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How I spent my summer in Las Vegas

By Ron Flatter  (VSiN.com) 

Savage
Firenze Fire (left), ridden by José Ortiz, savages eventual winner Yaupon, with jockey Ricardo Santana Jr., near the end of the Forego Stakes on Saturday at Saratoga (Chelsea Durand / NYRA)

Louisville, Ky.

That really should say “Las Vegas” up there instead of “Louisville, Ky.,” because so much of this weekly treatise is left over from last weekend’s National Horseplayers Championship.

Three images stand out from the three-day competition for more than $2 million at Bally’s Event Center.

The first came as I was sitting in my 12th-floor room Saturday watching Firenze Fire trying to bite off the right side of Yaupon’s face while they were going 35 mph at the end of the Forego Stakes. Thankfully, all humans and equines suffered no permanent physical harm, but the whole thing became the talking point the rest of the weekend.

“I thought he was going to bite off his whole bridle,” one horseman told me Wednesday in an off-the-clock conversation. “It was like José Ortiz was frozen and didn’t know what to do. How far did they go before he finally pried Firenze Fire away?”

According to the Equibase chart it was 70 yards. Think about that. If a defensive back went all Mike Tyson on a wide receiver from one 15-yard line to the other, that would draw more flags than the perimeter of the ice rink at Rockefeller Center.

Lost in this shiny object was how good Yaupon was to steamroll his way forward. While he had to feel like Firenze Fire’s bone, he ignored the gnawing dog and still won the race by a head. That thankfully saved everyone from waiting for the boxers’ scorecards to be totaled.

The aforementioned horseman spoke for all of us when he asked, “Even the New York stewards would know to disqualify Firenze Fire if he had won, wouldn’t they?” I wish I could say so with some certainty.

If there is a draw-a-line-through-it result in Yaupon’s past performances, it was the 2020 Breeders’ Cup Sprint at Keeneland. He was bottlenecked twice and bumped twice on the way to an eighth-place finish as the 6-5 favorite. That is a lot to digest in a seven-furlong race.

His flight to Meydan in March was a wasted trip. He was never a factor finishing eighth as the 5-2 favorite in the Dubai Golden Shaheen. Yaupon has since won a black-type stakes against a small field at Pimlico, and then he prevailed against that vampire Saturday at Saratoga.

Yaupon is trained by Steve Asmussen, and so is Jackie’s Warrior, the one-turn wonder that is the 9-2 favorite at a global bookmaker to win the Breeders’ Cup Sprint come Nov. 6 at Del Mar. Yaupon is 6-1. To say the least, choosing between them will be difficult.

The second memorable image from last weekend was the rabbit that Justin Mustari pulled out of his hat to win the NHC. A win by 19-1 long shot Rose’s Crystal in an allowance race Sunday at Del Mar allowed Mustari to leapfrog three rivals and claim the $725,000 first prize. Then he leapfrogged into the arms of his ecstatic father.

Mustari is 26, and he comes from a family of horseplayers in Chicagoland. That is no small detail. David “Maven” Gutfreund, who one day will take a Cubs cap to his grave, won the NHC Tour in 2018. That is like finishing first in the regular season. Right after this year’s tournament ended, he Tweeted, “Must be something about Chicago area water. Benes, Coles, Mustari.”

Gutfreund was referring to Jim Benes (2013), Scott Coles (2019) and Mustari (2021), meaning three of the last nine NHC winners have come from the Second City. He also mentioned Garett Skiba, another Chicagoan who played in seven NHCs, made it to the final table in 2018, pivoted to other forms of sports gambling and won last month’s $1 million World Fantasy Golf Championship.

Mustari is the youngest NHC winner ever, breaking the record Coles set when he was 34. Before he buys a house so he may move out from under his parents’ roof, he ought to make sure trainer Carla Gaines and jockey Juan Hernández get the sort of tip that is often paid to connections on the back end of a big Pick 6 score.

As for Chicago producing so many good handicappers, it is too bad the closing of Arlington Park next month will stifle the momentum being made to cultivate young horseplayers there. Hawthorne Park, where Mustari qualified for the NHC, will stay open and could conceivably thrive after Arlington closes. Or it could rot like racing as a whole has in Illinois. Somehow, in spite of their being herded out of Arlington Heights and Washington Park and penned up in Stickney, bettors like the Mustaris remain loyal.

That list that “Maven” Tweeted? Maybe the Carey family, which owns Hawthorne, should reach out to the Mustaris and Benes and Coles – and Skiba – and ask, “What can we do for you?” It would be a refreshing change.

Finally, the third lasting vision. There was the conversation I had Sunday with Keith Chamblin, the chief operating officer of the National Thoroughbred Racing Association. That is a fancy way of saying the guy who runs the NHC every year.

Since the Churchill Downs Inc. vs. Nevada Pari-Mutuel Association kerfuffle is to me what Yaupon’s face is to Firenze Fire, I had to ask Chamblin whether that iceberg that has prevented Nevadans from legally betting on CDI tracks for nearly two years would be a worry when the NHC returns to Bally’s next January. That is because Fair Grounds and Oaklawn, whose simulcast signals are controlled by CDI, will be off limits to NHC players if the impasse persists. It is odds-on that there will be no thaw.

