Teresa Genaro is a high school English teacher and freelance turf writer whose work has appeared in a variety of turf publications. A former and erstwhile resident of Saratoga Springs, she lives in Brooklyn and writes about New York racing at Brooklyn Backstretch.
This is where it begins. Since 1875 racing fans have flocked to Churchill Downs to watch The Derby -- yes, it's in Kentucky, but we need no modifier. It's The Derby.
Back home in New York, we watch with keen eyes for the winner, for that horse that we hope will become the 12th Triple Crown winner, the first in 34 years, the horse will bring home one of sport's most elusive prizes on our home turf.
We also watch to see how our hometown horses do, those horses that spend much of the year in New York, or the ones that have come to visit and added their names to New York racing history.
This year's Derby isn't short of either of them; if you're a New York racing fan, you've got plenty to root for.
Alpha broke his maiden at first asking last summer at Saratoga for trainer Kiaran McLaughlin and Godolphin Stable. The homebred son of Bernardini has done little wrong in his six lifetime races, five of them over New York strips, the last a neck loss to Gemologist in the Grade 1 Resorts World Casino New York City Wood Memorial. With three wins and two seconds to his credit, New York racing fans have reason to hope that he'll bring roses home to New York and give McLaughlin his first Kentucky Derby victory.
Gemologist, the horse that beat Alpha in the Wood, doesn't boast quite the same New York pedigree. His only start in the Empire State came in the Wood, but he made it a memorable one, running his record to a perfect five-for-five. Trained by Todd Pletcher and owned by Winstar Farm, he hails from the same connections as 2010 Derby winner Super Saver. The only time Gemologist was tested was in the Wood; his tenacity in holding off Alpha will serve him well in a much bigger, much tougher field at Churchill Downs.
Hansen has no New York-based connections, and this nearly white son of Tapit could rightly be called an invader when he shipped to New York to win the Grade 3 Gotham Stakes in March. The reigning 2-year-old champion is owned by Kentucky-based Dr. Kendall Hansen and Sky Chai Racing; he's trained by Michael Maker. His Gotham was noteworthy in that he showed a new dimension, winning from just off the pace instead of on the lead for the first time; should that versatility help him to prevail on Saturday, we'll be able to look at that Gotham as an essential step in his racing maturity. And any horse that wins the Gotham is granted honorary New Yorker status.
Trinniberg and his connections are based in Florida, but they've sure made themselves at home in New York. He looked like a winner in the slop in the Grade 1 Hopeful at Saratoga before giving way late to Spa native Terri Pompay's Currency Swap, losing by less than a length at odds of nearly 70-1. Last out, he was an easy winner of the Grade 3 Bay Shore, leading, as is his wont, every step of the way. Having never raced beyond seven furlongs, he may not be able to carry his speed a mile and a quarter, but if Trinniberg somehow manages to carry the roses, we can say we knew him when.
Based in Maryland, Union Rags lit up both Saratoga and Belmont as a 2-year-old. A seven-length victory in the Grade 2 Saratoga Special stamped him as one to watch, and he didn't disappoint in the Grade 1 Champagne two months later, romping by more than five lengths. His trainer, Michael Matz, and owners, Chadds Ford Stable, both call the mid-Atlantic home, but he commanded the stage in New York last year, and he's got no shortage of fans who'll be rooting for him on Saturday.
Went the Day Well hasn't spent much, if any, time in New York since 2009, but he was born here and that makes him one of us. This well-traveled colt has spent time in Ireland, England, Kentucky, and Florida, but he got his start in the Empire State. He's owned by Team Valor, trained by Graham Motion, and ridden by John Velazquez, the team behind last year's Derby winner, Animal Kingdom, and they hope that he'll become only the second New York-bred to win this country's most famous race.
So this weekend, embrace Kentucky's traditions: make yourself a mint julep, sing along to "My Old Kentucky Home." But when the gates open, keep your eye on the New Yorkers and hope that in five weeks, we're rooting for one of them to wear white carnations and make racing history.
So back a few weeks ago, we looked at some trends in the Belmont over the last 20 years.
How did the 2011 renewal live up to those trends? Let’s take a look.
Said trainer Dale Romans after the Preakness: “You know, Woody Stephens said a long time ago, Belmont is a speed horse's race.”
