Owners, trainers need to band together

My column in Friday’s editions will deal with some of the many problems facing horse racing in California, one of which is the need for the trainers and owners to come together as one so they can negotiate with track management from a position of strength.

Two of the trainers who support the new group California Horsemen for Change, John Shirreffs and John Sadler, both would like the see the Thoroughbred Owners of California and the trainers reunite.

“I know the horsemen would like to see a reunification of the CTT and the TOC,” Sadler said. “They wanted to take any power away from the trainers and give it to the owners (when the old Horsemen’s Benevolent and Protective Association was disbanded in the early ’90s), but that’s changed where most of those guys are not there.

“It was about giving the owners the power and the tracks loved it because then it was the owners fighting the trainers and nobody looking at them. To move forward today, the two organizations should be one and then they can negotiate better with the tracks.”

Said Shirreffs: “The TOC does not necessarily want the trainers group with them. That has been the standing position of the TOC, that they’re willing to help us but they don’t necessarily want us to be a part of their group. I think it’s very frustrating for the trainers because basically the CTT doesn’t have any real decision power in what goes on as far as (purse structure). Those are all TOC issues, so the CTT doesn’t really have a voice in it. I think it’s very frustrating on that level.”

Personally, I think the whole industry is frustrating on a lot of levels.

Sea The Stars, Europe’s best, retired

Sea The Stars, one of the best horses to race in Europe in many years, was retired today, meaning of course he won’t be coming to race in the Breeders’ Cup Classic at Santa Anita on Nov. 7.

Breeders’ Cup president Greg Avioli released the following statement:

“Sea The Stars has had an extraordinary career by any measure and we wish his connections the best and thank them for the careful consideration of the Breeders’ Cup. We remain focused on the 26th Breeders’ Cup World Championships and the strong fields scheduled to compete, including the sensational undefeated mare Zenyatta, the best horses in training in the US and an outstanding contingent of international runners that will try to match the success the European horses enjoyed last year.”

It’s my belief that this latest development only increases the chances that Zenyatta will face the boys in the $5 million Classic. So far, there’s nothing that should scare away her camp. She loves Santa Anita’s Pro-Ride surface, and I think that incredible turn of foot will be there no matter who she is racing against.

Shirreffs wants better communication with CTT

Trainer John Shirreffs is best known for his work with the super 5-year-old mare Zenyatta, but this week he’s in the news because he’s one of the major players with the California Horsemen for Change — a new group of Southern California-based trainers who are unhappy with California Thoroughbred Trainers and have pushed for a special election to replace the CTT’s entire nine-member board.

But this isn’t all about the anti-synthetic tracks fervor that has sprung up over the past 18 months. This also has to do with many other issues, including the shrinkage of purse sizes, medication and the distribution of Advance Deposit Wagering revenues. It’s also about the lack of communication the disgruntled trainers feel has existed between the CTT executive board and members of the organization.

“As an example of what’s going on in the industry and an example of not having all the cards on the table, there was a rumor that the TOC (Thoroughbred Owners of California) was supporting Santa Anita in getting dates from Hollywood Park, which obviously would shorten the (existence) of Hollywood Park,” Shirreffs said. “If they take dates away from Hollywood Park, that pushes them closer to closing. And for a lot of trainers, for myself in particular, we would not want to see that happen.

“We would hope that the TOC would do everything it can to keep both race tracks operational. To favor one track over the other is not a position the CTT should be supporting. And if they are supporting it, that’s against the majority of the trainers’ wishes.

“Those are the kind of issues, the gray areas, that we really don’t know because they don’t come out and explain themselves to us. Suddenly, it’s always the board says this and that, where they could easily say the membership is split on these issues, but they don’t do it that way.”

CTT board holds emergency meeting

Reports have surfaced today that an unidentified horseman has threatened to sue the California Thoroughbred Trainers if the group follows through on a vote taken Friday morning at Santa Anita that called for new elections to fill its nine-member board.

An emergency meeting of the CTT board was called for this morning at 10 a.m. to discuss the matter.

At the root of all this is a newly formed group of trainers, calling themselves California Horsemen for Change, who have reached a boiling point and want to see major changes in the sport in California.

