Shilling for The Captain, thoughts on PETA and the story of feisty Vernon Blue Chip

Shilling for The Captain, thoughts on PETA and the story of feisty Vernon Blue Chip

April 19, 2019

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by Ron Gurfein

Tidbits: What more can I say than that the phenomenal Tiger Woods once again catapulted himself to the top of the sports world. In winning the Masters, his fifth green jacket and 15th major he turned the world on its ear. To be honest, until the last putt went in the cup, my nerves were frazzled. His return from serious surgeries as well as mental and social issues is nothing short of astounding. Congratulations to an amazing man and I am sure if he stays healthy there will be more to come.

My first thought was if he could do it, I could do it, as training horses is a bit easier on your body than playing golf. Serious health issues that are since past helped me decide to call it quits. But then reality struck. I would need knee, hip ,and back surgery to return full time. Sorry, I am not having my body replaced yet.

With the Kentucky Derby eight days away, there are too many variables to pick a winner at this point. I will wait for the jockeys to decide on their mounts and see the final works before I critique the field. As of this day, I have narrowed it down to two horses — Omaha Beach who comes off three sensational performances including a resounding win in the Arkansas Derby over a nasty muddy surface, and Game Winner the early favorite for the race that has lost two heartbreakers in a row. It will certainly be the best betting Derby in a long time and I could see the favorite at no less than 7-2 or 4-1.News flash! Not sure if it’s real but I just read that Mike Smith chose Omaha Beach over Roadster. That would make Omaha Beach the slight favorite as it is not like Smith to jump off a Baffert horse that figures in a race.

Congratulations to my friends Jimmy Takter and Trevor Ritchie for their entry into the Canadian Horse Racing Hall Of Fame. This may be the first time that I have seen an American trainer receive that honor.

I feel extremely lucky to have visited the Cathedral of Notre Dame before the horrid fire tore it apart. The French are very resilient as demonstrated by the pledges of funding (enough to rebuild two cathedrals) immediately after the blaze had toppled the tower. I hope that they determine it to be accidental as finding it a planned incident would be most unfortunate.

I will never understand the panic to get the last spot in the NBA playoffs the last week of the season. It’s like being in a rush to your own funeral. Poor Detroit getting thrown around like a rag doll by Milwaukee and the Killer Greek. Miami was dying to be in that spot. Why? They lost the last three outings to the Bucks by around 75 total points. Detroit is a better team than the Heat. Why were they trying so hard to put themselves in a foolish position?

I am saddened to report that my good friend, owner, and one of the most formidable characters in harness history has passed. Wednesday morning we lost Sigmund “Ziggy” Wolkomir. I can only guess his age at 80 as he was a student at the Bronx High School of Science shortly before me. He lived in Squirrel Hill a suburb of Pittsburgh and was a permanent fixture at The Meadows. He was a kind, loving man with an extraordinary knowledge of our sport. He was an owner and a breeder and had some nice colts with Chuck Sylvester. He will be missed. Thanks to Dave Palone for informing me of his passing.

Kirk McKinnon asks: Thoroughbred racing is receiving tremendous scrutiny because of the 23 deaths at Santa Anita recently. PETA has been on the move once again and certainly will be a presence in Louisville for the Kentucky Derby. Could the standardbred business be the next target? Will PETA potentially attack a race like the Little Brown Jug? Would you train a horse in 1:50 and come back in 45 minutes?

Comparing the two breeds for soundness is ludicrous. Our horses went multiple heats in past years, they were bred to. Believe it or not, there were many events that took four or more visits to the gate to declare a winner in an event. The thoroughbred was definitely not created to endure this scenario. Those horses are way too fragile. I have been to many Jugs and I don’t remember one instance of a horse dying. Same goes for all the heat racing in the past. The Hambletonian, World Trotting Derby and the Kentucky Futurity among others.

My reasons for changing my mind about heats in the Hambletonian were purely based on John Campbell’s narrative that the second heat cripples the handle on the entire race. Soundness or horse deaths never entered the picture. No one can predict where PETA will strike next and they must develop a better understanding of any kind of racing before they cause such a fuss.

