Archive for March, 2009

Alysheba, the loss of a legend

There is precious little I can recall from the year 1987, but after 22 years one memory refuses to dull.

I was 10 years old watching the Kentucky Derby for the first time alongside my father. I believe my dad was high on Cryptoclearance but I remember everyone on TV was talking about Demons Begone. The race went off and a gorgeous bay stumbled slightly at the start but quickly picked himself up and began advancing steadily through the 17-horse field.

I remember he had blue and white silks – like Secretariat, I thought – and when they hit the stretch, something happened that literally changed my life. That striking bay colt that had come charging up clipped heels with Bet Twice – in midstretch of all places when momentum is paramount – and for a split second, it looked like tragedy could strike the first Saturday of May. But not only did he NOT go down, but that athletic bay horse picked himself up, regained his stride in a handful of jumps, and managed to go by his rival to prevail by three-quarters of a length.

His name was Alysheba. And in that instant, he turned a 10-year-old girl who liked watching the pretty horses run into a raving, chart-reading, would-rather-study-Triple Crown-winners-than-her-stupid-math-homework racing fan.

Two weeks later, I was again glued to the set to watch my new favorite horse win the Preakness Stakes and three weeks after that, I sat with my dad in his brown station wagon as we weaved through the worst traffic I have ever witnessed on the Cross Island Expressway trying to make our way to Belmont Park to watch the 12th Triple Crown winner materialize (we thought).

Some people say racing is a dying sport but on that day, I remember our car overheating a mile from the track after sitting for what seemed like hours in bumper-to-bumper congestion trying to get to Exit 36-D. We parked on the grass and hoofed it the rest of way, walking alongside a guy who left a wedding early because “he didn’t want to miss this”. Once we reached the track, I distinctly remember a guy selling t-shirts BEFORE the racing that said “Congratulations Alysheba, 12th Triple Crown winner” (yes, he was giving them away on the way out).

Yeah, yeah we all know what happened next. Bet Twice had his redemption as Alysheba ran fourth in the Belmont and my father had one despondent kid on his hands for the hour and a half ride home to Connecticut. But as much as my heart broke that day, it soared over the next year and a half as that pretty bay horse I loved came thisclose to beating Ferdinand in the Breeders’ Cup and then returned the following season with a take-on-all-comers campaign that made him the world’s richest, and arguably most popular, horse.

In the years that would follow, my obsession with horse racing would grow and – unlike my math classes – would actually lead me to my current career. Thus, when I learned my childhood sweetheart had been sold to Saudi Arabia, I resigned myself to the fact I would never get to see what my first love looked like up close, much less tell him how much he inspired me.

On the Santa Anita backstretch last October, the week of the Breeders’ Cup, I learned that was about to change. Alysheba was coming home to Kentucky to reside at the Horse Park, and I along with  everyone who loved him would finally get some hands on time with one of the most charismatic track performers in decades.

I was there for the ceremony when he first arrived but the real fun came a couple weeks later when myself and a colleague went back out to the Horse Park without the crowds around us to get some one-on-one time with the former Horse of the Year. More than 20 years after I first fell in love with him, I got to feed the still regal and handsome Alysheba carrots, rub on his neck, and thank him for making me fall head over heels with him and his sport.

Alysheba was euthanized Friday night after falling in his stall and, like many, my first thoughts were of overwhelming sadness – for myself and for his Horse Park family. In the short time he was there, bonds were formed quickly. For a staff that is still getting over the loss of John Henry, having to let go of Alysheba so soon was beyond painful.

Because of the Horse Park, I and many others were given an opportunity to bond with one of our heroes. And because of them, I and others were able to have one more indelible memory of an indelible horse.

No Derby – UAE or otherwise – for Vineyard Haven

When Sheikh Mohammed plunked down a reported $12 million to privately purchase Grade I winner Vineyard Haven last fall, it appeared the ruler of Dubai had just acquired his best ever prospect in his long-running quest to finally have his Godolphin blue silks enter the Kentucky Derby winner’s circle.

Today, it was confirmed Vineyard Haven is no longer even in consideration for the first Saturday of May as he was not entered for Saturday’s $2 million UAE Derby, which will be on the undercard of the $6 million Dubai World Cup at Nad al Sheba.

Simon Crisford, racing manager for Godolphin, said Vineyard Haven has not acclimated well since arriving in Dubai – a fact that was evident when the son of Lido Palace finished a dull fourth in the UAE 2000 Guineas in February.

