Horse racing can be a bit inscrutable to those not familiar with it. I actually think this is especially true in the south; live horse racing (with gambling) only occurs in states on the periphery of SEC country. (Texas, Louisiana, Missouri, Kentucky, and southern Florida all have racing. Tennessee, Mississippi, Alabama, Georgia and South Carolina do not.) College football is king, but horse racing remains a sport worth following. After all, this Saturday marks six months to the start of the football season.
I have decided to provide A Football Fan’s Guide to Horse Racing by comparing the most prominent humans associated with the horses (their trainers) to the most high-profile people associated with our college football teams, the head coaches. The first eight I’ve selected are all top trainers and three of them field three of the top horses in training now. Game on Dude, Will Take Charge, and Mucho Macho Man will face each other in the Santa Anita Handicap that will be covered on FS1 , but their trainers will be going at it with different horses in the Triple Crown as well. Onto the guide:
Bob Baffert (Southern California) – Head Coach Equivalent, Pete Carroll: Bob Baffert is perhaps the most famous horse trainer in the US, with his trademark shock-silver hair and impeccable style. Like Carroll, he has recruited the best talent (i.e. gets the best horses) from California and the Southwest. He has connections to several high-profile owners (boosters) and counts Hollywood stars among his friends and clients. His opponents contend that his training (recruiting) methods come very close to the boundary of what’s acceptable under the letter of the law, but no one can argue with his success. He trains Game on Dude and will likely have 1-3 contenders for this year’s Kentucky Derby.
Todd Pletcher (New York/Florida) – Head Coach Equivalent, Nick Saban: Todd Pletcher has been racing’s most successful trainer for several years running (in terms of both money and year-end championships won). Pletcher’s success can be ascribed to following “The Process,” just like Saban. Pletcher technically manages a team (a stable) of over 200 horses, but in actuality he directs a coaching staff of several assistant trainers, grooms, exercise riders and stable managers in addition to his many players. His role of CEO-as-trainer does not mean he is not close to his charges, but allows him to be consistent in his attention and planning. His process has attracted the best athletes, which only amplifies his success. Even though numerous championships line his shelves, he is often remembered by the races he hasn’t won. He had four Derby entrants last year and will, in all likelihood, have at least three runners in this year’s edition.
D Wayne Lukas (Arkansas, Kentucky) – Head Coach Equivalent, Bobby Bowden: D Wayne Lukas is arguably the most successful trainer in North American history with both more Triple Crown and Breeder’s Cup victories than any other. However, his charges haven’t done much since the nineties when they were at the top of sport. His nickname is “Coach”; Like Bowden, several former assistants, including Todd Pletcher, have gone on to successful careers of their own. He still knows the game and is enjoying a bit of a renaissance – he saddles Will Take Charge and has a Derby contender in Strong Mandate.
Kathy Ritvo (Florida) – Head Coach Equivalent, David Cutcliffe: Kathy Ritvo trains champion Mucho Macho Man and was the first woman to train a Breeder’s Cup Classic winner. Cutcliffe still mentors current Bronco’s QB Peyton Manning. His recent success with Duke’s team is no less historic.
Chad Brown (New York) – Head Coach Equivalent, Gus Malzahn: Chad Brown is the new up-and-coming trainer in North America. Right now, Brown is most recognized for training turf horses, but recent success at the highest level has made him a bigger player in recruiting equine athletes.
Christophe Clement (NY/France) – “Football” Coach Equivalent, Arsene Wenger: Clement is a Frenchman and has a very different idea of what football is. He, however, is one of North America’s best trainers with horses running on the turf.
Rudy Rodriguez (NY) – Head Coach Equivalent, Rich Rodriguez: I know they are two different people but I keep calling one the other. Rodriguez rose from relative obscurity to have considerable success at lower levels of the sport but had a more difficult time with the increased scrutiny at the higher echelons. Besides sharing a monogram, their rise to success seems to have brought more detractors than promoters, albeit unfairly.
Bill Mott (NY/FL) – Head Coach Equivalent, Bill Snyder: Mott has enjoyed considerable success employing a patient training style that maximizes the effort from every horse. And he’s been at it a long time. He is able to extract every last ounce of talent through his methods. His style may not be flashy, but it is hard to argue with his success. Mott has a horse named Lea that, while not racing , may prove to be one of the best by the end of this year.
FS1 covers a great race at Santa Anita Park in Southern California. The Santa Anita Handicap (also called the Big ‘Cap) is the biggest race of the first half of the year for horses 4-years and older. It’s the race featured in the climax of the movie Seabiscuit, perhaps the race’s most famous historical champion. What it isn’t is a race for horses eligible for this year’s Kentucky Derby – at this point in their development, most three-year-old horses would not be able to compete at the speed and distance the Big Cap will be run.
What makes this race special is that three of the sport’s unquestioned best runners are going to run. 6-year-old Mucho Macho Man (trained by Kathy Ritvo) is the winner of the 2013 Breeders’ Cup Classic (run at Santa Anita at the same 1.25 mile distance), North America’s richest race. The horse he nosed out to win the BCC is 4-year-old Will Take Charge, who didn’t place in last year’s Triple Crown but crushed his 3-year-old competition in the second half of the season to be voted last years 3yo champion. The 3rd favorite is 7-year-old Game On Dude, who has already won the Big Cap twice and isn’t a 3-time winner only because he skipped the 2012 edition to run overseas.
Four to six other contenders are expected to line up against these three for an exciting race. Expect Mucho Macho Man to be the favorite, but few will be surprised if Will Take Charge closes the gap late and wins by the nose he lost by last time.
Follow @mikedorr77 on Twitter