Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Summer Is Here

The summer season has finally arrived. I say that, not because there is a heat wave gripping much of the nation right now, but because the two standout summer racing meets are ready to begin on Wednesday and Friday, respectively. Del Mar kicks off their 37-day season on Wednesday afternoon and will continue to race until September 7. Saratoga will be running forty days of live racing starting on Friday and continuing until September 5.

Both seasons will be offering plenty of great racing as usual. The one thing that most people start to do during these two seasons is monitor the two-year-olds. Del Mar and Saratoga often provide the horses that will be the favorites going forward to first the Breeders' Cup Juvenile and Juvenile Fillies and then, usually, it's on to the Kentucky Derby or Kentucky Oaks. There will be the inevitable flashes of brilliance from a previously untried or untested juvenile horse that will make wiseguys all over the place utter the famous sentence, "That's my Derby horse for next year!"

Of course, there will be other goings-on at both tracks. Del Mar offers a slew of Grade 1 races, including the Eddie Read Stakes and the Del Mar Oaks on the grass. Don't forget about the Grade 1 Polytrack races there like the Bing Crosby Stakes, the Clement L. Hirsch, the Pat O'Brien, Del Mar Debutante and Futurity, and of course, the Pacific Classic on August 18. Saratoga isn't lacking for high-end competition either with seventeen Grade 1 events there, most famously the "Summertime Derby" or Travers Stakes on August 27.

I will be making my first pilgrimage to Saratoga next week, which means I will be in attendance for the Grade 2 $150,000 Lake George on Wednesday and ungraded $75,000 Quick Call on Thursday. I am looking very forward to seeing the Spa for my maiden voyage. With any luck, I will come home from that trip having broken the maiden by being a winner for the trip as well. However, you know, the mere fact that I am heading that way will make a winner out of me for once, so the way I am looking at it, I am ahead for the trip already.

They Are Off will be taking off for the remainder of July and will return refreshed and ready to go in August with all that great summer racing I was just talking about still in front of us. For right now, I am Gone... GOODBYE!

Friday, July 15, 2011

The Grade 2 $600,000 Virginia Derby

Before beginning the handicapping segment this week, I must first offer congratulations to Frank Mirahmadi for being named the new announcer at Oaklawn Park. Frank is an excellent race caller, a better person, and I cannot wait to hear him inject his unique brand of excitement into the racing season in Arkansas next season.

The Grade 2 Virginia Derby offers a strong, competitive field of twelve horses going 1 1/4 miles on the turf at Colonial Downs. The morning-line favorite at 5-2 is Banned, who won back-to-back graded turf races at Churchill Downs during the spring season, the Grade 2 American Turf and the Grade 3 Jefferson Cup. Here is the analysis:

The top pick in here will be #8 Crimson China from Team Valor and trained by Graham Motion, the same owner-trainer team of Kentucky Derby winner, Animal Kingdom. Julien Leparoux will ride this colt in here. He is a perfect 2 for 2 over the turf this year, winning at Gulfstream in February and an ungraded stakes race at Monmouth in May. His works are fairly strong and he offers decent value at 5-1. I will put #4 Street Game in the second spot with the riding services of Edgar Prado. This horse ran off three straight wins over the turf at Belmont leading into this go. Two of those were over yielding turf and one of those was the Grade 3 Hill Prince. Prado actually is getting back aboard this colt Saturday, having not ridden him since a second at Gulfstream in March. I will use the favorite, #7 Banned, in the third spot. Those two graded stakes wins at Churchill stand out and the Sire is Kitten's Joy, pure turf breeding for sure. It is worth noting that in winning those two races in Kentucky, he defeated a couple of the foes he faces here. Jose Lezcano is in the saddle Saturday. A longshot to like is #3 Newsdad with Kris S. present on the Sire side for more strong turf breeding. However, this 15-1 shot only has a maiden win to his credit at Gulfstream on January 28. Bill Mott is the trainer and if you can get 15-1 on a Mott horse in a big spot, it might be worth the effort. Here is the play for the Grade 2 Virginia Derby:

