What We Learned This Weekend
At Belmont Park, we saw two excellent Grade 1 juvenile stakes that will produce serious Breeders’ Cup threats.
In the one-mile Champagne Stakes, two colts with only one start apiece ran like veterans wise beyond their years. Havana, who raced inside horses most of the way, held off a late charge from Honor Code, who had to go at least seven paths wide into the stretch. Honor Code appeared to be at a 45-degree angle coming off the turn he was running so furiously, like a Greyhound. The wide trip probably cost him the win and will make him a fashionable choice in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile. However, we should be no less impressed by the winner. While he didn’t run wide or check or do any of those other things that stand out as a “bad trip,” it is not easy for a horse, especially a young one, to run behind and inside of other horses. The claustrophobic nature of the situation can make them keen and leave them without enough energy for the stretch run, even though they benefitted from the shortest way around. Saving ground is important, but perhaps not as essential as having a comfortable spot to relax. So while Honor Code is an obvious candidate to improve off his effort, don’t forget that Havana is just as likely to move forward with a better trip at Santa Anita.
Havana (inside) holds off Honor Code in Champagne. (Photo courtesy of Adam Coglianese/NYRA)
The Frizette Stakes, the female counterpart to the Champagne, also featured an unlucky runner-up. Sweet Reason ducked in at the start, spotting the field several lengths. And yet, I’m not willing to say that cost her the win. This filly always breaks slow and the eight lengths or so she fell behind Saturday was nothing compared with the 18 she made up in her debut. The favorite gradually got herself back into contention and ranged up to within three lengths approaching the quarter-pole. From there she had every chance to win but couldn’t make up enough ground on the winner, Artemis Agrotera. Just as with the Champagne, the runner-up will be given a pass from those who assume the favorite would have won with a better trip, though I can’t say with as much certainty that in the filly race it would have changed the result. Meanwhile, the winner will get less credit than she deserves, for no reason other than being a New York-bred, even though she has no idea where her feet first touched the ground. She’s got speed, she’s out of a graded stakes-placed dam and she galloped out with some strength that suggested going two turns and an extra sixteenth of a mile at Santa Anita will not be a problem. I am eager to see whether the public believes in her as much as I do.
Artemis Agrotera won the Frizette and is a major contender for the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Fillies. (Photo courtesy of Chelsea Durand/NYRA)
In the Jamaica, this year’s final Grade 1 for straight 3-year-olds in New York, the Ontario-bred Up With the Birds outfinished a very accomplished and competitive field of turf runners (the favored entry went off at 3.90-to-1 and six betting interests were single-digit odds). The winner went off as the second choice and was no surprise, having established his class with a second in the Queen’s Plate before moving back to turf for a win in the $500,000 Breeders’ Stakes. Those races show up in the past performances as restricted races, which they are, but they are restricted to horses foaled within Canada and are among the most important stakes in that country. Canadian stakes winners are often not on the same level as their American counterparts (say, for example, a Canadian Grade 3 winner vs. an American Grade 3 winner in the same division) but in prestigious turf races cannot be discounted. After winning the Black Gold Stakes at Fair Grounds in his 3-year-old debut, Up With the Birds was briefly under consideration for Keeneland’s Blue Grass Stakes but was kept on turf for his next start with the Queen’s Plate his ultimate spring goal. I was shocked to learn Saturday that the Jamaica was trainer Malcolm Pierce’s first Grade 1 win; he’s a very attentive horseman and always has stakes-caliber turf horses, be it at Woodbine or Fair Grounds.
In Saturday’s enticing all-Grade 1 pick three, we benefitted from our strict adherence to betting against favorites. As we always preach, anytime you can beat the most logical favorite in a multi-race wager, you stand to collect an outsized return. Too many gamblers – both novice and experienced – will “single” these heavy favorites while “spreading out” in the other legs, in hopes of catching a longshot in what appear to be the more competitive races. The problem with this approach, though, is that it’s not imaginative enough. Playing the most common ticket in any pool is rarely going to give you an eye-popping return, even when you do hit with a few decent prices in there.
Being short on funds this week, I went to Belmont on Saturday intent on only playing the graded stakes. If you take the train from Penn Station, though, there is no way to arrive late. So I distracted myself by reading a book (Tom Wolfe’s excellent “Back to Blood,” not like you care) on a bench in the backyard. Too often, I find it hard to resist betting on races that I know little about, but this was one of those days where I knew I couldn’t visit the ATM or else my wife would see it in our online statement and I would be in trouble. So I read my book and listened to the classic rock cover band and napped in the shade, all of which was perfectly pleasant.
Then I played a $30 pick three ticket (30 combinations for the $1 minimum base bet), the simple premise of which was that Sweet Reason would be overbet. Not that I didn’t think she could win; I just felt that she was unlikely to dominate as easily on a fast track as she had in her two Saratoga wins in the slop. So I spread out with five horses in the impossible-to-deduce Jamaica, used two in the Frizette (the 11-plus-length debut winner Artemis Agrotera and Divided Attention from the hot McLaughlin barn that already had two winners on the day) and the three clear favorites in the Champagne (Havana, Honor Code and Strong Mandate).
