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Post Time: Spiraling down the Derby trail

By Gene Kershner 

This weekend's major prep race is the Grade 3 Spiral Stakes at Turfway Park in Florence, Kentucky just outside of Cincinnati proper which has attracted 12 hopeful colts. The 1 1/8 mile race is one of the last two races of the Kentucky Derby Championship Series worth 50-20-10-5 points to the top four finishers. The other final prep at this point level is the Sunland Derby in New Mexico on Sunday.

The Spiral is run on the polytrack at Turfway and produced 2011 Kentucky Derby winner Animal Kingdom, breaking a drought of 18 years between Derby winners. Lil E. Tee won the 1992 version of the Spiral with Pat Day aboard. The race has produced some well known victors aside from those two including Hard Spun (2007), Flower Alley (2005), Stephen Got Even (1999), and Summer Squall (1990).

Let's take a look at the field (jockey, trainer, odds in parenthesis)…

1 - Big Bazinga (Contreras, Vassilieva, 30-1). Long shot who faltered badly in the Holy Bull but redeemed himself in an optional claimer at Gulfstream returns to the friendly confines of polytrack. Sports a couple decent efforts at Woodbine last fall and could outrun his odds.

2 - Asserting Bear (Rocco, Jr., Baker, 12-1). Another Woodbine shipper threatened momentarily at Tampa in the Grade 3 Sam F. Davis finishing 3 3/4-lengths behind Vinceremos. The Ontario-bred colt has a win at the distance in the Coronation Futurity at Woodbine in November and could be a nice price on Saturday afternoon.

3 - Poker Player (Hill, Catalano, 5-1). The son of Harlan's Holiday ran second in the local prep as the favorite after finishing eighth in the Breeders' Cup Juvenile Turf at Santa Anita. Has a graded stake win coming from off the pace at Keeneland on the polytrack last fall in the Grade 3 Bourbon. Contender.

4 - Tamarando (Baze, Hollendorfer, 3-1). Morning line favorite won the El Camino Real Derby at Golden Gate on a Tapeta surface and ships in for jockey/trainer connections winning at a 44 percent clip over the past 60 days. The Bertrando colt will be looking to add to his current Derby point total of 12 on Saturday. The colt to beat.

5 - Coastline (Stewart, Casse, 8-1). Ships over from Oaklawn where he fared poorly in the Southwest Stakes after a third place performance in the Smarty Jones. Appears to be more of a miler based on his pedigree, has a sharp workout for Casse who is winning at a 24 percent clip going dirt to synthetic. Sometimes milers can steal a 9-furlong race.  He broke his maiden on poly at Keeneland. Would be a minor upset.

6 - Smart Cover (Lanerie, Romans, 20-1). Son of Any Given Saturday will try and go turf to synthetic for the first time. Past efforts include a second place finish ahead of the highly regarded Tapiture in the Grade 3 Iroquois at Churchill. Stranger things have happened and Romans is capable of big wins in Kentucky.

7 - All Tied Up (Saez, Pletcher, 12-1). A Pletcher colt that's 12-1 on the Derby trail? Pedigree doesn't exactly scream router, but Todd Terrific knows how to have them ready and is a whopping 31 percent turf to all-weather surfaces. This colt has not run on any surface other than turf in his seven race career. Will swallow hard and pass.

8 - Solitary Ranger (Geroux, Catalano, 6-1). Won the local prep over the surface and has only missed the board once in five tries on the fake stuff. He won the prep handily by four lengths and could continue to improve for trainer Wayne Catalano who worked him six furlongs last time out so he's likely very tight and ready to roll. Win threat.

9 - Almost Famous (Borel, Byrne, 6-1). His past performance lines read like a rollercoaster, so not sure which colt is going to show up on Saturday. I'm going to bet against on Saturday due to his lack of consistency and first try on the polytrack.

10 - Harry's Holiday (Napranik, Maker, 20-1). Rosie ships in the ride for Maker's horse that finished third in the local prep. He would need to take a big step forward in this company to make any noise. There are others more likely and thinking he'd be more successful at shorter distances off first glance.

11 - We Miss Artie (Velazquez, Pletcher, 4-1). Pletcher hopeful desperate for Derby points takes the polytrack route. Absolutely has a shot in here coming in third off the layoff and returning to a surface that may be kinder to him than dirt. The Ramseys won the 2010 Spiral with a similar horse, and Johnny V comes in to ride. Should hit the board.

12 - Arctic Slope (Jimenez, McPeek, 30-1). Chestnut colt comes off a long layoff and jumps right into the fire. Has only one win in five tries and speed figures don't indicate he'll threaten the classier horses. Sitting this one out.

