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May 09, 2008

Thru The Binoculars




There are a lot of things I don't understand about the Eight Belles tragedy, and at the top of the list is the abuse the filly's connections have taken in the national media, and on the Internet.

Trainer Larry Jones, owner Rick Porter, and jockey Gabriel Saez are being bashed basically 24/7 in the wake of the tragic events of last Saturday, and, as far as I can see, with absolutely no justification.

Until proven otherwise, I have to believe that the filly's breakdown was caused by some physical malfunction. We won't know for sure until we see the results of the autopsy in a week or so, and even then, there are no guarantees.

What I do know - and no media person was around the filly more than I - is that the accusations against Jones, Porter and Saez are completely unfounded.

At first blush, I took some guilt upon myself because I pushed - starting in mid-February -- Porter and Jones to look at the Derby. After all, I was just doing my job.

But let's get real. Porter and Jones didn't need any prodding from me to start thinking Derby for Eight Belles. And, in mid-March, Porter was glad to put up the $6,000 to supplement Eight Belles for the Derby.

Fact is, trainer Jones couldn't win the Kentucky Oaks twice on the same day - and, he knew that, in Proud Spell, he had the Oaks winner in the barn.

As for Eight Belles, the Beyer numbers said go, and the fact that she was larger than life no doubt helped Jones and Porter in their decision to go to the Derby. Some encouragement from Leroy Jolley, who won the '80 Derby with Genuine Risk, was the convincer.

Jolley, a Hall of Fame trainer, advised Jones to go for it - and Jones understands that no one in the racing business has a better feel for the game than Jolley.

But, getting back to my original thought, I can't understand why the connections of Eight Belles are the subjects of so much abuse.

Going back to Ruffian, and continuing through Go For Wand, Pine Island, George Washington, Mr. Nickerson, and, of course, Barbaro, I can not recall any criticism directed at the owners or trainers of those stricken animals.

After consulting with some respected people in the business, I realized the answer is really simple.

Unlike Eight Belles, no horse on that list broke down in the Kentucky Derby!

And, let's face it, the Kentucky Derby is the only race on the planet the vast majority of the public and media cares about.

In the face of major political and tragic news across the world, the Eight Belles saga - six days after the fact - continues to dominate the news and, more importantly, the public consciousness.

It's what we, in the newspaper business call having legs.

And there is no end in sight.

I called TV analyst Randy Moss this morning to congratulate him on a brilliant internet piece he did on Eight Belles, and Randy told me that ESPN is not going to pretend, in its Preakness coverage next week, that Eight Belles didn't happen.

"This story isn't going away," Randy said, ...not for a long, long time.

"We will pay major attention to the story next week, starting at the draw."

I mentioned in the course of our conversation that I nailed the Derby trifecta, and he was sincerely complimentary...and surprised.

Hell, I was - and am - too. How often in life does a public (or private) handicapper catch a tri that includes two 30-1 morning-line shots?

Especially in the Kentucky Derby.

I've been asked many times in recent days how I did it.

To paraphrase a line by George Costanza in Seinfeld, it really wasn't that hard.

I merely hooked up the favorite (Big Brown) with the two most impressive 3-year-olds I saw this season at Oaklawn Park - Eight Belles and Dennis of Cork.

There was no doubt in my mind that Eight Belles and Dennis of Cork were far more talented than Gayego and Z Fortune, the one-two finishers in the Arkansas Derby.

Why Oaklawn?

Why not?

This makes five straight years that Oaklawn has produced a champion from its 3-year-old colony - starting with Smarty Jones in '04, and continuing with Afleet Alex, Lawyer Ron, Curlin....and now, no doubt Eight Belles, who will be declared posthumously the champion 3-year-old filly.

Why is Oaklawn producing one champion after another?

That's a story for another day.

A story for this day is the opening of beautiful Monmouth Park on Friday afternoon. And, just as it was at the Breeders' Cup last October, the rain is coming down in sheets.

Monmouth management has made - how shall I say it - some questionable decisions for this meet.

First, it increased the price of admission and parking, and, second, it decided to establish a $10,000 limit on show bets.

"Costs have escalated," it was explained. "This is the first price increase in many, many years."

A bad call, it says here, but not nearly as bad as capping the size of show bets.

"We often in the past have been victimized by extremely large show bets that adversely affect us and purse accounts," said one track official. "I don't think it's possible to catch all of the situations where this might occur.

"We prefer having a limit."

Within moments of hearing this news, I dialed up my old friend - The Mad Bomber.

As readers of this space may recall, The Bomber, a Pennsylvania-based attorney, supplements his income by making six-figure show bets on thoroughbred and standardbred races across the country.

Several of these wagers have been placed over the years at the New Jersey tracks.

Obviously, the Bomber wins most of these bets - but he has been known to blow some too.

In other words, this is how he gets his kicks - and he is fortunate to have the cash flow to play the game this way.

But now he has been told his action - at least at Monmouth Park - is no longer welcome.

And it would be no surprise if other tracks follow Monmouth's lead.

As could be expected, The Bomber is ticked.

"It's a joke, so unfair," he said. "Ninety-eight per cent of the people who go to the racetrack lose. Do they really have to take your last dollar?

"When a horse should pay $2.39 to win, they give you $2.20, and keep the rest. You think that's fair? But nobody says a damn thing about it. The public be damned.

"They are just a bunch of crybabies.

"They cry when they have to pay me off. But what about the times I lose? And they can't wait to publicize it when I go down, and those big show payoffs go up.

"Why don't they just tell you they don't want your action, and go to the casinos?

"What a bunch of crybabies!"

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