Monday, July 26, 2010

Barn Report(s) Sunday July 24

Saratoga just opened this weekend – and lots of trainers have moved most, or all, of their strings up there. But there are still a bunch of horses, including Talking Blues, down at Belmont. So the Castle Village Farm team split up for Sunday morning. Steve was up in Saratoga for the weekend, and Joe did Belmont duty.

Bruce Brown has 20-plus horses stabled at Belmont, another dozen or so at Monmouth and 18 up at Saratoga. He would have preferred to stable a few more at Saratoga, but trainers are at the mercy of the racing secretary (P.J. Campo) who decides how many stalls each can have. And 18, which is what Bruce got, is actually a lot for a new trainer. So he brought up to the Spa the horses he thinks will run there first, and he’ll be shuttling most of those back to Belmont as soon as they’ve run, to be replaced by the next group to run.

Our New York-bred gelding Talking Blues isn’t slated to run till later in the Saratoga meet, so he’s still stabled at Belmont. Sunday is his regular breeze day, but with the heat (it got up near 99 even before training ended for the morning), not to mention the humidity, Bruce and his assistant Maria, who’s in charge of the barn when Bruce is upstate, decided to go easy on their horses. Talking Blues, who had a bullet work just last week, breezed the half-mile this week in an unhurried 53.55 seconds, though in that heat, he still worked up a sweat. This was his first time going a half-mile, after the two good three-furlong breezes earlier.

Up in Saratoga, Steve made the rounds on a wet and muggy opening weekend. Friday was opening day. Despite the weather that day, which took most of the turf races off the grass, and which flooded the brand-new Danny Meyer restaurants – Shake Shack and Blue Smoke –there were big, big crowds and lots of great racing. All three days of opening weekend featured big fields and exciting racing. Going head-to-head against Monmouth Park’s three-day a week, “million dollars a day in purses” strategy, and even with last year’s Horse of the Year, Rachel Alexandra, racing at Monmouth on Saturday, Saratoga came out way ahead on attendance and betting handle.

Danny Meyer’s Shake Shack at Saratoga

Like other CVF partners – Debi Kral, Ann Killory, John Burke, to name just a few – we look forward every year to “Saratoga Charlie” Barringer’s opening day party under the trees between the paddock and the Red Spring. It wasn’t quite a wash-out this year, but close. The rainstorms drove everybody under one of the tents that NYRA had thoughtfully provided, and several partners – including the above-named – never made it. But it was great to see Charlie and Ann and their ever-growing passel of beautiful grandchildren, and we look forward to lots of sunny afternoons, this year, as always, sharing a brew with Charlie on the backstretch.

Saturday morning dawned sunny and hot. Steve went first to the Oklahoma training track to meet up with John Couture, who’s just joined CVF’s new Saratoga Claiming Partnership, John’s wife Mary Ann and their friend John Serbalik, who’s also going to be involved in our Saratoga claiming group. Since the Friday rains had drilled holes in the Oklahoma training track, they all walked across Union Avenue to the main track to watch the workouts from the gap at the top of the stretch. Crossing the street, they weren’t the only ones in the cross walk; the traffic police held up the cars for the people – and for the race horses gravely clip clopping across. The gap is a great place to catch the morning action, as any clocker will tell you, though one does have to be a bit careful not to be in the way when the young horses get excited.

After a breakfast break – beware the Oklahoma-side track kitchen! – it was off to the front side of the track, catching up with lots of folks -- CVF partners, trainers, jockey agents, other owners, all the people that we get to see just once a year, because everybody comes to Saratoga. But, first, had some licensing to do for CVF partners, since the licensing and credentials offices had been closed between the Belmont and Saratoga meets. As always, the line out the door of Lew Kobel’s NYRA credentials office was almost as long as the line at the Shake Shack; seems like everybody waits until Saratoga to renew their NYRA badges and get their parking permits, so they can be part of mornings on the backstretch.