Post Time Outlook: 1-We Miss Artie; 2 - Solitary Ranger; 3 - Tamarando

Long shot play: Asserting Bear

Gene Kershner, a Buffalo-based turf writer, is a member of the National Turf Writers and Broadcasters Association, and tweets @EquiSpace.

Post Time: Derby trail served Buffalo-style

By Gene Kershner 

It's that time of the year when we evaluate the current Kentucky Derby contenders Buffalo-style by applying just the right sauce in judging whether each colt is hot, medium or mild on this year's Derby trail. 

There are three races remaining in the 50-20-10-5 leg of the Kentucky Derby Championship Series, including this weekend's Rebel Stakes at Oaklawn Park. After next weekend's races at Turfway Park and Sunland Park, the final seven races of the Series will offer the top four finishers 100-40-20-10 points, respectively. 

Several horses have already fallen off the trail most notably, Top Billing, third place finisher in the Fountain of Youth. Bayern, a top contender from Southern California scratched out of last weekend's San Felipe due to a quarter bruise and it is uncertain whether he will compete in the Santa Anita Derby or at Oaklawn.  Shared Belief, owned in part by Jim Rome's Jungle Racing, hasn't recorded a workout since January and trainer Jerry Hollendorfer confirmed yesterday that he is off the Derby trail due to foot ailments.

Keeping with our mid-March tradition of looking at the current leaders in the chase for the first leg of thoroughbred racing's Triple Crown, let's check out the 3-year-old colts that are creating a buzz on the Derby trail. In concert with prior years, the colts will be sorted Buffalo-style: Hot, Medium and Mild. 

Hot.  Two horses that are gaining steam as the hot horses have had good fortune in New York and Florida, at the Big A and Gulfstream Park, respectively. 

Samraat,  the son of Noble Causeway out of an Indian Charlie dam, looks to have earned his way into the Derby via his recent win in the Grade 2 Gotham where he defeated rival Uncle Sigh (24 points, t-7th) for the second straight time. Look for him next in the Wood Memorial in early April at Aqueduct. He appears to have the pedigree to capture the Classic distance of a mile and a quarter and has impressed so far in reaching the top of the points standings with 60 points. 

Heading down the coastline to sunny Florida, the Holy Bull winner, Cairo Prince appears to be the best of the Gulfstream colts after Top Billing's defection due to injury. He will take on the top two finishers in the Fountain of Youth in two weeks in the Florida Derby.  The son of Pioneerof the Nile, the second place finisher to long shot Mine That Bird in the 2009 Derby, still needs valuable Derby points. He sits in 14th place with 14 points for trainer Kiaran McLaughlin, who has never saddled a Derby winner. 

Medium. Our medium horses are those colts quietly moving up the ladder with decent, but not mesmerizing performances in the Derby prep races to date. 

A  horse that meets our "medium" category had the perfect trip in winning last weekend's San Felipe Stakes at Santa Anita Park.  California Chrome (50 pts, 5th place), sired by Lucky Pulpit, grabbed the rail and pulled away from contenders Midnight Hawk and Kristo to win easily. His grand sire Pulpit won the Blue Grass and the Fountain of Youth in 1997, finishing fourth in the Kentucky Derby, so there is some indicators in his bloodlines, although he has his doubters out there due to his damline. A much anticipated matchup with Robert B. Lewis winner Candy Boy awaits him in the Santa Anita Derby on Apr. 5.

We'll see our other medium colt this weekend, who could vault into "hot" territory with a win in the Rebel. Tapiture has earned points in each of his last three races, garnering 22 points in winning the Kentucky Jockey Club and Southwest Stakes and finishing third in the Iroquois. A top four finish should get him enough points to qualify for the Run for the Roses. He shares the same grand sire as California Chrome, but was sired by Tapit, winner of the 2004 Wood Memorial, who finished a disappointing 9th in the Derby that same year. 

Mild. The horses fitting the mild category are those that will probably qualify for a spot, but are rather bland at the moment, requiring additional spices and seasoning. 

Staying completely under the radar is a horse who will be challenging Taptiture this weekend at Oaklawn in the Rebel. Strong Mandate, trained by the venerable D. Wayne Lukas who stormed back onto the Triple Crown scene last year with Oxbow, is a horse with huge upside if he stays healthy. With only 6 points currently he'll need strong performances in either the Rebel or the Arkansas Derby to get into the gate on the First Saturday in May. Sired by the great Tiznow, a two-time Breeders' Cup Classic champion, he has the staying power to be there on Derby day as long as he qualifies. 

Rounding out our mild category is Starlight Racing's Intense Holiday trained by the omnipresent Todd Pletcher. After a ho-hum third place finish behind Cairo Prince in the Holy Bull, he captured my attention with a win in the Risen Star at the Fair Grounds vaulting him to top portion of the leaderboard, where he currently sits in second with 53 points. The son of Harlan's Holiday, a 7th place finisher in the 2002 Derby, should show up next in the Louisiana Derby in two weeks. 

