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Hovdey: Racing spotlight shifts from New York to Churchill Downs, Hollywood Park
If only some of those 85,811 fair weather fans who jammed Belmont Park last Saturday would hang around the game for another week. Unfortunately, the sport continues to deal with its own strain of ADD (attendance deficit disorder), so most of those 85,811 will be doing on the Saturday after the Belmont Stakes whatever it was they were doing the Saturday before, which was not going to the races.
That’s a shame, because the hard-working players who put on the show last weekend in New York will be back on stage this weekend in Louisville and Los Angeles in a cluster of events every bit as significant in their own way as the Belmont Stakes.
The most entertaining bunch of older male horses in years will convene at Churchill Downs for the $400,000 Stephen Foster Handicap at nine furlongs. The event has been run only 31 times, placing its genesis somewhere in Ronald Reagan’s first term, but the name and conditions alone fairly reek of racing’s arcane, intimidating nature. But then, once you get past the obvious snags -- “Who is Stephen Foster?”…”What is a handicap?”… “How much does a furlong weigh?” – what’s left is a race any one of the camps involved would be proud to win.
The hot money will be all over Wise Dan, who came off a long layoff to freak like Formal Gold in the Ben Ali Handicap at Keeneland on April 22. Cooler heads will note that the Ben Ali was on a synthetic surface, and that his opposition was less than stellar, and that the Ben Ali was on a synthetic surface. But still, Wise Dan’s score in the Clark Handicap at Churchill last fall was a solid piece of business, coming at the expense of the stubborn Mission Impazible.
Mission Impazible will try Wise Dan again in the Foster, along with Alternation, Ron the Greek and Nehro, who might as well be in harness for all the thrills they have supplied this year. Conditions permitting, they won’t need more than about a minute-47 seconds to get the job done, and it’s a good bet it will be a memorable minute-47.
In the race before the Foster, champion filly Royal Delta will return from her disappointing foray to Dubai and the World Cup to lead the parade for the Fleur de Lis Handicap, also at 1 1/8 miles. She never really picked up the bit that night in the desert, so now it is back to the reality of the American racing economy, running for the winner’s share of $150,000 rather than $10 million.
St. John’s River, making her second start off a rehab, could give Royal Delta a run. She won the Delaware Oaks in 2011 and just missed in the Kentucky Oaks. St. John’s River also could kick off a big day for the Broad Brush stallion Include, now 15, who was represented last week in New York by a romping Redeemed in the Brooklyn Handicap and has Include Me Out at the head of the field for the $250,000 Vanity Handicap at Betfair Hollywood Park.
Include Me Out, like Redeemed, is owned by Samantha Siegel’s Jay Em Ess Stable. The filly is on a roll of three stakes wins over three decidedly different surfaces, from fast dirt to slop to dry synthetic, which she gets again on Saturday.
Compared to the Foster, the Vanity has got some serious history – 71 runnings and winners like Honeymoon, Two Lea, Gamely, Sangue, Bayakoa, Paseana, Azeri, and Zenyatta, who pulled a three-peat. This version runs deep, with Include Me Out required to deal with Ellafitz, who was lapped alongside the favorite in the recent Marjorie Everett Handicap, and Zazu, the quality gray who was shaking off the cobwebs that day from a seven-month layoff.
At some point they all will need to confront the upstart Rock and Glory, a daughter of Rock Hard Ten bred and owned by Ernie Moody’s Mercedes Stable. She has run only four times, losing her first two starts earlier this year without much of a fight. But her two most recent races could hardly be called contests: a maiden win by 8 1/2 lengths and an allowance score by 11 1/4.
Then again, both wins featured fields of five, one was in the slop at Santa Anita, and the other was against nonwinners of a race other than yadda yadda yadda. Still, a filly who is fresh, untested, and clearly enjoys her work deserves to be tossed in against the big girls, which is pretty much how trainer Tim Yakteen has it figured.
