Friday, January 23, 2009

A Good Name for a Racehorse

At the risk of sounding woefully under-educated, I confess to having never seen either the musical 42nd Street or the 1933 film starring Ruby Keeler, at least until last night. (I promise this is going somewhere). Early on in this delightful piece of fluff, the musical director says to the dancers something along the lines of: "Congratulations, you finished two lengths ahead of the orchestra." It's just a throwaway line, but it says a lot about the times. First, that the writers were familiar with horse racing, and secondly, that they assumed everyone would know exactly what it meant.
My other favorite line was, "It must have been tough on your mother not having any children."
The best part of the evening, however, was when, after hearing a dancer's nickname was "Anytime Annie," Rico turned to me and said, "That would be a good name for a racehorse."
Last year trainer Nick Zito, after explaining in an extremely convoluted way how Da' Tara got his name (something to do with the Count of Monte Cristo and how when he washed up on shore he looked like a piece of driftwood, which is called "Zatara" and that's how he came up with Da' Tara), said, "You know how hard it is to come up with names."
On the Jockey Club website ( you can use the Online Names Book to check a name to see if it is currently in use or otherwise unavailable.
To our delight, Anytime Annie was very much available, which of course led to finding out if the other 42nd Street-inspired names we dreamed up were available. Which they were, including (but not limited to):
She Can Swing It
You’re a Cinch
Come Back a Star
Niagara Limited
Snooty Cutie
Small Town Bigshot
Watch That Tempo
Think You’re Swell
A Habit with Me
The Village Maiden
A Girl Short
It Must be June
Pretty Lady Co.
Pick It Up Jerry
and finally,
Company Dismissed

It kind of makes me want to buy some horses, just so I can start naming them.

Monday, January 19, 2009

No Ageism Here

It was wonderfully fitting, then, on the day after the renamed Evening Attire Stakes was run, that a contemporary of the now 11-year-old should come up a winner at Aqueduct.
The second race on Sunday was an otherwise unremarkable event -- a $19,000 claimer at one mile, 70 yards for 4-year-olds and up, each of whom carried a price tag of $7,500. Six went to post, but the heavy favorite was Tour of the Cat, a son of Tour D'Or who was making his 75th lifetime start and giving the phase "back class" a new meaning.
It was not the first time the bay gelding had raced at the Big A; eight years ago, emboldened by a second-place finish in the Grade 3 Flamingo at Hialeah (talk about your Way Back Machines!), his then connections brought him north to finish sixth in the Grade 3 Withers behind Richly Blended.
He returned to Calder, and in the ensuing years made brief forays to Gulfstream Park and Tampa Downs, and once even to Dubai, where in 2004 he would finish sixth to Our New Recruit in the $2 million Golden Shaheen.
Among his victories were the Grade 3 Spend a Buck Handicap, the Grade 2 Richter Scale Breeders' Cup Sprint Championship, and the Grade 3 Miami Millions Breeders' Cup Handicap in 2003 and 2004. Unraced in 2005, he made his first start for a tag --albeit a $200,000 tag -- in his return in 2006, finishing last, and then began the slow descent down the scale, finally haltered by trainer David Jacobson in November.
"His earnings were good," explained Douglas Jacobson, the trainer's brother and managing partner of Jacobson Racing Stables. Indeed, in 74 previous starts, the old pro had failed to pick up a check only eight times, and earned more than $1 million in compiling a record of 20 wins, 12 seconds and 13 thirds.
Although they have been claiming more 3-year-olds of late, the Jacobsons have had success with older horses, including the claimer Cool N Collective, who last winter went on a whirlwind tour of barns and won a pair of races at Aqueduct and Belmont at the age of 11 before heading north to Suffolk Downs, his current residence.
Last year, shortly after then 10-year-old Explosive Count was claimed out of his barn, Jacobson told me he once saw a 13-year-old horse race in Kentucky. In 2007, a 15-year-old horses named Hermosilla raced at Wyoming Downs, and according to recent records, the oldest horse ever to win a race was 14-year-old Alpena Magic, who won a claiming race at Indiana Downs on May 27, 2004.
"I have a soft spot in my heart for all my horses, but I also have a certain admiration for the older ones," Jacobson told me Sunday afternoon. "They're such pros -- nothing bothers them. The younger ones, a different color starting gate,different trees, an apartment building, anything new they notice. Horses like Tour of the Cat, they're pros. They know how to take care of themselves. They don't have any bad habits, and they love what they're doing. I get a kick out of it."

