Official wishes Stronach had stood up to CHRB

A Southland racing official who didn’t want to be identified because he’s not authorized to speak on the subject, told me today he wished Frank Stronach, chairman of Santa Anita’s parent company Magna Entertainment Corp., had stood up to Richard Shapiro and other members of the California Horse Racing Board when the ruling body mandated synthetic surfaces for all California tracks in May 2006.

“It kind of surprised me that he didn’t stand up to them,” the official said. “I mean, what were they going to do — close down Santa Anita? Tracks like Del Mar, they needed to do something, and Hollywood Park just made the politically correct move. But I really wish Stronach had said no to them.”

Artificial surfaces are in the news again this week after Rachel Alexandra’s co-owner, Jess Jackson, told racing writers during a national teleconference this week that he will not send the talented 3-year-old filly to the Breeders’ Cup this fall at Santa Anita because he disdains what he calls “plastic” tracks.

“I have a very strong dislike for plastic surfaces and I don’t think she should be exposed to that,” Jackson said.

Jackson, who also campaigned two-time Horse of the Year Curlin, still rues his decision to run the colt in last year’s Breeders’ Cup. The son of Smart Strike made a bold move turning for home while extremely wide, took the leald and then flattened out through the stretch and finished fourth.

Jackson sure does hate the “plastic” stuff

Jess Jackson, co-owner of Rachel Alexandra, has such disdain for synthetic surfaces that he won’t even call them by their name. On a conference call Wednesday with national turf writers, Jackson continually referred to artificial tracks as “plastic.” He was bitter when Curlin lost in the Breeders’ Cup Classic last fall at Santa Anita, blaming the Pro-Ride surface, and it appears his dislike for synthetics continues to grow.

Jackson made it known Wednesday there is absolutely no chance that Rachel Alexandra will run at Santa Anita this fall, or over any other artificial surface for that matter. I think he’s wrong when he blames Curlin’s loss on the track because Curlin was not the same horse going in. Maybe it was the trip to Dubai in March that did him in, I don’t know. But I do know this — Curlin made a strong move turning for home in last year’s Classic while racing EXTREMELY wide and then flattened out in the stretch. It wasn’t the track, Jess. There were just better horses running that day.

“If I’m going to run a fourth year, the Breeders’ Cup is not that essential for her,” he said. “I just don’t want to risk her. You may think it’s not a risk, but I saw what Curlin did and how he struggled and I’ve seen four or five other horses that I’ve raced at Keeneland and on plastic and they struggled. If it’s a dirt horse, it’s a dirt horse.”

What do you think?

Rachel back atop NTRA poll

Looks like the voters in the NTRA’s weekly poll of the nation’s top thoroughbreds had a change of heart this week and put Rachel Alexandra back in the top spot where she deserves to be. The two switched spots, with Well Armed, Einstein and Mine That Bird staying put in third, fourth and fifth, respectively.

The rankings, including first-place votes, age, 2009 record, point totals and rankings the previous week::
1. Rachel Alexandra (6) 3-F 5-5-0-0 159 2
2. Zenyatta (8) 5-M 1-1-0-0 157 1
3. Well Armed (3) 6-G 3-1-1-0 136 3
4. Einstein (1) 7-H 4-2-0-2 125 4
5. Mine That Bird 3-G 5-1-2-1 92 5
6. Macho Again 4-C 4-2-0-1 52 6
7. Gio Ponti 4-C 3-2-0-0 50 7
8. Bribon 6-G 5-3-0-0 36 8
9. Summer Bird 3-C 5-2-0-1 27 10
10. Fabulous Strike 6-G 3-1-2-0 26 9

I still think Zenyatta is too high and Einstein too low for what the two horses have accomplished so far in 2009. Einstein has two Grade I victories — one on a synthetic and the other on turf — and Zenyatta has one Grade 2 win to her credit.

Rachel Alexandra ready for Mother Goose Stakes

The sensational Rachel Alexandra, who counts a record 20 1/4-length victory in the Kentucky Oaks and a win over the boys in the Preakness Stakes among her impressive accomplishments in 2009, worked four furlongs in 49.80 seconds at Churchill Downs this morning in preparation for Saturday’s $300,000 Grade 1 Mother Goose Stakes at Belmont Park.

“The filly went beautiful this morning,” trainer Steve Asmussen said. “She looked very happy. Scott (assistant trainer Scott Blasi) and Dominic (exercise rider Dominic Terry) have done a great job keeping her happy.”

Rachel Alexandra, a daughter of Medaglia d’Oro who has won 8 of 11 lifetime for earnings of $1,618,354, set fractions over a fast main track of :13, :25 and :37.40. She galloped out five furlongs in 1:03.40.

The Mother Goose will be Rachel Alexandra’s first race since the Preakness. It’s a 1 1/8-mile test against other 3-year-old fillies and is expected to attract graded stakes winners like Justwhistledixie and Don’t Forget Gil. Rachel Alexandra is scheduled to ship to New York on Tuesday morning and will be an overwhelming favorite to win the race.

