06/01/2010 2:52PM

A Day at the Races

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I spent some time at the track this past weekend. 

I know that sounds like a obvious statement coming from someone entrenched in the racing industry, but you must remember that I'm often chained to my workstation at the home offices of Daily Racing Form.  A usual day consists of typing, fact-checking, data-entry, reading, handicapping, researching, blogging, writing, and the taping of various video segments.  

And I'm still woefully behind schedule.

Granted, I'm not complaining.  It beats working for a living.  But my only direct access to our magnificent sport is generally through a computer screen and an on-line wagering website. 

It's not exactly "A Day at the Races."

So, I was overjoyed this Memorial Day weekend when I found some time to kill.  I was doubly elated when drf.com Handicapper Mike Beer (yes, he's the one that gave you Hanshin Cup winner Country Flavor at $44.40 in his DRF Plus debut) mentioned that he liked a horse at Belmont on Saturday. 

I could use the money.

Riding shotgun to beautiful Belmont Park, I couldn't fathom what he was talking about.  The card, for the most part, looked unappetizing save for a few maiden races on the grass.  What clever idea did he have?  A pedigree bet?

He assured me it was not.

I had looked at the card myself and found a few interesting runners, but nothing excited me so much that I was willing to "drop the hammer."  What game was he playing?

We'll get to that eventually.

I'm not sure how Mike feels about this, but I generally stay away from the press box.  I much rather prefer sitting in the stands with my fellow racing fans.  That's where the energy of the game flows.  There's the arguing over the relative merits of the (fill in the number) horse  The cheering.  The cursing.  The winning and the losing.  Plebeians and Patriarchs united together in the mutuel pools.  Betting on the ponies is a wonderfully democratic exercise, isn't it?

There are also the critics.

Upon entering the track, we saw an acquaintance that doesn't care for me too much (I believe he's number 4533 in the club).  I mentioned that we hadn't encountered him in a great while.  He retorted that he had seen Mike and I many times (we co-host the NYCOTB handicapping program, "Out of the Gate") in the interim and complimented Mike on "carrying" me.

I gave him the evil eye.  I can only hope it worked.  The dark arts are new to me.

After the obligatory two hot dogs and cheese fries from the food court, we found a comfortable spot near the finish line. Before I could take out my Formulator past performance printouts, an usher asked whether we had reserved those seats.  Like a child crossing the street for the first time, I looked both ways. 

To the immediate left were a pool of horseplayers.  To the right were hundreds of empty seats save for three nattily-attired ladies.  Pointing to the hatted trio, I asked our interrogator if people paid for these seats.  He assured us they did.  I got up and moved three feet to the left from Section B to Section A. 

"Do people pay for these seats?"

"No."

Amazing.

A young couple, on what was obviously their maiden voyage to the track, sat near us in the non-paying section.  The gentleman, peering into his Equibase program, exclaimed with great certainty that the #1 horse in the opener, Straight Story, was a good one.  The young lady nodded excitedly and off they went to make their bets. 

Straight Story was expected to put on a show.  Grade 1-placed at three, he had finished a game second to Minnie Punt (the winner of Sunday's Kingston) in an extremely fast 'n2x' optional claimer for statebreds on Kentucky Derby afternoon.  In this similar turf spot, Straight Story was the lone speed and the most likely winner.  

The final clocking of 1:45 2/5 for nine furlongs doesn't hold the same panache if Secretariat isn't in the discussion, but it's still racehorse time and Straight Story was never threatened en route to an 8 1/2-length win while 2/5ths of a second off the track record.  Trained by Alan Goldberg, Straight Story now has bigger fish to fry, but he seems like a need-the-lead type and I didn't like the way he drifted out in the stretch.  We'll see if he's as good as he looks on paper.

As for the young couple, they were elated after a half-mile, rooting for Straight Story to make it home in front.  He paid $2.30 to win and the look in their eyes said it all.  It's the same expression that many budding horseplayers wear after they cash their very first bet.  Heck, I thought the same thing when Cagey Exuberance won for me back in the 1980's.

What an easy game!

They didn't look so thrilled after we saw them after the day's feature.  Hopefully, they'll come back and try again.

The next few races were rather formful.  Close Range completed a $4.50 early double for Allen Jerkens with a gate-to-wire jaunt in a $25,000 maiden claiming sprint on the turf.  Close Range isn't very good, but the little gray is rather fast out of the gate, carving out fractions of 21.84 and 45.32 while clear of the rest.

Hed Deputy was expected to win the third race, a $16,000 maiden claimer for statebreds in similar fashion.  Sent off at 4-5, the Tony Dutrow-trained Hed Deputy failed to make the front but slipped on through an inviting opening on the inside at the quarter-pole to take the lead.  She didn't seem to want it, however, and was nipped on the line, despite the perfect trip, by Penn National invader Mirrors N Smoke.  It was a terrible defeat for Hed Deputy, who will likely be a popular underlay again off another runner-up performance. 

I liked Razzlemedazzleme at 10-1 in the day's fourth event, a $15,000 'n2L' claimer for filly and mare sprinters on the main track.  She didn't get the lead, as I hoped she would, and finished an even fourth behind front-running winner Taza ($4.00).

The fifth race looked somewhat interesting.  A $60,000 maiden claimer on the grass at seven furlongs, it looked like an opportunity for a first-time turf runner.  The horses that had previously raced on the green didn't seem like much stock.

