How Arlington is Getting it Right

In the interest of full disclosure, I do get a paycheck from Arlington Park during the summer for doing race analysis. In the interest of further full disclosure, that has nothing at all to do with this entry. I'm legitimately excited.


Arlington Park is doing lots of great things right now. It seems like every so often for the last two months, I'll get a news release from them about something new they're going to do this year. The first big thing I liked was the way they've created a heavily discounted season admission pass that includes a wagering credit, parking, and other perks well above the cost of the package. While this won't change much for really serious horseplayers who are already receiving admission discounts (or free admission) based on wagering activity, it certainly does seem to be a result of realizing that more bodies at the track is a good thing. Sure, some may take advantage of it purely as an avenue for entertainment thanks to Friday Parties in the Park and other events, but nobody starts wagering on horses without first being exposed to them. More bodies equals more handle, plain and simple.


This is especially worth noting on the same day that it was announced that Hollywood Park submitted a proposal to actually increase admission prices. In the current economic times, it's no secret to anyone that disposable income is down. Less disposable income means that for the casual horseplayer, bankroll has been slashed as other monetary concerns take center stage. I'm pretty thrilled about this move. Anything that brings more folks to the track where they can be introduced to the excitement is a good move by me.


Their stakes schedule this year is also fantastic, but perhaps I'll get to that another day (I'm especially glad they reinstated some of the Million Day overnights that had gone by the wayside...).


What originally prompted me to write this blog was an email I received today regarding Million Preview Day and the entire series of races that lead up to the main events on Million Day. For those who don't know, Preview Day is a Saturday afternoon with three big stakes races, for each of the three divisions represented with graded stakes on Million Day.


The graded stakes races that make up the Million Preview Day program - a staple at Arlington since 2001 - are the Grade III $200,000 Arlington Handicap, which serves as the final local prep for the Grade I Arlington Million; the Grade III $200,000 Modesty Handicap, which is the last local prep for the Grade I $750,000 Beverly D.; and the Grade II $300,000 American Derby, the second leg of the Mid-America Triple and a prep for the series' final leg the Grade I $400,000 Secretariat Stakes.


The new twist is that the top three finishers in each of these three races (Arlington Handicap, Modesty Handicap, and American Derby) will now have their entry fees and starting fees waived if they enter the corresponding event on Million Day. This is an idea that many have advocated in a different sense to make the best use of the Breeders' Cup "Win and You're In" series - that perhaps we could in some way compensate those winners to encourage them to head to the Breeders' Cup and actually reward them for scoring in one of the designated races. Most winners of those events would never be left out of a Breeders' Cup field anyway, so it's largely a symbolic gesture for all but the wildest of longshot winners.


What Arlington has done here is to potentially provide that little extra nudge to some connections whose horse ran a big race on Preview Day but who may be just on the edge of entering three weeks later. I realize that most horsemen will not enter their runners in a spot in which they don't belong anyway, but I like this move all the same. Arlington is going out of their way to make it easier for horses to race in their main events, and that can only be a good thing.


As an example, say you have a horse that runs second in the Arlington Handicap. He'd have earned you $40,000 for that performance, but it would set you back $15,000 to run him in the Million. Not anymore. If your horse is nominated to the Million, you're in on Arlington's dime. Same goes for the winner and third finisher, and this applies to all three races.


Overall, Arlington is offering up to $93,000 worth of paid entry and starting fees to these nine horses for the three races on Million Day.


In addition to that, the Mid-America Triple (the three race series for sophomores, consisting of the Arlington Classic, the American Derby, and the Secretariat) has some rewards of its own. $3,000 will be paid out to the owner of any runner that starts in two of the three races, and if the runner starts in all three events, that will be bumped to $6,000. Not to mention the $500,000 bonus attached to any runner that can accomplish a sweep of all three. All in all, when the math is done, this is a huge opportunity for three year-old turfers.


Entering and running in all three would set you back $12,800, but they'll turn right around and refund $6,000 of that just for the heck of it (thanks for visiting?). An on-the-board finish in the American Derby knocks another $6,000 off your total price anyway (owing to the free start in the Secretariat), so the owner of a talented runner could theoretically wind up paying just $800 out of pocket for a chance at their share of $850,000 in purses and the $500,000 bonus. That's free money.


I don't mean to get all bogged down in the math of it, but the incentive is huge in those terms.


