August 16, 2018
By: Jonathan Stettin
So much has changed in the Thoroughbred industry in the past 25 years or so, the least of which is not training a race horse. Training race horses still has some basic fundamentals, and remains a crafty art, but it is very different than it was years ago.
To people who have worked or spent time on the backside, and have been around the game awhile, the changes are obvious. To those who are newcomers, or who have spent their racetrack time on the frontside, the changes are less apparent.
Race horses are athletes and have more in common with human athletes than meets the eye. While true they run naturally, when in the wild they normally run straight and in spurts. They have to be coached and taught to run in circles, and at different speeds and paces. Like a coach, some trainers are better than others. The good ones, really good ones, identify a horse as an individual and get inside the animal’s head and truly educates them. At least that is how it used to be. Today, the so-called super trainers with their large strings, often at multiple tracks, run a make or break type of program. They have too many in training to have an individualized program, but they are winning at high percentages, so nobody is complaining. The difference shows in the longevity and the number of starts in a year and over a career.
It is no secret, the old school method produced horses who lasted longer and ran more frequently. They also did so with less medications. Today, the large majority of horses in the US race on Lasix. Years ago, a horse who needed Lasix was considered a second stringer and could not even race in New York, which is where you had to run if you wanted to be champion. Taking nothing away from today’s trainers and methods, it is not the same and in the long run it shows.
Old school trainers were patient. They had non-winners in one, two, three and even four allowance races to take their horses through, while slowly letting them develop and learn the game. Today they go from a maiden, to stakes, or the optional claimer, or even the outright claimer. Today’s trainer pays close attention to their stats, specifically their win percentage, so prep races are not used like they were. This is further increased by the Kentucky Derby point system, which forces trainers to have their horse at peak level before the Derby, in order to qualify on points. Additionally, horses have to be cranked up to get in the money, in a so-called prep race, to assure them a starting place in the gate on the first Saturday in May.
In today’s game you have a much larger concentration of good horses distributed to a much smaller percentage of trainers. This creates a playing field that is anything but level for the smaller barns. When you can send your horses out in sets, primarily made up of talented and fast horses, and can train behind them, in between them, to run with, and past them. It certainly gives you an edge over the guy asking around the backside for a work mate or a free-lance rider to get on one horse. True that always took place, but there used to be a lot of powerhouse farms and barns, and that has given way to a few and a lot of partnerships with common owners pooling resources, as opposed to competing.
Today so much more depends on the Vet and Vet work a trainer has done. There are many more medications available today along with things like; shock wave therapy, laser, equine massage, and acupuncture. The barns that utilize these enhancements get better results on the whole than the barns that don’t or cannot afford to. We are not even taking into consideration those who push and even exceed the envelope. That is a subject for another day.
One of the things that has remained steadfast is teaching a horse to change leads. Many bettors do not realize how important this actually is. When a horse is racing or running, the legs on one side of their body lead, or extend farther than the others. Teaching a horse to change leads on cue is vital. Usually, because we run counter clockwise here in the US, horses are generally on the right lead on the straightaways and on the left lead on the turns. This is the natural motion anyway. A race horse will tire faster if they stay on the same lead too long. Changing on cue, or at the worst, changing is important. Think of it this way. You are at an airport carrying some heavy luggage, or at a store carrying a heavy package. Your normal inclination will be to lean on your stronger side and keep going until fatigue sets in. Then you switch arms, and your gait and there comes your second wind. You changed leads and if you watch horses do it in races, you will see that renewed energy. If you pay close enough attention, you may pick up on a next out play or play against.
August 1, 2018
Nobody Was Better
By: Jonathan Stettin
If you missed the 70’s and 80’s in horse racing, you truly missed some glory years when the Sport of Kings was so much more than what it has been reduced to today. If you missed those years, it is hard to put in perspective. However, imagine almost every Saturday having a “huge card” and major day feel to it. The track was crowded, even during the week, and there was almost always a buzz in the air.
Saratoga was the August place to be and the premier meet in the country. At 24 days, or 4 short weeks long, the racing was the most competitive in the world. It’s where everyone who was anyone in the game was, and where they wanted to win. Claiming races were few and far between and the optional claimer was not even on the racing secretaries’ radar yet. There was no need for them, as allowance races filled regularly. Horses ran through their conditions on their way to the stakes ranks. And the Spa cards often had stake quality horses running all week in non-winners of one, two, three, and even four allowance races. There was a good stake just about every day and there were no days, absolutely none, when the track was not packed.
