Category Archives: rants

SEE YOU NEXT YEAR

With such a high turnover of stars this winter, who is left for fans to root for next year?  Curlin’s retirement leaves a huge hole in the handicap division that won’t be filled by even such middling talents as STudent Council or Zanjero, who are also going off to stud.  The sprint division has lost a great group, lead by Midnight Lute, Street Boss, Bustin’ Stones, Benny The Bull… heck, all of the top sprinters will be in the shed next year. 

So, who will get sucked into the vacuum?  Here are 10 horses I think will be able to step out the shadows and shine on the Grade 1 stage.  Most of them are 3yos who, finally out from under the gorilla Big Brown, will be able to repair the bad rap stuck on their crop.  A few are already established stars who will gallop even higher into the stratosphere.

1) Zenyatta:  Undefeated in 9 starts; can she make it 10 more?

2)Harlem Rocker:  DQ’ed in Cigar Mile victory but will make us all forget that effort next year.

3) Colonel John:  He’s everybody’s favorite grinder, which should make for some thrilling finishes in the big races of ’09.

4)Fatal Bullet:  He ran 1:09 in the BC Sprint but got beat.  The horse who beat him retired.  He’s Canada’s champion 3yo and HoTY.  Plus, he’s a son of my fave Preakness winner, Red Bullet.

5)Proud Spell:  She duked it out with Pure Clan and Music Note and just missed a meeting with Big Z.  She’s on a break now, but watch out when she comes back!

6) Cowboy Cal:  Consistently in the money on turf, dangerous on poly, and just the type who may spring a big shocker on dirt, he’s gonna be a Darley horse, with all the benefits, next season.

7) Court Vision:  IEAH’s successor to Big Brown & Kip Deville, a son of Gulch who can get 1 1/4 miles on turf.

8)Go Between:  The always competitive son of Point Given who is best on polytrack.  Can’t wait to see him in the Big Cap.

9)Cocoa Beach:  Second to Big Z in the Distaff, winner of the Matriarch last month, she’s just now coming into her best stride.

10) The Entire 2009 3yo Crop:  The 2 top prospects are heading for Dubai to train, a slew of promising stakes winners are shipping to winter training grounds, and several talented maiden winners are stepping onto the scene…the 135th Kentucky Derby is only 6 months away!

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Filed under lists, promoting racing, rants, Underrated Racehorses, zenyatta

Didn’t the NTRA do this years ago, and people complained?

Hey, I saw a VISA commercial the other day that reminded me of a long-running argument among racing fans about the way our sport is marketed.

The ad in question is for VISA’s support of the NFL.  It features the drama unfolding on the field of an NFL game intercut with shots of fans reacting in the stands.  The tagline is “GO FANS”.

Since its inception, the NTRA has tried to show the fun of thoroughbred racing by showing on-track clips of (mostly generic) horses mashed up with clips of happy, winning-ticket-holding fans in the stands.  The tagline is “GO BABY GO”.

Since its inception, fans have wasted no time registering their displeasure with the fan-oriented marketing.  At the time, horse racing was the only sport that did not feature its stars in the ads, but the schlubs in the stands.  The horses shown briefly in the spots weren’t Skip Away, Silver Charm, Real Quiet or Silverbulletday, the top horses of 1998/99.   Nor did the NTRA use name trainers, jockeys or owners to promote the sport.  How could people possibly understand the allure of the turf this way?  Even the tagline, that I personally happen to like, was criticized:  “Go Baby Go” was seen as low-class and unrepresentative of the glory of the game.

I’m not saying the NTRA was completely off the mark back then: actor Lori Petty was the first spokesman for the sport, and her ads actually made “Go baby Go” hip and sorta sexy.   Sadly, the ads didn’t go over well with the longtime fans, most of whom didn’t know Petty and weren’t into the vibe she set,  which was decidedly younger than them.  At the time, Bill Finley called Petty’s ads “annoying” and her style “emaciated GenX type.”  She was replaced by a more stereotypical racing fan spokesman: ancient Rip Torn. 

In the 10 years since, NTRA ads have stayed safe and bland, everything that racing is not.  The advertising Mad Men working for the league should have insisted on keeping the more aggressive, unconventional, contemporary style. 