“I think that’s the feeling that is pretty much amongst the majority of the trainers in Southern California,” trainer John Shirreffs said. “They’re looking for some sort of a change, and I think they felt that the (CTT) board was not transparent or responsive to their requests.”

Preparing to seek decertification of the CTT, the CHC met with the trainers’ group Friday afternoon in an attempt to resolve their differences. Members of the new CHC include Shirreffs, Bob Baffert, Doug O’Neill, John Sadler, Mike Mitchell, Clifford Sise, Bruce Headley and Darrell Vienna, among others.

In a statement released this morning, the CHC announced it met for an hour with the CTT board to discuss issues that concern the new group. Presumably high on that list of concerns are:

(1) The synthetic race tracks
(2) How the Advance Deposit Wagering funds are split up
(3) Shrinking purse sizes
(4) Overall communication between the CTT board and members of the CTT

According to the release, the CTT board voted 5-4 Friday to hold new elections.

Mine That Bird’s future up in the air

Kentucky Derby winner Mine That Bird went into Saturday’s Goodwood Stakes at Santa Anita’s Oak Tree meet off a 10-week layoff. He had no pace to run at and jockey Calvin Borel said he was struggling over the synthetic Pro-Ride surface.

Still, he managed to close from 10th to finish sixth, beaten about four lengths, and the extra quarter mile of the Breeders’ Cup Classic figures to play in his favor if his connections decide to go that route.

“He looks OK this morning,” trainer Chip Woolley said. “He came back good, I think. I haven’t talked to the owners much since we’ve run, so I’m not sure exactly what we’ll do from here, but the horse ran pretty good. There was not quite enough pace in the race to set it up for him, and we might have been a little too far out of it. It’s kind of hard to say.

“It’s never a good thing when your horse is off 10 weeks and coming into a Grade 1 race like that. It’s kind of hard to be maybe as sharp as you want to be. I tried to tell his owners last night, it’s not like you got beat a fading 10 lengths or something. You were the only horse left running in the race, you were still closing ground. From the head of the lane to the wire, he makes up about six or seven (lengths).”

What might be most troubling were Borel’s words immediately after the race.

“He had a perfect trip, but he got to struggling a little,” he said. “When I asked him to go get them, he was struggling over the track a little bit. Maybe a little bit firmer ground where I can just let him break and pick him up easy – instead of this quick – will be better for him. I don’t know if that will work. But I do know one thing. He’s a lot better horse on the dirt. When you ask him here, he goes to struggling instead of just running. I don’t know. We’ll have to work on that a little bit and see what happens. But I think he’ll be all right.”

It’s tough to work things out if a horse doesn’t like the track, although the way he came running late seems to indicate he didn’t dislike it that much. He’ll probably run in the Classic on Nov. 7 and get a better pace to run at. Then it will just be a matter of if he’s good enough.

‘Sweet’ Zenyatta rips their hearts out

Trainer John Shirreffs says the unbeaten Zenyatta, who matched Personal Ensign’s record unbeaten streak of 13-0 Saturday with her usual come-from-behind victory in the Lady’s Secret Stakes at Santa Anita’s Oak Tree meet, is as sweet as can be around the barn.

“Zenyatta’s the sweetest horse you can imagine,” he said in the winner’s circle after the 5-year-old daughter of Street Cry again overcame turtle-like splits to unleash the powerful closing surge that has led to victories against every distaffer she’s raced against. “I mean, she licks her groom. You could lay down next to her in the stall and she wouldn’t move. She could be your pillow. For being the strong filly that she is, she’s just really got a great, sweet personality.”

Sure she does, and then she gets on the race track, pins her ears up when jockey Mike Smith asks her to run, and annihilates anything in front of her. She’s unlike any distaffer we’ve seen in these parts in quite some time — maybe ever.

“When she passes the other horses, she just puts her ears up,” Shirreffs said. “It’s like, ‘It’s me, and I’m here.’ ”

Here to knock their socks off.

Zenyatta has now won 12 of her 13 races on synthetic surfaces, but Shirreffs strongly believes she’s a better horse on dirt. She turned in what owner Jerry Moss considers her most impressive victory in the 2008 Apple Blossom Handicap over Oaklawn Park’s dirt track, firing on all cylinders in the stretch to zoom past reigning Eclipse Award winner Ginger Punch and win by 4 1/2 lengths.

