Monthly Archives: December 2013

Eclipsing the Competition: Horse of the Year, Top Jockey

John Velazquez and Wise Dan
John Velazquez and Wise Dan

With 2013 now in the home stretch, I’m sure that most analysts and experts will hitch their cart (or ballot) to Will Take Charge for Horse of the Year in 2013.  The blaze-faced chestnut certainly proved impressive, yet finishes slightly behind Mucho Macho Man in total earnings.  (He also found himself slightly behind Mucho Macho Man in the Breeders’ Cup Classic.)

This racing fan and part-time blogger/handicapper has been following the career of another blazed-faced chestnut, Wise Dan.  The connections’ decision not to run him in the Classic could have been the proverbial nail in Wise Dan’s repeat as Horse of the Year.  However, the decision was made to put the best miler in racing on the biggest and most lucrative stage for milers – the Breeders’ Cup Dirt Mile.  It’s been said that the competition was not the same as it was in the Classic.  I am increasingly intrigued at the strategy put forth at the beginning of a racing season with an obvious power horse like Wise Dan, Will Take Charge and others of their magnitude.  The weight put into the stakes races and the grades for each stakes race, is remarkable and masterfully calculated by the owners and trainers.  It helps as well when you have the top jockeys getting the mount on one of the most well-breed power racehorses in the country.  With John Velazquez aboard Wise Dan, they were fierce and fearless barreling toward the finish line.  John knew how to control the horse underneath him with precision and patience.  Wise Dan’s loss to Silver Max was not only shocking but unexpected, and that’s what makes this sport so exciting.  Wise Dan will finish 2013 with victories in six of his seven starts.  His only loss was a second place finish on a wet Polytrack at Keeneland.

Yes, the Will Take Charge lobbyists, such as Gary West of ESPN, are saying that the field of Grade 1 winners in Breeders’ Cup Dirt Mile were minimal compared to the competition Will Take Charge had to contend with in the Classic.  Mr. West also goes on to point out that not only in the Breeders’ Cup but in most of Wise Dan’s perfectly placed stakes races were there little or no strong milers who could possibly defeat him.  His biggest plug for Will Take Charge winning Horse of the Year is that in this year of racing there is a multitude of worthy and deserved would-be/could-be winners and therefore no horse should repeat with the honor.  Traditionally, Horse of the Year accolades go to dirt racers.  Only two exclusive turf milers, All Along in 1983 and Kotashaan in 1993, were named Horse of the Year.  Will Take Charge did indeed have a variety of racing surfaces over the past year but also had 11 starts and finished first or second in seven of those races.  There’s some numbers missing there.  Some unaccounted for, maybe not-so-great, or just by a neck, finishes.

Wise Dan
Wise Dan

Wise Dan, on the other hand, had seven starts and seven finishes in the top 3.  That’s 100%, my friends.  In a game of probability and numbers, what’s wrong with a little complete domination?  Somehow, the perfectly placed turf mile stakes races seem to make perfect sense once the numbers flush out.  Wise Dan dominated the field in his specialty and proved to be the top of the food chain at his preferred distance (and analysts act like it’s a bad thing).   Jennie Rees of USA Today also casts her opinion in favor of Wise Dan, by default, unfortunately, with the poor performances of Game On Dude and Princess Sylmar at the Breeders’ Cup.  Without dismissing the competition, she takes particular note of Wise Dan’s performance at the Woodbine Million where he set a course record.

Brian Zipse (Zipse at the Track) wrote a concise yet witty comparison of the top contenders without giving away his choice.  Here’s the link to his blog: http://www.horseracingnation.com/blogs/zatt/Who_is_the_2013_Horse_of_the_Year_123

My vote, if I could, would be for Wise Dan to retain the crown as Horse of the Year.  Voting ends on January 3, 2014.

Johnny V. and Irad Ortiz, Jr.
Johnny V. and Irad Ortiz, Jr.

With discussion of Horse of the Year comes the discussion of the top jockey of 2013.  With his fall at the Breeders’ Cup which ultimately sidelined John Velazquez’s 2013 riding season, Javier Castellano rose to the top of the earnings chart with approximately $26 million, followed closely by Joel Rosario with $21 million.  Despite his injury, Velazquez will finish in third place.  Rosario’s second place finish may be considered a remarkable accomplishment because he broke his foot in mid-season and was unable to race.  Rafael Bejarano may not have finished on the top of the earnings chart (4th place) but there is no question that he dominated West Coast racing this year, winning riding titles at Santa Anita and Betfair Hollywood Park.  No surprise thus far in the standings, until you reach the rider in the fifth spot.  With an exceptional riding career at Aqueduct, 21-year old Puerto Rican rider Irad Ortiz, Jr. finds himself in the fifth spot between two future Hall of Fame riders:  Bejarano and Jose Lezcano.