$5 WP #8
$1 EX BOX 3-4-7-8-10
$1 TRI 4-7-8 with 4-7-8 with 2-3-4-7-8-10
TOTAL- $54

The blog is currently MINUS $788 for the year. I think if we get to MINUS $1,000, we might have to stop keeping track. Maybe that is the best way to start a winning streak. Anyway, remember that They Are Off accepts no responsibility for any wagers placed in conjunction with these selections. They are merely suggestions. Tune in again next week for more from They Are Off. For right now, I am Gone... GOODBYE!

Thursday, July 14, 2011

Luke Kruytbosch

July 14 has become a day of mixed emotions for me over the last few years. It was on July 14, 2008 that Luke Kruytbosch passed away in Indiana, not far from Ellis Park in Kentucky, where he worked in the summers after calling the races at Churchill Downs in the spring and fall and Turf Paradise in the winter. I have tremendous mixed emotions on this date every year because, of course, I am sad on the one hand that my friend is no longer with us, that he passed away at the tragically young age of 47, and that we don't get to hear him calling the races again in that characteristic style and voice that he had. It was a voice that served the racing industry incredibly well.

However, I also look back at the time I knew Luke with a great fondness. Believe me, I still count it as one of the best things in my life that he was not only my mentor, but my friend as well. I still have the last voice mail he ever left on my cell phone saved these three years later. At the time, I was still calling the races in Houston, and Luke was in Phoenix, chiding me that the Suns were beating the Rockets on this particular night. As has been said many times by many people since his passing, Luke was always the "life of the party" even if the party was 1,200 miles away.

When he passed away, Luke was memorialized at both Churchill Downs and Turf Paradise. His ashes were spread at Churchill Downs, where he realized his greatest ambition in racecalling, which was, like almost all of us announcers, to call the Kentucky Derby. Luke said many times his first Derby call, Charismatic's win in 1999, was his personal favorite. However, he is still remembered just as fondly, if not more so, at Turf Paradise. I was asked to speak at the memorial service for Luke there and I've never had to do anything more difficult. I am, of course, glad I was able to be a part of the service because it enabled me to see firsthand all of the people that Luke touched with his spirit, generosity, and personality. I knew that there were so many feeling the same sense of loss that I felt and I had to keep it together for my friend.

I will be entering my third season this autumn at Turf Paradise and the reminders of Luke there are many. I provide one myself with a picture I took with him in the announcer's booth at Churchill Downs before the renovations done at the track. Also, the booth is where a branch that was draped over Luke's picture at the memorial is kept. There is a bench in the clubhouse that is permanently dedicated to Luke's memory. Finally, the people at Turf Paradise are the most vivid reminders to me about Luke because it always seems that Luke is still a part of each and every one of them. I am the announcer at Turf Paradise and hope to be in that position for a long time to come. However, there will always be only one "Voice Of Turf Paradise" and he is still dearly missed.

Tune in again tomorrow for more from They Are Off. For right now, I am Gone... GOODBYE!

Tuesday, July 12, 2011


Versus is a word with many meanings right now in the world of Thoroughbred racing. For one, it is the network on which NBC now places much of its racing coverage and will be airing broadcasts from Saratoga this spring in a much-needed boost to the television presence of the sport. Versus also is a combative word, as in the viability of tracks without additional gaming versus the success of those that do have it. In this vein, I look at versus in the way it was originally intended, as a way to set up a climactic matchup, like a top heavyweight fight or a championship game in any sport. Versus is a word that sometimes gets incorporated into a rivalry like Dallas vs. Pittsburgh in the NFL in the 1970s or Ali vs. Frazier in boxing from the same time frame. Right now, the best rivalry we have in racing is shaping up to take place again this weekend at Delaware Park.

