July 17, 2011

The DelCap - Time Machine To 1956

     The Delaware Handicap has long been the spot for the greatest fillies and mares to make their mark on racing.  With a purse of $750,000, it is one of the richest races for the ladies and each year the winner earns an automatic berth into the Breeders’ Cup Ladies Classic. 
     The stirring stretch duel between Blind Luck and Havre de Grace in the 2011 edition of the Delaware Handicap evoked some of the grand history of the race.
     Stopping at the paddock to watch the horses saddle up, one can imagine what it was like to watch Flower Bowl stroll the paddock in 1956.  Other great fillies and mares like Busanda, Miss Grillo, Politely, Susan’s Girl, Obeah, Jameela and Summer Colony have also won the race.
     For a race that was all but dead when Delaware Park closed in 1982, it has re-established itself as a race where the best fillies and mares run.  Beyond that, the administration has worked to make DelCap day an attraction for gamblers and families alike.
     While horseplayers have a huge air-conditioned sportsbook inside, families have a gigantic shady grove right up against the apron of the track. For DelCap day, there are pony rides, moon bounces, slides and bar-b-que grills.  The fans who arrive early also get free DelCap baseball caps.
     And while all of this makes for a great family outing, the paddock is the jewel. It might even achieve "Best Kept Secret" status. It is very much like walking into 1956.  While you most likely will not get to see Blind Luck or Havre de Grace, Delaware Park still two more family fun days, where they put on a show bigger than DelCap Day, and a special fan appreciation day scheduled – the dates are August 13, September 3, and September 17 respectively.
     For race fans with families, Delaware Park is a must visit.

July 2, 2011

Reflections Along The Derby Trail

photos and story
by Scott Serio

     What everyone sees moments later online or the next day in the newspaper is the image of an exalted jockey aboard a horse that just won a major race.  These aren’t the best moments of thoroughbred horse racing, only the most publicized.  Go to any track along the Triple Crown trail and you will find many ready-made photo ops, but you will also find unrehearsed pure moments.

     It is in these moments, where simple connections take place that horse racing can find what will save it and what will propel it forward. Whether it is a connection between a horse and a human, a connection between a person and a place or maybe a connection between a person and the history in which they are immersing themselves, the link is there.

     I think back to walking “The Back Yard” at Belmont Park shortly before Big Brown made his attempt at history. By the playground I spotted a middle-aged father holding his daughter by the arms and spinning her in a circle.  They could have been sharing this moment anywhere, so why here and why now?  I made some pictures and then introduced myself. I asked the father and he replied, “I just wanted my daughter to see a Triple Crown winner, so we came today.” He had lived next to the track his whole life, but this was his first trip.

     Then I think back to the early afternoon just five weeks ago, just before the Kentucky Derby, when I ventured to the backstretch to see if I could stumble into a nice photo. There wasn’t a horse to be found grazing, but Churchill was open for live racing.

     In contrast to the mayhem the envelopes the backstretch during Derby week because of the photographers, writers, TV crews and fans that descend shortly after sunrise, the scene before the third race was quite calm. I watched the horses start from the chute for a six-furlong sprint and was about to leave when I spotted a very nice moment.  It was quite Elliot Erwitt-esque.  The reflection of a father and son watching the races filled the side-view mirror of the family’s Dodge Charger.

     This was a racetrack family for sure. I knew that before talking to them. The father’s burly arm was hanging out of the window reminding me of the bumper sticker “It is not the size of the truck, it is the size of the arm hanging out of the window.” I would learn that Joshua Dossey is a racetrack employee, but this day was his day off. His 19-month-old son Preston had already formed a bond with the track, and his father, having seen the races almost a dozen times.  After watching a few races, the Dossey family drove off to enjoy the rest of the day.

     This is the little stuff that makes racing great. Horse racing is made up of those little serendipitous moments where whether you are a fan or an owner you still enjoy the moment.

      It could be eating your bacon, egg and cheese at Wagner’s Pharmacy across from Churchill Downs and seeing Jeff Bonde and Phil Lebherz doing the same thing – they are the connections for Sway Away who didn’t make it into the starting gate Derby Day. Then you notice the next table over is the whole Zayat family partaking in the same breakfast you are.

     Or, you could be drinking a tall, very tall, glass of Foster’s lager and eating your Outback Special when you spy someone at the next table.  The light goes on, maybe you think, but then you think again, it is all too incongruous. Then you realize your intuition was right. Who is dining at Outback but Charlotte Weber.

     Not only is Ms. Weber the owner of Live Oak Stud and Brilliant Speed, but she also happens to be one of the Campbells Soup heirs. She is worth $1.2 billion and she is there eating the same meal as you are.

     Then there are the moments surrounding a race that get hidden by images of winning owners foisting trophies into the air.  This year, it was the image of Jane Motion rushing to hug Lerina Velazquez as they ran across the track to the winner’s circle. Then the image of John Velazquez’s valet Tony Millan simultaneously lifting Michael Velazquez and his right fist into the air in celebration of the victory. In the middle of the mayhem, these quiet moments go unnoticed by many.

     Horse racing isn't just about win, place or show. It is about the people, the place and the event.  Why else do you think 90,000 people show up to Oaks Day? Do you think they are all betting hundreds of dollars? Many are there because they have formed just such a bond with Oaks Day, or Churchill Downs, or a horse in the Oaks field and maybe they just want to be a part of something they feel is special.