Saratoga was the toughest meet in the country. When you factor that in, it makes Angel Cordero Jr’s streak of 11 straight riding titles at Saratoga, all that much more special. From 1976 through 1987, nobody was better at Saratoga than Angel. He was as dominant a rider as you could ever see, and everyone knew it.
Angel had no weakness on the back of a racehorse. He was aggressive, he was fearless, he was as good on the lead as he was off the pace. He would do things others didn’t, wouldn’t or couldn’t. He would open up 10 lengths and win by a nose. He would fall 10 lengths behind the last horse and win by a nose. He would speed pop the gate. He would outride any challenger and push the race riding limits to the max to get every single win he could. There was nobody you wanted your case money on more than Angel, and I know he considered that an honor.
When Angel rode, he not only rode his horse, but he rode the other riders’ horses as well. He knew all their strengths and weaknesses. He was ready to exploit any one of them. He knew who lugged in and who lugged out and he was sitting right where the hole would open. If it didn’t, he would open it. He would taunt riders during the race and get inside their heads. He was a fierce competitor, as one would have to be to take 11 straight titles at the Spa. He could switch hands faster than any rider and was equally adept with his right as with his left. He could get lower than anyone on a horse and carry one home when he had to. Angel once told me he loved to ride in the slop because other jockeys hated it. When the jockey’s room would fill up and it was raining and sloppy, the jockeys would complain, Angel loved it. It gave him an edge, not that he did not already have one.
After coming from Puerto Rico, Angel had a rough time in Saratoga in 1962, 63, and 64. He could barely afford a place to stay and had a hard time lasting the meet. That would change however, and those memories are part of what motivated him to dominate the Spa, as nobody before or after him has done.
Angel managed to win his first title in Saratoga in 1967. It would be 9 years later when he took the next one to begin his streak of 11. Angel told me it was hard work that propelled him there. He worked a lot of horses in the mornings, working harder than anyone else. Trainers recognized this and would ride him. Even trainers like Mack Miller, Sidney Waters, Elliott Burch and especially Allen Jerkens would ride Angel at Saratoga, even though they did not ride him as much downstate. They all pointed their horses, and they had good ones, for Saratoga, just as Angel pointed to it.
If you were fortunate to be at the track every day and watch this athletic dominance day in and day out, it was a treat. I have seen many riders in the groove, but nobody was better than Angel at the Spa.
July 26, 2018
A Better Way
By: Jonathan Stettin
Too often the Sport of Kings has questions with no answers. On better days we have more questions than we do answers. That’s usually not a good place to be. Today I’ll talk about an ongoing problem and source of frustration, but I will also suggest a solution albeit not an original one. Nobody here is looking for credit, just a viable solution.
I love International Racing. The more I learn about it and study it, the more fond of it I grow. I have always liked it, but don’t think I truly appreciated it until I accepted the evolution of racing here in the US for what it has become.
I love the large fields. I love the big spreads in the odds. I love that they run not only uphill but downhill as well. I love that they run the wrong way and that sometimes they just go straight. I love that you get the odds at which you wagered. I love that they primarily train in their own yards. I love that they run with no race day medications, including Lasix, and for the most part it doesn’t reduce the field size. I love that they breed and train for stamina and not all speed, speed, speed. I love the competitiveness, wagering opportunities, atmosphere and almost everything else.
What l love most is how they deal with inquiries, fouls, and disqualifications. Who among us has not been frustrated by a disqualification they felt was unjust? Who has not witnessed blatant inconsistencies with no acceptable or plausible explanation? Who has not wanted to scream at another, who thought the foul didn’t cost the other horse a “chance” at a better placing? I have written about so many poor decisions and rulings over the years it has grown tiresome. I’ve seen way too many people reduce their handle and stop playing certain racetracks, because of mostly inconsistent rulings, but just plain bad and wrong ones also.
World class rider Frankie Dettori will be missing some very important and significant mounts at Goodwood this weekend. He won’t be riding Stradivarius in the Goodwood Cup or Without Parole in the Quatar Sussex Stakes. He also won’t be riding Coronet in a Group 1 at Ascot. Dettori rode Angel’s Hideaway for John Gosden to a second place finish to Pretty Pollyanna in the Dutchess of Cambridge Stakes recently.
Here is how the ruling went down at a hearing;
The filly caused interference by moving to her right, pushing Main Edition on to La Pelosa.
BHA disciplinary panel chairman David Fish said: "The basis of our finding is he didn't take corrective action sufficiently quickly. We take the view he had sufficient time to take preventative action before he actually did.”
