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Week in Review
Week in Review: More Clairiere vs. Travel Column Rivalries, Please
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By T. D. ThorntonTurn the clock back a dozen years and recall when a fledgling filly parlayed a November win in the GII Golden Rod S. into a torrid nine-stakes win streak that culminated in Horse of the Year honors. That filly, of course, was Rachel Alexandra. Now it's 2021, and the Fair Grounds annually honors Rachel Alexandra's brief (one win, one second) tenure in New Orleans with a Grade II stakes race in mid-February. Saturday's edition just so happened to feature the one-two fillies from the Nov. 28 Golden Rod S. at Churchill Downs, a race that stood out as the most visually impressive two-turn stakes of 2020 in the juvenile fillies division. Three months ago, 'TDN Rising Star' Travel Column (Frosted) overcame a slow start and multiple logjams in the stretch to bull past fast-finishing Clairiere (Curlin) in the shadow of the wire. The final clocking of that 1 1/16 miles stakes was .54 seconds faster than Triple Crown-aspiring males ran one race later in the GII Kentucky Jockey Club S., signaling both fillies (separated by only a length) might be worth watching down the road. Not surprisingly, Travel Column was backed to even-money favoritism in the 3-year-old debut for both rivals in the Rachel Alexandra, while Clairiere went off as the 2-1 second choice. Travel Column, a poised speedstress, broke running from her outside stall and asserted herself near the head of the field with a three-wide bid into the clubhouse turn. Clairiere, comfortable rating from a touch farther off the pace than in previous starts, broke inward from the one hole and hit the gate, so jockey Joe Talamo allowed the bay to settle into stride by her lonesome, eighth and last at the fence. Travel Column led the main body of the pack while sitting second down the backstretch, six lengths behind a 25-1 breakaway pacemaker who would eventually fade to last. The favorite appeared primed to pounce while getting a gift of a trip, but nemesis Clairiere more arrestingly caught the eye as she began building a wave of momentum five furlongs out with a well-measured uncoiling from the back of the pack that belied her two races of experience. Rail-running Clairiere inhaled half the field by the time the pack tightened up at the half-mile pole, but Talamo had to tap the brakes a touch over the next furlong because she was momentarily hemmed in. When he cued Clairiere to quicken three-eighths out, her response was instant, and the two shot up the reopened rail on the prowl after Travel Column, who by the midway point on the turn had seized first run on the wilting speed and was obviously the filly to beat. Turning for home, Talamo expertly vacated the rail and split foes to avoid getting trapped behind the caving pacemaker, then switched back to the fence in upper stretch to keep from running up on the heels of Travel Column. Initially, the body language of the two fillies and the actions of their riders appeared to favor Travel Column, because the even-striding gray had yet to be fully set down by Florent Geroux while Talamo was already imploring Clairiere for more after she had already given plenty. In fact, Talamo's decision to switch to Clairiere to the outside of Travel Column at the eighth pole initially had a “one lateral move too many” look to it. But when Clairiere clearly saw her target and took off in determined pursuit, it amounted to a fourth distinct move over the course of a prolonged five-furlong drive, a remarkable in-race tactical progression that is unusual for a newly turned 3-year-old filly to accomplish so deftly. And it wasn't like Clairiere was reeling in a tired filly, either. Both finished well, but Clairiere finished better. Her winning margin of a neck was augmented by a confident gallop-out that kept her rival at bay well past the wire. Clairiere's final time for 1 1/16 miles was 1:45.34. She was initially assigned a provisional 83 Beyer Speed Figure (same number as her Golden Rod second), but by Sunday that Beyer got adjusted upward to an 85. Interestingly, the final eighth for the Rachel Alexandra clocked in at 6.28 seconds, slightly faster than the 6.36 final furlong that undefeated older male Maxfield (Street Sense) ran in the same-distance GIII Mineshaft S. two races earlier on the card. Clairiere is owned and bred by Stonestreet Stables and trained by Steve Asmussen, the same connections who acquired Rachel Alexandra after her 20 1/4-length dismantling of the 2009 GI Kentucky Oaks field. She then, in succession, won the GI Preakness S., GI Mother Goose S., GI Haskell Invitational S. and GI Woodward S. Clairiere is now on a path that could very well lead to an Oaks berth. She's certainly bred to cover a distance of ground–both her sire, Curlin, and damsire, Bernardini, were Preakness  victors (among other multiple Grade I stakes they won up to 10 furlongs), and her dam, Cavorting, was a MGISW up to nine furlongs for Stonestreet. Clairiere shouldn't be saddled with expectations of turning into another Rachel Alexandra. But right now she and Travel Column are supplying the sport with something sorely lacking across almost every division–a competitive, evenly matched rivalry that is fun to watch play out from race to race. The 1-2-3 finishers from last November's GI Breeders' Cup Juvenile Fillies have yet to start as 3-year-olds, but these two have already hooked up twice in that interim, delivering a spectacular show on both occasions. Here's rooting for another rematch in the near future.