Suicide.  If I had to tag a horse in this category it would be Wildcat Red, who backed up his Hutcheson win by winning the Fountain of Youth going gate-to-wire in blazing fractions holding off General a Rod. With a sprinter's pedigree, he may be your leader around the clubhouse turn at Churchill Downs in May setting the early pace. The 50 points he earned at Gulfstream should be enough to qualify for the big race.

Let's grab some bleu cheese, your favorite sauce and settle in for some great Derby preps over the next few weeks. 

Gene Kershner, a Buffalo-based turf writer, is a member of the National Turf Writers and Broadcasters Association, and tweets @EquiSpace.

Post Time: Big Cap steals limelight for a weekend

By Gene Kershner 

It's not too often that the handicap division steals the spotlight from the 3-year-olds on the Derby trail at this time of the year. On Saturday afternoon the $750,000 Santa Anita Handicap at Santa Anita will do just that when three of the biggest names in racing will go head to head.

Willis Horton, owner of Will Take Charge (2-1), told the national racing media on Tuesday afternoon that "it could be the race of a lifetime to see." Last year's three-year-old Eclipse winner will get a rematch on national television Saturday evening with Breeders' Cup Classic winner Mucho Macho Man (9-5), in the race known as the Big Cap on Fox Sports 1 at 7 p.m. ET.

Not part of the original schedule of "The Jockey Club Tour on Fox," the Big Cap became a must-see once the two top finishers in last year's $5 million Classic decided to head west for round two. Adding to the drama will be hometown hero Game On Dude (5-2), who will be seeking a record third Big Cap win after winning the 2011 and 2013 editions.

Dude's trainer Bob Baffert is as excited as most racing fans for Saturday's Big Cap. "When you win a big race on a big day like that when the stands are pretty full and a lot of cheering and it’s loud, really it’s a good feeling.  That, to me, that’s the good feeling story, when you see a lot of people out and they’re cheering for home and you can hear the roar of the crowd, there’s nothing better feeling than that.  Winning—when you win one of those—under those circumstances, that’s what makes racing so exciting," he told the national racing media earlier in the week.

"It’s like a heavy weight title fight. Before, if it’s the same horses in California running it probably doesn’t get that much attention, but anytime you have a horse that ships in like Mucho Macho Man with the best handicap horses in the same race, that’s what brings the attention because you’ve got your Breeders’ Cup winner, you’ve got the champion three-year-old, it’s a no brainer," said Baffert.

The Southern California-based trainer is hoping for a pace scenario that will fit Game On Dude.
"We have to give him a chance and, you know, it’s got to be a reasonable pace.  It can’t be a ridiculous pace but, I mean, those races are always fast anyway, so I’m sure he’ll be going pretty fast there.  But, you know, it has to unfold the right way for him and if it does, then he’s very effective," he said.

The Derby trail will feature big races on both coasts with 50 points at stake for the winners. The Tampa Bay Derby, run at 1 1/16 miles, will feature several Ontario-bred horses including Coltimus Prime, trained by Justin Nixon, the Mark Casse-trained Matador and Asserting Bear conditioned by Reade Baker. We could be seeing a Queen's Plate horse emerge from Tampa Bay Downs this weekend. All three of the Ontario-bred entrants are Canadian Triple Crown nominees, although Casse admits Matador runs his best on dirt.

"Our feeling is that Matador is superior on the dirt.  We feel like he trains much better on the dirt than he ever did the synthetic and that was our reason for taking him to the Sam Davis, because if you look at his previous form, you could hardly believe that he deserved to go to the Sam Davis.  We need him to step up and continue to run better on the dirt for him to be considered a good horse.  The question is, are we going to go back to the Queen’s Plate? We’ll have to see.  He’ll have to show me more on the synthetic," Casse explained to the national racing media. 

The horse to beat in Tampa, however, is also trained by Casse, winning trainer of the last two Prince of Wales Stakes at Fort Erie, and that colt is Conquest Titan. Casse moved him from Gulfstream Park to Tampa due to the colt's late running style that would not fair well on the speed-favoring drag strip at Gulfstream. A style that Casse changed to after his disappointing finish in last year's Breeders' Cup Juvenile.

"We went back to Churchill Downs after the Breeders’ Cup and said, look, we’ve got to do something different, and so we started taking him back and then relaxing him in his works and, you know, it shows in his chart there at Churchill that he broke slow, but that was my plan and we told [jockey] Shaun [Bridgmohan], 'Just take him back, get him to relax and try to come with one big run,' and it worked.  It doesn’t happen very often, but it worked that time," said Casse.

