The Haiku Handicapper: 2017 Belmont Stakes

Joe Nevills, sales editor of the Daily Racing Form and columnist for Arabian Finish Line, analyzes the Belmont Stakes field in post position order in the form of haiku - a Japanese poem of 17 syllables, in three lines of five, seven, and five.

#1 - Twisted Tom
Paid for admission
No bad steps since turning three
We've seen crazier

#2 - Tapwrit
Off two troubled starts
But he fought back at Churchill
Live with a clean trip

#3 - Gormley
Not quick, but can grind
Could take home some purse money
Out of attrition

#4 - J Boys Echo
Star-making Gotham
Continues to get smaller
In rear-view mirror

#5 - Hollywood Handsome
Ran a distant fifth
In the Illinois Derby
You're still reading this?

#6 - Lookin At Lee
Proven check-getter
Likely peaked at the Derby
But rarely falls far

#7 - Irish War Cry
Using a classic
As a prep for the Haskell
How deep will he dig?

#8 - Senior Investment
Surprising Preakness
Puts his stock on the upswing
Distance causes doubts

#9 - Meantime
Local prep bridesmaid
Could get the pace to himself
Don't think he keeps it

#10 - Multiplier
Didn't show a lot
In class-climbing Preakness try
This test looks tougher

#11 - Epicharis
Japanese hopeful
Has the tools to make a dent
But his vet reports...

#12 - Patch
Outside post again
But he picks up Johnny V
Stands to take a piece

Prediction
If he's away clear,
Tapwrit will grind out a win
Seven, twelve follow

The Haiku Handicapper: 2017 Preakness Stakes

Joe Nevills, sales editor of the Daily Racing Form and columnist for Arabian Finish Line, analyzes the Preakness Stakes field in post position order in the form of haiku - a Japanese poem of 17 syllables, in three lines of five, seven, and five.

#1 - Multiplier
The next horse to turn
The Hawthorne/Preakness double
Wins at my expense

#2 - Cloud Computing
Making his fourth start
Recent efforts don't scream out
"I want this distance"

#3 - Hence
Middling Derby tilt
Still outshines most shooters here
Fourth seems about right

#4 - Always Dreaming
The Derby winner
Lived up to hype at Churchill
The win goes through him

#5 - Classic Empire
Derby rewards trips
Preakness rewards better horse
It could still be him

#6 - Gunnevera
Never been a fan
Of deep closers coming back
After bland Derby

#7 - Term of Art
His closest finish
In a meant-for-dirt stakes race
Is six lengths behind

#8 - Senior Investment
Promising future
Winning nice allowances
This seems ambitious

#9 - Lookin At Lee
Dynamite rail trip
Never seems to fool them twice
When the show moves east

#10 - Conquest Mo Money
Hard not to root for
But he seems to hit his wall
A few panels short

Prediction
Champ Classic Empire
Channels Lookin at Lucky
Four, ten fill the tri

The Haiku Handicapper: 2017 Kentucky Derby

Joe Nevills, sales editor of the Daily Racing Form and columnist for Arabian Finish Line, analyzes the Kentucky Derby field in post position order in the form of haiku - a Japanese poem of 17 syllables, in three lines of five, seven, and five.

#1 - Lookin at Lee
Closer from Oaklawn
Hasn't won since Ellis Park
Wait for softer fields

#2 - Thunder Snow
Global vagabond
Can run on any surface
But doomed by his post

#3 - Fast and Accurate
His best dirt Beyer
Would win a nice allowance
At a county fair

#4 - Untrapped
Minor check-getter
Vanished in last Oaklawn prep
This pool is too deep

#5 - Always Dreaming
High-upside prospect
Most dominant last effort
Feels like a bounce threat

#6 - State of Honor
Knows how to cash checks
By hanging on to placings
After ceding leads

#7 - Girvin
Leading point-getter
Grapples with ill-timed hoof woes
Don't expect Big Brown

#8 - Hence
Was his last that good
Or the rest that average?
Not buying the hype

#9 - Irap
Trainer Doug O'Neill
Didn't grow his Derby beard
All you need to know

#10 - Gunnevera
Will stage a late charge
Can scrap it out for a check
If the clouds don't part

#11 - Battle of Midway
Couldn't hang on in
Slowest Santa Anita
Derby in three score

#12 - Sonneteer
Fewer winning trips
Than stablemate Patch has eyes
That fact won't change here

#13 - J Boys Echo
Was his big Gotham
The true showcase of his class
Or an outlier?

#14 - Classic Empire
High-maintenance star's
Two toughest rivals could be
His head and the crowd

#15 - McCraken
A Blue Grass bummer
But Churchill Downs is his yard
Don't give up on him

#16 - Tapwrit
High-dollar yearling
Hype deflated at Keeneland
Excused or exposed?

#17 - Irish War Cry
Stellar Wood triumph
Makes his Fountain of Youth choke
Just so confounding

#18 - Gormley
Someone had to win
That chug-fest in his last prep
Is there one more gear?

#19 - Practical Joke
Standout 2-year-old
Couldn't pass flagging Irap
That's hard to ignore

#20 - Patch
Having just one eye
Not as big a handicap
As Apollo's curse

#21/AE - Royal Mo
Wrong side of bubble
But it's hard to get too jazzed
From pokey last start

#22/AE - Master Plan
Last horse in by points
Took an unorthodox route
To watch from the bench

Prediction
Home-track advantage
Carries McCraken home first
Then "War Cry," Tapwrit

Nevills a finalist for 2016 Media Sovereign Award

The Jockey Club of Canada is pleased to announce the finalists for the Media Sovereign Award categories for 2016.  The winner in each of the three media categories will be announced at the 42nd Annual Sovereign Awards on April 13, 2017 at Palais Royale in Toronto.

