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Thursday, August 23, 2007

Pathetic (on So Many Levels)

Another winless day for the Toddster at Saratoga—0 for 5, including even-money favorite Wingspan finishing third in race 3. I swear, I don’t mean to be facetious, but what the hell happened to our Todd who earlier this year looked to be brimming over with talented horses? He does have some promising two-year-olds—The Roundhouse, Glacken’s Gal, Ready’s Image—but where did all his Triple Crown pretenders go? Twilight Meteor, Circular Quay, Soaring By, Scat Daddy, King of the Roxy, Sam P, Deadly Dealer, Distorted Reality, Cowtown Cat, Out of Gwedda—all have underperformed (or retired!), and, except for his recent resurgence, so too did Any Given Saturday. Thank god for Rags to Riches—if she runs again.

However, where does this leave Todd in terms of, arguably, the most important race of the Saratoga meet, the Travers? Zilch…nada…zero…not a single entry. Call me disappointed. I truly thought I would hear around 11 a.m. Wednesday morning that Pletcher had decided to enter Rags to Riches in the Midsummer Derby, but, alas, it was not to be! Thus, looking over the seven-horse field assembled, call me underwhelmed. Nay, bored, bored, bored

Let’s take a closer look. Nick Zito’s uncoupled tandem, Helsinki and C P West. The former finished dead-last in the G2 Dwyer (his only previous graded stakes attempt) and could only muster a well-beaten fourth in a restricted $80k stakes race last out. The latter has improved recently, finishing 1-1/2 lengths behind Street Sense in the G2 Jim Dandy (his best finish in a graded stakes), but, in eight lifetime races, he has only won once—his 6f maiden race last summer at Saratoga. Helen Pitts (who should rightly be enjoying Curlin’s success) puts forth For You Reppo who has only run in stakes company once before, a nearly 10 length whippin’ by Hard Spun in the G2 Lands End. Neil Howard’s Grasshopper has no stakes experience whatsoever, though he does come off a nice win versus older (no-name) horses last out here. Ken McPeek’s Loose Leaf won a minor stakes race (Lemon Drop Kid) at Saratoga on August 5, but has had no success in previous graded stakes attempts (both grade 3). The only potential challenger to Street Sense, is Shug McGaughey’s Sightseeing who skipped the Triple Crown races, and appears to be maturing. Still, in my eyes, this is not a grade 1-caliber race. And, that’s a damn shame!

So, what happened to all of Street Sense’s potential competition? Those that haven't retired or moved to grass (or strategically chose to avoid him) swarmed to the shorter 7f G1 King’s Bishop, which looks to be a far, far more interesting race. Highlights here: early speedball Hard Spun, workman extraordinaire Teuflesberg, West Coast invader E Z Warrior who stumbled versus impressive older grade 1 company last out in the Bing Crosby (In Summation, Greg’s Gold, Bordonaro, et al), and maturing Most Distinguished who won the 6.5f G2 Amsterdam here on July 30 (and actually hasn’t finished worse than second in three races at Saratoga). I’ll pick this race apart later in the week, but I have a point to be made here.

Why the pathetic field for the Travers? Breeders. Period. Yes, by separating Street Sense and Hard Spun, Darley may finally be able to get that all-important grade 1 win for Hard Spun, but at the expense of another exciting match-up between these two talented colts. However, I don’t believe that manipulating the positioning of horses in races is the sole reason the Travers is so weak. And neither is the foolishly disproportionate focus placed on the Breeders’ Cup (believe me, that is a huge problem too).

What we are witnessing, my friends, is the systemic problem with American thoroughbred racing in the 21st century…the lack of good thoroughbred breeding. Breeding for what, since 1700, thoroughbreds are renowned for—speed and stamina. Stamina: physical or mental strength to resist fatigue and tiredness; endurance. Virtual no value is placed on breeding horses that can run beyond 7f in this country, and few of the horses on the Triple Crown trail could effectively run the longer distances of the three classics anyhow. See Stormello as the perfect example of that. I think I know why the situation exists…do you really want to hear my theory? Okay, here it goes…

Television. No, not horse racing on television. Television itself as a medium. It has rotted our culture not by only shortening our attention span, but also quickening the pace of life. Commercials tout all the trappings of instant gratification. Don’t have enough money to buy all those wonderful things you must have? Get a credit card, two, or ten, and take out a cash advance from CashCall to pay those off. I could go on, but you get the gist.

Horses are being bred for speed rather than stamina because our attention span is too damn short. We bellyache at the slow pace of European-style turf (and Del Mar polytrack) races where mental dexterity, strategy and riding skills play just as much a role as the horse itself. As a culture, we want the fastest speedball straight out of the gate, and not just in horseracing. Look no further than track—how many people in the general population with the minimum amount of interest know the names of middle distance—or, god forbid, long distance—runners, and how many know the sprinters—Carl Lewis, Michael Johnson, Gail Devers, Wilma Rudolph, Jesse Owens? We no longer appreciate intellect, tactics or strategy (and, yes, look no further than our political “leaders” to see the sum result of that).

Horses aren’t bred to run at lower-tier tracks like Charles Town, Ellis or Great Lakes, but those tracks (and, indeed, all U.S. tracks) host a large number of sprint races because that’s the type of horses being overbred in this country. Trainer Vladimir Cerin, whose Student Council recently won the G1 Pacific Classic, said it best when bemoaning that practioners of his profession have "become quarter horse trainers and not thoroughbred trainers." Except, he had it slightly off…they are actually training “quarter horses” masquerading as thoroughbreds. And there’s not thing one we can do about that.