Sunshine Millions Day at Santa Anita

Three Sunshine Millions races today at Santa Anita. Here’s who I like:

Filly & Mare Sprint
Libor Lady gets Garrett Gojmez and is two for three on synthetics. She’s 9 for 21 overall with five seconds and three thirds. There’s a lot of speed in here, but I think she may have the class to beat this field. Dubai Majesty is my second choice.

Filly & Mare Turf
I think Gomez could get his second Millions victory aboard the Kathy Walsh-trained Bootleg Annie, another win machine. She’s won 15 of 32 starts and is 4 for 7 over the Santa Anita turf. Walsh and Gomez win at a 31 percent clip when they team up.

Compari gives Gomez a hat trick in the Millions races at Santa Anita. He’s won four consecutive and could prove tough to collar in this spot. Palladio has a long-shot chance at 30-1 on the morning line. He’s coming in off a Grade 2 score at Woodbine Park in Toronto.

Good luck today!

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Who’s the best jockey you’ve ever seen?

There have been so many great riders over the years, it’s difficult picking the all-time best jockey. Many of them rode in different eras, they all had their strengths and weaknesses, and they rode against different levels of competition.

For instance, although Russell Baze is the all-time winningest rider, many might not even put him on their all-time top five list because he’s ridden the majority of his career in Northern California, where the competition is not as keen as Southern California, New York, Kentucky, et al.

Some might choose Laffit Pincay, No. 2 in lifetime victories, because of his entraordinary strength. Still others might go with Bill Shoemaker, who many say had a clock in his head because of his uncanny ability to judge pace during a race.

Eddie Arcaro? Johnny Longden? Angel Cordero? Jerry Bailey? Pat Day?

All were outstanding jockeys during their time.

We had some fun here discussing the all-time best race callers a couple of months back, and I thought maybe we could do the same debating who was the best jockey of all time.

In my book, it’s Pincay. I never saw Shoemaker in his prime, so I’m going by what I saw and not what I’ve heard or read.

With the exception of Baze, we’ve left all active jockeys off our list. There’s no doubt current riders the likes of Rafael Bejarano, Garrett Gomez, Julien Leparoux and Joel Rosario could make this list after they’ve retired. But they’ve yet to stand the test of time, although Gomez has come the closest.

So how about it: Who’s the best jockey you’ve seen during your years watching the sport? Don’t hesitate to leave a comment supporting your vote, or let us know if we left your favorite off our list.

Jackson: Curlin ran in tougher BC Classic than Zenyatta

After Rachel Alexandra won the Eclipse Award for Horse of the Year on Monday night in Beverly Hills, owner Jess Jackson admitted he wasn’t as confident as the past two years when Curlin was honored with the award.

“This one really hasn’t sunk in yet,” he said immediately after Rachel Alexandra was rewarded for her brilliant 2009 season. “I knew it would be close. I wanted to steal myself from winning it in case of the disappointment that Zenyatta would win.”

Jackson then went on to say he felt Curlin, who finished fourth in the 2008 Classic over Santa Anita’s synthetic Pro-Ride surface, ran against a tougher band of horses than Zenyatta this past November when she became the first female to win the race and the first of either sex to win two different Breeders’ Cup races.

Both Curlin and Zenyatta ran against eight Grade 1 winners, and the winning time for the 1 1/4 miles when Raven’s Pass won in 2008 was 1:59.27. Zenyatta’s winning time this past year was 2:00.62.

“Curlin ran four ticks faster than Zenyatta this last race on that turf,” Jackson said. “This group of older horses was not the competition that Curlin had a year ago, at least as measured by time and the quality of horses in the race.”

Well, I don’t know how Jackson can claim the 2009 BC Classic lineup was not as tough as the group that Curlin faced, not when both fields included the same number of Grade 1 winners.

As for his assertion that Curlin ran faster than Zenyatta? The final time in 2008 was quicker, and Curlin lost by about 2 1/2 lengths. Was the track playing faster two years ago than last November?