Judging for the 2016 Media Sovereign Award categories was performed by Professors of the Journalism Program at the School of Media Studies & Information Technology, Humber Institute of Technology & Advanced Learning, Toronto, Ontario, Canada.

LISTED IN ALPHABETICAL ORDER, THE FINALISTS ARE:

Writing Category:
· Steve Buffery – Trainer Marc-Andre Blouin and his horse don’t know the meaning of quit – Published Toronto Sun
· Joe Nevills – Giant Gizmo rocketing up the charts – Published Daily Racing Form
· Beverley Smith – Laurie Silvera’s Woodbine Paradise – Published www.woodbineentertainment.com

Digital Audio/Visual and Broadcast Category:
· Horse Racing Radio Network – 157th Queen’s Plate – Broadcast Woodbine Racetrack
· Talkin’ Horses – TH S3 EP13 – Broadcast on CTV
· Woodbine Entertainment Group – The Ricoh Woodbine Mile – Broadcast on TSN2

Photograph Category:
· Cody Gregory – Morning Workout – Published www.kingsvictorymedia.com
· Erika Rusnak – Dashing Through the Snow – Published Ontario Horse Racing
· William Wong – Wednesday Night Lights – Published Ontario Horse Racing

Everything I wrote and said during the 2016 Keeneland September yearling sale

The Keeneland September yearling sale is the North American Thoroughbred industry's bellwether auction, and one of the busiest times of the year for me. I think I can safely say this was my busiest one yet.

The auction itself is 13 days long (14 with the dark day in the middle), but the work on covering the sale begins a month ahead of the first hammer when the catalog is first released. All the studying of pedigrees and auction performance leads into the interviews and stories written for our Keeneland September preview insert prior to Labor Day weekend.

After Labor Day, I hit the barns at Keeneland as soon as horses arrive, inspecting as many of the high-end Book 1 offerings as I can. The process involves note-taking of my observations, shooting a photo of each horse I inspect, shooting a walk video if the horse is particularly interesting, and finally speaking to the consignor to bank quotes for live coverage and get insight on their stock and the market in general. At night, I compiled all of the information gathered during the day for scouting reports and other pre-written pieces.

Then the sale starts, and we go on from there.

Let's look at my Keeneland September by the numbers...
- 81 individual pieces of writing filed between print, online, and DRF Breeding Live.
- Over 120 yearlings inspected and photographed.
- 60 walk videos filmed and published online.
- 17 scouting reports on horses of interest in Book 1
- 12 of 13 session recaps written
- 3 radio interviews discussing the Keeneland September sale

I've compiled a list below with links to every piece I wrote, every video I shot, and every radio interview in which I participated regarding the 2016 Keeneland September yearling sale. The only thing I didn't include was my activity on Twitter, because there's only so much time in the day. Enjoy!

Preview pieces
- Keeneland September to provide true measure of yearling market
- Book 1 Hips to watch

Recaps
Day 1
Day 2
Day 3, Book 1
Day 4
Day 5, Book 2
Day 6
Day 7, Book 3
Day 8
Day 9, Book 4
Day 11, Book 5
Day 12
Final Recap: Overall sale, Day 13, Book 6

Stories/Features
Pope prominent figure during Book 1 sessions
Coolmore teams up with Bridlewood on $2m Tapit colt
Buyback of Believe You Can pays off for Jones
Madden makes splash in Keeneland September debut
Big Brown half-brother fails to meet reserve
Phipps Stable re-enters auction arena as buyers
- September a month of big strides for the Crosses

DRF Live Scouting Reports
Sept. 12
Hip 90: Tiznow colt out of Temple Street
Hip 103: War Front colt out of Treasure Trail
Hip 145: War Front colt out of Wine Princess
Hip 154: Tapit colt out of Afleeting Lady
Hip 166: War Front filly out of Aloof

Sept. 13
Hip 207: Tapit colt out of Believe You Can
Hip 226: Medaglia d'Oro filly out of Bubbler
Hip 289: Frankel colt out of Debonairre
Hip 309: Medaglia d'Oro colt out of Double Tapped
Hip 318: Bernardini colt out of Easter Bunnette
Hip 383: War Front colt out of Havre de Grace

Sept. 14
Hip 436: Tapit colt out of La Cloche
Hip 454: Scat Daddy colt out of Leslie's Lady
Hip 514: Street Cry colt out of Morena
Hip 529: Pioneerof the Nile colt out of My Tina
Hip 537: Medaglia d'Oro filly out of Nereid
Hip 561: Tapit colt out of Ponche de Leona

Walker Hancock Q&A
DRF Breeding Q&A with Claiborne Farm's Walker Hancock (original interview for print)
On marketing first-year stallions
- On starting a new stallion
- On what excites him most about the industry
- On what concerns him most about the industry
- On growing up in the Claiborne system
- On the importance of the farm's daily tours
- On his influences
- On what surprised him most about the position
- On the direction of the industry

Other DRF Breeding Live items
Sept. 12
Global catalog for #KeeSept, how will buyers respond?
Five things to watch for Book 1
Predicting the sale-topper
Buyer/consignor quotes from the $1m Hip 48, by Medaglia d'Oro
Godolphin's John Ferguson discusses $900k War Front filly

Sept. 13
Things to watch for today's session
Buyer/consignor quotes for the $900k Tapit/Believe You Can colt
Buyer/consignor quotes from the $900k War Front/Don't Trick Her colt
Crupi takes new topper, $1.2m Tapit colt

