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Posted Monday, May 21, 2018

Despite record rainfall that turned the Preakness Stakes into the “Pretty Disgusting Stakes” and a dense fog that cast Pimlico Race Course into the perfect setting for a London-based murder-mystery movie, there were some definitive heroes that emerged from the muck, mud, and mist on Saturday afternoon.

And, despite all the gloom and doom that one does feel when they stroll onto the grounds of one of the more historic, yet under nourished racing venues in the entire world, the sun and the spotlight did shine bright on some of Thoroughbred racing’s finest this past Saturday.

Here is our look at the “Horseshoes Up” for the second leg of this year’s amazing Triple Crown run:

4 Horseshoes Up:

  1. Justify: The undefeated champion of the 144th running of the Kentucky Derby — who defeated not only 19 would-be rivals on the racetrack, but also the ghost of Derbys past and the 136-year hex bestowed by the late runner Apollo to capture the “Run for the Roses” — was equally as impressive, game, and history-making in the 143rd Preakness. Run that back, a second. Despite what you may read elsewhere, he may have been more impressiveJust consider: One, Justify became the first horse ever to win both the Kentucky Derby and the Preakness Stakes while not starting a single race as a 2-year-old. Two, Justify won despite the fact that the reigning 2-year-old champion, Good Magic, and his accomplished rider, Jose Ortiz, did a gut check on the mega-talented and rising star from the get-go gate to the get-to-stop wire. And, Justify passed the test, putting the champion away. Consider that for just a second. That was no “rabbit” there. That was no chump. That was the champ. That was the winner of the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile; the impressive winner of the Blue Grass Stakes; and the Kentucky Derby runner-up. Can I get a wow? Third, Justify had enough run, talent, heart and guts left in his massive tank to hold off all the others in the short, but talented field — despite the fact he practiced jumping mud puddles, and the fact that his Hall of Fame rider, Mike Smith, correctly decided to wrap up on him toward the final yards at the end. Fourth, just a couple of weeks ago, Justify emerged from the Derby with what was later to be determined a “bruised heel.” In short, that, my friends, was one amazing performance by one amazing horse. Do yourself a favor. Take time to enjoy him. These kind don’t come along that often. Sometimes, never in a lifetime.
  2. Bob Baffert & Jimmy Barnes: A couple of weeks ago, I wrote that Bob Baffert is one of the best horse trainers of his time. I wondered aloud, though, if history would give him credit as being one of the best of all time. There is little doubt that he is both. Hmm. Make that no doubt. None. Zero. Nada. This Spring, Baffert won his fifth Kentucky Derby. He is just one short of tying the great Ben Jones as the winningest trainer in the long and storied history of the “Greatest Two Minutes in Sports.” On Saturday, with Justify, Baffert captured his seventh Preakness Stakes. That ties the record for most Preakness wins ever set by R.W. Walden — who did it in the 1800s. And now, Baffert is just three weeks and a long 11/2-miles away from winning the Triple Crown — the hardest accomplishment in all of sports — for the second time in four years. Baffert stood side-by-side with the great American Pharoah to pull of the feat in 2015. And, that was the first Triple Crown winner in 37 years. What are the odds that one trainer could win it twice in just four years? Amazing. But plaudits must also go to Baffert’s able-minded assistant, Jimmy Barnes, who left training on his own to join the Baffert stable in 1999. He has been by Baffert’s side and an intregal part of his team ever since — even overcoming a broken pelvis in short order to return to the barn as soon as he could. Barnes, and his wife, Dana, who is one of Baffert’s top exercise riders, have been by many of Baffert’s top horses, as well. Including the great American Pharoah, who Baffert left at Churchill Downs under the careful supervision of the Barnes family throughout the Triple Crown weeks. Now, he is doing the same thing with Justify. You don’t see many teams stay in tact for this long. In 2015, Gary B. Graves, a writer for the Associated Press, wrote this quote from Jimmy Barnes: “Bob takes care of me very well, so I don’t even think about going anywhere else…I consider him like a brother. We’ve won a lot of races together, so it’s like a family.” That was written during the time of American Pharoah’s great run. it can still be written today. It’s good to see the “family” still lives on.
  3. Mike Smith: Simply put, he is the best jockey in the world of Thoroughbred racing today. A master of pace. A level-headed, cool, calm, collected demeanor in the saddle. And, a rare and gifted talent who can coach a horse to perform his best even when the odds, conditions, circumstances are against them. He displayed all those traits on Saturday, and was both brave and smart enough to save his colt, Justify, at the end for another day. Simply pout, he is the best in the world today.
  4. Justify’s Blacksmith: We are endeavoring to find out just exactly who this mystery person may be and how they developed such a magical touch and perfect shoe for the wonderful Justify. But until we do, just know that you — whomever you are — may be the top nominee for “best supporting actor” in this year’s racing movie.