“Vineyard Haven did not do well when he got to Dubai,” Crisford told the media on Wednesday in Dubai. “We made a mistake in running him at the Dubai International Racing Carnival and now we are just giving him the time to do better in him. When he gets back to American, he will step up a gear. The other horses in our American contingent will depart later in April and be trained as usual at Belmont Park.”

Vineyard Haven’s misfortune was especially disappointing for Godolphin as the operation lost another expected top Derby contender when champion Midshipman suffered a soft tissue injury earlier this year. However, Midshipman is back in light training, according to Crisford.

“He looks fantastic and we look forward to seeing him back on the track,” Crisford said of the son of Unbridled’s Song.

Godolphin does still have a Kentucky Derby hopeful in Desert Party, winner of the UAE 2000 Guineas and a Grade II winner in the states last year. The son of Street Cry headlines a field of 13 for the UAE Derby and will break from post five.

“We will wait and see how Desert Party runs on Saturday but obviously we hope he will be good enough for the Kentucky Derby,” Crisford said.

John Gosden: Derby Challenge Stakes a move in the right direction

To those of us in the media, getting access to longtime British trainer John Gosden is like Ralphie getting his Red Ryder BB gun in the movie “A Christmas Story” because we know whatever comes out of Gosden’s mouth is going to write our story for us.

Such was the case today on a NTRA national teleconference as Gosden was invited to participate to discuss tomorrow’s Kentucky Derby Challenge Stakes taking place at Kempton Park near London, England. To refresh, the Kentucky Derby Challenge Stakes was created to lure more international horses to the first Saturday of May with the winner of the 1 1/8-mile race over Polytrack gaining an automatic spot in the Derby field (should that horse’s connection chose to go forward, of course). It’s creation has caused some controversy as some argue the Kentucky Derby shouldn’t have to resort to a so-called gimmick and others saying the process could cause an otherwise worthy U.S. based horse who would have earned that 20th slot to be left out.

Not surprisingly, Gosden – who saddled Raven’s Pass to victory in the Breeders’ Cup Classic this past October – has a definitive opinion on the subject. Gosden will sent out two horses in the Challenge Stakes in Close Alliance, a Juddmonte homebred by Gone West, and 3-to-1 morning-line favorite Mafaaz.

“We need to have an international attitude, we can’t be parochial,” said Gosden, who also won the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Turf last October with Donativum. “We have to have a greater appeal and this race is a bold initiative that is getting a lot of support here.

“I’m perfectly aware that with horse No. 21 that is left out, there will be a sense of frustration and I can see where that comes from but this adds another dimension to the race. I’m all for international racing and for racing to have greater appeal. I think one our great mistakes it to assume people will always be interested in racing and we can see by attendance numbers that’s not the case. Any concept that opens it up and makes it more appealing is the right thing.”

Gosden also pointed out that with the “massive investment” many overseas buyers have made in the offspring of U.S.- based stallions, there are several European contenders that do have a pedigree suitable for dirt racing and the American classics, such as Close Alliance. Additionally, the fact that European style racing focuses more on stamina rather than speed could actually play into their favor should they make it into the Kentucky Derby field.

“Our horses are probably trained more for a high cruising speed and a powerful finish,” Gosden said. “I think what was notable in the (Breeders’ Cup) Classic was that our top two milers in Henrythenavigator and Raven’s Pass were able to show a great deal of acceleration in the last quarter and they showed that over a mile and a quarter when neither had gone beyond a mile in their lives. I think the mile and a quarter to us would be an advantage.”

If one of Gosden’s charges were to take the Derby Challenge Stakes tomorrow evening, he said he would likely consider coming to Keeneland to prep in the Grade I Blue Grass Stakes on April 11.

“If you run well there, you are only a van ride from Churchill,” he said.