Photo by Adam Coglianese

Thursday, January 15, 2009

The Big Screen at the Big A

Tucked away in the southwest corner of Aqueduct Racetrack is the Big A Grill, a tranquil spot that is one of my favorite places. Obviously, the New York Post's John DaSilva likes it, too.

You don't go to the Big A Grill for the food, although the rotisserie chicken with one side ($6.25) is always tasty. Clam chowder ($4.75) and egg sandwiches ($2.25) are popular, plus they offer cans of Dr. Brown's Cream Soda ($2.75) in both diet and regular varieties.

Ralph, behind the counter, is always pleased to take your order, after which you can settle in at one of the tables and look out to the west, or better yet, feast your eyes on a collection of horse-themed movie posters from back in the day.

Several of the movies star Gloria Henry, who made her film debut in the 1947 "B" film "Sport of Kings" and later went on to fame as Jay North's mom in the hit TV series Dennis the Menace.

"The Fighting Chance," a 1955 flick about a jockey and a trainer who fall in love with the same girl (amazingly, complications arise) stars Rod Cameron, the tall in the saddle actor who counted among his many credits such films as "Woman of the North Country,"Santa Fe Passage, "and "The Plunderers."

You have Don Ameche in "That's My Man," about a horse trainer who loses sight of what's important once he becomes a success; "Pride of the Blue Grass," a boy meets girl-boy loses girl-boy gets girl back story starring Lloyd Bridges and Vera Miles, and "The Great Mike," wherein the kid who used to play Alfalfa in the Our Gang comedies says "gee willikers" about one bazillion times.

So with live racing cancelled tomorrow because of Arctic cold, perhaps a movie fest is in order. Armed with a quarter rotisserie chicken and a can of diet Dr. Brown's cream soda, inbetween the simulcast races from Gulfstream Park, I'll be watching -- in glorious Technicolor! -- images from a time when racing was king -- even in Hollywood.

Saturday, January 10, 2009

Goodbye Joe

In the midst of the discussion over what constitutes journalism and the worthiness, or lack thereof, of blogs, comes news of the passing of Joe Hirsch, the Daily Racing Form columnist who was called the dean of American turf writers.
There never was, and never will be, anyone who covered horse racing quite like Joe Hirsch, who was a staunch advocate and viewed it as deserving of the same kind of coverage as other, more mainstream sports. Tall, with jet black hair and dark glasses, always impeccably turned out, he had the respect of everyone in the industry, from owners to jockeys and trainers, and from other writers as well, especially those he helped along the way.
"He was a global ambassador for the sport, a mentor to two generations of journalists, and probably the most universally respected figure in the world of horse racing," said Steve Crist, DRF's publisher.
Talking with Dave Grening of DRF yesterday reminded me of what Joe would do when he saw someone new on the beat: He would give them a copy of the Revised Veterinary Glossary for Turf Writers. Dave's was dated March, 1980. (I refuse to tell you when mine was dated.)
If you needed a phone number, he would open his little black book and give you it. If you needed access to an owner, he would take you over, and introduce you. If you couldn't pin down the exact date of an event, Joe would remember for you. He did this because he wanted horse racing to have a prominent position in the sports pages, whether it was the New York Daily News or the Miami News or the Bergen Record.
Richard Migliore said yesterday that when Joe called and wanted to interview you, it was so special and humbling that he'd pick you as a topic. As a turf writer, you felt the same way when Joe would ask you to join him and several others at a restaurant for dinner during the Triple Crown or at the Breeders' Cup or Saratoga. He wanted everything to be first class; if things were not to his liking, he would quietly have them corrected. I remember once, at the Wishing Well in Saratoga one August, a plate of local tomatoes was brought to the table. It must have been by someone who did not know who Joe was, as some of them were quite green around the edges. He looked at them, looked up and simply said, "Bring us some good tomatoes" and within moments, the ripest, reddest beefsteak tomatoes I have ever experienced appeared in front of us.
He may have chronicled horse racing for 50 years, but I think his real legacy was all the turf writers he started on their way. There are but a handful left, now, and only a few of those writing for the internet had the privilege of being mentored by Joe. And that is something to mourn.