Sept. 14
Buyer/consignor quotes for the $3m Scat Daddy colt
Four Star Sales' Kerry Cauthen on the $1.3m Hip 476, by War Front
Half to Rachel Alexandra to Let's Go Stable for $400k
Bridlewood Farm/Coolmore partner on $2m Tapit colt
Mandy Pope discusses late-session seven-figure buys, status of Havre de Grace colt

Sept. 16
Looking back on the five things to watch in Book 1
Buyback rate deja vu to start Book 2
WinStar Farm, China Horse Club team up on $500k More Than Ready colt
Buyer/breeder quotes from the $1-million Hip 845, by Curlin
Mark Casse talks $625k Hip 972, by Pioneerof the Nile

Sept. 17
WinStar Farm, China Horse Club strike early for $400k Speightstown colt
D.J. Stable buys $450k session-topper by Uncle Mo
Buyer/breeder quotes from the $650k Ghostzapper colt
Buyer/consignor/breeder quotes for the $750k Uncle Mo colt, Hip 1320

Sept. 18
Seeing the real market in Book 3 and beyond
Tom Haughey of PTK discusses $700k Pioneerof the Nile colt

Sept. 19
Mike Ryan sets pace with $485k Curlin colt
Bloodstock agent Ben Glass talks $600k Hip 1928, by Bernardini

Sept. 20
Checking in on the second-crop sires
Monticule to race $200k RNA half-brother to Big Brown

Sept. 21
Bloodstock agent Mike Ryan lands $200k Gemologist colt
Silverton Hill buys Majestic Warrior colt for $225k

Sept. 22
- Buyer/consignor quotes for the $210k Into Mischief colt, Hip 2383

Sept. 23
- $100k Point of Entry colt leads trade on Friday

Walk videos
- Click here to watch walk videos for 60 notable yearlings in Book 1

Radio interviews
- At the Races with Steve Byk: Sept. 13. 2016 (Tune in 38:19 - 58:32)
- Winning Ponies with John Engelhardt: Sept. 15, 2016 (Tune in 16:08 - 31:52)
- At the Races with Steve Byk: Sept. 27, 2016 (Tune in 42:25 -1:05:02)

Phew.

Nevills, Russo finalists for Media Sovereign Award

The Jockey Club of Canada is pleased to announce the finalists for the Media Sovereign Award categories for 2015.  The winner in each of the three media categories will be announced at the 41st Annual Sovereign Awards on April 8, 2016 at Woodbine Racetrack in Toronto.

Judging for the 2015 Media Sovereign Award categories was performed by Professors of the Journalism Program at the School of Media Studies & Information Technology, Humber Institute of Technology & Advanced Learning, Toronto, Ontario, Canada.

Listed in alphabetical order, the finalists are:
Writing Category:
Joe Nevills and Nicole Russo – Smart Strike Remembered – Published Daily Racing Form
Curtis Stock  – A Love of Horses – Published Edmonton Journal
Paul Wiecek  – Turbulence at the Track –  Published Winnipeg Free Press

Digital Audio/visual and Broadcast Category:
Horse Racing Alberta – 2015 Canadian Derby – Broadcast on Canadian Television Network
Darryl Kaplan & Brittney Mayotte  – So God Made a Racehorse – Broadcast on Standardbred Canada & Canadian Horse Racing Hall of Fame
Talkin’ Horses – Horses So2 E17 – Broadcast on CTV2

Photograph Category:
Michael Burns Jr. – Early Morning – Published Woodbineentertainment.com
Hayley Morrison  – Gigantic Breeze – Published Ontario Horse Racing
Chris Young  – Early Morning Groom – Published on globeandmail.com

Winning Ponies Welcomes back DRF Sales Editor and Breeding Correspondent Joe Nevills and Writer and Handicapper Bob 'Railbird' Roberts

I made an appearance on my good friend John Engelhardt's "Winning Ponies" internet radio show last Thursday to discuss the weekend's Claiming Crown races, the Kentucky Derby Sire Future Wager, and other topics pertaining to the interplay between racing and breeding.

John and I go back to my days as a Thoroughbred Times intern when we were first introduced during a sojourn to the dearly departed River Downs, where he worked as director of publicity and public relations along with taking shots for the track photographer, Pat Lang. He's the kind of person every racetrack needs working for them - always with a story to tell or something cool to show you, and willing to give some out-of-state kid with a blog and a camera the run of the place. John has been one of my longest-running supporters, and it's always a pleasure to appear on his show.

This marked my fifth appearance on "Winning Ponies," and I'm already looking forward to the next time I get the call from John to come on again.

Here's the promo release...

"Joe Nevills of Daily Racing Form breeding is our first guest. Churchill now has a new futures bet where you pick the sire of the winner of the next Kentucky Derby. We will address that and other breeding trends. Since last on our show Joe is no longer with the Thoroughbred Times but with the Daily Racing Form as staff writer on breeding. He will also give us some insight on his new position at the DRF.

"Bob "Railbird" Roberts is our guest handicapper. Based in Ohio we will look at two $75,000 Stakes in his backyard at Mahoning Valley being the Joshua Radosovich and Bobbie Bricker Memorials. Gulfstream Park opens its gates with the Claiming Crown Series headed up by the $200,000 Claiming Crown Jewel. We will also take a look at the $125,000 Claiming Crown Tiara."

Click here to listen to the program. My segment goes from 15:44 to 31:10.

