Bittersweet victory for Caracortado’s trainer

Caracortado and jockey Paul Atkinson made quite a team in 2010 as the gelded son of Cat Dreams won the first five races of his career with Atkinson aboard. After a 1 3/4-length victory in the Grade II Robert B. Lewis Stakes at Santa Anita on Feb. 13, Caracortado was on many experts’ top 10 Kentucky Derby lists.

The streak ended on March 13 when Caracortado finished third, beaten two lengths by eventual Santa Anita Derby winner Sidney’s Candy. He ran fourth in the Santa Anita Derby, skipped the Kentucky Derby and then finished a well-beaten seventh in the Preakness Stakes at Pimlico.

At that point, trainer and co-owner Michael Machowsky decided to freshen Caracortado in hopes of bringing him back later in the year. He was sore after the Preakness and Machowsky thought the time off would be good for the talented gelding.

“I breezed him one time after the Preakness and he was just kind of body sore,” Machowsky said. “He wasn’t himself, a little drawn up, and I sent him out and gave him a little freshening and he came back looking like a man.”

He came back on Nov. 11 at Hollywood Park, making his turf debut with a new jockey, Joe Talamo. The Caracortado-Atkinson dream team was no more after eight races.

“It’s kind of a bittersweet win,” Machowsky said Saturday after Caracortado won the $300,000 Sunshine Millions Turf at Santa Anita. “I mean, I love winning a race like this. Believe me, it’s the joy of my life. But I still feel bad a little bit about having to put a different rider on the horse three races back. But it’s just part of politics, part of this business. I’ve been on the bad side of that situation before as a trainer.”

Machowsky said Atkinson never did anything wrong with Caracortado. But when the gelding’s other owner, Donald Blahut, mentioned that maybe they should try a younger rider when Caracortado came back, he felt he owed it to his partner to go along with the idea.

“Mr. Blahut, he’s had horses with me for 20 years,” Machowsky said. “During the summer when we gave (Caracortado) a little freshening, he said, ‘Hey, when he comes back maybe we’ll just think about a different rider on him that rides day in and day out and rides more often, a younger rider.”

Enter the talented, 21-year-old Talamo, who’s won twice in three tries aboard Caracortado, including a 1 3/4-length victory in his turf debut two races back. He had a wide trip and finished third in the opening-day Malibu Stakes at Santa Anita before returning to the turf Saturday for the Millions.

Immediately after Caracortado’s latest victory, Machowsky said he would return on March 5 in one of two Grade I races at Santa Anita — the $300,000 Kilroe Mile on grass or the $750,000 Big ‘Cap on the dirt.

Sunday morning, after reporting Caracortado came out of the Sunshine Millions Turf in good order, Machowsky said he’s “75 percent” certain that he’ll run in the Kilroe Mile on Big ‘Cap day.

Machowsky was confident Caracortado would enjoy the turf after two dirt races and six on synthetics.

“He has that turn of foot, and I said, ‘If he handles the turf, he’s going to be a good turf horse.’ ” he said. “The way he ran that day, he exploded, and I was very confident going into (the Millions). I was getting e-mails and texts from my buddies all day asking if I was nervous. And I was like, ‘Nah, he’s doing too good to worry. If he gets beat, he gets outrun today.’ ”

He didn’t get outrun, not even by runner-up The Usual Q.T., a very accomplished turf horse, and Machowsky and Blahut have a versatile horse on their hands that figures to have a say in many 2011 stakes races.

Machowsky wishes Atkinson was still along for the ride, but hey, that’s horse racing. Atkinson knows it, and it was a good story for the journeyman rider while it lasted.

Zenyatta will be bred to Bernardini

Lane’s End Farm released the following statement this morning. Someone on the Internet has suggested Zenyatta’s first baby be named Zendini.

ZENYATTA WILL BE BRED TO BERNARDINI

Owners Jerry and Ann Moss announced today that ZENYATTA, the 2010 Horse of the Year, will be sent to Bernardini to be bred in 2011.

A son of Lane’s End’s two-time leading sire A.P. Indy, Bernardini was champion three-year-old colt in 2006. In 2010, with his first crop to race, Bernardini was the leading freshman sire by number of graded stakes winners and by number of stakes winners. He is out of Grade 1 winner Cara Rafaela by Quiet American and stands at Darley.

ZENYATTA is boarded at Mr. and Mrs. William S. Farish’s Lane’s End Farm near Versailles, Kentucky.

