Category Archives: USA

Report: Racing at Turf Paradise

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I am over in Phoenix, Arizona right now, so I took the opportunity to pay the local race track – Turf Paradise – a visit!

Now, this is the fourth track I have been able to see here in the United States: Aqueduct, Golden Gate Fields and Los Alamitos the others. In comparison with those three, Turf Parade is small. In fact, much smaller. Why? No casino!

Turf Parade is quite a compact race track, located on the outskirts of Phoenix, easy to get to because of its proximity to Interstate Highway 17.

In saying that, at the other tracks I felt lost… and the day became dull after the first few races. Well, mid-week racing, few people are keen to come racing on a Wednesday – it can be lonely onsite. Casino-race-tracks are often huge places: wide and open spaces add to the feeling of emptiness.

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Turf Paradise is different: smaller, compact, short ways from parade ring to betting to food, drink and good viewing options. I was greeted by a super relaxed, serene and friendly atmosphere on the day.

Sure, splendid sunshine always helps; nonetheless, this place has loads of charme: you’re close to the action, entry is free and fair food & drink prices make it a truly wonderful day out.

There were only a few hundred or so people attending this mid-week race day. But as this is such a compact place, it didn’t feel lonely as it did at bigger tracks I’ve been to.

The racing was nothing to shout about. Low-grade claimers and maiden races. In saying that, most horses turned out looked fantastically well presented. Nice in their coat, clean and fit!

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Unlike recent controversy accompanying the Breeders Cup and a certain French jockey (and something I certainly notice turning in for a bit of US racing in the evening on At The Races), there was no excessive whip use to be seen here – in fact, I felt the whip was used pretty sparingly and a lot of hands and heels riding was going on – to my surprise.

Unlike Aqueduct, Golden Gate Fields and Los Alamitos, If I ever have the chance again I’ll definitely go racing at Turf Paradise – I absolutely loved the day, where a card packed with 8 raced didn’t feel dull at any moment!

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PREVIEW: Belmont Stakes – Justify a Triple Crown Winner?

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An almighty task on hand, the chance to become an equine legend beckons at the end of it – Justify has to defy history one more time to land the Triple Crown!

Still unbeaten, the Scat Daddy colt only started his racing career in February this year. He’s come a long way since then. Memorable victories in the Santa Anita Derby, the Kentucky Derby and the Preakness Stakes bring him here to this day, the day where it’s all on the line.

We all want to see a Triple Crown winner. And we may do so today. It’s so difficult to achieve, such a tremendous ask for a three year old colt who’s still learning his trade. Three grueling races within four weeks; different trips, tracks, underfoot conditions, going against some fresh and not so fresh, inexperienced and race hardened rivals.

If history tells us how difficult it is to win the Triple Crown then we must saviour the opportunity to witness the second one of these historical achievements within three years. Amercian Pharoah broke through this barrier that latest decades. Who’d have thought we might see one again so soon after?

So, the question everyone is asking: can he do it???

No. He can’t. My heart wants it. My head disagrees.

There are a few much smarter brains than I am out there who brought compelling arguments forward for and against. What sticks out for me personally is Simon Rowlands take on the race as he uses striding analysis to understand how Justify’s performances to this date compare to other notable Triple Crown winners.

His comparison and the facts uncovered are comprehensive. They tend to agree with my less so analytical thoughts: Justify is all speed. Or mostly speed. His pedigree doesn’t scream “I want a trip” either.

Don’t get me wrong, he impressed me in the Kentucky Derby and the Preakness, no doubt. The way he looks, the way he moves, the way he goes about his business.

Today is an entirely different race, though. Different conditions. An additional two furlongs. Against opposition that didn’t have to compete in all three Triple Crown races. Some of these may have a bit more left in the locker plus a few of the rivals Justify will meet today are likely to appreciate this marathon trip quite a bit more than he likely does.

Lest to forget: Justify needed to go all out for a while now – on the go since February – each month one important race for him to contest and be at his best. That must take its toll.

if it doesn’t- and if Justify can overcome all of these hurdles then he truly is a special horse, one that warrants to be mentioned in line with the best – make no mistake about that.

Okay so, if not Justify, who’s then going to win the Belmont?

Well, I take a punt. He’s not the most obvious one, he may not be good enough after all. Regardless, I do sense that Free Drop Billy is overpriced. He hasn’t won a race this year and only managed to get places in a couple of Grade 2- and 3 contests. He ran in the Kentucky Derby like his price suggested: rotten.