(Trainer D. Wayne Lukas / Photo Courtesy of Keeneland)

3 Horseshoes Up:

  1. Larry Collmus: This talented race announcer overcame about as many obstacles as the great Justify on Saturday. On a track turned the new official color of the 2018 Triple Crown — “Mississippi River Mud” — and through a fog that would make London and/or Seattle proud, Collmus some how, some way managed to render a riveting call of what may be one of the most thrilling races of the year. Only time will determine its importance for the history of the game. But like Travis Stone a couple of weeks before the wettest Kentucky Derby in history, Collmus was spotless. He hit all the high marks accurately, thrillingly, emotionally. Job well done.
  2. D. Wayne Lukas: The Hall of Fame trainer held court for much of the week leading up to the Preakness Stakes. He told stories. He gave insight and perspective. He even spoke glowingly of his chief adversary and rival, Bob Baffert and his wonderful steed Justify. In the end of the Preakness Stakes, though, there came running Lukas’ own horse — Bravazo. Splashing through the “mud, blood and the beer,” to quote a Johnny Cash rendering of “A Boy Named Sue,” Bravazo gave everyone a late scare and a late thrill. He finished second. But it was poetic. Baffert and Lukas. Justify and Bravazo. Fighting to the wire. According to “Meanslike.com,” the definition of “Bravazo” is: “The meaning of the given name Bravazo represents practicality, realism, reliability, discipline, sincerity and experience.” How apt a horse to be trained by D. Wayne Lukas.
  3. Tenfold & Steve Asmussen: There was a horse in the Preakness more lightly raced than Justify, who now has made five lifetime starts. It was the well-bred Tenfold, a son of Curlin and the Tapit mare Temptress, who was making just his fourth career start. Tenfold was bred and is still owned by Winchell Thoroughbreds — the same folks that gave us the great Gun Runner. On Saturday, Tenfold — despite his inexperience — gave us all a “Gun Runner-like” thrill and experience. At one time on Saturday, within the shadow of the finish line and several small lakes of mud puddles, the colt appeared to be emerging from both the fog and the back of the pack with a real shot to tug on Superman’s cape. Tenfold ended up running third on Saturday, but the real story is that he didn’t fold. Not at all. He emerged. Going into Saturday’s Preakness, Tenfold had run just three previous times, and in only one Stakes event. He won his first two races before a fifth in the Arkansas Derby. He was behind Combatant, a stable buddy, who ran fourth. That one ran 18th in the Kentucky Derby. On Saturday, Tenfold managed to improve his stock by, oh, let’s say, a million-fold?

2 Horseshoes Up:

  1. NBC’s Coverage of the Preakness Stakes: As the old saying goes, it is hard to make chicken salad out of chicken parts (or something like that), but on Saturday, NBC’s fine team of experts did just that. They managed to turn a venue that looks more like a condemned building (which it should be) than a racetrack; a racetrack surface that looked more like a river bottom than a racing strip; and a skyline bog that looked more soupy than a bowl of Baltimore’s best clam chowder into, well, a beautiful racing moment. Expert analysis. Wonderful photography. And, spot on interviews. Job well done.
  2. Ed DeRosa: On Friday, we launched our weekly interview with the brilliant Director of Marketing at Brisnet.com — the world’s best collection of racing information and data today. In that podcast, Ed announced that he was giving us an “exclusive.” He said that he had not shared this bit of insight and information with any other source or person to date. And, he recanted the story of standing near Steve Asmussen, the Hall of Fame trainer, after Tenfold ran fifth in the Arkansas Derby. According to Ed, Asmussen turned to friends immediately after the race and said that Tenfold would be a handful in the Preakness Stakes. And, Ed DeRosa believed it. As things turned out, the trainer and Ed both were right. And, it made for a very nice trifecta. See, you should listen to Ed DeRosa more. The man nailed the exacta, trifecta, superfecta and the Super High 5. Not a bad day.

1 Horseshoe Up:

  1. Alicia Wincze Hughes: On Sunday morning, the day after the Preakness Stakes was run and written, this wonderful and gifted writer and reporter for “The Blood-Horse” sought out, and found the ownership connections of Justify and asked the most important and pointed question of the day and moment. I am paraphrasing, since I was not there to hear, but it went something like this: “Do you guys plan on running Audible against Justify in the Belmont Stakes in three weeks.” You see, WinStar Farm and the China Horse Club — who own Justify along with Head of Plains Partners and Starlight Racing — also own Audible. That’s the same impressive winner of the Florida Derby and the fast-closing third place finisher in the Kentucky Derby. Would they risk losing the Triple Crown, perhaps, to the well-rested, ultra-talented and game Audible? While Alicia got no definitive answer — yet — from WinStar Farm’s Elliott Walden, it was the perfect question for what may be an imperfect situation and dilemma. It gives one pause. It gives one interest. And, it could give this Triple Crown season one more bit of drama.
Posted Thursday, May 10, 2018

Just the other day, I wrote a piece on all the positive things that happened before, during, and after the Kentucky Derby. So many things to be proud of, and stand up for and behind. So many things to be thankful for, and people to give praise to.

What about Churchill Downs being the proud home for 144 Kentucky Derbies — recognized around the world as the "Greatest Two Minutes in Sports"? Is there a single year that goes by that the world-renowned institution doesn’t make improvements to the real facility and the accommodations to make your experience just a little more enjoyable?

What about Louisville, Ky.? being the destination location for one of the world’s most revered events, attracting visitors and their money to Our City, Our State, Our Commonwealth. Untold millions are spent here, helping every walk of life; helping everyone that walks through this life in Our Place.

What about all the hard-working men and women — from the volunteers who operate food stations, to the vendors, to the elevator attendants, to the security officers, to the horsemen and horsewomen, to the starting gate crew, to the track maintenance personnel, to the cleanup crews, to the every single person who helps make this extravaganza extraordinary. What about those people? A little applause, right?

I walk away from the event each year amazed.

You know how difficult it is to plan and put on a dinner party for 10. Drives you nuts, right? The seating arrangement. The food. The conversation.

How about planning, gearing up, executing a dinner party for 10 x 15,000 and then turning around the next day and doing it again the very next day?

And, to just make it a little more fun, let’s have a water leak in the house that dumps about 3.5 inches of moisture in the kitchen the entire day.