I narrowed it down to the following three: 

Splitting Heirs (7-2 morning line) - half-sister to first-turf winner Sydney Road.

Gabby's Wildcat (15-1 morning line) - by Forest Wildcat out of an Unbridled mare.

Be Before (15-1 morning line) - full sister to first-turf winner Brendolyn. 

Splitting Heirs took late money and ended up the tepid 3-1 favorite.  Gabby's Wildcat, my preferred choice, was heavily-bet throughout.  Despite being trained by the low-profile Alexander DeRosa, she was 7-2.  Be Before was 19-1 and won by two lengths under Javier Castellano, one of four winners on the day for the red-hot rider. 

The result wasn't exactly what I was looking for, but it was better than ripping them all up.

It was now time for the Mike Beer special.  He explained that the short comment for Souper Butterfly's last race was utterly ridiculous and if I watched the race I would concur. 

I watched the race.  I concurred.

My trip notes for the May 9 race, a similar $25,000 'n2L' race as the one she would face on Saturday, looked like this:

"broke well, rated back to 3 hole, to garden spot, checked FT, traffic upper stretch, altered outside, changed back and forth, evenly"

The short comment looked like this:

"Svd grd, no rally."

Before you conspiracy theorists out there begin writing to Congress, let's remember that it's possible that the chartcaller simply missed one.  It's not like there was a betting coup at work as Souper Butterfly (12-1 on the morning line) went off at 9-1.  Factor in the scratch of the morning line favorite, Chick in Slacks, and the odds made perfect sense.  But despite the many exhortations of NYRA Racing Analyst Andy Serling (the always-sharp Serling noted the same trip Mike uncovered), Souper Butterfly still paid $17.40 after rallying in the stretch to win by a head.   It was a victory for diligent trip handicappers. 

The rest of the card was entertaining.  Porkchop Sandra, a hulking New York-bred filly, won Race 7 from just off the pace.  Spa City Fever upset the comebacking Seattle Mission in the eighth, but Seattle Mission is the one to follow.  Last year at Saratoga, Seattle Mission beat open company maidens, including Belmont Stakes-bound Drosselmeyer, in his career debut.  This was his first start since and he chased the winner throughout solid fractions.  He is very likely to improve next time for Barclay Tagg. 

David Cohen gave Hour Glass a beautiful ride to win the Grade 2 Vagrancy.  On paper, there was a ton of speed in the race and Hour Glass looked like one of the few closers.  Turning for home, Cohen kept Hour Glass inside and the duo found a narrow seam in upper stretch.  Hour Glass burst through and she nipped the speedy Rightly So in the final sixteenth.  Solar Panel went gate-to-wire in the tenth, snapping an 0-40 streak for the trainer-jockey combination of Tom Bush and Mike Luzzi. 

There was also the fight between two railbirds between the feature and the finale.  It looked like WWE although one man was caked with filth and the other smelled of stale urine. 

A man watching the fracas from our section yelled out, "And you wonder why there are never any hot broads here."

There was also the friendly mutuel teller who made my day.  As I made my wager on Hour Glass, she looked up, wide-eyed, and asked, "Has anyone ever said you look just like Dan Illman?"

"Aw, he doesn't know what he's talking about," I smiled back.

"I know that smile.  You are Dan Illman."

No, I didn't go back with a tip after the race.

There may not be a more colorful place in all of sports than the racetrack.  There are equal increments of good, bad, and ugly.  And it's a whole lot of fun.

I also watched Quality Road with great interest in Monday's Metropolitan Handicap.  No, I didn't queue up to the window to bet him, but most serious handicappers weren't running over themselves to bet on Cigar in his day and they're certainly not taking 1-9 on Zenyatta.  Those same folks would kick themselves, however, if they didn't make an effort to see either one race.  Sometimes, it's good for the soul, in what can often be a soul-less game, to simply enjoy watching a good horse run. 

I'll also be in attendance on Belmont Stakes afternoon, joining 25,000 others, or so, in perhaps merely going mild after the conclusion of the third jewel in racing's Triple Crown.  Some racing writers have questioned the importance of the 2010 running, noting that both the Kentucky Derby and Preakness winners will be absent from the starting gate.  I'll counter that the race is not only better than they think, it also holds a lot of power in regards to champion 3-year-old status.  Some could argue that the best horse in the Derby (Ice Box) will face the best horse in the Preakness (First Dude).  I'll say that if Ice Box wins the Belmont, he, at the very least, is on equal footing with Lookin At Lucky as the front-runners for year-end honors in the division. 

Factor in the history of the Belmont Stakes, the near-misses, the great moments, and the uncommon 1 1/2 mile distance, and it's hard not to enjoy the race.  For those that aren't looking forward to it, I feel a bit sorry for them.

***

Will be back later in the week with questions, comments, and last week's Beyers.

Also, I'm pleased to announce that I'm heading out to Arlington Park for a handicapping seminar on Saturday, June 26.  If any FormBloggers will be in attendance, I'd certainly love to meet them.  Also, I'm planning on heading out to Arlington in September (preferably September 10-12) to have an informal "FormBlog Convention."  We'll have a few days to meet up at the races, discuss the cards, and simply have a good time.

Best,

Dan