It is not difficult to market a product to 20-somethings in 2008.  All you have to do is highlight how “authentic” racing is!  This means celebrating our long, rich history and colorful traditions.  It also means embracing that we’re a niche sport, not a big, uber-commercialized behemoth.  Putting our top horses in the ads is a major start, but also making the top trainers and especially the jocks, in the post-Bailey/Stevens/Day/McCarron era, household names should be a priority.  Make wagering easy & accessible: take advantage of modern technology!  iPhone app, anyone?? 

 The biggest advantage that horse racing has in the fight for the consumer dollar is affordability.  A day at the track starts at only $3 for admission, and seats in the clubhouse on a weekend are only $4.50 at Oaklawn.  Compare that to the NBA average of $49.47 — yes, you can buy cheaper tickets, but those are in the rafters!  $3 general admission at the races lets you get right up to the rail, where you can see the sweat on the jockeys’ brows and feel the rumble of galloping hooves!  Food and drink prices are also cheap compared to what they peddle at the FedEx Forum.  Of course, it’s cheap because the tracks hope the fans place a wager or two.  If you’re lucky and smart, you just may win back all of your admission.  

I guess that is the point of the new VISA ads.  With the money crunch forcing people to re-examine their spending, the pro sports leagues must concentrate more effort on the people they’ve taken advantage of all these years.  But I guarantee that nobody will complain about this fan-centric advertising.

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Filed under NTRA, promoting racing, rants, Uncategorized

Plenty to be Thankful For

Happy Thanksgiving!

With all of the craziness in racing, from ADW controversies to breakdowns to auction slumps, it’s good to think about the good things on a day like today.  Also, a list is an easy way to blog on a holiday… now before I get angry e-mails from family & friends, this is just a list of thoroughbred-related things I am thankful for.  I won’t be listing “breakdown-free Breeders’ Cup” at the family dinner tonight!

1) CURLIN!  Though he did not start out as my favorite horse, he has raced and won his way into my heart.  Thanks to sportsman Jess Jackson (and a little help from the jailed part-owners) Curlin got to prove himself over and over again as an older horse.  He broke a legendary earnings record, raced on all surfaces and met all comers.  His retirement ceremony at Churchill on Saturday will mark the end of an extraordinary career.  Thanks for the ride, Curlin!

2) SAUHBR!  Thanks to The Borderland Totalisator (whose blog has mysteriously vanished, humm…) for an awesome summer of handicapping.  The first of many victories in the game, I hope.  I also hope BT gets back online, because he was a great competitor and gracious in defeat.  Thanks!

3) Larry Jones!  Trainer of the ill-fated Eight Belles handled the ultimate tragedy with grace and compassion.  When nutty PETA accused him of all sorts of horrific abuses, his level-headed replies revealed the activists for the slime they really were.  Amid the turmoil, he sent the filly Proud Spell out for an amazing season, as well as the sprinter Kodiak Kowboy. 

4) Breakdown-Free Breeders’ Cup!  Despite all of the questions surrounding the Pro-Ride surface at Santa Anita this year, the track was successful in its ultimate mission: an injury-free Championship.  Every horse, every race, on poly or turf, came home sound.  This is the first time in several years that no horse was severely injured.  The track also levelled the playing field for the Euro contingent, which is always nice in a so-called “world championship” series.

5) JIM GAFFNEY!  Exercise rider for the Superhorse Secretariat and a close personal friend of this blogger, Mr. Gaffney has been a joy and privelege to know.  I have attended 2 KY Derbies with the man and his lovely wife, Mary, and have gained so much more knowledge of the racing business from him.  Thanks Jim!

6) TVG!  Not a day goes by that I don’t flip channels to TVG.  I love love love watching live racing with the hosts Todd Schrupp and Matt Carothers.  They are an irreverent bunch and their picks are pretty good, too.  I have learned a lot about handicapping watching TVG and am eternally thankful for the first all-racing channel.  Plus, I won an Eclipse Awards official program from them back in January.  Schwag always keeps my attention!

