Picks and Ponderings: Equestricon, from a smaller circuit perspective

I spent the first half of this week at Equestricon.  Despite the exhausting timing – it fell right after the Arlington Million – I’m glad I went.

Since coming home, my mind has wandered to how Equestricon could better engage horse racing communities outside the marquee circuits. Smaller circuits matter for the accessibility, and therefore the long-term health, of the sport.

Head over to Picks and Ponderings, and read my thoughts on how Equestricon can be even better for smaller circuits next year.

a tale of two eleven-year-olds

This evening, chatter on horse racing Twitter has been dominated by news of two eleven-year-olds.

Ben’s Cat has been retired.  Awesome Actor was entered to race this Thursday.

(Update, June 28, 2017: Erich Zimny from Charles Town has announced that Awesome Actor will not be allowed to run.  I am keeping the rest of this blog post intact, because I stand behind both my approval of how Ben’s Cat’s career was managed, as well as my trepidation over both Awesome Actor’s entry and the record of the owner under whose name he was entered.  But, I applaud Charles Town for having Awesome Actor scratched from Thursday’s race.)

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ceci n’est pas une Handicap de Chicago

This afternoon, Finley’sluckycharm extended her four-year-old record to a perfect three-for-three with a win in the Chicago Handicap (G3).  The 3/10 betting favourite, she got to the lead quickly after the break and rated well despite Kathballu and Covey Trace pressing at her throatlatch early.  Kathballu dropped away; Covey Trace pressed the issue into the far turn.  No matter; Finley’sluckycharm moved easily through a 22.85 opening quarter, a 45.62 half.  Turning for home, nine riders implored their mounts to gain, as Brian Hernandez still had Finley’sluckycharm in hand.  He finally asked her; she maintained comfortable daylight to the wire.  Finley’sluckycharm finished the seven furlong main-track trip in 1:22.17, two and a quarter lengths clear of Ivy Bell.

The preceding paragraph made sense, in a way.  It has verbs with subjects and objects.  The names, times, distances, and grade all correspond to an actual race contested today.

On the other hand, it felt surreal to write that.

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a new kind of horse racing writing

The first time I ever went upstairs at Hawthorne, in March of 2014, it fascinated me to see how race charts got made.  I had been devouring them since I started following horse racing closely, the summer before.  I had no idea how they came to be, or even when they came to be.  I imagined someone hunched over a keyboard late into the night after the races, banging out descriptions of every single race.

It made so much sense when I saw it.  One person held binoculars toward a plate glass window four stories above the racetrack, observing, calling aloud the horse numbers and the margins between them at several points around the track.

“1, a length and half.  3, a head.  2, a length.  7, a length.  5, by four.  4, by two.  11, by four, to the 10.”

As he proclaimed those margins, his partner listened, furiously jotting down the saddle cloth numbers and the margins.  After the race, the chart caller (there’s a name for the person who documented the race and made charts — who knew?) typed that information into a computer.

During that twenty minute break between that race and the next, the time I would use to study horses in the paddock or swing by the food court for a taco, the chart caller worked to turn his observations into a permanent record of the race.  He watched the replay, scribbled notes, rewound the tape, scribbled more notes.  How sharply everyone broke…or, in the case of I O Cashel, how she didn’t break at all.  Pistols Drawn three deep, Lewderhoo six wide.  He typed, sentences this time, turning a mile and seventy yards into meticulous prose in about the same length of time it took the racetrack to get ready for the next race.

It never crossed my mind that I’d do that one day.  But, three years later, that door has opened.  This Friday I begin working for Equibase as a chart caller at Arlington Park.

I’m a little nervous about taking on the responsibility of writing official race descriptions for handicappers and fans.  But, I trust myself to get the hang of it, far more than I typically trust myself when attempting something new.  After all, I strive to be clear and accurate no matter what I’m writing.  That has been reflected in my work here, at Picks and Ponderings, and everywhere I’ve written.  I believe in that as a foundation for growing into a good chart caller.  From there, I have much to learn: to develop my voice, think more quickly, write more concisely, sharpen my eye for races and trips.

