Breeders' Cup Marathon -- 2008-2013 -- R.I.P. · 113 days ago

Even though I was out of town at the time of the original announcement, it still pains me that it took me almost two months to find out that the Breeders’ Cup has cancelled the Marathon. “While we truly appreciate the participation of owners and trainers in the Marathon”, said some Breeders’ Cup PR flack, “the conditions of the race have not developed into a competition that we believe reaches the standard set by the remaining races comprising the Championships. Accordingly, the Marathon will not be a part of the 2014 event.”

It pains me almost as much that it took me more than another two weeks that I’ve been able to set some of my thoughts in order and to comment at-length.

What an utter, damned joke. The Breeders’ Cup seemingly went out of its way to discourage owners from entering horses in the Marathon. The purse was the smallest of any of the “World Championship” (hah!) races. Its place in the schedule was changed several times — for example, its inaugural running in 2008 was originally scheduled for immediately after the Classic, but the Breeders’ Cup brain trust (hah!) soon switched it to the first race that Saturday. The Marathon was later moved to Friday to serve as part of the under-card for “Ladies Day”. Even the distance of the race was never set in stone. The inaugural running was only 1 1/2 miles — the minimum distance for a stayers’ race, and the reason why I initially referred to the race as the “Marathon” (quotes and all). The following year it was extended to 1 3/4 miles — still short by the standards of the rest of the racing world (*cough* 2-mile Melbourne Cup *cough* 2 1/2 mile Ascot Gold Cup *cough*). The various distance preps and “Win and You’re In” races were never promoted to the extent of similar races in the other Breeders’ Cup divisions.

In other words, the only reason the Marathon never met “the standard set by the remaining races comprising the Championships” is that the Breeders’ Cup never allowed it to do so. Now, the question is, was this due to sheer incompetence, or a deliberate campaign of mis-management? I’ll refer you to my original tin-foil-hat idea from 2008:

[O]ne could be forgiven for suspecting that the Dirt “Marathon” experiment is designed to fail. The Breeders’ Cup announced this race with some fanfare, touting it as a sign of their commitment to improving the breed by putting stamina-heavy horses and bloodlines in the spotlight. But did they perhaps anticipate that the low purse and irrelevant time-slot would actually discourage participation, so that they could abandon it within a couple of years and say “see, nobody cares, it’s all about speed”? Almost immediately I dismissed it as a tin-foil-hat idea. Maybe it’s not.

… [I]f the Breeders’ Cup organization wanted this race to be seen, by sports media and racing fans alike, as an afterthought — as a second-rate event for horses not good enough to compete elswhere in the programme — they could not have been more effective.

Fortunately, I’m not the only racing observer who feels this way. Read the comments in the BloodHorse article linked in the first paragraph. Better still, read Steve Haskin’s take on the subject (and, again, don’t neglect the comments).

In conclusion, I leave you with this thought: Isn’t it significant that nobody involved in racing has ever actively defended the North American Thoroughbred’s drift towards speed and precocity at the expense of stamina and durability? Horsemen argue that it’s due to the weakness of the modern breed, or modern training methods, or the all-mighty “marketplace” (speed sells!), or whatever — but nobody claims that it’s a good thing, but just “the way it is”. There’s a reason for that: they are at least honest enough to admit implicitly that there is no defending the indefensible.

What do you think? [2]

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Book Review: "Northern Dancer - The legendary horse that inspired a nation" · 155 days ago

Kevin Chong documented his introduction to horse racing in My Year of the Racehorse. In his 2012 memoir he recounted his (mis)adventures as a fan, aspiring horseplayer, and part-owner of a sometimes-reluctant racehorse nicknamed “Blackie”. In telling the story Chong was part racing newbie, part hipster, part raconteur — the reader was never sure what parts of his story were genuine and what parts were exaggerated or warped for narrative effect. That self-conscious persona has been replaced by a more authoritative voice in Chong’s latest foray into the world of racing in Northern Dancer — The legendary horse that inspired a nation.

There have already been at least two books and numerous articles written about Northern Dancer — arguably the greatest racehorse ever bred in Canada, and inarguably the dominant Thoroughbred sire of the past half-century. Chong’s approach to his subject is unique in that the focus is primarily on Northern Dancer’s racing career – the horse’s stud career is relegated to the book’s final chapter. This perspective is indeed fitting when you realize that the sport is called horse racing, not horse breeding. Northern Dancer’s phenomenal sire record would have been impossible to achieve if he had not first enjoyed success on the racetrack. It was his speed and class, demonstrated in victories in the 1964 Kentucky Derby, Preakness Stakes, and Queen’s Plate, among other top races, that convinced breeders to send their mares the the little Canadian champion in hopes of breeding more champions.

As brilliant as “The Dancer’s” racing career was, it was also short. Chong emphasizes that it lasted less than a year — from his first race on August 2, 1963, to his last, the Queen’s Plate, on June 20, 1964. In less than eleven months Northern Dancer raced 18 times, winning 14 races and otherwise never finishing worse than third. That excellent record is even more impressive when you consider that, a half-century later, most top-tier horses don’t race that often in careers that span two or three years.

