- Bill Finley
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Union Rags was the best 2-year-old to race in 2011 and comes from a stable that has already shown it knows how to win the Kentucky Derby. It was no doubt difficult for Javier Castellano to inform trainer Michael Matz that he would not ride Union Rags in the Fountain of Youth at Gulfstream, but he made the right pick when selecting the Todd Pletcher-trained Algorithms.
Pletcher's strength and numbers are so overwhelming that a jockey and his agent would be insane to hop off the Todd bandwagon.
This was not about picking horses but about picking trainers. Pletcher's strength and numbers are so overwhelming that a jockey and his agent would be insane to hop off the Todd bandwagon.
It's not that Pletcher is petty and would necessarily hold it against Castellano if he had chosen Union Rags, but you still have to stick with him. To be on his good side and part of his team can be the difference between being a good rider and an elite one. Over the last 18 months or so, Castellano has clearly moved in as the No. 2 option behind John Velazquez in the Pletcher stable. That has meant numerous opportunities. Since Jan 1, 2011, Castellano has won 51 races for Pletcher from 182 mounts for earnings of $4,788,125. That included 10 graded stakes races, among them last year's $1 million Travers, which he won aboard Stay Thirsty.
This year, Pletcher Power has risen to new levels. It's not just Algorithms. In the Daily Racing Form's rankings of the leading Kentucky Derby prospects, Pletcher trains four of the Top 10 in Algorithms (2); El Padrino (4); Gemologist (7) and Discreet Dancer (10). Union Rags is No. 1.
"Javier rides four Derby prospects, four of which are with one trainer [Pletcher]," Castellano's agent Matt Muzikar told the Daily Racing Form when announcing the decision to ride Algorithms. "This was a very tough decision but Javier and I thought it was the right decision."
Algorithms doesn't have to win the Kentucky Derby or even get there. But by being in Pletcher's corner, Castellano is all but guaranteed a quality mount in the race. Some believe that El Padrino, who Castellano also rides, is every bit as good as Algorithms.
Matz is a terrific trainer, but he simply cannot do for Castellano what Pletcher can do. While Castellano has been busy winning those 51 races over the last 13 ½ months for Pletcher, he's won just two for Matz, both with Union Rags. If Union Rags flames out prior to the Derby, Matz won't be able to provide Castellano with a backup option.
Matz has chosen Julien Leparoux to replace Castellano on Union Rags, and his colt will be in good hands. Maybe they even will beat Castellano and Algorithms in the Fountain of Youth. To Castellano, that shouldn't matter. He chose the bigger picture, and wasn't wrong.
Bailey's Eclipse Votes
Thanks to his affiliation with ESPN and ABC, Hall of Fame rider Jerry Bailey became an Eclipse Award voter last year. For the most part, his ballot mirrored those of most of the other writers and broadcasters that cast votes. Bill Mott won the 2011 Eclipse Award as the nation's outstanding trainer. During much of his career, Bailey was Mott's stable rider and it can be argued that Mott was a big part of his success. So whom did Bailey vote for? Todd Pletcher.
For what it's worth, I also voted for Pletcher.
Gural Is On the Mark
While being honored at Sunday's Dan Patch Awards, Harness Racing's equivalent of the Eclipse Awards, new Meadowlands owner Jeff Gural implored those in the room to commit to a program whereby 5 percent of the money the industry receives from slots goes not to purses but marketing. According to Gural, harness racing receives $500 million in slots subsidies.
"We can use that money [$25 million] to clean up the drug problem, to put people in the grandstands," Gural said. "Think how often that can get us on national TV. I think everyone agrees this is not hard."
Gural is right, yet hard-headed horsemen continue to stand in the way of any and all such efforts to divert slots money from purses to marketing. When the slots money is gone, which is inevitable, the grandstands are empty and their horses are going for $1,800 a race maybe then they'll see the light. Of course, it will be too late.
Bill Finley is an award-winning racing writer whose work has appeared in The New York Times, USA Today and Sports Illustrated. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.