On the Big Cap undercard is the Grade 2 San Felipe Stakes, also at 1 1/16 miles, that will showcase the first race in a Derby point race for the impressive Bayern, trained by Baffert. The lightly raced son of Offlee Wild has only two career starts, both wins at Santa Anita, the latter an allowance win by 15 lengths over highly-regarded Tap It Rich.

Not surprisingly, Baffert has the second best horse in the race on paper, Midnight Hawk, who currently sits in 13th on the Derby points list with 12. He finished a well beaten third to Candy Boy in the Robert B. Lewis last week after winning the Sham Stakes in January.

Jockey Gary Stevens may have a tough decision before Derby day if Bayern continues to show his talents on the track. He also rode Candy Boy in the Robert B. Lewis, another talented colt who should have enough points to qualify for the Kentucky Derby. "He’s actually shown me more in his last two workouts after that race than he did in that actual race.  He showed me some versatility and the thing about Bayern, he’s got a great mind and he’s going in the right direction, and we’ll see what happens on the weekend, but I expect a big performance from him.  I don’t see any reason he won’t with what I’ve seen in the mornings the last two times I’ve been on him," said the Hall of Fame jockey.

[UPDATE 4:00 p.m. Friday: Hall of Fame trainer Bob Baffert announced on his Twitter account that 3-year-old colt Bayern is scratched from Saturday's San Felipe Stakes at Santa Anita with an injury.]

It's as big a weekend in horse racing as you'll find during the month of March.

Gene Kershner, a Buffalo-based turf writer, is a member of the National Turf Writers and Broadcasters Association, and tweets @EquiSpace.

 

Post Time: Friday racing notebook

By Gene Kershner

The blog is back this weekend after taking a one-week hiatus due to the focus on last week's print article as we kicked off the Derby trail on TBN. I was keen on both General a Rod (second in Fountain of Youth) and Intense Holiday (Risen Star winner), but disappointed in Hoppertunity's performance in the Risen Star.  Looks like its back to the drawing board for trainer Bob Baffert.

This weekend the Derby trail finds it way back to New York and Aqueduct Racetrack for the Gotham Stakes, a Grade 3 race over 1 1/6 miles on the Big A's inner dirt track.

Some noteworthy goings on over the thoroughbred racing landscape…

- The Gotham features a Withers rematch between 1A-Samraat (5/2), who is running in a coupled entry, and 4-Uncle Sigh (3-1). Both horses are trained by NY-based trainers, Samraat by Richard Violette, Jr. and Uncle Sigh by Gary Contessa. It would be nice to see one of those fine trainers have a horse in the gate on the First Saturday in May.

- I'm leaning towards 8-Extrasexyhipzster (4-1), trained by Michael Trombetta. He's coming off two non-graded stakes wins, one an impressive win on the inner in December in the $100K Don Rickles. I think he handles the additional distance and storms onto the Derby scene.

- Hard to believe a Pletcher-trained horse on the Derby trail has a morning line of 10-1, but 10-Harpoon, who was supposedly being pointed at the Tampa Bay Derby, was shipped back north to run in this spot. Maybe it's the outside post that had morning line maker Eric Donovan assigning a higher number. His nose loss to Vinceremos in the Grade 3 Sam F. Davis in Tampa earlier in the month at the same distance warrants him a closer look.

- Good news that Fox Sports 1 has added the Santa Anita Handicap (aka the Big Cap) to its lineup and will televise the big race next weekend. The Big Cap will feature a Breeders' Cup Classic rematch between Mucho Macho Man and Will Take Charge, not to mention Game On Dude, who will be looking to avenge his disappointing loss last November. The $750,000 Grade 1 race that was first run in 1935 should set the stage for an exciting year in the handicap division.

- Speaking of television, Horseplayers, the reality show on the Esquire Network, is moving from Tuesdays to Wednesday nights at 10 p.m. ET starting on Mar. 5. It's one you won't want to miss as the tournament scene shifts to Upstate New York and the Saratoga Race Course.

- Volume II of the Wireplayers.com website's Derby Dozen was released on Wednesday and Top Billing has just that in this week's list. Each panelist's picks can be found at this link, including mine and another Western New York handicapper who goes by the moniker, The Turk.

- Pool 3 of the Kentucky Derby Future Wager is open and runs through Saturday at 6 p.m.

Gene Kershner, a Buffalo-based turf writer, is a member of the National Turf Writers and Broadcasters Association, and tweets @EquiSpace.

