Reel 'em in with a hook
After the Met Mile trainer Bobby Frankel was quoted as saying of Ghostzapper, "He's the best horse in America and nobody knows about it... This horse should have a huge fan following." He also lamented the lack of TV exposure for the 2004 Horse of the Year.
There's no question, he's right. Ghostzapper does lack the appeal and public following accorded many other champions. Why? What gives some horses their panache?
It's a hook. A streak. A rivalry. An accomplished career. Think of any horse that has captured the imagination of racing fans (and beyond) and you will find those types of hooks.
Cigar had his streak. Affirmed had his Triple Crown -- but also the renowned rivalry with Alydar. Forego had an incredible career that stretched into his 8YO season.
What does Ghostzapper have? To quote ESPN's Randy Moss, "You're talking about your Spectacular Bid's, and your Secretariat's, and your Seattle Slew's when your talking about Beyer speed figures that high." Yep, we've got to admit that the Ghost has thrown some impressive speed figures (four times at 120+ on the Beyer scale and similar eye-popping numbers from other fig makers). But, while we believe in speed figures as a handicapping tool and even feel they're a valid component for comparing horses -- they are only part of that equation.
When we look back at Secretariat's astounding victory in the Belmont to win the Triple Crown, does Ghostzapper's "122" in the Met Mile really compare on the "wow factor"? Which makes for the greater racetrack memory: Forego giving away 19 pounds and running down Honest Pleasure to win the 1976 Marlboro by a head, or Ghostzapper getting a "128" over Presidentialaffair in the Iselin? Affirmed and Alydar ding-donging it out for the last mile of the Belmont or Ghostzapper getting a "124" in the BC Classic?
Speed figures are great -- but to truly become part of the lore of horse-racing a "great" needs more. Ghostzapper needs a hook and we have it!
Frankel claims, "You've got the best horse you've had in the last 20 years running around here and you don't have it on television." Clearly there are naysayers (like us) but our plan puts all that to bed -- and should even bring the media exposure the trainer believes the horse deserves.
Bobby Frankel must commit to the Whitney 100%. But beyond that he needs to declare -- sooner rather than later, in order to get the PR machine rolling -- that he doesn't just want, but he requires NYRA racing secretary Lakow to start weighting the Whitney field with Ghostzapper -- and that the weight assigned to the champ should have a "3" in the middle. Then Mr Frankel needs to invite all the other contenders in the division to join Ghostzapper in the Whitney starting gate.
And it's up to the connections of all the other top names in the handicap division to step up (and if the scale is starting at 130+, these guys will have to suck it up and accept a few more pounds too -- if you're getting five pounds from a Ghostzapper at 126, you carry 121, five pounds from 130 though is 125). Mr Ramsey, Mr Romans, we expect Roses in May to accept the challenge. Mr Campbell, Mr Pletcher, have Limehouse ready. And Mr Pletcher, point Pollard's Vision to this spot. Hey Sackatoga, having the '03 Derby winner in the gate would add some "hometown" spice to this stew. And now that Eddington has gotten a G1 win outside of Florida, he's part of the mix too. The more the merrier. And maybe we can even get NYRA to bump up the prize to $1 million if we can get a minimum of six or seven G1 winners in the starting gate.
Finally, it's up to the fans to make it known that we want this to happen. We want to see a champion defined in such a way. Stepping up to the plate and unequivocally knocking it over the fence against the best the sport has to offer.
This is it. This is the hook that could move Ghostzapper into the pantheon of the truly great. It's Babe Ruth pointing to the outfield fence towards the spot where he's going to deliver the four-bagger. It's Joe 'Willy' Namath predicting a Super Bowl victory. Heck, it's Seabiscuit's owner Charles Howard saying, "Bring on War Admiral!"
I'll readily admit, I'm rooting against Ghostzapper and his abbreviated 2005 season. But if the Ghostzapper team commits to the Whitney, asks for weight, and invites all comers, I'll be squarely on his bandwagon. And if the owners of the others contenders, NYRA, and the fans join in, this could be a moment that racing history won't soon forget.
So far, only "great-lite"
On the other hand, if the status quo holds sway, if there are no bold challenges, then I will continue to hold my less than complimentary opinion of Ghostzapper and his definition as a "great". Why? Certainly there's no denying that he is a very talented individual. But I'm very leery about reinforcing the precedent that a four-race campaign is worthy of Horse of the Year recognition. But it goes beyond that...
Let's take a closer look at Ghostzapper's career:
His record today is a superior 11-9-0-1. After the Met Mile Mr Frankel said that Ghostzapper, "was tired a little bit," and would therefore skip the Suburban and instead point for the Whitney. Prior to this the horse was pointing for the Suburban, Whitney, Woodward and BC Classic. So, if they stick to that schedule, minus the Suburban the horse will end his career having started fourteen times.
We've already acknowledged that this is a talented individual. And that he has tossed up some spectacular speed figures. But what about other barometers of "greatness" -- durability, distance, and weight among others?
We like to think that a champion possesses a certain amount of durability. Skipping the Suburban Frankel says, "...gives me an opportunity to get him fresh again." Gee, if the horse isn't "fresh" after one start in seven months -- then durability is a question mark. (And as an aside, it seems that questions about the horse's physical well-being are legit given his extremely limited schedule -- which raises all kinds of questions for the industry as he will surely be a popular stud prospect. Even if, as Frankel suggests, "The horses are running faster and that's why I can't come back and run him too often. They're running so fast their legs can't handle it," then where does that logically conclude? If the top-level horses have gotten so fast they can only run four times a year, will they be so fast a couple more generations down the line that they'll only run once a year?)
