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.

Dubai Racing Channel – Greentree feature

Earlier this month, after Equestricon, I was part of a group lucky enough to visit Greentree, Godolphin’s training facility in Saratoga.  Last week I published a photo gallery from that visit — but if you want to get another look, watch this feature from the Dubai Racing Channel!  Laura King was out at Greentree to do a video, which both looks at the horses as well as features brief interviews from some of us on the tour: Ruben Mendez, Ciara Austin, and yours truly!

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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