Blind Luck and Havre De Grace is the most outstanding racing rivalry in the business currently and the two ladies are fairly even in their results. Blind Luck has two wins in their five matchups, Havre De Grace has two wins in the five matchups, and one (the Breeders' Cup Ladies' Classic) was won by the now-retired Unrivaled Belle. However, Blind Luck finished second at Churchill Downs and Havre De Grace ran third. Also keep in mind that one of those prior races was over this racetrack, in the Delaware Oaks won by Blind Luck. It certainly isn't like the two horses aren't coming into this race on the downswing. Havre De Grace is 3 for 3 in 2011, which includes a win the Apple Blossom at Oaklawn Park. Blind Luck's recent record in wins in the La Troienne at Churchill Downs and the Vanity at Hollywood Park.

By the way, another name not to be ignored in the mix is Life At Ten, who has still yet to recover from the whole Breeders' Cup fiasco last fall, when she should have been scratched after not warming up properly and having her rider disclose that information to the national television audience, leaving the only one's apparently unaware of the horse's condition the track veterinarian and the track stewards. Her trainer, Todd Pletcher, thinks Life At Ten might be a go for this race this weekend.

If you think about it, though, as far as the rivalry goes, it is the best of the available bunch right now. Animal Kingdom vs. Shackleford was shot down after Animal Kingdom was injured in the Belmont Stakes and shelved for the rest of the year. Who else do we have, Bob Baffert's Dudes, First Dude vs. Game On Dude after the 1-2 in the Hollywood Gold Cup? How about Gio Ponti vs. anyone they can throw at him on the turf at this point? Face it, the rivalry game in racing isn't much right now. Do we have to harken back to the glory days with Affirmed vs. Alydar and Sunday Silence vs. Easy Goer? It might not be that desperate yet, but if Blind Luck vs. Havre De Grace doesn't keep the momentum rolling, it could still get there.

Tune in again tomorrow for more from They Are Off. For right now, I am Gone... GOODBYE!

Friday, July 08, 2011

The Grade 1 $500,000 Hollywood Gold Cup

As detailed on the blog yesterday, the Hollywood Gold Cup is a race that has built up a storied history and legacy over its 71 prior runnings. The 72nd edition will be run on Saturday at Hollywood Park with a purse of $500,000 being offered to its eight participants, which includes the defending champion, Awesome Gem. Here is the analysis:

My top pick in the Hollywood Gold Cup is likely the same as everyone else's, #1 Twirling Candy. Joel Rosario has the riding assignment for trainer John Sadler. This colt has started three times in 2011, winning twice. The only loss came in the Grade 1 Santa Anita Handicap after what could only be classified as a roughly-run stretch drive. He won the Grade 2 Strub and the Grade 2 Californian in his other two performances. He is three for four over the cushion track at Hollywood Park. He worked seven furlongs on July 2, covering the distance in a blazing 1:25. For second, I will go with a California-bred, #6 Soul Candy, who has not won since the California Cup Classic in October 2010. He has run five times since then with two thirds and three fourths on the resume'. However, he ran fourth in that Grade 2 Californian won by the top pick and makes the second start off the most recent layoff, an angle I like. Garrett Gomez will be at the controls here. Chantal Sutherland rode #4 Game On Dude to an upset win in the Grade 1 Santa Anita Handicap on March 5 and this will be the first time they are paired up since that win for the Bob Baffert trainee. Game On Dude finished behind Awesome Gem in the Grade 3 Lone Star Park Handicap, but ran an excellent race under difficult conditions in the Grade 3 Charles Town Classic the time before that. This gelding has been working well lately, it should be noted. I will put the defending champion here, #5 Awesome Gem, in the fourth spot. His lone victory since winning here last year came in that Lone Star Park Handicap. He ran a decent second in the Grade 3 Cornhusker Handicap at Prairie Meadows last time out. David Flores was up for the win in this race last year and returns to the saddle again on Saturday. Here is the play for the Grade 1 $500,000 Hollywood Gold Cup:

$2 EX 1 with ALL
$1 TRI 1 with 3-4-5-6 with ALL
TOTAL- $38

Currently, the blog is MINUS $750 for the year. Yes, we made a $2 profit last week, which triggered mass celebrations. Remember, They Are Off accepts no responsibility for any wagers placed in conjunction with these selections. They are merely suggestions. Tune in again next week for more from They Are Off. For right now, I am Gone... GOODBYE!

