The passing of Joe Hirsch

Horse racing, and especially horse-racing writers, lost a great friend when Joe Hirsch died Friday at age 80.

Hirsch was the sort of industry giant whom young writers could be nervous about approaching. But he was the sort of man who solved that problem by going out of his way to approach young writers first.

I was one of countless newcomers to the racing beat who received a sincere welcome from Hirsch — and a copy of a vital equine guidebook, which Joe handed to me the first time we met. Joe cared enough about the sport and the turfwriting craft to want us all to do it right.

Hirsch, who retired a few years ago, had been the Daily Racing Form’s heavyweight columnist for decades and had been the first president of the National Turf Writers Association. His final act of inspiration was simply showing up for major racing events for two decades despite a battle with Parkinson’s that would have stopped a person with any less devotion to his profession.

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Watch T. Baze on speedsters

After a Thanksgiving break, let’s update our jockey ratings going into the sixth week of the Hollywood Park autumn meet. As explained previously, I give a jockey a point for each win, award a bonus point for each long-shot win (10-1 or higher) and each photo-finish win (neck or less), and deduct a point for each loss on a post-time favorite. The result is a fairly good look at the strengths and weaknesses of the local riders, which can help us figure out who fits which horses or types of races.

Here are the leaders:

Overall: Tyler Baze (+16 points), Martin Garcia (+14), Rafael Bejarano (+11), Michael Baze (+10).

Main-track sprints: Garcia (+10), T. Baze (+8), Martin Pedroza (+7), Clinton Potts (+7).

Main-track routes: Jon Court (+5), Bejarano (+4), T. Baze (+3), M. Baze (+3), Garcia (+3).

Turf: Bejarano (+11), Joel Rosario (+6), T. Baze (+5), Victor Espinoza (+5).

Speed: T. Baze has 11 wire-to-wire wins, which is more than twice as many as anyone else.

Closers: Bejarano has 13 wins on horses who rallied from the back half of the field, Garrett Gomez 11.

Long shots: Garcia has four wins paying 10-1 or more, Court three, Valdivia three.

Wagering dispute settled

A good-news announcement this evening from Hollywood Park, which has lost a lot of betting because out-of-state fans haven’t been able to bet on-line and by phone on the Inglewood track this season:

Hollywood Park announced that as a result of an agreement between some account wagering companies and the Thoroughbred Owners of California, that account wagering on races conducted at Hollywood Park would be available commencing Friday, November 21, to those residing outside of California. The restoration of interstate wagering through account wagering companies lessens the severity of a necessary purse cut that will now be approximately 5% overall.

Jack Liebau, President of Hollywood Park, said that “the purse cut would have been far greater had account wagering not been restored.” Liebau added, that “the initial purse schedule had under estimated the adverse impact that economic conditions would have on handle and that wagering during that past week had been particularly impacted by further announcements regarding the deteriorating economy. It is anticipated that this purse reduction will take effect on Wednesday, November 26.

Harness star is hurting

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Here in Southern California, harness racing is 400 miles away (at Cal Expo in Sacramento) and big-time harness racing is even more distant, so it’s easy to forget about that branch of the sport. Here’s some unintended drama surrounding the nation’s top standardbred and his bid for history in the harness equivalent of the Breeders’ Cup.

EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. (AP) — Deweycheatumnhowe has developed a throat abscess, jeopardizing his appearance next weekend in the Breeders Crown.

The Hambletonian winner, and a leading contender for Harness Horse of the Year honors, is heavily favored in the 3-year-old Colt Trot, one of eight finals worth a combined $4.9 million at the Meadowlands Racetrack on Nov. 29.

Fortunately, his division did not require an elimination, which would have been held Saturday night. If the problem clears, Deweycheatumnhowe could still attempt to join Mack Lobell (1987) and Malabar Man (1997) as the only trotting colts to win Breeders Crowns at 2 and 3.

“In two years he has never had a thing wrong with him, so I guess it had to happen sometime,” said trainer and driver Ray Schnittker. “I’ll wait till Monday and see what I’m going to do. We’re lucky there was no elimination.”

Deweycheatumnhowe has won 22-of-24 starts, earning over $3 million.

Mark your 2009 calendar

Our racetracks’ schedules for next year have been set by the California Horse Racing Board.

The Southern California slate:

Santa Anita — Dec. 26 (2008)-April 19
Hollywood Park — April 22-July 19
Del Mar — July 22-Sept. 9
Fairplex Park — Sept. 10-Sept. 28
Oak Tree at Santa Anita — Sept. 30-Oct. 8
Hollywood Park — Nov. 11-Dec. 21
Los Alamitos (quarter horses) — Jan. 1-Dec. 20

Woolf nominees are named

One of the niceties of the Southern California racing season is the annual presentation of the George Woolf Award to a jockey who has impressed his peers on and off the track. Many of the past winners show up at Santa Anita for the ceremony and are applauded by nostalgic fans. Nominees for the 2009 award were named today in the news release below.

Santa Anita Park announced today a list of five finalists for the 60th annual Santa Anita George Woolf Memorial Jockey Award, with the winner to be announced in January. Gary Baze, Calvin Borel, Javier Castellano, David Flores and John Velazquez will face an electorate comprised of their peers and one of the five will be selected the recipient of the 2009 Woolf Award.