"We take the view considerable interference was caused to two horses, in particular the ones ridden by Mr. Doyle (Main Edition) and Mr. Buick (La Pelosa). We take into account the period over which this careless riding occurred.”
Clearly in the US this would have likely resulted in a disqualification from second place to at least fourth for Angel’s Hideaway. Bettors who needed her for second would be out of luck. They would be penalized for picking the right horse and betting it correctly, when they in fact did nothing wrong. Does anyone see a problem with that? Bettors put up their money, only to have people not putting up money make decisions regarding theirs. Expletive expletive! That doesn’t really work for me and I have seen way too many preposterous calls to trust the right call will be made.
In Europe and Japan, they have a different philosophy. They go hard at the rider with fines and suspensions. They don’t automatically allow a rider to ride in important stakes while on suspension. They will take away a purse, but rarely a winning ticket. The bettor is valued and protected, and this system results in far less inquiries and careless riding incidents. It reminds me of when NYRA stewards would look at gate fouls, herding and incidents hard, and disqualify a horse when warranted. There was less herding out of the gate. The horses and their tendencies have not changed.
It may not be perfect, as there will be times you are cost a placing by a horse that does not get disqualified. We all know that is frustrating, but I think in light of the wild nonsensical and inconsistent rulings we have seen in the last 10 years or so, it just may be the better way to go. I will take objectivity as opposed to subjectivity every time.
July 19th, 2018
"What! It Can't Be"
By: Jonathan Stettin
It is easy to talk about the big wins and scores and at one point or another most, if not all, of us do it. I remember them all, but we know this game takes us through the highest highs and lowest lows, regardless of what part of it you are in. One thing I learned long ago is that you have to take the good with the bad. I remember the tough beats and I talk about them as much as the wins. Two that will always stand out are Swain for the Pick 6 and Pick 4 in the Breeders’ Cup Classic. I hit both with Awesome Again, but Swain meant so much more and how he lost still stings. Another one is needing Dancing House for the whole Breeders’ Cup Pick 6 pool, which was just north of a cool mil, the year my other single Beholder won the Distaff. Dancing House was a 20-1, or thereabouts, single and she did go on to win stakes, albeit on the dirt later but that didn’t help.
Timing is so much in all aspects of life. I think the beat I will discuss today has as much to do with the timing of it, and how it occurred, as the monetary loss alone. The very large majority of my Saratoga memories are great, and the meet has been generous to me consistently over the years. This particular day, things did not fall my way although for a minute or two I believed they did, and thus I know how I would have felt had it played out that way.
It was Travers day 2008. I was having a rough time and a rough meet. The life of a professional player has more ups and downs than that of a conventional lifestyle, and this was definitely a down period in every way imaginable on and off the track.
Worry, who me? No way. I could right the ship with one big and bold correct move and that is precisely what I planned to do. I had done it many times before and I was going to do it again, and this was the day.
I loved Mambo in Seattle in the Travers. He was the horse that was going to save the day. I was sure he would win, but my question was how to bet him to maximize the score, which I needed to do. Betting to win wouldn’t do it. The field was big which helped the exacta probable payoffs, but I was torn for who I liked to finish second. The pick 4, had a big pool. If I ended with Mambo in Seattle as a single the pay outs should be good, as the first three legs were pretty wide open, in my opinion. I thought if I could stay alive to Mambo, and I get a little lucky in a leg or two leading up to the Travers, I could really get back on track. Funny how this game is, I never even considered the prospect of him losing. I just needed to stay alive as he was going to win the Travers.
I drove to Calder to bet and planned to watch from home, as I often did back then. I called my Dad and told him to watch and to root, but not to give me any results or to call me. I would be driving home during the races and wanted to watch without results. He said he won’t say anything if he called, but I told him that his voice would give it away. He knew what it meant to me.
My budget, which pretty much was all there was between me and poverty, allowed for an $10 pick 4 with Mambo in Seattle the only single in the last leg the Travers. Just to help the cause a bit, I also bet two exactas with Mambo in Seattle over both Colonel John and Harlem Rocker. There was no reason to reverse either one of them. I knew the winner, I just had to have the right second horse.
I made it home about two minutes to post for the Travers. I couldn’t watch it live as I had to watch the other three legs first. It was tough, but that was how I wanted it.
Porte Bonheur at something like $25 was just the start I needed, and I felt I was already in a good spot after the first leg.
Shakis at something like $10 or $12 kept me going but second place finisher War Monger who was my top choice would have been nicer. I was not complaining.
