Smile Politely

News, glorious news!

Santa AnitaMuch, much has happened in the world of horse racing this past week that deserves mentioning in this column. And due to the fact the two first major Kentucky Derby prep races of the year are slated to run this Saturday, I ask for you to please forgive the schizophrenic flow this article is sure to take.

First off, last Saturday, an announcement of biblical proportions rippled through the horse racing community and left us breathless with a chill of excitement and anticipation, the kind of news one can only assume was ordained by the horse racing gods, bestowed as a gift to humanity for doing something right for once. Owners Jerry and Ann Moss announced that they would not be retiring the undefeated Breeders’ Cup Classic winner, Zenyatta, after all. She would run in 2010 and the Mosses would not be afraid to race her against “anyone.” Glory hallelujah! Racing’s heartbeat has been jolted by a bolt of 17.1 hands-tall lightning.

And speaking of a headline that’s put the racing world in a unified chorus of “Kum-ba-yah”: Santa Anita is planning to rip out its Pro-Ride surface on the main track and may replace it with a traditional dirt surface. I don’t know if my body can handle so many goosebumps at once.

Santa Anita came to this decision after the so-called “all-weather surface” forced the park to cancel several days of racing after the main track’s drainage issues could no longer be ignored during a week of thunderstorms in California. This is not the first time the synthetic track has caused problems due to its inconsistency or inability to live up to its name; in 2008, the Pro-Ride was ripped out and replaced with new Pro-Ride to fix its holes, inability to drain, and role in an increased number of breakdowns. Finally, it seems, Santa Anita has had enough (or most likely, spent enough trying to fix its once-promised “low-maintenance” synthetic track).

If Santa Anita returns its main track to dirt, the transition will completely change the complexion of California racing and the horses who frequent those tracks. It would no longer serve as the satellite in the synthetic circuit, and bring more East Coast horses into its major races; conversely, more 3-year-olds will be able to legitimately use races like the Santa Anita Derby as suitable preps for the Kentucky Derby. Many trainers have cited a horse uses different muscles on synthetics than dirt, and the bottom line is that many good horses have had tarnished records from racing on “the fake stuff.” Imagine how I Want Revenge’s record would’ve looked had he not been floundering on synthetics the first half of his career; his first two starts on dirt rocketed him into being the sudden favorite for the Kentucky Derby. While he was a “good colt” on synthetics, I Want Revenge turned into a superstar on the dirt. His story is just one in many examples of synthetics compromising the legacy of a race horse.

WoodwardAnd speaking of legacies, the 2009 Eclipse Awards were held this past Sunday, where the 3-year-old filly Rachel Alexandra was crowned Horse of the Year over her rival-on-paper, the undefeated Breeders’ Cup Classic winner, Zenyatta. Though the votes were not as close as expected (130 to 99), the two females were the only nominees up for the prestigious award, and the first time in history the battle for Horse of the Year was contested against two females. Zenyatta won the Eclipse for Champion Older Female her second year in a row, while Rachel won the Eclipse for Champion 3-Year-Old Filly; both females won these unanimously. Summer Bird won the Eclipse for Champion 3-year-old Male, and Gio Ponti won for both Champion Turf Horse and Champion Older Male. Fittingly, the last horse to accomplish this same Champion Turf Male-Older Male double was the great John Henry in 1981. Here is a comprehensive list of all the 2009 Eclipse winners.

This Saturday marks the first serious weekend of the Kentucky Derby trail with the Grade III Holy Bull Stakes at Gulfstream Park and the Grade III Lecomte at Fair Grounds. Both races are pretty wide-open events featuring 3-year-olds who are looking to separate themselves from the rest of the pack as legitimate Derby roadsters; what’s more is that the winners of these races will earn the graded stakes money that is necessary to get into the gates on the first Saturday in May.

Of the two races, the 1-mile Holy Bull looks to be the toughest, featuring two Grade I winners and several stakes victors who are butting heads for the first time. Of these, Aikenite, Homeboykris, and Jackson Bend look to be the top three most likely to grace the winner’s circle afterwards. My money is on the tough Jackson Bend, who swept the Florida Stallion Stakes and is on a 5-race win streak; he beat D’Funnybone before that colt went on to dominate in the Grade II Saratoga Special Stakes and Belmont Futurity, but is still looking for his first graded stakes victory. In his last time out, Jackson Bend won by 2 ¾ lengths at the 1 1/16-mile In Reality at Calder after stumbling to his knees at the start and losing ground to the leaders; he was also the only 2-year old in North America to post a triple-digit Beyer Speed Figure in 2009 going around two turns.

Cool Bullet has the home advantage in the Lecomte Stakes at Fair Grounds. The colt is undefeated in his two starts there; the $60,000 Sugar Bowl Stakes being the main source of credit to his resume. Turf Melody has won more money, though; in his last start, Turf Melody captured the $200,000 Springboard Mile at Remington Park. The buzz, however, is surrounding Maximus Ruler, a colt who broke his maiden first time out in an allowance race against winners at Churchill Downs November 28th. The Lecomte Stakes is a prep race for the $750,000 Grade II Louisiana Derby on March 27th.


The Grade III Holy Bull will air live on HRTV from Gulfstream Park. Post time is scheduled for approximately 4:00pm ET.

The Grade III Lecomte Stakes will air live on HRTV from Fair Grounds. Post time is scheduled for approximately 5:00pm ET.

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