Will this result in a tangible, noticeable improvement of the racing stock on Million Day? Maybe not, but I'd love to be proven wrong, as many of the big guns will be waiting for Million Day anyway. Still, there is something very important going on here. Arlington is doing something to make racing more accessible. They're making it more accessible to fans, serious and casual alike. They're making it more accessible to owners.


When it sometimes seems as though we get nothing but bad news as racing fans and horseplayers, it's nice to at least see a track trying. I also happen to be proud that it's my home track. Wouldn't it be great if something like this wasn't so shocking and out of the norm? Wouldn't it be great if this didn't strike me as so innovative -- lowering admission prices with good parking and putting their money where their mouth is in encouraging horses to run? It should be common sense. I know that I'd be happy to see tracks everywhere going out of their way to make it easier for horses to race and easier for the fans to be a part of it.


Now if I can just get a call in to a sympathetic ear about the beer prices, I'm pretty sure I'd be set for the summer.


There's Always Next Time: The Ottos Lotto Story

by Brian W. Spencer [brianwspencer (at)]

The backstretch at Hawthorne Race Course is hardly abuzz in the late morning of this frigid December Thursday. Training hours are over and not one horse is visible on the drive from the West gate to barn K-2. I'm sitting in the passenger seat of local trainer Paul Darjean's pickup truck, and though we've never met, he was expecting me. He also knows that I'm here to spend some time with his 0-for-53 runner, and I have no clue how he might respond to a young reporter's interest in one of the game's scions of ineptitude.


Her name may have been a tip-off: Ottos Lotto. She's been toiling in the maiden ranks, without a break for an astounding 41 months: a span that dates back to May 2005. Over that period, she's raced at four different tracks under 21 different riders from open special weight events down to $10,000 Illinois-bred maiden claimers. She's sprinted, gone turns, tried turf; found slop... and sleet and sealed and snow... with nary a victory on her slate. She's managed to hit the board just ten times during that stretch: made even more remarkable by a hot streak in early 2008 in which she lit the tote in five consecutive tries. Her other 48 races have been markedly less productive.


Darjean is currently tending to Ottos Lotto even though her trainer of record is Shana Schiemann. I spoke with Schiemann for the first time just a week prior to my visit, and was momentarily worried that my pitch for a story would be laughed off. Yes, it was true. I wanted to write an interest feature about her 0-for-53 homebred. Immediately after I introduced myself over the phone and explained my intentions, Schiemann indeed did start laughing. "Oh my," she said, "what do you want to know?" I explained my fascination with her runner, and my date to meet the mare was planned.


Schiemann bred Ottos Lotto on her farm, through a mating of two horses she owns. Even a pedigree novice could take one look at the recent branches of her family tree and see that this foal was bred to fit snugly into bottom level Illinois maiden claiming races. She is the only foal to race by the stallion Anxious Otto, himself a 2-for-80 underachiever whose only successes came in dirt route races. She is out of the 1-for-19 mare Cherry Very, whose lone score came sprinting on the dirt. Cherry Very's first three foals were all winners, but combined for an eye-popping 5-for-119 record.


Ottos Lotto was in no rush to improve her dam's production numbers when she started her career, as she was beaten a total of 105 lengths in her first six starts. Such is the fragile nature of the thoroughbred pedigree, a testament to the difficulty involved in finding the right pairing. One need only look back a few generations through Ottos Lotto's meager Illinois lineage to find it littered with notable runners including a trio of Belmont Stakes winners in Damascus, Stage Door Johnny, and Gallant Man.


Ottos Lotto's record is probably as much a result of her running style and bad luck as it is any apparent lack of talent. For speed figure types, she has the ability to Beyer in the mid-50s and on a good day can tally a 14 on Thorograph's scale. While those numbers won't send most handicappers rushing to the windows, a quick look at most Chicago basement claimers, especially those in the heart of a brutal Hawthorne winter meet, makes it clear that she's actually more than fast enough to have tallied a score by now.


It may also seem like having such an eyesore of a career record would keep riders away, but Darjean makes it clear that he never has any trouble getting a jockey for the winless wonder. "She gives you her best every time she runs, and her riders know it," he says. "She just won't quit, but she comes from so far back that she has to steady all the time. There have been a few races where she would have won if she could have just gotten out and had a straight path."