Perhaps. Perhaps. Not this year, though, to the disappointment of Shackleford’s many fans. That quotation didn’t influence many bettors, though, as he was sent off as the fourth choice, at odds of 6.30-1.
I noted that eight horses in the last 20 years had won the race by sitting close to the pace. Make that nine…Ruler On Ice was never more than a length from the lead.
In the last 20 years, only one winner has led wire to wire. Sorry, Shackleford.
The Belmont has offered generous prices over the last two decades, and this year was no exception. Ruler On Ice crushed the 20-year average payout of $15.30, paying $51.50; the previous high payout was Commendable’s $39.60 in 2000.
And take a look at this…I wrote:
“As for attendance…in non-Triple Crown years, an average of 52, 082 have turned out for New York’s biggest racing day. When the winners of the Kentucky Derby and the Preakness show up, so do an average of an additional 3,000 fans.”
Saturday attendance was 55,779. Not bad, eh? We should have been taking prop bets on that one.
The Kentucky Derby and Preakness winners have met in the Belmont five times since 1991, with the Preakness winner taking the Belmont four of those times. The Preakness winner finished ahead of the Derby winner again this year, but neither came near crossing the wire first. One can’t help but wonder, though, how different the outcome might have been had not Animal Kingdom stumbled so badly at the start.
The weather gods were not kind to Belmont on this damp, chilly, and at times miserable Saturday. But even as people shivered and sought warm spaces in this place’s massive expanse (the Heritage Bar might have been the most popular spot in the place), they refused to let weather deter their pleasure.
Even when races started way back on the other side of the track, the crowd cheered at the break. Horses returning to the winner’s circle received ovations. And when the sounds of Frank Sinatra wafted through Belmont before the big race, nearly 56,000 racing fans joined in, audible even from above the crowd.
If you were here, I hope that you had a great day and that you cashed plenty of tickets. If you weren’t, you’ve got a year to plan for Belmont 2012.
Thanks for reading, thanks for commenting, and see you next year.
In April, I got an e-mail from a couple who were coming to New York this week to watch a filly of theirs race at Belmont. We didn’t know each other; they’d read Brooklyn Backstretch and thought that perhaps, as a New Yorker, I could offer some travel advice.
Leigh and Bob Butler and I have corresponded regularly since then, sharing travel stories and feline stories and racing stories. They arrive tomorrow and on Saturday, they’ll make their first trip to Belmont Park.
The filly that they are coming to watch is Turbulent Descent.
She’s coming to Belmont to race in the TVG Acorn, bringing a record of five wins from six starts; she was second in her only loss. She’ll be trying to record her third Grade 1 win of the year. Based in California, Turbulent Descent is owned by Blinkers On Racing Stable and trained by Mike Puype.
Leigh and Bob live in Colorado and are on their second round of horse ownership; they owned three horses in small partnerships in the mid 1990’s in northern California. They were living in California at the time, and when they moved, they got out of racing, while still closely following the sport.
The Butlers have collected the paintings of Christine Picavet for several years, and last July, they learned that Picavet was going to sell a painting called “Bluegrass Baby
,” the proceeds of which would go to Southern California Thoroughbred Rescue. They bought the painting, which was being displayed at Del Mar.
Living in Colorado and having been away from the races for a while, they decided to make a trip to Del Mar…which led to their thinking about owning another horse. After researching several partnerships, they settled on Blinkers On.
"We found Turbulent Descent on their website, and based on the video online, we liked her the best,” Leigh recently wrote to me.
“While we were at Del Mar, we drove up to Hollywood Park one morning to see her. I loved her immediately, and I knew when we saw her we had to buy in.”
(File that one under “Good Moves.”)
Leigh and Bob credit “Bluegrass Baby” with getting them back in ownership. “If it weren’t for that painting,” said Leigh, “We wouldn’t own Turbulent Descent.”
The Butlers will arrive Friday; Turbulent Descent got here Tuesday, travelling with her exercise rider Ward Brookfield and groom Martin Correa. Trainer Mike Puype joined her at Belmont later that afternoon.
The Congrats filly took her first step on the Belmont track on Wednesday morning; Blinkers On president Scott Sherwood acknowledged that bringing her here so close to the race is a “little bit of a crapshoot,” but also noted that she arrived at Santa Anita just a few days before the Las Virgenes to get feel a for the surface, without working out over it.