“That’s why they’re Grade I’s,” Asmussen said. “We’re not looking to trade her with anyone.”


Zenyatta gets 129 pounds for Saturday’s Vanity

Part of the price you must pay when you own a brilliant mare that’s unbeaten in 10 career races is that she has to carry a lot of weight as she continues to mow down the opposition. Such is the case for Zenyatta, who will race in Saturday’s $300,000 Grade 1 Vanity Handicap with top weight of 129 pounds as she tries to become the first repeat winner of the stake since Azeri in 2003. Azeri carried 127 pounds that year. Zenyatta carried 126 pounds when she made her 2009 debut a winning one in Hollypark’s $150,000 Grade 2 Milady Handicap on May 23. Other repeat winners in the Vanity include Annie-Lu-San in 1957-58, Convenience in 1972-73 and It’s In The Air in 1979-80.

Gamely carried a stake-record 131 pounds in 1968 while winning, and Silver Spoon won in 1960 while carrying 130 pounds. The complete list of weights, which were announced Sunday: Zenyatta, 129; Life Is Sweet, 122; Dawn After Dawn, 116; Briecat, 114; Modification, 114; You Lift Me Up, 114; Allicansayis Wow, 113; Forest Melody, 113, and Hot n’ Dusty, 111.

Of course, Life Is Sweet, Zenyatta’s stablemate, is expected to bypass the Vanity and run instead in the $700,000 Grade I Hollywood Gold Cup against the males on July 11. Trainer John Shirreffs said he believes Life Is Sweet, owned by Martin Wygod, is more suited to race against the boys at this stage of the year because she’s had more races in 2009. She won a pair of major stakes for distaffers at Santa Anita this past winter.

Zenyatta’s exercise rider, Steve Willard, believes the mare who’s earned $2,234,580 for owners Jerry and Ann Moss, is ready to roll Saturday. “She came out of that last race better than ever,” he said.

Mike Smith, who’s been aboard for eight of Zenyatta’s 10 lifetime victories, will be back aboard in the Vanity.

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They’re neck and neck, head and head

What a great race for the jockey title at Hollywood Park! Rafael Bejarano, trying for an unprecedented seventh consecutive SoCal riding crown, led Joel Rosario 53-52 heading into today’s 10-race card. So far through the first seven races, Bejarano and Rosario have each won twice. They both have mounts in the remaining three races, including the $100,000 Grade 3 Affirmed Handicap.

Bejarano will be aboard the 2-1 morning-line favorite Grazen in the Affirmed for trainer Mike Mitchell, who’s picking up steam and already has two winners on today’s program. Rosario will ride 8-1 outsider Quindici Man for Craig Lewis.

This is a race that figures to go down to closing day on Sunday, July 19. With so few horses running these days, both of these jockeys are getting a ton of live mounts and neither figures to go into a prolonged losing streak. The difference could come in days spent out of state running in big stakes races. If either one travels east and misses a day and the other stays home and wins three or four races, that could prove pivotal.

Either way, this is going to be fun to watch.

Let’s shoot for the moon tonight at Hollypark

There’s a $522,957 pick six carryover at Hollywood Park tonight, and I think I’ll take a stab at it despite the fact the eighth race is one of the worst of the meeting. I mean, it’s got to be one of the worst of the year.

3rd — Surprises Welcomed and Royal Fortune
4th — Principle Secret, Yankee Visionary and Saint Paul
5th — Pacific Halo
6th — Nene, Stand Tall and Forest Phantom
7th — Position A and Sagaponack
8th — Kay S

That’s a $72 ticket. I wouldn’t spend that much on a card like this except for the fact there’s such a huge carryover. I think my two singles have solid chances. Pacific Halo in the fifth has good tactical speed from the rail and gets the services of Tyler Baze, one of the top speed riders in the game. He may not win, but he figures to be right there, and that’s about all you can hope for. I think Kay S is the best of a very weak lot in the nightcap. He ran fourth in his debut at Turf Paradise on April 28, gets the services of Victor Espinoza and figures to take a step forward with a race under his belt.

Good luck tonight!!

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Zenyatta No. 1? I find it hard to believe

When the NTRA released its latest top 10 rankings this week, Zenyatta had supplanted Einstein as the No. 1 horse in America. Incredible. Not that Einstein slipped to fourth, but because Zenyatta has raced only once in 2009 and as brilliant as her career has been, she has not been the most impressive horse to race in America this year.

That distinction goes to Rachel Alexandra, who is unbeaten in five races that includes a victory over the males in the Preakness Stakes on May 16 and a record 20 1/4-length victory in the Kentucky Oaks the day before the Derby. She’s been brilliant all year, whereas Zenyatta has won only once.

Now don’t get me wrong, I am one of Zenyatta’s biggest boosters. I thought she deserved Horse of the Year over Curlin last year. I think she’s one of the all-time top five distaffers I’ve ever seen, and she can climb up that list if she beats the boys at some point this season. She’s an amazing race horse.