Post Time: Valentine's day racing notebook

By Gene Kershner

Let's take a little tour around the thoroughbred racing world after last weekend's big day at Gulfstream Park…

Lea and Lochte were the big winners on the debut broadcast of the Jockey Club Tour on Fox on Sunday. The initial show was heavy on handicapping with TVG's Simon Bray and Greg Wolf and NYRA's Andy Serling and Richard Migliore all part of the show. Overall, the show was a win for racing anytime you can showcase the sport.  The next broadcast on Fox Sports 1 will be the $10 million Dubai World Cup from Meydan Racecourse in late March.

- I thought Will Take Charge gave a valiant effort finishing second in the Donn on a track that certainly doesn't assist his late running style including the short stretch. He will be a force to be reckoned with down the line.

- Good news for the border oval last week as Ontario Racing Commission announced that there will be a full 2014 racing system at Fort Erie Race Track. The Commission notified Ontario Premier Wynne that the funding has been secured for the meet scheduled to start sometime in the spring of 2014.

- The 10-4-2-1 points phase of the Road to the Kentucky Derby will wrap up this weekend with races at Golden Gate (El Camino Real Derby) on Saturday and at Oaklawn (Southwest Stakes) on President's Day Monday.  The Southwest will include solid Derby contenders Strong Mandate, Ride on Curlin and Tapiture.

- Things will start to heat up next weekend with the Fountain of Youth Stakes at Gulfstream which should have a loaded field including Top Billing, Medal Count, Commissioner, Conquest Titan and We Miss Artie to name a few. This race has typically been a big steppingstone for the winner.  The points increase to 50-20-10-5 for the first four finishers. So a win more than likely puts you in the Derby gate.

- Finger Lakes-based trainer Jeremiah Englehart will send Breeders' Cup Juvenile Fillies champion Ria Antonia into the Rachel Alexandra Stakes at the Fair Grounds next weekend. Her connections had considered next weekend's Risen Star Stakes against the boys but thought otherwise so she will head down the road to the Kentucky Oaks on the first Friday in May.

- The fifth annual Wireplayers.com Derby Dozen poll has issued the initial 2014 poll, of which I am a panelist. Cairo Prince, winner of the Holy Bull, heads volume I of the poll which is released every three weeks up through the Derby draw.

Gene Kershner, a Buffalo-based turf writer, is a member of the National Turf Writers and Broadcasters Association, and tweets @EquiSpace.

Post Time: Gonzalez sends River Seven against stacked Donn field

By Gene Kershner

Trainer Nick Gonzalez stood in the winner's circle for the first time in a graded stake at Churchill Downs last November and will look to duplicate that feat at Gulfstream Park on Sunday. He'll enter his star 4-year-old River Seven into the $500,000 Grade 1 Donn Handicap at 1 1/8 miles, which will be the debut broadcast on the new Fox Sports 1 series, "The Jockey Club Tour on Fox." 

The field for the 59th edition of the Donn is stacked with formidable contenders including 3-year-old champion Will Take Charge, who was assigned the highweight of 123 pounds. Revolutionary, a fixture on last year's triple crown trail will make his first start of 2014, last running in the Belmont Stakes after finishing third in the Derby. 

Gonzalez is more than excited in attempting to win a fourth straight stakes race with River Seven, who set the Gulfstream track record for 1 1/16 miles in the $100,000 Harlan's Holiday Stakes going 1.41.73. The track record was set during his second career start on dirt, his first coming in last year's Prince of Wales Stakes at nearby Fort Erie where he finished second to Uncaptured, who drew the rail on Sunday for trainer Mark Casse. 

The field of 11 will also include Breeders' Cup Classic runner-up Will Take Charge trained by the venerable D. Wayne Lukas. "There was supposed to be a whole pile of them last week and then when Wayne Lukas showed up with WTC, it scared a few off," said Gonzalez by phone from Florida on Wednesday.

The defending champion trainer of last year's Queen's Plate winner Midnight Aria isn't scared of taking on the big boys. "That's what you get in those kinds of races, if you're thinking or expecting anything less than a field like that you're just kidding yourself anyways.  You just have to be prepared for the big show when you're entered in a half million dollar Grade 1 race."

River Seven will receive a seven pound weight break from Will Take Charge and three from Revolutionary, which should help his cause. "The weights seemed kind of peculiar to me at first, but I guess when you start at the highweight at 123 and go down that's a realistic weight for River I guess so. We're happy with it," said Gonzalez.

Joe Rocco, Jr., who was aboard during the track record ride in the Harlan's Holiday, will ride River Seven on Sunday. Gonzalez is confident he will give him the best chance to extend his winning streak to four. "He's had three different riders on his last three stakes wins and he's not one of those horses where you have to give him a lot of instructions to anyone who rides him. He's got tracking speed, it's one of those things where you have a smart rider who knows the pace, you just have to figure it out once you go a half a mile and take it from there," said the Fort Erie-based trainer.