There is no doubt that Jackson was very, very proud of Curlin, and rightfully so. He was an excellent colt. But there’s also little doubt that he used the synthetic as an excuse when Curlin finished fourth. He was right there at the top of the stretch and wasn’t up to the task. If he’d never threatened, I would put more stock into Jackson blaming the artificial track. There’s no doubt in my mind Curlin was not the same horse in the Classic that he was earlier in the year when he won the Dubai World Cup.

It was wrong of Jackson to skip the 2009 Breeders’ Cup with Rachel Alexandra because it was run on a synthetic. Curlin had never run over an artificial track, therefore they had every right to wonder how he would handle it. But Rachel raced and won over Keeneland’s Polytrack surface as a 2-year-old. Jackson claims he didn’t want to risk injury, but one week and one race over the track would not have been a huge negative in my opinion.

Jackson didn’t bring Rachel to the Breeders’ Cup because of how Curlin performed in 2008, plain and simple.

What do you think?

Asmussen: Woodward was Rachel’s best race

There were so many top performances by 2009 Horse of the Year Rachel Alexandra that it’s difficult to pinpoint one as her most memorable effort of the year. Was it her 20-length romp in the Oaks, her 19-length score in the Mother Goose? How bout those two victories over the boys in the Preakness and Haskell Invitational?

For trainer Steve Asmussen, who won his second consecutive Eclipse Award as the nation’s top trainer Monday night in Beverly Hills, it’s an easy call. He thinks it came on Sept. 5 against older males in the Woodward Stakes at Saratoga.

“I don’t know that it was a stronger effort than her win in the Preakness from the 13 hole, or dominating the Haskell, but the Woodward I think because of the buildup to it and it being at Saratoga and how Saratoga is toward horse racing, and then the way the race unfolded … I can’t imagine that moment being topped for me in any horse race on any day,” Asmussen said.

“Somebody described the race by saying that she had 10 reasons to lose and didn’t use any of them. If you watch the Woodward, it had completely inverted form, except for her. She was first the whole way, and the horse that laid second ended up last, the horse that laid third ended up second to last … so pace makes the race, and she’s the exception. That was truly a special performance.”

The 4-year-old filly’s owner, Jess Jackson, concurred.

“The pressure on me to take her to the Woodward was unbelievable because Steve had his cautions about it, it’s (Saratoga) the Graveyard of Champions, and deservedly so because the turf and the dirt can be difficult, particularly for a horse coming from another track,” he said. “It’s not one of the best tracks in terms of a champion being able to display their full-out ability, and yet she proved to be a champion in that race.

“She was challenged by five exceptional older male horses all the way around. There were five races in one race, and I agree with Steve, that was her championship moment. That showed that she had the grit to perform, lead and beat a series of contenders, all of whom challenged her at one point or another. I think that race will go down in history, for those who know horse racing, as one of the greatest races a filly has ever run.”

Both Asmussen and Jackson are also both in awe of how much jockey Calvin Borel loves the daughter of Medaglia d’Oro. Asmussen has witnessed few things like it during his years in horse racing.

“She means more to him than money, and I don’t think that’s everybody anywhere,” Asmussen said.

The morning after Jackson purchased Rachel Alexandra, Borel received his checks for winning the Kentucky Oaks aboard Rachel and the Derby aboard Mine That Bird. He reportedly sat in the jockeys’ room just staring at the envelope.

“He wouldn’t open it because it didn’t matter,” Asmussen said. “He thought he had lost riding Rachel, his connection with her. He’s a very special person and I think they fit extremely well. To say Calvin cares, that’s a very small adjective for how Calvin cares.”

Said Jackson: “I think it’s a very definite understatement to say he cares. He has a passion for her, and he loves her. He came to us the next morning after we had acquired her and asked to be the rider. He said, ‘I don’t care if I don’t ride any other horse this year. I want to ride her.’ ”

Meanwhile, Hollywood Park is draining just fine

The folks at Hollywood Park would like the race fans to know that during all the rain this week, at a time when Santa Anita had been forced to cancel three cards because its Pro-Ride surface did not drain, they’re doing just fine in Inglewood.

“With the old dirt track we would have missed a couple of days,” Martin Panza, Hollypark’s vice president of racing, said. “It would have been sealed and closed. Cushion Track is draining perfectly — just as designed.”

Trainer John Sadler has also been mighty pleased.