Tuesday, January 6, 2009

The search for the next Kentucky Derby winner winds up in strange places; was it last year that New York Magazine did a short piece on Aqueduct Racetrack, postulating therein that one was very unlikely to find a Derby winner racing there in January (and totally forgetting about Smarty Jones?)

I so distinctly remember speaking with John Servis five years ago, when he was shipping the then totally unknown Pennsylvania-bred named up from Philly Park for the Count Fleet. "It will be a test for him," said Servis. "If he passes it, we'll think about moving on to the next step." (Months later, I stood at the finish line at Belmont Park and listened to more than 100,000 screaming fans fall totally silent as Birdstone reeled in Smarty Jones in the final yards of the Belmont Stakes, cutting short the Triple Crown bid of what in my own personal opinion was the most deserving "near-miss" in recent memory.)

This year's Count Fleet, named for the Triple Crown winner who raced for the wife of John D. Hertz, founder of the rental car company, once again gives me the impetus for the old Big A longshot. Last year I was rooting for Rick Schosberg and Giant Moon, who evenutally mader it to the Preakness; this year I'll be following fellow New York-bred Haynesfield.

Will Haynesfield put Turtle Bird Stables in the driver's seat? Like Giant Moon last year, Haynesfield was coming into the Count Fleet off a flashy victory in the restricted Damon Runyon. Unlike Giant Moon, Haynesfield wound up in the Damon Runyon as a matter of coincidence; a state-bred allowance failed to fill, and trainer Steve Asmussen elected to send him into the stakes off a maiden victory.

"His last race was a pleasant surprise," Asmussen said before the Count Fleet. "His first race was a disappointment; he redeemed himself in his maiden victory and then won the Damon Runyon because the other race didn't go. It's all a process."

For Haynesfield, an attractive chestnut, the process continued as he handled the mile and 70 yards in a competent fashion, covering the distance in 1:44.65. Jockey Ramon Dominguez, who last year was out of breath from piloting the tough-to-handle Giant Moon, seemed glad he had made the decision to remain in New York, skipping a trip to warmer climes for the Hal's Hope for a shot at a step onto the Triple Crown path.

Will the victory be enough to move him up alongside the likes of Remsen winner Old Fashioned (upon whom Dominguez also has the mount) and Midshipman, Pioneerof the Nile, Square Eddie, Street Hero, Terrain or Afleet Treat? I don't know. But if it is, I will be happy to have been among those who saw him win at Aqueduct on a cold and gray January afternoon.

Sunday, January 4, 2009

"A horse, a horse. My kingdom for a horse!"

Today marks the final day in New York of the American Museum of Natural History exibit, "The Horse," which examines the enduring bond between horses and humanity since the beginning of the Ice Age. The dioramas, fossils, models and culutural objects from around the world were fascinating, functioning as a kind of time machine that offered a peek into to a world in which horses were used as food, for work, for transportation, and yes, in warfare.

According to Kentucky Equine Research, Inc., more than 3,000 horses died at Gettysburg.

One of the more poignant artifacts in the exhibit was a photo of a horse wearing a gas mask during World War I; a quick Google revealed that more than eight million horses were killed from 1914-1918. During World War II, more horses than tanks played a role, as they were used to move artillery, as pack animals and on scouting missions. The German Army had more than one million horses, and the U.S. Cavalry staged its last charge during that time, in the Phillipines. Even today, horses are used by U. S. Special Forces in the rugged terrain near Afghanistan and Iraq.

The role of the horse today is more one of recreation, and sport; near the end of the exhibit there is a (way too) small area set aside for Thoroughbred racing, at which one can, among other things, view the 2005 Kentucky Derby (and listen to Tom Durkin's rousing call of the finish) and view trophies from Citation's Triple Crown.

Curiously, the Belmont Stakes Trophy is absent from this collection, in its stead was a large silver plate. Given the proximity of Belmont Park to Manhattan, one might have thought there would be more of a New York Racing Association presence other than a video clip of Secretariat. There is a rather large section devoted to racehorse injuries and the virtues of synthetic tracks, which speaks volumes about the public's perception of horse racing.

The exhibit goes on tour later this year to the UAE (but not in time for the World Cup); in 2010 it travels to the Canadian Museum of Civilization; in 2011 to the Field Museum in Chicago, and in 2012 to the San Diego Natural History Museum.