     Below is a photographic reflection on the Triple Crown Trail for 2011 and the little moments. You may have seen some of them in this forum in other posts. Either way, enjoy…

(Side Note: The moment that was my personal favorite from the entire Derby trail for 2011 did not lend itself to photography, only personal enjoyment.  While setting up cameras at 8:30 in the morning, most photographers are un-swayed in their determination to get everything just right and be done with it.  Some singer practicing the National Anthem usually doesn’t rate their attention.  Usually the singer stops, starts over, picks it up from the middle, just working to get it right.  Jordin Sparks managed something I have never seen before as a photographer. Not only did all the photographers stop and turn to listen, but after she absolutely slayed the song the first time she sang it, they applauded. I joined them. It was just that good. Maybe it was events with Osama bin Laden that sparked a little extra patriotism, but I connected with that situation. Not sure who else will take that moment with them, but I will.)

June 5, 2011

The Big Picture - What To Do Before The Belmont?

      With three weeks in between the Preakness and the Belmont Stakes, there hasn't been a ton of buzz in the racing world, but there is great racing.

     While the Belmont Stakes doesn't have the Triple Crown on the line, it will host a rematch of the Kentucky Derby and Preakness winners.  The Belmont Stakes will also be the first time the first seven finishers in the Kentucky Derby will also be in the starting gate in Elmont, New York.  With three weeks in between the Preakness and the Belmont Stakes, there hasn't been a ton of buzz in the racing world, but there is great racing.
     To occupy everyone's time, Animal Kingdom and Shackleford have been steadily working up to their June 11th tilt and great racing has filled the calendar.  Take a look and follow Eclipse Sportswire photographers as they take you from Fair Hill in Maryland, to the Epsom Derby, French Derby and even to the Yasuda Kinen in Japan. It was a busy week with racing interesting enough to warrant a visit at Epsom from the Queen Mum herself to watch her colt Carlton House compete. 


May 30, 2011

Where Is Mr. Hot Stuff?

Mr. Hot Stuff breaks his maiden over the hurdles at the Fair Hill Races.

    He won more than $195,000 in his career and made starts in the Kentucky Derby and Belmont Stakes, but Saturday Mr. Hot Stuff was trying to break his maiden, again - this time as a steeplechaser.
     The handsome dark bay or brown horse is at the starting point for a new and promising career. The smartly bred son of Tiznow was a $200,000 Keeneland yearling in 2007 and is a full brother to Colonel John.
     After scoring a 95 Beyer while breaking his maiden as a flat racer, Mr. Hot Stuff was never able to live up to his potential.  Eventually he was retired last year, having only won that one maiden race at Santa Anita in the Spring of 2009.
     Originally, Mr. Hot Stuff was owned by Arthur Arundel, a man long connected with the steeplechase industry.  In 2010, Mr. Arundel retired the colt and sent him to trainer Jack Fisher with the hope he would continue a long history of excellence in ‘chasing.
Mr. Hot Stuff in the Belmont post parade
     It appeared those hopes would take a detour on February 8th of this year when Arthur W. “Nick” Arundel passed away at 83.  Three Arundel horses were dispersed at a sale at Jack Fisher’s barn in April in Butler, Maryland.
     Another perennial steeplechase owner stepped forward at the sale and shelled out $70,000 for a thoroughbred who hadn’t won a race since April 2009 and had never won a jump race. New owner Gill Johnston left Mr. Hot Stuff in Jack Fisher’s care and his steeplechase career commenced.
     On a card filled with tons of “off-the-track” thoroughbreds, Mr. Hot Stuff broke his maiden in a 2 ¼-mile hurdle contest.
     Steeplechasing is one of many “next-careers” for thoroughbred racers.  Just perusing the past performances for Saturday’s program at the Fair Hill Races one found several horses with six-digit earnings and 52 with prior flat racing experiencing.
Staying On wires the field in a 1 1/4-mile training flat race with rider Jody Petty aboard.
     Horses like Saco River, Sharps Island and Staying On were on the racecard.  In many cases, their career earnings of more than $200,000 each dwarfed the entire earnings for the rest of the field. 
Lining up for the Valentine Memorial at the Fair Hill Races
     For those in attendance who took the time to consider the past performances, those big-money earners paid off at the betting windows.  Fair Hill is only steeplechase meet where pari-mutuel wagering is offered.  Mr. Hot Stuff, Staying On and Sharps Island all won their races.
     Events like the Fair Hill Races, or the Virginia Gold Cup, Willowdale Hunt or any of the many National Steeplechase Association sanctioned races are somewhat of a well-kept secret.  Racegoers get to see fantastic athletes, the riders and the horses, partake in a sport with a history that dates back to the 18th century.  Most attendees dress for the occasion, bring the party with them, tailgate all day long, enjoy dog races, stick pony races, bar-b-ques and whatever else they can add to the festivities.  It is a day outside with friends.  It is a social gathering to celebrate horses and horsemanship that also benefits the communities where the races are run.  To find out more about steeplechasing, its history, its participants and dates and locations for future events please visit the National Steeplechase Association (NSA) website at the following web address. http://www.nationalsteeplechase.com/

...and one more look at Mr. Hot Stuff...