03/15/2011 3:16PM

Uncle Mo, Tackleberry, Gulfstream

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It is easy for racing fans, and the media, to substitute hyperbole for unbiased analysis of our equine performers.  That being said, after seeing Uncle Mo up close at Gulfstream Park, one thought stuck in my mind:

Uncle Mo is the picture of class. 

"Class" is a word that many handicappers utilize in their day-to-day grading of races.  I don't particularly think of a thoroughbred's class in terms of racing conditions.  All Grade 1's aren't created equal, and a $75,000 claimer with above-par numbers for that level can be a good bet "stepping up" to stakes company despite not having raced there in the past. 

My definition of "class" is courage, professionalism, and the ability to overcome adverse scenarios.  Uncle Mo hasn't been looked in the eye yet so his courage has not been tested.  Other than a bad bump at the start of the Timely Writer, a race that, on paper, he should have won running backwards, he hasn't had to bypass trouble. 

But, Uncle Mo is the definition of professionalism.  As the standing-room-only crowd, some wearing free Uncle Mo t-shirts dispensed by the track earlier in the day, crammed outside the paddock, there was a buzz in the air. 

When Uncle Mo strolled into the walking ring, the throng rang out with cheers. While some of his rivals, and a freaked-out lead pony, didn't appreciate the applause, Uncle Mo didn't turn a hair.  He circled the ring several times, each step purposeful yet calm.  There was no sweat on his muscular body, no sign of anxiety.  He was a superstar, but not a prima donna.

As his rider, John Velazquez, climbed aboard, the champion juvenile colt of 2010 did a little dance before settling back into his rhythmic stride.  I am certainly not Johnny Conformation, but every move Uncle Mo made was pleasing to the eye.  It was a perfect paddock presentation. 

After being bumped at the start of the one-turn mile, Uncle Mo was sent directly to the front by Velazquez.  Since he hadn't run since the Breeders' Cup, and his blood should have boiled from the early jostle, it wouldn't have been surprising if Uncle Mo grabbed the bit and took off.  Instead, he rated kindly, switching off under Velazquez' rating hold.  The fractions were glacial.  Uncle Mo waltzed his first quarter in 25.53, pranced his second two furlongs in 24.05, and ran his third quarter in 24.11.  Maiden winner Rattlesnake Bridge made a run at Uncle Mo on the turn, but the champion switched leads beautifully in the stretch, and shooed away his main rival with a final quarter in a sparkling 22.87, while under no urging, to win by 3 3/4 lengths in 1:36.56. 

Critics will point to the 89 Beyer Speed Figure as it was the slowest number of Uncle Mo's career by five points.  But, realistically, there wasn't any chance for Uncle Mo to earn a fast Beyer the way the pace played out.  His last quarter-mile time may tell more of the story than the final clocking. 

While Uncle Mo, given the slow early splits, was expected to run the fastest part of the Timely Writer at the end, his quick come-home times have become a staple of his short career.  Note the final two fractions of Uncle Mo's previous races:

*Maiden Special Weight - 6 Furlongs - Saratoga - 11.78, 11.76

*Champagne Stakes - 1 Mile - Belmont - 24.55, 24.04

*Breeders' Cup Juvenile - 1 1/16 Miles - Churchill Downs - 24.41, 30.66 (runner-up Boys At Tosconova ran his last 2 1/2 furlongs in 31.22, third-finisher Rogue Romance in 31.62, fourth-finisher Biondetti in 32.52)

Up to this point in his career, Uncle Mo has shown the ability to go fast early and late. 

Some may scoff at the spectacle itself, noting that the Timely Writer was nothing but a farce, a paid workout used to draw a crowd.  I can't claim there was a ton of quality in the race.  There wasn't, although Rattlesnake Bridge may turn out to be a useful runner down the road. 

But, unfortunately, some prep races leading up to the Triple Crown are mostly watered-down affairs, with every Tom, Dick, and Harry track operator offering big purses or writing allowance races for top contenders.
 