“It’s been excellent,” he said. “I’ve been there the last two mornings and it’s been super, really holding up well.”

But it doesn’t surprise me.

Del Mar also reports its Polytrack is holding up well through all the rain, and Santa Anita might be too if not for the faulty material used when its Cushion Track was installed. Golden Gate up north, with its Tapeta Footings synthetic, has been draining.

These cancellations at Santa Anita are not because it’s a synthetic track, but that it’s a synthetic track that was laid down with bad materials.

That being said, just because Hollywood Park and Del Mar are draining well does not mean artificial tracks are a good thing. Far from it.

We continue to see catastrophic injury reports that exclude morning workouts, and of course that’s not even taking into account all the new types of injuries that have cropped up since synthetics hit Southern California.

And how about the jockeys? Respected Hall of Fame trainer D. Wayne Lukas says we’ve just touched the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the dangers these riders face when they are thrown onto an artificial track.

So yeah, let’s not blame synthetics for the mess we have at Santa Anita. That’s unfair. But at the same time, just because Hollywood Park, Del Mar and Golden Gate are all draining does not make them good for the sport.

Like former CHRB chairman Richard Shapiro finally admitted months ago, there should have been a lot more study put into these tracks before they were installed. We’re still learning about them, and these horses and jockeys should not be the guinea pigs.

We’ll soon be bidding farewell to Pro-Ride

Santa Anita has lost 13 racing days dating back to the 2007-08 season because its synthetic track — whether it be Cushion Track or Pro-Ride — would not drain. It looks like it’s almost a certainty that Friday’s card will be canceled too, meaning the track will have lost 18 days of racing because of poor track conditions since opening in 1934, including 14 the past three seasons alone.

So it’s no wonder that on Monday, Santa Anita president Ron Charles announced that the track would rip out its Pro-Ride surface at the end of this meet and replace it. He won’t say on the record what the new surface is going to be, but the announcement is expected within a week to 10 days and if you guessed dirt, go to the head of the class. There is more chance of peace in the Middle East than Santa Anita owner Frank Stronach putting in a new synthetic surface.

Former CHRB chairman Richard Shapiro is everybody’s favorite whipping boy these days, and he should be. The decision to mandate synthetic surfaces in California, without a full study as to the effects it would have in the industry as a whole, was one of the worst, if not THE worst move, in the history of California racing. He’s even admitted he blew it. Even though Shapiro is gone now, the CHRB continues to make us shake our heads, too, by increasing the takeout in betting at Los Alamitos at a time when fans are fed up to begin with. But that’s another story entirely. Incoming chairman Keith Brackpool was the lone dissenter in a 6-1 vote, and he should be applauded for opposing the measure.

“It’s sort of sad for California that the most beautiful track in America … the surface is just a disaster,” trainer Bob Baffert said. “It’s too bad it’s gone this far. It should have been taken out a long time ago. They have to take it out now. That track is an abomination there. I just hope they talk with some trainers (for input), and I hope they bring in some engineers and do it right this time.”

It’s funny, but one of the arguments in favor of synthetics before they were put in was that they would attract more top trainers and more of the marquee horses. Wrong. Trainers the likes of D. Wayne Lukas and Nick Zito have never liked them, and Todd Pletcher, who maintained a sizable stable here a couple of winters ago, now wants virtually nothing to do with them.

Horses? Oh sure, they attracted European turf specialists, and they attracted horses like Go Between, who was an absolute freak on synthetics. But how about Rachel Alexandra skipping the Breeders’ Cup? It was the wrong decision, to be sure, but Jess Jackson still did it, and he would not have been able to get away with it if Santa Anita had been dirt. And don’t forget Indian Blessing, one of the top female sprinters of recent years who was retired at the end of her 4-year-old campaign because she didn’t like artificial tracks.

Indian Blessing’s owner, Hal Earnhardt, even said he would be willing to put up some of the money to help Santa Anita with the dirt trucks when the renovation begins.

“(Earnhardt) loves running in California, and Indian Blessing, if they had dirt, she would have run another year,” Baffert said. “But being that there is synthetic here, she hates it so I retired her. She was sound and everything, and she could have run. We like going to New York, but we’d rather run at Del Mar and it made a lot of these (owners) just sick when they changed it.”