Nevills Derby Pedigree Analysis Wins Rippey Award for Handicapping Media

Joe Nevills, the Daily Racing Form’s sales editor & breeding correspondent, applied his beat to Kentucky Derby handicapping and won the second annual Ron Rippey Award for Handicapping Media for his “Who is Bred for the Distance” published April 30, 2015.

Brisnet.com will present Nevills with the Rippey Award and $1,000 prize at the National Turf Writers And Broadcasters dinner on Wednesday, October 28, at The Marriott Griffin Gate in Lexington.

Two entries received honorable mentions from judges Mike Curry and Greg Hall: Lenny Moon for “Becoming a Better Horseplayer Part 2: Mastering Money Management” that appeared on his Equinometry blog, and Craig Milkowski for “View Turf Racing in a New Light” that appeared in the Horseplayers’ Association of North America newsletter. The HANA newsletter also published last year’s winner, “Statistics and Garbage” by Barry Meadow.

"It's an incredible honor to be selected for this award,” Nevills said. “We have been working hard to bridge the gap between bloodstock and handicapping with our coverage at DRF Breeding, and the Average Winning Distance pieces during the Triple Crown races have been a big part of that. It has been rewarding to see the numbers I've put together not only get recognized by the Ron Rippey Award judges, but also find a few live runners at a price over the years, as well."

The Ron Rippey Handicapping Media Award is open to any article, blog post, or video pertaining to a handicapping topic published (in print or online) in the past year.

“Handicapping horse races is both an art and a science, and the ability to produce compelling content about the topic is a specialty that deserves recognition,” said Brisnet.com Director of Marketing Ed DeRosa. “We not only want to acknowledge the good work done in this regard but also encourage people to continue to produce this type of content, and who better to honor than successful handicapper and newspaper columnist Ron Rippey.”

Rippey won the 2006 National Handicapping Championship, was a 10-time qualifier for the prestigious annual event, and a beloved regular on the contest circuit. He also wrote about racing and made picks for the Newark Star-Ledger and contributed Spotlight Selections to Brisnet.com for major race days. Rippey died last year.

“Ron’s enthusiasm for both playing the game and writing about it was infectious,” DeRosa said. “He wanted to beat you, but he wanted everyone to have fun, too, which is the essence of a good day at the races.

For more information on attending the NTWAB dinner, visit NTWAB.org.

Questions and Answers

Let's face it. Nobody cares what I have to say. 

In most cases, that's the point. Unless it's a personal narrative, a story is supposed to be about a subject and what that person is doing. A writer can bring life to the prose, but ultimately, most people are reading the story for the subject, not the byline. They put the rockstar on the cover of Rolling Stone, not the reporter.

That's why I enjoy Q&As, both as a reader and a writer. Every interview I do for a story is ultimately a Q&A, and that simple format cuts out the middleman toward presenting the subject's words and ideas directly to the audience.

As a reporter, I can afford to get more conversational in my interview, knowing that's the format of the story, and I don't have to worry about making it fit into a greater whole. The interview itself is the greater whole.

You can give your subjects room to elaborate with their answers without having to jam their words into the middle of a story as a quote. Sometimes, the questions you have are just so scattered, but equally relevant, that they wouldn't fit into a single story. Every Q&A should have a narrative reason for happening, but once you hit "record," whatever happens next becomes the narrative.

As a reader, the Q&A format is easy to digest, and the way it gets split up makes it appear less intimidating to read, even though it's probably as long as a normal story, if not longer. Also, I feel like I'm getting the information straight from the subject, unfiltered (even if it isn't). A good Q&A should ask the questions someone picking up the story would ask if given the chance, and hopefully some they wouldn't have thought to ask, but wish they had.

Below is a sampling of some Q&As I have been a part of over the years with some of the horse racing industry's most interesting and influential people.Click on the links in bold to read each interview.  

Duncan Taylor - Taylor Made - Daily Racing Form, September 2015
The head of Taylor Made, an industry leader in sales, stallions, and boarding, talks about his unforgettable year - American Pharoah, California Chrome (and his fans), and Unbridled's Song - and the Taylor Made philosophy. A part of DRF Breeding's 2015 Keeneland September yearling sale preview issue.

"You just never know where the [next great] horse is coming from. I've had a thousand people ask me 'Did you know?' And I tell people that we didn't grade [American Pharoah] as the very best horse on the farm, but he was in the top 20 percent...If you could be a breeder and know you're going to get all B-pluses, you'd be the happiest person in the world." 

Antony Beck - Gainesway - Daily Racing Form, September 2014
Conducted as part of the 2014 Keeneland September preview package. The owner of Gainesway talks Tapit, the yearling market, and comparisons with different jurisdictions and commodities.

"In both wine and horses, quality always sells."

Jeb Hannum - Pennsylvania HBA - Daily Racing Form, September 2014
An interview with the former executive secretary of the Pennsylvania Horse Breeders Association, assessing the state of the Pennsylvania-bred program as he prepared to leave his position.

"Clearly, there needs to be more promotion of live racing. It's just not done very much. It's frustrating to see, and that's often the fault of the tracks. They have plenty of marketing resources for table games and slots, but they just simply aren't promoting the racing product, and I think they really need to get behind that." 

Mandy Pope - Whisper Hill Farm - Daily Racing Form, January 2014
One of the most prominent high-end buyers of recent years, Pope discusses her high-profile purchases and the feeling of signing that big ticket.

"The greatest thrill and the reason for all of this is to actually put your hands on the horse, to be in the presence of the horse. It's the horse. That's what it's about. The parties are great and fun, but just the excitement of being a part of such a wonder creature."

