JIM MILLER

There's no rainouts in horse racing

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There's no rainouts in horse racing

It is playoff time here in Chicago. The hometown Cubs are back to their third consecutive NLCS. The Bears have played in gorgeous weather to open their season. The Bulls and Hawks get optimal conditions indoors. In racing, this isn’t always the case and last Saturday was one of those instances. 

After nearly two months of drought conditions in the Chicagoland area, racing at Hawthorne Race Course to close out the summer harness season was optimal. While the sprinklers were used constantly to keep the turf course green, the pond at Hawthorne had nearly dried up.

All of that came to an end last week at Hawthorne as Mother Nature was not quite as generous to open October. With the fall thoroughbred season commencing, the skies opened as well, with rain falling on numerous occasions to kick off the season. That was clearly the case last Saturday, when over five inches of rain came down during the course of the Hawthorne racing card.

In baseball, there would be a rain delay or cancellation. Youth sports teams get the day off. Outdoor attractions closed as flooding was prevalent in numerous locations. Here at Hawthorne…..we race.

At any racetrack, the equine stars are the showcase, but there are so many others necessary to put on the show. The folks brave the conditions and have to be well prepared.

Five stories above the racetrack, Hawthorne track announcer Peter Galassi provides the play-by-play for the racing action. With over 65,000 races called on his career, Peter has seen it all.

“I’ve called races in every weather condition possible and what we raced in Saturday was one of the tougher conditions to call in,” Galassi said. “When I announced races at Balmoral Park, fog would be my biggest concern. Fog was the worst. We had an occasion where myself, and our track stewards had to go from our location on the roof down to trackside for a race because the fog was so bad. We had to get below the fog to get a vantage point. Here at Hawthorne, dealing with the rain, especially at the rate it came down last Saturday, is very tough. Consider the windows of my announcer’s booth being the windshield of a car, but without window wipers. Streaks of water rolling down the panes of glass in your direct view. Add to that the glare of the lights off the glistening racetrack and thoroughbreds and riders covered in mud. It isn’t always the easiest, but what these athletes deal with on the track and in those conditions are far worse than what I am subjected to.”

Moving trackside, the race begins at the Hawthorne starting gate. Veteran assistant starter Bill Fultz and crew are responsible for safely loading the horses into the gate and keeping the horses calm in preparation for a fair start. While the job is complicated and dangerous on a clear day, the focus needed on a day where the weather conditions are menacing only increase.

“When the weather is tough and we are dealing with rain or snow, additional clothing and gear for our crew is needed,” Fultz said. “This is a physically demanding job as we are in the mud, working with horses, making sure they are safe, while also focusing on our safety. Fortunately we have an experienced crew that takes a lot of pride in their job and I feel it shows in the horses’ clean starts and performances.”

On horseback, the jockeys are limited in numerous aspects. On a good day, a rider has to not only worry about maintaining their weight, but also controlling a 1,000 lbs. thoroughbred, racing at 35 MPH, while balancing on a pair of two inch wide metal stirrups. In harsh weather conditions, limited additional clothing is allowed as the jockeys goggles become one of the most important pairs of equipment. Last Saturday was a good day for Hawthorne’s second all-time leading rider Chris Emigh as he won a pair of races in the monsoon.

“I figure you can either go out there and be miserable or go out there and have fun,” said the affable Emigh. “A lot of dirt and water gets thrown back at you and you just have to find a good spot in between the sprays of water and mud. Goggles are the key, a normal race I may have three pairs on, but on Saturday that amount doubles. We are controlling our mount, keeping balance, and trying to flip down to a clean pair of goggles numerous times each race. I get concerned when I come to that last pair and still have a quarter of a mile to go. When that happens, we just focus on what visibility we have and your finger becomes your window wiper.”

As all of the action takes place, cameramen positioned in towers around the track televise the action. Positioned at the finish line are Ryan Thompson and Nicole Thomas, the track photographers for Four Footed Fotos that work tirelessly to capture the Hawthorne action. When others may choose to wait until the last minute to capture to winner on the finish line, Ryan and Nicole take the weather as an opportunity to capture great images.

