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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.

Turbulent Descent's Smooth Ride

Thursday, June 09, 2011

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.”

Last month, two-time champion Open Mind was elected to racing’s Hall of Fame, joining Safety Kept and Sky Beauty as this year’s equine inductees. A New Jersey-bred with a Maryland sire, Open Mind first made her racing mark in the mid-Atlantic, but it was in New York that she became a star.

Speaking in the Belmont Café last Saturday morning, Kiaran McLaughlin reminisced about training the daughter of Deputy Minister and 1989 Triple Tiara winner. He was working for D. Wayne Lukas in 1988, managing the trainer’s stable at Monmouth Park, when he got a call from Lukas’s New York assistant, Randy Bradshaw.  “He called me and said, ‘I have a really nice Jersey-bred filly up here.  She should probably go to you.” 

“OK, great,” is how McLaughlin remembered his response. 

Open Mind “didn’t train like a superstar,” said McLaughlin, but she won her first start by five lengths in a New Jersey-bred maiden special weight.  Impressed by the victory, he entered her next in a New Jersey-bred stakes race, which she won by a neck, defeating a filly named Ms. Gold Pole. 

Deputy Minister stood in Maryland, making Open Mind eligible for the Maryland Million, so she was pointed next to the Lassie at Laurel.

“At that time,” McLaughlin remembered, “there wasn’t simulcasting. I stayed at Monmouth to run in a big race, and I sent a foreman to saddle Open Mind.”

McLaughlin called that foreman to learn that Ms. Gold Pole had turned the tables on his filly, winning the Lassie by four and a half lengths. Open Mind was second.

“What was so neat, though,” McLaughlin said this week, “is that Ms. Gold Pole was first, Open Mind was second…and a filly called Safely Kept was third.

“And now two of them are going in the Hall of Fame, and they came out of a Maryland-sired two-year-old race.”

Open Mind came home to New Jersey after that race, to prepare for a fall campaign that would include a nose loss in the Frizette at Belmont and victories in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Fillies and Demoiselle. In six starts at two, Open Mind had four wins and two seconds. She would be named champion two-year-old filly. 

“When we won the Breeders’ Cup,” said McLaughlin, “we all got rings, like Super Bowl rings. And Wayne put ‘McLaughlin’ on Open Mind’s ring. I still have it. It was nice of Wayne to do that.”

Open Mind’s victory in the Juvenile Fillies marked the start of a 10-race winning streak, all of them stakes races, all but one graded. And four of those wins came in New York, as Open Mind became the third horse to win the Triple Tiara and the Alabama.

Though the Acorn is now run on Belmont day, a complement to the featured race for three-year-old colts, in 1989 it was run on May 27, two weeks before the Belmont. Open Mind won that first leg of the Triple Tiara so decisively that, according to Steven Crist in the New York Times, her connections mulled running her back against the boys in the Belmont Stakes.

“It's hard to say whether or not we'll run,'' said Jeff Lukas in the Times. ''It was not in our original plans. It's just something in the back of our minds. Absolutely, today will influence our decision. She's just an incredible filly.”

Hindsight being flawless, the Lukas camp obviously made the right decision, given Easy Goer’s dominance in the Belmont that year and the place in history that Open Mind secured with her campaign. 

Crist called her Alabama “the race of the meeting” at Saratoga, and she won eight straight Grade 1 races to close out her sophomore campaign (in one, the Coaching Club American Oaks, she was put up through disqualification after finishing second by a nose), en route to being voted champion for the second consecutive year.

Twelve years later, McLaughlin puts Open Mind in some pretty impressive company, comparing her to another champion he trained.  “She just came and would get there and win. Many years later, Invasor would do the same thing. I’d say, ‘She’s going to get there. She would just get there.

“She didn’t win every race, but it always felt like she was going to get there.”

So What Can We Expect?

Thursday, May 26, 2011

So once again, we head to Belmont without a Triple Crown on the line. For a few moments in that long stretch at Pimlico, it looked like that the big, sandy oval in Elmont would host racing’s biggest party on June 11, but a determined, gutsy Shackleford held off Animal Kingdom, and so, on we go.

But there’s good news: following the Preakness, the connections of both Animal Kingdom and Shackleford indicated that they were thinking favorably of racing back in two and a half weeks; for only the fifth time in the last 20 years, we might have a race that pits the Derby winner and the Preakness winner against each other.

So what can we expect? Not that past performances will have any bearing on what happens at this year’s Belmont, and I hesitate to even consider the possibility of Animal Kingdom and Shackleford lining up against each other on June 11 (jinxes, superstition, that sort of thing), but I couldn’t resist a dip – OK, a long, deep, submersion – into the Belmont archives to see if we can hazard a few guesses about what might happen in a couple of weeks.

As trainer Dale Romans discussed Shackleford’s chances in a 12-furlong race, he quoted racing legend Woody Stephens, who trained five straight Belmont winners. “You know, Woody Stephens said a long time ago, Belmont is a speed horse's race,” said Romans. He better hope so, and he’s got at least a little history on his side: Eight horses in the last 20 years - Tabasco Cat, Thunder Gulch, Hansel, Touch Gold, Commendable, Point Given, Empire Maker, and A.P. Indy - all won the race by sitting close to the pace. But Animal Kingdom’s connections might be heartened, too, as five of the last 20 winners – Editor’s Note, Jazil, Afleet Alex, Lemon Drop Kid, and Victory Gallop – all came off the pace…though only a few of them from quite so far off as Animal Kingdom seems to like.

If Shackleford wants to take the Test of the Champion, he better be ready to sit back a little and hope that someone else goes for it…in the last 20 years, only one winner has led wire to wire.

That’s right, Da’ Tara, 2008.

We might anticipate some decent payouts. In non-Triple Crown years since 1991, the Belmont winner has paid an average of $15.30. The shortest-priced horse to win was A.P. Indy in 1992, paying $4.20; the biggest payout was Commendable’s $39.60 in 2000. Only three – A.P. Indy, Point Given, and Afleet Alex – paid less than $10.

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. 

And in strict head-to-head competition, the Preakness beats the Kentucky Derby hands down (which is a racing term…any thoughts on its meaning?). The Kentucky Derby and Preakness winners have met in the Belmont five times since 1991:  1991, Strike the Gold and Hansel; 1993, Sea Hero and Prairie Bayou; 1994, Go for Gin and Tabasco Cat; 2001, Monarchos and Point Given; 2005, Giacomo and Afleet Alex.

In four of those five meetings, the Preakness winner – Hansel, Tabasco Cat, Point Given, and Afleet Alex – defeated the Derby winner. The one Preakness winner who lost, Prairie Bayou, sadly broke down during the race.

Twice – in 1991 and 1994 – the Kentucky Derby winner filled out the exacta: Hansel/Strike the Gold paid $39.20; Tabasco Cat/Go For Gin paid $19.20. Sea Hero finished seventh, Monarchos third, and Giacomo seventh. The Point Given/A P Valentine/Monarchos triple paid $76.

So let’s hope that Animal Kingdom and Shackleford both show up, and let’s hope that a live longshot joins the crowd to fill out a juicy trifecta…mutuel clerk, make mine a $1 triple box…

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