BUT there is a big but: Free Drop Billy is a Grade 1 winner already, nonetheless. He landed the Breeders’ Futurity Stakes at Keeneland as a juvenile. He also was a fair runner-up at this seasonal reappearance this year in February behind Derby third Audible. He clearly has class.

That says he very much looks like a grinder. One who’s always going to get beaten for speed. He’s also one who is likely to get into his own in the second half of the year – so now! Free Drop Billy is May foal; normally these individuals need a bit more time.

Connections clearly felt that way after the Derby. They gave him time off. He bypassed the Preakness and comes here fresher than most. And there is the fact that he is a son of Union Rags – himself a Belmont Stakes winner – while also being a half-brother to multiple 1m 4f Stakes scorer Hawkbill.

Dare I say that Free Drop Billy looked excellent in his work this week leading up to the big race? I start to believe….

In saying all of this, Free Drop Billy needs to improve, needs to step up a good deal to be in with a shout. I feel there is a better chance for him to do exactly that than the betting suggests. I believe he is a lively place chance, at the very least.

Selection:
5pts Each/Way (3 places, 1/5) – Free Drop Billy @ 66/1 VC

……..

Photo: nytimes.com

Preakness: Who can beat Always Dreaming?

Two winners today (there’s still one late runner in the lucky last at Doni to come): Paddy Power (advised 4/1) under a wonderfully brave and patient ride by Sammy Jo Bell in the Newmarket finale and exciting prospect Denaar (2/1 SP) did the business.

On the other side I got it horribly wrong in the Lockinge. Were my eyes blinded by love for all things Paco Boy? Did I want the son to emulate daddy too much?

Anyway, hats off to Ribchester. He did it from the front and he could have not been more impressive. Smart tactics from Godolphin as well. Pace maker I heard you saying? Good joke they said. Fooled them all.

On to the big race of the night – the 142nd running of the Preakness Stakes! 

Always Dreaming was brilliant the way he won the Kentucky Derby, doing it “the hard way” as by no means he got an easy lead that day. He found plenty when it mattered after gruelling fractions on the front for most parts of the race.

Derby winners have a good record taking the second step along the road toward Triple Crown glory. So Always Dreaming may well be hard to beat today. However conditions are quite different this time around and he’s an odds-on chance – short enough to take on at this point in time given there are two intriguing alternatives at bigger prices.

It’s not difficult to give Classic Empire another chance today. This massively talented colt is quite a character and it wasn’t all plain sailing for him since winning the Breeders Cup Juvenile. Still he managed to get ready in time for the big one at Churchill Downs, on the way there proving himself to still retain all his class when getting up late in the Arkansas Derby.

Unfortunately things did not work out for him in the Kentucky Derby. A wide draw that day, bumped left and right once the gate opened, he was a long way off the pace and had to make his move widest of all around the home turn, then bumped again, mud in his face, banged up, he still ran on to finish fourth.

It was a tremendous performance, probably as good as the one of the winner, Always Dreaming. If he has recovered in time for the Preakness I really fancy him to turn the form around in a much smaller field with a better chance for a clear run. In my book he’s closer to Always Dreaming than the odds suggest.

That says there is a second horse that I feel is overpriced, by quite a margin, actually. That is Arkansas Derby runner-up Conquest Mo Money. He was qualified for the Derby but connections decided to target the Preakness. So that is certainly something to take note of.

You have to take note of his massively brave performance at Oaklawn Park too. From the second widest draw he crossed over to be right up with the pace and take up the lead halfway through. Put under immense pressure turning for home he fought gamely; headed a good furlong out he went on again to put his head in front…. just to be beaten in the dying strides by Classic Empire.

Now Conquest Mo Money has a wide draw today again, however with only ten runners this is not quite as big a deal. He’s still quite a lightly raced individual, so there is every that he learned a bit more and finds some improvement. At 25’s he’s huge value against the market leader.

Selection:
5pts win – Classic Empire @ 7/2 Bet365
5pts win – Conquest Mo Money @ 25/1 Paddy Power

Big Race Preview: Arlington Million Day

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Big night Chicago – it’s Arlington Million Day! Three Grade 1 races on the turf, plus the US St. Leger – not  a bad card of flat action in my book. So let’s have a look inside – here’re some thoughts and selections:

American St. Leger (G3)

One of the locals is heading the betting market – Da Big Hoss. Given the strong record Europeans have in the race this might be a slight surprise, however this year’s challenge from overseas is not as strong as in years before.

That says there is a good reason to believe a local horse can land this unusual test – by US standards – of stamina.

Da Big Hoss has already proven his stamina landing the Belmont Gold Cup in impressive style, he’s also a multiple Stakes winner. He sets a high standard. On the other hand he gives crucial weight away,  at a short price is probably worth to oppose.

