Wednesday, July 7, 2010

Mainstream Mayhem

In the Thoroughbred industry, the media has a key role to play in bridging the gap between newsmakers and fans. It is a journalist’s duty to report the facts so as to keep audiences well informed. With well-informed audiences, we will maintain interest and grow fans, which spawn industry participants and people that inject money into our sport.

Informing of fans is largely achieved through trade publications, but when the opportunity arises to promote the industry and the sport in the mainstream media, it is the journalist’s duty to take full advantage of that opportunity.

With the 151st running of the Queen’s Plate on July 4, we had the perfect chance. The presence of Queen Elizabeth II for the first time since 1997 seemed to provide Woodbine a much needed revival, bringing fans out in throngs. These fans wagered the second largest daily amount in Woodbine history. The grandstand, apron, and paddock areas on July 4 were much more crowded that this blogger has ever seen in eight years of attending races at the Toronto track.

The Queen offered a bridge between racing circles and the general public, an opportunity that should have been seized by sports writers to publicize the hell out of horse racing. While there were some solid articles written for mainstream publications, it was the following article that caught my attention, and must be addressed:

Bill Lankhof is a columnist for Sun Media. In a column, a certain amount of opinion and ridicule is acceptable (although spelling and grammatical errors are never acceptable). This article, however, appeared in numerous local newspapers around Ontario as the only post race coverage of the Queen’s Plate. This is not a news article.  

The focus from the lead is on attendance issues at Woodbine, and when the focus finally turns to where it belongs (on Big Red Mike), Lankhof delves into a discussion of the gelding’s attitude and antics, most of which occurred before his win in the Plate Trial Stakes three weeks ago (Big Red Mike was considerably well behaved on Plate day). No where in his story does Lankhof mention that Big Red Mike has never been off the board in six starts, including two stakes wins, and that he is an incredibly gutsy gelding who campaigns for wonderful, hardworking connections who all more than deserved this win.

It is obvious that racing is facing issues regarding track attendance, and I am in full support of exploiting and dissecting those issues; it is the only way to reach a resolution. But I also believe there is a time and a place, such as within industry circles and trade publications. When we have the opportunity to promote our sport and product in the mainstream media (a chance that is increasingly rare), it is vital that we report the aspects of our sport that will interest the public. And there are plenty of opportunities for this. Racing has no shortage of colourful personalities, human or equine, with charming stories that will generate interest. If we are interested in seeing our industry survive, one of the most basic ways to do so is to create fans. Because without fans there are no bettors or industry participants, and without these people, there is no money. You do the math.

Friday, July 2, 2010

More Carolyn

So you may have noticed I'm writing a lot about Carolyn Costigan this week. Yes, I'm a journalist and I'm supposed to be unbiased, but what can I say, I think she's awesome! Earlier this week, I posted part of an interview I did with Carolyn where we discussed the future of racing and social media. Below is the part of the interview where she talks about her experience with horses, Roan Inish, and her training techniques. Enjoy!

KNR: Can you tell me a little more about the training you did with Roan Inish leading up to the Oaks? A lot of people were concerned that she only had one seven furlong prep this year leading up to this race, but you didn’t seem concerned at all.

CC: No, because when I was in Ireland I was experiencing that firsthand. You’ll see horses that are trained into classic races and that’s because the trainer is doing the training, they’re not relying on races to put fitness into a horse, but they say that a race is the equivalent of having four or five fast works, so you’re getting to that fitness level quicker. I had had her out in California, so I’d started a base on her already. The Fury was too short for her, seven furlongs is too short. When she came out of it I was able to get a grasp on the level of fitness that it gave her, and if it didn’t give her enough fitness for what I needed her to be for the Oaks, then I would have run in the La Lorgnette. Horses are fragile creatures. A friend of mine that worked for me in California, she said that one of Wayne Lukas’s quotes is, “horses are like strawberries, they go bad overnight.” So when you have a good horse, you have to pick and choose your races. There’s no point in wasting a race on a race that was $150,000, when I wanted her to win a $500,000 race. And then it comes down to the confidence that you can do that, and that you aren’t worried about what other people are saying. I was given the confidence and the not worrying about other people by working for Jim (Bolger). He doesn’t give a hoot what anyone thinks. He does his own thing. When you work for somebody like that, it rubs off. So I was confident in my ability, and confident that I didn’t care what other people thought.

