Friday, May 08, 2009

A Filly Enters the Preakness Picture 

And not just any filly, but Rachel Alexandra, who crushed the Kentucky Oaks field by 20+ lengths as the odds-on favorite. She's so good that Derby winner Mine That Bird's jockey, Calvin Borel, has hopped off him in favor of Rachel. It is safe to say, I think, that no jockey has ever taken off the Derby winner for another horse in the second jewel of the Triple Crown. Holy Cow!

Here's Joe Drape on the switch. Rachel Alexandra was just sold to wine magnate Jess Jackson, who is out to prove a point on breeding sound horses (Jackson owned another solid, sound horse, Curlin, who beat Street Sense to win the Preakness two years ago). I prefer Jackson's point to that of Rachel's prior, traditionalist owner who refused to run the filly in the Triple Crown races on the premise that they were designed for colts to enhance their stud value. Many a good horse has been ruined chasing the dream of the Triple Crown, a series which, for all the interest it generates, has contributed to an unsound stock of thoroughbred genes.

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Friday, June 20, 2008

Is congress ready to regulate racing? 

I've followed the decline of horse racing for years, and it is clear to me that a poor system of governance is part of the problem. The sport has a dim future and competing factions with sharply opposed short term interests. This limits the potential for self-generated governance. But it is not clear what the solution is. A national regulatory authority was proposed at yesterday's Congressional hearing on horse racing. But patchwork state regulation has also been an enormous burden on the industry, literally choking the life out of it and short circuiting the potential for adaptation and change.

This is a tough problem. But it's one with plenty of talking points, so I expect yesterday's hearing won't be the last.

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Monday, June 09, 2008

Keeping the ball, & the horse in play 

Henry Waxman is a master at milking sports for publicity:
“It’s clear that some of the information Major League Baseball and the players union gave the committee in 2005 was inaccurate,” Waxman said in a written statement. “It isn’t clear whether this was intentional or just reflects confusion over the testing program for 2003 and 2004. In any case, the misinformation is unacceptable.”

Manfred, speaking for the commissioner’s office, said that he and Selig had testified truthfully.

“The testimony of Major League Baseball officials was completely accurate, and we are happy to address any concerns that Congressman Waxman may have,” Manfred said.

Michael Weiner, the union’s general counsel, said in reference to Fehr: “Don’s statements at the March 2005 hearing were accurate. If Congressman Waxman has any questions, we would be happy to respond.”
Vis a vis the horse, various commentators have stated that Big Brown's loss in the Belmont might be the last time we see him on the racetrack. NY Times columnist Joe Drape uses a bit of economic logic to suggest otherwise:
Before the Preakness, Three Chimneys Farm in Midway, Ky., purchased a percentage of Big Brown’s stallion rights in a deal valued at $60 million.

If he had become the first to sweep the series since Affirmed in 1978, Big Brown would have been expected to stand for at least $200,000 a mating and, as the only living Triple Crown champion, would have been worth up to $120 million.

Instead, I.E.A.H. and Big Brown’s other co-owners are going to be hard pressed to restore the colt’s stallion market to perhaps half of that $60 million level. Big Brown does not have a particularly fashionable pedigree: his sire, Boundary, stood for $10,000 for 11 seasons before being pensioned, and he produced a modest 16 stakes winners, mostly sprinters.

Big Brown is pointed to run in the Travers at Saratoga in August, and the Breeders’ Cup Classic in October at Santa Anita, where he is likely to meet Curlin, the reigning horse of the year.

“It puts a little more pressure on us to win those races,” Iavarone said. “I know a lot of people say we haven’t beaten anyone, and we needed to take on older horses.”

So for now, Big Brown’s future is pretty straightforward.
If he can stay healthy, he will run again. As for the poor performance Saturday, it might be the case of a bunch of little things all adding up to a dull performance. The best explanation I've seen so far comes from veterinarian Sid Gustafson in his post at The Rail.