Think about that one for just a second.

Who else in the world can pull off that feat? Who?

We have a neighbor right here in Kentucky that does it every year. And, they make it even more special each time.

To paraphrase the great singer, songwriter Lee Greenwood, it makes you proud to be a Kentuckian.

I referred to those local heroes with “Horseshoes Up” in the first column. To all those people responsible for making this year’s Derby Week one of the “Best in Show” — my heart-felt thanks, my hearty congratulations, my utmost respect.

Today, I am going to offer some “Horseshoes Down.” These are aimed at those individuals and circumstances that, for one reason or another, try to diminish one of the most spectacular events to occur each year. Try as they must, though, we overcome. We always overcome.

(Wettest Derby Day in history / Photo by Kelly Sears)

3 Horseshoes Down:

  1. Weather Forecasters: All week, our local weather personalities promised us that Derby 2018 would be played under sunny and warm conditions with a touch of a northern breeze. Oh, they warned of 100% chance of rain on Friday for the Kentucky Oaks. But they promised that “front” would move out, and we would have nothing but sunny skies by the time we got around to Saturday. So much for that expensive radar equipment, and “StormTracker Alert,” right? Not only did they miss the forecast on Friday, when it didn’t rain at all (like in 100% chance of no rain!), we were hit with nearly 3.5 inches of rainfall on Saturday. We broke a 100-year record for rainfall on Saturday by nearly an inch. Let’s put that in horse terms. That would be like picking the horse in the race after the Kentucky Derby to win the “Run for the Roses.” I know we live in the Commonwealth of Kentucky, where the saying goes: “If you don’t like the weather, stick around a hour and it will change.” But really? This is the best you got? The only way you save face, in my opinion, is that you all come out to the track, stand at the finish and allow us all to take the fire hose to you. Just kidding. Sorta. Kinda. Maybe. At least don’t run those self-promoting ads about how accurate your “Weather Alert” team is for awhile, OK? That’s rubbing rain in the wound.
  2. Mendelssohn Haters / Bashers: Before the dust (there’s that word again), er, mud had settled following the running of the 144th Kentucky Derby, the world-wide betting public was already bashing on the European invader Mendelssohn, and the colt’s highly-acclaimed connections, like trainer Aidan O’Brien. Social media critics were the worst. Ridicule. Scorn. Hatred. There were comments that fell into all three of those categories. And, it is truly unfortunate. For many reasons. First, the horse truly had no chance after breaking a bit tardy from the gate. He was hammered from the outside. He was rammed from the inside. And, he nearly clipped heals more than once on his front side. Nobody’s fault, really. That is just what happens in the 20-horse field that is called the Kentucky Derby. Someone is likely to be hit. A year ago, it was McCraken and Classic Empire to get the worst of things. But the winner of the UAE Derby by over 18 1/2 lengths never got much of a chance. In short, the fact that he ran 20th and last on Saturday was not his fault or a commentary on his ability or talent. He never got an opportunity to display that. Secondly, we are all winners when the Kentucky Derby becomes a true international event and attracts unconventional and untested horses to American racing. It attracts a world-wide viewing and rooting audience. It attracts more betting into our pari-mutuel pools. It makes the event bigger, stronger, deeper and wider. We all should encourage our brethren in the horse industry to ship here and run, race, compete. Not discourage by bashing. Third, the race surface condition certainly didn’t help a horse trying to transition from a turf history full of celebrity status into a top end dirt competitor. Simply put, one race over a muddy American track should not be seen as a defining moment in this horse’s career. He didn’t win on Saturday. But neither did 18 others.
  3. My Handicapping on Oaks Day: I had one winner. One. Pitiful.

(Monomoy Girl whips Wonder Gadot in the KY Oaks / Photo by Holly M. Smith)

2 Horseshoes Down:

  1. PETA: After the hack job these people did on Hall of Fame trainer Steve Asmussen and his staff a couple of years ago, it is a crying shame that anyone, anywhere, at any time gives them an audience, or a platform. Simply put, these people are embarrassingly ignorant as to life, care, and nature of Thoroughbred racing. Enough written.
  2. John Velazquez: The Hall of Fame rider is undoubtedly one of the best, most professional, and expert riders in the history of our game. No question about that. But his claim of foul following the 144th running of the Kentucky Oaks was not one of his prouder moments. The simple truth is that Monomoy Girl ran an unbelievable, courageous, gutty, gritty, spectacular, amazing, beautiful, and completely fair race to win the Kentucky Oaks. Whatever alleged swipe that the filly had with Velazquez’ mount, Wonder Gadot, in the mid- to late-stretch — if there was any at all — was so minuscule that it had absolutely no impact or affect on the outcome of that race whatsoever. Zero. And, to allege that it did — as Velazquez did on national television coverage before the stewards ever rendered a final decision — was poor judgment. One can only hope that the owner — or someone else whose good judgment was altered by raw emotion — encouraged Velazquez to make a claim of foul. If not, JV should apologize for wasting the time of the stewards; for causing consternation in the betting public; and for distracting from a great moment and great accomplishment by a great race horse.