Here is the complete field for tomorrow’s Derby Challenge Stakes in program number order (with jockey, trainer, post position and morning line odds): 1. Agente Parmigiano-IRE (Shane Kelly, Gerard Butler, post 14, 25-1); 2. Akhenaten-GB (Tony Culhane, Mick Channon, post 11, 14-1); 3. Close Alliance (Jimmy Fortune, John Gosden, post 5, 8-1); 4. Deposer-IRE (Steve Drowne, John Best, post 3, 7-1); 5. Haashed (Jamie Spencer, Mark Johnston, post 12, 7-2); 6. Keeptheboatafloat (Darren Williams, Karl Burke, post 1, 50-1); 7. Mafaaz-GB (Richard Hills, John Gosden, post 7, 3-1 favorite); 8. Markyg (Fergus Sweeney, Karl Burke, post 2, 12-1); 9. Mastery-GB (Joe Fanning, Mark Johnston, post 13, 12-1); 10. Shampagne-GB (Martin Dwyer, Paul Cole, post 6, 10-1); 11. Sohcahtoa-IRE (Ryan Moore, Richard Hannon, post 10, 14-1); 12. Spring of Fame (Chris Catlin, Michael Magnusson, post 8, 16-1); 13. Talking Hands (George Baker, Sylvester Kirk, post 9, 20-1); and 14. Weald Park (Richard Hughes, Richard Hannon, post 4, 14-1).

La Ville Rouge, Rags to Riches have foals

It’s that time of year when farms are bursting with adorable, fuzzy, gangly foals and within the last 48 hours, a couple of babies sure to have strong followings have hit the ground.

According to Bloodhorse.com, champion Rags to Riches – the first filly in 102 years to win the Belmont Stakes – had her first foal, a Giant’s Causeway filly on the evening of March 9th at Ashford Stud. Last week, my former co-worker Maryjean Wall and I were fortunate enough to pay a visit to Ashford Stud (which is one of the more visually stunning farms around) and were lucky enough to actually get to see Rags to Riches in the foaling barn. The daughter of A.P. Indy still has attitude to burn but she has made friends with former graded stakes winner La Traviata as the two are paddock mates. To read the entire Bloodhorse story on Rags to Riches’ foal, visit: http://www.bloodhorse.com/horse-racing/articles/49582/champion-rags-to-riches-first-foal.

Few horses have a bigger following still than the late, great Barbaro and last night at 10:45 p.m., his dam La Ville Rouge foaled another full brother to the Kentucky Derby winner at Mill Ridge Farm. The bay colt, by Dynaformer, is 142 pounds and is “the second biggest foal we’ve had this year” according to Headley Bell, managing partner of Mill Ridge.

La Ville Rouge also has produced Nicanor, a 3-year-old, and Lentenor, now 2-years-old, both of whom are full brothers to Barbaro.

“He probably looks a bit more like Dynaformer in that he’s got quite a bit of leg on him,” Bell said of the new colt Wednesday morning. “Dynaformer generally breeds a big, plain horse so it’s been a lovely blend between the two. We’re just very honored to have (La Ville Rouge) here.”

Bell said La Ville Rouge is again slated to be bred back to Dynaformer this year.

“(Owners) Roy and Gretchen Jackson really want a filly, a full sister,” Bell said.

Macho Again, Brass Hat out to make headlines again

Looking at the lineup of Kentucky Derby prep races this weekend can just about make ones head spin – in a good way – with all the quality that is set to go to post. But while Old Fashioned (Rebel Stakes), Friesan Fire (Louisiana Derby) and Pioneerof the Nile (San Felipe) will have the undivided attention of racing fans this weekend, a couple notable old friends will also attempt to prove they’re not done with their time in the spotlight.

A year ago, West Point Thoroughbreds’ Macho Again was one of those bright-eyed three-year-olds trying to make his way into the Derby. While he didn’t get to the first Saturday of May, the son of Macho Uno did run second to champion Big Brown in the Preakness Stakes and went on to score his biggest triumph in the Grade II Jim Dandy Stakes last July.

Since that breakout win, things haven’t gone so smooth for Macho Again as he has lost four straight, including a seventh-place finish in the Sunshine Millions Classic at Gulfstream on January 24. The refined gray colt is taking another stab at getting back on the winning side of things in the Grade II New Orleans Handicap at Fair Grounds on the undercard of the Louisiana Derby this Saturday.

“He’s been a bit of puzzle,” Terry Finley of West Point Thoroughbreds said of his talented but erratic colt on Tuesday. “He’s kind of all or nothing. He either runs really good or doesn’t seem to show up. He’s a very neat horse, he’s very, very talented. He’s trained extremely well since (the Sunshine Millions) and we’re excited about his chances in New Orleans.”

