The Underground Man, two times two, and Justify

So said Fyodor Dostoevsky in his masterpiece “Notes from Underground“:

With the ant-heap the respectable race of ants began and with the ant- heap they will probably end, which does the greatest credit to their perseverance and good sense. But man is a frivolous and incongruous creature, and perhaps, like a chess player, loves the process of the game, not the end of it.

Since the horses crossed the wire in the Belmont on Saturday afternoon, since the end of the “game” that is the Triple Crown season, I felt dread over having to fill out my NTRA All Ages poll.

The three-year-old poll was obvious, of course, at least as obvious as a poll of opinions can be.  There was, as always, a lot of splitting hairs underneath…but Justify reigned supreme.  Winning a Triple Crown makes that obvious.

But, his accomplishment gave me a crisis of conscience about my All Ages poll.

And who knows (there is no saying with certainty), perhaps the only goal on earth to which mankind is striving lies in this incessant process of attaining, in other words, in life itself, and not in the thing to be attained, which must always be expressed as a formula, as positive as twice two makes four, and such positiveness is not life, gentlemen, but is the beginning of death.

Leading into the Belmont Justify was not on my All Ages ballot, and I was seriously considering not putting him on there again.  After all, one thing is positive: he hasn’t faced older horses.  To be the best, you’ve got to beat the best — and on average, “the best” are older horses.  Justify is a freak — but his only foes have been three-year-olds.  How can I rank him better than the older horses if he hasn’t been tested against them yet?

With that question, the thought of putting Justify on my all-aged poll at all makes me sick to my stomach.

It makes sense to base my votes on things I know.  Twice two makes four.  Older horses are, on average, more developed, stronger, better than three-year-olds.  Justify may be the exception, may be more developed than some top-class older horses, but how do we know, if he’s only ever beaten three-year-olds?

Anyway, man has always been afraid of this mathematical certainty, and I am afraid of it now. Granted that man does nothing but seek that mathematical certainty, he traverses oceans, sacrifices his life in the quest, but to succeed, really to find it, dreads, I assure you. He feels that when he has found it there will be nothing for him to look for. When workmen have finished their work they do at least receive their pay, they go to the tavern, then they are taken to the police-station — and there is occupation for a week. But where can man go? Anyway, one can observe a certain awkwardness about him when he has attained such objects. He loves the process of attaining, but does not quite like to have attained, and that, of course, is very absurd. In fact, man is a comical creature; there seems to be a kind of jest in it all.

But, on the other hand?  My search for anything approximating mathematical certainty in the older division has eluded me.  Since “six furlongs on the turf” is a little too specific a niche to be a division (sorry, Disco Partner!), the closest thing any division has to a clear leader is the open sprint division, with Mind Your Biscuits.  His Golden Shaheen (G1) victory was a triumph.  The Met Mile (G1) was a defeat in which he lost absolutely nothing: he missed by just a nose behind lone speed, going a distance longer than his best.  He’s a superstar, but he hasn’t had an unprecedented kind of season.  Heart to Heart has emerged best in the middle-distance turf division, Accelerate is the top of the handicap division…but how far above the rest do they loom?

They’ve had good seasons so far, but none of them have done anything that, if portrayed in a work of fiction, would cause you to roll your eyes and murmur that it couldn’t happen in real life.

Justify has.

If you tried to tell me a horse would go from unraced three-year-old to Triple Crown winner in under four months, I’d have told you that would never happen.  If you handed me a book about a horse whose star rose so fast, I’d have scoffed at the implausible plot.  Yet, I’ve now seen it happen with my own two eyes because Justify did it.

But yet mathematical certainty is after all, something insufferable. Twice two makes four seems to me simply a piece of insolence. Twice two makes four is a pert coxcomb who stands with arms akimbo barring your path and spitting. I admit that twice two makes four is an excellent thing, but if we are to give everything its due, twice two makes five is sometimes a very charming thing too.

Is Justify better than the older horses?  Will he beat older company later this year?  We won’t know until he tries.  In that sense, I’m still not quite happy about my choice to put Justify on my All Ages ballot at all.