Nick Nicholson - Keeneland Association - Thoroughbred Times, November 2011
Then the president of Keeneland Association, Nick Nicholson reflected on an eventful and successful Fall 2011 meet.

"I was in the paddock one day [for the Grade 1 Dixiana Breeders' Futurity on October 8], and I saw the saddle towel No. 16 come by me. I thought to myself, 'Boy, you don't see that saddle towel very often in this country.'"

Richard Rettele - Jockey/Trainer - Midwest Thoroughbred, September 2010
A talk with prominent Midwest jockey and trainer Richard Rettele in the midst a riding hot streak in the weeks surrounding his 70th birthday.

"I just like the competition. I like the action. I like the competitive spirit of horses. You get to really liking a good horse. Believe me. When one of those horses runs hard and gives you everything he's got, you get to liking him."

Tom Miscannon - "Racetrack Bucket-Lister" - The Michigan-Bred Claimer, July 2010
Chatting with a world traveler during a visit to his 284th racetrack, Mount Pleasant Meadows, about the places he's been and the lengths to which he's gone to pursue live racing.. He has since taken that number over 300.

"You can have Grade 1 horses, but if everybody's bad to you or the place is a dump and there's trash all over the place, then it's really pointless. I'd rather go watch $2,500 claimers if the track is nice and people treat you well."

Making Claims - January 2014


Horse racing is a game of contemplation.

The breeder sits at the table for hours studying pedigrees and how they comingle to find the best mate for his mare. The buyer examines the pages of the sale book and notes from physical inspections before raising his hand to bid. The bettor looks over the program to make the most profitable selection at the racetrack.

Even among the static of outside distractions – a bustling crowd, an auctioneer, inclement weather - there is a certain serenity to the studiousness of horse racing. One might even call it zen-like.

An ever-growing sentiment among the movers and shakers of the horse racing industry is the concern over empty space in their facilities. They bemoan the sections of empty grandstands or an apron spotted with racegoers as a sign of dwindling attendance, and they are not wrong. Many of these tracks were built to hold a certain capacity crowd that many years ago would have jumped at the chance to cram into those bleacher seats, but no longer do.

The answer some are coming back with to combat this problem is to shrink, by building smaller grandstands or otherwise funneling the existing patrons into smaller areas until it gives the appearance of a crowd. It is easier to advertise a track as a happening place with a party atmosphere if it looks like there are actually people there to party with.

I understand this sentiment, but if the idea is widely adopted, it could jeopardize one of the one of the greatest perks horse racing has over other professional sports – the ability to be left alone.

This is not to say that every track should become a ghost town – far from it. Without people to watch the races, the sport dies. But what sets horse racing apart from its contemporaries is that it can be enjoyed on an entirely different level when the world around you is quiet.

We’ve all been there. A faraway place on the rail on a nondescript weekday card where the closest human being is the fellow driving the water truck on the track. This is a special place. One where an attentive racegoer can focus and listen.

This is where you hear the starter repeatedly remind the riders in the gate that they have to go twice around in a two-mile race. This is where you hear the rumble of hooves hitting dirt or slapping mud and universal language of a rider urging his or her mount into the final furlong.

This is where you hear those same riders give their excuses and advice to trainers following the race amidst the rush of air entering and exiting their taxed mount’s lungs, while you keep a small mental note for when the horse shows up again. NBC spends thousands of dollars wiring the races for sound during their telecasts, when the right spot on the rail on the right day can get it all for the price of admission.

Perhaps most importantly, this is where you can be left alone with your thoughts – Look through the program uninterrupted, get a feel for how a horse looks on the track beyond the few seconds they’re displayed on the simulcast feed, look up at what is probably a massive structure behind you, soak in whatever nature has given you that day, and perhaps imagine they’re holding the races just for you. That’s about as close to a state of zen as it gets in this game.

Maybe that’s why I’m such a fan of small tracks. I love Keeneland, but the opportunity to achieve that level of connection with what’s happening on the track is nearly impossible amidst the throng of 10,000 to 20,000 other fans on the apron – most of them drunk, some of them disrespectful. Even as someone with a media credential to go just about wherever I want, I still find the saturated crowds intimidating at times. Zen can be found, but it’s a long, hard journey to find it.

There is no Nirvana to found on Kentucky Derby day, where the crowd is bigger, louder, drunker, and meaner; and you couldn’t throw a Frisbee and hit the closest horse. A small part of me almost pities the ones who use this race as a starting point in the sport, especially if their first racing experience is attending it live, because what happens on the dirt between the rails is in such disconnect with everything that surrounds it.

Ironically, that same venue can be a wellspring of that solitary enlightenment most any other day of a live meet. Sitting at the clubhouse turn of Churchill Downs’ cavernous grandstand just about any other day of the year outside of Derby weekend, one can hear the hooves and the whips and the jockeys chattering at each other as they head back to unsaddle. Where there was once chaos, there is then peace. It’s pretty cool.

Racing needs a crowd, and there’s no debating that. But there needs to be room, too, for the introvert. Crowds can be fickle, and will move on to the next shiny object that catches its eye without warning. When that happens, those seeking racetrack enlightenment will be the ones still on the rail, focusing, studying, experiencing in the peace and quiet where they do their best work.


Making Claims - October 2013


The topic of cloning has emerged as a hot-button issue in the horse racing world this year, due to the ongoing legal battle to admit clones into the American Quarter Horse Association registry.

At the time this was written, a West Texas U.S. District Court had ruled against the AQHA, requiring the breed organization to accept clones and allow them to participate in all AQHA-sanctioned events, including racing. The AQHA plans to appeal the ruling.