KNR: And she’s obviously come through on the two most important days, the Princess Elizabeth and the Oaks. It probably made a huge difference too with you being able to get on her everyday and be able to feel how fit she was and where she was at.

CC: Exactly. You don’t know that if you’re not on them, and you’re relying on the communication of your rider. I don’t have the numbers or the need for a top quality exercise rider at the moment, because I’m able to do that myself. But someday I’m going to need a good top quality exercise riders that’s able to communicate in a way that the two of us understand what we’re talking about. And that’s just finding the right person and paying them enough.

KNR: I remember you saying to Bill Tallon yesterday about how getting on your own horses was one of the most important lessons that you took away from Jim Bolger as well.

CC: Yes. He rode his horses up until a couple years ago. I mean, he’s 68 or 67 right now.

KNR: Can you tell me a little bit about why Roan Inish began her career in Ireland? I know you were over there at the time, but just exactly what the thought process behind that was?

CC: I knew that I would be coming to Canada to write my trainers exam, and that I would be having my first full season this year, and it wouldn’t do any harm to have one of my horses in the stable that I knew everything about, that wasn’t in training with a different trainer, and the filly was a yearling turning two, and my dad just said to me over the phone, “where do you think I should send this horse, to which trainer?” And I said quite honest, the only trainer that I think is worth any salt, worth their weight, in the world, is Jim (Bolger). He said, “alright, I’ll send her there, then you’ll know everything about her when you start training her.”

KNR: Of the horses that you currently have, did you have just her over there?

CC: Yes, just her. And she’s got lovely breeding, we own the dam, and we just thought if we could add something a little bit exotic to the mare’s page, ie. the horse wins some races in Ireland or Europe, you’re just doing something a bit more proactive for the broodmare’s pedigree.

KNR: Going back a bit, I wonder if you could explain to me a little about when you started getting involved with horses, at a young age, and then when you got into Thoroughbreds?

CC: I always loved horses, and I went to school with the idea that I would do pre med courses and become a vet, but my physics grades weren’t high enough. You probably know that becoming a veterinarian in Canada is probably the hardest course to get into.

CC: We got our first racehorse when I was probably 13. It was four years before we saw the inside of the winner’s circle. We’d go to the races at Hastings Park and we were the best dressed people there. But the horses were useless. So we learned the right way, because when you have the winners right away you think it’s easy, and it’s not an easy game. The lows can be long and painful, so you’ve gotta enjoy the wins. My parents are enjoying the Oaks win so much. We know what it’s like to be in a lull.

KNR: Who was the first really good horse that you worked around?

CC: I was with Arravale when she was being broken. I learned how to break yearlings at Windfields Farm in Oshawa. And she was one of the yearlings being broken at the time. The guy that was in charge of the yearlings there, his name was John Neville. He was an older Englishman. He broke the yearlings in a format that I would see again later when I was on Darley’s course, because he did it the English way, which is also the Irish way, and in some places in the world they like to do it a little quicker, and they take some shortcuts, and it doesn’t always work out. And I’m thankful that I learned the right way.

KNR: What age was it that you came to Windfields?

CC: Probably 2004.

KNR: How long did you work at Windfields before you did the National Stud?