But, he has changed my definition of what it’s possible for a racehorse to do, and has done that while racing a grueling Triple Crown schedule.  I’m more certain of the fact that Justify has done something truly difficult than I am about anything in the older horse landscape right now. When so little elsewhere is stable maybe it’s not such a bad thing to break my rule, surrender begrudgingly to the wisdom of the Underground Man, and let twice two be five this time around.

for McKinzie, poetic justice

Sometimes, the only justice you find is poetic justice.

And, so it is with McKinzie.  He came into the San Felipe Stakes with an undefeated record, clouded by a great big asterisk.  After all, he didn’t cross the wire first in the Los Alamitos Futurity (G1) last year.  He ran on well enough inside in the stretch that day, but could not , but got bumped up after Solomini was taken down for interfering with third-place Instilled Regard.  Solomini wasn’t losing that race no matter what, and would Instilled Regard have been second and not third after Solomini bumped past?  Though he was no match for the first horse across the wire, McKinzie was going well enough that I’m not convinced he would have.  Caught in the middle of a dubious disqualification, McKinzie got lucky.

Three months and a day later, McKinzie got unlucky.

He turned for home inside Bolt d’Oro.  They bumped once.  Perhaps McKinzie went out a touch, but Bolt d’Oro perceptibly came in.  Their withers met, but it looked a product of racing in tight quarters, more than anything.  It diminished the fight of neither.  Bolt d’Oro forced his head in front; McKinzie came back.  As the field neared the wire, McKinzie did come out, pushing Bolt d’Oro out with him.  But — did it cost him a better placing?  Inconclusive, and judging from how McKinzie and Bolt d’Oro were each going late, unlikely.

A photo showed McKinzie’s nose across the wire first in the San Felipe, but the inquiry light blinked.  4-1 blinked.  And blinked, and blinked, and blinked.  Then, it became 1-4.  The blinking ceased.  McKinzie, so lucky three months back, ran out of luck this time around.

We can call Bolt d’Oro the big winner here, and Solomini the big loser.  But, as it shakes out, McKinzie is exactly where he should be: three-for-four lifetime.  Poetic justice.

looking back, and looking forward, on Blinkers Off’s fourth birthday

Four years ago today, I started a blog to keep me on top of horse racing through the course of the winter, while Hawthorne wasn’t running.

It’s still here.  I’m still here.  Every year I look back with amazement at where the last year has taken me, and no year so far was more of a whirlwind than 2017.

Continue reading “looking back, and looking forward, on Blinkers Off’s fourth birthday”

final NTRA poll thoughts

I voted in the NTRA Top Thoroughbred Poll for the first time this year.  Some weeks were more difficult than others, but this week’s was the most brain-busting of all.

I had assumed all year that it would be the easiest.  After all, Breeders’ Cup is the big ending, and it’s the last poll of the year.  Though Breeders’ Cup is not the last big racing week before the Eclipse Awards — let’s not sneeze at Thanksgiving weekend, with races like the Clark and the Cigar Mile — it’s the only one of this scale, and nothing between now and the end of the year comes quite to the level of a Derby undercard, Belmont undercard, or Travers Day.

Yet?  It was the hardest.  Though Breeders’ Cup answered a lot of questions in individual divisions, the fact that the Top Thoroughbred Poll requires a voter to rank the divisions against each other makes it more difficult.  Most of my questions involved assessing not only what each horse did in their own division this year, but also how that stacks up against what horses in other divisions did.  Even with a rather sharp limitation that I’ve chosen to apply, that of not using horses who have not faced older company at least once during the year, many of the rank judgments felt uncomfortably tight.

Here’s my final ballot, with short notes on my rationale.

Continue reading “final NTRA poll thoughts”

A Day At the Races: Presque Isle Downs is the Cheers of racetracks

Of course, the sport on people’s minds was horse racing, not baseball. Deep, stained wood lined saddling stalls, not a bar. People sat in lawn chairs or at picnic tables, not stools. But, just like a cozy corner watering hole, the apron at Presque Isle Downs was where people went to catch up with friends and see the horses run after work. Whether you’ve been coming for years or for days, everyone knows your name, and they’re glad you came.

And, it’s the best kind of local haunt: close-knit, but excited to welcome new faces.