(Justify captures the 144th Kentucky Derby in style / Photo by Holly M. Smith)

1 Horseshoe Down:

  1. Final Time of the Kentucky Derby: Ever since Saturday evening, when some of us started to preach the virtues of one 3-year-old colt by the name of Justify, certain skeptics had called his impressive, stylish, and dominating victory in the Kentucky Derby “suspect.” According to them, the final time for running the 1 1/4-mile endurance test over the mud-laden track — which was 2:04.20 — was too “pedestrian” to call him one of the race’s greatest winners, and too slow to compare to the likes of Secretariat, American Pharoah, and others. I am reminded by what the late, great trainer Woody Stephens used to say when someone asked him about the “time of a race” and would call one of his horse’s into question. Woody, one of my most favorite people of all time, would say that “time only matters when you are in jail.” He was right, of course. He normally was. But when you dissect the race a bit more and look at the fact that Justify was sitting chilly and just off the flank of Promises Fulfilled in a first quarter time of a blistering :22.24; and was right with him when they went the first half mile in an amazingly quick :45.77; and was in the lead after going 6 furlongs in 1:11.01 — and still pulled away to win? Well, a good friend of mine put that into perspective best by making this statement: “Why don’t you go and ask Bobby Hurley (an owner) what happened to his horse (Songandaprayer) after he went the first half of the Kentucky Derby in :45 and change.” For the record, Songandaprayer set the early fractions in the 2001 Kentucky Derby, going the first quarter in :22.1 and the half in :44.4. over a fast track. He finished 13th — out of 17 — in the race eventually won by Monarchos.

(First Kiss, my horse, didn’t win on KY Oaks Day and I didn’t either / Photo by Holly M. Smith)

Posted Tuesday, May 08, 2018
Gene McLean covers the positives coming out of Kentucky Derby weekend.
Posted Monday, April 16, 2018
Gene McLean highlights winners, in-betweeners and losers from the final preps.
Posted Monday, April 09, 2018
Gene McLean covers the weekend winners, losers and in-betweeners.
Posted Monday, April 02, 2018
The Pressbox's Gene McLean runs down the winners, losers and in-betweeners.
Posted Tuesday, March 27, 2018

Well, to paraphrase the great Tennessee Ernie Ford (no, he wasn’t a jockey or a trainer; he was a country music singer of Grand Ole Opry fame):

“We are another day older and deeper in debt…”

And, we are another week closer to the 2018 Kentucky Derby — which is now only a month and just a few key prep races away. Last week, the Fair Grounds held the Louisiana Derby in New Orleans, and we managed to weed out a few more thistles; save a few more fledgling hopefuls; and find a few more potential late-bloomers in what may be one of the most wide-open, fun-filled, and potentially glamorous Derby fields in history.

Here is a closer look at this week’s Winners, Losers and In-Betweeners:

Winners:

  1. Noble IndyUndoubtedly, and obviously, the biggest winner this past week was the Take Charge Indy colt who ran, rallied, relinquished, re-rallied, regained, and reveled — all in the final 1/8th of a mile — to win the Grade 2 Louisiana Derby at the Fair Grounds. In doing so, the talented — yet, tenuous — colt did three important things: One, he earned enough points to make the field for the Kentucky Derby on the first Saturday in May. Two, he proved that while still a bit green around the gills, and quirky around other horses, he has a world of talent. And, three, he proved that he can get better, and he is nowhere near reaching his full potential — yet. Three important accomplishments and traits as he gears up over the next month for the biggest race of his young career — to date. Just about a month ago, Noble Indy was shipped over to New Orleans to run in the G2 Risen Star Stakes. He was fresh off a Maiden Special Weight win, over a rather suspect group, and an Allowance victory, over the very talented Mississippi. Yet, he had never faced a field full of stakes-quality horses. And, he ran like it. After bumping around a bit at the break of that 1 1/16-mile event, Noble Indy ran a credible third all the way around the track. He beat a nice one in Instilled Regard, mind you. Check. But he never seriously challenged the two horses in front of him, Bravazo and Snapper Sinclair, either. Checkered. So after that race on Feb. 17, Pletcher and team went to work on the colt, and they decided to equip him with blinkers for the first time and return to the scene of his first loss — the Fair Grounds — and the Louisiana Derby. On Saturday, he wasn’t a totally different horse. He still showed a few signs of immaturity. But he was a willing horse. And, he was a winning horse. Despite hitting the gate at the start and a few bumps and bruises to show for it, Noble Indy moved up closer to the lead from the get-go. Head strong and determined, he drug Hall of Fame rider John Velazquez to the lead at the half mile pole, moved clear and then seemed to wait for some others to run with him. After the long shot Lone Sailor, and the horse-to-beat My Boy Jack did just that, Noble Indy came running again. And, again. And, again. He showed the three things that a 3-year-old must have to win the Kentucky Derby. Talent. Speed. And, guts. Watch out. This guy may be the real deal.
  2. MississippiThis son of Pioneerof the Nile has not run since Feb. 4, and has never won anything but a Maiden Special Weight event, nor even run in a Stakes event yet. But…He may be one of the hottest, new things on the 3-year-old market these days. For the record, I’m bullish on him. In the allowance event on Feb. 4, he was beaten just a neck by a horse named Storm Runner — who was a troubled seventh to Promises Fulfilled in the Fountain of Youth Stakes in his next start. Before that one, Mississippi was second and beaten less than a length by Noble Indy. And, before that one, back in November of last year, Mississippi ran off to an easy and impressive win to break his maiden at, er, Churchill Downs. While he didn’t run this week to make any noise or music along the Road to the Kentucky Derby, the colt worked an eye-popping half mile at the Palm Meadows Training Center for conditioner Mark Casse. He went the distance in :49.45, which was the 4th best time out of 36 to go that day. The best time of the time belonged to his stablemate — Flameaway — who covered the distance in 48.95. Afterwards, there were as many people talking about Mississippi as the bullet worker and winner of the Sam F. Davis. Now, Mississippi should run in the Florida Derby. He has some catching up to do, obviously. But stranger things have happened, right?
  3. Kent Desormeaux: One minute this veteran rider looks like a reincarnation of Eddie Delahoussaye, one of the greatest riders in the game’s history and winner of the Kentucky Derby . Another minute, Desormeaux reminds you of a kid picking daisies in the outfield during a t-ball game. In other words, when he is on his game, their are few better riders in the world. Just go take a look at the video of Exaggerator in both the Kentucky Derby and the Preakness Stakes. The guy can ride. Last Saturday, he appeared to be on another Exaggerator in the likes of My Boy Jack. After laying well off the early pace, the duo made a run that looked to be a winning one. Sure, it was an impressive one. And, a similar one to the rail-skimming rally when they won the Southwest Stakes over at Oaklawn Park a month or so ago. But just when they were zooming, Noble Indy was zinging — back to the lead. After the race, Desormeaux did not shy away from the camera or the blame. He said:  “I was galloping. I moved too soon. When I asked him to go I said, ‘He can’t lose, there’s no reason to be cute.’ He went so fast from last to first that he couldn’t sustain that kick and the last hundred (yards) he faltered a little bit. I think that’s my fault, 100%.” Whether or not it was Desormeaux’s fault or not, truly doesn’t matter. It was a winning move. And, boy horse and rider may just turn the tide and a few heads before this Triple Crown trail comes to an end.