For some owners, it is much about avoiding the other top competitors, and possible losses, as it is getting fit for the first Saturday in May. 

In Uncle Mo's case, it simply made sense from a timing and location perspective.  Plus, with many horses on two- or three-prep schedules, the top ones rarely run against each other before the Derby, anyway. 

We can't blame Uncle Mo for starting in the Timely Writer.  Let's see who shows up to take a swing at him in the Wood. 

***

Unfortunately, lost in the shuffle of Uncle Mo's presence was another victory by the blue-collar warrior, Tackleberry.  In an era where most top horses run four or five times a year, Tackleberry is a throwback to a bygone age.  His win in the Grade 2 Gulfstream Park Handicap was his fourth start of the meet, and he races without Lasix to boot.  He's now taken three in a row and seven of his last eight at distances ranging from six furlongs to 1 1/8 miles.  He can win from on or just off the lead, and he has a tremendous heart.  Turning for home on Saturday, the pacesetting Tackleberry was swamped by challengers.  It looked like anyone's race, but Tackleberry always found a little more.  He's been an iron horse so far for trainer Luis Olivares and jockey Javier Santiago, and one hopes that he'll continue to chug his way along in good form in the months to come.  He most certainly deserves an opportunity to compete in a race like the Grade 1 Metropolitan Handicap at Belmont on May 30.

***

Mike Beer and I always have a good time when we're on the road and last weekend's trip to Gulfstream Park was no different.  It's usually an Abbott and Costello routine where Dan Illman, playing the role of the bumbling buffoon, aggravates the disapproving straight man.  This time was no different.  Crammed into seats 25B and 25C, the only two without reclining capabilities due to the presence of the airplane toilet directly behind us, we soared to South Florida excited about the prospects of seeing some very talented horses. 

After picking up the rental car, the hilarity began when I couldn't figure out how to move the driver's seat forward, and failed to locate the button to pop the trunk.

"C'mon Illman, haven't you ever been in a car before?  We're never going to get out of this parking lot!"

After finally maneuvering the seat into some semblance of comfort, I pumped the gas only to almost run head-first into the side of a moving van. 

"You're the worst," remarked Beer, his knuckles white from fear.  "Didn't you see that guy?"

I never said I was a great driver, and I am especially unnerved by unfamiliar places in the dark.  Driving at lightning speeds ranging up to 25 miles per hour on the highway, I almost sideswiped an old lady. 

"You've got to be kidding me, Illman," chided my good friend.  "Are you blind?"

We got to the hotel where I checked in and promptly lost my room keys.  I have absolutely no idea how it happened.  The guy handed me the information and the keys, and I went back to check on the valet parking.  Two minutes later, my keys had disappeared, never to be seen again.

"Unbelievable!"  At this point, I was pretty sure that Mike was ready to go home.

We met blogger Bob C. on Saturday morning, and he was gracious enough to take two famished handicappers out for a hearty breakfast.  Bob C. is a great guy, knows his racing, and was nice enough to show us around the new Gulfstream Park once we finished our meal. 
I like to think of myself as a crusty, curmudgeonly traditionalist as it pertains to my racetracks, and was not expecting to enjoy Frank Stronach's vision of a casino, a shopper's paradise, and a track all wrapped up into a neat package.  The last time I had been to Gulfstream was 1997, and I liked it just fine.  I couldn't think of any reason for change.

I was wrong.

At first, Gulfstream Park (free admission and parking) looks like one of those giant outlet malls.  There are stores, restaurants and bars to the right with the paddock and walking ring to the left.  Stronach obviously doesn't believe in separation of Church and State as horseplayers studying the movements of $10,000 claimers are within shouting distance of shoppers and diners. 

Still, the track was fan-friendly.  The walking ring allowed a visual handicapper a close-up view of the runners, and the surrounding area provided seating and big-screen television monitors for fans who wanted to soak up the sunshine in the paddock all day long.  The racetrack was a stone's throw away, allowing handicappers easy access to the track apron. 