CC: I went to Windfields, and I really hadn’t done too much hands on work with horses at that stage. I was kind of thrown into the deep end. They were one week away from the yearling sales here at Woodbine, and I was given a pitchfork and told, “muck out those six boxes, and keep up with us while we muck out.” I had a very rude awakening. And the following weekend we were at the sales, and my feet were covered in blisters after the first day. I remember I climbed into bed after the first day at the sales, and I was in tears. I thought, “I don’t know how I’m going to work the rest of the week at this sale.” But I did. Then I spent the winter at Windfields, and I had a great time. Because once you start working that hard and doing physical labour, then you have a new appreciation for the people who do that job, and you know how much work is involved, and a level of pride comes into it. And you understand what it is to show a yearling that the work has gone into that yearling, and what it is for the groom to lead up their horses to the races. This is their horse. This horse looks good because of me. I think it’s so important that you experience that first hand and know what those people go through when you’re employing them, and that they really care about their horses, they get attached to them, you know. You want the horses to do well for them, because they go through the highs and lows as well. 

Artic Fern Injury Still Unclear

Gustav Schickedanz's Artic Fern, the early favourite for the July 4 Queen's Plate after winning three consecutive races in 2010, is undergoing tests to determine the cause of the lameness that resulted in him being withdrawn from consideration for the Plate earlier this week.

Artic Fern, a three-year-old son of Langfuhr - Wood Fern, by Woodman, came up sore in his left foreleg the morning after his final work in advance of the Queen's Plate on June 27. He was declared out of the $1 million Plate the following morning by trainer Mike Keogh.

According to Lauri Kenny, the farm manager for Schickedanz's Schonberg Farm, Artic Fern left Woodbine Racetrack on June 29 for the Toronto Equine Hospital, where he underwent a nuclear scintigraphy the next day. During a scintigraphy, the animal is injected with radioactive isotopes which light up hot spots on the bones. Two hot spots were found on the lame leg of Artic Fern: one on the shin, and other on the pastern.

It is unclear at this point what exactly the injury is. Artic Fern was vanned back to Woodbine Racetrack the morning of July 2, and will undergo a blocking process in the next few days. During blocking, nerves are injected with a blocking agent that will mask pain. If the lameness disappears after a specific nerve is injected, that will determine the area of the injury.

Plate on the Brain

I've been typing hard this week turning out stories for, and here are the results!

Sam-Son Trying to Win 6th Queen's Plate

It's been a great week back in the press box writing, interviewing, and researching. Thanks to The Blood-Horse for publishing my work!

Happy Canada Day!

Meet Emile Ramsammy. In addition to being one of the leading riders at Woodbine Racetrack, Emile is also one of the Toronto oval's most colourful personalities. Ever festive, Emile rides in costume each Halloween, and he is well known for dying his hair for the silks of his Queen's Plate mount each year. In 2006, Emile won the Queen's Plate aboard Edenwold while sporting orange hair.

Not surprisingly, Emile showed up to this year's Queen's Plate draw on July 1 dressed for the occasion (Canada Day).

Emile rides Mobthewarrior in the July 4 Queen's Plate. Can we expect to see his hair a hue of green for the silks of owner Andrew Fredericks, or will he break tradition and instead celebrate the corresponding American holiday? We will find out.

Thanks for playing, Emile!

Queen's Plate Interviews: Rick Balaz

As the president of Sam-Son Farm since 2008, Rick Balaz has engineered many changes to the Sam-Son program while maintaining the tradition of the strong Sam-Son turf families. I sat down yesterday with Balaz at the Queen's Plate post position draw to discuss Sam-Son Farm and its three Plate entries, and here's what he had to say:

KNR: The success that you’ve experienced since you’ve been managing the operation, how does that feel to you both professionally and personally?

RB: It’s awful. No, it feels great. But really, what I get a lot of gratification from I think is, the success is fantastic, but we’ve made a lot of changes in our management style and I think seeing that that has worked, and bringing a lot of other people into the decision making has made a big difference for us.

KNR: Can you tell me a bit about those changes you’re talking about?

