Updated on 09/15/2011 1:51PM

Novel idea: Show up (you might win)


SARATOGA SPRINGS, N.Y. - Woody Allen once said that 90 percent of life is just showing up. It's a sentiment too scarce in American stakes racing these days.

Million-dollar races in California routinely draw four- to six-horse fields. The Jim Dandy two weeks ago offered $600,000 and Grade 1 credentials but attracted just half a dozen. Juvenile stakes around the country this month have rarely exceeded half a gateful. Saratoga is begging for entrants for Saturday's $1 million Travers, whether or not Point Given runs.

The point here isn't to tell individual trainers where to run their horses. Decisions about where to spot runners should be made by the people who know them best, with the horse's welfare the primary factor. As a group, though, American trainers are doing themselves, their horses, and the game no favors by being so consistently timid rather than sporting.

In California, racing officials say privately that the reticence of trainers to run unless they figure to be one of the top three choices is as much a cause of small fields as the number of racing days or a shortage of horses.

"We've got way too many guys who are terrified of seeing their win percentage drop below 20 percent," one official said recently. "We kill ourselves to get seven to enter a race and then two or three try to get out once they read the Form and see they're going to be more than 5-2. They think if their numbers go down, the next time the Arabs are looking for someone to send a bunch of fancy horses to, they won't get picked."

Faint heart never wins black type, and there's plenty to be said for just showing up these days. Horse races, as you may have noticed, do not always run precisely as you would expect, and when they don't it often pays to be hanging around. "You've got to be in it to win it" is the motto of the New York State Lottery, but it's also been a pretty effective strategy for the sport's most successful stakes-winning trainer, D. Wayne Lukas.

In the Jim Dandy, Lukas was one of only four trainers who dared to shoot for a piece of a $600,000 purse with a horse not named Congaree or A P Valentine. This is a race that should have drawn a dozen starters. Even if you thought the two favorites were something really special, which they're not, where else can you get $66,000 for running third while finding out if your nice allowance horse belongs in stakes company?

Rick Violette deserves a lot of credit for thinking exactly that way and running Free of Love off an allowance victory at Belmont. His colt earned $120,000 running second, which is like winning a $200,000 stakes race. The biggest winner of all, though, was Lukas, who almost ran Scorpion the day before in a $100,000 sprint but instead ended up winning $360,000 and the Jim Dandy with him.

Scorpion's victory enraged some handicappers while prompting others to question whether Lukas keeps a secret stash of high-test oats around to feed longshots in stakes races. Here's Lukas's big secret: He shows up. He runs horses in spots like these because he knows that it's well worth taking a shot that things won't go according to plan, and he's not afraid of losing.

Here's what happened in the Jim Dandy: Congaree and A P Valentine did not run their races. Remove them from the equation and you were left with a four-horse allowance field in which Scorpion was actually the favorite and still was life and death to run down an exhausted Free of Love. He is not going to be a champion, but on this day he was in the right place at the right time. A lot of other trainers could now be claiming a Grade 1 victory and spending their piece of the purse had they just shown up.

Lukas has done this dozens of times, sometimes in the sport's biggest races. He knew that last year's Belmont Stakes field was one of the worst ever, so why not run Commendable? He went into last year's Breeders' Cup Distaff knowing that Spain was no Riboletta, Beautiful Pleasure, or Heritage of Gold. When all three misfired, Lukas not only won the race with Spain but also took second with Surfside, helping to earn the latter an Eclipse Award as champion 3-year-old filly.

If Point Given passes up this weak Travers, there ought to be a field of 14 with six also-eligibles. If he runs, there's no reason he shouldn't still have eight or more opponents. As we see in two out of every three races every day, favorites lose all the time and sometimes all you have to do is show up to pick up the pieces.