Meanwhile in Northern California, the great race mule Sarah Nelson drew national attention to the state’s county fair circuit over the summer when she squared off against her clone, Lil Sarah. Striking a blow for originals everywhere, Sarah Nelson defeated her doppelganger, who finished third.

Both Quarter Horses and mules are racing breeds that moved beyond the strict “live cover” guidelines of the Thoroughbred breed’s Jockey Club and ventured into artificial insemination (AI) and embryo transfer (ET); innovative ways to breed horses without both parties having to be in the same breeding shed. As such, both registries have taken the next step into allowing cloned competitors, or will be dragged kicking and screaming into accepting them until the legal process sorts itself out.

This got me thinking about the Arabian breed – one that allows AI and ET. As a highly international breed, those processes have helped Arabian racing bloodlines have a bigger reach than they ever would if limited to strictly live cover matings.

At the same time, the breed is also through the proverbial looking glass in regards to setting a precedent for science to intervene in the natural breeding process. Once that line is crossed, it becomes difficult to exclude new methods such as cloning, as Quarter Horse breeders are now finding out.

The Arabian Jockey Club does not currently allow cloned horses to compete, and that does not look to change anytime soon. However, as breeding technology advances and courtrooms begin setting precedents on the subject, there could come a time when the Arabian racing community is faced with the possibility of having to admit cloned horses.

Where do I stand on the cloning of racehorses? I find it to be a fascinating case study in the “nature vs. nurture” debate, sure, but I am generally opposed to the idea. What makes our athletes special is that there is only one of them, and it takes catching lightning in a bottle to get that one. I have no moral qualms with the practice, but when it comes to the purity of the sport, it just feels like cheating.

With Arabian racing in such a unique position, I wanted to get the opinions of industry leaders on the topic to get a feel for where the breed stands and where it is headed in regards to cloning.

To get that perspective, I queried three of North America’s leading breeders of racing Arabians:

Kathy Smoke, Mokee Arabians
Todd Moak, Todd Moak Proven Bloodstock/Burning Sand International
Alan Kirshner, Cre Run Farm

Each has skin in the game on multiple levels and brings a unique perspective to the issue on a national and global scale. Following is what they had to say regarding the subject of cloning in Arabian racing.

1) If the issue were brought forth, where would you stand on the registration of cloned Arabian horses, especially with regards to racing?

Kathy Smoke: Absolutely do NOT want cloned Arabian horses for any discipline.

Todd Moak: I would not support the registration of cloned Arabian horses in any regard.

Alan Kirshner: I am against the registration of cloned Arabian horses to be used for cloning.

2) Do you think the current situation with the AQHA will have any bearing or precedence that might ripple into the Arabian registries? 

KS: Absolutely. We ended up allowing ET because the Quarter Horse industry lost in court and the Arabian registry knew it didn’t have the funds to fight this issue if anyone in the Arabian industry brought this to the table.

Also, we can’t even regulate the number of ET’s per year. That would hold true for cloning, sad as it is. There are countries that have regulated the number of ET foals from the same mare that can be registered for racing purposes.

This type of breeding and/or cloning benefits the wealthy who can afford it. This stacks the deck against the small breeder who can only afford one AI or natural cover per mare per year.

TM: I do not think the situation with the AQHA will likely have any bearing or influence. Different breeds have maintained separate standards and accepted practices. While all breeds have common interests to some extent, I don’t think one registry’s decision should influence another, but more the membership of its constituents. 

AK: The situation at AQHA will have a bearing on all registries that allow the use of shipped semen. It all began with the ability to have more than one foal out of the same mare in the same year, the Quarter Horse association lost on that and the other breeds except the Thoroughbreds chose to accept. I think the reason the Thoroughbreds can get away without it is the fact that they require the mare and the stallion to have natural mating.

3) Quarter Horse and mule racing both allow artificial insemination and both now allow cloning, or are at least seriously facing the possibility of it in their registry. Is cloning the next logical step in breeding once a registry has moved past live cover and into AI?

KS: Cloning is NOT AI. I was for the use of AI especially when trying to preserve a bloodline that was being lost. Cloning is messing with nature; and who can tell what cloned genetic DNA will do, down the line, to our horses? I would not breed to, or own, a cloned animal of any kind. Go to Wikipedia for a short review of Dolly [the first cloned sheep] and her life. Raises many questions. There’s tons of info out there if one wants to get educated on “cloning”.

TM: I do not think that cloning is the next logical step to AI. Further, I do not think that cloning is breeding. It is a totally different means of reproduction. The practice of AI benefits the majority of Arabian breeders for its practicality in access to stallions in our country and worldwide. It is a method of breeding that potentially is beneficial to all breeders. 

AK: This doesn’t answer No. 3 but I do not believe that cloning will necessarily produce an athlete with the same athletic ability as the original horse. It may look like the horse but it does not necessarily have the other things that make up a champion. 

I think that you would find that full siblings are genetically closer to each other than a clone to the horse. We all know that full brothers and sisters are not automatically good athletes.

4) Do you see cloned Arabians on the racetrack as a realistic possibility sometime in the future?

KS: If the courts continue to treat “livestock” as they do “securities” and allow this type of law based on “fair trade” it may be inevitable.

TM: Cloned Arabians on the racetrack are a possibility, as the science is available. However, I doubt that this will become reality as I do not think the registry would approve it. As most know, even if the registry approved, the entities that regulate racing would also have to allow these horses into competition. So I think the possibility is very remote.