Thursday, July 07, 2011

Hooray For Hollywood!

This Saturday is the 72nd renewal of one of the top handicap races on the West Coast, the Grade 1 $500,000 Hollywood Gold Cup. If you look back at some of the names of the winners of this race, you will get a veritable who's who of racing royalty. Names like Seabiscuit, Citation, Swaps, Ack Ack, Affirmed, Ferdinand, Cigar, and Skip Away have all been to the Winner's Circle following the Hollywood Gold Cup.

However, oddly enough, there are only two horses that have ever won consecutive runnings of the Hollywood Gold Cup and they both won three in a row. Native Diver turned the trick from 1965-1967 and Lava Man also scored a three-peat from 2005-2007. Native Diver was elected to the Hall Of Fame in 1978 and while it is unlikely Lava Man will join him there, Lava Man certainly was no slouch when it came to racing, winning 17 of 47 starts and over $5,000,000 in purse money. That's not bad for a horse that was up for a claiming tag early in his fine career. Interestingly enough, both Native Diver and Lava Man were California-breds.

There is a Kentucky-bred that has the opportunity to join that short list as a repeat winner of the Hollywood Gold Cup on Saturday. Awesome Gem was relatively ignored by the bettors last year at odds of 8-1 and ended up springing a nice upset over 2009 Hollywood Gold Cup winner, Rail Trip, and Richard's Kid, who was a back-to-back winner of the Grade 1 Pacific Classic at Del Mar in 2009 and 2010. Awesome Gem has won only once since that victory in the Hollywood Gold Cup last July. He took the prize in the Grade 3 Lone Star Park Handicap two starts back on May 30. He then followed that up with a runner-up result in the Grade 3 Cornhusker Handicap at Prairie Meadows in Iowa. Is this stone closer starting to round into form to make it possible for him to become just the third back-to-back Hollywood Gold Cup winner? The Gold Cup will be the feature race on the blog for the weekend selections on Friday.

Here is the link to watch Awesome Gem's victory in the 2010 Hollywood Gold Cup: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wzkZc7o8pOI. Tune in again tomorrow for more from They Are Off. For right now, I am Gone... GOODBYE.

Tuesday, July 05, 2011

News Flash(point)

It is my opinion that Flashpoint has the capacity to be one of the leading (if not the leading) sprinters in 2011. He proved that point again this weekend with a seven-length victory in the Grade 3 $143,000 Jersey Shore Stakes at Monmouth Park. Flashpoint has now run five times in his brief career, sprinting thrice and going a route twice. The three sprints were wins and the two route races were utter failures. Flashpoint broke his maiden at six furlongs over the inner track at Aqueduct on January 15. He followed that up with a crushing win in the Grade 2 Hutcheson at seven furlongs, defeating some very good sprinters including Travelin Man.

It is at this point that the connections appeared to get a little bit greedy, thinking the horse might be fast enough to carry that speed longer distances than six or seven furlongs. He was entered in the Grade 1 Florida Derby, drew the outside post in the field of eight, couldn't get to the front like he was supposed to, and ended up running a decent fourth with everything considered. I can actually forgive the connections one attempt to at least see what the horse can do at a longer distance. There is nothing wrong with trying something once and failing at it, after all, most everyone does that every day. It is the next race that actually raised my hackles a little bit with Flashpoint. He was entered in the Preakness at Pimlico, going 1 3/16 miles. To be frank, I don't know what in the horse's performances had indicated that he could go that far, especially if he were to be pressed. Of course, he was pressed right into last place in the field of fourteen by the eventual winner, Shackleford. Was this merely a case of Triple Crown Fever gone awry? It very well might have been, especially since the Derby wasn't in the plans based on Graded Stakes Earnings at that point.