7) At The Races with Steve Byk on SIRIUS!  Every day I listen as Steve chats with the top names in racing, does a little handicapping, and has a good-old time talking to regular Joe horseplayers.  His show is a blessing for a sport that gets so little coverage by the MSM, and when it does, it’s usually dumbed-down *cough*ESPN*cough*  From ATTR, I have learned how top trainers condition their horses (pre-Derby shows) and have gotten a greater appreciation for the Pick 4 ticket and Super High 5 ticket.  Bob Baffert before the Breeders’ Cup was a big treat, too!  Thanks Steve!

8) MY LITTLE CONNOR!  This horse is the best little allowance horse in the world.  I hope he comes back to Oaklawn next year. 

Next up, Santa better be reading my Christmas list!

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Filed under Jim Gaffney, lists, rants, SAUHBR

CURLIN & PEPPERS PRIDE: The New Benchmarks

Two venerated records fell in the past 7 days, and the horses that now hold them are curious opposites.

CURLIN easily handled the slop at Belmont last Saturday to capture his second consecutive Jockey Club Gold Cup and surpass the $10 million mark in earnings.  The previous record money winner was the legendary Cigar, whose $9.9+ million kept him at the top for a decade.  Cigar amassed his bankroll during a thrilling sixteen-win streak, which tied him for the most consecutive wins with Citation.

Over the years, a few other horses matched Cigar’s win record (but nowhere near his earnings), most recently Hallowed Dreams, a Louisiana-bred filly who raced mostly in Louisiana and at Lone Star Park, and mostly in allowance and state-bred stakes during her win streak.  Yesterday, a filly named PEPPERS PRIDE did what Cigar, Citation, Mister Frisky and Hallowed Dreams could not.  PEPPERS PRIDE won her 17th race in a row, remaining undefeated in her career.

PEPPERS PRIDE, like Hallowed Dreams, comes from a humble family and races in allowance and state-bred stakes in NEw Mexico.   PP’s 17th start had been pushed back five months due to poor track conditions, but the tough mare was in fine form and put away Silver Expression in an AOC at Zia Park.

There they are, folks, the new benchmarks.  It says a lot about the sport that the horse with the longest win streak has only $861,000 in earnings, while the horse with the biggest bankroll has only raced 15 times (and won 11).  The horses with longevity are not our “superstars” – but the top-level performers are the ones who get on TV (at least when ESPN feels like it). 

There may not be a solution to the discrepancy.  Grade 1 winners and Classic winners are the horses that start lifelong fans, but they are like the pro sports athletes in other leagues- larger than life and unapproachable to the average fan, protected and pampered between brief appearances on-track to thousands of spectators.  Each time they run is risky to their health and potential breeding value. 

Small-scale leagues and tracks have the most loyal fans because they know the players intimately.  The farm league pitcher goes to church with you.  The local point guard’s daughter is in the same class with your son.  Peppers Pride is the hometown girl done very, very good.

With cable racing networks, these smaller tracks are getting coverage unknown in the past.  More people can be “local fans” of Pepper, or of My Little COnnor or Mr. Franks.  They’re no Big Brown, but at least they have raced a few years so people can enjoy them.

The last benchmark standing is the one least likely to ever be attained.  The way young, top-class colts are handled these days, it will take an incredible horse to capture that elusive Triple Crown.

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11 Grade 1 Races This Weekend…Only ONE on ESPN

Last week, at the NTRA’s marketing summit, a lot of talk centered on how to attract and keep the next generation of fans.  The first part would be having horses stay around long enough for us to enjoy them.  The second part would be broadcasting the races where these stars are competing!!!

This weekend are the PLAYOFFS of Breeders’ Cup!  *11 GRADE ONE RACES* on both coasts, on all surfaces will feature many championship hopefuls.  Most of them will be on TVG-the Belmont ones.  HRTV takes up the Santa Anita races.  Most people do not have TVG or HRTV (*I* don’t even have HRTV…sigh).  Our fearless leaders in racing have quickly thrown together some TV time for the Jockey Club Gold Cup on ESPN because Curlin is entered.  The brief pre-race coverage will be completely irrelevant.  There are few serious handicappers on ESPN (at least few who are allowed to be serious on the air.  Mayne always appeared to know his stuff but his irreverence got in the way; Moss is solid but has to dumb it down too much).  There will probably be no post parade, no discussion of the other horses in the field (“they’re all running for second”) or interviews with connections not named Asumussen or Jackson. 