Baffert admits that he, along with many other trainers, were pro-synthetics when they were first installed. But the tide has now turned. If you took a poll of Santa Anita trainers today, at least 75 to 80 percent were probably dancing in their barns when word came that Pro-Ride has about three months to live.

“It’s just one of those things where we all thought it was going to work when they first came out with it, it was supposed to work, but it never did work like they said it would,” he said. “I knew immediately that it wasn’t going to work, but it was too late and all the money was put in. There were so many horsemen that were for it, and then I was vilified at the end because I didn’t like it. It was one of those things where I just had to keep my mouth shut, train on it and deal with it.”

Said Jess Jackson on Monday night when advised that Santa Anita was most likely going back to dirt: “Santa Anita is the icon of racing in Southern California, it always has been. The Santa Anita Handicap with Seabiscuit. You go back over the years and Santa Anita has a tradition of great racing. I think more horses will come west now if dirt is re-installed.”

One of the main problems, according to Baffert, is that track superintendents — save Hollywood Park’s Dennis Moore — do not know how to take care of synthetics.

“And I feel bad for them because I wouldn’t know what to do with it either,” he said.

If Baffert had his way, he would have utilized Moore’s knowledge.

“That Hollywood Park surface is not bad,” he said. “Dennis Moore, I don’t know what he did to that track, but it’s really not a bad race track. If you have a horse with brilliance, it actually shows up there. Once they get back to Santa Anita, it’s like they are stuck in the mud. They just don’t go anywhere. It’s terrible.”

Del Mar is in the same boat, according to the man who’s trained three Kentucky Derby winners and has a bevy of contenders in his barn this year.

“They’re stuck there, and they’re so hard-headed,” Baffert said. “I would hope Del Mar will do something down there, but I don’t know. Or at least make it like Hollywood. If they could make it like Hollywood, it wouldn’t be bad.”

So why didn’t Santa Anita enlist the aid of Moore? Why doesn’t Del Mar get on the phone and give him a jingle?

“Because these tracks, they don’t like to ask the other guys,” Baffert said. “If somebody’s doing well, for some reason nobody works together. Dennis Moore is the only guy that’s figured these things out. So if I’m going to bring somebody in, I’ll bring Dennis in and pay him to help these guys out. He’s the only guy that knows. I know it sounds logical, but it’s too easy, it’s too simple. Everybody hates everybody in racing, and that’s the problem.”

Zenyatta’s trainer, John Shirreffs, was not weeping when he heard about Santa Anita’s decision. He thinks Zenyatta is an even better horse on dirt, if that’s possible, and the fact she ran on synthetics might have affected Horse of the Year balloting.

“You see these crocodile tears?” Shirreffs said sarcastically. “Now the question is, did that cost (Zenyatta) Horse of the Year?”

Sherwood Chillingworth, director and executive vice president of the Oak Tree Racing Association, is still a fan of the synthetics, pointing out that there no were fatalities involving the 16 Breeders’ Cup races run on Pro-Ride the past two years. Yet, there is no proof there would have been any fatalities if the event had been run over a quality dirt track. In fact, a check of the Breeders’ Cup statistical record book shows that in both 2003 and 1993 when Santa Anita hosted the Breeders’ Cup on dirt, five races went off each year without incident.

“I applaud them if they go back to (dirt),” Jackson said. “It’s a shame that the CHRB forced two installations, and now there will be a third.”

Here’s how the Eclipse Award balloting went

The official tallies for the 2009 Eclipse Awards balloting include only first-place votes from the three voting entities — the NTRA/Equibase, Daily Racing Form and National Turf Writers Association. Of the 271 eligible voters, 232 cast ballots for a participation rate of 85.6 percent:

Two-year-old male

Lookin At Lucky, 209; Vale of York, 17; Buddy’s Saint, 2; Noble’s Promise, 2; D’Funnybone, 1; Jackson Bend, 1.

Two-year-old filly
She Be Wild, 171; Blind Luck, 41; Hot Dixie Chick, 17; Awesome Maria, 1; Biofuel, 1; Tapitsfly, 1.