Gulfstream Park gets innovative

Much has been made of the increased takeout on California thoroughbred races that began Dec. 26. There is no doubt it has had some effect on Santa Anita’s handle, which is down appreciably compared to the 2009-10 meet.

How far down is open to debate. The raw numbers, through the first 12 days of the 76-day meet, showed Santa Anita’s overall handle was down 17 percent. Track management argues that when you use “comparable days,” they were down only 8.2 percent.

Whatever the figure was, there are two major questions:

(1) Why can’t the California tracks try something similar to what Gulfstream Park is trying this winter? Their handle is up. Here’s a press release they handed out Dec. 16 explaining their new wagering menu:

Record Low Takeouts, New Wagers To Welcome Fans

HALLANDALE BEACH – Gulfstream Park Racing & Casino announced today a wagering menu for its 2011 thoroughbred meet beginning Jan. 5 that includes:

A 50 cent Pick-5 with a record low 15 percent takeout.

Low takeout rates on Bet-3 and 50 cent Pick-4 wagers of only 20 percent.

An early and late 50 cent Pick-4.

A 10 cent Pick-6.

Rolling Daily Doubles, Superfecta’s and Bet-3′s.

Win, Place, Show, Daily Double, Exacta and Trifecta wagers will be a $1 minimum wager.

“We’re optimistic and excited about the new wagers we’re introducing and the fact Gulfstream will be offering many of the lowest takeouts in the country,” said Steve Calabro, President and GM of Gulfstream Park. “We think the Pick-5, Pick-4′s and 10 cent Pick-6 creates more opportunities for our fans.

“This is just part of our commitment to our customers. Those attending Gulfstream this year will also notice nearly a 50 percent increase in our self-service betting terminals.”

Gulfstream will start each day with a 12:55 p.m., first race post time. The early Pick-4 will begin with the second race while the late Pick-4 will be on the last four races. The Pick-5 will be on the day’s last five races and the Pick-6 on the day’s last six. The Pick-5, Pick-4 and Pick-6 wagers will be accepted only at self-service terminals.

The 10 cent Pick-6 will be awarded to one unique ticket. On days there are multiple winners, 60 percent of the pool will be shared equally while 40 percent goes back into the jackpot. Click here to see the wagering and takeouts.

Seeing how California racing is struggling so mightily, what would be the harm in at least trying some of these ideas?

Also, while it’s true the advance deposit wagering companies are here to stay because they do supply a service to people who want to make a bet and can’t get to the track or to people who’d rather wager from the comfort of their homes, what would be the harm in offering some enticement to fans who actually show up at the track to bet? How about lowering the takeout for on-site bets?

Let’s begin thinking outside the box here. Lord knows the time for the status quo and/or continuing to penalize the bettors in an effort to raise purse sizes via increased takeout is over.

Santa Anita to add more sand to new dirt track

There has been much concern through the first 16 days of Santa Anita’s winter-spring meet about the ultra-fast times that have already produced three track records.

On Monday, Santa Anita management announced it’s going to attempt to correct the problem.

Santa Anita president George Haines said a signifcant amount of sand will be added to the new $3 million track that initially consisted of about 90 percent sand and 10 percent clay. However, it’s believed by some that the heavy rains in December altered the balance of the components.

The maintenance will begin following training hours on Tuesday.

“The race track may have changed during periods of heavy rain, and we want to get it right back to where we started,” Haines said in a statement.

Haines, who succeeded Ron Charles as Santa Anita president in 2010, met with representatives of the California Thoroughbred Trainers on Monday morning to discuss the amount of sand that will be added and solicit opinions.

The Factor (6 furlongs), Square Eddie (6 1/2 furlongs) and Twirling Candy (7 furlongs) have set track records at Santa Anita through the first 16 days.

Santa Anita expected to perform work on track Tuesday

I hear Santa Anita is expected to announce Monday it will be performing some maintenance on its new dirt main track Tuesday in an effort to tone it down so it’s not quite so fast.

Three track records have been broken during the meet’s first 15 days, including new marks for 6 furlongs, 6 1/2 furlongs and 7 furlongs.

* Spectacular Bid’s 30-year-old 7-furlong record of 1:20 was shattered by Twirling Candy on opening day in the Malibu Stakes when the Candy Ride colt sped to victory in 1:19.70. He’s expected to return in the Strub Stakes on Feb. 5.

* Square Eddie returned from a 12 1/2-month absence Friday to win a 6 1/2-furlong allowance in 1:13.11, bettering Son Of a Pistol’s previous record of 1:13.71 set in 1998.

