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Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Jockey Changes

I find it interesting that jockey Rajiv Maragh has been working Mine That Bird in preparation for a run in the G1 Woodward. While D. Wayne Lukas is “noncommittal” about the issue of a jockey change, I must say at this point they need to do something to wake this gelding up—and considering how well Rajiv is going right now, it might be a good move.

While we’re on the topic, how about a jockey change for Rachel Alexandra as well? Honestly, I’m usually not a big fan of jockey changes, particularly if a horse is running well. However, I’m not convinced that errors in race timing aren’t at the root of Rachel’s rash of second-place finishes, especially when it’s a matter of getting outkicked in the final strides such as in the New Orleans Ladies by Zardana; in the G2 La Troienne by Unrivalled Belle; and in the G1 Personal Ensign by Persistently. I appreciate Calvin Borel’s love for this horse and truly this isn't meant to bash him personally, but don’t we all want what’s best for her based on the present and not the past?

As more knowledgeable pundits than I (Andy Beyer, Steven Crist) have right noted, this is not the Rachel Alexandra of 2009, although that fact certainly doesn’t negate the justly won honor of last year’s Horse of the Year. Likewise, as both Ray Paulick and Steve Haskin have noted, it’s certainly ludicrous to consider retirement for her (barring physical injury), for if she were any other racehorse, her performances this year would be more than commendable. But, she’s not just any horse, is she? She’s Rachel, the stuff of legends and with a rightly earned place ensured in history, although it appears each less-than-stellar performance this year erodes that luster. So, what to do?

Playing Monday morning quarterback, let me make the following comments and suggestions:

1. Her connections gave her too much time off when they stopped her campaign last year. I’m not suggesting they should have “sucked it up” and run her in the Breeders’ Cup Classic, but she should have been put into training much earlier than she was, unless there was a physical issue or injury that we don’t know about. That slow start has compounded itself, throwing the entire campaign (for lack of a better word) out of whack.

2. She should have been raced more often this year, and been placed in more challenging races—specifically in open company immediately. From her previous efforts it’s evident this filly thrives on hard challenges, so placing her in races like the New Orleans Ladies and other lesser races just because they “fit” some preconceived notions about favored tracks and maintained an artificial timing “pattern” that matched last year’s campaign was ridiculous. While Zenyatta’s connections have continued their egocentric, nearly California-only campaign in filly and mare races only, Rachel’s connections have likewise wimped out this year—and probably will again, by retiring her too soon or avoiding tougher races for the rest of the year.

3. In addition to a jockey change, a trainer change is long overdue. I’m not a huge fan of Steve Asmussen, but notwithstanding that, her success last year was due as much to him (or Scott Blasi) not fucking up more than anything he did as a trainer. Sheer momentum propelled her campaign last year once Jess Jackson acquired her. In succession, she conquered the Preakness, Mother Goose, Haskell, and Woodward because of her race fitness established by Hal Wiggins, and sustain by actually racing her in the toughest company. I’m certainly not suggesting she needs a trainer whose mantra is “bullet works” or run the horse into the ground, but an intuitive trainer willing to think a little more outside the box—and having the guts to stand up to any ridiculous ideas perpetuated by her owner.

4. It’s not unprecedented that outstanding 3-year-olds, regardless of sex, never match their earlier form, so that doesn’t bother me about Rachel Alexandra’s performance if she is, in fact, performing the best that she can. What does irk me is the constant comparison with Zenyatta. Apples and oranges, folks. Totally unraced at two, Zenyatta’s first race was on November 22 of her 3-year-old campaign—and she only raced once more that year. By the end of her third year of life, Rachel Alexandra had raced 14 times, which is hardly an extraordinary amount either. The simple fact is these two horses matured differently, and the fact that Zenyatta continues to mow down her competition reflects that fact, as does the lesser quality of her competition, conservative race choices (barring last year's Classic) and travel schedule over recent years. She does what she does well, but until they actually meet on the track under equally favorable circumstances, it's a moot point to debate who is "best."

Barring any report of injury—and notwithstanding an unlikely trainer and/or jockey change—what do I want to see from Rachel Alexandra for the rest of 2010?