Irad Ortiz, Jr.
Irad Ortiz, Jr.

The baby-faced jock has been picking up (and winning) mounts for trainers like Steve Amsussen and 2013 top trainer, Todd Pletcher, this season.  On December 26, Ortiz, whose younger brother Jose is an apprentice in New York, had nine mounts and finished in the money in four of them.  Irad and his brother consistently finish in the top 3.  Irad has only been riding since 2011 with his earnings were $2.8 million.  As of today, his earnings in 2013 are a staggering $13.9 million.  This is certainly a jockey to watch going into 2014.  He is currently the leading rider at Aqueduct with 43 wins.  However, I’m curious to see if he can ride on the West Coast.   He’s been at the New York barns since his apprenticeship and arrival from Puerto Rico.

2013 may have been the year of the seasoned riders like Mike Smith and Gary Stevens but they may need to keep checking over their shoulders.  2014 is the Chinese Year of the Horse, but it also might be the year of the young jockeys to grab the reigns and fly!

I shall not close without mentioning the riding title at Hawthorne.  You basically could have wrapped up the trophy in a big BLUE ribbon back in mid-November.  Tim Thornton accumulated 20+ wins over his closest competitor Rafael Manuel Hernandez and 30+ over third-place finisher Israel Ocampo.  Tim has raised his winning percentage significantly.  He even stated that a 15% winning percentage is remarkable in this business.  At the end of the Hawthorne meet, his winning percentage is 20%, total earnings at $1.1 million and a 48% chance of top 3%.  A very impressive 2013 season for this talented and likeable rider.

I started writing this blog in October.  My first racetrack to cover outside of Minnesota was Hawthorne Racecourse.  I have continually been impressed with my brief interaction with Jim Miller on Twitter, and appreciate that he did not discard a rookie, female handicapper such as myself.  I have learned a great deal about the jockeys, trainers, horses and connections in Chicago and find them all to have a genuine love and concern for this sport.  I look forward to covering Hawthorne next year.

I appreciate the opportunities that have presented themselves to me this past year and intend to make each one successful in 2014.  So, I begin 2014 with coverage at Oaklawn and Turf Paradise (following the Minnesota connections).

Alex Canchari
Alex Canchari

As promised, Minnesota’s own young racing star, Alex Canchari, will be my Jockey Feature next month in honor of his January birthday.

Todd Schrupp from TVG has one of the best “sign offs” in broadcasting: “Until next time, may all your photo finishes be winning ones.”  I need to get one of those for this blog.  I have trouble with conclusions – or maybe I just have trouble with “endings.”

JOCKEY FEATURE: PACO LOPEZ

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Paco Lopez began his riding career as most jockeys from Mexico do … at the bush tracks.  These are the kind of tracks were they throw pint-sized teenage boys on the back of a revved up quarter-horse and let ‘em loose.  The starting gate is basically a slap on the horse’s hind quarter.  There are no stewards, no rules, no regulations.  There are no million dollar purses and no multi-million dollar race facilities.  You place a bet with the guy in the cowboy hat and hand your money to the guy with the AK47.  These races are won by heart, determination and an unmatched need to win.  I’ve heard many U.S. jockeys say if you don’t win, you don’t get paid.  Money is the driving force for the bush track riders.  Paco Lopez grew up in Veracruz, Mexico with no electricity or running water.  The bush tracks are dangerous, risky and can be lucrative for the best riders. The necessity of winning is fueled by something far greater than the spotlight.

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When I lived in San Diego, my thoroughbred-owner friend and I would go from Del Mar to Santa Anita looking for horses and riders.  I confess, we spent a few weekends in Tijuana looking for riders.  Balls-to-the-wall, gutsy, aggressive riders were abundant in Mexico.  I remember thinking these were fearless athletes.  Broken bones, broken noses and missing teeth – they looked like 115-pound hockey players guiding a freight-train to the finish line.  Finesse, was not in the training manual.

When Paco Lopez arrived in the United States in 2007, his aggressive riding style didn’t go unnoticed by track stewards.  He was considered a reckless rider and found himself suspended for 60 days and barred from racing at both Calder and Churchill Downs, Inc. racetracks, yet still managed to win the riding title at Calder in 2007 and the 2008 Eclipse Award as an apprentice jockey.  Paco also won the riding tiles at Monmouth, Gulfstream and The Meadowlands over his seven year career.