A major negative is the lack of seating in the grandstand.  While there are some tables on the apron, outside seats upstairs are hard to come by, making one wonder how this Gulfstream could handle an overflow crowd on days like the Florida Derby or Breeders' Cup. 

For fans looking for a more casual atmosphere, a tiki bar placed in the grandstand near the eighth pole is a perfect place to enjoy the races. 

There isn't any evidence that the shoppers are wandering to the track to gamble, and it's unlikely that will ever be the case, but there are some things that Gulfstream could do to try and lure newcomers.  Perhaps a free bet could be given away to a shopper that spends X amount of dollars at Y store.  Handicapping kiosks might be placed around the mall area.  Here, customer service representatives could explain the basics of racing and wagering in the hope of inviting novice fans inside.  Hopefully, the magic of the horses, and the unique atmosphere of the racetrack scene, would entrance them as it enticed us when we were new to the game.

Let's face it.  The status quo at racetracks just isn't working.  Attendance is slipping and it's hard to bring a new face within even a mile of the entrance gate.  At Gulfstream, at least, there is a chance, however slim it may be, to grab the interest of new handicappers.

Mike and I met track analyst Ron Nicoletti for our morning seminar, and he couldn't have been a more accommodating host.  We handicapped the races for about 45 minutes, and then Mike and I answered questions for another 45 or so.  There was a great deal of energy in the room, and Mike and I were heartened by the passion shown by the local handicappers that took time out from their schedules to come hear us out. 

After chatting with Ron and his co-analyst, Jessica Pacheco, Mike and I roamed the track for a bit before settling in a spot near the paddock.  I, of course, got sunburn even though I used sunscreen.  Mike, of course, got a perfect bronzed tan. 

I hate him.

After going 0 for my first 7 selections while digging a big hole in my wallet, Tackleberry brought me back to profitability along with the favored winner of the finale.  Mike and I both liked It Happened Again in the Razorback at Oaklawn on our drf.com videos, and that helped the bottom line as well. 

We walked a few feet from the paddock to a nice restaurant at the mall area.  If we wanted to bet on South American races, we could have as there were giant screens peering down at us showcasing all of the action.

I don't need to mention that the weather was dazzling.

We spent most of Sunday on the move, wandering back and forth from the apron to the paddock.  While Uncle Mo was the picture of class, Sincero, a five-year-old allowance horse, was not in the same league.  After circling us several times in the walking ring with a mischievous look on his face, Sincero broke wind right in our faces.  Mike was disgusted.  I was fascinated.  Had we stumbled onto a new angle?  Sincero had a perfect trip behind a speed duel, but faltered badly in the stretch. 

Maybe the flatulence move only works on dirt.

***

Congrats to "Uncle" Steve T. for finishing first in last week's HandiGambling exercise.  He selects the seventh race at Gulfstream on Thursday for this week's race.

PAST PERFORMANCES ARE AVAILABLE AT THE BOTTOM OF THIS BLOG POSTING

Remember that you have a mythical $100 with which to wager on the race, and the entrant with the highest money total will receive a "Monthly Enhanced 60-Card Past Performance Plan." Anyone going over the $100 limit will be disqualified. Please post your plays and analysis to the blog. In the event of a tie, the earliest post gets first preference. One entry per person please. I reserve the right to approve or deny any entries.

I know that there is a time issue for some of you, but let's remember why we began the HandiGambling races in the first place. The goal was to share ideas on why we like these horses, and why we're betting them the way we are. I'm not asking for a novel, but if you could spare a sentence or two outlining your handicapping angles, and thought processes about wagering, it would be appreciated.
Best of luck to all.

***

Will be back Thursday with the HG analysis.  Saturday will be the weekend selection blog, and I'll get to the questions, answers, and two weeks worth of top Beyers on Monday.

 

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