The In-Betweeners:

  1. BravazoI don’t know if anyone will truly know what happened to this awesome-looking son of Awesome Again in the Louisiana Derby. After all, he came into the race with two impressive victories in a row, including a gut-wrenching and gut-checking nose victory over Snapper Sinclair in the G2 Risen Star Stakes over the racetrack. In fact, he looked like an accomplished rising star, and a horse that could possibly carry trainer D. Wayne Lukas and rider Gary Stevens back to the promised land — that they tasted when winning the Kentucky Derby with both Winning Colors and Thunder Gulch. But something not-so-funny happened on Saturday. The colt nearly bolted going into the first turn and never appeared to be either comfortable, or interested in running a race. In fact, he looked like he was a stride away from putting on his best Thunder Snow imitation. Here’s what Stevens said afterwards: “He warmed up good, got away from there good. We were going fast and I eased into the three-path going into the first turn and all of a sudden he wanted to go straight. I didn’t make the turn, I had a steering malfunction for whatever reason. I just don’t know, but he was lugging out with me the entire trip and I had both hands on the inside rein, literally, trying to hold him in. I was breaking his momentum and he was fighting me and I was just trying to keep him on track but wasn’t really able to accomplish that. I can’t explain why. He was sound after the race, pulled up good, but he was mad. I don’t know what happened, I really don’t. Maybe they’ll find some cuts in his mouth or a bad tooth or something. That’s what he acted like, like he was really fighting the bit, and it all happened at once. I’ll talk with the Coach when I’m done here and he’ll figure it out but it was very disappointing.” I don’t know what, when, why either. But I am inclined to throw the race completely out, if no physical reason can be found after a full veterinarian inspection. The horse has run too good up to now. But it sure is puzzling.

Losers:

  1. Sunland Derby: A year ago, the brash and brawny media that descended upon Churchill Downs couldn’t stop talking about how the Sunland Derby had emerged as one of the leading prep races for the Kentucky Derby. It was to produce not one, but several key contenders for the Kentucky Derby. There was Hence, the people’s choice to upset the Run for the Roses. There was Irap, who had gone on to win the Blue Grass Stakes as a maiden. There was Hedge Fund and the ultra quick Conquest Mo Money. Well, the ill-fated Irap was 18th. The “Hot Horse” Hence was 11th. None of the others made it in the big race on the first Saturday in May. And, I think the 2018 version of the $800,000 stakes will have even less of an impact. Take nothing away from the winner, Runaway Ghost. He was the pick for both The Pressbox and our good, handicapping friend Ed DeRosa, in Sunday’s event. And, the colt is by Ghostzapper, a favorite sire of mine. And, despite being wide throughout the 1 1/8-mile event, he was plenty the best. And, the put up a game and fierce battle with Reride in the Mine That Bird Stakes in the previous race. But…As good as he might be, Runaway Ghost surely didn’t beat many other Derby contenders on Sunday. The second place finisher is another horse based in the great Southwest, and the shippers came in and left with more questions than answers. Runaway Ghost may be a very nice horse. In our opinion, though, not a Derby horse.
Posted Sunday, March 25, 2018

Anyone who knew us both would quickly tell you that our politics did not jive.

Don Ball was the consummate Republican. He dressed the part, feeling comfortable in his gray suit and red tie. He acted the part, too, fitting right in with the “well to do” and the social leaders. He and wife, Mira, often hosted fundraising events that attracted the best and brightest from the business community and the top donors.

Don didn’t say much. Didn’t have to. You always knew where he stood in the room, and on the issues.

I, on the other hand, was easily recognized as a Democrat. The long hair was a tip. But the short temper was just the fuse to my emotion and passion which I wore like a badge of honor to every fight that I decided was worth fighting.

I talked a lot. Found the need to, I guess. But you always knew where I stood in the room, and on the issues, too.

A funny pair, we must have made. At least to those who found us together, chatting about the things we loved the most: horses, politics, Habitat for Humanity, sports, government, and how best to help the poor and downtrodden.

There probably wasn’t a more appropriate “Odd Couple” than Don Ball and me.