RB: Yeah. Mark Frostad has always been a big part of our operation, and he still is. We do have some horses with a couple of other trainers, but Mark is still the key guy for Sam-Son. The big difference is really, the training of the horses before they get to the track. We’ve involved a lot more people who have been at the farm for a long time. We take a lot more time to prepare the horses before we send them to the track, and I think it’s made a big difference as far as the resilience of the horses when they get here, they seem to be lasting a lot longer, we’re not having the kinds of breakdowns or issues we had in the past, although, you know, it’s horse racing. But I think that’s made a big difference getting the horses to the races, they have a better chance to win. We also involve Dave Whitford who runs our Milton farm with a lot of that decision making process of sort of when we’re going to ship the horses, are they ready. You know, ultimately Mark makes the decisions once they get here, but it’s just all that stuff that happens behind the scenes that’s working a lot better for us now.

KNR: Who are the other trainers you have now?

RB: Malcolm Pierce has some horses for us, and we have one with Neil Howard down in the States.

KNR: The horses you have here for the Plate, they all come from strong Sam-Son families, and it’s obviously the fact that they’ve all been able to get here, it’s a testament to how strong those families are and how strong they’ve remained over the years.

RB: Absolutely. It’s a great legacy. We started with my late wife Tammy’s death, and we focused on breeding the best to the best, and this is what we ended up with.

KNR: With your breeding program, what type of horse are you trying to breed? What traits do you look for in your racehorses?

RB: Well, you know, typically if you look at a lot of our horses, they end up being very good turf horses, and that’s just kind of from our families, but you know, now we’re looking to become a little more commercial going forward, we’d like to have good horses, dirt horses. If we can’t run them ourselves we’d like to have horses that people would be interested in commercially. So we’re looking at changing our focus that way a little bit, you know, ultimately if you can breed an Eye of the Sphynx to an A.P. Indy, how much better can you be?

KNR: And that’s obviously working.

RB: That’s working so far, yep.

KNR: You guys have the chance to have back-to-back siblings winning the Queen’s Plate for the second time in 10 years.

RB: That would be nice. Yeah, that would be like winning the lottery.

Thursday, July 1, 2010

Plate Posts Are In

Beneath a bright sun July 1 at Woodbine Racetrack, the connections of the 13 horses entered for the 151st running of the Queen's Plate gathered in the paddock to select their post positions for the July 4 race. The event was emceed by track announcer Dan Loiselle, with Canadian olympic medallist Alexandre Bilodeau serving as the guest drawmaster.

The first draw was for the selection sequence, which turned out as follows:

1. Smart Sky
2. Ghost Fleet
3. Big Red Mike
4. Roan Inish
5. Dark Cloud Dancer
6. Mobilizer
7. Giant's Tomb
8. Hotep
9. Mobthewarrior
10. Moment of Majesty
11. D's Wando
12. Who We Gunna Call
13. Vicar Street

After a two minute consultation period, the connections selected their positions:

1. Vicar Street, 30-1
2. Who We Gunna Call, 30-1
3. D's Wando, 20-1
4. Dark Cloud Dancer, 15-1
5. Big Red Mike, 6-1
6. Smart Sky, 30-1
7. Ghost Fleet, 20-1
8. Giant's Tomb, 12-1
9. Mobilizer, 7-2
10. Roan Inish, 9-2
11. Hotep, 3-1
12. Mobthewarrior, 10-1
13. Moment of Majesty, 12-1

I will spend the next few days tangling with my choices, but at this junction I have two sentimental choices and two logic choices. My sentimental picks are D's Wando and Mobthewarrior, both of which I helped raise and sale prep two years ago. My logic choices are Mobilizer and Roan Inish. Roan Inish trainer Carolyn Costigan has proven that she and her star filly can never be ignored, and I believe it would be foolish to overlook them now. Mobilizer is a horse that struck me from the beginning, and I believe he would have gotten a lot out of his Plate Trial runner-up effort. Attfield adds blinkers for this race.

Here are some photos from the July 1 draw:

Robert Costigan silks.

Emcee Dan Loiselle with guest drawmaster Alexandre Bilodeau.

Our beautiful racetrack.