Category Archives: favorite races

My Favorite Breeders’ Cup Race

Of all the great champions and incredible upsets the Breeders’ Cup has brought us over the past 27 years, my favorite race was just a few years ago, in 2006.

It isn’t a coincidence that it was my first time at the event, held at Churchill Downs on a bright, crisp Saturday that would turn downright fridgid by the time the Classic rolled around. But my favorite race was the first Breeders’ Cup race of the day.

I was perched atop a bench overlooking the paddock, a spot I had captured as soon as the gates opened at 8am. There were scads of people already crowding the inside of the paddock and encroaching upon my bench even that early in the day, but as long as I could still see over them, it didn’t matter to me. The field for the Juvenile filed into the saddling area to gentle applause from a group in front of me. Todd Pletcher’s Scat Daddy was one of the favorites, as was Circular Quay. There were lots of people around those 2 colts, and the TV crews congregated near them, their white-bridled faces splashed across the big screen that overlooked the paddock.

As I looked down the row of stalls, I noticed the first one was filled with only a dark brown horse, a groom and single other man wearing a long, tan trench coat. I thought the colt might be a schooler, but I did a double-take when I realized it was, in fact, the #1 horse and the trench-coated man was Carl Nafzger. It was Street Sense, the colt who had run 3rd to my pick, Great Hunter, at Keeneland.

Being a fan of Unbridled and Nafzger, I was a little surprised that no one was around the Derby-winning trainer that day. Surely his charge had a chance – he didn’t show up at these big events unless he had a real contender.

The jockeys came out and Calvin Borel walked over to Street Sense and Nafzger, and still no one else approached them. Their stall was an oasis among the roiling sea of people.

Borel and Street Sense would lead the parade of colts out to the track. Less than 10 minutes later, the pair lead the field under the wire by 6 lengths. It was the beginning of the Borel legend, the last-to-first, rail-skimming ride at Churchill Downs. Street Sense became a Derby horse that day, and the subject of a terrible jinx: no BC Juvenile winner had won the Kentucky Derby.

We all know what happened 6 months later – Street Sense, and eventually Hard Spun, Curlin and Rags to Riches, would provide us with the greatest Triple Crown season since Sunday Silence and Easy Goer.

And it all started that chilly day at Churchill, with the dark brown colt and his trench-coated trainer, standing all alone.

Advertisements

1 Comment

Filed under Breeders' Cup, Churchill Downs, favorite races

Top 5 Examples of West Coast Equine Domination in East Coast Races

Inspired by this blog post, I thought about the times when West Coast-based horses shipped to the East and totally kicked ass. What’s really weird is that when I tried to come up with instances of East Coast Elites crushing West Coast races, I came up empty. Anyone remember the last time a NY-based horse won the Big Cap? Yeah, me neither.

Anyway, here are my top five races where the East Coast Establishment experienced West Coast Domination!

5. I Want Revenge Annihilates 2009 Wood Memorial

Trainer Jeff Mullins shipped I Want Revenge east after the monster Pioneerof The Nile beat him in the Bob Lewis stakes. I Want Revenge then surprised easterners with a win in the Gotham Stakes. But I Want Revenge truly brought his A Game in the Wood Memorial, where he beat the best in the East & became a top Derby Contender. He broke dead last and had to fight his way back to the front on a messy Aqueduct stretch, but pulled away like he’d never had any trouble. While IWR was mysteriously injured the morning of the Derby and scratched, his rival Pioneerof The Nile was a well-beaten second to another Westerner, Mine That Bird.

4. Sandpit Takes 2 United Nations Handicaps

Sandpit was a champion in Brazil, then shipped to California, where he won the Oak Tree Invitational. When he shipped East he was just as good, winning back-to-back editions of the Ceasars International Handicap, which is now back to its original name, the United Nations. This was the only video of Sandpit I could find, from 1996.

3. In Excess Wins 4 In A Row

What is shameful is that I can’t find any of In Excess’s races on YouTube. In Excess was born in Ireland, won some races there, then was shipped to the US & was based in Cali. He was always hit-or-miss in California, winning the Volante Handicap, San Gabriel, San Fernando, but throwing in clunkers in the Big Cap and Strub. However, when he shipped east, he rattled off victories in the 1991 Met Mile, Suburban, Whitney and Woodward. Total. Domination.

2. John Henry In The Inaugural Arlington Million

It was the first Million-Dollar race, and John Henry was the best horse in the US, let alone the West Coast. In the 1981 Million, Euro horse The Bart stayed up on the pace set by Key To Content. John Henry was stuck in a pack of top classic turf horses from all over the US and abroad. He looked hopelessly beaten, but in the stretch, the Old Man showed just how good he was- he burst through and headed for the lead, closing the gap with every stride. He bore down on The Bart and won the race by a flare of a nostril.