I am now happy to see that Flashpoint is back in the races he should have been running in all along. The time for the six furlongs of the Jersey Shore was a solid 1:08.73, especially given that the condition of the track was muddy. I am looking very forward to seeing Flashpoint challenge the likes of Smiling Tiger, Noble's Promise, Aikenite, Morning Line, Trappe Shot, Amazombie, Big Drama (when he returns) and the other older sprinters he will likely have to deal with for the rest of the year, leading up to the Breeders' Cup Sprint or Dirt Mile (which is a one-turn race at Churchill Downs). As a matter of fact, I think it would be ideal to see trainer Wesley Ward get this guy ready for the Grade 1 King's Bishop at seven furlongs for three-year-olds at Saratoga. That race won't be run until August 27, but it should be a great continuation of what promises to be an excellent sprinting season that has seen only a couple of blips on the radar screen.

Tune in again tomorrow for more from They Are Off. For right now, I am Gone... GOODBYE!

Friday, July 01, 2011

The Grade 1 $750,000 United Nations

One of the premier turf events of the summer highlights the holiday weekend at Monmouth Park in New Jersey. The Grade 1 $750,000 United Nations is run at 1 3/8 miles on the turf, certainly an odd distance, but one that makes this race a good barometer of who you might be able to look for in future long-distance turf races later on the calendar, like the Grade 1 Man O'War and the Grade 1 Breeders' Cup Turf. Here is the analysis:

I made a yeoman's effort to try and find someone in this race that could beat #9 Chinchon and just couldn't do it. He is the defending champion in this race and while he has not won again since that race, he looks awfully tough in here. The one thing that really worried me about him is the travel schedule he has followed since winning here last year. From Monmouth, he went to France, Canada, Dubai, and Singapore. Garrett Gomez has the ride on Chinchon, just as he did in 2010. Another overseas horse lights my fancy in here with #7 Stacelita. She is a French-bred filly that has faced the boys in the last two, so it is certainly nothing new to her here. She ran third in a Group 3 race at Longchamp last time out on June 13. This will not be her first foray out of Europe, though. She went to Hong Kong to race at Sha Tin in December in the Group 1 Hong Kong Cup, finishing eighth. I will put #5 Sleepless Knight in the third spot. He ran second behind Teaks North (also in this field) in the Grade 3 Monmouth on June 12. The Sire is 2000 Breeders' Cup Mile winner, War Chant. That Grade 3 last time out is the first time this horse was let off at more than 4-1 since his career debut at Gulfstream in February 2009. He is 6-1 on the morning line for this try. Trainer Kelly Breen has been doing very well of late. For fourth, I am going with the winner of the Grade 3 Breeders' Cup Marathon last fall, #4 Eldaafer. He was a winner two back at 1 mile and 40 yards at Atlantic City during their brief season. He followed that up by running fourth of five in the Grade 2 Brooklyn Handicap the day before the Belmont Stakes in New York. This horse is bred to run all day with three Belmont Stakes winners present in the last two generations. Paco Lopez has the ride. Here is the play for the Grade 1 $750,000 United Nations:

$20 WPS #9
$2 EX 9 with 2-4-5-7
TOTAL- $68

The blog is now MINUS $752 for the year. Like I said last week, at least we are coming close, but of course, THEY DON'T PAY YOU FOR CLOSE, DO THEY?!?!?!? Remember, They Are Off accepts no responsibility for any wagers made in conjunction with these selections. They are merely suggestions. Tune in again next week for more from They Are Off. For right now, I am Gone... GOODBYE!