Keep this in mind as you savor the career of the 'Zapper: To this point he's raced more than a mile only three times. On his current schedule that will swell to a total of six. But perhaps more importantly, even with that potential total of six -- he will have competed at "classic" distances greater than nine furlongs only twice. And more disturbing, he will have raced around two turns only three times!
Unfortunately in this day and age weight is a tenuous factor in deciding "greatness" because there are so many big-money events for owners/trainers to choose from that racing secretaries tend to yield to practicality and give less weight than is warranted in order to attract "name" runners. So it's unlikely that we'll see horses carry weight like Forego, who toted 130+ twenty-four times in his career. But, it was less than ten years ago that Cigar succeeded in the Mass 'Cap with an assignment of 130 and Skip Away carried 130 in winning the Mass 'Cap and 131 while taking the Iselin.
So it seems fair to at least bring up the subject when talking about Ghostzapper. Unless the connections undertake the plan we've outlined, it's unlikely the horse will ever carry more than 126. He's carried that weight twice, in the Woodward and the BC Classic. Those are weight-for-age races, so he'll carry that same 126 if he runs in those two events again this year. He has never carried more than 123 in a handicap race. In last year's Iselin Hcp he packed a relatively modest 120 against Presidentialaffair (117), Zoffinger (115), and Private Lap . And let's not forget that Ghostzapper wound up running in the G3 Iselin after Frankel bypassed the G2 Vanderbilt, expressing displeasure with the 122 pound assignment the horse was given for that race.
Race record/competition, a closer look
And finally -- and perhaps most importantly -- let's take a look at the competition Ghostzapper has faced in his string of six stakes wins.
Of course, since Ghostzapper only has one 2005 start perhaps it's not fair to look at the current Top Ten. So let's go back to the "Watchmaker Watch" from Breeders' Cup day 2004. Ghostzapper was #2 on that list. Of the others, Ghostzapper faced Pleasantly Perfect (#1) once, Medaglia d'Oro never, Pico Central (#6) never, Peace Rules (#7) never, Evening Attire (#10) never (the missing numbers from the 2004 Top Ten are repeats from the 2005 group listed in the paragraph above).
In other words, beyond the 2004 BC Classic Ghostzapper hasn't faced the best of the best. Even if you don't think the "Watchmaker Watch" is a solid accounting of the tops in the division, pick your own names and see how many of them Ghostzapper has faced beyond the BC Classic last year.
Stacking up against the past
While visiting various internet horse-racing fan forums over the past week we've seen many Ghostzapper "greatness" defenders cite horses like Personal Ensign and Sunday Silence who have had similarly light campaigns yet were still considered with some degree of awe. But look again in light of the facts listed above.
OK, sure, Personal Ensign only had thirteen lifetime starts. But she won all of them! Including nine G1s. She won the Beldame twice, at 10F. She faced the boys and won the G1 Whitney, running second was Eclipse sprint champ Gulch. She won the G1 BC Distaff, running second was G1 Kentucky Derby winner Winning Colors.
How about Sunday Silence? Fourteen career starts. Just what Ghostzapper will end up with if he sticks to the three races penned in for the remainder of the year. Sunday Silence's career included six G1 wins. He won at greater than 9F three times. He took two-thirds of the Triple Crown and just missed the sweep when Easy Goer took the Belmont in their classic rivalry. He ended his 3YO season by stepping up to face older company and winning the BC Classic.
It's kind of hard to look at the anemic schedule Ghostzapper has had since last summer and find the same level excitement we tend to associate with the truly "great". And while some pundits might feel I'm looking a gift horse in the mouth, I disagree with that.
Turning the naysayer around
The cry has been clear over the past ten days or so, naysayers should be more grateful. Frank Stronach is doing us a favor by bringing his champion back. And while I don't totally disagree with that, I take exception to the notion that there are no degrees of gratitude.
For example, let's imagine a man is lost for two days in the desert when he stumbles upon another man having a picnic. The picnicker is having a true feast: Roast turkey with stuffing, salads, cranberry sauce, cakes and pies, and pitchers sweating with condensation from the cool drinks contained within. Now imagine further that the picnicker looks upon the starving man and says, "Sir, I will not let you pass by in your condition without sharing my bounty." He then hands the starving man four grapes and sends him on his way.
Sure, the starving man should probably be grateful for the grapes -- they are better than nothing. But isn't he entitled to voice some displeasure at the miserly offering?
Likewise, I'm happy that Stronach/Frankel have brought Ghostzapper back for another season, it is better than whisking him off to the breeding shed. But at the same time I think it's fair as a racing fan to be bitterly disappointed in only four starts.
But that bitterness can turn to joyous excitement if only "the plan" is put into action. Let Mr Stronach and Mr Frankel demand 130+ for the Whitney. Let them call out the other owners in a race to prove the best is the best. Let those other owners accept the challenge. Let NYRA step up and assign the highweight and do whatever they can to get a four-star field into the starting gate. And let we, the fans, raise our voices high in the quest to make such an event happen -- and, in so doing, ignite the media to give this race the coverage it will be due.
Weight. Two turns. Top class competition. And we'll happily lead the grass roots movement to get as much press coverage as possible... If all the pieces of this puzzle fall together we might just end up with one of the most electric day's of racing in recent memory.
"If you do it, they will come."
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