1. TIZNOW CRUSHES TWO CLASSICS

Tiznow  shipped East four times and won three. He was victorious in the Super Derby, and then defeated a foreign invader in the Breeders’ Cup Classic. Twice. To this day he is the only horse to win the BC Classic two times, and though the BC races are not coast-specific, Tiznow won his at the home bases of Eastern racing, Churchill and Belmont. He dominated his American rivals in the 2000 Classic, finding his toughest challenger in Ireland’s Giant’s Causeway. The two battled down the Churchill stretch, and Tiznow prevailed by a head. In 2001, Tiznow had a tough year, suffering a back injury and then running 3rd in his two Classic preps. But when it counted the most, the colt was all heart. He stayed up near the pace the whole way around, and at the top of the stretch, he made a move for the lead. At the same time, Godolphin’s Sakhee took the lead. Tiznow was game, but he looked beaten. As they raced for home, he found a new gear and matched strides with Sakhee, who refused to relent. But Tiznow would not be denied –  in the shadow of the wire, it was the Cal-bred, West Coast phenom with his valiant head in front.

1 Comment

Filed under Breeders' Cup, favorite races, lists, mine that bird

Survival of the Glamourous: Del Mar Opening Day 2010

CLICK ME!!  CLICK HERE!!  CLICK HERE!!!

I admit, I was kind of scared yesterday morning when I woke up and it was cloudy, cold and even drizzly outside.  Let me tell you, California has not been living up to its “sunny” reputation this summer.  I was even more glad that I had remembered to pack my black blazer when I slipped into my fabulous opening day dress, a vintage-inspired shift in Del Mar blue – sleeveless is not the way to go when the breeze is wintry.  Drizzle speckled my windshield on the drive up to the track.  I hoped for a miracle but braced for the worst.

On-track, my assignment was to photograph and document as many people, horses and sights as possible for the Opening Day social media post-a-palooza.

I went out on the apron to get shots of the place empty, and saw the brave few firsters who set up lawn chairs by the rail.  As I shivered my way down to where the starting gate was parked, I saw a guy intently watching the horses gallop for their workouts.  I stopped and asked him if any were his, and he said no, but he had a horse in a race that day.  It so happened that Rick was a partner in Joyride Stable, the partnership who owns Domonation, a 3yo colt slated to test the turf in the feature, the Oceanside Stakes.  We chatted a few minutes, but I barely got a word in edgewise. Rick was intense about his horses and hopeful of Domonation’s chances. He also had lots of praise for trainer John Sadler.

Wandered up to the clubhouse and took pics of the linen-topped tables and flowers.  Once the gates opened the walkways up there were too crowded for me to get through!

The fancy hats began arriving as soon as the gates opened, and I made a beeline for the Plaza de Mexico, where the hat contest contestants milled around posing.  It was so much fun to get pics of ladies and their fun hats, and every one of them were happy to give me all the deets: how long it took them to create their hats, how many flowers/beads/Faberge eggs were used, where they were from, how many times they’d entered…

I took several breaks throught the day to post the shots on Del Mar’s social media sites, so if you follow them on Twitter, FB or Flickr, most of the pics from opening day are mine!

I glanced at the entries a few days before and a familiar name jumped out at me: VALIANT EFFORT.

This older claimer is a big favorite of my friend Debbie in Mississippi.  She saw him on TVG a couple years back when he did some serious acrobatics in a turf race here at Del Mar.  Ever since, she has managed to keep up with him and lets me know when he runs.  I made it my mission to be in the paddock when he was being saddled to get some pictures of him for her.  As I stood snapping away, I noticed a lady next to me who was taking just as many pics as me.  I asked her if she was VE’s owner, and sure enough, she was!  Kathy was tickled to hear that someone in Mississippi, of all places, was a fan of her horse!  I wished her luck and followed the field as they walked through the clubhouse tunnel to the track.  I stationed myself at the winner’s circle “just in case” and wtched with delight as Valiant Effort stalked the pace in 3rd and then gutted out a narrow victory!

I was giddy watching the horse come back and congratulated his trainer, Ron Ellis.  Kathy came running to the winner’s circle and the entire crew just looked so happy in their official photos! As she left the winner’s circle, Kathy saw me and said it must have been some Mississippi luck!