Shirreffs, who’s watched his standout mare close and win time and again now while chasing slow fractions, wondered aloud Saturday what she’d be like while racing on dirt.

“Can you imagine if she was running in 46 and 47 (second) half miles, what she’d be doing at the end of a race?” he asked. “Just imagine it. Do the math, as they say.”

The math says she’s 13-0 and sitting on the chance to become the first distaffer to win the $5 million Breeders’ Cup Classic on Nov. 7 at Santa Anita. Shirreffs and Moss say they’ll make a decision when it’s time, but it says here they’ve already pretty much made up their minds — she’s going to run in the Classic against the boys.

“We want to see how much she’s got in her tank, so we’ll see what happens,” Moss said when asked what factors will go into the decision regarding which Breeders’ Cup race Zenyatta goes in.

Magical Fantasy punches ticket to Breeders’ Cup

Magical Fantasy is headed to the Breeders’ Cup Filly and Mare Turf on Nov. 6 on a four-race winning streak after winning Saturday’s $300,000 Grade 1 Yellow Ribbon Stakes at Santa Anita.

The 4-year-old daughter of Diesis won the Yellow Ribbon by a half-length over Visit, with Black Mamba another nose back in third in the 1 1/4-mile turf race. The second- and third-place finishers are likely to come back in the Breeders’ Cup for another crack at Magical Fantasy, who went postward as the 6-5 favorite and won for the fifth time in 11 tries on the grass and for the sixth time in 17 starts overall. She went over $1 million in earnings with the victory, hiking her career bankroll to $1,039,231.

Winning trainer Paddy Gallagher has done a great job with the filly, and jockey Alex Solis suits her to a tee. They’re going to be tough to beat on their home course in the Breeders’ Cup, although it’s always tough for a come-from-behinder to navigate and make up ground in a large field like the Filly and Mare Turf figures to be.

“That’s the number one hope, to stay here and train up to the Breeders’ Cup,” Gallagher said.

The winning time was a solid 1:59.59 after Magical Fantasy chased pacesetter Charming Legacy’s splits of 24.02, 47.58 and 11:11.98. The winner has now won three consecutive Grade 1 races, following up victories in the Gamely Stakes at Hollywood Park and the John Mabee Stakes at Del Mar. She started the four-race win streak with a victory in the Grade 2 Santa Barbara Handicap at Santa Anita on April 18.

Rachel’s 2009 campaign officially over

Jess Jackson, co-owner of Rachel Alexandra, released the following statement this morning regarding the brilliant filly, who is undoubtedly on her way to winning Horse of the Year:

“We have seen an amazing 2009 campaign from Rachel Alexandra our
three year old filly. She not only beat the fillies by 20 lengths in the
Kentucky Oaks and 19 lengths in the Mother Goose Stakes, she beat the
boys in the Preakness and the Haskell, and older males in the Woodward.
She beat the winners of the Kentucky Derby and the Belmont. Rachel
raced on eight different tracks.

She prevailed in all eight of her races in 09 — five of them Grade 1
contests. Hers was a campaign for the ages beyond what any filly has
ever accomplished and she is only three years old. Our family and
racing fans will always remember and enjoy her historic 2009 campaign.

Today, I am formally announcing our decision to conclude Rachel’s
2009 Campaign and allow her to mature naturally. She has moved to
Churchill Downs for a well-deserved rest.

We are all looking forward to an exciting 2010 season. In the interim,
I want to sincerely thank the fans, the track officials and the media
for all their heartfelt support of this wonderful filly.”

There is still a chance that Rachel Alexandra and Zenyatta could hook up before the latter’s retirement to the breeding shed. The Zenyatta camp has said there’s a possibility she could race once or twice early in 2010 before the breeding season begins.

“If everything goes well and Zenyatta is OK, I don’t necessarily think the Breeders’ Cup will be her last race,” trainer John Shirreffs said this week. “As for how many races she runs after that, I don’t know because of the breeding season, but there’s always a possibility (for a Rachel-Zenyatta showdown).”