“It is not a huge concern right now,” Chamblin told the Ron Flatter Racing Pod. “We are aware of it, and we are on the verge of reaching out to both Oaklawn and Churchill Downs. Essentially, what we’re going to ask for is that they consider carving out NHC weekend to allow our customers – some of our very best customers, some of Oaklawn’s best customers and some of Churchill’s best customers who are here – to at least use those races in the contest here at Bally’s.”

That all sounds fine and dandy, although CDI will naturally ask, “What’s in it for us?”

Really, nothing except goodwill, something that does not seem to have much currency lately in racing or – well – anywhere. But Chamblin went one step further.

“I think Caesars (Bally’s owner) is in agreement that if we can’t take pari-mutuel action on those races, at least let’s allow our customers to use them in (mythical bets in) the contest.”

The Nevada Gaming Control Board would have to sign off on this. So would the NPMA, the cartel of Las Vegas sportsbooks represented by the eremitic Patty Jones.

“I would hope that if one of their largest members, Caesars Entertainment, is aligned with our request, that wouldn’t be an issue,” Chamblin said. “But who knows?”

Such uncertainty is the bedrock of horse racing, although it is really supposed to be isolated to the mysteries of how a particular race will unfold.

On the red-eye flight home to Louisville on Sunday night, I pondered those three indelible images and realized this. Trainer Kelly Breen may have his hands full trying to keep Firenze Fire from savaging another horse, but he has a better chance of doing that than changing the dumb luck that altered Justin Mustari’s life. And despite the recent dominance of horseplayers from the area, Breen certainly cannot stop the downward spiral of Chicagoland racing.

Now about the inferior, overpriced ribeye that I had Saturday night at a restaurant on The Strip. ...

Racing notes and opinions

A disappointingly small field has been assembled for Saturday’s $1 million Grade 1 Jockey Club Gold Cup at Saratoga. It features a rematch of the Suburban Stakes this summer at Belmont Park, where Max Player (5-2) upset previously unbeaten Happy Saver (9-5). That was on a muddy track. The weather will allegedly be good this weekend at Saratoga, so Happy Saver can build on his 5-for-5 fast-dirt record that includes a 2020 win in this race, albeit at a different course. Barring the unexpected cyclone, figure on Irad Ortiz Jr. to ride him just off the early lead of morning-line favorite Forza Di Oro (8-5). Then Happy Saver should pounce late to win with Forza Di Oro second and Max Player third. Throw Brad Cox’s colt Night Ops (5-1) into the deep-exotic mix. Otherwise, the rest of the horses – all two of them – are not worth considering in this 1¼-mile race that used to come early in the fall at Belmont Park before the New York Racing Association swapped it with the Woodward. The Jockey Club Gold Cup, which is posted for Saturday at 6:46 p.m. EDT, is a win-and-you’re-in qualifier for the Breeders’ Cup Classic, a by-product of its earlier place on the calendar.

She will not be the favorite, but Great Island (4-1) seems to have it all for Saturday’s $600,000 Grade 1 Flower Bowl Stakes, Saratoga’s automatic qualifier for the Breeders’ Cup Filly & Mare Turf. She has that turn of foot that translates to being an exciting, effective closer. Lightly raced at 5, she was on the bridle seven weeks ago fighting jockey Joel Rosario, and she still won the Grade 3 Matchmaker at Monmouth Park. Since she is trained by the titan of turf, Chad Brown, that is worth more than a few points – and dollars. So is the fact that Rosario will be able to use the crop for more than the fashion statement that New Jersey rules restricted it to being in the Matchmaker. Great Island’s style should translate to getting 1⅜ miles for the first time. If she does not, deep closer War Like Goddess (4-5) should make it four consecutive victories for trainer Bill Mott, all in graded stakes. Either way, that is the exacta box to play Saturday at 6:11 p.m. EDT. For deeper exotics, throw in My Sister Nat (5-1), the runner-up to Civil Union in this race last year.

Although I have mentioned it on my podcast, I have avoided writing about being one of the eight or nine members of the media who were arbitrarily thrown out of the press box last month at Arlington Park before we had finished our coverage of the Mister D. Stakes. Since I was part of the story, it seemed inappropriate to try and cover it objectively in this forum. Others have written about it, and I would recommend a Google search to find those stories. For what it is worth, I will try to cover the final closing day at Arlington on Sept. 25, but who knows how welcome or unwelcome I will be? That said, do not pity us journalists who were treated shabbily. Life offers bigger fish to fry – and stories to cover – especially outside the little bubble that is sports.

Ron Flatter’s racing column is available every Friday at VSiN.com. The Ron Flatter Racing Pod is also available every Friday morning at VSiN.com/podcasts. This week’s episode focuses on closing weekend in New York and southern California. Andy Serling and Tom Amoss of “Saratoga Live” review the summer season and look ahead to the big races during Labor Day weekend. Duane Colucci of the Rampart Sportsbook handicaps races at Saratoga and Del Mar. Keith Chamblin of the National Thoroughbred Racing Association discusses the current state of handicapping contests like last weekend’s National Horseplayers Championship. The Ron Flatter Racing Pod is available for free subscription at iHeart, Apple, Google, Spotify and Stitcher. It is sponsored by 1/ST BET.

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