Here’s the NTRA’s latest top 10:
1. Zenyatta
2. Rachel Alexandra
3. Well Armed
4. Einstein
5. Mine That Bird
6. Macho Again
7. Gio Ponti
8. Bribon
9. Fabulous Strike
10. Summer Bird

I don’t have a vote, but here’s the way I would have cast my ballot this week:
1. Rachel Alexandra
2. Einstein
3. Well Armed
4. Mine That Bird
5. Zenyatta
6. Macho Again
7. Georgie Boy
8. Life Is Sweet
9. Gio Ponti
10. Summer Bird

Explain this to me — how can Zenyatta, ranked fourth in the last poll, leapfrog Rachel Alexandra when neither one raced? Was Zenyatta more impressive with the way she ate up her feed? I just don’t get it. And I would not have penalized Einstein so severely because he finished third in the Stephen Foster Handicap at Churchill Downs last Saturday. He had a brutal trip and I think he was the best horse in the race. Yes, I would have dropped him, but not from first to fourth. He’s still the top older male horse in the country.

How about you, who would you vote the No. 1 horse in America today?

Life Is Sweet may try boys in the Gold Cup

Steve Schuelein of the Hollywood Park publicity office reported today that the brilliant filly Life Is Sweet might race against the boys in the $700,000 Grade 1 Hollywood Gold Cup on July 11 rather than tackling the unbeaten Zenyatta again in the $300,000 Grade I Vanity Handicap:

Here’s an excerpt from Schuelien’s barn notes dealing with Life Is Sweet:

Owner-breeder Marty Wygod said Life Is Sweet may make her next start against males in the TVG/Betfair Hollywood Gold Cup after the multiple stakes-winning 4-year-old filly worked six furlongs in a bullet 1:11 on Cushion Track at Hollywood Park Thursday.

“She worked great this morning,” said Wygod. “It’s between running her against Zenyatta next Saturday in the Vanity or in the Gold Cup two weeks later. I’ll play it by ear and see who is probably running in the Gold Cup.”

Life Is Sweet was named champion female of the Santa Anita meet after sweeping the El Encino and La Canada stakes and the Santa Margarita Handicap but was no match for unbeaten Eclipse Award winner Zenyatta in her season debut in the Milady Handicap here May 23, finishing 1 lengths behind in second.

“I would rather run against Zenyatta at Santa Anita,” said Wygod. “Gomez (jockey Garrett Gomez) said she likes the surface there better.” Both female stars are trained by John Shirreffs.

Life Is Sweet, a full sister to 2004 2-year-old filly champion Sweet Catomine, has won five of 11 starts and earned $570,810. All her starts have been against females.

The last female to win the Gold Cup was Princessnesian in 1968. She was the third, following Happy Issue in 1944 and Two Lea in 1952. The $700,000 Gold Cup is a Grade I test at 1 miles on July 11.

Zenyatta is scheduled to defend her Vanity crown in quest of her 11th straight victory. The $300,000, Grade I test will be run at 1 1/8 miles on June 27.

Zenyatta won the Milady under 126 pounds, four more than Life Is Sweet. The 5-year-old mare won the Vanity last year under 124 with regular rider Mike Smith up.

The last horse to repeat in the Vanity was champion Azeri, also under Smith, in 2002 and 2003. Other repeat winners are It’s In The Air in 1979-80, Convenience in 1972-73 and Annie Lu-San in 1957-58.

Joining Zenyatta and Life Is Sweet as nominees to the Vanity are Allicansayiswow, Briecat, Dawn After Dawn, Forest Melody, Hot n’ Dusty, Modification and You Lift Me Up.

A little nightlife at Churchill Downs

Churchill Downs will be the latest American race track to take the plunge into night racing when the track holds its first card ever under the lights. Should be interesting to see how they fare. As we all know, they are traditionalists in Kentucky when it comes to their horse racing, but they’re going to give this a whirl. Hey, if baseball under the lights flies at Wrigley Field, why not Churchill’s “Downs After Dark” experiment.

An update on the venture from the track’s publicity department:

So, what do you do if you are saddling a horse in the nightcap, scheduled for 11:11 p.m. (all times EDT), in the historic debut of Churchill Downs’ “Downs After Dark” night racing?

“I guess I’ll sleep on the couch (at the barn) that night,” trainer William “Buff” Bradley said with a laugh.

Con Lover is in Friday’s finale and will be Bradley’s only starter on the 11-race card that begins at 6 p.m. A regular on the Kentucky circuit, Bradley is a veteran of night racing at Turfway Park.

“I would usually stay up there if we were in a late race,” Bradley said. “I never thought I would see lights here, and if it works, fine. We need to do whatever we can to boost racing.”

One of the effects of the night card for Bradley will be adjusting work schedules, including barn star Brass Hat, winner of the recent Louisville Handicap (Grade III) and earner of more than $1.8 million.

“I am going to work him Friday instead of Saturday, and that (the night card) is one of the reasons,” Bradley said. “I have a few that will work longer and harder and then will walk for two days, so we won’t have so many going to the track Saturday.”