Perhaps more significantly, Chong’s narrative also focusses on what Northern Dancer’s success — in particular his attempt to win the Triple Crown — meant to Canadians. Not since Peter Gzowski’s classic An Unbroken Line has a book even attempted to place the Dancer in the larger social and political context of Canada as it was in the early 1960s. Unlike today, our athletes — human as well as equine — weren’t expected to be competitive on the world stage. Even in hockey, our “national game” , Canada had been pushed to the sidelines. As professionals, our best players were banned from the Olympics and world championships, while the NHL was still a parochial six-team circuit. Our economy was overwhelmed by that of the United States. Of those few companies not yet controlled by American investors, it seemed like all of them were owned by one man, E.P. Taylor — coincidently, the owner of Northern Dancer.

Canada didn’t even have it’s own flag in 1964. While Northern Dancer was running in the Derby and Preakness that May, the Liberal government of Lester Pearson was campaigning to have its maple leaf design proposal accepted by Parliament, against opposition from of John Diefenbaker’s Conservatives who wanted to keep the Red Ensign and the British Union Jack.

When Northern Dancer won the Kentucky Derby, America’s greatest horse race, in record time, Canadians finally had a sports hero to cheer for. His win two weeks later in the Preakness booted his popularity even more. On the eve of the Belmont Stakes in June, one political cartoonist published his own flag idea: a portrait of Northern Dancer surrounded by three maple leaves representing the three races of the Triple Crown. Not even his loss in the Belmont dampened fans’ enthusiasm. He was given a hero’s welcome when he arrived in Toronto for the Queen’s Plate; billboards with his picture proclaimed Canadians’ support; and he was deluged with fan mail.

Northern Dancer’s human connections are also not ignored. E.P. Taylor seemed to have his fingers in every part of Canada’s economy. His ubiquity and wealth naturally bred resentment among many less-prosperous Canadians. People’s attitudes softened, however, in the wake of his horse’s success, and by the time of the Queen’s Plate Taylor was enjoying something that approached popularity. Trainer Horatio Luro was as famous for his high living and his skills on the dance floor as for his way with horses. Not for nothing was the Argentinean playboy known as El Gran Señor.

Of the men who rode The Dancer, American Bill Hartack and Ron Turcotte from New Brunswick are given the most attention. Hartack was intensely competitive, driven by an inner rage that by 1964 was beginning to adversely affect his career — but not before he guided Northern Dancer to his greatest victories. The year before, Northern Dancer had been ridden by Turcotte, the top apprentice jockey in Canada. Years later the French-Canadian jockey would find fame riding Secretariat to the 1973 Triple Crown. As quoted by Chong, however, Turcotte remembered Northern Dancer fondly, and ranked him as the second-best horse he ever rode, behind Secretariat. This is high praise indeed, considering that he had ridden other great horses such as Riva Ridge, Dahlia, and Damascus.

In his research, Chong utilized news clippings from 1963 and 1964, and interviews with surviving participants from that period. The narrative is well-footnoted, and he is thorough in acknowledging his sources. The only flaws in the book are a few typographical errors, which could have been caught by more assiduous editing by the publisher, and only one of which is significant: Northern Dancer is noted as winning the Blue Grass Stakes by “half a furlong”. Surely Chong meant to write the winning margin as half a length — hopefully this error will be corrected in future printings.

Overall, Kevin Chong’s Northern Dancer — The legendary horse that inspired a nation is a successful follow-up to My Year of the Racehorse, and a useful and entertaining addition to the canon of Canadian sports writing. Any fan of horse racing, Canadian or otherwise, would do well to add this to their bookshelf.

What do you think? [3]

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Back? · 319 days ago

Hello? Is this thing on?… _ … Testing, testing… _[MYEEEEEP, MWOOOOP, FNEEEERRR…] GAH! Turn it down, down, down!

Just checked in… to see what condition… my condition was in… _[SKWOOORRR-EEECCKKHH…] … Sorry about that….

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Is Left Coast Racing back? Don’t know, but I am feeling the itch to write again – about racing, of course, and perhaps occasionally… other stuff.

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Damn, I wish I could write like Steve Haskin. Even if his most recent piece in BloodHorse is a bit “Get off my lawn!” — and I’m not as enamoured of Dr. Fager as he is — it’s a great look back at the glory days of horse racing. The guy can write rings around most anybody else in the biz.

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If I can actually follow through and get back to writing on a regular basis, I’ll also revive the Stayer’s Watch series. There are those who deride the “marathon” races, calling them pointless, boring, and/or elitist. To those I say, in the immortal words of Jean Shepherd, “Excelsior! You fathead…”.