It seems that those jockeys who have accepted the challenge would agree. Trey Agilar became as close as she's ever had to a regular rider earlier this year, and has ridden her to half of her career on-the-board finishes. A heartbreaking loss in an Arlington special weight race on the grass June 22 was just another missed opportunity for Ottos Lotto. That day, Agilar struggled to find room in the stretch before switching outside and closing with a rush late to be fifth. He and the mare were beaten less than two lengths. It would be hard to deny that she was most deserving of a win that afternoon, and it remains closest she's ever come to glory.


On closing day at Arlington, Darjean managed to lure E.T. Baird to the saddle for the day's nightcap, and he came back enthused about her abilities after a sixth-place finish in a salty special weight event on the lilting Heights lawn. Darjean smiles slightly and speaks like a proud father when he tells me about their post-race conversation. "He came right back and told me that if he could have ever straightened her out and let her run, he was absolutely sure it was her race," said Darjean. "He's ridden enough good horses to know when he's sitting on one that should have won. He actually wanted to ride her back when she went again at Hawthorne, but he left to ride in Kentucky before we got her in."


I pepper Darjean with more questions about her demeanor, her training habits, and whether or not he and Schiemann ever become frustrated with her or her record. He is surprisingly unwavering in his support of her talent. "I don't get frustrated about it because I know that she is better than she looks on paper," he says. "We have tried to put a little speed in her to keep her closer in route races, but she doesn't like it. She can't finish like that. We just realized that we have to let her run the way she wants to run, and that means she's going to do her own thing and then give you a really good, really strong three-eighths of a mile run at the end."


He also has a proud smile reserved for speaking about the mare's soundness. She's been led to post over once a month for nearly the last four years and she's never had a major setback. "At least she's sound," he says. "Look at the mares she's run against... some of them have been done racing for years now, and she's still going. Sure, they may have won once or twice, but she's still around. Where are they now?"


Fifty minutes to first post that day, I phone Schiemann again and we talk about the field Ottos Lotto will face in a $10,000 maiden claiming sprint the next day. If it's at all possible for a 53: 0-3-7 runner with $27,000 in earnings to look like a standout on paper, Ottos Lotto is that runner. The winless mare towers over most of her opponents from a speed figure perspective, and it seems that unless either of the two first-time starters fire right out of the box, tomorrow should be the day.


Schiemann admits to being skeptical about her chances the following day, but also knows that this is as good a chance as she's going to get. "Obviously, this is the easiest race she's come into in a long time -- maybe ever -- but I try not to get my hopes up," she timidly suggests. "It would be great if she won - it would make my year if she won. But I've seen her have enough chances that I still stay skeptical about it."


"It would make my year if she won," she repeats.


I ask the obvious questions about whether or not a win is the biggest thing for Schiemann right now, and if so, why she has never shipped her to an off-the-path track where she could easily cruise around two bends against basement maiden claimers. Schiemann is hesitant to even take that idea seriously. "I've thought about it, maybe Fairmount, but you know, you're still never sure what's going to happen," she says. "You're dealing with new riders, a new track, and what if she hates the track? You would think she could win easily, but I tried that with a few other horses, and it's never quite as easy as it sounds."


Schiemann isn't at all unrealistic about what kind of mare she has. She doesn't sugarcoat Ottos Lotto's record, but remains incredibly upbeat and positive when discussing her. She tells me that she won't run her when the mare shows she doesn't want to anymore. If she can't manage a win sometime soon, she'll take her back to her farm in Harvard, IL and breed her next year. If the horse manages to win a race, Schiemann says she'd be inclined to give her a few more chances.


Just a few minutes talking to Schiemann makes it clear that this is a racehorse she loves, and this is a sport she loves, even when the successes are few, or in the case of Ottos Lotto, non-existent. As we end our conversation, she interrupts me saying in a matter-of-fact tone, "You know, my husband keeps telling me to just sell her, but I can't. He says I should just let someone else deal with her, but I won't. I've been around her so long, it's like she's family, and I'm going to keep her around."


Her attitude is remarkable, but every word spoken about the mare is tinged with a sense of humor: something Schiemann has down to a science when it comes to caring about Ottos Lotto.If Schiemann follows through on her plan to breed Ottos Lotto, the Chicago racing circuit may just be seeing the beginning of this saga. Ottos Lotto will never reach the folklore status of racing's most lovable loser, Zippy Chippy, because she'll never get the chance. Schiemann insists that she won't let her go much further down this seemingly futile road.