Preakness Preview: Nyquist Looking to Continue Dominance

Preakness Preview: Nyquist Looking to Continue Dominance

History in the making looks to continue on Saturday as the undefeated Nyquist looks for the second leg of the Triple Crown in the Preakness Stakes. Following in the footsteps of California Chrome and American Pharoah, Nyquist looks to be the third straight Kentucky Derby winner to head into the Belmont with Triple Crown aspirations.

Nyquist showed his dominance two weeks ago, as jockey Mario Gutierrez positioned him close to a quick early pace in the Kentucky Derby. When asked in the stretch, Nyquist responded, opening up two lengths and holding off the late move of Exaggerator to win by just over a length. The 2015 Champion two-year-old colt has gone three-for-three in 2016, and eight-for--eight on his career heading into the Preakness.

This second leg of the Triple Crown is the shortest of the three races, something that will likely help Nyquist with his close up running style. Surprisingly, only two other Derby participants come back in this second leg as Exaggerator and tenth-place finisher Lani are the only others making the quick, two-week between races, return.

Nyquist should get a very similar trip as he did in the Preakness in the Derby. The pace is likely to be quick once again as numerous horses could show early speed, led by the maiden Laoban. Expect Nyquist to rate in the clear within four to five lengths, and look to move into the stretch. Jockey Mario Gutierrez has been in a similar position before with I’ll Have Another and should know when to make his move on Saturday. If the track comes up sloppy, you may even see Nyquist closer to the early pace.

There are a few runners in with a chance to pull off the upset in the Preakness. Leading the way is the Derby runner-up Exaggerator for the Desormeaux brothers. While he may be better suited for the longer Belmont Stakes, he tries this leg with hopes of another swift early pace to close into. With rain in the forecast, the slop monster does move up, but it will also likely lower any value you may receive at the betting window. Exaggerator has a shot to turn the tables on Nyquist, the question is if 1 3/16 miles will be enough ground for him to do it.

A couple of newcomers for Hall of Fame trainers are also in the mix in the Preakness. Bob Baffert sends out Collected as he comes off three victories from four stakes starts on the year. Collected has some versatility as he could get a very similar trip to Nyquist in the Preakness. The decision will be left to jockey Javier Castellano as to when to move with Collected as he likely won’t allow Nyquist to get the early jump on him Saturday.

Trainer Todd Pletcher starts Stradivari from the outside with his go-to guy John Velazquez aboard. Stradivari is more of a wildcard in the Preakness as he has made only three career starts. This will be his first stakes start but he has shown that he is deserving of the opportunity.  He sprung onto the scene most recently as he blew away an allowance field at Keeneland by 14 lengths and has trained well into the Preakness.

In the end, can any of the other 10 entrants in the Preakness defeat Nyquist? Possibly, but it isn’t likely. Nyquist has handled everything tossed at him thus far in his career. He has shipped well, has handled different distances and weather conditions, and has won from on or off the pace. Looking at how things are expected to unfold in the Preakness, it looks like we will be cheering on another possible Triple Crown winner in three weeks.

Kentucky Derby ripe for an upset

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Kentucky Derby ripe for an upset

We have been very lucky, and spoiled as racing fans in recent years as we’ve gotten to see great stories play out right in front of us on Derby day and beyond. From the upset victory of 50-1 shot Mine That Bird in 2009, to California Chrome winning the first two legs of the Triple Crown in 2014, to a Triple Crown winner last year in American Pharoah, we have seen a bit of everything.

This year’s edition of the Derby brings intrigue as well. The Derby favorite, Nyquist, rolls into Louisville riding a seven-race win streak. His connections have been here before, as owner J. Paul Reddam, trainer Doug O’Neill, and jockey Mario Gutierrez teamed up for the Derby win in 2012 with I’ll Have Another. Nyquist has done nothing wrong either, winning from on or near the lead when the pace is slow to closing from a bit further back when the early pace was swift.  Everything is lined up for Nyquist to continue his winning ways, but this year the Derby will provide one thing, a ton of value.