AK: The cost of cloning and the cost of embryo transplants is very expensive and no one is their right mind would do this in today’s Arabian racing market. A few years ago Deb [Mihaloff] and I did embryo transfers. While we only did five or six, we do not feel that these transfers were as strong as those that were carried naturally by their mother. This definitely is not a scientific fact, but our gut feeling.

5) If cloning were allowed for racing Arabians, how would you react? How would it affect your business? 

KS: When and if that day comes, I’ll quit breeding and racing Arabians completely. Kudos to The Jockey Club (Thoroughbreds) for holding fast. They must have known that moving to AI would be the slippery slope it has now proven to be.

TM: My reaction would not be favorable. As a breeder that has created some very successful runners, I think it could negatively affect my business, because the buyers of top runners around the world might invest in cloning of proven successes instead of buying other horses bred for the international market.

While I could potentially create clones from my top stallion, broodmares and runners, which could benefit my business financially, this would not be the case for the industry participants as a whole, which would be detrimental the industry.

AK: It doesn’t make any difference to me if they clone them or not. I have chosen to stay in the business even though I question the authenticity of some horses who claim to be full blooded Arabian horses. I would certainly not change my mind if they decided to clone.

6) Any other thoughts on the topic of cloning, especially in racing, that you would like to share?

KS: I understand that nurture over nature plays a large part in the development of any animal whether it results from natural cover, AI, or ET. However, ET is completely different from cloning.

I am 100% against cloning for purposes other than to preserve a species (not bloodline) that is becoming extinct. Even in this scenario this should only be done under the guidance of qualified scientists in a very controlled environment. I don’t even want to think about using cloning to bring back extinct species and yet I’ve read that is one use of cloning that scientists propose.

TM: As far as my knowledge of the success of cloning of mules, the performance of the clones has not equaled the donor. I agree with opinions I have read on the subject – science can recreate the physical specimen, but cannot duplicate other factors of great influence, such as mind and spirit of the clone and environmental factors.

Cloning, in my opinion, takes away from the art of breeding. As all breeders know, the success of a runner created from ones own ideas, care and management, is very satisfying. To duplicate by cloning is not in the same realm. The ability to create a clone is a matter determined by having the financial means to do it. This would create more disparity in the breeding community. It would discourage participation in breeding and racing.

Though the goal would be long term, the creation of a clone reaches further than the racing career of the cloned horse. Cloning could be practiced on a very successful gelding to recreate that individual as a stallion. Fillies could be cloned for breeding, in an attempt to recreate a great broodmare. While I respect the science, I think that the use for Arabian racing would cause harm to our industry. 


Making Claims - October 2011


“Ain’t nothing I know of can make you fall in love like a night at the county fair.”

It took me six months to work a line from my favorite country music artist, Chris LeDoux, into a column, but I finally found the right spot to do it.

Don’t worry. I’ll explain.

On the way back from spending Labor Day weekend in Michigan visiting family and, of course, going to Mount Pleasant Meadows, I took a detour to the Van Wert County Fair in Van Wert, Ohio.

What drew me off the beaten path to this modest county fair in the middle of nowhere Ohio?

Horse racing. Duh.

The Van Wert County Fair is one of a very small handful of fairs east of the Mississippi River to offer pari-mutuel flat track racing. As readers out west surely know, the fair circuit is still kicking on their side of the country, but for whatever reason, the tradition has largely died out as one heads eastward.

The Van Wert fair runs a one-day, quasi-sanctioned card of Thoroughbred and Quarter Horse racing each year on Labor Day. The purses are modest, the races don’t show up on Equibase and the starting gate is as rickety-looking and claustrophobic as they come. After seeing photos of the Van Wert races on the Facebook page of some friends who took their horses to run there, I knew this was a place I needed to see.

I arrived in Van Wert in time for the sixth race after a late start getting on the road. The program stand was sold out, so I took the advice of a mutuel teller and hung around the garbage bins until somebody discarded one. It took me a while, but I finally managed to snag a clean program. Not surprisingly, the information was spotty at best. Lots of handwritten information.

In the last four days, the track’s surface had hosted two days of harness racing, a truck and tractor pull and, on the night prior to the races, a demolition derby. Nobody was going to blame his or her horse’s performance on the surface being too deep.

Additionally, there was no inside rail – only pylons from the harness racing days to mark where the suggested boundaries lie, with one pylon surrounded by a long, neon green Styrofoam tube to mark the finish line.

Instead of a booth above the grandstand, the announcer and placing judges were situated on an elevated platform next to the finish line. If riders wanted to file an objection, they rode their horses right up to the stand and state their case.

As for the riders, their assignments were announced over the loudspeaker as they entered the paddock. One jockey puffed on a cigarette while riding through the post parade. I am not an advocate of smoking, but this was truly something to behold.

At this point, it would be understandable to wonder where I am going with this, aside from describing an offbeat racing destination. Again, don’t worry. I’ll explain.

As I noted earlier, the programs sold out by the sixth race. Unless the printer broke down, that means the place drew a crowd, which it most certainly did. The grandstand was packed and it was just as populated around the track’s turns and backside with tailgaters who grilled and enjoyed spirits like they would for a football game.

The crowd demographic was quite a bit different from the average racetrack. The stereotypical down-and-out degenerates that populate the bigger tracks were few and far between, or at least their cries were drowned out by the brass band that played in between races.

It seemed like the coveted “young people” demographic was not terribly in force, but the “very young people” group was there in spades, and they can be just as valuable.

The number of kids with what appeared to be a legitimate interest in what was going on was rather staggering. Even if some of them were still deciding on which horse they wanted to “vote”, they still formulated legitimate analyses on the races before them while their supervising adults filled in the blanks.