In her own right, Ottos Lotto should be a local legend because it's going to be a long time before a horse this talented manages to lose 53 consecutive races. Make that 54. The race that Schiemann, Darjean, and I all agreed was the easiest she'd ever seen was added to Ottos Lotto's ‘perfect' record. The mare that hasn't caught a break in four years went back out to the gate against an incredibly forgettable bunch, and as if to join in the laugh with us, beat just one horse.


Laughing about it is all you can do - just ask Shana Schiemann. Laugh and look forward to the next start.




International Festival of Racing Dispatch #6

Well, I've kept my eyes and ears open all week but haven't come up with much great information.

Today's works were somewhat telling, and all three races are just going to come down to what you think of the favorites.

Just a few thoughts on tomorrow's inscrutable card:

Love Cavan Thunder in the 4th. Think 1/2 to Tiz Wonderful, Witch Princess, is made of more than we saw in the debut. Why is Amazing Results not in the Secretariat instead of the Forward Pass? Toque de Queda looks sensational, and may be a bit of a surprise. Mauralakana appeared completely in her own world when I went and saw her today. Snoose Goose should be live in the Secretariat. He certainly fits in a race that isn't deep after two runners, and he was a handful in the barn this morning....he's ready to go.

What I'll leave you with here, if I don't get back online to update tonight is something that Frank Kirby told me today when I was visiting Cloudy's Knight. The horse is a monster to look at, he's a giant one, but he's crooked and unattractive in the legs. Kirby told me that "when he was 2, I wouldn't have paid a ham sandwich for him."

That's as good as it gets! Hope someone, somewhere got something out of this, and I hope you all enjoy your Million Day!

Feel free to drop a comment about who you like in tomorrow's races.



Arlington International Festival of Racing Dispatch #5

Well, I somehow tricked myself into thinking it was a good idea to peel out of bed at 5:00am to get out here to see the runners for tomorrow's Million card hit the track one last time before the big day. I'll update this post throughout the morning, and am venturing back to the barn area around 9:00am to take a look at some of the runners.

Einstein just came out on the track for a bit of walking, he's been out for awhile with Helen Pitts up just soaking it all in. Like Amateurcapper said in the comments on my photo entry, this guy is just a picture of perfection. He couldn't look any better on the track and there shouldn't be any concerns with how he's coming into this race. He's brilliantly put together and while he seems to be a bit forgotten with all the talk of the European invaders, but he should be primed for a huge effort tomorrow and will have every shot if he's good enough.

The old warrior Silverfoot also came out for a leisurely nine furlong walk around the oval. Maybe I'm just reading too much into his age, but he just seemed a little less interested in being around than some of the others I've seen. There are no concerns at all with how he looks, he's a wonderful horse to look at, but he was walking around sort of the way he runs -- slowly and less fluid than some of the others.

Mauralakana has got to be one of the better looking runners on the grounds right now. She's responding well to her temporary new surroundings.

Tizdejavu came out for a very light jog, if you could even call it that, and he's just floating. I guess that most of these runners are good ones so they're going to look good, but I'm very impressed with this guy, as much as I'd love to beat him tomorrow.

Dreaming of Anna was out for a very brief walk around the course with Wayne Catalano up, and Cloudy's Knight was allowed to just walk and take it all in.

Archipenko walked up and then offered up a spirited jog...he certainly looks the part here.

European Secretariat runner Plan came out and actually gave a light gallop, and certainly looked primed for tomorrow's run. 

Spirit One, who turned in a blistering, eye-catching work yesterday, also came out for an easy walk around the course.

Cicerole and Toque de Queda came out together and walked around the track once in tandem, and honestly, on paper I'm not a big fan of Toque de Queda, but she looks sensational. I'm not sure whether or not it will be enough to sway my opinion of her, but I think based on her presence alone, she's worth a second look. 

Here's Toque de Queda, courtesy of Four Footed Fotos


So far, Dreaming of Anna has been the least impressive looking horse out on the track. The pace scenario doesn't flatter her anyway, so perhaps that's another good reason to play against the local money on her. 

....More to Come



Sudan out of Million

With no real details provided, and it certainly doesn't appear that they're going to be coming anytime soon, Sudan is out of the Million.

Spirit One may be the only real pace left in here.

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