The main European challenge is likely to come from Clondaw Warrior and Wasir – both very decent stayers. Though there are some question marks whether they have the required speed today.

Might sound counter intuitive in a race called St. Leger, but makes perfect sense as we shouldn’t forget the fast ground horses encounter at Arlington’s turf and the sharpness of of the track, including a short run-in.

The two I find most intriguing in the line-up are Billabong nd Montclair. The latter one formerly trained in France, has staying form good enough to feature, however the ground might be against him.

Billabong has won over this sort of trip, albeit on the All-Weather, but has also proven himself to be competitive over shorter in Group company. He should be fine on the fast ground and gets the benefit of first time lasix.

At 10/1 he looks too big in the betting, given the rather open nature of the race, in my mind.

Selection: Billabong @ 10/1 Ladbrokes

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Secretariat Stakes (G1)

The first big one of the night and looking through the most recent history of the race it would be unwise not to have  proper look at whatever Aiden O’Brien saddles.

It’s probably fair to say, though, this years entry Long Island Sound is not as strong as the likes of Highland Reel or Treasure Beach were in years before.

Interesting to see William Buick booked on a decent US horse in American Patriot. Hugely improved since fitted with blinkers, he has to carry a penalty after a recent Grade 3 success nonetheless and that makes life difficult.

Beach Patrol looks the most likely winner after an excellent third in the Belmont Derby. However he’s a short enough price, so my advice is: watch and enjoy the race, safe the money and buy cans of beer instead of burning it here.

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Beverly D. Stakes (Grade 1)

It’s the big one for the females. A wide open race in my view, though I clearly see why Sea Calisi is a hot favourite. I was very fond of her last year when she still raced in Europe and was placed in the Prix Vermeille and Yorkshire Oaks – naturally that type of form gives her a standout chance.

She also had a good start to her US career, with a win and runner-up effort in Grade 2 competition. Worry for me today is her late running style and the trip. It’s a bit on the sharp side for her and she might get rolling too late.

Team Ballydoyle has the filly with the same name in the race. The 1.000 Guineas runner-up disappointed in the Belmont Oaks, which was her second poor showing on the bounce actually. .

Stable mate Coolmore is more interesting. I love the looks of this filly and rate her third place in the Belmont Oaks highly. From the widest draw, she missed the kick yet marched forward to share the lead soon and still managed to finish in the placings.

That was a big performance, although she ran out of steam in the closing stages – says she had every right to do so.

I always felt she’d be best suited over a stiff mile, but she deserves another chance over this sort of trip today, particularly with fast ground a help.

Selection: Coolmore @ 7/1 WH

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Arlington Million (G1)

The main event of the night and you know what? It’s a straightforward race. Focus on the Europeans and you can’t go wrong!

Right, there’s 2015 Million winner The Pizza Man in the line-up, but he clearly is not in the same form as last year. Grade 1 turf winners Wake Forrest and World Approval are the main hope for the locals – both have good form in the book but would hardly be Group 1 material in Europe.

So here come the Europeans, all  pumped to the eyeballs with lasix! Mondialiste proved he’s a different horse in the US. On his two starts – what coincidence both times on lasix – he outperformed his European form.

Tryster, first time on lasix today, should show improvement big time I suspect, though not only for the medication, but also for the likely fast pace in combination with the quick ground. He’ll be flying towards the end.

And there’s three year old Belmont Derby winner Deauville. A good horse, but not a world beater. However trip, track and ground is something he’ll love, and I can see him following up on his impressive Belmont success.

Deauville has to overcome a wide draw yet again, but he proved the other day the doesn’t lack early pace.  Also he’s a big three year old, who’ll make most of the weight allowance today.

Whereas I’m not sure whether Mondialiste will enjoy the conditions, whereas Tryster might get going too late, Deauville should be in the right spot when it really matters.

Selection: Deauville @ 6/1 Ladbrokes

 

AiR Force Blue Redemption Day

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Not often you see a horse cruising hard on the bridle entering the final furlong in a Grade 1 on the dirt, particularly if they flew around the track right from the start – yet Frosted did!

He posted one of the most impressive performances of the season, following on from an equally ultra impressive victory in Metropolitan Handicap back in June.

If you didn’t see the race, staged last night at beautiful Saratoga, here’s a chance to catch up:


Hayley Turner you beauty! The multiple Group 1 winning formerly leading female rider in the UK looked healthy and happy at yesterday’s Shergar Cup – which in itself was great to see; no doubt her ride in the Shergar Cup Mile was THE highlight of the day.