“She’s a very big filly and still has a lot of learning to do,” Yakteen said. “She’s easily distracted. We tried her with blinkers at first just for that reason, but they seemed to get her more agitated than anything. Now without them, if you’ve seen her run you’ll notice how she tends to all of a sudden look up into the grandstand.”
This could be explained by the fact that Rock and Glory has won her last two races by 8 1/2 and 11 1/4 lengths.
“Exactly,” Yakteen said. “And with a lot tougher competition against her you wouldn’t think she’d be that far in front.”
Charlie Whittingham mastered the art of flooding a major race for older horses and announcing, “I’ve got ‘em surrounded.” Yakteen, a former assistant of both Whittingham and Bob Baffert, has his own version going in the Vanity, with the British invader Zafeen’s Pearl making her stateside debut.
“Surrounded, yeah,” Yakteen said with a laugh. “At least at some point there’s a good chance they’ll be running first and last. Zafeen’s Pearl has very good form on synthetic surfaces and has shown she’s got a pretty good finishing kick, so we’ll see how she does.”
It will be the swift Rock and Glory, though, who gets most of the attention. Yakteen is under no delusions about the challenge.
“Obviously Include Me Out is a very, very nice filly,” Yakteen said. “She was very impressive winning the other day when she made the lead and then was clearly waiting on horses.
“But it’s time to see if our filly can take that next step,” Yakteen added. “We’re not going to reinvent anything about her running style just because she’s moving way up in class. She’s shown she wants to go to the front, so we’ll let her run her own race.”
Yes! Horse racing is a wonderful and exciting sport to watch and to make some money too....is more exciting than to watch Jeremy Lin playing at NBA lately....and yes we can make money. I had this experience making money in my hometown in South America. When I was a teen aged I used my $2 allowance to share the cost of a $10 bet with my siblings and my mother to buy a win/10 ticket picking up just one number per race. ...without money to buy programs just by listening the radio, no Tv in the mid 50's, we won the pool of $90,000 after betting without luck for almost 3 years.. Here in Vancouver at the Hastings Parks, during the early and mid 90's when I did have a good job and can afford to bet every weekend, I won many times a pool of more $7000 each. Unfortunately here in Vancouver, the casino industry is killing the sport of kings...and so far there is no entrepreneurs able to lift up this sport to match the level of exciment during the 90's.
Come on Jay, you don't need to be that rough. After attending the Santa Anita Derby with my girlfriend and two couples she invited who had never been we intently followed all news concerning the California contingent and other Derby hopefuls. I was ecstatic to see the west coast horses have success in the big race. After the El Camino Real Derby at Golden Gate Fields, we have little to see here on the west coast that may have an impact on the national racing scene during spring. The first two legs of the triple crown were incredibly exciting this year and my girlfriend and I felt compelled to book our flights for New York. Our day at the Belmont Stakes was not without it's issues but overall was an amazing experience despite the developments that had taken place the day before, and admittedly I was more disappointed that it would be retirement and not a layoff to follow for I'll Have Another. The big race was exciting as were a number of the other races on the card that day. On my flight home to northern California, I struck up conversation with a gentleman sitting in the row behind me when I noticed his DRF hat and learned he had also flown out just days earlier to see the Belmont. We talked racing much of the flight home which was very pleasant since I don't often get to talk shop with a fellow horse player. We have also agreed to stay in touch and meet up at some of the local fair meet races this summer here in the Bay Area. Though I realize that racing would be greatly aided by more fans following the sport outside of a few weeks in the spring and a weekend in November, there are people even in remote northern California that do really enjoy, promote, and appreciate the sport of thoroughbred racing all throughout the year and I know you realize this. So maybe you can understand my disappointment after only one paragraph of your story. I do enjoy reading your articles Mr. Hodvey and I will continue to do so like so many others. I only ask that you remember that there were a lot of us there that day not making our first trip to the track, and I believe that racing only needs to continue to try and give people something to get excited about (not $10 dollar beers on big stakes days, not 25% takeouts, and not 6 horse fields dominating cards on 9 month long racing calendars) and people will make it out to the races.