[NBC SPORTS: Kentucky Derby All Access 2016]

While Nyquist may be the only undefeated horse entering the starting gate in the Derby on Saturday afternoon, he may also be the only horse that goes off at odds of less than 10-1. With value galore, here are my top five selections for the 2016 Kentucky Derby:

1. #17 Mor Spirit (12-1 odds)

Trainer Bob Baffert has been here before also. He saddled American Pharoah to his Triple Crown last year. He has also sent out Derby winners Silver Charm (1997), Real Quiet (1998), and War Emblem (2002). This year Mor Spirit flies under the radar. Never worse than second in seven lifetime races, Mor Spirit has the running style that may be most favorable this Saturday. While the early pace is unknown, the Derby does have its share of deep closers. Mor Spirit will likely sit in the second flight of horses early and avoid traffic late. He ran second in the slop at Churchill as a two-year-old, and has gone heavily favored in his three California starts this year, a win and pair of second-place efforts. With warmer conditions expected Saturday in Kentucky, and a chance of rain, each could benefit Mor Spirit.

2. #11 Exaggerator (8-1 odds)

Exaggerator is the one horse you will lose any type of value on should it rain Saturday. He has run three times on a wet track, winning twice, and finishing second in his other off track start. While he was extremely impressive in the Santa Anita Derby, he was also helped by suicidal early pace fractions ahead of him, which he likely won’t see in the Derby on Saturday. He benefits from a middle of the pack post draw and looks to get a similar trip to Mor Spirit. Not an overly quick workout horse in the morning, his final drill at Churchill on April 30 was a bit slower than some would have liked to have seen. That being said, he looks to be peaking at the right time and the 1-1/4 mile distance should be no issue for him.

3. #13 Nyquist (3-1 odds)

It’s tough in a 20-horse field to set a morning line, especially with so many talented runners, but I expect Nyquist to go off even lower than the 3-1 morning line he was set at. He hasn’t done anything wrong thus far on his career. He can win from on or off the pace and easily put away Mohaymen and the rest of the Florida Derby field in his last start. The concern for Nyquist could be if he is keen to go early and faces pace pressure. With possible speed horses like Mohaymen and Outwork breaking from the two gates just to his outside, and Danzing Candy with likely no choice but to send from post 20, jockey Mario Gutierrez will have to make his choice early on where he plans to place Nyquist. Nyquist also is one of the few that has neither raced, nor posted a workout over the Churchill surface entering the Derby.

4. #10 Whitmore (20-1 odds)

Some may question whether or not Whitmore is quick enough to compete in the Derby, but he has some things going for him entering Saturday’s race. First, he has won, and won impressively, at Churchill Downs. After a slow break in his debut, he crushed a field sprinting at Churchill last fall. He worked his way into the Derby by running second or third in the three Arkansas preps, and is likely to go off at odds of higher than his 20-1 morning line. Second, and possibly more important, is that Whitmore picks up the guy you want in the saddle on Derby Day in jockey Victor Espinoza. Espinoza looks to make it three Derby victories in a row and confidence in the saddle is no concern. Look for Whitmore to be weaving through traffic late.

5. #3 Creator (10-1 odds)

If Whitmore is going to be there in the end, odds are Creator will be as well. The horse that finished ahead of Whitmore in winning the Arkansas Derby, Creator is another that is peaking at the right time. The biggest concern for Creator may be his running style as he will likely be sitting somewhere between 17th-20th the first time the horses pass the finish line. He will need a clean trip, and a strong pace ahead of him to close into, but often times that occurs in the Derby. Sired by Tapit, Creator is one of the most well-bred horses in the field to handle the 1-1/4 mile distance.

How am I going to play the Derby?

I will play Mor Spirit, Exaggerator, and Whitmore all to win, as long as their odds are 10-1 or higher. I am going to put these five horses in an exacta and trifecta box as well. For a minimal amount of money, you can play a $1 exacta box, which will cost a total of $20, and a $1 trifecta box, which will cost $60.

A reminder, this weekend also kicks off summer harness racing action at Hawthorne. Live harness racing will take place this Friday and Saturday night with a 7:20 p.m. first post. Beginning next week, racing will take place every Thursday-Sunday at 7:20 p.m.

For those looking to wager on the Kentucky Derby, the doors at Hawthorne will open at 8:00 AM on Friday and Saturday morning as players can watch and wager races from Churchill and throughout the country all day long.