River Seven's last breeze was a successful one on Sunday morning and he had a chance encounter with two-time Breeders' Cup Filly & Mare Turf champion Groupie Doll. "They both breezed at the same time Sunday morning. It was funny they were walking back to the barns after their workouts, it was very cool to see them side by side," he said. 

"It's going to be a big day with Groupie Doll running and making her last start in the Hurricane Bertie. It would be great to see a champ like that go out with a win," said Gonzalez.

The Hurricane Bertie and the Grade 1 Gulfstream Park Turf Handicap will both be a part of the Fox broadcast on Sunday afternoon at 5:00 p.m. ET.

Gene Kershner, a Buffalo-based turf writer, is a member of the National Turf Writers and Broadcasters Association, and tweets @EquiSpace.

Post Time: Friday racing notebook

By Gene Kershner

A couple of Derby preps to whet the whistle this weekend at Aqueduct (Grade 3 Withers Stakes) and Tampa Bay  Downs (Grade 3 Sam F. Davis) as we are a few weeks away from an increase in the points available in the Road to Kentucky Derby Championship Series.

Some random thoughts as we head onto the Derby trail….

- I've enjoyed the first two episodes of Horseplayers so far and with the character development stage in full swing, I'm enjoying Peter Rotondo, Jr. and Matt Bernier the most so far.  Last week's journey on the Triple Crown stage showed the audience that even the best handicappers around can have an off day.

- Congrats to NHC 15 winner Jose Arias who took home the top prize of $750,000 last weekend, leading the tournament from gate-to-wire. An odds change of 8-1 to 6-1 in the final minute on runner-up Tony Brice's selection left him $1.20 short of the grand prize. Brice picked up $250,000 for second place

- There was some noise on the interwebs that Arias or someone in his crew may have hedged on Brice's horse causing the odds to drop in the final minute and cost Brice the title. For the first time in contest history the selections of each player at the final table were revealed one minute before post allowing this sort of strategy to potentially be employed. If they did hedge, it was within the rules and actually was a brilliant move. Horseplayers hedge everyday, why not in the biggest tournament around. Guessing that the revealing of selections won't ever happen again.

- A couple Woodbine shippers are running in the Sam F. Davis. Reade Baker sends out Asserting Bear (9-2) who will have Joe Rocco, Jr. in the irons and Mark Casse will have Matador (6-1) in the gate with Julien Leparoux aboard. Pletcher sends out two colts, Harpoon (4-1) and Vinceremos (6-1), both coming off maiden wins at Gulfstream.

- The Withers at the Big A only drew six colts with the two favorites that are trained by New Yorkers Richard Violette, Jr. (Samraat - 7/5) and Gary Contessa (Uncle Sigh - 9/5). If you're looking for value Scotland (8-1), trained by Anthony Dutrow (39 percent in second route races) looks ready to roll after posting two consecutive bullet works. 

Gene Kershner, a Buffalo-based turf writer, is a member of the National Turf Writers and Broadcasters Association, and tweets @EquiSpace.

Post Time: Friday racing notebook

By Gene Kershner

Just back from Florida and looking for the guy who turned down the heat!

ThoroFan Breakfast

It was my pleasure to emcee last weekend's ThoroFan Awards Breakfast honoring Dogwood Stables' Cot Campbell as the second annual ThoroFan Award winner. During the breakfast, Jim Mulvihill, Communications Director for the National Thoroughbred Racing Association (NTRA), presented the NTRA Moment of the Year which was the Breeders' Cup Classic win by Mucho Macho Man. The Macho Man was in the gates over the weekend, easily winning the Sunshine Millions Classic.

After the breakfast, I enjoyed some live racing action for the first time since the Breeders' Cup and was fortunate to run into Fort Erie trainer Nick Gonzalez and Hall of Fame trainer Roger Attfield at Gulfstream. Gonzalez is high on the 4-year-old River Seven, runner-up in last year's Prince of Wales Stakes at Fort Erie Race Track and may run him in the Donn Handicap. Attfield was engaging as ever and was lamenting the possible closure of Fort Erie. He said he may have a promising 3-year-old to try the Plate trail, but he appears to favor the turf at present and wouldn't commit to his plans otherwise.

Horseplayers

Due to my travel down to Florida I missed the premiere episode but based on the reaction of the twitterverse, other than a few miscues, it appears that the initial episode on the Esquire Network was a hit. Team Rotondo, John Conte and Christian Hellmers all made their debut in the opener and most reviews have been positive. Check out last week's Q&A with cast member Peter Rotondo.

Fox Sports 1 Racing Telecasts

More positive news on the television front as Fox Sports 1 announced their inaugural 2014 television schedule of nine dates representing "The Jockey Club Tour on FOX," which includes seven Sunday afternoon broadcasts. The first broadcast will be the Donn from Gulfstream on Sunday, Feb. 9 at 5:00 p.m. Included in the broadcast schedule is Ricoh Woodbine Mile at Woodbine in September and three races from Saratoga including the Coaching Club American Oaks, the Saratoga Special and the Sword Dancer.