The most thrilling race of the day had to be the 7th, where Lava Girl and Go On Babe dead-heated in a dramatic blanket finish.  Lava Girl was my rooting interest since I had seen her in the morning workouts and also visited her in her barn.  She is Lava Man’s half-sister, too!

The Oceanside Stakes was won by a Sadler horse, but it was not Domonation – Twirling Candy established himself as a serious 3yo to watch in his turf debut.  They say an NFL player was there to present the trophy, but I wouldn’t have known him.  I didn’t get any pics of him, either, because right after the Oceanside, my camera died.  I took the hint and trudged back up to the office for one last photo posting.

Then after congratulating the other interns on a great Opening Day, I sat in the parking lot for an hour as traffic knotted the roads.  I finally made it home after 9, after an intense 13-hr day of horses and gi-normous hats!

More Hi-Lites:

Snuck into the Turf Club to get some shots of the Kettle One vodka ice sculpture…

Met 3 previous winners of the Hat Contest, and picked out at least half of this year’s finalists early in the day! My favorite? The surfing horse!

TROTT rep with huge “Queen Z” hat posing for pics, with a donation, of course 😉

Getting to eat lunch with the reporters in the press box…

Weird incident before the 5th race, when scads of ladies in hats & high heels went out to the starting gate while horses were on the track.  Umm, guys, the gate crew have to wear vests around that thing, and ya’ll are in heels? Plus they stayed in the empty chutes while the horses broke for the race! YIKES

Said hi & congrats to Bob Baffert… Said hi & better luck next time to Eddie Truman, whose filly Reason to Run looked good early but couldn’t stay on at the end of the race.

Did I mention it took at HOUR to get out of the PARKING LOT??

My first Opening Day at Del Mar was Truly Fabulous!

1 Comment

Filed under Del Mar, favorite races, Infield Trips, internship, photos, polytrack, Race Track Industry Program

Farewell to an All-Time Favorite: SKIP AWAY

The late, great SKIP AWAY winning the 1997 Breeders' Cup Classic

The day came Friday that I always knew would happen many years in the future:  SKIP AWAY passed away at the age of 17.

SKIP AWAY won the 1996 Blue Grass Stakes and then went into that year’s Kentucky Derby as one of the favorites.  That is when I first heard of the big grey colt with the red and yellow blinkers that made him stand out like a knight’s horse among the other bays and chestnuts.  His running style was unique — an animated, high-stepping gait not unlike a carousel horse.  As a 14-year-old girl fond of both knights and carousels, I was in love with Skip Away. Even though Skippy didn’t win the Derby that year, he had an even more profound impact on me than the Genesis Derby Pick, Thunder Gulch.

Where Thunder Gulch made his TV debut in the Triple Crown races, he dropped off of my six-channel radar shortly after.  He didn’t run in that year’s Breeders’ Cup.  He didn’t race as a 4yo.  SKIP AWAY was that increasingly rare horse who raced at the top level and remained there for many years.  Each time there was a race on TV, Skip Away was usually in it.  And he almost always won.

My exposure to racing was confined to whatever was broadcast on network TV in those days, since Memphis is basically the Death Valley of the sport.  Even though it is only 2hrs from Oaklawn, it might as well be on the moon for how much interest there is in thoroughbreds (I do believe reruns of the Fresh Prince of Bel Air beat the KY Derby in ratings).  I got to know the races beyond the Triple Crown because of Skip Away.  It was only when Skippy beat him that I first heard of Cigar.

The 1997 Breeders’ Cup Classic was my favorite up until 2009.  Skip Away simply outclassed and out ran the rest of the field, and he was FAST, too – his time of 1:59 for the 1 1/4 miles was the Classic record until 2004.  I loved Skippy, his owners Sonny and Caroline Hine, and his BC jockey Mike Smith.  This was also the year of Silver Charm, but even that grey Derby winner just didn’t capture me like Skip Away did.  I had a Skip Away birthday cake and even named my bike after him.  Breyer probably has a file of letters from me begging them to create Skippy in plastic.

Shortly after the ’97 Breeders’ Cup, I got the internet.  When asked to choose a screen name for an early racing bulletin board, I went with my favorite race horse, Skip Away (+ my year of high school graduation — this has made me feel old since 2004). That bulletin board was home of many a heated argument over the 1997 Horse of the Year, which makes RA vs Z seem like a friendly disagreement.

Unlike so many top handicap horses, Skip Away remained in training after his Classic win, and his owners actually pointed him for a repeat in ’98.  With my new access to racing information, I was able to find out when Skip Away was racing next, who he was facing, and by how many lengths his victory was within moments of the race!  Within a day I could usually find the race replay itself (though it took ages to load on pre-YouTube dial-up sites!).  It was amazingly awesome for a 14 year old, horse-crazy girl.

