08/20/2010 2:48PM

British Trainers Playing With a 50-Card Deck

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The fiasco that was Thursday's Group 1 Yorkshire Oaks, in which Sariska, the 85-40 favorite (the equivalent of 2.125-1)refused to race. The Sariska affair is a direct result of the failure of British trainers' failure to properly school their horses in the starting gate. Not only do most of them neglect teaching their charges how to get into the gate, they also seem uninterested in teaching them how to break alertly.
Sariska's failure to move a muscle once the gates (or stalls, as they are called in Britain) opened was hardly predictable, but she had given warning that she was not particularly adept at the business of breaking well. In her debut at Newmarket on Nov. 1 last year she was slowly away but won anyway. She missed the break next time in her 3-year-old debut when fourth in the Group 3 Fred Darling Stakes. Perhaps Bell was subsequently unconcerned about her tardy gate habits as Sariska ran off three straight victories in the Musidora Stakes, the English Oaks and the Irish Oaks, but her awkward start in the Group 1 Champion Stakes last October may have cost her the race as she lagged behind early, only to rally late for third place behind Twice Over.
What she did on Thursday at York might have been prevened had Bell taken the proper steps to correct what was obviously a problem, but it is too late now.
There were, however, extenuating circumstances concerning Sariska's refusal, and they also have to do with bad British gate habits.
Sariska was one of the first to be loaded into the gate in the eight-runner Yorkshire Oaks and wound up spending nearly four minutes in her stall before the off. The reason was the dilly-dallying of two of her rivals. The eventual winner, the Henry Cecil-trained Midday, was reluctant to load and had to be pushed in by four assistant starters. The David Elsworth-trained Barshiba was even more recalcitrant and had to be blindfolded before she would load, and it took six assistants to stuff her into place. No wonder Sariska refused. She probably fell asleep waiting for the start.
And then there is Sariska's rider, Jamie Spencer. A man who will never be mistaken for a rocket scientist, the poor fellow looked forlorn as pushed at Sariska a couple of times before coming to terms with her petulance. But Spencer is hardly one of Britain's best gate jockeys. In the very next race, the listed Galtres Stakes, his mount Zarebiya, the 11-8 favorite, reared in the gate and was soon very far behind. She got in touch entering the long stretch but Spencer soon gave up the ghost and eased her up.
Spencer has a reputation for lagging behind early and making one big late run. His successes always look dramatic, but his numerous failures with prolonged waiting tactics have exasperated many observors. Could it be that he was unprepared for the start in the cases of both Sariska and Zarebiya?
Spencer can succeed with waiting tactics in England in no small part because the stretches there are so long. York's measures 4 1/2 furlongs, as does Doncaster's, Sandown's is 4 furlongs, as is Ayr's. The two courses at Newmarket have stretches of one mile and 1 1/4 miles. So it is much easier to bring a horse form far out of it in England than it is in America.
With that in mind, keep an eye on Spencer at Arlington Park on Saturday, when he will ride Wigmore Hall in the Secretariat Stakes. Wigmore Hall is a notoriously poor gate horse. His comments read "missed break", "rank at rear", "steadied start" and "bumped start". Spencer has ridden Wigmore Hall in seven of his nine races, winning three of them with his patented waiting tactics. On bare form Wigmore Hall rates an almost equal chance with Paddy O'Prado and Workin for Hops, but if he misses the break or Spencer has him trailing to the top of an Arlington stretch that is about 30 yards short of two furlongs, he will struggle to catch the leaders.
There was additinal controversy stemming from the Sariska incident. Some bettors felt they deserved a refiund, but that, of course, is nonsense. The rules of racing clearly state that once the gate opens all bets are on. Yet five bookmakers, Paddy Power, Boylesports, Sky Bet, Jenningsbet and Betterbet, refunded Sariska's losing win wagers, the Irish firm Paddy Power to the tune of $312,000. The big firms, however, Ladbrokes, William Hill and Coral, refused to refund a penny, as is their right.
British trainers could learn a lot about gate tactics from their American colleagues, but they could learn even more from the Japanese, where starts go off like clockwork. Japanese horses are models of comportment at the gate. It is a pleasure to see 18 Japanese-trained horses breaking with Rockette-like precision time after time after time.
Moreover, starting gate crews in Japan are the best in the world, and for good reason. If it takes a crew longer than 30 seconds to load a field once the starter begins the loading process, they will hear about it from their bosses at the Japan Racing Association.
That is hardly the case in Britain- or the rest of Europe- where hardly a race goes by without at least one or two horses giving serious trouble at the gate.