These kids may not be able to put money through the windows, but creating the desire to play the races down the road is worth just as much.

Warranted or not, most racetracks do not have a reputation for being a great place to take the  “very young people” demographic unless they grew up in the industry. Generations of real and imagined stories about shady dealings and Runyon-esque characters are enough to convince most parents to look elsewhere. The advent of casino gaming at the racetracks has only furthered this notion.

A county fair does not carry this stigma. The family and agricultural atmosphere creates a safe environment for parents and grandparents to bring their young ones once or twice a year and teach them about racing. To bring it back to the Chris LeDoux quote, the county fair is a great place for kids to get an up-close, hands on introduction to horse racing and fall in love with the sport.

For those who believe we can’t count on tomorrow to save today, consider the size of the crowd and the money they put through the windows. With no extended meet to worry about maintaining purse structure or facilities, there is a good chance a significant portion of the handle goes to the county fair, strengthening the community without leeching tax dollars from the public.

Somewhere along the line, the eastern part of the country appears to have lost its way in regards to fair racing. The sport has lots to gain in reviving the tradition, from generating local grassroots interest to giving horses and connections a place to run in an era of consolidation.

Besides, horse racing is way more fun on anything on the midway.

Click here to watch a video of the Van Wert County Fair races.


Making Claims - May 2011


One of my favorite things about horse racing is its vast array of venues – from the massive palace built to honor equine competition to the modest bullring at the local fairgrounds.

My travels have taken me to racetracks across the country, and each offered a different take on a day at the races. Each track also offered different flavors and philosophies on concession stand service.

Many of my racetrack meals are hastily scarfed down between races, but when something strikes me as particularly good, I take note of it. Over time, I have compiled a list of the best concession stand meals that have crossed my path.

This list does not include meals enjoyed in clubhouses and press boxes. If it’s served above the track’s second floor, the food is supposed to be good. Also, there are some tracks where I just didn’t get around to eating, so there will be some unfortunate snubs.

But now is not the time to think about what didn’t make the cut. It’s time to dig in!

The Ellis Park Cheeseburger

Over the years, I have received plenty of touts on horses. Excited owners proudly announce that their champion is primed for a big effort, followers of a particular circuit may laud a horse shipping in as noteworthy, and sometimes someone just has a good feeling and needs to share it.

However, the only tout that ever yielded life-changing results was not for a horse, but a sandwich. Throughout my internship at Thoroughbred Times, one of my fellow editors, Jeff Apel, repeatedly praised the Ellis Park cheeseburger. Near the end of my stay, we made the three-hour trek to Henderson, Ky. to try it out. It absolutely lived up to the hype.

The burger stand is nestled away from the action, behind the grandstand and pole barns. A mid-summer day is usually sweltering at Ellis Park, so standing over the grill is surely an unenviable task, but great art often comes from great struggle.

It is hard to explain what makes the Ellis Park burger racing’s greatest concession stand meal. Whatever the fellow behind the grill does to the beef patties borders on magic; and like most magic tricks, some things are best enjoyed without worrying too much about the “hows” and “whys”. Simply put, the Ellis Park burger is so good that I eat it with nothing but cheese between the burger and the bun, and I normally put ketchup on everything.

Ellis Park is now a staple of my western Kentucky itinerary because of its burgers. Few can say that a tout on a sandwich had a significant impact on their lives. Do yourself a favor and become one of those people.

The Turfway Park Grilled Cheese Sandwich

It’s hard to screw up a grilled cheese sandwich. It’s even harder to make one worth an eight-hour drive.

Located on the Florence, Ky. track’s ground floor, straight inside from the finish line, the concession stand offers a well-rounded selection of short-order options, but none impress like the grilled cheese.

The sandwich itself is nothing outstanding – just cheese on buttered bread. Where this particular grilled cheese shines is in its ratios.

The bread is the perfect thickness – not so big that it’s hard to eat, but not flimsy – and buttered just right. The cheese appears to be straight from the standard issue “64 slices of American cheese”, but in that sandwich, it becomes plump without turning gooey.

Back home, I have had family and short order cooks attempt to re-create the Turfway Park grilled cheese, and all have come up short. Truly gifted are those who can make the ordinary become exceptional.

The Arlington Park Loaded Mac ‘n’ Cheese

Positioned in the center of the Chicago grandstand’s ground floor is a mall-style food court. As I perused the circular arrangement of food stands, I stumbled across this gem on the menu of the barbecue station.

On the surface the concept of loaded mac ‘n’ cheese seemed like a gamble. Macaroni and cheese is awesome, and BBQ pulled pork is equally awesome. Dumping one on top of the other could have gone either way.

My concern was unwarranted. The two flavors transitioned well into each other, especially near the bottom of the bowl when the two parts had time to settle and blend together.

The only drawback was its piping hot serving temperature, which meant fighting through a burnt tongue to eat the whole thing before the next race. Those who dine with more patience, however, will surely enjoy what they have before them.

The Prairie Meadows Pulled Pork Sandwich

While browsing the internet, I came across a map of the United States displaying each state’s alleged “specialty dish”. As I scanned the flyover states, I couldn’t help but nod approvingly when I saw Iowa’s contribution was the pulled pork sandwich.

The Altoona, Ia. racetrack offers quick dining options in the grandstand and on the apron, but the barbecue shack within shouting distance of the winner’s circle is the place to go.

Like any good BBQ establishment, the portions were generous. The meat was good enough on its own that the barbecue sauce was almost unnecessary. Clearly, the Iowans knew what they were doing.

The sights and sounds of the racetrack are what make the sport great, but it can get even better when the smells and tastes fall into place behind them.