I also grew to love the horses Skippy left in his wake: Gentleman, Running Stag, Will’s Way, Formal Gold.  I couldn’t hate Formal Gold, who beat Skippy 4 times, because I knew how hard he had to run to accomplish that feat.

When Skip Away retired at the end of 1998, I vowed to visit him some day.  He stood at Hopewell Farm, not far from Three Chimneys.  As many times as I visited Silver Charm, Point Given and others, I never got to Hopewell.  It was the farm at the top of my list for future trips to the bluegrass.  It reads, “1. Hopewell, to finally see Skip Away” followed by “2. Darley to see Street Cry” and “3. Lane’s End to see Lemon Drop Kid”.

I knew Skip Away would be there no matter when I finally got there, because his owner Caroline wouldn’t have him go anywhere else.  He was only 17, so I could definitely catch him on the next trip.  He had a long life ahead.

Only, it wasn’t so far in the future.  Maybe.  This is 2010, after all, The Future.

(and that screen name seems ancient now)

Skip Away’s complete past performances.

Steve Haskin’s Skip Away memories.

Thanks for the Memories, Skippy, and God bless you & the soul of Luke Krytbosch:

Leave a comment

Filed under favorite races, obituary, recommended blog postings, Skip Away, video clips

Mine That Bird : The Susan Boyle of Horse Racing

Could it all be just a dream?  Calvin Borel celebrates atop 135th Derby winner Mine That Bird, a 50-1 shot.  Photo by AP.

Could it all be just a dream? Calvin Borel celebrates atop 135th Derby winner Mine That Bird, a 50-1 shot. Photo by AP.

He stepped onto the stage, a plain, brown gelding, small in stature, and all but invisible among the flashy stars of the Triple Crown trail.  Handicappers, racing fans, industry insiders, racing commentators, all of them rolled their eyes when reading his name in the post parade: Mine That Bird. 

Steven Levitt, economist and racing fan, wrote in his Freakonomics blog, “If I had to pick a last-place finisher…it would be Mine That Bird.”  In the 3-strikes formula employed by Jon White, Mine That Bird had 5.  Message board commenters joked about him crossing the wire next week.  His speed figures weren’t good enough, he wasn’t fast enough, he’d only won on synthetic surfaces, these same colts had beaten him at the Breeders’ Cup, where he’d come in last — there really wasn’t a good reason for him to be there.

The brown horse knew nothing of this criticism.  He went to post #8 with jockey Calvin Borel in the irons, a veteran who’d ridden a Derby winner in 2007.  He was in good hands.  All that was left was for him to perform. 

When the gates opened, he started out so far back, it was as if he’d been left at the gate.   The track was sloppy, and he was hit in the face with the slick mud off the other horses’ hooves.  As the field flew through the backstretch, Mine That Bird began to move up, passing horses swiftly along the rail.  Turning for home, the pacesetters traded the lead in a thrilling duel.  The race caller’s attention was focused on the drama at the front of the pack, but what he didn’t see was the small, brown gelding closing furiously on the rail just behind them.  In a dramatic burst, the muddy gelding slipped through a slot the size of a needle’s eye on that golden rail.  He was in the lead!  He was drawing away by 3!  4!  6 on the wire! 

The people at Churchill Downs — the ladies in the soggy hats and the Infielders as muddy as the horses– stared in shock.  Mine That Bird had done the impossible, at 50-1 odds! 

I love the Kentucky Derby.  No other sports event can compare with its propensity for surprise winners.  All of the experts, this one included, totally ignored him.  But he took flight on the muddy Churchill Down strip and prevailed by 6 3/4 lengths, surpassing even Barbaro in his dominance.  The only thing I can think of that even comes close to the surprise and delight in this horse’s performance is Susan Boyle.

He took the stage a small, plain, brown gelding.  He entered the Winners’ Circle covered in mud and roses, humming “I Dream A Dream.”

Leave a comment

Filed under Churchill Downs, favorite races, Kentucky Derby, mine that bird, promoting racing, results, Underrated Racehorses

FAVORITE BC RACE #2: LIKE A ROCK – or a DOME

Domedriver turned in one of the biggest upsets in BC Mile history when he defeated Rock of Gibraltar in 2002.  Today, he lives in luxury at a stud in France.

Domedriver turned in one of the biggest upsets in BC Mile history when he defeated Rock of Gibraltar in 2002. Today, he lives in luxury at a stud in France.