Shirreffs went on to say that he knows Jackson and Jerry Moss, owner of Zenyatta, talked at last month’s Keeneland September yearling sale, but that he didn’t know the full extent of the conversation.

Shirreffs: Synthetics like running on Velcro

John Shirreffs should love synthetic race tracks. He trains Zenyatta, who has won 11 of her 12 lifetime starts on the fake stuff. Two of the three artificial tracks in the Southland — Santa Anita and Del Mar — favor come-from-behinders like Zenyatta, who seems to close and win no matter the early splits.

But guess what? Shirreffs hates the synthetics tracks. He always has, and probably always will.

“I’m more into developing young horses, and I find that young horses really don’t like training on synthetic surfaces,” he said. “Synthetic surfaces are like training on Velcro, where the horse’s foot lands and it doesn’t slide, it just sticks to the ground. Depending upon how synthetic the surface is, they can’t rotate their foot into the track and push off. So if you can imagine running along flat-footed all the time without getting up on your toes and pushing off, I think that’s probably about how it would feel to a human.”

Shirreffs thinks Zenyatta would be much better on the dirt, which is sort of a frightening thought for opposing owners and trainers.

Also, Shirreffs is not happy about having to run his other talented distaffer, Life Is Sweet, in Saturday’s Lady’s Secret Stakes at Santa Anita against Zenyatta, who will be going for her 13th victory without defeat.

“My preference would have been to run Life Is Sweet on the grass, but Mr. Wygod (owner Martin Wygod) would prefer to run her on the main track,” Shirreffs said. “Pro-Ride favors turf horses a little bit. We saw that last year in the Breeders’ Cup, where horses coming off the turf ran exceedingly well on the Pro-Ride surface, so I think that’s what Marty is hoping will happen again.”

If Life Is Sweet, who won three graded stakes at Santa Anita last winter, including the Grade 1 Santa Margarita Invitational, reverts back to that form, she could be a tough customer for Zenyatta on Saturday.

Another major trainer knocks synthetics

The list of trainers who are now not so enthusiastic about synthetic race tracks continues to grow, and no, not just old-school guys like Bruce Headley, Mel Stute and Henry Moreno.

We already knew guys like D. Wayne Lukas, John Shirreffs, Bob Baffert and Nick Zito hated the stuff, but it should really make you sit up and take notice when a trainer like Todd Pletcher, who sent tons of horses to Southern California the first year of synthetics, is suddenly backing off and is now reluctant to run his horses over them.

Here’s what Pletcher told Jennie Rees of the Louisville Courier-Journal this past weekend:

“I think there was a time when a lot of people were enthusiastic about the synthetic tracks and felt like it was going to make a difference in soundness and those kinds of things,” he said. “I think that enthusiasm level has decreased significantly.”

Pletcher is not sure he wants to send his top 3-year-old colt, Quality Road, to Santa Anita for the Breeders’ Cup Classic on Nov. 7.

“I’m not keen at all,” he said. “I mean, I don’t think I’d be alone to say it was not a great idea to hold (the Breeders’ Cup) at one place two years in a row, period, much less on a synthetic surface. It creates a huge edge for the guys who are in California all the time and a big edge for the guys from Europe. So we’re going to take the worst of it in that regard.

“You don’t know how they’re going to handle it until they run on it. Training doesn’t seem to help.”

Quality Road, a lot of experts’ Kentucky Derby pick until injury knocked him off the Triple Crown trail, has never raced on an artificial track. Pletcher noted that his star sprinter Munnings ran poorly on Santa Anita’s Pro-Ride surface in last year’s Breeders’ Cup Sprint.

“He’s been off the board once in his life, and it was there,” he said.

Asked by Rees if he will have a presence at the Keeneland fall meet this year, Pletcher said: “We will be a presence. Not a big presence.”

Bottom line, folks, is that these synthetics were supposed to end the fatal breakdowns, and they aren’t doing it overall. Plus, sometimes the tracks are dangerous because they are uneven and they cause injuries that never used to crop up before.

More than $40 million later, nobody from outside the state of California wants to run
on our race tracks. And there are plenty of trainers here who don’t want to but must continue racing because it’s their livelihood.