HRN Original Blog:
The Pressbox Blog
Posted Wednesday, January 09, 2019
Gene McLean runs down a memorable season of racing in the Commonwealth.
Posted Monday, December 10, 2018

On Sunday, I posted my normal handicapping selections for the Fair Grounds. As always, I gave my horse selections, divided into groups of preference, and then added a few sentences about the horses that I like the most, and a few more about my betting strategy.

People have asked me often how long it takes to handicap, analyze, and then write it out. I normally shrug and give them an estimate. Truth be known, I don’t want to even think about the amount of time that I have spent in this endeavor of love over the past year.

But, rest assured, the work load and time is considerable. No doubt. After Sunday, I have now handicapped 1,873 races this year. And I have tracked every single one of them in a spread sheet. First time in my life’s past performance that I have done that.

And, it has been a true growing experience for me in many ways. I have found out a lot and altered my handicapping because I now have a “history” that is accounted for, and accredited.

On this Sunday, though, I came across a race that truly caught my eye and touched my heart.

It was the 5th race at the Fair Grounds.

I was plowing through the past performances of the race, like every other one of the 1,873 that I have done this year. The details. The patterns. The notes. The nuances. The changes in equipment. The changes in the race surface. The changes in jockeys. The speed figures. The closing times.

Then, about midway through the race, I saw it. The trainer’s name. The memory it immediately launched.

On Saturday, I lost one of my best friends, mentors, advisors, and soul buddies — Horace Ray Thompson. I wrote about him in a column that I posted on Saturday. I hope you read it. The man meant the world to me.

I wrote about how much he meant. Wrote about his sage advice and counsel. Wrote about this encouragement and support.

I also wrote about a time when I called Ray — an ardent handicapper and bettor — and told him about a horse that I liked at Keeneland, and that he might be a nice longshot to bet on that day.

I didn’t know it at the time, but the horse would go off at odds of over 100-1. And, sure enough, the steed stole the day, the show and the race. Ran off to win by over 10 lengths.

Both Ray and I made some money, for sure. As soon as I saw the result, I turned my car around and headed to Louisville's Owl Creek Country Club — where Ray was the bartender. We laughed. Joked. Slapped hands. Hugged. It was a great day.

We have now long spent the money. Most of all, thought, we made a memory that never got spent.

As I was handicapping Race 5 for Sunday, I suddenly saw the trainer’s name: Lee Rossi. He was the same guy who trained the 100-1 shot at Keeneland that memorable day. And, suddenly, there was his name blinking like a Christmas Tree light right in front of me.

Now, mind you, Lee Rossi doesn’t have as many horses as Bob Baffert, or Todd Pletcher, or Steve Asmussen.

Going into Sunday’s race at the Fair Grounds, Lee Rossi had started only 29 horses this year. Total.

That’s 29 horses all year long.

So what were the odds that he would have a race running on Sunday? The day after Ray’s passing?

I don’t know what the odds were, but they had to be astronomical. All I knew was that it had to be a sign. Had to be. I knew then that I had to bet that horse. Didn’t matter what it looked like on paper. Didn’t matter what it looked like in person. Didn’t matter the odds.

I had to bet that horse. Had to bet it. The #5 in the 5th race. Had to bet it.

And, then I read on down the list of the other horses in the race.

The #6 was named “Cry Like a Baby.” And, I had done that, for sure, when I heard of the Ray’s passing.

The #7 was named “Overly Sweet.” And, that described Ray to an absolute tee. (After all, Ray was the bartender at Owl Creek Country Club. Tees come in handy there, too.)

So, this is what I wrote in my daily handicapping piece on Sunday:

“5th: 8-3-4/2-1/5-6-7…Squatchingwithlyss (8) will be making her second start here since arriving from Chicago. Ran second here on Nov. 22, but was beaten 10 lengths. Now, she will be stretched out to a route for the first time, and the barn hits with .20% of those kind. The trainer also hits with .26% of those going from a sprint to a route. Gets the meet’s top rider in the saddle, and looks to be the top choice. Calaveras (3) will drop all the way from a MSW event to MCL $15,000 today. The barn hits with .20% of those dropping into the claiming ranks for the first time, and this one will get the blinkers off. The barn hits with a whopping .35% of those — out of 54 starts — that lose the shades. This one moves back from the turf to the dirt, and gets the barn’s go-to rider up. Dangerous at a potential price? Ice Ghost (4) is another who is dropping from the MSW ranks all the way to $10,000 tag today. Ran well on debut, but then showed nothing on the grass last time out. This barn hits with .28% of those dropping from MSW to MCL. Love the apprentice rider form. Has only one win in the first 31 rides here, but I think he will be just fine. I bet the 8 to win/place/show and then box the top 3 numbers in the exacta. I will key the 8-3 over/under the 4-2-1 in two smaller ones. (Editor’s note: I am going to box the 5-6-7 in one more for personal reasons. If it hits, it will pay boxcars. And, I will play a small wager on the #5 across the board.)”

On Sunday, I tuned in for Race 5. I was nervous as could be as 19-1 longshot Twirlingontheedge — a 2-year-old filly — loaded into the gate, with rider Marcelino Pedroza. Can’t remember the last time I was so on edge for a maiden claiming event for $15,000 — when I didn’t have a horse of my own running in it. But I was nervous.

When the gate opened, Twirlingontheedge was bumped slightly and fell immediately to the back of the eight-horse field. My heart fell a bit, too. I wanted to believe in this horse. I wanted to believe so badly that this was a message from the beyond. I wanted to believe this was meant to be. I wanted to believe that Ray was talking to me — some how, some way. I wanted to believe this was fate and “our moment.” I wanted to believe.

To be honest, friends, I truly needed to believe. I needed to believe that there is something better; an explanation why the good ones always go away; a reason.

A quarter into the 1-mile and 70-yard race, Twirlingontheedge was still last. Halfway, it had only one horse nipped. Three quarters, he still languished at the back, just in front of two others. Five were still in front of him.

Then, it happened. My Christmas miracle.

Moving wide into the turn, here he came. “He” to me was “Ray” himself, as much as it was the horse.

Three to four wide through and out of the turn, “They” (Ray and the horse) brushed slightly with Cry Like a Baby. And, then “They” kicked his ass.

Rooting like crazy now, I was standing and yelling at my computer screen. My three golden retrievers were barking. I think they were cheering, too. At the 16th pole, Twirlingontheedge drifted in just bit. But it didn’t matter. Horace Ray Thompson was riding that damn horse.

At the wire, “They” were ahead by a half length.

“They” had won.

Twirlingontheedge — which is exactly what I had been doing ever since I heard the news of Ray’s passing — had won.

Horace Ray Thompson had won.

I pointed right up to the sky, and I yelled out loud. “We did it, old pal. We did it.”

The victory gave Lee Rossi his third win of the year.

The victory gave me a chance to say goodbye to Ray, in style.

The victory gave me hope and faith that I will someday see and be with Ray again.

The horse didn’t go off at 100-1, but 19-1 didn’t pay too badly. Missed the exacta. Cry Like a Baby ran third at odds of nearly 90-1. Overly Sweet, at odds of 117-1 finished seventh.

But I won something far more important on Sunday. The money will be gone soon. Always goes. But I made another memory. Another one for life. Another one for death.

And, at least for a brief moment, I knew that Ray was still here.

One last time, he was looking after me, like he always did.

Now, for the rest of time, looking down on me, like he always will from now on.

Posted Friday, November 30, 2018

So, you like the 3-year-old Mendelssohn in Saturday's Grade 1 Cigar Mile at Aqueduct?

You think that the son of Scat Daddy is primed for a huge performance?

You think that his fifth in the Breeders’ Cup Classic, or runner-up in the Travers, should catapult this one to bigger, better, greater things?

Well, I will give you this: He did win the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Turf at Del Mar about 13 months ago, and he was a runaway winner by nearly 20 lengths in the UAE Derby back in the spring of this year.

But…

Since his last win in Dubai, Mendelssohn has been anything but a masterpiece or a master composer. About the only thing that he has been is a master disappointment.

My question is this: Do statistics matter? Do you consider them in your handicapping? Do you think that they should be relevant?

If so, let me leave you with a thought or two before you plunk down your money on this European invader who has spent so much time in the U.S. this year that he ought to pay taxes:

1. Over the last five years, what do you think is the record for the world-acclaimed trainer Aidan O’Brien when he ships horses to the United States and North America? Well, O’Brien runners are 9-for-96. That factors out to a win percentage of 9.4%. Still interested in betting on Mendelssohn?