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The best Euro we didn’t see

This may come as a shock to those who watched Raven’s Pass and Henrythenavigator run 1-2 in the Breeders’ Cup Classic, but there was a better-regarded European horse this year.

LONDON (AP) — Zarkava, the unbeaten filly who defeated the boys in the Prix de l’Arc de Triomphe, was chosen Europe’s Horse of the Year at the Cartier Racing Awards on Monday night.

The brilliant 3-year-old owned by the Aga Khan won all five of her starts this year, capped by a two-length victory in the Arc against Europe’s best middle-distance horses.

Zarkava won the award over Breeders’ Cup Classic winner Raven’s Pass, English Derby winner New Approach, five-time Group 1 winner Duke of Marmalade and four-time Group 1 winner and Classic runner-up Henrythenavigator.

Recently retired from racing, the versatile Zarkava was a perfect 7-for-7 during her career, which included wins ranging in distance from a mile to 1 miles.

Zarkava also was chosen top 3-year-old filly, ahead of Breeders’ Cup Mile winner Goldikova, Lush Lashes, Halfway To Heaven and Natagora. New Approach was the Cartier winner in the 3-year-old colt category.

Other winners were Duke of Marmalade (Older Horse); Yeats (Champion Stayer), Marchand D’or (Sprinter), Mastercraftsman (2-year-old Colt) and Rainbow View (2-year-old Filly).

The awards were determined by a points system, and media and fan voting.

A filly whose name starts with Z wins Horse of the Year. Could this be a good omen for Zenyatta in the North American Horse of the Year contest? The difference, of course, might be that Zarkava beat males, Zenyatta didn’t face them.

The ride man for the job

Let’s update our ratings for the local jockeys after three weeks at Hollywood Park. As I explained recently, I give a rider a point for each win, award a bonus point for each long-shot win (10-1 or higher) and each photo-finish win (neck or less), and deduct a point for each loss on a post-time favorite.

Here are the leaders:

Overall: Rafael Bejarano (+15 points), Michael Baze (+11), Jose Valdivia (+8) and Pedro Arambula (+8).
Main-track sprints: M. Baze (+8), Arambula (+6), Martin Pedroza (+6).
Main-track routes: Bejarano (+6), M. Baze (+2), Arambula (+2), Garrett Gomez (+2), Tyler Baze (+2).
Turf: Bejarano (+9), Victor Espinoza (+5), Valdivia (+4).
Speed: Arambula has four wire-to-wire wins, Pedroza and T. Baze three each.
Closers: Bejarano has eight wins on horses who rallied from the back half of the field (and has no wire-to-wire wins). Gomez has eight back-of-the-pack wins (and one wire-to-wire).
Long shots: Valdivia has three wins paying 10-1 or more, M. Baze and Jon Court two each.

Good handicappers don’t bet on jockeys, they bet on horses. But good handicappers do pay attention to whether a particular jockey “fits” a particular horse in a certain race. Hope these numbers help you to do that.

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Wrona should get a callback

Great to see the Daily Racing Form’s Marty McGee’s glowing account of Michael Wrona’s audition for the Churchill Downs announcer job. I think Wrona, formerly of Hollywood Park, is the best in the business.

McGee begins:

LOUISVILLE, Ky. — No one can reasonably argue that Michael Wrona is not an immensely talented race-caller. Wrona is the entire package — uncannily accurate while laugh-out-loud entertaining at once.

During his six-day race-calling stint that ended Sunday at Churchill Downs, Wrona reaffirmed his reputation as one of the best callers in North America. With his clipped and distinct Australian accent, Wrona, 42, had the good fortune of calling a major milestone on his first day, Nov. 11, when Julien Leparoux rode a Churchill record-tying seven winners.

Such an extraordinary feat fit perfectly into Wrona’s wheelhouse. Wrona long has been known for races such as the 1990 Hollywood Turf Cup, a marathon turf race in which he said about Itsallgreektome, “Can he stay the distance? He stays like a mother-in-law!!” His quips about Leparoux were numerous, timely, and clever, so much so that fans not only were talking about Leparoux, but Wrona, too. …

Wrona was the third of five callers to audition this fall at Churchill, where officials say they will decide before the end of the year who will replace Luke Kruytbosch, who died unexpectedly in July. Wrona followed Bobby Neuman (Oct. 26 to Nov. 2) and Travis Stone (Nov. 5-9). Larry Collmus will take his turn Wednesday through Sunday, followed by Mark Johnson (Nov. 26-29).

As Marty goes on to note, some wonder if Churchill Downs would hire an Australian to serve as voice of the Kentucky Derby. If Churchill believes the Derby is the greatest race in the world, not just the greatest in America, it will hire the best regardless of accent.

Fan feedback is being taken at announcer@kyderby.com. I assume that means fans from all over, so if you’re a Wrona fan, give him your support.

Some late-night upsets?

Some horses to consider in the last three races on the Friday-night card at Hollywood Park:

6th — Outlaw Yodeler (No. 7), 6-1 on the morning line. He has been working as if he means to open a lead he can hold this time. Trainer Peter Eurton switches to jockey Michael Baze, who’s off to a great start at the meet.

7th — Forest Miss (5), 4-1. Jerry Hollendorfer’s filly has a style that might work even better on the turf than it did on the main track in her win at Santa Anita.

8th — Premier Issue (7), 4-1. Now that he has gotten used to passing horses, he has to learn to pass the leader.