ImageAs with most jockeys, Paco couldn’t escape injury.  In 2012, he broke his collarbone and fractured six ribs in a fall at Gulfstream.  But that same year, reached a milestone in his career with his 1,000th win on Whitey’s Gold at Monmouth. There are literally thousands of jockeys in the U.S. and to get noticed by big-time trainers and owners you need to win Grade 1 stakes races.  Unfortunately for Paco, he is still looking for the horse that can give him that elusive win and the recognition he deserves.  He holds an impressive list of stakes victories, but no Grade 1 title. He rode Pants on Fire in the 2013 Breeders’ Cup Dirt Mile but finished 7th in the race, even though Pants on Fire has two lesser grade stakes wins with Paco aboard.  On December 7, the Gulfstream card boasted 8 stakes races and Paco had mounts in all 8 races.  He won the $110,000 Claiming Crown Express on the favorite Ribo Bobo.  Ribo Bobo now has 10 wins in 11 starts. Paco also won the $110,000 Claiming Crown Iron Horse on Point Finish which paid $9.60 to win.  Paco is currently the leading rider at Gulfstream, his home track.

Hawthorne’s Belles of the Ball

As the meet winds down at Hawthorne the first of two weekends of stakes races kicks off with the baby girls (2 year old fillies) going one and one sixteenth for the $125,000 purse in the Pat Whitworth Illinois Debutante and 7 of them will go for the money, on December 7 in Race 7.  If you wager on superstition then this should be your race! However, don’t get clever and look to the horse in the 7th position.  Bylia is going off at 30-1 morning line and has been racing at Fairmount Park in Illinois with poor performances.

There is a clear favorite in this race and that’s Sasy Ms. Elizabeth who is coming into this race with two first places finishes in two previous stakes races:  the Showtime Deb at Hawthorne on November 9 and the All Sold Out Stakes race at Fairmount on September 10.  The pedigree is good here.  She is the daughter of 2005 Kentucky Derby winner Giacomo.  Sasy Ms. Elizabeth is 4/4 for money finishes and 3 of those 4 are trips to the Winner’s Circle.  She’s definitely the one to beat.

Sasy Ms Elizabeth
Sasy Ms Elizabeth

Carlos Silva and the Asiel Stable have two in this race, Pistols Drawn and Prairie Vista.  I have to go with Hawthorne’s expert Jim Miller on this one.  I’m also taking Pistols Drawn to upset Sasy Ms Elizabeth.  The stretch out will do her good, and she’s coming off her best finish on this track, first on November 23.  Raf Hernandez gets the mount on Pistols and he should get a good ride.

The other Silva horse is Prairie Vista and she’s at 5/1 and finished second at Hawthorne on November 23.  It you feel that 7/7/7 luck, you might want to go with both Silva horses in the Trifecta.

If you are really want to play with superstition, Lady Silverette is one of the 30-1s in this race, and gets the Lady Bug Taylor Rice who has been riding extremely well.  She’s always a spoiler on my ticket!  I feel like this Lady Bug has earned some respect of doubter handicappers!

Tangueray Miss is another one of those mid-level horses that could be a spoiler on this ticket, or at least finish in the top three.  Mast Thoroughbreds has this horse running well in Illinois, finishing 4/5 starts in the money.  She had a disappointing 5th place finish in the Showtime Deb but will be in the mix here.

Lakotadreamcatcher will have a difficult race ahead of her, even though she gets top jock Tim Thornton in the irons.  She is the daughter of Fort Prado and Lakota Girl, but just can’t seem to stay with the pace.  The mile and one sixteenth might be pushing it.  Timmy T will need to be patient on this one, or take her to the lead and see what she’s got.

Jim Miller’s got Pistols Drawn, Sasy Ms. Elizabeth and Tangueray Miss.  Just because it’s no fun to agree with the track’s expert, I’m going with Pistols Drawn, Sasy Ms. Elizabeth and Prairie Vista.  Yep, both Silva horses on my ticket.

Next weekend the baby boys get a go at the $125,000 capping off the last of the stakes races at Hawthorne in the Jim Edgar Illinois Futurity.  Nominations have been entered but contenders will not be selected until next week.  I am hoping for some big-time, impressive two year-olds in this race.

Good Luck!  May the Power of 7 be with you!