“Mike felt comfortable that she’d get over it just fine. I don’t think the surface is an issue,” said Sherwood.
“She’s better going into this race than any race I’ve ever had her,” declared Puype. “I’m very humble, and I've got a level of confidence in her like none other because she’s just that good.” It does, he conceded, “come down to the equation of the racetrack.”
Watching Correa bathe the filly, Brookfield pointed out a white spot low on her left front leg. “See that?” he asked. “That’s how she got her name.”
On Turbulent Descent’s flight from the Ocala sale at which she was purchased for $160,000 as a two-year-old, she acted up and ended up with a significant puncture wound. According to Brookfield, it took a long time to heal and the hair never grew back.
"And she didn’t have a name yet,” added Brookfield, “so that’s how she became ‘Turbulent Descent.’”
Six fillies are entered in the Grade 1 TVG Acorn, the sixth race on Saturday’s card. Only one other filly, Victoria’s Wildcat, has a graded stakes win to her credit; that came in the Grade 3 Eight Belles at Churchill Downs.
Bob and Leigh Butler have been present at all of their filly’s races except one. They described their trip to Keeneland, when Turbulent Descent won the Grade 2 Beaumont, as “just a joy.”
They’re looking forward, they told me, to their first trip to Belmont Park, looking forward to seeing, as they put it, the “huge track” and the statue of Secretariat in the paddock.
But mostly – and who could blame them? - they’re looking forward to seeing their filly.
Marshall Cassidy’s is the first voice that I remember at the racetrack.
My family and I moved to Saratoga in 1978, and I attended my first Thoroughbred race either that year or the following one. The first race I remember attending was General Assembly’s Travers
, in 1979.
That was the year that Marshall Cassidy became the voice of the New York Racing Association. He’d worked at NYRA since 1967, beginning as a Pinkerton, one of those private security guards.
His first assignment? To guard Damascus.
“My job,” he said recently from his home in Saratoga, “was to make sure that no bad guys got to him.”
He lasted a year as a Pinkerton before moving on to be a horse identifier and then to work in the racing department. He became the assistant announcer to Dave Johnson in 1972.
“I never considered,” he said, “doing anything except working at the racetrack.”
And given his pedigree, that’s hardly a surprise.
The Cassidy family has worked at New York tracks since the 19th century, when the current Marshall Cassidy’s great-great-grandfather Mars Cassidy was a starter at tracks like the old Aqueduct and Gravesend from 1894 – 1929. Mars’s son George took over then, starting races until about 1981.
Mars also had a son named Marshall, who also had a son named Marshall, and that is the Marshall of whom we speak today. He called his first Belmont in 1979.
“We all thought Spectacular Bid was going to be a Triple Crown,” he recalled. “We all thought that until they hit the top of the stretch.”
He acknowledged that he can have two levels of awareness as he calls a race, particularly if he’s got a rooting interest. He’s not a gambler, but he admitted that he did attach himself to horses emotionally, listing Pleasant Colony, Alysheba, and Easy Goer among his favorites.
“As Sunday Silence and Easy Goer came racing around the turn,” he said, “it looked like they were going to hook up. I had my fingers crossed behind my back, and holy cow, he came on and beat him.”
Cassidy left the booth in 1990 and worked as a NYRA steward for six years before leaving the track to work with the Jockey Club in developing the official race program for Equibase.
“I enjoyed starting up a brand new enterprise,” he said, “trying to make things efficient, to achieve accuracy with other people’s work, working with the print shop and a whole new technology.”
“It was exciting,” he said, “but not like announcing.”
He named Fred “Cappy” Caposella, Harry Henson, and Joe Hernandez as race callers he admires, though saying with a tinge of regret, “Cappy would be considered boring by today’s standards.”
Since 2005 Cassidy has worked as a placing judge during the Saratoga meet. None of his children has followed him into the racing business… “at my insistence,” he says (jokingly?). They are teachers, information technology technicians, business people.
But he says, “I had an awfully good time in the business, and I enjoy stepping back in occasionally now. The racetrack is a wonderful place to work with animals, to smell them, to be around them.
“I’m privileged to spend my life with them.”