2. Over the last year, what do you think is the record for O’Brien horses when he ships them to the U.S. and North America? It's 1-for-28. That, my friends, factors out to a win percentage of .036%. Still interested in betting on Mendelssohn?

3. In his U.S. and North American racing career, when saddling a horse for a dirt event, what do you think is O’Brien’s record? Well, in his career on dirt here, O’Brien runners are 1-for-57. That factors out to a win percentage of .018%. Are you still interested in betting on Mendelssohn?

4. Who is O’Brien’s only horse to win over the dirt in the U.S.? It was Johannesburg, a son of Hennessy, who did win the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile in 2001. That is a long time between drinks of water and/or Irish Whiskey.

(I want to thank my great friend, Ed DeRosa, the Director of Marketing at Brisnet.com, for supplying me with the information as to my inquiries about O’Brien’s record.)

So, as you get lined up at that bettor’s window or you pause for just a second before you hit that submit button on your advanced deposit wagering account, will you reflect on statistics? And, will you go ahead and bet on that horse who has gone 20th, third, second, third and fifth in his last five starts?

After all, he was the third betting choice in the Derby, and nearly second. He was the favorite in the Dwyer Stakes. He was the seventh betting choice in the Travers, even behind the filly Wonder Gadot. He was the second betting choice in the Jockey Club Gold Cup behind the odds-on Diversify. And, he was the sixth betting choice in the Classic.

The only two times he ran better than his odds indicated was the Travers and just barely did so in the Classic.

For Saturday, Mendelssohn has been made the 2-1 morning line favorite. Does he warrant those kind of odds? Does he merit that kind of favoritism? Has he earned that kind of respect, and your hard-earned money in support?

For me, I look elsewhere.

For me, I bet elsewhere.

Posted Saturday, November 24, 2018
When they go South for the winter, you'll have reason to follow, writes Gene McLean.
Posted Monday, November 19, 2018
Gene McLean on the late Johnny T.L. Jones Jr., an industry giant.
Posted Monday, November 12, 2018

For more than a year now, the Kentucky Horse Racing Commission has known of a significant and sincere interest in building a new racetrack — along with a parlor for Historical Racing Machines — in Oak Grove, Ky. Now, it appears that the industry’s ruling body may be ready to make a final decision.

According to sources close to the situation, the Kentucky Horse Racing Commission, headed by Chairman Franklin Kling, will call its next meeting within 10 days or less to discuss and take a final vote on the three applications that have been filed to construct, own and operate a new Standardbred facility in the Southwest Kentucky city near the Fort Campbell military installation.

The Commission met last on Tuesday, Oct. 30, and heard testimony from the three applicants that had submitted applications. That meeting lasted more than five hours, and at the end of discussions,  a number of the commissioners were ready to take a vote.

But after several motions and considerations were offered, the Commission finally decided to postpone a final vote until sometime in November. At that time, Kling asked that each of the three applicants to provide additional data and information on questions that had been posed during the marathon hearing.

That additional information — to answer only Commissioner inquiries — was sent and received last week.

Now, the Commission is apparently prepared to convene again within the next seven to 10 days to further discuss which application — if any — will be granted.

The three applications under consideration are from:

 A new venture created by Keeneland and Churchill Downs. The new venture submitted its application well over a year ago, and it sat idly on the desk — apparently collecting nothing but dust — until the new entity submitted dates to conduct live Standardbred racing beginning in 2019. According to existing state statutes that govern horse racing in Kentucky, the Racing Commission was obliged then to rule on the dates request before Nov. 1. Thus, that was the reason for the Oct. 30 meeting of the Commission. The new venture has proposed to spend up to $150 million on a new facility in Oak Grove. Currently, Keeneland conducts two live Thoroughbred race meets — one in April and another in October. Churchill Downs, currently, conducts a meet from May through June; another one in September; and a third in November.

