What Does Game On Dude Have In Common With John Henry?

Chantal Sutherland, aboard Game On Dude celebrates winning the San Antonio Stakes at Santa Anita Park, Arcadia, CA. Photo by Eclipse Sportswire.

Who would have believed that the most talked-about member of the 2010 3-year-old class would be not Derby winner Super Saver, champion Lookin At Lucky or Drosselmeyer – but Game On Dude, the gelding who ran 4th in the Belmont that year?

I sure wouldn’t. But I am a believer now.

Game On Dude had a magnificent campaign in 2011, quietly scooping up wins and places in stakes across the country, culminating in a near-theft of the Breeders’ Cup Classic. With the older male division in such a disarray, he almost took the Eclipse in that group and was name-dropped for Horse of the Year. But that was last year – on Sunday, Game On Dude proved he had not lost a step since the Breeders’ Cup with his professional win in the G2 San Antonio. He is a lean, mean, running machine, and the championship is his for the taking in 2012.

This bay son of Awesome Again, trained by the master, Bob Baffert, is on the verge of becoming our next great gelding. He has been campaigned in a much more rational manner than the previous heir to the “supergelding” crown, Mine That Bird. Though he did not win any 3-year-old classics, he does have a Big Cap on his resume, as well as a hard-fought second in the Hollywood Gold Cup. He has an opportunity to repeat in the Big Cap this year, and with no First Dude to run him down, he could score the Gold Cup, too. Then there are the East Coast races – Whitney, Woodward, Stephen Foster, Jockey Club Gold Cup – the possibilities are endless.

To top it all off, his most successful pilot is Chantal Sutherland, a female jockey not afraid to promote herself as well as her sport. Sutherland is a fan favorite and on her way to becoming one of the best riders in the country, thanks to Game On Dude.

I know many fans are skeptical of the Dude’s potential – but think about this – how many people were fans of John Henry after his first few stakes wins?

Game on Dude has a record of 6-4-1 in 15 starts – 12 of those starts have been graded stakes, with 2 G1s, one G2 and one G3 win.

In John Henry’s first 15 starts, he had this record: 3-2-2. Of his first 15 starts, his only stakes win was in the Lafayette Futurity, which was ungraded at the time. But horses raced more back then, and this is only John’s juvenile record. Let’s look at John Henry’s record at a more reasonable point: his early 5-year-old season. By February of 1980, his 5-year-old season, John Henry had raced 43 times, with a record of  16-9-5.  Seven of those wins were in stakes races, but he had yet to win a Grade 1.  That year was when John Henry took the first steps toward becoming the horse we remember – in March he won his first G1, the San Luis Rey. It was the first of four G1 races he would win that season. He would never finish worse than 3rd in 1980, and he only did that once.  Who was the really big star of 1980? Spectacular Bid, of course.

John Henry is a legend of racing. But he started out just like Game On Dude – a very good horse with a lot to prove.

We are at the beginning of a legendary run here. Don’t let a funny name or nostalgia for a long-past (and never coming back) era blind you to the charm of Game On Dude.

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The Dream Lives On

This afternoon, at 2:40 p.m., the next generation of Thoroughbred came into the world – the royally-bred son of 2-time Horse of the Year Curlin and 2009 Horse of the Year, Rachel Alexandra.

The dark bay colt with the star is the product of generations of careful selective breeding, all with the goal of producing the fastest horse in the world. A Derby winner, a Classic winner, a Millionaire – the hope is simply for a winner. This baby was the dream of Jess Jackson, the patron of Stonestreet Farms, and it is a shame he didn’t live to see it. But let’s hope this little guy does right by his parents and lives up to those dreams of his late owner. If Curlin R. Alexander, Jr. is half as good as his ancestors, we will see something very special on the track in a few years’ time.

Below are photos from the Stonestreet Farms Twitter feed. Follow them for more Rachel news!

 

The "AWWWWW" is off the charts! - Photo courtesy Stonestreet Farms

Rachel Alexandra & her newborn foal, a colt sired by Curlin – Photo courtesy Stonestreet Farms

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The Day I Met My Favorite Horse – Thunder Gulch

Inspired by this post on HRN, I decided to talk about when I met my favorite horse.

But first, let’s get in the old TARDIS & dial it back to May 1995. It’s a lazy day in Memphis, Tenn. and in the neighborhood of Raleigh there is an almost-13-year-old girl trying hard not to clean her room. She turns on the TV that sits atop the tall chest of drawers by the closet and starts channel surfing. The channel chosen depends entirely on the quality of the reception, because this is the analog era and she lives in a non-cablevision home. By a great stroke of luck, her search ends when horses appear onscreen – it’s the Kentucky Derby! And even better – the station comes in pretty good! The colors are a little weird, but hey, the horses aren’t too fuzzy.