Craig Gordon (Pacing Guru) asks: I understand all your gloating about the Captaintreacherous horses. You are like a paid spokesman. But please tell me how an owner can expect them to make any money when one trainer has so many from the same breeding. There are only so many sire stake races! It seems like Alagna has a lot of horses competing against each other for the same pie. If I was an owner why would I want to be with someone who is training horses to compete with mine in the same stable?

A pacing guru you are not. You miss the point of the whole business. To begin with, I am the furthest thing from a paid spokesman for the Alagna Stable. Is Tony my friend? Yes, but that’s where it ends. I write about what my eyes tell me. I have no favorites. It’s a matter of fact that I am a paid consultant of Lindy Farms and I probably go out of my way not to exalt any part of their operation. I am most likely to be more critical of their horses than the rest of the training stables.

The basic thought you have of winning sire stakes money is so unimportant to the Alagna barn. Last year with all the viable colts he had going I don’t remember that one of the top five ever entered a sires stake race, if any of them did.

It’s great to win money, but that’s not the priority of the owners in the barn. George Segal and the Myron Bell group along with Dana Parham and Brad Grant and too many others to list here, with the competent guidance of Tony Alagna, are committed to selecting future stallions and are in the business to make champions like they did with Captaintreacherous. That is the only way to make real money in this business.

With the expense of the average yearling with a champion’s pedigree, staking, and training the odds are stacked against you to make substantial money in the long run. But if you come up with 10 per cent of a Captaintreacherous you are an instant millionaire if you weren’t one already.

If you want to be in a stable that will not have an owner that will compete with you, it’s a tough road to hoe. I relate it to first-year stallions. I say let someone else find out if they are great or duds. A good small trainer will surface eventually, but I would not be combing the weeds to find the right one. To me it’s harder to find a good trainer than a good horse. There are fewer of them. Great horses are born, not made and it takes great patience and knowledge to let a true champion reach his full potential. It’s a simple equation to be on the right track: you must go to a trainer that has been there before. I would never name names but I have seen many potentially great horses destroyed by inexperienced horseman.

Kurt Hansen asks: How did Vernon Blue Chip end up in your barn? What made her such a top filly and now a broodmare as the second dam of Atlanta?

Great question and a good story.

I like to go to farms and watch horses perform in their own environment. I saw Vernon Blue Chip in the field at the farm and fell in love with her. Her pedigree was a little on the common side, but she was bred similarly to one of my favorite mares, Spirea, who I raced for many years, as well as the fact she could trot a hole in the wind. Thankfully, there were not many that agreed with my opinion and when she entered the ring in Harrisburg they knocked her down to me for $17,000. When she arrived at my barn in Sunshine Meadows she didn’t have an owner. One of my clients, a wonderful (but not so lucky) Dr. Jerry Semmer, came to see her on the track. After jogging her a couple of miles she shied from the tractor, ran off the track and tried to wrap me and the jog cart around the tree next to The Deck. As my help grabbed the filly and I lifted myself from the wreckage, Dr. Semmer declared, “I don’t think I want that filly.”

Fast forward to June of her 2-year-old year. I trained her behind the gate a few times but could not get her to go straight leaving. When the gate sprung, she would always go right instead of left. Mike Lachance to the rescue. By now it was late in the year and baby races were in full swing, but I wasn’t ready to start her till she learned to go straight. Mike schooled her three weeks in a row and she would trot in 1:56 the last two times. She was ready. She won the Merrie Annabelle easily and had a great 2-year-old season. However, she wasn’t able to finish her miles as well as a 3-year-old, and had a less-than-stellar season.

She has had some very fast foals. However, in my opinion they were much like her and lacked the class to be all around great horses. Fortunately, 2-year-old trotters that have extreme speed don’t need to have class because they are just so much faster than the competition. Miss Wisconsin is a good example. I broke and trained four Merrie Annabelle winners and two more after the fact and none of them were classy fillies with the exception of Lady Starlet, who was undefeated at two. The odd thing about that race was I had two big favorites in the race that were the classiest fillies I ever raced — Continentalvictory and Possess the Magic — and neither found their way to the winner’s circle.

Thanks to all my readers for the kind words. I promise to have a full rundown of the entire Derby field on Sunday. Please keep the questions coming in and have a wonderful week.

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