Three-year-old male
Summer Bird, 225; Mine That Bird, 4; Blame, 1; I Want Revenge, 1; no vote, 1.

Three-year-old filly
Rachel Alexandra, 232.

Older male
Gio Ponti, 184; Einstein, 18; Kodiak Kowboy, 16; Macho Again, 5; Furthest Land, 2; Rail Trip, 2; Well Armed, 1; voter abstentions, 4.

Older female
Zenyatta, 231; Icon Project, 1.

Female sprinter
Informed Decision, 222; Ventura, 6; Game Face, 1; Indian Blessing, 1; Music Note, 1; Diamondrella, 1.

Male sprinter
Kodiak Kowboy, 118; Zensational, 54; Dancing In Silks, 43; Fabulous Strike, 9; California Flag, 6; Vineyard Haven, 1; voter abstentions, 1.

Male turf horse
Gio Ponti, 206; Conduit, 22; Presious Passion, 3; Court Vision, 1.

Female turf horse
Goldikova, 172; Ventura, 41; Magical Fantasy, 7; Midday, 7; Pure Clan, 3; Forever Together, 1; voter abstentions, 1.

Steeplechase horse
Mixed Up, 209; Red Letter Day, 3, voter abstentions, 20.

Horse of the Year
Rachel Alexandra, 130; Zenyatta, 99; voter abstentions, 2; no vote, 1.
Note — Rachel Alexandra received 71 first-place votes from the NTWA; 31 from the Daily Racing Form and 28 from the NTRA; Zenyatta received 51 first-place votes from the NTWA, 23 from the DRF and 25 from the NTRA.

Outstanding owner
Godolphin Racing, 61; Mr. and Mrs. Jerome S. Moss, 56; Juddmonte Farms, 40; WinStar Farm, 38; Stonestreet Stables and Harold McCormick, 15; Augustin Stables, 7; Michael Gil, 6; Darley Stable, 3; Zayat Stables, 2; Heiligbrodt Racing Stables, 1; Midwest Thoroughbreds, 1; voter abstentions, 2.

Outstanding breeder
Juddmonte Farms, 157; Adena Springs, 44; Dolphus Morrison, 16; Maverick Productions, Ltd., 3; WinStar Farm, 3; Eugene Melnyk, 2, Darley Stable, 1; voter abstentions, 6.

Outstanding trainer
Steve Asmussen, 130; John Shirreffs, 57; Jonathan Sheppard, 19; Bob Baffert, 10; Saeed bin Suroor, 5; Bobby Frankel, 4; Jerry Hollendorfer, 2; Hal Wiggins, 2; Todd Pletcher, 2; voter abstentions, 1.

Outstanding jockey
Julien Leparoux, 122; Garrett Gomez, 46; Ramon Dominguez, 45; Calvin Borel, 13; Mike Smith, 3; Kent Desormeaux, 2; Russell Baze, 1.

Apprentice jockey
Christian Santiago Reyes, 93; Luis Saez, 48; Luis Batista, 47; Inez Karlsson, 8; Michael Straight, 4; Omar Moreno, 3; Jose Vega, 3; Tony Maragh, 2; Casey Papineau, 1; Angel Serpa, 1; voter abstentions, 21; no vote, 1.

Observations from the Eclipse Awards ceremony

Just returned from the Eclipse Awards ceremony in Beverly Hills and let me tell you, emotions ran high. One journalist who’s covered numerous Eclipse ceremonies told me he’d never seen the Horse of the Year candidates receive a standing ovation before the announcement like Zenyatta and Rachel Alexandra did Monday night. They richly deserved it.

Some other observations:

* How in %$#* was Zenyatta not a unanimous selection as top older female? There’s always a wise guy in the crowd, and one person voted for Icon Project. Icon Project? Well, nothing in this industry should surprise me.

* Both Zenyatta and Rachel Alexandra, who should have shared co-Horse of the Year for what they both did for the sport in 2009, received numerous ovations whenever they were mentioned throughout the evening.

* Jess Jackson, owner of Rachel Alexandra, was a class act. He said it was too bad the two distaffers could not share the award and that Zenyatta’s victory in the Breeders’ Cup Classic was the event of the year.

