March 29, 2023

The Week That Was

Gun Runner concluded his racing career with a sensational victory in the Pegasus World Cup (G1) (c) Viola Jasko/Adam Coglianese Photography

By Dick Powell

What a week it was. It will take almost a week to sum things up but here is the short version.

Thursday’s night’s Eclipse Awards were impossible for me to watch. I thought the choice of Nick Luck as host was wrong and he proved it as soon as he opened his mouth. I turned it off after five minutes and checked the next day to see who won. Nearly all categories went according to form and congratulations to all the deserving winners. Maybe next year they can get Steve Coburn and Perry Martin to host.

There was drama before the Pegasus World Cup (G1) but it involved who was going to get in. How TOAST OF NEW YORK and SINGING BULLET were in the field is beyond me. And you need Professor Irwin Corey to explain the purse structure.

Still, it had the first five finishers from last year’s Breeders’ Cup Classic (G1) including newly-crowned Horse of the Year GUN RUNNER so who cares about the off-the-track machinations used to fill the starting gate?

One thing I thought of after the race was how well former Quarter Horse trainers do when they move to Thoroughbreds. D. Wayne Lukas, Bob Baffert and Steve Asmussen all started out in that world and understand that no matter what the distance of the race, you have to get away from the starting gate in good order.

After an interminable wait while the horses walked in circles way too long, the field of 12 finally loaded the gate and the race took on a remarkable dimension after 50 yards. Expected pace leader SHARP AZTECA broke with the field but for some inexplicable reason, Irad Ortiz Jr. did not send him. Mike Smith broke COLLECTED on top from post 5 and GUN RUNNER broke like, well, a Quarter Horse from post 10. He was actually ahead of Collected going into the turn and with Ortiz Jr. riding passively, he was able to get over and go into the first turn in the two path. Mission accomplished and game over.

Sharp Azteca wound up being steadied in between Collected and Gun Runner and was fifth after a quarter-mile was run. If you told me he went to his knees at the start or was bumped soundly, maybe it made sense but this was neither; just a passive ride and a sacrifice of whatever pace advantage Sharp Azteca would have had.

Collected looked good on the lead but Gun Runner was a winner every step of the way. Collected could not withstand the heat being applied and the only challenge came from WEST COAST, who was dismissed in deep stretch. Gun Runner’s win was decisive and his final time of 1:47.41 was great under difficult conditions with a strong wind blowing. I thought it was Gun Runner’s best race ever and a tribute to the work that Asmussen and assistant Scott Blasi did all year. Also, a tribute to the advantage that he had training on the ultra-safe Fair Grounds main track every winter.

Finally, Sunday saw a mandatory payout to the Rainbow Pick 6. There was not a single winner on Saturday so $3.9 million was waiting in the pool for Sunday. I never thought the final pool would approach $20 million but it did.

I bet what I put down on paper and my proposed play in this space was for $100. The Pick 6 is as much about managing resources as it is handicapping. My fatal error was singling the second leg instead of the third. My second choice won the second leg but I had to cut my ticket down to a single and trainer Wesley Ward was winless after 18 starts at the meet. Not anymore.

The rest of the Rainbow was formful going into the last leg. I can kind of understand why will pays are not posted going into the last leg since it depends on if there is going to be a single winner that takes down the whole pool or if the rest is divided up between multiple winners along with a carryover.

But when there is a mandatory payout, it is nothing more than a Pick 6 without a consolation. Yet, on the Gulfstream Park simulcast screen, there was nothing. I checked numerous web sites and found no Pick 6 will pays. Sent two emails to two different people that work at the track and have not received an answer.

In the last leg, I loved #8 PADEN since he was dropping down from $25K claimers to $6,250 for Ken Ramsay who has been known to make a Pick 6 bet or two. The distance might be a bit short for him but I thought that he was in there to act as a single and I just went with the flow and had him singled on my ticket that I was already out on.

At the start, the horse to his outside lost his rider and Paden reared and broke horribly for Tyler Gaffalione. You know you are in trouble when your Trakus chicklet is not even on the screen. The chart shows he was at least 10 lengths behind at the first call but it was even farther going down the backside.

Hopelessly beaten, Paden began to pick up horses and turned for home out in the middle of the track. Even with Gaffalione dropping the whip, he closed relentlessly to get up for second in an amazing performance.

Even more amazing was the winner, FOREST GATOR. An all-or-nothing speedball, he showed nothing in his last two starts including an 11-place finish against this claiming level at Gulfstream Park last time out. But there he was, at 36 to 1, battling for the lead every step of the way in the 14-runner field and holding on improbably.

The Rainbow Pick 6 came back $15,566.10 which was about three times the parlay. But, here’s my question? What was the will-pay to Paden?

What made the long weekend at Gulfstream Park worth it was that horse racing took advantage of the lull before the Super Bowl. The place was packed, betting was at record levels, and the celebrities that came out for the Pegasus were A-List. I don’t know how it all works out financially but it was great to see horse racing getting the media coverage and attention it deserves.

If you have ever been to Saratoga in the summer, you had to be familiar with Matt Graves, the lead handicapper for the Albany Times-Union. Matt picked winners by the bushel basket and was a good guy.

My first horse racing media job was with the Troy Times Record in 1988. Matt worked there until 1981 before going to the Times-Union. Can’t tell you how many times I was told I was good; but not as good as Graves. And, they were right.

After a valiant fight, Matt succumbed on Sunday at the age of 70. Retired for the past few years, he still loved to attend the races with his brother John and numerous friends. He had a tremendous singing voice and Barbara Livingston once told me she would cry when Matt sang karaoke. I told her that was unbelievable! People cry when I sing and I get a standing ovation when I stop.

1 Comment on The Week That Was

  1. Poor Nick Luck was doomed from the start, I think. When even Tom Durkin’s jokes fell flat, it dawned on me that attempts at humor are simply inappropriate for such a serious event. Maybe the event organizers will eventually figure that out. A host with some gravitas would be good here.

    Btw, I love it whenever someone invokes the name of Professor Irwin Corey. The twenty-somethings won’t recognize it, but that’s their loss.

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