We first met in the late fall of 1988. It was then that I was selected to follow the charismatic and politically polished Nick Nicholson as the Executive Vice President of the Kentucky Thoroughbred Association and the Kentucky Thoroughbred Owners & Breeders’ Association.

Why? I have absolutely no idea. Not then. Not now.

As fate would have it, Don Ball was the incoming President of both Associations.

While not a member of the blue-blood mafia, and not born into the Bluegrass Thoroughbred aristocracy, he found himself as the next person to step up and lead the organizations. As Don Ball always did, he stepped up.

So, in truth, while neither one of us probably would have sought out each other on our own, we were suddenly thrown together in a blender of a Thoroughbred industry world that was tumultuous, rapidly-changing, and controversial.

I was nowhere near ready to handle the job, in any capacity. Don, on the other hand, was ready, willing and able. And, he relished it the job, the controversy, and the opportunity to mentor an aspiring young man hell bent on making his mark.

At the time, the horse racing world was just embarking on the idea of televising its races, and sending the signal to other racetracks around the world in the form of simulcasting so that their respective fans could watch and wager on the action.

And, as crazy as it might sound today, that scared the crap out of most everyone in the business that had “606” as a telephone area code. (That was the precursor for “859” used in Kentucky's horse country today.)

Churchill Downs saw it as a grand opportunity to make more money, and increase public awareness. A good thing.

The Horsemen’s Benevolent and Protective Association, led at the time by a power-hungry egotist by the name of Ed Flint, saw it as a grand opportunity to make Churchill Downs squirm – since the track had to have his permission to send the signal.

Each year, the HBPA would threaten to hold the signal hostage until it got more money; more concessions; more liberties; more. A convenient thing, to some degree.

Out of the midst of that controversy came the KTA. And, subsequently, there came this marriage of Don Ball and Gene McLean. The Odd Couple. Certainly, a strange thing.

Who would know that this shotgun marriage would turn out to be one of the most rewarding, most educational, most exciting and, at the same time, one of the most difficult times of my young life.

Don Ball, you see, was a brilliant man. Other than allowing a young Thoroughbred to get too close and nip off the tip of his forefinger when he was a youngster, he didn’t make many mistakes in judgment or many errors in character.

Born in Henderson County to a family that didn’t have electricity in the home, Ball made his own way in the world. Paid his own way through the University of Kentucky. Ran for State Representative in an area that was predominantly poor and led by minorities. Became the youngest member to ever serve in the General Assembly at the time. And, was the lone sponsor of a sales tax increase that became known infamously as “Louie’s Nickle” – after the late Republican Governor Louie B. Nunn.

He knew politics and how to play the game. Even when you didn’t understand his logic. He knew life and how to play that game, too. Most of all, though, he knew people and how to play them.

And, the combination of all those qualities gave Don Ball the upper hand – even though most people didn’t understand him, or give him much credit.

Instead of fighting the HBPA, which the KTA was first created to do, Don Ball reached out to them and developed life-long friendships. He knew that it would be easier to get things done that way. In his heart, he hated being an “in-house union” for or to anybody or anyone.

Instead of fighting the Standardbred industry, which the Thoroughbred interests had the easy upper hand over, Don Ball reached out to them and developed a working relationship. He knew that it would be more productive that way. In his heart, he knew that the harness racing industry was the “red-headed stepchild” that deserved better.

And, instead of trying to convert me from my political faith, he reached out to me and told me to follow my own path; build my own relationships; be friend to my lifelong friends. He knew, by instinct, that we could and would make a great team.

And, we did. Every single day, we talked. Often times, I would go to his farm and we would sit in his office, and talk. Sometimes, when we traveled, he would have his antique Rolls Royce pulled out and ready to go. Always, he wanted me to drive.

You should have seen the faces of the servers when we pulled through the drive-thru at a Wendy’s located near Ellis Park in Henderson – Don Ball’s hometown.

And, you should have seen Don’s face when Marty Maline and I had to tell him that a softball had hit the beautiful car during a backside, pick-up game.

For the record, Don Ball laughed. Anything and everything he had in his life, he shared freely.

In 1989, we were the ones to help pass legislation that would speed the way toward simulcasting of in-state race signals to all other tracks located in the Commonwealth – despite the objections of Don’s chief adversary Tom Meeker – the President of Churchill Downs at the time.

In one encounter in the Capitol Annex cafeteria, Ball and Meeker exchanged pleasantries that were not very delicate. Meeker, an ex-Marine, seemingly challenged Ball to a fight – right then and there. Ball, knowing then he had already won, snickered. Meeker asked: “I’m going to kill your bill. What are you going to do about that?”

Ball, never looking up from his lunch plate, mumbled:

“Whatever I am big enough to do.”

Great retort. A line I have borrowed and used often since then, always giving the author credit.

We won. And, it turned out to be a huge development, and instantly doubled the Kentucky Thoroughbred Development Fund and help increase purses at all Kentucky tracks.

Throughout that legislative session and legislative battle, I would give Don a daily update. More often than not, I would deliver the somber news first.

Don, always, would come back with his favorite line about legislation:

“Nothing is as good as it looks, or bad as it seems,” he would say. “It is always somewhere in-between.”

He was right, of course. And, it applied to more things than just legislation. It applied to life.

A few years later, Don was not as excited about the possibility of passing legislation to allow for “whole card simulcasting.” I, on the other hand, was a determined believer.

For one of the first times, we locked horns. Young bullshiter vs. the old bull. I worked the board to get the votes to support legislation to allow entire race cards to be simulcast into the Commonwealth. Ball, on the other hand, worked diligently to get the votes to contest any such legislative approval.