 Caesar’s Racing & Entertainment, which formerly owned Turfway Park in Northern Kentucky and currently holds a license to conduct Standardbred racing in Paducah, Ky., at Bluegrass Downs. About a year ago, the Kentucky Horse Racing Commission ordered Caesar’s to make certain improvements and changes in order for it to maintain its’ license to operate. At the Oct. 30 meeting, Caesar’s announced plans to spend more than $150 million to construct a new racing complex and entertainment destination in Oak Grove. When asked about Bluegrass Downs, though, Caesar’s representatives announced that the company had no plans to either expand or improve that current property, and that they had no interest in either expanding that current operation at Bluegrass Downs to offer Historical Racing Machines.

 Kentucky Downs, which owns a Thoroughbred racetrack and Historical Racing venue in Franklin, Ky, less than an hour's drive North of Nashville. Kentucky Downs was the first track in Kentucky to venture into the Historical Racing Machine market, and was the track to defend the operation as pari-mutuel in a lawsuit that was brought by the Family Foundation. Just a couple of weeks ago, Judge Thomas Wingate ruled — again — that the machines were legal and permitted under current Kentucky Statutes. At the Oct. 30 meeting of the Commission, Kentucky Downs submitted a much more modest, $50 million proposal which would also include a location for Historical Racing Machines.

Now, apparently, the Commission is finally poised to make a final ruling and decision. Word of the upcoming meeting spread around the sales grounds at Keeneland, where the November Breeding Stock Sale is underway.

And, according to multiple sources close to the situation, official news announcing the exact date and time of the next Commission meeting should be revealed sometime in the next couple of days.

Hold onto your seats. Like Kentucky weather, this could change quickly, too.

Posted Sunday, November 11, 2018
The Pressbox reports Ron Winchell could purchase a significant interest in Kentucky Downs.
Posted Saturday, November 10, 2018
Gene McLean explains how an otherwise dreary Saturday warmed up.
Posted Thursday, October 25, 2018

I’ll be the first to tell you that if I see more than one 8 o’clock in a day’s time, it’s not going to be a good day. Not for me, or, perhaps, somebody else. And, all my 8 o’clocks normally have a “p.m.” connected to them.

Sorry. That’s just the way this old body rolls.

But this morning, I beat the alarm clock and the roosters. It was 5:45 — as in a.m. — and I was on the move. And, for a man my age, it wasn’t even bathroom related.

Amazing, some would say. For me, though, there is only one good reason to get up that early. And that is because you get the call from your horse trainer and friend with news that your 2-year-old colt is going to breeze at Churchill Downs in the early morning hours.

So…

Up at 5:45 a.m. without even an alarm blaring.

Out the door by 6 a.m. with teeth and locks brushed.

Car revved and on the move at 6:05 a.m.

Pull in the backside at Churchill Downs at 6:35 a.m.

Binoculars and coat in place.

Boots on the ground — check.

Optimism? Not in check.

(Seek N Justice gallops on the rail this summer / Photo by Holly M. Smith)

That’s what owning a racehorse will do for you. It’s gets you up early. It gets you excited. It gets your body and heart moving. It gets you looking ahead. It gets you looking forward.

As soon as I strolled over to the barn of trainer Buff Bradley, my great friend and trainer, his assistant, Chelsea, came over and asked if I wanted to see my colt. It was like asking a toddler if he wanted a Jolly Rancher.

We immediately went over to the stall, and the young man stuck his head over the webbing and greeted me with a gentle nose rub to the chest. It was as if he was saying, “Where have you been lately? Missed you buddy.”

When the colt laid his head over on my shoulder, and we exchanged a “moment,” I knew exactly why I own a horse. Truthfully, I knew exactly why I had gotten up at the forsaken hour of 5:45 a.m.  And, I knew right then and there why people fall in love with this great sport.

You see, this colt — who now goes by the name of Seek N Justice — is the first foal out of a mare that I owned and raced with a group of great friends. When that mare, Diamond Seeker, busted a knee so badly that she couldn’t race any more, I took her home and decided I wanted to keep her and give her a shot at another career — as a broodmare.

So, three years ago, I bred Diamond Seeker to Caleb’s Posse after chatting with my great friend, Pam Michul, who was advising clients on breeding at Three Chimney’s Farm at the time. Two years ago, Diamond Seeker had this colt. A beautiful baby who looked just like his momma.

And, nearly every month since then, I have gone to visit him.

Saw him as a baby. And loved him.