After his win in the Jim Dandy, Finley said he did get a few calls inquiring about Macho Again as a stallion prospect. But with the overall slow down that has hit the breeding market and a wide-open handicap division thanks to the retirement of Curlin, Finley hopes Macho Again can pile up a few more graded stakes wins before going on to the breeding shed.

“Several people did come to take a look at him after the Jim Dandy but we wanted to run. We’re a racing syndicate and that was a big part of it for us,” Finley said. “Plus, he needed to be a Grade I winner to really get a lot of attention and hopefully we can get a Grade I win for him this year.”

Another accomplished horse trying to regain his form on Saturday will be venerable fan favorite Brass Hat. The millionaire bay gelding, who has come back numerous times from injuries, is entered in the Grade II Mervin H. Muniz Jr. Memorial Handicap on the turf at Fair Grounds.

In his most start – his first outing in eight months – Brass Hat finished eighth in the one-mile Dust Commander Stakes at Turfway Park on February 14. The gelded son of Prized has made five career starts on the turf, but will be seeking his first win over that surface this Saturday.

Jones gets familiar feeling from Proud Spell

After a series of spot-on works in the morning, Brereton Jones’ homebred champion Proud Spell is finally ready to make her 4-year-old debut this Thursday in a 1 1/16-mile allowance/optional claiming race at Oaklawn Park in preparation for an expected start in the Grade I Apple Blossom Handicap on April 4.

When Proud Spell ran second in the Grade II Cotillion Stakes last September, trainer Larry Jones figured his diminutive stable star had made her final career start before heading off to the breeding shed. But during a national teleconference today, Jones stated early retirement just didn’t suit the multiple Grade I winning filly.

“I really thought she was retired for good but she was telling Mr. Jones she wanted to go back into training,” Larry Jones said. “Since she’s been back I’m seeing the same thing about her. I think she’s glad to be back in the barn. Believe me she is training now better than she’s ever trained.”

In addition to the Apple Blossom, Jones said the other main race they have circled this year for Proud Spell is the $1 million Delaware Handicap at Delaware Park on July 19.

“Those are the two primary goals we have and if all goes well, maybe we’ll see about taking on (champion older female) Zenyatta somewhere down the line,” Larry Jones said.

Final Storm Cat foal born

There was a little piece of history made at Louise and Kiki Courtelis’ Town & Country Farms in Paris, Kentucky on Thursday as the third and final foal from the last crop of leading sire Storm Cat was born.

The newborn filly is the first foal out of Grade III Debutante Stakes winner Richwoman. The multiple stakes winning mare was purchased privately after she failed to meet her reserve at the 2008 Keeneland November Breeding Stock Sale.

“Kiki and I are thrilled to be a part of history,” said Louise Courtelis in a statement. “Obviously, it is sad to say that she is the last foal of such a remarkable sire, but it gives us a special feeling to know that this beautiful Storm Cat filly carries in her the bloodlines of one the most influential sires of our lifetime.”

Storm Cat, the world’s leading commercial sire in recent years, was pensioned from stud duty last May. The son of Storm Bird stood his entire career at Overbrook Farm, where he still resides, and once commanded a fee of $500,000. He has sired more than 160 stakes winners to date.

Champion Midshipman to miss Triple Crown

Godolphin Racing’s Midshipman, the champion 2-year-old male of 2008, will miss the Triple Crown series after he sustained a minor soft tissue injury to his left fore leg during routine exercise at Godolphin’s Al Quoz Stables in Dubai on Saturday.

He will now require a period of time out of training but the prognosis for a return to racing in the second half of the year is favorable.

“Unfortunately Midshipman has knocked himself and inevitably this injury will rule him out of the Triple Crown races,” Simon Crisford, racing manager for Godolphin, said in a statement. “It is a huge shame as he had been pleasing us enormously and was ready to make his reappearance next Thursday.

“He is scheduled to return to America in early April and hopefully he will be back on the track later in the season,” Crisford continued. “We can’t risk him right now as we need to give his injury time to settle. It is in his best interest to give him time to return to peak fitness later in the year.”

Midshipman was scheduled to make his seasonal bow on March 5 in the Al Bastakiya. The son of Unbridled’s Song captured the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile at Santa Anita in October to cement his championship campaign having also won the Grade I Del Mar Futurity in September.

Midshipman was bred by Stonerside Stable and was previously trained by Bob Baffert before being transferred to the Godolphin Stable.