The talking heads are buzzing about a filly named Serena’s Song. Awesome! Girl Power! She’s pretty! But then, they show a list of all the Derby horses, and a name leaps off the screen (literally, had 3-D glasses been involved, since the picture was so bad!) and into the heart of our heroine: Thunder Gulch.

THIS is her Derby horse. How awesome is a horse that carries that name- it conjures up the imagery of outlaws and Indians, black hats and white hats, mustangs, Monument Valley, and showdowns at high noon.

Eager to catch a glimpse of her Derby horse, she watches as each big favorite is shown, and she learns that Serena’s Song has the same trainer as this Thunder Gulch. But when will they show him? Finally, there he is! And what’s this? His jockey is wearing PURPLE and PINK SILKS*!!! It was meant to be!

The chords of My Old Kentucky Home fill the speakers and the horses step onto the track. Our heroine can barely contain herself; she would will herself through the screen to be there at the track at this very moment, to cheer on her Derby horse – but her room wouldn’t get cleaned and that would mean losing TV privileges…

You know how this story ends: after stalking the pace set by frontrunner Serena’s Song, Thunder Gulch burst to the lead in the final turn and drew off to win the Kentucky Derby by 3 lengths. As he galloped under the finish line, an almost-13-year-old girl in Memphis, Tenn. became a racing fan FOR LIFE.

And from that moment, I wanted to go see my favorite horse in the flesh. It would be nearly a decade before I got the chance, but finally, on a frigid day in January 2003, I met Thunder Gulch.

I had learned of the January stallion shows in the Blood-Horse, and of course, Ashford Stud was one of the first farms I found when the internet came around. I got on the Ashford email list and that year, I received an official invite to their open house. It was during the winter break at school, and I finagled time off from the job I had at the time (which wasn’t much since I don’t remember what it was!).

Kentucky that winter was ice cold. It snowed a bit, but the temps were so cold that the flakes didn’t stick to the ground when they fell, they got blown around like grains of sand. That never happened in Memphis.

Ashford Stud is gorgeous, a definite must-see for any racing fan. At the time, Johannesburg was the newest star to stand at the Coolmore-owned farm in Versailles. Fusaichi Pegasus was also a big name in 2003, when his first crop were new yearlings. But I was there for one horse, the one who helped make Ashford, and Coolmore itself, a name in America: Thunder Gulch.

When he was led out of the palatial barn, I was first struck by how small he was – I had seen his son, Point Given, tower over the world. But Thunder Gulch was as compact as a quarter horse, which made him very approachable. I walked right up to him and patted his burnt-red chestnut shoulder. He drank in all of the attention, posing for several photos before the stallion manager told us it was time for him to go back inside. He, along with FuPeg and a few others, had just shipped back from Australia. They had not grown out a winter coat while on southern-hemisphere time. I could totally empathize – despite wearing a heavy overcoat with a fur hood, I was a popsicle by that time.

I followed Thunder Gulch back inside of his barn and watched as he shook off and took a few turns of his stall. I didn’t want to leave. I told the stallion manager that Thunder Gulch had made me a fan, and it was a huge thrill getting to meet a childhood hero. The manager, in that understated way common to horsemen, simply said, “Yeah, we like him around here, too.”

In the years since Thunder Gulch won the Derby, I have had the chance to visit many farms, have seen hundreds of good horses, and even done the Kentucky Derby. But Thunder Gulch will always have the #1 spot in my heart, for he is the horse who started it all.

*It would be almost a year before I realized that the colors were, in fact, royal blue and orange. That is when I found a copy of the Blood-Horse’s Kentucky Derby magazine with TG on the cover at the Kroger store. I told you the colors were weird on that TV!

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The Excitement Never Dies

Today I sit in my tiny apartment in Shreveport, Louisiana, listening to the anguished cries of my neighbors through the paper-thin walls. You see, they are all LSU fans, and as of this moment, their golden and purple team is scoreless against Alabama in the championship game. All week long, the neighbors have worn team t-shirts, a few sport new stickers or license plates on their cars, and there’s a banner hanging from the balcony above me featuring a growling LSU tiger. Local news stations have made this football game their top story for days, and online, my friends who are Louisiana natives (and a few Memphis folks, too) are abuzz with football cheers. Even though it looks like LSU is going to lose, the excitement around the team won’t wane.

In the coming weeks, horse racing will crank up its own hype machine for the biggest race in America – the Kentucky Derby. I will get out my Derby shirts, invest in a new one for this year, keep an eye out for Derby glasses at thrift shops and devour every scrap of news surrounding the first Saturday in May. It will be easy to keep track of this year, since my time is consumed with Derby news. I feel like I’m returning to the battlefield after a 2-year leave – while I was in school learning about horse racing, it was more scholarly articles, financial reports and equine anatomy than breaking news or workout reports.