There’s just something about those big Breeders’ Cup upsets!  Volponi, Arcangues, Adoration…but my 2nd favorite Breeders’ Cup race is once again a Europe vs America mile on turf.  The 2002 BC was held at Arlington Park that year, and the talk of the track was Rock of Gibraltar, the top miler in Europe, winner of 7 Group 1s in a row & undefeated in 2002.  The Breeders’ Cup Mile was to be his coronation and farewell race. 

Thirteen other top milers lined up to challenge him, including Landseer, Beat Hollow, Forbidden Apple and Aldebaran (stretching out from 7f to 8).  At the start, Boston Common set a speedy pace on the yielding turf.  The rest of the field followed close behind, with The Rock in dead last. 

Boston Common gave way after 5f and was passed by Good Journey, but The Rock was still way back.  In the final turn, Landseer tragically took a bad step and broke down, sending the field swerving to avoid the stricken horse.  Rock had to check, as well as several others. 

In the stretch, Good Journey looked to have the whole thing in the bag, but Rock of Gibraltar had regained his momentum and was barreling down the center of the track.  On the rail, Domedriver had found his stride as well, and he slid up beside Good Journey, who battled fiercely to maintain his lead.  In the final strides, Domedriver got ahead of Good Journey, but The Rock was still coming on like a freight train…and just couldn’t make it! 

Domedriver dove under the wire a length and a half in front.  The Rock was defeated! 

His jockey, Mick Kinane, took a lot of flack for waiting so long and for dropping so far back in this race, but Landseer’s breakdown happened in The Rock’s direct path to glory.  Any lesser horse would not have been able to recover from such a sharp check let alone finish second driving.  Domedriver ran a helluva race, though.  He stayed on the rail the whole time and took advantage of a tiny opening.  It was an incredible upset, and one of my favorite BC races, despite Landseer.

Domedriver paid $54.00 to win, making him one of the biggest longshots in the Mile.

Today, he resides in France, at Haras de Fresnay-le-Buffard.  Judging by his conformation photo, he looks like he’s enjoying life.

The Rock is at stud in Ireland at Coolmore.  He sired Eagle Mountain, who will race in the BC Turf on Saturday.

Leave a comment

Filed under Breeders' Cup, favorite races, Turf racing, Underrated Racehorses

FAVORITE BC RACE #3: JINX-BREAKER

Street Sense wins the BC Juvenile in 2006.  Meanwhile, I was freezing my butt off in the paddock watching it on a realy big TV.

Street Sense wins the BC Juvenile in 2006. Meanwhile, I was freezing my butt off in the paddock watching it on a realy big TV.

My favorite BC Juvenile is the one I actually got to see in person.  Or close to it.  I attended the 2006 BC at Churchill Downs, where it was cold but sunny, and Bernardini got his ass handed to him by INVASOR.  In true Infield fashion (or close to it, since the actual Infield was not open on BC day), I got up at the crack of dawn and stood in line an hour to snag a prime spot on the rail of the paddock.  I even got a bench!  Wooot!  All day long, I stood on the bench, leaned on the back of it, even balanced precipitously on its very top to take slightly blurry photos of the contenders as they walked around the ring. 

Before the 2nd race, I spied Carl Nafzger in the paddock, waayy over to the side in the #1 saddling box.  I snapped a quick picture of him getting Street Sense ready and then turned my attention to Great Hunter, who I was rooting for after his win in the Keeneland Lane’s End Futurity.  Somewhere in all my scads of pictures I have the one of Carl. 

I stood on the bench as the horses went to post, and watched (the paddock jumbotron)  with glee as the horse from the #1 hole galloped away with the whole thing.  Street Sense had won so easily, Calvin Borel loved him so much, I just fell in love with the colt, too!  Great Hunter remained a favorite of mine, despite his 3rd place finish, but I vowed to return to Churchill the next spring to watch Street Sense try and break the Juvy Jinx.

I kept my promise, and 6 months after his rail-skimming Juvy victory, Street Sense repeated that trip in the Kentucky Derby, in front of 150,000+ people, me in the infield, and the Queen in the grandstand.  It was awesome.  I cashed a nice ticket with him, too.

Street Sense tried to break another jinx as well, the BC Juvy-BC Classic jinx, but he faltered last fall, running 4th to Curlin in the slop at Monmouth.  He now resides at Darley in Lexington KY.  One of these days I’ll get around to see him again, and tell him I was there for his 2 best trips around Churchill Downs!

Leave a comment

Filed under Breeders' Cup, Churchill Downs, favorite races