Most people I know only know about the race as a singular event – the preps for the Derby go unnoticed, the idea of peaking or rounding into form or the fact that there is even any tactical theory involved in a race is news to the casual observer.  We have to promote the “thinking” side of the game more.  It’s not just a mad dash to the wire (not talking Quarters here).  Get people interested in Beyer numbers or ThoroGraph sheets; pit the 2 sides against each other.  The trip handicappers against the pedigree people.   SPotlight and involve this specialized side of the sport on national TV, and there will be more people interested in the game as a Game.  Not everyone loves horses like I do, but when I talk about the splits and figs and stuff, people (guys) take more interest. 

The Internet is a godsend for this infoporn: I can get boatloads of info for free or really, really cheap.  Discussion forums are everywhere.  And the race replays are online, too!  It is a perfect sport for the snack culture-the entire thing is only 2 minutes.  And if you know enough, make smart bets and play responsibly, you will win a lot more often than simply dropping a coin into a slot machine.

 The only show that does everything I have mentioned above is At The Races with Steve Byk on Sirius.  The man is a godsend – smart commentary, great guests who Byk is not afraid to question, a lot of good history buffs and pedigree experts, interviews with a wide range of handicappers, jockeys, trainers, even VETS!  Live calls of feature races that he, his guests and average-Joe call-ins handicap.  It is the Racing Equivalent of Sportscenter.  I only wish more people could listen to it.

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Filed under Breeders' Cup, Handicapping, rants

Underrated Racehorse of the Week — GENERAL CHALLENGE

I started this series with an East coast based runner, so this time I feature a favorite of mine from Cali, GENERAL CHALLENGE.

General Challenge oozes attitude in 1999/photo from the great wide web

General Challenge oozes attitude in 1999/photo from the great wide web

In 1999, Bob Baffert was the crown prince of the Kentucky Derby.  He had trained the previous 2 winners, SIlver Charm & Real Quiet, both of whom had come within inches of capturing the Triple Crown.  He had the top 2 fillies in the nation as well, Excellent Meeting and champion Silverbulletday.  He also had a barnful of promising, classy three year olds primed for attack on the Derby trail.  His best hope was the gelding dubbed “Rodman”: GENERAL CHALLENGE.

The chestnut with wide blaze and high white socks captured attention whenever he stepped onto the track, usually because of his hotheaded antics.  It was obvious why he was gelded when he dumped exercise riders in the mornings and bullied assistant starters at the starting gate.  Always outfitted with Baffert’s trademark navy blue blinkers, the colt was easy to spot on the track at Santa Anita.   He raced under the maroon and gold colors of John & Betty Mabee’s Golden Eagle Farm, and was by their stallion General Meeting. 

General CHallenge jumped on the Derby trail with his dominating performance in the Santa ANita Derby.  The 2nd place horse, Prime Timber, was also a Baffert trainee owned by lumber magnate and racing newcomer Aaron Jones.  Jones had sent several high-dollar colts to Baffert, and Prime Timber was the first of several stakes winners to come from that partnership that year.  The best of Jones’s horses (Forestry) would not make noise until after the Derby, but I am getting off the subject at hand.

The 1999 Santa Anita Derby was just one piece of the huge mess that became Kentucky Derby 125.  General Challenge would be coupled with Excellent Meeting as the favored entry (this was in the days before 20 separate betting interests).  SA Derby fourth-place finisher Charismatic would make another start in the Lexington Stakes in a last-ditch effort to make the Derby field.  In the East, one-hit-wonder Adonis captured the Wood, while Menifee charged home in the Bluegrass for Arthur Hancock.  In Florida, First American won one of the last runnings of the Flamingo at Hialeah.  Vicar, trained by Carl Nafzger, beat up on D. Wayne Lukas’s Cat Thief in the FLorida Derby.  The biggest bomb of them all was VALHOL, the Arkansas Derby winner.  After the race, Valhol’s jockey was captured on film dropping an object on the track which was later found & determined to be a battery-operated shocking device, or buzzer.  In the drama that ensued, Valhol was disqualified, then not DQ’ed, then the purse money got held up in court, which allowed him to be entered in the Kentucky Derby.  Add to that volatile mix 2 good fillies, Excellent Meeting and Three Ring, and you’ve got one helluva Kentucky Derby, Big Brown be damned.

