Aug. 21, 2013
Clearly Ken Ramsey is the luckiest man I know. What started out for the Kentuckian as a successful business run has turned into a dominant position in this sport, thanks in large part to a stallion and some unusual racing luck.
Big players have a soft spot in my heart. While I personally am not a “big player” and don’t have the heart to become one even should the luck gods smile on me with an unexpected bonanza in the future (near or far).
Ramsey qualifies as a Big Player. I first encountered him when I was working for a small radio station in Pine Bluff, AR, which he then owned, but sold a couple of years later, and as the announcer at Oaklawn. He was interested in the Oaklawn CLASSIX play and I handed him off to another media friend of mine, since my time was so limited that I didn’t feel comfortable getting involved with any CLASSIX play at that point.
He later was involved in a small-scale scandal at Turfway Park concerning a trainer who stood, as he perceived it, between him and the leading owner title. Much of that story has disappeared as Ramsey has ridden the coattails of the stallion, Kitten’s Joy, which he and his wife, Sarah, bred in 2000. Kitten’s Joy is mentioned by Ramsey at every turn and in every post-race speech I’ve ever heard by Ken.
Furthermore, mostly because of Kitten’s Joy’s offspring, Ken and Sarah have become the leading owners at Keeneland and Churchill Downs on a regular basis and, more recently, have added Gulfstream Park and Saratoga to their list of accomplishments. My guess is there’s no surprise that Ramsey would show up at those tracks, since they are tracks where a Big Player can make his moves and not seriously impact the pools. In addition to winning the 2nd race on Saturday on the Arlington Million card at the north Chicago showplace track, but added the Secretariat Stakes with Admiral Kitten, then concluded his day of dominance on the turf course, when his Real Solution repaid the owner’s confidence with an 8-1 win mutuel after a lengthy stewards’ deliberation, which should have taken no more than a minute. There was little doubt that this was going to be a decision in Ken Ramsey’s favor.
Ken loves to lead his horses into the winner’s circle and always sports a memorable huge smile. He wins so much, others in the game see his smile in their sleep. Where normally unnamed grooms bring their horses to the winner’s circle, Ramsey supplants the low-level worker and proudly displays his runner, always remembering to mention Kitten’s Joy, his past and future, in the post-race comments.
On Saturday, Ken was also asked about his famed tendency to back his own horses and he readily admitted that he went to the wagering windows three times. With the comparatively large odds of 8-1 Real Solution should have provided more than enough to host the post-race dinner party for his group of 13, and who know how many more he picked up along the way.
But Ramsey can thank, in part, an amateurish move by a consummate profession jockey, Christophe Soumillon, in the final strides of the Arlington Million. Soumillon, aboard trainer Michael de Kock’s European invader, The Apache, was to the inside and on his way to victory. According to Soumillon his mount shied away from the inside tote board. For some odd reason, Soumillon began to strike his mount left-handed numerous times as he bore out into Real Solution. The subsequent bumps where never met with a whip-switching maneuver by the French rider. I understand that some horses will run into the whipping side, which may explain why Soumillon continued his unexplainable efforts to straighten his mount, but even trainer de Kock noted that there was no question about the disqualification of his horse. It was almost if Ramsey was whispering into the jockey’s ear to continue with the left-handed stick. Whatever the case, the ultimate decision was clear from the outset and Ramsey’s luck continued. The big day for Ramsey also carried over to Saratoga where, in the owner’s absence, Big Blue Kitten whipped an outstanding field of distance turfers in the Sword Dancer Invitational, coming from last at the head of the stretch and managing to find enough holes to be drawing off at the end. Both Real Solution and Big Blue Kitten come from the barn of Bobby Frankel protégée, Chad Brown, making it quite a day for the low-key trainer, who has been through Oaklawn on occasion and is enjoying some great training successes, thanks largely to Ramsey and his steam-rolling stable of Kitten’s Joy offspring.
There’s an adage in racing that “I’d rather be lucky than smart.” When applied to Ramsey, the adage holds true. You have to have some breaks. He’s had them and has enjoyed every second of that success. But Ken is more than just lucky. He’s both lucky and smart. He has parlayed his talent into producing one of the strongest stables in recent racing memory and managed to do so while pumping up the stock of his most important horse, Kitten’s Joy. He proudly announced a raise in the price for Kitten’s Joy for the 2014 breeding season after the Arlington Million, then advised breeders not to get too excited, since stallion was fully booked. Ramsey has not achieved his position without taking some risks. But he has become the luckiest guy I’ve ever met and, to his credit, he has done so by making the fewest enemies thus far. If he keeps on winning, he’ll find out that the rest of his rivals will take little pleasure in his frequent trips to the winner’s circle. Some envy will inevitably pop that success’ balloon. Until then, Ken will continue to bury the collective noses of his rivals in Kitten’s Joy droppings. That’s just how it goes.
Meanwhile Dan Pietz, the Little Rock trainer, continues to knock on the door to success. He tried sending two his charges, Najaar (The American St. Leger) and Ausus (The Beverly D.) into action on Saturday. Pietz, who manages a high percentage with a small stable, raced his twosome against rivals of major reputation and finished third in each race. Najaar threatened as the field reached the head of the stretch of the one mile and eleven-sixteenth marathon St. Leger, before succumbing to the very strong finishing move of the invading Dandino, under British champion jockey, Ryan Moore, while Ausmus finished strongly along the rail to take third while never really threatening the leader, the ultra-impressive filly, Dank, another ridden by the talented Moore.
Still Pietz is very close to taking a position among the finest trainers in the land and will be welcomed on his return to Oaklawn. His family, who support him during the summer at Oaklawn Simulcast, will kill the fatted calf on his return and he figures to resemble that very calf on his exit. But there’s a guy with immense talent and, with a bit of Ken Ramsey’s luck, might also be leading horses into the circle following Grade I wins in the near future.
Racing at Arlington needs a booster shot for Illinois racing to survive in the modern world. Perhaps gaming will provide an answer. But it will take that combination plus some creative management for racing to make it in the City of Big Shoulders. Saturday was the perfect weather day for which management implores. The only long lines were in the stand-along wagering machines, which are significantly slower than those manned by the dwindling number of mutuel tellers available. Of course the line at the money machines was at least as long as any line, but after only the third race. Many players were out of money. Track management don’t make the task any easier by a substantial entry fee and heavy charges before the day even begins for the player.
If you are one of the fortunate few to enjoy mutuel success, perhaps you can write that off, but for the many who were not in attendance, they knew the show would be good, but not worth the cost. Those who felt fleeced of their funds on arrival were not ashamed to be vocal about that to others. I heard it numerous times and I don’t know how the employees are advised to address that issue, but calming unhappy customers under those circumstances cannot be an easy task.
I wish them well at Arlington, but wish they would adopt a more fan-friendly admissions policy. It made me prouder of the low cost of admission at Oaklawn, $2, and the success this track has with far fewer from which to draw and rarely the good fortune of a perfect weather day. In spite of all the beauty of Arlington and the great racing offered, the crowd was announced at 45,000+ which would be a huge disappointment in Hot Springs and should be a disappointment at Arlington. They, too, need some Ken Ramsey luck, a more than just a bit of his smarts, to see their true potential.