Even though the longest shot of the sequence was only 4.30-to-1 (Artemis Agrotera), the $1 pick three paid $203.50. The winners amounted to a second choice (4.10-to-1 Up With the Birds), a third choice (Artemis Agrotera) and another third choice (2.60-to-1 Havana). The key, though, was beating a heavy odds-on favorite.
Things I Think About
Looking at all of the unused space on the west end of the Belmont Park grandstand, I wonder if any New York nonprofit could make it work for large-scale art installations. Contemporary art, which physically seems to get bigger all the time, requires a lot of space, especially high ceilings, to be viewed optimally. There aren’t many existing venues that can offer: tons of square footage; clean sightlines; the industrial-looking, pressed concrete floors favored by galleries and contemporary museums; exposed steel beams that can support tons of suspended weight; 24-hour security; ample parking; train access from Manhattan; restrooms; and concessions. Because art exhibitions are temporary, they could be scheduled not to conflict with Belmont Stakes Day, the only time of year when that space is needed. And contemporary art always attracts the type of well-heeled investors and tastemakers that racing craves.
I’m sure an institution like MoMA PS1 or Public Art Fund could find artists that would drool over the possibilities for a space that large, especially one already infused with historical significance. For inspiration, just look at all of the past exhibitions at a place like MassMoCA, the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art, where contemporary art installations in a formerly abandoned factory have transformed the struggling town of North Adams, Mass., and given it a new identity as a weekend destination for culture-hungry travelers from all over the northeast and even the world.
A 2012 Mass MoCA installation by New York-based artist Sanford Biggers.
To be clear, I’m not proposing that a track spend money on art exhibitions. The thought is that you could rent the space to an arts organization. Then the empty part of the grandstand that is mostly a drain on operations could actually generate some revenue and, as a bonus, enhance the on-track experience and bring a few new folks through the doors.
We explored this idea at Fair Grounds a few years ago with a major contemporary art biennial that was very excited about the venue. In the end, it didn’t work due to logistical reasons but I became convinced that there was an opportunity there. Maybe here in the heart of the commercial art world the concept has a better chance.
More Things I Think About
The new video board at Churchill Downs is going to be amazing. I can barely even wrap my head around it being bigger than the one at the Dallas Cowboys’ AT&T Stadium. This is a significant investment in the on-track experience at the home of our country’s most important race. And it’s safe to assume this will allow for much more than just an improved view of the action.
Image of planned new video board at Churchill.
It’ll also make for a better presentation of important information – odds, payouts, will-pays, connections during the post parade, Trakus Chiclets, etc. When you think about the impressions and the value to partners and advertisers, the $12 million price tag will probably be covered well within the lifespan of the technology. Every visitor will have a better time at the races, be it on Kentucky Derby day or a Thursday, and the track most likely will eventually see a positive impact to their bottom line. Everyone wins!
New video board presentation.
More of What We Learned This Weekend
In Keeneland’s Shadwell Turf Mile, Wise Dan certainly had an excuse for his first loss of the year, seeing as the race was taken off the turf and run in the rain on Polytrack. Going into the race, though, I already thought Silver Max had a big chance to win. The race unfolded on the main track exactly as I thought it would on the grass, with Silver Max leading nearly every step through what, for a horse of his quality, were pretty easy fractions, and uncontested the entire way. Silver Max is in scary good form right now and I see him as my personal favorite to win the Breeders’ Cup Mile, even with the Horse of the Year in there. Trainer Dale Romans explained on our NTRA National Media Teleconference last week that most of his charges were slow to come around this year, as he had a virus that contaminated the whole barn in the spring and lingered into the summer. It resulted in subpar efforts from his stable stars to start their campaigns, but it also means that horses like Little Mike and Silver Max are still improving going into the World Championships, as opposed to just trying to maintain their form.
Silver Max defeating Wise Dan at Keeneland on Oct. 5. (Photo courtesy of Eclipse Sportswire)
Meet the Press
Notable quotes from last week’s NTRA National Media Teleconference …
Trainer Leah Gyarmati on Frizette Stakes runner-up and probable Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Fillies participant Sweet Reason: “She doesn’t do anything in the morning that you don’t ask her to do and even beyond that, when she’s by herself, she looks around, she kind of plays with you the whole time. As soon as she has her sights set on somebody, though, she’ll run them down, in the morning included.”
Trainer Dale Romans on Shadwell Turf Mile winner and probable Breeders’ Cup Mile participant Silver Max: “Silver Max is on his game again and, you know, last year, I danced every dance with him, I hit almost every 3-year-old turf race there was in the country and maybe wore him out a little bit by the end of the year. It took him a little while to get his feet back under him but the last couple of races have been phenomenal and, you know, we have all the respect in the world for Dan but we got to take him on and try him.”
Trainer Buff Bradley on 2012 Breeders’ Cup Filly and Mare Sprint heroine and Eclipse Award winner Groupie Doll: “I have no doubts in my mind that she’s as good as she was last year at this time and mentally she seems like a better mare, like she is more prepared mentally to ‘let’s go do something’ and that she is feeling really good at this time of the year.”
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Opened up @SI to find an all-to-common misuse of the term "quarter pole" to describe the 1st quarter of something completed.— Rolly Hoyt (@rollyhoyt) October 4, 2013