Aug 30, 2010

Weekend Recap: Travers and Rachel

Why Racing Matters - A Case Study

The Saratoga Experience: if only everywhere

Growing up in Saratoga, Getaway Day at the track was our official end of summer. That was back when the meet was still a tight four weeks crunched into the glorious month of August, and that final day (featuring the Hopeful Stakes for 2yo's) was the last chance to catch the action, even-out our bankrolls and bid adieu to the majestic Sport of Kings for another eleven months.

When one awoke the next morning (a Sunday), it was back to reality time. This meant school shopping for the youngsters, greet the neighbors as they reclaimed the rental house and moving day to college as we got to that point of our young lives. And yes, one could feel the early appearance of that cool Canadian air at night, usually timed right to the exact same point on the calendar annually.

With the current expanded six and a half-week meet, that end of summer designation now belongs to Travers Weekend. Although it is the fifth full week on the meet's schedule, it actually falls on the weekend that would have been the final one under the old setup.

Part of Saratoga's success is the fact that is is located in snow country, with upstate New York's grim burden of long, brutally cold winters part of the local psyche. The resulting (and natural) reaction to this individual and collective misery is to celebrate summer with a hell-bent ferocity that isn't seen in places like Florida, California or even Kentucky. In New York, the warm and sunny outdoors is grabbed onto by the locals much like a life preserver is grabbed by a man overboard.

The race track becomes Action Central for that party, and for all the right reasons: it's pretty, it's got gambling and liquor, it combines both a rural and a cosmopolitan feel, it's got a cast of characters a mile long, and it's all centered around this quirky little sport called thoroughbred horse racing. A perfect storm, to use that already tired phrase.

With a perfect weather setting and the added excitement of a historic super horse making a return appearance before her admiring throngs, this past Travers Weekend promised to add to the archives of what Saratoga is supposed to be all about. Here are a few observations on its two key attractions:

The Travers Stakes

This year's renewal of the nation's oldest stakes race had two things going against it; one being a long-term problem and the other a knock against this particular edition's field.

As to the former, we are faced with this fact: the Breeders Cup has negatively impacted the Travers -- and Saratoga for that matter. Given its late-autumn timing, the Cup puts horsemen in this bad spot: how do you crank up a colt to win the Travers and do it all over again to win the Breeders Cup Classic two months later? Trust me, that is a major challenge. Now consider how even-more difficult that task is if you're dealing with a colt that had previously been cranked up for the Triple Crown campaign of the spring.

Go take a look at the how well past Travers winners have performed in the Cup for proof. The answer is not so good. The bottom line is this: the Travers finds itself a victim to the new racing world's calendar, as created by the Breeders Cup folks. Note that it has also degraded the big Belmont fall contests, which are now nothing more than preps for the Big Dance. I've called for doing away with the Breeders Cup entirely in the past (and still do so); but I also know that will never happen.

As to the knock against point; let's just say that this year's field was one of the weakest of past decades. Yes, the Kentucky Derby winer was there, but Super Saver is obviously off form. The rest was a bunch of Triple Crown also rans and allowance winners capable of picking up their games to a higher level -- all from a very mediocre, at best, foal crop.

But none of that really mattered on Saturday, and that's what makes Saratoga so great. This is the Travers, goddamit, and that's what it's all about up here. A mob of 45,000+ showed up, ready to party and soak it all in - and what a treat they got.

The race teed up the way it did on paper: an active pace with several pace setters. This dynamic is normally taylor made for a closer from the back of the pack. But the counter trend on this day was that there was a heavy track bias favoring early inside speed. But, but, but! -- therein lies the intellectual challenge of handicapping.

So when Fly Down made his sweeping outside move to pass the field on the far turn, he was met by Afleet Express, who had taken a mid-pack route on a more generous path towards the rail. He found an opening and the race was on throughout the stretch, to the roar of the huge crowd. The trip difference did it for the victorious Afleet Express, who held on in a life and death struggle to win in the closest finish (a whisker) in the history of the race.

The best takeaway from the Travers is this: trainer Jimmy Jerkens (son of the legendary Allen Jerkens, who never won this race) was asked how this ranked when compared to his two Breeders Cup victories. The answer: the Travers is tops.

That's about all you really need to know.

Rachel Alexandra

Imagine this: your horse just ran second in a Grade I race at the most prestigious meet in the nation. In doing so, she put away on the backstretch a graded winner on a six race win streak that was determined to roll with your mare every step of the way. Despite that early toll, she was still only beat by a length, by a regally bred mare from the powerful Phipps stable. Not bad; wouldn't we all like to be in this lofty position?

But instead; everyone is saying that your horse is all washed up, after just that performance in the Personal Ensign Stakes on Sunday.

This just shows how high a reputation reigning Horse of the year Rachel Alexandra has in the eyes of the racing world. Being 8 for 8 in 2009, with historic wins in the Ky Oaks and against the boys in the Preakness, Haskell and Woodward will bring that kind of acclaim--and expectations. Ms Rachel is not the same horse this year --on that, everyone concurs.

Here's the thing with many race horses: they lose interest in the sport as they get older. Maybe it's the "motherhood thing" kicking in. Or maybe they just figure out that they get treated the same way back at the barn whether they finished first or ninth. Or maybe they just get worn out.

This seems to be especially true of female horses. Many of us recall the great Lady's Secret when she got to that point, and in her final race (at the Spa), she was so dis-interested in the contest that she detoured to the outside rail, looking for a minute like she might even jump over it. That was enough to retire her to the breeding shed.

So, is that where were are with Rachel Aleandra, post-Personal Ensign on this 30th of August? The guess here would be a 'YES'; but keep in mind that owner Jackson is still not "square" on this hero yet. Remember, he was not the original owner of the horse, having bought her after the Oaks for estimates that range from $8 to $13million. So, that $2 million she could get by winning the Breeders Cup Ladies would help get to black.

But, her reputation would be soiled for having avoided Zenyatta in the Classic -- which Mr Jackson won't stand for. So, I'll stand with my prediction. Watch for the press announcement of her retirement in the coming days or weeks.

Get ready, Curlin, your dance partner will soon be arriving.


Leesons learned and what's ahead for RACING, NYRA and SARATOGA?

Coming Soon...stay tuned; right here.


Silver Fox said...

I think they will ship RA to CD, let her hang out and relax for a week to 10 days. Then they will do the old "let the horse tell us" thing.

If she shows signs of springing to life in the new surroundings, she's on for the Classic (but not the Ladies). If not, retired.

BTW great writing.

Anonymous said...

It was a great Travers this year.

Ronnie the Railbird said...

Whatever happened to jockette Diane Nelson? She made my heart a twitter.

Anonymous said...

Maybe you scared her away dumbass

Funny White Guy said...

She's downstairs, locked in my basement. Want me to put her on the phone?

Homer J said...

Now that's a tough beat.

I know, I had the horse that got nipped!

Imagine being the owner?

As for Miss Saratoga. I think she'll bounce back, get a good race in at Belmont that gives the connections enough confidence to enter the BC Ladies Distaff at 9f.

Maybe Miss Z will get scared off by Quality Road and Blame and opt to skip the Classic for the Ladies Distaff as well. So, the big match could still happen yet.