Super cool, with (virtual) balls of steel, did she rode Early Morning to victory – and given she hasn’t ridden much since her retirement, she looked still quite strong in the saddle. Well done!

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4.05 Phoenix Stakes: Air Force Blue @ 11/8 Skybet

Yes, you got to be a brave man to put any amount of faith in fallen Ballydoyle star Air Force Blue. BUT he wins this – hands down!

Why? Well, it’s obvious that everything he showed as a three year old is so far below anything he showed as a juvenile – therefore it might be fair to assume he simply didn’t train on. On the other hand to my eyes it seemed more like he had some issues bugging him him early on the year plus it becomes clear he doesn’t last the mile trip.

On the positive side of things: when dropped to 6 furlongs in the July Cup you could see a glimpse of last seasons class. “What???” Some will say now. Air Force Blue beaten by feckin’ seven lengths that day!

That’s right, though look closely, as he travelled like a dream for a very long time albeit didn’t get the breaks he needed when it really mattered….. I know I’m making excuses plenty will think… but….

…..Air Force Blue drops down to Group 3 level today right in to a field he simply HAS to dominate, particularly with good ground sure to suit. He’s by far the highest rated individual in this race. Combined with his weight for age allowance he is virtually unbeatable.

So, no excuses today. None! If he fades badly today then we get an answer the question whether there is an underlying problem… potentially breathing (*think loud*). Until then I give him the benefit of the doubt and say 11/8 is monster value!

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The Best from the Rest:

2.20 Chelmsford: Migan Lily @ 3/1 Skybet
2.30 Leicester: Zeinhom @ 10/3 Skybet
4.50 Chelmsford: Stamford Raffles @ 15/2 WH
5.20 Chelmsford: Not Your Call @ 2/1 VC

Saratoga Preview: Test Stakes

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Speed-ball Kareena is hot favourite for this intriguing Grade 1 for three year old fillies, but you wonder whether she stays the 7f trip in what shapes like a race sure to be run at a red hot pace.

Mother Goose winner Off The Tracks appears to be a more dependable candidate over the distance. She clearly stays all the way and doesn’t lack speed – yet the drop to this shorter distance is something that puts me off.

Lewis Bay ran out a fine runner-up behind Off The Tracks at Belmont after bottling it at the start. Given he won over further, I also slightly wonder about the drop in trip.

At the prices Lightstream makes most appeal. A three times winner over 7f on dirt and turf, she lost her unbeaten record in the Mother Goose but was far from disgraced. She encountered a bad trip on the far outside around the home turn and just didn’t have enough left to challenge in the end.

The drop back to 7f will certainly suit, and this filly is tremendously talented in my mind. She often leaves it late, which could make things very nervy here, given Off The Tracks and Lewis Bay will go hard to the line. Still, at 15/2, she is the value in this contest.

 Saratiga – Test Stakes: Lightstream @ 15/2 Coral

A Day Out at Los Alamitos Racetrack

Better late than never my piece on Californian racecourse Los Alamitos. Not too long ago I had the chance to visit this racetrack located in Orange County, in the outskirts of Los Angeles.

Truth told I never was US racing’s biggest fan – and maybe never will. It probably doesn’t help that my visits to the racetracks of Aqueduct in New York and Golden Gate Fields in San Francisco turned out to be rather bleak and dreary affairs. Those huge places, with the appearance of ghost towns, a couple of hundred souls spread across the stands – it was sad to see.

So far so bad – but stay with me – this is not another “Europeans bashing US racing piece”.

When I turned into the parking lot of Los Alamitos racecourse my expectations were clearly low. It was a mild winter day, mild for Californian standard, piping hot if you live in Ireland.That clearly helped to lift the initial mood, whatever happens next.

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Now, let me write the most important sentence right here: Los Alamitos rocks. It really does. Okay, it might be easy to exceed expectations if there are none, but seriously, this place just works.

The beautiful historic grand stand with three levels, fine seating and viewing, is not dramatically oversized as I found it  to be the case at Aqeduct. It’s certainly not small, but not overwhelmingly huge either, no danger getting lost inside as it can easily happen at Golden Gate Fields.

What is most important: you’re close to the horses. Saddling area, parade ring, track… all close, easily accessible. So let me use one word to describe this racecourse – and I wouldn’t have thought to ever use this word to describe a US track: beautiful.

Los Alamitos is beautiful. A place where racing comes alive. There was a “feel good” atmosphere in the air, everyone’s relaxing, enjoying a fine day out and – last but not least – watching an exciting sport. I loved it.

But let the photos speak for itself:

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