After a $15 winner kept me alive and the Pick 3 paid around $1800 for two dollars I thought I was in good shape.
I fast forwarded to the walking into the gate. I didn’t even pause for the will pays into the Pick 4. I had a $10 ticket alive to Mambo in Seattle and that was going to be sweet. I also had the two exactas which would ice the cake if I was right.
The race ran just about how I thought it would through the early stages. Mambo in Seattle was pretty far back but by the time they hit the backstretch they were bunching up in front of him which is what you want if the pace is slow, which it was.
On the turn Robbie Albarado let Mambo go and he made a big wide move into contention and my eyes were on him. He didn’t get a call yet from Tom Durkin but he looked like he would be right there to me.
In the stretch I could tell it would be close, and the horses it was between were the ones I needed. Mambo was coming wide with Harlem Rocker and Colonel John. Colonel John and Garrett Gomez had saved all the ground and were running big. But, Robbie avoided a lot of bumping by being so wide and had the momentum. He was going to get up, he was coming, he made it and I knew it. Tom Durkin called it too close to call, but I knew I won. Robbie Albarado knew it too and pumped his fist. I figured it had to be about 75 or 80K for the pick 4 and maybe another 10 or 12K for the exacta.
While watching the gallop out I called my Dad to celebrate. He answered very solemnly. I became concerned about him immediately and asked what was wrong.
He said, “Did you see the race?”
“Yes, we won,” I said.
“No, he didn’t he got beat,” he replied.
“What are you talking about I just watched it, he won, Albarado pumped his fist. Are you sure?”
“He expletive lost,” he said.
I fast forwarded to real time, "What! It can’t be!"
The highest highs and lowest lows.
July 11th, 2018
"The Belmont Derby"
By: Jonathan Stettin
This past Saturday we saw the most exciting edition of the Belmont Derby in the short history of the race.
Martin Panza, of the New York Racing Association, had a great idea implementing this race on the New York circuit. He recognized a void and filled it, and then some, building a new super day and card, anchored by the new race. The Dwyer, and Suburban were moved to Belmont Derby day, a filly counterpart was added, the Belmont Oaks, along with the Belmont Sprint Championship. There is something for everyone and in keeping with the now trend in racing, another huge event was created.
The Belmont Derby and Oaks were designed to attract International horses, and as such both are turf races for three-year-old horses over 1 ¼ mile. Prior to the Belmont Derby and Oaks, there were really no distance turf races of note for this category at this time of year.
What Martin did was actually do away with the Jamaica Handicap, a race that had seen a fair share of changes including age, distance and surface. It was a Grade 1 despite the staggered history and the Belmont Derby kept that status. It was first run under the current name in 2014. In the first four years there has been one winner from overseas, Deauville in 2016. There has also been plenty of other contenders from across the Atlantic, so I would say we can call it a success on that front.
In this year’s running we saw Catholic Boy give Analyze It a rematch from their odd race, just a little over a month ago in the Pennine Ridge. In that race, Catholic Boy decided he was a front runner, only to be passed in the stretch by favored and previously unbeaten Analyze It. Catholic Boy and rider Javier Castellano had to avoid Analyze It and Jose Ortiz who came in on them after making the lead, angle out and re-rally to out game them at the finish. It is rare for a horse on the lead to be passed and come back again. It shows heart, a will to win, and determination.
In the Belmont Derby the pair were joined by Hunting Horn, a highly regarded runner from the powerhouse Aidan O’Brien stable, and Hawkish, the Penn Mile winner who also had his share of supporters. My Boy Jack and four others rounded out the field.
The race unfolded differently, but with the same result. Analyze It went out for the lead but was overtaken by Catholic Boy, who again set the pace. Analyze It kept him in range and again overtook him to look like he was on his way to a revengeful victory. Catholic Boy would have none of it however, and this time without having to overcome trouble, re-rallied on the inside to out game Analyze It and beat him on the square again. It was a great race, one for the books, and proved beyond any doubt Catholic Boy is one gutsy racehorse.
While the race was great and noteworthy, a rivalry it was not. Catholic Boy has handled Analyze It twice now, both times coming again to snatch victory from defeat. To be a true rivalry, Analyze It would have to beat Catholic Boy one of these days. Now we just have two great races. Professional media people and social media calling this a great rivalry, as some have done, is at best premature and at worst plain silly. Are we that desperate to generate false hype in our game? I don’t know, but we shouldn’t be, as we have had two recent Triple Crown winners and a slew, no pun intended, of other great horses in the last 10 years. There is no need to over hype things and distort the facts and history of this great sport.