General Challenge never had a chance in the 1999 “Demolition” Derby.  The lack of any early speed whatsoever killed all the closers; the stalkers, like GC, got crammed and jostled and blocked in the traffic, and the only horse who got any sort of clean trip was 31-1 shot Charismatic.  Next to Giacomo, Charismatic is the worst KY Derby winner in the past 15 years.  The final Derby time was a snailish 2:03.20.  You all know what happened next: Charismatic won the Preakness, setting up the 3rd TC attempt in as many years and media frenzy unheard of at the time.  In the Belmont, Charismatic got caught up in a speed duel with Baffert’s Silverbulletday, and lost to Lemon Drop Kid & Vision and Verse.  After the wire, Charismatic’s jock Chris Antley detected something amiss and jumped off the horse; the photos of teary-eyed Antley holding up Charismatic’s broken front leg made all the papers, was named NTRA’s inaugural “Moment of the Year” and helped cement his legacy as a racing hero.  Charismatic survived the injury but never raced again.

MEANWHILE, General Challenge took a much-needed break after the terrible Derby trip, where he finished 11th of 19.  He came back strong to take the Affirmed Handicap at Hollywood, then defeated older horses in the 1999 PAcific Classic.  He was made one fo the favorites for the BC Classic at Gulfstream, but again traffic trouble bothered him and he was 10th to Cat Thief (one of the biggest upsets in BC history.  The EX with Budroyale paid $1209).  All was not lost for the wiggy chestnut – he came back in December for the Native Diver and ended his 3yo season with a win. 

At the end of 1999, the Eclipse award race was just as freakish as the Derby.  Despite not racing at all past the Belmont, Charismatic’s PR machine heavily influenced the voters and the chestnut was named Champion 3 year-old AND Horse of the Year.  This, to me, was the biggest mistake in the history of the Eclipses.  Victory Gallop, Behrens, and Silverbulletday (ALL MULTIPLE Gr1 WINNERS) could all have made a better HOTY than Charismatic.  Heck, even Cat Thief I would have understood, seeing as he WON the BREEDERS’ CUP CLASSIC.  But of course, my heart belongs to General Challenge. 

At four, General Challenge was a tough cookie in Cali.  He won the Strub stakes en route to a powerful performance in the Santa Anita Handicap.  He looked all but invincible, but a series of physical and mental problems plagued him after the Big Cap.  He was never as brilliant as his three-year-old season, but he still showed up for 2nd place effort in the Hollywood Gold Cup, and tried the Pacific classic once more, as well.  The flashy gelding retired with 9 wins in 21 starts and over $2 million in earnings. 

As for the rest of that crazy 1999 Derby field? 

Cat Thief never won another race after the Classic, though he tried 10 times.  His best start was a 2nd in the 2000 Whitney.  He stands at stud in KY at Overbrook Farm for $7500.

Prime Timber raced for 2 more years desperately looking for another win, but he also never found the winner’s circle.  He stands at Sez Who Thoroughbreds in NY for $3000.

Three Ring, the filly who carried silks designed by Calvin Klein, won the Acorn Stakes, defeating future Blue Hen mare Better Than HonorTragedy struck the filly as she was being readied for the Mother Goose Stakes — the normally unflappable filly reared and flipped over, striking her head and causing a fatal injury.

Valhol was finally, officially DQed from the Arkansas Derby, and his purse money was redistributed to place horse Certain.  Jockey Billy Patin was suspended for life and even did some jail time, I think (though I seem to remember seeing his name among the entires on TVG..hmmm).

Charismatic, of course, spent the rest of ’99 recuperating and enjoying his hardware from the Eclipse awards.  He spent 2 seasons at stud at Three Chimneys farm and was sent to Japan in 2002.

And I still think General Challenge should have gotten champion 3 year old colt.

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Crash and Burn!! What a way to start a blogging career

I hate my real job sometimes.  I work every weekend and miss all the live racing action, then when I finally get a chance to sit down and youtube the races I am too beat to do a decent blog.  So here I am 4 days late with the weekend wrap show.  It ain’t too pretty, and not a reflection of my usual handicapping, as you’ll find in the weeks to come.