October 2: G1 Beldame
November 6: G1 Breeders’ Cup Ladies’ Classic
November 26: G1 Clark Handicap

Why the Ladies’ Classic and not the Classic? Believe it or not, it has nothing to do with the quality of her competition, because I think, given the right ride and pace scenario, Rachel can (even now) defeat most if not all the handicap horses in the male division. The main obstacle is distance. Stick to 9 furlongs for now. There’s no shame in that, god knows! Just look at the pathetic way in which the “best” male 3-year-olds crawled home in the Travers...

Or, if they were really thinking outside the box, how about shortening up for the Breeders' Cup, and run her in the G1 Dirt Mile? She could be a serious miler, don't you think? Then, instead of the Clark, take on the G1 Cigar Mile at Aqueduct on November 27, and aim her for the G1 Met Mile next May.

Whatever happens, Rachel Alexandra is one of the most exciting horses American horse racing has enjoyed in recent decades. However, the time has come to, as they say colloquially, “shit or get off the pot” because Rachel's short-term reputation as well as historical legacy is going down the toilet.


Nicholas said...

A well reasoned and well written piece, thank you for providing some rational commentary in the middle of the sea of RA nonsense.

Thanks for adult rational commentary.

SaratogaSpa said...

With reference to your thoughts on a trainer change-who do you have in mind?

Valerie Grash said...

In terms of a trainer for Rachel, in an ideal world, my first choice would have been the late Bobby Frankel which, alas, isn’t possible. Second choice is the retired Larry Jones—again, not possible. Then there are several politically correct “safe” answers, such as Shug McGaughey, Jimmy Jerkens, or Jonathan Sheppard, the latter whom may be best known for turf runners, but I would trust implicitly as a horseman. I would also consider Bob Baffert among the “mega trainers.” Definitely NOT Todd Pletcher, though.

I might be willing to take a chance on Chad Brown, or even Helen Pitts-Blasi who may be less experienced, but have done well by the chances given them. My most unconventional choice would be Rick Dutrow, believe or not. But, could you see Dutrow and Jess Jackson working together?!? LOL!

dana said...

You nailed it re: Maragh...

Anonymous said...

Valerie, what I want to know, is who you would send a horse to given the opportunity. I'll give you a couple scenarios: a two-year old, and a handicapper that runs on all surfaces.

race said...

I'm thinking a little different with regard to RA last year. Instead of Steve keeping her with him after her campaign last year, bringing her with him track to track, I'd like to think that turning her out and just being a Horse for awhile (much like Sheppard does frequently), would have possibly brought her back a little fresher--r

Valerie Grash said...

Both choices would rely on several factors, including owner’s geographical preference, intended level of competitiveness, and potential for earning state-bred awards. Hypothetically, though, let’s say we’re talking about a top-tier juvenile with tons of potential—one I’m hoping to aim for the Kentucky Derby, for example. (Every owner’s dream, right?) Most people would gravitate to Wesley Ward, Ken McPeek, Todd Pletcher or Steve Asmussen, but for various reasons I really want a trainer I know can provide personalized attention, not the “corporate” approach.

East of the Mississippi, Chad Brown comes to mind—smart (Cornell grad), well-trained himself (by Shug McGaughey, Bobby Frankel), good success thus far. Especially if a filly, Cindy Jones would be outstanding, and Helen Pitts-Blasi without a doubt, for either juvenile or handicap horse. Also, I hear very good things about Shannon Ritter. For older campaigner, Jonathan Sheppard tops the list.

On the West Coast, Ron Ellis hands-down for any horse, but Kristen Munhall strikes me as a well-prepared young trainer who could develop a 2-year-old, and, of course, Carla Gaines.

Valerie Grash said...

Hi race!

You may be right. Ideally, she should have frolicked awhile and just been a horse, although some horses don’t actual handle that well. I’m not sure if she’s of the personality to appreciate the freedom. I don’t know if she had a growth spurt or even other “female problems” that might have delayed her training. I just get the impression—maybe incorrectly—that Rachel needs to be challenged, not coddled. And the choice of races this year has been based on weirdly arbitrary things like a certain track she ran on last year at roughly the last time. Last year’s campaign was in the past; I don’t think they should have tried to replicate it. If that were the case, they should have held off on the Personal Ensign, and gone in this weekend’s Woodward which looks like it’s come up (barring Quality Road) relatively weak. It’s her preferred distance at least.

SaratogaSpa said...

Valerie--Thanks for the detailed response on Trainers-I love Chad Brown, I think he is really good at finding the right spots for his horses, and despite the reputation he has, I also think Rick Dutrow is much smarter than people give him credit and a real knowledgeable horseman.