Wando

The 2003 Canadian Horse of the Year and last Canadian Triple Crown champion passed away at the age of 14 on Wednesday of a suspected heart attack. He won the Prince of Wales at Fort Erie with a four-length score, which set up a historic Triple Crown bid at Woodbine a few weeks later where he prevailed by 1 1/2-lengths. He had career earnings of over $2.5 million and had a record of 11-2-2 in 23 career starts. He entered stud at Lane's End Farm in 2006, eventually returning to stand stud at his home at Schonberg Farm for the 2011 breeding season, where he passed away. His progeny includes Turallure, who captured the 2011 Woodbine Mile. He is honored each May at Woodbine with the running of the Wando Stakes, a key prep race on the road to the Queen's Plate.

Sovereign Award Finalists

The Fort Erie-based Gonzalez was tabbed as one of four finalists for Outstanding Trainer and the four finalists for 3-year-old male champion were Five Iron, Plate winner Midnight Aria, River Seven and Up With The Birds. The three finalists for Canadian Horse of the Year will be announced the evening of the awards in April.

Derby Trail

The Derby trail heads south to Gulfstream with the running of the Holy Bull Stakes which has attracted 11 colts. Kiaran McLaughlin-trained Cairo Prince (3-1) is the morning line favorite in a race that appears to be wide open and could be an excellent betting opportunity. John Velazquez will return to the races on Saturday at Gulfstream after suffering a spill at the Breeders' Cup that claimed his spleen. He'll ride Coup de Grace (4-1) for Chad Brown in the Holy Bull.

Gene Kershner, a Buffalo-based turf writer, is a member of the National Turf Writers and Broadcasters Association, and tweets @EquiSpace.

Post Time: New Horseplayers TV show to debut

By Gene Kershner 

HALLANDALE BEACH, Fla. -- Hello from Hallandale Beach on the east coast of Florida and the home of Gulfstream Park, site of this weekend's Eclipse Awards. I'm down here to emcee the annual ThoroFan Awards breakfast this morning where owner Cot Campbell will receive the second annual ThoroFan Award. Guest speakers at today's event include Brent Comer from Stonestreet Farm and caretaker of Rachel Alexandra as well as Groupie Doll's owner and trainer, Mandy Pope and Buff Bradley. It's sure to be a nice event in its first year as an official part of the Eclipse Awards.  I'm the treasurer of the fan-based member organization which is a qualified 501(c)(3) entity.

Horseplayers

Next Tuesday, Jan. 21 at 10 p.m. ET on the Esquire TV network (Time Warner - 114; Dish - 191; DirecTV - 235 and FiOs - 160), a new series called Horseplayers will premiere featuring handicappers across the country that culminates at last year's Breeders' Cup in a reality-based setting. Two of the handicappers featured in the new series include National Handicapping Contest champions John Conte (2009) and Michael Beychok (2012). I had the fortune of introducing Beychok last January at the inaugural ThoroFan Awards event. He won the 2012 NHC by a single dollar in the last race of the competition and subsequently purchased and retired the horse that brought him the handicapping crown.

The Esquire network is a joint venture between NBCUniversal and the Hearst Corporation, and was formerly known as the Style network. The show takes you from Churchill Downs to Saratoga to Santa Anita, and each episode follows a group of handicappers as they travel the country in search of instant riches – and compete for the title of America’s top handicapper. One of the handicappers on the show is Peter Rotondo, 38, a Vice President - Media and Entertainment for Breeders' Cup Ltd. I caught up with the stylish Rotondo earlier this week and had a little Q&A session about the new show, which also features his father, Peter, Sr., as one of the handicappers in the cast.

Post Time: Tell me how the show came to be and were you part of the group that initiated the idea?

Rotondo:  I qualified for the 2012 NHC and went to Vegas with my Dad and his best friend, Lee Davis. Bryan Pettigrew and Keith Chamblin from the NTRA were hosting a production company who was interested in Horseplayers and the NHC. Long story short – they mic'd us up (and a few others) for the weekend, created a sizzle reel. They pitched it to various networks and Esquire bought it and greenlit the pilot. The pilot turned into a 10-episode series!

Post Time: What was your first reaction when approached to be part of the show and the tie-in to your position at the Breeders' Cup?