Frankly, there has been too much of that in our game. When we see things like Mind Your Biscuits, as nice a horse as he is, getting an NTRA vote for the top horse in the country, without a single win in North America, it reminds me of California Chrome getting a vote for top turf horse a few years ago in the Eclipse ballots. While so much of our game is subjective, a lot of it isn’t. Those votes display a lack of understanding of the game and discredit the voting process and any awards attached thereto. That’s just my opinion as a long-time student of the game. This is nothing new however, two of our most well-known horses, Secretariat and Ruffian, have so many falsehoods believed about them and some of the people around them. It makes one who knows the stories and what occurred and what didn’t occur, question the journalistic integrity of our sport. That is not a good place to be, but I guess if enough people believe the myths, it doesn’t matter. The worst part is, some historians and journalists are aware of these fables and just sit idly by and allow them to continue to exist. You know, just like tote companies don’t implement real time instant odds to correlate with when wagers are made, nobody cares.
That said, we saw one heck of a race and the best Belmont Derby to date on Saturday.
June 27th, 2018
"A Very Long List"
By: Jonathan Stettin
When AmWager asked me to write about either my favorite or the best filly or mare I have personally seen, I knew it would be difficult. The issue is, I have about 20 or more favorites or best fillies and mares I have been fortunate to see. I had to put my thinking cap on and as I love to do go back.
Let me start by saying I am firmly in the camp that comparing horses from different eras is entirely subjective. Identifying greatness is not.
When you talk about eras, you get into who did who beat and the quality of the competition. You also, as a horsemen or women, have to realize these animals are competitive and react to their competition. Much like an athlete who plays better when facing better athletes and plays down when the competition softens. This renders the different era discussion moot and 100% opinion.
When it comes to the best ever in the filly and mare department, Ruffian stands out. This is something I discussed when on a debate the greats panel at the first Equestricon convention. There have been many greats, but she has some distinctions that are shared by none. The book I wrote about her was called “All 1’s” for a reason. She led at every call of all 10 races she finished. She was never headed and won at distances from 5 furlongs to a mile and a half. Most remarkably, in my opinion, is that she equaled or broke the track or stakes record in all 10 of her wins. She never raced without breaking or at least equaling the track or stakes record. You just can’t find that in any other horses’ past performances, and it is not something one could label subjective. It is as objective and factual as it gets.
Ruffian had an advantage many horses don’t. Speed. She was fast and could carry that speed. You can’t beat what you can’t catch. She made her luck. Speed horses and even stalkers can do that. Closers, especially deep closers, do not have that advantage and are more pace dependent. When you have a horse, say like Zenyatta, who comes from way off the pace and strings together victories like she did, it is special considering she has to do it no matter what is happening up front.
Once I began thinking about my favorite race gals and the best ones I have seen, I started remembering my earliest days and memories at the track. Days when the grandstands and clubhouses were full, and the atmospheres were like a super bowl or world series every weekend. Quickly, I realized it would take a book to talk about the great ones I saw. One did come to mind however. She was one of my first favorites and she could run with the best of them. I learned all about a swishing tail in the stretch from her, as I had never seen that before and didn’t know what it could mean. You don’t hear much about her today, probably because she like many great race mares didn’t turn out to be a great producer. But on the racetrack, you better be ready to race if she was in the gate.
Shuvee was by the great Nashua out of the Nasrullah mare Levee. She was the second filly in history to win the Triple Tiara, the filly version of the Triple Crown in New York which consisted of The Acorn, The Mother Goose, and The Coaching Club American Oaks. I became a fan early on after seeing her win The Frizette. She had a habit of swishing her tail in the stretch, that caught my attention and I asked about it. Some horses, especially fillies or mares did it when they were tiring, some did it playfully, and some just had a nuance. After sweeping the filly Triple Crown I watched her win The Alabama and even then, as a young boy knew she was something special. I didn’t know the best was yet to come.
A few short years later I was surprised to see her entered against the boys, in what was then one of the most prestigious and grueling races in the country, The Jockey Club Gold Cup, then run at two miles. An ambitious spot for any filly, but Shuvee came through swishing tail and all. That iced her champion older mare and she came back the next year to try The Jockey Club Gold Cup again. She made it back to back wins in the tough race and scored her second champion older mare title. She was inducted into the Racing hall of Fame in 1975 I believe, just 4 years after her second Gold Cup win.
I will never forget rooting for that filly I bet to beat the colts with the swishing tale. I can still hear Fred Caposella calling her name. Ah Shuvee, one of the greats.