But even though I was out of the loop, I was never lacking in enthusiasm. The excitement never dies for the Kentucky Derby, no matter how corporate CDN gets ($50 non-refundable ticket application fee? WTF?), or how inconsistent the 3-year-old crop is (different winners of every prep? YIKES!).

I have a feeling we will see some very good horses this year, not unlike 2007 – there is already a budding rivalry between Hansen and Union Rags, which I saw play out dramatically at the Breeders’ Cup. Sabercat is an intriguing contender, whom I also saw in-person at the Delta Jackpot. Then there’s Out Of Bounds, winner of the Sham stakes, a big, long-striding chestnut who could give the Darley powerhouse its first Derby win.

I am so excited! And it’s only January!

You can keep up with the Kentucky Derby 2012 contenders at Horse Racing Nation, and also take a look at the replays, interactive Derby trail and workout reports (all of which I help to collect and post!). And I will also comment here along the Derby trail, with stuff that won’t fit on HRN. As always, this is my own personal page, and I put on it what I want – I get no instructions from the Worldwide Headquarters.

Oaklawn opens Friday. I’m heading to Hot Springs on Saturday (weather permitting). Let’s get this Derby started 🙂

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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.

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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.

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

Louisiana Hayride

My Awesome New Job At Horse Racing Nation

I am writing this from Horse Racing Nation World Headquarters in Shreveport, Louisiana!

Wait, you thought that would be in Louisville or Lexington?

Seems like it should be, but that’s right – the home of the most innovative new horse racing fan site is in Shreveport. And I’m not just saying that because I work there.

If you haven’t checked it out already, why not? HRN is set up to be the Wikipedia of horse racing. But unlike the Big Wiki itself, HRN vows to capture info for EVERY horse, from stakes winners to claimers.  You will find info on Zenyatta at Wikipedia, but try looking up Great Bernardine. She’s on HRN.

Anyone can add a horse or update the data. It is far from complete, however, especially regarding the historical horses. I recently did some data entry for the legendary runners Ack Ack and Affectionately, two champions of the past. But they are not the only ones who need help.

Power Rankings

Aside from the wiki, there is also a raucous community discussion ongoing.  Lately it has focused on a retread of Zenyatta’s place in racing history, but there has also been lively talk about US vs Euro runners. It should get even more interesting as more people join and the Breeders’ Cup gets closer. Part of that discussion includes a daily ranking of each horse. On Mondays, the ratings are frozen and a new Power Ranking is generated using a complicated algorithm that I can’t explain (but it’s pretty nifty).

So what do I do for HRN? I write the Weekly Power Ranking Report! Yeah! I get to peek at the snapshot before anyone else & do a report about the latest movers-up and droppers-down. I also monitor our Greatest of All-Time ranking and comment on the way the community views Man O’ War vs Secretariat.  

Who are the Top 250 Fillies & Mares of All Time? Rate Them On HRN!

I also get to do some marketing for the site as well – I make email blasts! There is an art to those little emails that you get each week, so do us all a favor and click on them before you trash them, please? I try to put in stuff I would want to read, and there aren’t too many ads.

Temps Below Zero In Hell

I am also learning the secrets to web site success. There is a system that puts the sites you see first on Google, and HRN has mastered it.

Go ahead, search “2011 Travers Stakes” and see how high HRN ranks. That is not by accident, but by a process that began with the construction of the site’s foundation. It continues in small, almost imperceptible ways throughout the wiki and in the blogs, news and links.  Even this blog helps HRN secure its standing among the millions on Google.

The search engine system is not really intuitive, though once you learn about it, it seems very simple. And that brings me to the “Cold Day In Hell” moment:

HRN World Headquarters shares a building with an up-and-coming software and web development firm called Twin Engine Labs. The geeks next door developed an iPad app that was featured in an iPad TV commercial, and they were stoked with excitement. They found that they could do even more business if they were higher ranked on Google.

Who did they go to for help in strengthening their Google search results?

They asked Horse Racing Nation. A horse racing company. I don’t need to tell you that horse racing is not known for innovation, and you never hear about other, successful industries coming to racing for advice. But I nearly fell out of my chair when the software developer came over to talk successful strategy with A HORSE RACING COMPANY!

Yes, on that day, Hell’s temperature dropped a few degrees.

Up Next: Total Horse Racing World Domination

And that is just one thing that HRN is doing to up its cred and help horse racing live up to its historic awesomeness. I can’t tell you anything more right now, but if you thought Keeneland’s Facebook app was cool, just wait for what we have coming up this summer! OMG I ttttremble with excitement!

(takes moment to adjust chair back to upright position)

But I will tell you about that when the launch date gets closer.

Shreveport is across the river from Bossier City, home of Louisiana Downs. I’ve been to the races there a few times and even got to watch from the announcer’s booth on Belmont Day. It’s a pretty nice racino, with updated facilities and what is said to be a tasty buffet. I’ll have more on that later, too.

And that’s what’s up with me and The Infield, post-grad 🙂

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