* The discrepancy in the voting for top jockey surprised me a bit. I thought it would be close, but Julien Leparoux breezed to victory over Garrett Gomez, 122-46.

* One racing official told me perhaps the only mistake the Zenyatta camp made last year was not running in the Woodward. He said if Zenyatta had run in the race and won — and remember, Rachel Alexandra was all out to hold off Macho Again — and then won the Breeders’ Cup Classic, this year’s voting would have been a no-brainer.

* Jackson is on to something when he says a Rachel Alexandra-Zenyatta showdown would be akin to the Seabiscuit-War Admiral match race, although these two distaffers are not going to run in a match race against each other.

* Jackson also said they should square off two or three times, not just once. Here’s what I suggest: How about they meet at 1 1/16 miles, 1 1/8 miles and 1 1/4 miles? If one wins all three, there’s no question who’s the best. The winner of two of the three would certainly own bragging rights.

* No matter who you support, and believe me, by the number of e-mails and blog postings on here from fervent supporters of both Rachel Alexandra and Zenyatta, there are extremely passionate fans of both, we need to hope these two great horses remain sound so they can continue to give the sport the shot in the arm it so sorely needs. It could be a very exciting 2010.

* There is no doubt that Goldikova is a very special filly, but I just don’t buy voting on a horse for an Eclipse Award based on only one start in the U.S. I voted for Ventura as top female turf horse and I would have liked to seen her win in the memory of Bobby Frankel.

* Trainer Tim Ice’s announcement during the ceremony that top 3-year-old male Summer Bird will race this year was a shot in the arm for the sport. It’s what the industry needs — stars, stars and more stars.

Jackson and Moss speak

Reaction to the Horse of the Year voting, which went Rachel Alexandra’s way, 130-99, from the two owners:

Jess Jackson
“Together Rachel Alexandra and Zenyatta won nine Grade I races. Together they conquered four of the best groups of males that were running last year. If you think about their achievements individually or collectively, there has never been another year like this for fillies. I want to thank Jerry and Ann [Moss] for being so gracious all through the year, and we supported each other. You wouldn’t know that but occasionally we talked and we sent congratulations to each other, and I really appreciated the grace and charm and ability of the Zenyatta team, and particularly Jerry and Ann Moss. It couldn’t be arranged that they would meet last year. We’re hoping that each horse, taking its course, may win their way to an ultimate match, and maybe we can work toward that.”

Jerry Moss
“Zenyatta’s never lost. She’s perfect. Nobody’s beaten her on the racetrack. So they beat her by proxy as far as I’m concerned. This doesn’t take away anything from the just enormous job done by [trainer] John [Shirreffs]. I can’t say enough about what he and his barn have done. I obviously congratulate Mr. Jackson and Mrs. Jackson. They have a great horse. Someday we’ll meet, and we’ll decide at that time who is the best. Frankly I wouldn’t trade with anybody. I’m looking forward to the encounter.”

Santa Anita’s holiday card wiped out

Santa Anita was forced to cancel its special Martin Luther King Jr. holiday racing card today when 1 1/2 inches of rain made the synthetic Pro-Ride surface unraceable. It was the first cancellation at the track since 2008 when Santa Anita had to cancel a record 11 racing days because its new Cushion Track did not drain properly.

Enter Ian Pearse from Pro-Ride, who came to the rescue and worked on the track so it would drain better. Eventually, the track became 90 percent Pro-Ride and there were no more cancellations until today. Of course, we had a very dry winter in 2009 and there was not much rain after Pearse fixed the track in ’08.

So we have an all-weather track in Arcadia that, when it rains any decent amount at all, they can’t race over it. We don’t really know how Del Mar’s Polytrack or Hollywood Park’s Cushion Track would fare in such weather. Of course, it never rains during Del Mar and it’s rained little during Hollywood Park’s autumn meet.

But don’t despair. A high-ranking Santa Anita official told me recently that Pro-Ride will almost certainly be gone by next Oak Tree meeting, replaced by a natural dirt surface. The official, who did not want me to use his name because an official decision concerning the track surface has not been reached yet, also told me that the high rollers, people who bet far more on the races than you and I, don’t like betting on synthetics. That hurts the handle, just another little fly in the ointment that is California racing these days.