the Special writers get deeper background and different anecdotes from everyone else. You can read every day’s full issue for free at thisishorseracing.com/news.
Stumbled start, rushed, green, drifted, caught
A wise publicist who was engaged on a cliff overlooking Del Mar once advised that when the time comes to pop the question, be sure you do it near your favorite track during racing season so you’ll always have an acceptable excuse to go back on vacation year after year. Congratulations to Heath Belvoir, one of Equibase’s three top-notch chart callers at Saratoga, who managed to accomplish this feat the night before the meet opened at the Yaddo gardens, practically spitting distance from the Grandstand. For the rest of his life, this lucky man can get away with saying, “Hey, I know, let’s plan a getaway to that place we got engaged.” That’s true genius.