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Monday, June 02, 2008

Racing's handicap 

Big Brown has racing afficionados buzzing from coast to coast. But economic factors surrounding this exceptional racehorse, and the sport in general, mean that the ride will be over almost before it gets started. I make one modest proposal for reform in this piece, at The American.


Image by The Bergman Group/Darren Wamboldt.

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Thursday, May 22, 2008

Racing & breeding 101 

Sadly, Big Brown be retired from racing before the end of 2008. The reason is simple: he can generate far more revenue at significantly lower cost by performing stallion duties, as Alex Brown explains:
Based on Smarty Jones’s [ed: another early retiree] numbers of 2006, each year Big Brown will earn $100,000 x 112, $11.2 million. ... From an investment standpoint — and Big Brown’s owners are investors — to keep Big Brown in racing beyond his 3-year-old career, he would need to earn more than $11.2 million a year plus the additional costs of insurance as a racehorse versus insurance as a stallion. Obviously the economic decision has to be to retire Big Brown.
Go on over to The Rail to see the basis for this calculation.

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Sunday, May 18, 2008

Views on Big Brown 

Although I'm the resident horse racing buff here, I've been silent during the Triple Crown season. With the exception of Big Brown, the prep season gave us little to get excited about. Big Brown's victories in the Kentucky Derby and Preakness have changed that dramatically. Big Brown has shown that he's something special. Ordinary horses don't circle the field in the Derby, take a breather on the far turn, and sprint away from the best of their generation. He validated this view in the Preakness, navigating a poor start and tight quarters early, on the way to the easiest of triumphs.

While Big Brown is beating a modest group of challengers, he's doing so with an authority which suggests he could be the best three year old since Spectacular Bid. The Bid was an aggressive alpha male who threw a catch-me-if-you can gauntlet at his rivals and ground them into bits. Big Brown is different. He cruises along with a lengthy, seemingly effortless stride. He is responsive to his rider and can make a move at will, and then find another gear when asked to leave the competition behind. Combine this tractability with speed and stamina and you have a special racehorse. But even Spectacular Bid failed to win the Belmont Stakes.

What can we expect from Big Brown in three week's time? Here are the views of two trainers who have been around the triple crown trail for decades, courtesy of Ray Paulick at ESPN. First, Wayne Lukas:
"A dominating Derby winner ran a dominating race today," Lukas said. "But those other dominating horses end up having to do it again in three weeks, and I've always said it's not just a Triple Crown -- it's a demanding five-race series, because you almost always have to have two good ones in front of it just to get in the Derby itself. Big Brown is lightly raced, and he's got that in his favor. Frankly, I think he will win it, but it's not a given."

... Big Brown's trainer, Rick Dutrow, said after the Preakness he intends to give the colt one timed workout before the Belmont. He has been careful not to work the colt too hard because of problems he's had with quarter cracks in his feet, which have been aided by glue-on shoes that have a protective padding.

"Rick hasn't made any mistakes so far," Lukas said, "but he's in uncharted waters now. There are no preparations for going a mile and a half. So he's got to read his horse very carefully and evaluate his strengths going into this final leg."
Next, a more sanguine Bob Baffert, whose Silver Charm and Real Quiet were nailed deep in the Belmont stretch (as was the unbeaten Smarty Jones) to ruin their triple crown hopes:
"This is the horse we've all been waiting for," Baffert said of Big Brown. "We all want a horse like this.

"When he wins, he doesn't turn a hair. He doesn't get excited. He knows he is so good. In the paddock before the Preakness, it was like nothing for him. And then, when he came back after the race, that horse didn't look like he even took a deep breath."

Baffert then paid Big Brown the ultimate compliment: "This is the best horse I've seen since I've been in the business."

There are only two obstacles between Big Brown and a Triple Crown victory, according to Baffert: the quarter cracks that plagued him earlier this year and the Japanese horse Casino Drive, who made an impressive U.S. debut, winning the May 10 Peter Pan Stakes at Belmont Park in only his second career start. Casino Drive was produced from Better Than Honour, the dam of the past two Belmont winners: Jazil and Rags to Riches.