On Saturday, with the sun out (but the temperature well over 90), Steve spent the afternoon at another one of the hidden gems on the Saratoga track, the main track backstretch. Lots of Saratoga regulars, including partner Ron Lacey, who was there with his lovely wife on Saturday, regularly set up their folding chairs and tables under the trees and watch the races from there. The snack bar offers decent food at half the price that they charge over by the finish line, and you get a great close-up view of the start of the sprint races. You can lean over the rail, just yards from the gate. It’s especially fun when the starters are two-year-old maidens making their racing debut, and really not sure they want to go into that gate. You can even hear the starter counting down, and the jockeys and gate crew yelling “no, no, no, no.” Except for those frantic minutes when the gates open, and the horses charge out in a pack, hooves pounding, jockeys shouting, it’s quiet back there, almost like being in the country, deep shady trees, patches of meadow, and the rows of dark green barns behind. No grandstand, no clubhouse, no crowds at the betting windows and on the rail, no fancy restaurants. Just acres of grass, three mutual tellers and a handful of betting machines. What more could you ask? Oh yeah, one could ask for televisions that aren’t 20 years old and that actually show a picture, so you could maybe see the finish of the race. Good thing Track Announcer Tom Durkin is the best in the business; otherwise it would have been tough to know who won.

Babies Behind the Gate at Saratoga

More of the same on Sunday, then back to the city for the week. Steve will be up in Saratoga the first week in August for the yearling sales, and will be spending mornings at Oklahoma. He looks forward to seeing you there – and also, in the afternoons, on the main track, in the paddock area or the backstretch. Steve and Joe will both be up the weekend of August 7 – 9, so there’ll be more chances then to get a CVF guided tour, morning or afternoon. And, of course, they’ll be there whenever we’re claiming a horse or whenever Talking Blues or any of our CVF horses race.

In the meantime, whenever they aren’t both at the Spa, the CVF tradition of Sunday mornings at the Belmont backstretch will continue. Give Joe or Steve a call if you want to join them this, or any, Sunday.

Sunday, July 18, 2010

Barn Report - Sunday July 18th

Some days can be really fun -- even if they end up being really frustrating.

Joe and Steve, along with Castle Village Farm partners Paddy O'Hara and Vinny DiSpigno, got to Belmont around 7 am on Sunday. It was already pretty warm -- the temperature reached the mid-90s by the afternoon -- but it was the last day of the Belmont meet, and the horses, riders and trainers were in good spirits. With the Saratoga meet just around the corner, there was lots of talk about vans packed with horses, SUVs packed with kids and lawn furniture -- and, getting back to business, of how Saratoga might do against the newly energized Monmouth summer meet.

(As it turns out, even Belmont didn't do too badly against Monmouth, with substantially higher betting handle than the Jersey track. See Steve's analysis at

Our four-year-old NY-bred gelding, Talking Blues, back from some R&R at the farm, breezed for the second time since his return to the race track. Even without changing leads, and without a lot of urging from the exercise rider, Talking Blues had a "bullet" work, the fastest of the day at the distance, going three furlongs in 36.09 seconds. The work marked a huge improvement for Talking Blues; he'd never even had a breeze that was in the top half of the horses working that day, much less a bullet. And he's looking much bigger and stronger than before he got some time off.

After that, it was off to contemplate claim prospects for our 2010 Claiming Partnership. The partners had done really well with our first claim, Good Law, who had a win and a second in two races for us before he was claimed back by his prior trainer, Tom Bush. But now they're anxious to get a replacement, and we've been looking actively for a claim at Belmont for over a month. Bruce Brown and Steve thought they had one today, with the three-year-old NY-bred filly Australis Princess, entered in the 9th race for $25,000. On paper, she had lots to like: good speed figures, in the money in seven of her 10 lifetime races, able to run on both turf and dirt (though not on a wet track), and with her New York allowance conditions still available. And the replays of her races looked pretty solid; sometimes she tired in the stretch, but she didn't give up.

Her race, though, wasn't till the 9th, so it was a long afternoon of waiting. Plenty of time to watch the Yankees beat Tampa Bay in a mere 3 hours and 47 minutes. And time to catch up with a few more trainers on their way out the door, heading for Saratoga. Time to watch another Jimmy Ferraro longshot get in the middle of a carefully handicapped exacta.

Then down to the paddock to check out our claim prospect. Bruce and Steve watched her walk in from the detention barn. (That unloved facility was celebrating its final day; the concept is being retired as of the start of the Saratoga meet.) What they saw -- at first -- was a nice big filly, who looked race ready and alert. All systems go.