* The Factor, one of trainer Bob Baffert’s Kentucky Derby hopefuls, showed us early on during opening day this was going to be a fast track when he broke his maiden in a 6-furlong race in 1:06.98 — smashing Sunny Blossom’s mark of 1:07.20 set in 1989.

The maintenance is not expected to be major.

We’ll provide a report later in the week on the number of fatalities and breakdowns at Santa Anita during the meet’s first three weeks.

There are some slam-dunk Eclipse Award winners

The way I see it, the vote for Horse of the Year could go either way Monday night in Miami Beach, but I have a gut feeling Zenyatta is going to get the nod this time. I voted for Zenyatta because of her brilliance on the track and for what she brought to the sport off it.

There are seven categories that include slam-dunk winners. It would be the upset of upsets if any of the following lost:

* Uncle Mo for top 2-year-old male
* Awesome Feather for top 2-year-old filly
* Lookin At Lucky for top 3-year-old male
* Blind Luck for top 3-year-old filly
* Blame for top older male
* Zenyatta for top older female
* Goldikova for top female turf horse

I think there are three other probable winners, including Gio Ponti as top male turf horse, Big Drama as top male sprinter and Dubai Majesty as top female sprinter. Although I’d be surprised if any of those three lost, it would not shock me as much as if one of the Sensational Seven lost.

Perhaps the closest vote will come in the category for top jockey. Ramon Dominguez, Garrett Gomez and John Velazquez are all worthy recipients. I voted for Gomez because his numbers were just as good as the other two with far less mounts.

Todd Pletcher will probably win top trainer because of his superior numbers, although there has been a backlash over the Life At Ten incident during the Breeders’ Cup. But until an ongoing investigation shows any guilt on Pletcher’s part, I don’t think it’s fair to penalize the man. If there is any guilt at all, who’s to say the on-call veterinarians were not at fault for failing to scratch the Pletcher trainee? It’s dangerous to go around pointing fingers until the official probe into the incident is completed.

So what do you think? Of the Sensational Seven, who is the most likely to fall victim to an upset?

It’s time to give horseplayers a chance to speak

Excuse me if you’ve heard this question before, but can the California horse racing industry become any more messed up than it already is?

Well, when dealing with organizations like the California Horse Racing Board and Thoroughbred Owners of California, never say never.

Why in heck, when a sport is struggling to attract new fans while losing many of its old, loyal customers, does the CHRB and TOC back an increase in the takeout, a move that never works and served only to infuriate the horseplayers to a point where they are currently staging a boycott of California racing?

“They’re going directly opposite of any sane businessman — raising the price when they can’t sell something,” said Roger Way, California representative for the Horseplayers Association of North America. “It’s like you have a pair of Levis you can’t sell, well, let’s double the price and surely somebody will buy it. It’s silly. It’s stupid.”

It’s also not working. Have you checked the latest betting numbers out at Santa Anita through the first couple weeks of the 2010-11 meet? Total handle is down about 17 percent and those larger fields that were supposed to be fueled by bigger purses funded by the larger takeout have failed to surface yet.

Why is it that every single move these guys make is aimed more at helping the owners and not the horseplayers, who are the lifeblood of what is now a dying sport because of failed leadership?

Why? Because as Way accurately points out, there are too many conflicts of interest in California racing.

“If you look at our CHRB, we have an archaic rule that allows for a majority of the people on the CHRB to have a financial interest in the game,” said Way, who’s been betting on races since 1949 and shows a keener insight into the sport than the majority of the people running it today. “There are four of them currently who are owners of horses, and that’s the majority. So they are automatically, by law, members of the TOC. That’s a conflict of interest, pure and simple.

“We tried to do away with that about three years ago and a (bill) was ready to pass, it had favorable votes everywhere, and suddenly it was killed. The horseman’s lobby got to somebody. It was going to correct the situation.

“I think there are very few states, if any, that allow a majority on the board with a financial interest. It may be an unconscious financial interest, but they’re letting down, they’re not supporting the mission of protecting the player.”

There’s little doubt that neither the CHRB nor the TOC want a united horseplayers group. It’s not in their best interests, and Lord knows we don’t want to pass something in this sport that’s not going to solely benefit the owners.

Hey, I’m not saying the owners don’t risk a lot of money and I’m not blind to the fact it costs a lot of dough to keep a horse in training, but last time I checked it took two to tango, and while the sport would not exist without owners, it also wouldn’t be around without the bettors, either.

“People don’t go to the races to watch horses run around in a circle. They go to bet,” Way said.