In a huge Board of Directors meeting, so big that it had to be held at the law offices of Stoll, Keenon & Park, Don and I sat at the head of the table and waited for the meeting to start. Just before he hammered the meeting to order, he leaned over to me and said:

“Do you have your votes?”

Flustered, because I didn’t even know he knew that I was working to get them, I stumbled around long enough that I didn’t have to answer.

“If you are as good as I think, you do,” he said, with a sly smile.

I did. The KTA-KTOB voted to support the legislation. And, we passed that bill, too. After the bill was signed into law, Don Ball called me and said:

“You were right. Good job.”

It was one of the greatest compliments that I ever received. The next year, we passed legislation to allow for “Off Track Betting” in the Commonwealth for the first time.

When the opportunity came to kick-start that company, I left the KTA-KTOB to become the first President of KY OTB. I hand-delivered my letter of resignation to Don at his offices at Ball Homes in Lexington.

We sat and chatted. Most of all, we laughed at the memories of both good and bad. Don Ball wished me well, and we shook hands. As I turned to leave, he grabbed my arm.

“You are ready,” he said. “You are going to do well.”

High praise. Especially when it comes from your mentor.

Over the past 20-some years, Don and I would occasionally run into each other from time to time. Always, we would chat and laugh. He would always ask about my family, and, in turn, I would ask about his.

Over the past 20-some years, Don and I would fight from afar. He was a steadfast opponent to expanded gaming. I, on the other hand, worked for a collection of people that supported it.

To date, he has won that one. So far.

But on this day when we say good-bye to our friend, ally, opponent, contrarian, humanitarian, I would love to tell him that I appreciate all that he did for me; taught me; invested in me; instilled in me; and how much I admire the man he was, and the man who always did what he was “big enough to do.”

Yet, I am sure if we had that exchange, he would look back at me and say:

“Nothing is as good as it looks, or as bad as it seems. It is always somewhere in-between.”

And, we both would smile, knowning that we truly did jive. At the core. At the heart. At what mattered the most.

Posted Monday, March 19, 2018

With only about six weeks left before the First Saturday in May, the list of “Winners” is starting to narrow. The stockpile of “Losers” is starting to grow. And, the undefined lot cast as “In-Betweeners” is starting to not matter.

In short, if you are trying to make plans and your way toward the 2018 Kentucky Derby, it is about time to start building your resume; compiling your points; and stamping your ticket. It is time to step it up and step it out. It is time.

On Saturday, there were two races called, loosely, “Derby Preps.”

One of them – the $900,000 Rebel Stakes at Oaklawn Park – was legitimate. And, for a couple of the contenders that paraded to that post in search of credentials, they came away from the fray as “Winners” led by the impressive and undefeated Magnum Moon.

One the them, though – the ill-named Jeff Ruby Steaks (yeah, they actually spelled it that way because the man owns a steak house or two) at Turfway Park – was only miscalled a “Derby Prep” because Churchill Downs graciously extended some points to their in-state neighbors.

The field didn’t merit much consideration going into the race. The field shouldn’t merit any consideration coming out of the race. What made matters worse, though, was the gaudy “coat of many colors” that the race sponsor adorned to the event. Dolly Parton couldn’t even sing that thing pretty.

Here is a closer look at this week’s “Winners, Losers & In-Betweeners:”

The Winners:

  1. Magnum Moon: Going into the Rebel Stakes at Oaklawn Park on Saturday, I was a bit skeptical of this one, a glistening son of Malibu Moon. Yeah, he had won two in a row. Sure. But trainer Todd Pletcher can get any racing secretary in America to write races to fit his horse’s conditions. Anywhere, and at any time. That’s what happens when you control somewhere around 2,486,915 horses in training. The first win, on debut, was at six furlongs over a dirt track at Gulfstream Park on Jan. 13. He made the lead that day, and that’s about all it takes to win a race at Gulfstream Park. He aired a rather suspect field by 4 1/2 lengths. A month and two days later, the colt got to run a 1 mile & 70 yards event at Tampa Bay. In a robust field of five, Magnum Moon defeated his stablemate, Hyndford, by two lengths in a “made-for-Todd” event. (For the record, I’d like a two-horse field to go for one of my horses down there at Stella-land!) But, quite honestly, neither of those spectacular events warranted much respect or reason for grandeur, in my book. But Saturday? In the Rebel? Now, you got my attention, Magnum Moon. In the 1 1/16-mile event, rider Luis Saez allowed the handsome guy to fall just a bit off the pace, and then asked him to wait. Bide his time. Idle for a bit. And, he did. But when asked, in a bid on the far turn, Magnum Moon responded like a good thing. And, he ran on like a real good thing. At the end, Magnum Moon had defeated the heavily-favored Solomini by over 3 1/2 lengths. Solomini, who ran a game second to Good Magic in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile last fall at Del Mar, was making his 2018 debut. But make no mistake. He is a quality opponent. Another head back, in third, was Combatant, who had been second in three straight races in a row – including the G3 Southwest Stakes at Oaklawn. Farther back were the likes to Title Ready, Graded-Stakes winner Sporting Chance, and the highly-acclaimed Zing Zang. In other words, Magnum Moon stamped himself a real legit contender on this year’s “Road to the Kentucky Derby.” Now, he will be pointed to the Arkansas Derby, most likely. But Magnum Moon’s biggest obstacle may have nothing to do with the future, but a demon from the past. Like the super-talented Justify, who may also wind up at Oaklawn for the Arkansas Derby, Magnum Moon will have to beat down the “Apollo Curse.” Since Apollo won the Kentucky Derby, oh, let’s just say 134 years ago, no horse has won the Run for the Roses without having started at least one time as a 2-year-old. That’s a lot to run against, including 19 other talented horses on the first Saturday in May. But the good news is by the look of things on Saturday, he is headed right there. Impressive.
  2. SolominiThis well-bred son of Curlin made his 2018 debut in the Rebel Stakes on Saturday. And, although he didn’t win and dominate like many – if not most – wanted and expected him to, Solomini didn’t disappoint with his effort to run second. In fact, the colt showed a high degree of maturity and class to nearly overcome several obstacles that came his way. Unlike most of his previous starts, Solomini did not break well and instead of finding himself in his customary spot either on or near the lead, he was shuffled back to third and fourth and log-jammed down on the rail. Instead of panicking, though, and bucking the restraint, Solomini settled nicely and appeared to rate better than he had in the past. But just when it looked like he might pick a free spot, jockey Flavien Prat negotiated the colt toward the rail and a needle hole that a miniature couldn’t have fit through. Instead of getting free aim on the front- and clear-running Magnum Moon, Solomini had to steady at the quarter pole. It was a mistake that he could not recover. The colt will get one more prep before the Derby in the Grade 2 Wood Memorial. The colt proved his mettle, and that he belongs in the field of 20. The rider, on the other hand, had better grow up in a hurry. The guy rides regularly on the West Coast, where the average field is about six horses. There were just 10 horses in the Rebel Stakes on Saturday, and Prat found plenty of trouble. On the first Saturday in May, there will be 20.
  3. Gary Stevens: The Hall of Fame rider will get another chance to ride Bravazo, the winner of he Grade 2 Risen Star Stakes in his last out, in this Saturday’s Louisiana Derby. Earlier this year, Stevens rode the colt to victory in an allowance at Oaklawn Park and was originally named to ride the Awesome Again colt in the Risen Star. Instead, Stevens decided to take off the mount, and stay in Hot Springs, Ark., to ride in another Stakes. Miguel Mena picked up the mount on Bravazo, and the duo teamed up to capture the Risen Star by a nostril hair over Snapper Sinclair. The ride became available again, though, when Mena was injured in a spill last week, breaking his ankle in a number of places. Now, Stevens may have his Derby horse. And, he knows what to do with one of those. He won the Derby in 1988 (with Winning Colors), 1995 (Thunder Gulch), and 1997 (Silver Charm). The first two of those Derbies, Stevens teamed up with trainer D. Wayne Lukas to capture the Run for the Roses. That’s the same guy who now trains Bravazo. Déjà vu all over again?

In-Betweeners:

  1. My Boy JackThe winner of the Southwest Stakes, in a rail-skimming move negotiated to perfection by jockey Kent Desormeaux, is the Morning Line favorite for this Saturday’s Louisiana Derby. That’s the good news. The bad news is that the son of Creative Cause, another one to have started his career in the turf ranks, drew Post Position #9 in the 10-horse field. And, that has been a difficult starting position for much of this meet at the Fair Grounds in New Orleans. It does appear that this one is getting better, since he ran third to McKinzie in the Sham Stakes in the race before. It will be show time for him on Saturday.
  2. HazitThis son of War Front may not be a “Derby Horse,” but you can completely toss out his run in the G3 Jeff Ruby Steaks at Turfway Park last Saturday. As soon as the gate popped open, the colt took one step on the loose, waxed plastic polytrack surface and nearly went to the ground – nose first. Jockey Drayden Van Dyke did a masterful job of just keeping the horse upright and staying on board, but they had lost all chance 10 feet out of the starting gate. Hazit – who finished up 12th and last in the “Ruby” — defeated Good Magic when the duo made their racing debuts at Saratoga last August. He may not be “Derby Material,” but he is definitely better than the debacle on Saturday. And, he is worth watching – and betting – with a return to an actual racetack.

Losers:

  1. Jeff Ruby Steaks: Try as it might, Turfway Park has a long way to go to ever host a legitimate prep for the Kentucky Derby again. The racetrack facility is a bit, how do we say it, dilapidated, at best, and is sorely needing to be, how do we say it, torn down and totally reconstructed. Let’s just say that the grandstand reminds me of Miles Park in Louisville. And, Miles Park has been gone for nearly 40 years. The racetrack surface – polytrack – simply is not going to cut it. Most trainers who have a legitimate contender for any major dirt stakes race are not going to send their horses to run over it. Period. Not even their second or third tier suspects. As a result, the track and the betting public are left with a field that resembled the one that was assembled on Saturday. The winner may turn out to be a real runner, but there is a reason he competed in a maiden claiming event last October at Santa Anita, even if it was for $100,000. And, after all, he was third behind the filly Paved in the El Camino Real Derby at Golden Gate. Trainer Doug O’Neill knows how to get a Kentucky Derby winner. He has done it twice already. But this one would be a real stretch. And, let’s be honest here, the only reason that Churchill Downs still bestows “points” for the Derby to this race is because the racetrack is in Kentucky, and it is the “neighborly” thing to do. It’s time for a “Do Over,” Turfway. Like soon.
Posted Monday, March 12, 2018
Gene McLean hopes so following Round 1 of Bolt d'Oro vs. McKinzie.
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The Pressbox is your source for news, handicapping and interviews with the industry's biggest stars. Gene McLean is the Founder of The Pressbox and The Louisville Thoroughbred Society. No one in this industry has more talent in reviewing, forecasting and handicapping.



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