In my latest piece at Brisnet, read why Presque Isle Downs is the Cheers of racetracks!

why we watch Winx live

Last night, I stayed up to watch Winx race in the Chelmsford Stakes. She won her nineteenth straight. This morning, I’m drinking a little more coffee than usual.

The race went off at just before 1am my time. A few hours before, I was telling myself I’d go to bed and catch her race in the morning. As usual, that never happened. I stayed awake, tweeting before the race that my thoughts of going to sleep were once again empty. My laptop perched on my nightstand: Australian racing in one window, my Twitter timeline in the other.

The gates opened, and we caught our breath when Winx got out smoothly, unlike her blown start in the Warwick Stakes. We saw shades of Shining Copper, of Isabella Sings, of Presious Passion when Red Excitement opened up a yawning gap between himself and the rest of the field. We froze as the field turned for home, Red Excitement forgetting to stop, Winx with a chasm to cross. We caught our breath once more when Winx reminded us once again that no horse in the world knows where the wire is like she does. We marveled once we collected ourselves enough to realise she found the line without Hugh Bowman’s stick.


I woke up this morning to some advice on Twitter: “Just DVR it.”

I could have watched the replay on my laptop, perched on my nightstand, once I wiped the sleep from my eyes. I would have appreciated Winx’s better break, Red Excitement’s strategy, Hugh Bowman’s hand ride, Winx’s will to win. I would have mused on the prowess, consistency, and racing luck it takes for a mare to win nineteen races in a row.

But, I wouldn’t have had racing Twitter in my other window, all around me, experiencing the race in real time. I love Winx partly because of her racing record. I also love that people all over the world get excited about her, that getting together to watch her race is an event.

I could watch the replay, but there’s no DVR for collective effervescence. I’d miss the we.

a rabbit, the Woodward, and a simple solution left unused

Twitter was abuzz about rabbits leading into the Whitney, when Cautious Giant and War Story were not coupled.  The move not to couple that pair left a lot of people scratching their heads, and the race went about as many expected — Cautious Giant gunned it to the lead, and War Story ran late.  About the only surprise in that race was the souvenir Cautious Giant gave eventual victor Gun Runner as he faded out of contention.

A month has passed, and the Internet once again buzzes with rabbit talk, focusing on Loooch Racing and War Story.  This time?  War Story was coming with a different rabbit, May B.  Racing officials refused to take May B’s entry in the Woodward.

Was May B going to be a long shot in the Woodward?  Sure he was.  But, his racing lines indicated that he was in good form, likely fit to run.  May B won a $12,500 starter allowance sprint two back at Los Al, and returned to hold second in an open $35,000-$40,000 turf dash at Del Mar.

Sure, May B was far more likely to win that allowance at Thistledown from which he scratched today than the Woodward, but it’s not the stewards’ place to decide that a horse is outclassed in a certain spot.  If that were the case, after all, they surely would have been able to pull the plug on Ricks Natural Star’s entry into the Breeders’ Cup Turf all those years ago.  Assuming his connections made all the proper stakes payments, nothing in the conditions barred May B from entering the Woodward, and he was nominated for the race.

Officials had a simple solution at their disposal: couple May B and War Story.

In stakes races worth over $50,000 in New York, racing officials have the choice to allow uncoupled same-owner entries, or to require that those entries be coupled if they find that doing so is necessary to the public interest.  The entries of both War Story and May B in the Woodward would tell a clear story to any reasonably seasoned handicapper: they’re both owned by the same entity, one is a come-from-behind horse with graded stakes form, and the other is a front-running sprinter stretching out and taking a large hike in class.  It’s a classic rabbit scenario.  But, for someone newer to racing, coupling that entry would make it beyond obvious that May B would be in to make pace for War Story.  Problem solved.

The only scenario in which it serves anyone’s interest to bar May B from entering the Woodward would be if there were so many other entries for the race that allowing May B in would keep out a horse owned and trained by someone else.  In that case, it makes perfect sense for the rabbit to be the first horse excluded — even though rule 4025.10(c) covers trainers, not owners, there is an argument to be made that making a same-owner-different-trainer rabbit would serve the spirit of that rule, in the sense of giving as many parties as possible a chance to contest the race.

But, since not every spot in that Woodward Stakes starting gate was spoken for?  May B should have been allowed in, as a coupled entry with War Story.