How about trying to raise purses the old-fashioned way instead of gouging the gamblers? How about putting forth an improved product, which in turn might lure more fans to the track?

How about being a little more customer friendly? How about a low-takeout early pick four or some novel betting ideas that would really grab the racing fan’s attention?

How about a bet where you can wager on which jockey is going to win the most races on the card that day? Hey, it wouldn’t hurt.

Aase Headley, wife of trainer Bruce Headley, offered a suggestion: How about, for the convenience of the fan, the tracks come up with vouchers or gift cards that can be purchased at the gate and are good to use for betting, concessions or at the gift shop. Hey, they might make a nice stocking stuffer at Christmas or a nice birthday present for that racing fan you know.

Portland Meadows recently passed out $15 vouchers to patrons who showed up and presented a ticket stub from the previous night’s Portland Trailblazers game.

Southland race tracks can try the same promotion for Lakers, Clippers, Kings, Ducks, Angels, Dodgers, UCLA, Galaxy, Chivas and Sparks fans.

At this point, ANYTHING would be worth a shot. So what if it doesn’t work. Wouldn’t cost as much as that $10 million failed experiment that Santa Anita recently ripped out and replaced with traditional dirt.

Aase Headley also had another idea worth considering — instead of those T-shirt, sweatshirt, cap or beach blanket giveaways, give the fans five-dollar vouchers that must be redeemed at the track.

The CHRB’s idea of customer friendliness? Insulting the longtime fans who’ve shown far more loyalty to this game than vice versa.

I was flabbergasted when apprised of this quote by CHRB vice chairman David Israel at a racing symposium in Arizona last month: “The average age of our on-track customer is deceased, and the average age of our satellite customer is decomposed.”

Wonderful, Mr. Israel. So just keep catering to that same younger set that the industry has been bending over backwards to attract for years now.

Oh yeah, by the way, how’s that working out for you?

“We could solve these problems if we could just get face to face and convince those dummies they’re not the only people to be concerned with,” Way said. “This game is like a triangle. You have the state’s interest, and then you have the people who put on the show’s interest — the race tracks and the horsemen — and then you have the customers. And the customers are just having the door slammed in their face, and then (management) wonders where the customers go. I mean, how stupid can people be?

“We need to expand the fan base, and you can’t expand the fan base by raising the price, treating customers the way they are and making decisions with a conflict of interest.”

It’s time the CHRB and TOC sat down with representatives of HANA, and I don’t mean teleconferences or symbolic meetings that just pay lip service, but for a full-fledged, face-to-face meeting. Heck, make it a weekend at a resort and hash out these problems and try to make the game good again.

Heaven knows, HANA representatives are willing and able, and it’s a sure bet that CHRB and TOC officials should be chomping at the bit to hear some new ideas from a group that has far too long been deprived a voice in the industry.

The ball’s been in the CHRB’s and TOC’s court long enough. Time to let somebody else offer some solutions that might help before it’s too late.

Gomez gets my Eclipse vote as top jockey

There aren’t any better big-race riders in horse racing than Garrett Gomez, who finished second behind Ramon Dominguez in national earnings in 2010 but had 672 less mounts than the East Coast-based rider.

Dominguez, who had 1,475 mounts for earnings of $17,411,880, enjoyed a fine season, but not as good as Gomez, who had 803 mounts and earnings of $16,889,037. If Gomez had ridden even close to the number of races Dominguez did, he’d have breezed to the earnings title.

Gomez’s agent of five years, Ron Anderson, said the 39-year-old jockey has earned the right to pick and choose his mounts.

“These other guys are younger and they’re riding cheaper races and stuff,” Anderson said. “Garrett’s kind of made himself the reputation of being more of a money rider, riding in the bigger stakes, the Grade 1′s and all.”

Factor in Grade I victories and again Gomez gets the nod in the Eclipse Award race. Gomez had 10 Grade 1 victoies this past year, tied for third in the nation with Joel Rosario, behind co-leaders John Velazquez and Mike Smith, who had 12 apiece. Dominguez was not among the top six.

In graded-stakes victories through Dec. 12, Velazquez led the way with 31 and Gomez was next with 30. But again, Velazquez finished more than $100,000 behind Gomez in earnings while riding in 390 more races.

Add the fact Gomez won his fourth Bill Shoemaker Award at the 2010 Breeders’ Cup with three victories and piloted Blame to a victory in the Breeders’ Cup Classic, and it’s not even close in my eyes.

Garrett Gomez gets my Eclipse Award vote for top jockey of 2010. Velazquez is second and Dominguez third.