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NYRA Looks Out for Its Customer; Good for Them
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The Week in Review by Bill Finley It's not often in this sport that John Q. Horseplayer gets a break, but that's exactly what happened last week when it was revealed that NYRA was no longer accepting bets from the so-called computer-assisted wagering (CAW) players on its Empire Six wager. The Empire Six wager joined the Cross Country Pick 5 and the late Pick 5 as NYRA wagers that are no longer available to the CAW players. The computer players use algorithms that predict the probability of a particular outcome. If their programs tell them that a horse has a 50-50 chance of winning and is 3-1 they will bet accordingly. They use the same methods for most pools and bet huge amounts of money. Because they receive rebates in the neighborhood of 10%, they don't even have to show a profit on their bets, just as long as their rebates are bigger than their losses. The number of bettors out there using these methods is minimal, no more than six or seven groups. But they bet so much money that they can severely tilt the pools and drive down prices by significant numbers. The Thoroughbred Idea Foundation estimates that CAW play accounts for as much as 35% of all monies wagered on U.S. racing. That would mean their annual handle is about $3.5 billion. Not that they are doing anything wrong or breaking any rules. These are very smart and innovative people who are willing to risk huge sums of money and have designed computer programs that put them several steps ahead of the average player. A case can be made that they deserve every last nickel they have made betting on racing, not just in the U.S. but around the globe. CAW players are, for obvious reasons, coveted by most American tracks. Tracks make money off of their percentage of the betting handle. Taking a micro view of how the business of racing works, why would any track turn away customers that might be betting tens of millions of dollars every year on their product? If only it were that simple. This is pari-mutuel wagering, gambling's version of survival of the fittest. The successful bettors are taking advantage of the unsuccessful ones. It's their money that they are winning, not the house's money. With the CAW phenomenon, which appears to be growing all the time, betting on the horses has turned into a matter of the whales vs. minnows. The whales have been gobbling up the minnows and after a while all the minnows will be gone. It's already happening. The CAW players are pumping billions into the pools across the country, which is a fairly recent phenomenon, yet handle has been stagnant over recent years when it comes to real numbers and has declined sharply when adjusting for inflation. That can only mean that a lot of those who might bet $20 on a race, $200 on a card and play the races once or twice a week have been driven out of the game. Horseplayers only have so much money to spend on the sport and once you tap them out they are going to move on. The regular players are getting particularly hurt in the jackpot wagers. The pools build up on their losing dollars and are too often scooped up by the CAW players, sometimes on a mandatory payout date. NYRA took a look at this and, obviously, had some concerns. “We are trying to level the playing field with these particular multi-race wagers so it's not tilted towards those folks with distinct advantages, meaning complicated algorithmic trading tools and an extremely high volume,” NYRA spokesman Pat McKenna told Steve Byk on his “At the Races” radio show. McKenna noted that NYRA can operate differently from other tracks because it is a not-for-profit and doesn't always have to adhere to the bottom line. It would be far more difficult for a Churchill Downs track or a Stronach Group track to turn away the CAW money. But even NYRA hasn't gone so far as to ban the CAW players all together. They are still welcome in all other pools and they are the reason why so many horses go into the gate at 4-1 and drop to 8-5 during the running of the race, which is a terrible look for the sport. CAW wagers go directly into the pools and can be played at the very last second. The status quo is not sustainable. Every day that this persists, another casual horseplayer gives up on the game. Racing cannot do without these everyday players. After a while, you're going to have nothing left but whales vs. whales. But good luck trying to get a for-profit track to turn away bettors willing to wager millions on their product. Probably the best anyone can hope for would be for NYRA to extend the exclusion into other pools and for other non-profit tracks like Del Mar and Keeneland to also experiment by barring CAW players from some pools. This is a serious problem for the sport and it's not going away. At least NYRA is trying to make a bad situation better. Dream Shake Impresses There were expectations that a star would emerge from Sunday's fifth race at Santa Anita, a maiden special weight going 6 1/2 furlongs. It happened, but just not with the horse everyone was expecting to win. Sent off at 20-1, 'TDN Rising Star' Dream Shake (Twirling Candy) turned in what might have been the most impressive 3-year-old debut so far this year. Trained by Peter Eurton and ridden by Joel Rosario, he kicked into high gear in the stretch and won going away, by 4 3/4 lengths. Eurton admitted that he never envisioned such a performance. “He went way beyond my expectations,” he said. “I had never really challenged him whatsoever. He was an unknown. For him to have closed and ran fourth with a nice finish and a nice gallop-out would have been satisfying, especially against the field of horse we were facing. There were a lot of horses in there that people thought highly of.” All indications are that the horse will be even better when stretching out. “He acts like, to me, a two-turn horse,” Eurton said. “He's not ultra quick but neither is he slow. Once he gets going, he covers quite a bit of ground. Going two turns is, hopefully, in the cards for his next race.” Eurton said he has not picked out the next start for Dream Shake but said a stakes race is a possibility. The same race included a rare bad showing from the Bob Baffert barn. He entered two highly regarded first time starters in Bezos (Empire Maker), the 3-5 favorite, and Tivoli Twirl (Twirling Candy) only to have them both get beaten by 15-plus lengths. That was bad news for the people who foolishly bet on Bezos in the Derby Future wager before he had even had a start, sending him off at 26-1. The Baffert horses deserve a second shot, but it seems highly unlikely now that either one will make the GI Kentucky Derby. The Katie Davis Saga Earlier this week, we wrote about Katie Davis's unhappiness over the New York Gaming Commission's coupled entries rule. The real point of the story is that she is being penalized by what is quite possibly the silliest, most out-of-touch rule on the books over at the Gaming Commission. There's no valid reason why her mounts must run as an entry with husband Trevor McCarthy's mounts when the two are in the same race. Protecting the betting public is one thing, but it's completely unnecessary in this situation. This is hurting Davis. It is hurting McCarthy. And it's cutting into NYRA's handle. It's well past the point where the Gaming Commission should have revisited the rule and taken it off the books.
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