Past The Wire
By Jonathan Stettin
No Lull in the Sport of Kings
Well, the lull expected in racing following California Chrome’s unsuccessful bid at the ever elusive Triple Crown seems to have missed us. Churchill Downs put on a fine card of racing Saturday with the Stephen Foster headlining several stakes under the lights. Santa Anita also made a fine contribution with two Grade 1’s of their own. In the midst of this we have Treve, The Fugue, and Dank going at it Wednesday at Royal Ascot. Not what we can really call a lull.
While California Chrome showed us how a small budget operation can get lucky every once in a while and compete at the games highest level, the cards at Churchill Downs and Santa Anita also showed us how a keen eye and some great horsemanship can turn a relatively modest investment into a Grade 1 winning score.
I always thought one of the best training feats in thoroughbred racing was taking a claiming horse and not just improving them but turning them into a stakes winner. Growing up around New York racing, I was fortunate to be around some of the savviest trainers. Many of them pulled off turning claimers into stakes winners – an accomplishment which doesn’t always get the credit it deserves. Along with a little luck, this takes some sharp scoping out of horses and barns, great training, expert recognizing of improvement and talent level, and believing in yourself and your operation. That’s what it’s all about. The claiming game is tough and ultra-competitive, and to achieve that type of success in it is noteworthy.
On Saturday, we saw Moonshine Mullin, claimed and trained by Randy Morse – not exactly a house hold name in racing but a fine trainer and horseman – run away with the Stephen Foster against a solid Grade 1 field. We were also treated to a runaway win at Santa Anita in the Grade 1 Vanity by Iotapa, who was claimed and trained by John Sadler – another fine trainer who isn’t all that well known outside of California. Not only did both of these former claimers win but they did so with authority, while beating select fields. That has to be, and should be, one of the greatest highs in racing for the connections.
I remember when a friend of mine, trainer Pat Reynolds, claimed a horse named Peeping Tom and won the Grade 1 Carter Handicap with him back in 2001. This is the same Pat Reynolds who trained and developed Big Brown early and led him over to the gate in his impressive Saratoga maiden breaker. This is obviously a man who knows his way around a shed row.
I was also fortunate to witness New York trainer Pete Ferriola accomplish this feat, almost with regularity. May he rest in peace, this New York horsemen made turning claimers into stakes winners seem like just another day at the office. Back then you could actually make a living following him and knowing his patterns. One horse that comes to mind was Tarantara, who I’d bet our friend Richard Migliore remembers from his days riding him. He was claimed for around $20,000, if memory serves, and went on to win the Boojum Handicap amongst other stakes. The Boojum sticks out though as the $16.00 or so he paid was a huge help that day.
Former New York trainer Gaspar Moschera was also adept at this coveted feat. He turned former claimer Moro, along with others, into a multiple New York stakes winner. Of course, we can never forget Oscar Barrera and his claim of Shifty Sheik -who didn’t win but gave champion Slew O Gold all he could handle one day at Belmont in the Woodward. Handicap Triple Crown winner Fit To Fight was also in his wake. It doesn’t always work out. A bit more recently, Rick Dutrow tried to win the Grade 1 Kentucky Oaks with a horse he claimed from Steve Asmussen, Sis City who went off favored at 3-5. Asmussen won the race with second choice Summerly. Getting Sis City into that position was no small accomplishment regardless.
There have also been some missed opportunities altogether. Can you imagine if anyone had claimed Charasmatic from Wayne Lukas when he was in for a tag and then gone on to run him in and win the Kentucky Derby? The chances are out there all the time. You have to swing the bat in order to hit a home run. I’m sure some of the sharper claiming outfits scope out the mega barns daily for ones that just need a little attention and extra TLC. If not they should be.
These huge returns off modest investments are one of the things that make the Sport of Kings so great and filled with hope. What’s even better is they are not just available to owners but also to players in the ultimate fantasy sport. Talking about no lull, just yesterday one player turned a modest $3.50 into a hefty $36k Pick-5 score at Santa Anita. This ticket structured as 4 singles and then an all had the look to a seasoned player as a saver ticket, or a lucky number ticket and bore an eerie resemblance to the “Fix” pick 6 ticket of 4 singles and then 2 alls. It turned out to be a lucky number ticket but nonetheless the $36k was real. With the multitude of 10 and 50 cent wagers offered daily sometimes it pays to make a lottery ticket type play and just watch the race when you do not have a strong opinion.
The lucky number ticket can also be frustrating to the seasoned player. I know this all too well having split a million dollar Pick-6 carryover with a lady who made her first visit to the track on that very day and played the carryover with house numbers or something like that. I’d have much rather she came Sunday or bought that other house or at least split the pot with another player. In hindsight though this is part of what makes the game so exciting and inviting. It is a great equalizer as we walk in the doors. In the long run if you work yourself into that low percentage exclusive club of limited membership of those who beat the game it all works out. Like training a race horse, Pari-mutual wagering is a skill game, always has been, always will be.
Randy Morse and John Sadler dead heat this week for their Grade 1 training accomplishments with horses they claimed.
Sorry TVG but this is yours alone this week. Not quite sure who decided to show a Woodbine post parade for 9 minutes and ignore Belmont’s featured 8th race but that is just not how it’s done. You also never fixed the ATT U verse fiasco, which is well overdue and your app is not the first or only one. Not to pick on you guys but step it up with the coverage and accuracy of info… and get back on U verse.
HORSE TO WATCH:
My only play Sunday was Royal Delta’s half little sister Crown Queen who made a smashing three year old debut and ran off like some more running is in her future.
Jonathan Stettin is a profesional handicapper and contributor to DanonymousRacing.com. He currently resides in Florida. He has several large Pick-6 scores to his name, including one for $540,000+ on August 8, 1994, at Saratoga. You can follow him on Twitter @jonathanstettin.