BELMONT PARK:

Some people complained of the quality of the field here, said the Gr1 status was laughable, but hey, those glorified allowancers gave a helluva run.  Frost Giant, 40-1, trained by the traina non grata Rick Dutrow, won a hard-fought stretch duel with Larry Jones’s Solar Flare.  Frost Giant took the lead after a good break, set the opening quarter in 24 and change with Solar Flare second.  NAughty New Yorker charged up on the rail to grab the lead at the half and held it into the turn, where Frost Giant and SOlar Flare again made moves for the lead.  At the top of the stretch, Solar FLare was a half-length in front with Frost Giant running hard in second.  It looked like Solar Flare would get it, but in deep stretch, Frost Giant found another gear.  He drew even again with Solar FLare and drew off to win by a half length.  Damascus and Dr. Fager they aren’t, but it was a fun race anyway.  Frost Giant is a 5yo son of “Iron Horse” Giant’s Causeway, and he is owned by IEAH Stables.  Frost Giant will be one of the racers going off all meds but Salix this fall, so I am interested to see how his career progresses from here.  I had Frost Giant to show in this race, with Solar FLare on top and AP Arrow to place.  Close, but no cash.  The main reason I had Frost Giant on my radar at all, aside from his trainer, is that he shares a name with a virtual racehorse from an old fantasy racing game I used to play.  That Frost Giant was the “sire” of some “great” virtual thoroughbreds!

The stretch drive of the Mother Goose was a mess – aside from winner Music Note.  The blue-blood filly by AP Indy out of a Sadler’s Well mare easily made off with the field of 4 because she was the only one who was runnng a straight line.  In Music Note’s wake, Proud Spell had a rough time of it after a stumbling start.  Shuffled all the way back to 3rd at one point, she burst through on the rail beside Never Retreat, only to bump that filly before the wire.  Proud Spell got a DQ to 3rd.  Another losing ticket for me!  W00T!

At Hollywood, things weren’t much better for me.  My “can’t lose” pick, Daytona, lost badly to another huge longshot, Whatsthescript.  Whatsthescript blew by pacesetter Storm Military to win by 1 and 14 lengths.  Daytona looked great laying second most of the way, but in the stretch he just lost his run.  It was a little surprising, so I hope no physical problems caused it.  The winner was one of 4 stakes winners last weekend for trainer John Sadler.  He also trained A Gleam winner Dearest Trickski, my 3rd choice who beat Magnificence and Intangaroo (my win pick).  Sadler’s other winners were Emmy Darling (off my radar) in the Landaluce stakes for 2yo fillies, and Black Mamba in the Beverly Hills stakes on turf for classic-distance running fillies.  Sadler is new to me, but he’s on my list now of people to pay attention to when their horses run.  

Thank goodness TVG has the Hollywood signal.  I was able to catch the ESPN coverage of the Hollywood Gold Cup, but I wonder if casual observers knew what race they were watching —  all the talking heads could find to discuss was BIG BROWN!!!  Big Brown wasn’t even running Saturday!  Most of the pre-race coverage consisted of the Belmont excuse train, from the missed Winstrol injection to the loose shoe to the non-sweating to the lone gunman on the grassy knoll!  I flipped from ESPN to TVG several times during the Gold Cup show because ESPN spent too much time dumbing down the proceedings.  TVG knows there are new fans, too, but they actually spent their airtime talking about the horses who were actually in the race they were actually broadcasting that day!!

What a race, too! Mast Track, owned, bred and trained by Bobby Frankel, pulled off a wire-to-wire upset in the Gold Cup over Go Between and Student Council.  The only similarity to the Belmont was the Da’Tara-like performance of the winner.  Soft early fractions kept Mast Track fresh for a super stretch drive.  Go Between threatened, but could not catch the son of Mizzen Mast.  The old man, Perfect Drift, was never in it and finished 7th.  Maybe they can card a race just for the old guys, like Lava Man, Perfect Drift and Evening Attire.

I’ll have my Independence Day Stakes picks tomorrow!!

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Filed under Belmont Park, Graded Stakes, Handicapping, Hollywood Park, polytrack, rants