I can’t wait to build these skills, and to engage even more deeply with the sport I love.

the importance of names

A child, about six years old, leant on the rail over the Arlington winners’ circle.  He looked out over the course, a ticket crumpled in his left hand, as nine fillies and mares raced down the backstretch.  Greeley’s Delight, the longest shot on the board, carved out the way.  She’s Got the Mojo, far better fancied by the public, tracked along in second.

“Go, number three!”

There are seven, ten, twelve “number three” horses at every racetrack on every race day.  Number three tells you the number stamped on a plastic pill pulled out of a bottle in the racing office a few days before the race.  Number three helps the mutuel clerk punch your ticket, lets the spectator know to look for a blue saddle cloth.

“Go, number three!”

Number three says nothing about how hard the horse who wears that blue cloth fought to finish second in her last race, behind a horse who had things so easily on the lead.  It says nothing about the little spot on her blaze, or the softness of her dark bay nose as she bobs it out of her stall, snorfling for a peppermint.

“Go, number three!”

I turn to the child.

“Your horse may do a little better if you cheer for her by name.”  He looks at me, unsure, but ready to try anything that will help his horse to victory.  “Her name is She’s Got the Mojo.”

He looked back out at the race as the field races into the far turn.

“Go, Mojo!”

Greeley’s Delight’s lead, once defiant daylight, then down to a desperate neck, had evaporated.  She relinquished the lead to She’s Got the Mojo, and retreated into the chasing pack.

“Come on, Mojo!”

She’s Got the Mojo bore the hopes of so many, including one young boy at the rail, on her back.  Main Star rode the new leader’s flank through the turn, but could not keep pace down the stretch.  She’s Got the Mojo took command, carrying those hopes easily across the wire.

Names have power.

Seeing Hoosessential Again For The First Time

Sometimes, a horse just commands your attention.  They pull your eyes in their direction, and no matter who you’re there to see, your eyes gravitate toward them instead.  Perhaps they look straight at you.  Their ears keep pointing just the right way. Their coat, their nose, their build mirrors what you love to see in a horse.

No matter why, they compel you.  It’s an instinct…keep your head turned their way.  Let your eyes linger.  If you’re lucky enough to have a camera, click that shutter.  Again.  Again.


Often, such a horse hasn’t shown up in your neck of the woods before.  They’re a first-time starter, or they just started running on the circuit.  Their face, their way of carrying themself around the paddock…it’s new to you.

Other times?  You take a moment to peek at the program to see the horse’s name, to burn it to memory by the time they walk back around your way.  You pause, knowing you’ve been missing something all along.

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a few more thoughts on Conquest Mo Money

One of my favourite stories of the Triple Crown prep season ended up having very little to do with the Kentucky Derby: that of Conquest Mo Money.  The son of Uncle Mo, an $8,500 Keeneland November bargain for owner Judge Lanier Racing, emerged as the top Sunland Park-based three-year-old this spring.  He beat eventual Blue Grass Stakes (G2) winner Irap in the Mine That Bird Derby.  He held his own in the Sunland Derby (G3), finishing second behind Hence after being closer to a blazing pace.  Then, he shipped to Arkansas and proved he wasn’t just a Sunland wonder.  Conquest Mo Money was right up on a contested pace in the Arkansas Derby (G1), and in a race that set up so nicely for off-pace types, he was just barely passed by Classic Empire.  Still, second place was good enough to give him a shot in the Derby if he wanted it.

Instead, at a press conference after the Arkansas Derby, Tom McKenna of Judge Lanier Racing announced that Conquest Mo Money would bypass the Kentucky Derby and go to the Preakness instead.  At first blush, it was a disappointment.

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