Rotondo: My first reaction when the show became a "reality" was nervousness. I'm not exactly someone who wants to be in front of the camera (though everyone I know reading this just rolled their eyes), I'm comfortable behind the scenes in the TV landscape (as my role has been for many years working with ESPN and NBC). On the other hand, my Dad and Lee are made for TV, so I was going to do whatever I could to make it happen!  As far as a tie in to work at the BC, I cleared with Senior Management and they were very supportive. Most of the 'work' was on the weekend, so didn’t really interfere too much with my day to day job. Plus, I think the more exposure we can bring to the game the better we're all off and being close to the project made more sense than distancing myself from it.

Post Time: What’s something that viewers will be surprised about when they see the show?

Rotondo: Hmm…good question. I'm not sure. I think the hardcore fans of racing will like it to a point – I think they'll want to see more handicapping strategy and wagering but the "reality" is that the show needs to develop the characters before trying to explain handicapping and betting in detail. If the show takes off, you'll see a lot of wagering and handicapping discussion. I think the casual fan or reality television viewer that knows nothing about racing may find the characters interesting and, for the most part, the show destroys the stereotype of the typical horseplayer.

Post Time: What was it like being on a reality show with your father?

Rotondo: It was a blast. He's 64 but has so much energy so I know my role was to just get him going so he can be himself! He and Lee are truly crazy and everyone who spends time with them has a hysterically good time. I hope that comes across through the season – they put the "real" in "reality!"

Post Time: What will appeal to the casual sports fan when watching the show?

Rotondo: I think the risk and reward will appeal to the casual sports fan. I'm not sure the show is geared toward "sports" fans – maybe more toward the gamblers (think World Series of Poker) and at the same time the rest of the public as the curtain is lifted on something many people don't know much about.

Post Time: Out of the cadre of handicappers on the show, who impressed you the most?

Rotondo: Not to disparage my fellow cast-mates but Christian Hellmers impressed me the most. He is an amazing handicapper, exceptional tournament player and literally operates on a different "level" than everyone else. You'll have to watch to see what I'm talking about!

Post Time: Is there talk of a second season?

Rotondo: Not yet. I'm just trying to get thru Tuesday!

Gene Kershner, a Buffalo-based turf writer, is a member of the National Turf Writers and Broadcasters Association, and tweets @EquiSpace.

Post Time: Friday racing notebook

By Gene Kershner

The Eclipse Award finalists were announced on Wednesday morning and there were not a lot of surprises within the nominations for horse racing's year end laurels. The winners will be announced at the annual Eclipse Awards at Gulfstream Park on Saturday, Jan. 18. A list of the three finalists in each division can be found here. The three finalists for Horse of the Year (HOY) are Wise Dan, Mucho Macho Man and Will Take Charge. I posted a look at my ballot last weekend on this blog.

Some thoughts as we start heading down the Derby trail….

- My ballot wasn't too far off of the announced finalists. The one category where my top horse wasn't even on the finalists list was in the Female Sprinter category where I went with the full body of work of Cluster of Stars. My other two selections Dance to Bristol and Groupie Doll both made the final cut.

- Lots of noise surrounding the Older Male category and the inclusion of Wise Dan, who ironically won last year's Eclipse in this category. Some of the voters that have been around for some time seem to think that this is a category strictly for dirt horses.  Funny, I can't seem to find that anywhere, maybe someone can point me to where it says this category excludes turf horses?

- Interesting that Will Take Charge's late season heroics bumped him into the top three for HOY over Game on Dude, who had a solid season with his only clunker being the BC Classic.

- Glad to see my jockey selection Gary Stevens make the cut after the tremendous comeback year. He probably won't win it based on the pure numbers of Javier Castellano, but good to see him be recognized.

- Not sure why the industry announced the finalists on the same day as the Baseball Hall of Fame inductees. Why not pick a slow news day and avoid something that will dominate the sports headlines like something as controversial as the baseball hall?

- Sad that the Sham Stakes, a Derby points race at Santa Anita this Saturday, drew only four horses, three of which are trained by Eclipse finalist Bob Baffert.

- Speaking of the Run for the Roses, last month, Churchill Downs started the process of erecting a massive $12 million video board that will be 171 feet wide and sit 80 feet above the ground. It 90-foot board will utilize advanced ultra-high definition 4K technology and will be the largest outdoor screen in the world.

- Buffalo Raceway opens tomorrow night after canceling both Wednesday and tonight's races. First post is 6:40 p.m. and a new announcer, Michael Carter, will be calling the races from the Hamburg oval.

Gene Kershner, a Buffalo-based turf writer, is a member of the National Turf Writers and Broadcasters Association, and tweets @EquiSpace.

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About Sports, Ink

Budd Bailey

Budd Bailey

Budd Bailey has served in a variety of roles in Buffalo sports in the past 35 years, including reporter, talk-show host, baseball announcer, public relations staffer and author. He covers the Bandits and running for The News when not working as an editor.

@WDX2BB | bbailey@buffnews.com

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