Oops, doesn't that look like an offset knee in the right front leg? Sure does, but that's not disqualifying, right? Lots of horses just stride right through an offset knee. Hmm, but she's not really striding right through it. More like shifting her weight to compensate.
(Department of Way Too Much Information: A horse's knee is offset when the forearm bone above the knee and the cannon bone below the knee don't line up in a straight line; the more offset the knee is, the more stress there will be at high speed.)

And then the coup de grace. Bruce's system of inside information -- talk to someone who knows someone who used to work in the other trainer's barn -- came through -- with about five minutes left to the claim deadline. Yes, there was something to worry about -- and it was something about that knee. So, the decision was made: better safe and sorry. We'll pass this time around.

It was a long day. Ten hours after we'd arrived at the training track that morning, we were -- finally -- back in the car, heading back to the city -- with nothing to show for it -- except a couple of exacta tickets cashed.
Like Harvey Pack always said, it isn't the last race -- or the last claiming possibility -- that counts, it's the next one. So, on Friday, it'll be on to Saratoga, where we'll still be looking for horses to claim. All in all, a bit of a letdown at the end of the day.
But, still (and, this time, the quote is from William Murray -- though Harvey probably agrees) -- Even a bad day at the track is better than a lot of other days in a lot of other places.

Wednesday, July 7, 2010

Barn Report - Sunday July 4th

No fireworks on the backstretch for the Fourth. While trainers are as patriotic as anyone else, it definitely scares the horses. In fact, trainers whose barns are close to the backstretch at Saratoga are always pleading with NYRA not to have even the relatively small-scale fireworks show that accompanies the annual Travers celebration at the Spa. So far, with only limited success.

Of course, at 7 am on the training track, there wasn't much concern about fireworks or anything else other than getting horses out for exercise before the day got too hot. Most trainers tried to get all their horses out before the 8:30 break, so they, and the horses, could retreat into the relative cool and shade of their shedrows.

The hot topic for Castle Village Farm is whether, as trainer Bill Turner suggested, our three-year-old Iguazu should be gelded (i.e., castrated). Iguazu, who's down on the farm in Virginia, has recently been displaying a healthy, perhaps too healthy, interest in the opposite sex. Bill, like many trainers, thinks that gelding a colt tends to focus the colt's mind more on racing and less on adolescent hormones.

To help us make up our minds, I've done a little research. Over the years, most of the outstanding American race horses have been colts, which of course means that they can go on to become stallions, perpetuating their bloodlines and, not incidentally, earning considerable stud fees for their owners. Once a colt is gelded, that opportunity disappears.

There have, however, been some geldings who were fabulous race horses and earned a lot of money for their owners. In the US, these include Kelso, Forego and John Henry and Kentucky Derby winners Clyde Van Deusen, Funny Cide and Mine That Bird. And the famous Australian runner Phar Lap was also a gelding.

Generally, if a horse has some pedigree and has the promise of being a stakes winner, owners are loath to geld it too soon. Most of the well-known geldings had little or no pedigree value, though a few were gelded because of behavioral problems or for medical reasons. Sometimes, gelding is pretty much a no-brainer. John Henry, for example, was an ill-tempered youngster with absolutely no pedigree, so gelding him had little downside and considerable upside, both for the safety of barn workers and for his ability to focus on racing.

Although talking about the details of makes most men pretty nervous, it's a relatively straightforward procedure, with little risk. (For those who want all the gory details, they're here.)

In a few cases, trainers have reported that gelding a horse makes him too mellow, taking away some competitive spirit. That's certainly a result that you don't want with a race horse. But more often, gelding results in a horse that can stay more focused on its work and is usually a better race horse.

In the case of Castle Village Farm's Iguazu, the decision isn't cut-and-dried. Iguazu does have some pedigree potential. He's sired by Smokle Glacken, the Eclipse Award-winning champion sprinter of 1997, his dam is a multiple winner, and he has two stakes winners in the second generation of his pedigree. So there's a chance that he could have some value as a stallion prospect when he gets to the races, if --and it's always a big if for thoroughbreds -- he turns out to be a graded-stakes winner. On the other hand, if he really is getting too distracted by adolescent hormone surges, maybe gelding him would be the better way to go.

Our partners, as always knowledgeable and passionate about their horses, come down on both sides of the issue. That's part of what makes it both fun and educational to be in a racing partnership like ours, where partners have the opportunity to discuss their horses and how they should be managed. For now, we'll keep discussing the issue and see if a consensus emerges.