"If the Japanese horse wasn't in there, it would be a gimme," Baffert said. "He's the only horse I see that has the quality even close to Big Brown."

What advice, if any, does Baffert have for Dutrow over the next few weeks?

"Just keep those shoes on him, babe. That's all you need to do."
Although both are clearly impressed by the horse, I lean more towards the optimistic view of Baffert than the guarded Lukas. Nevertheless, Casino Drive was impressive in winning the Peter Pan Stakes, and he is clearly fast. He has a "grind-it-out" style, which suits the Belmont's mile and a half distance. He seems capable of making Big Brown work to win the Belmont, which makes the race one to anticipate. As Andrew Beyer points out, Big Brown must beat quality horses in order to claim the mantle of greatness. The Belmont Stakes will provide his chance.

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Thursday, May 01, 2008

Emerging scandals? 

If the favorite, Big Brown, wins the Kentucky Derby, expect the tone of the news coverage to change. His trainer has a history of doping that the mainstream press is putting aside in the usual rose-colored pre-race stories. Journalist Paul Moran has the story though, at his blog. Oddly, the story comes via the New York Times top horse racing writer Joe Drape, whose blog "The Rail" gives outstanding coverage of the Triple Crown. This is my first stop for horseracing news these days.

As an aside, I think that doping and horses provides a good example of the social costs of doping in general. The Nash equilibrium is to dope, and it has been going on for decades. But doped, muscle-bound thoroughbreds are more likely to suffer a catastrophic injury than horses that run clean. (Granted, I think the links here are much stronger than with humans.) Drape has a good post on this issue as well, "The Last Winstrol Derby?", which discusses the possibility that American racing will ban & test for steroids in the near future. Winstrol has been used on horses long before it was injected - allegedly - into Roger Clemens' butt.

And now to the land of scandals, European soccer. This time we go off the beaten path, to Romania, and the run-in for the league championship. The story has everything: ethnic tension between the two protagonists, allegations of payments to referees, payments to opposing teams, and mafia-like sniping between the clubs.

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Wednesday, May 23, 2007

Chariot racing returns 

Yesterday I mentioned the long tail phenomenon and niche sports in the context of Dave Winfield's new book on baseball. The sport of the ancients - chariot racing - was not exactly what I had in mind. But in today's online WSJ, Matt Moffett reports that a group of latter-day pioneers are plotting a comeback:
Mr. de Oliveira is part of a highly committed global community of horse and history buffs who believe that chariot racing is a sport whose time has come again, after a hiatus of a millennium or so. In the Middle East, France and England, as well as in Brazil, these modern charioteers are enduring bone-jarring bumps to revive the contests that thrilled the ancients and, more recently, launched a whole genre of Hollywood sword-and-sandal movies.

One of the men behind the international buggy boomlet, Swedish-born Stellan Lind, became obsessed with chariots after watching the famous racing scene in "Ben-Hur," the 1959 movie starring Charlton Heston. "Chariot racing was the Formula One of the antiquities," says Mr. Lind, who for years was a pharmaceuticals executive.

Mr. Lind saw his chance to resurrect racing several years ago when he stumbled onto a Roman hippodrome in Jerash, Jordan, that was being restored by archaeologists. He got financial backing from the Jordan Tourism Board to hold re-enactments of races and gladiator fights there. To help him design chariots that were functional as well as historically faithful, Mr. Lind tracked down a former "Ben-Hur" prop man who was keeping several of the chariots used in the film in his barn in Rome. In 2005, Mr. Lind and his company, the Roman Army and Chariot Experience, or RACE, started entertaining tourists in Jerash with Roman exhibitions.

Last September in Paris, director Robert Hossein staged five performances of a $17 million Ben-Hur re-enactment at the Stade de France, featuring hundreds of extras appearing as charioteers, gladiators and pirates. It drew close to 300,000 spectators.
Here's a video version of Matt's report, focused on Mr. de Oliveira's May Day Race in rural Brazil. The crowd of 175 was a far cry from the days of the Circus Maximus in Rome, but who knows? It might catch on.

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