Saw him last year as a yearling, and loved him.

Sent him to be broken to a saddle and rider this summer, and loved him.

Most of all, I just loved him.

This morning, I went to see him at Churchill Downs. It was like going to see your kid at college. Fun.

Earlier this Summer, Seek N Justice had gotten a couple of months on the track. But when his shins barked a bit, both Buff and I decided it was time for a little R&R at the farm.

A couple of weeks ago, Seek N Justice got to go back to school. And today, he got his first “breeze” since his return — getting to take off a little bit and run for about a furlong. So, without being asked twice, I jumped at the chance to go check the colt out this morning.

It was like going to see your kid at college. Fun.

(Seek N Justice this cool a.m. / Photo by Gene McLean)

The colt galloped a loop around the oval and, then heading into the backstretch, he got to stretch his legs right in front of me. And, he pinned his ears, revved his engine and fired. With all his might, he hung right there with his workmate. Buff stuck his head in the clocker’s stand and said, “I got them in :12 and change.” And, I didn’t know whose heart was pumping more, the colt’s or mine.

Did I say it was like going to see your kid at college? It was fun.

It is a long, long, long way until Seek N Justice is ready to make his first appearance at the racetrack in the afternoon, when the world can watch him finally do what he was born to do — run. I know — by now and by experience — that so many things can happen between now and then. So many things that can disappoint your mind and hurt your heart. So many troubles. So many sidebars and sidetracks. So much to do and overcome.

But I also know what you feel like when that day finally does come. Butterflies. Visions of grandeur. Dreams dancing. Sleepless night. Anxious morning.

It is like going to see your kid at college.

It is fun.

And, I can’t wait until next week.

(See you next week Seek / Photo by Gene McLean)

Posted Wednesday, October 24, 2018

Franklin Circuit Court Judge Thomas Wingate on Wednesday announced a decision that sent sound waves throughout the Commonwealth of Kentucky as loud as the playing of “My Old Kentucky Home” on Kentucky Derby Day, and the word spread about as fast as Triple Crown winner Justify could run around a racing oval.

In the early afternoon, Judge Wingate issued a 22-page ruling defining that the “Exacta Systems” historical racing machines — which are in place and operating at Kentucky Downs race track in rural Franklin, Ky. — are pari-mutuel, and, thus, are legal under current Kentucky law governing the betting on horse racing in the Commonwealth.

Judge Wingate had originally ruled in favor of the historical racing operation and machines in an earlier decision a couple of years ago. But that decision was appealed to the Kentucky Court of Appeals by the Kentucky Family Foundation, which argued that the original court case had not been heard and vetted fully.

The Kentucky Court of Appeals did not rule on the case, per se, but remanded the case back to Judge Wingate’s court for more testimony, briefing and legal review. That case was heard again, and a final decision from Judge Wingate had been expected in the case for months.

In fact, some had expected the ruling to be announced as far back as the Spring of this year. But on Wednesday, the ruling was finally released. And, once again, the ruling was in favor of historical racing.

One person, who has been closely tied to the litigation, told me, “The horse industry won, and the Family Foundation lost.”

The Family Foundation now has 30 days to decide and file another appeal to the Kentucky Court of Appeals challenging Judge Wingate’s latest decision. That appeal is a “matter of right,” and can be filed at any time within the time period allowed.

There has been no indication yet as whether or not the Family Foundation will continue the legal battle.

(Entrance to Derby City Gaming in Louisville / Photo By Gene McLean)

But no matter what, Wednesday was a good day for the Kentucky Horse Racing Industry. In addition to the historical racing operation at Kentucky Downs — which was the first such business activity in the state — historical racing is now being conducted at Ellis Park in Henderson, Ky., and in Lexington at the Red Mile, in a joint venture with Keeneland. The latest addition to the Historical Racing family of operations was in Louisville, where Churchill Downs now owns and operates Derby City Gaming.

Without doubt, historical racing has pumped millions of new dollars into the Kentucky horse racing industry — increasing purses at both Thoroughbred and Standardbred races and adding critical value to those racing institutions that are now currently conducting the operations, as well.

Soon, the Kentucky Racing Commission will begin deliberating several new racetrack license applications. All of the new applications have included historical racing operations within the new projects.

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Meet Gene McLean

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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