What do you think? [6]

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The disappearance of "classic" horses for Classic races · 705 days ago

Two racing-related articles caught my eye last week, and the issues they raise deserve attention and response. They caught my interest because they address, if only tangentially, one of my own great concerns: the de-emphasizing of stamina in North American Thoroughbred breeding and racing.

I’ve cited ESPN’s Bill Finley in the past. He always struck me as one of the better turf writers around – a very clever fellow. Everybody sometimes has a bad day, however, and in my opinion Finley had one just prior to the Breeders’ Cup.

In his October 31 article "Marathon, Juvenile Sprint must go", he declared that the poor quality of horses entered in the Breeders’ Cup Marathon and Juvenile Sprint cheapened the entire two-day event. “They might as well rename the Breeders’ Cup Marathon the Breeders’ Cup For Horses Not Good Enough To Run in a Real Breeders’ Cup Race”, he wrote. “These horses aren’t in here because they are great marathoners but because they are second- and third-string horses that are in over their heads when they go up against true Grade 1 competition”. For that reason, in Finley’s opinion, the BC Marathon needs to be scrapped

I won’t try to argue that the horses entered in the Marathon were paragons of Thoroughbred ability. None of them are in the top echelon of our Unofficial Champion Stayers standings — the leading dirt-track stayer so far this year, Redeemed, wasn’t even entered. The winner, Calidoscopio, was a 9-year-old South American horse who hardly anybody had even heard of.

Well, what would anybody expect of a race that gets so little respect from the Breeders’ Cup organization? The Marathon was only accorded graded status in 2010; the purse is a relatively measly $500,000, compared to the $1-$5 million purses for almost all the other Breeders’ Cup races; and it has been bumped all around the BC schedule since it was first run in 2008.

To attract better horses for the Marathon, stop treating it like an unwanted step-child. Boost the purse to $1 million — the minimum purse level for any “real” Breeders’ Cup race. Place it in the race schedule where it is likely to have an impact on public perception — don’t leave it where it was this year, immediately after the Juvenile Sprint that Finley rightly called “the worst Breeders’ Cup race ever run — by a mile”. If owners and breeders see that the Breeders’ Cup organization takes the Marathon seriously, then they will take it seriously, too.

Meanwhile, a good pal and fellow racing fan pointed out this Brisnet article. The writer, Dick Powell, focusses on the Lasix issue in North American racing. Powell argues that Lasix has little to do with the decline in durability and stamina of North American racehorses — a claim that in my opinion is debatable, but that’s another argument for another day. However, he brings to his readers’ attention that 2009 Belmont Stakes winner Summer Bird was recently sold to Japanese interests.

Why was Summer Bird — a proven winner at America’s “classic” distance of 1 1/4 miles, as well as the 1 1/2-mile Belmont — sold? Because his foals weren’t attracting the bids at auctions that foals from more precocious and supposedly speedier stallions were getting. Japanese breeders, however, still recognize the importance of breeding for stamina as well as speed, so they snapped him up when they had the chance. In Powell’s words, “further proof that stallions that excel at longer distance are not embraced by the same industry that [now] laments the lack of stamina and soundness in the American Thoroughbred…”.

As I just noted, the North American standard for Thoroughbred talent — the “classic” distance — is 1 1/4 miles. To win at that distance a racehorse must have a balance of both speed and stamina. Is that balance reflected in the racing schedules of North American racetracks? No, it is not.

The vast majority of races scheduled across the continent are sprints, races less than a mile in distance. Very few races are now run at 1 1/2 miles or longer. The rest are in the middle-distance range of one mile to 1 1/4 miles. Even that proportion is steadily declining — most “big” races today are in fact 1-mile or 1 1/8 mile events. So it is not surprising that modern breeders and trainers tend to focus on speed. Why breed animals that are at their best at long distances when there are so few long-distance races? Why train horses to maximize their staying ability when there are so few opportunities to earn purse money at such distances?

This imbalance extends to the Breeders’ Cup itself. Of the 15 races run at Santa Anita earlier this month, eight were a mile or less, where the focus is almost exclusively on speed. Only two races, the Marathon and the Turf, could be considered long-distance contests, where horses’ stamina could be put to the test.

And only one Breeders’ Cup race showcased that special balance of speed and stamina needed to win at 1 1/4 miles: the Breeders’ Cup Classic itself.

You want more classic horses? Run more classic races, and stop ignoring the stamina side of the “classic” equation.

What do you think? [4]

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Stayers' Watch: Long Island Handicap · 706 days ago

Starformer held off Mystical Star in a stretch duel to win by a neck in the Long Island Handicap (gr. IIIT) at Aqueduct on 10 November. Aigue Marine rallied late to take third place by a nose. Final time on a soft turf course: 2:33.13.

Champion Stayers’ Award standings — update:

No changes in the standings.

Remaining distance races for 2012 include Calder’s W.L. McKnight and La Prevoyante Handicaps, Woodbine’s Valedictory Stakes, and the Hollywood Turf Cup Handicap at Hollywood Park.

What do you think?

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