February 15, 2018: Going for the Gold (and pats too)

Look up the definition of athlete in the Merriam-Webster dictionary, actually any dictionary, and it will tell you an athlete is one “who is trained or skilled in exercises, sports, or games requiring physical strength, agility or stamina.” As most sports are taking a backseat for a couple of weeks right now for the Winter Olympics, we got to wondering: when watching the Olympians compete, did you ever notice the similarities of the human athletes with the equine ones?


Think about it. The horses are trained and skilled. They have physical strength, agility, and stamina in order to race competitively. How many times have we cheered horses coming down the stretch running neck-and-neck, ears pinned back, totally focused on beating each other. Being herd animals, the competitiveness is thought to equate to one horse establishing himself as their leader. Whatever the reasoning, we know most Thoroughbreds love to run against each other and get those pats for winning. Those of us employing Eye Handicapping look at conformation. Do they look like racehorses? Do they look like athletes?


One of the best arguments for equines being athletes on par with the human ones is the explanation given to golf legend Jack Nicklaus, when he was moved to tears after watching Secretariat’s historic Belmont Stakes performance in garnering the Triple Crown. Nicklaus didn’t understand why he had that strong a reaction. Sports commentator Heywood Hale Broun gave him the reason: “All of your life, in your game, you’ve been striving for perfection. At the end of the Belmont, you saw it.”


This weekend being a three-day holiday one, we will have many stakes races to watch and handicap. After the race day is over, we will have the Olympic athletes to watch. So, let’s have some fun and compare the performances of each type of athlete, if for no other reason than to think about how you pick your contenders in a race. Do your thoughts follow the same patterns as they do when watching the human athletes? Wow, look how fast, high, agile, strong, graceful, etc.


No, you aren’t going to “handicap” the Olympians, but they may provide you clues on what to look for when handicapping or just watching the equine athletes we admire so much.

Febuary 8, 2018: Handicapping Three-Year-Olds Stakes, the Winter Edition

So, did we learn anything from handicapping, or even watching, those three-year-old graded stakes run last weekend? One thing we learned is how important Gut Handicapping is for these type of races. Three examples really stand out. The first was in the Forward Gal Stakes for the three-year-old fillies going seven furlongs. Seven furlongs is a tricky distance, it’s not really a sprint nor is it a distance race. It should have been no surprise when Take Charge Paula won because of her trainer Kiaran McLaughlin being so successful at Gulfstream Park this time of year with the three-year-olds of either sex. She also would have made a good pick based on pedigree as well being the daughter of Take Charge Indy. We also had the benefit of looking at her past performances, which included seven lifetime starts. Looking over these races through either the race charts, or watching replays, we can see what good form she rounded into having won two straight races, after a terrible trip in the highly regarded Pocahontas stakes for two-year-olds last fall.


Another example of utilizing our Gut Handicapping tools was found in the featured race on the Gulfstream Park card Saturday, the Holy Bull. Trainer Todd Pletcher owns three-year-old maiden and stakes races at the meet. So, it was no surprise when Audible won easily at the mile and one-sixteenth distance. It didn’t hurt that the horse was bred by WinStar farms either, a fact that would have jumped out at you if doing Pedigree Handicapping in conjunction with your Gut Handicapping.


The final example of Gut Handicapping was in the Las Virgenes for the three-year-old fillies run last Sunday at Santa Anita. Dream Tree was the deserving favorite having won the Grade 1 Starlet last December for Bob Baffert. It is not surprising she is a perfect four-for-four. Having ruled the west, it is our job to figure out which filly in the east will emerge that might compete against Dream Tree in the Kentucky Oaks.

One last race that caught our attention this past weekend was the Dania Beach Stakes at Gulfstream Park. Yes, it was a turf race for three-year-olds, and it wasn’t the winner that interested us, but the runner-up, Gido. In his three lifetime starts, it is pretty obvious that he just goes to the lead running as fast as he can for as long as he can. This style if it can be called that, is indicative of a green race horse. His pedigree is amazing being the son of the great Frankel, a turf mile champion in Europe and his dam being a daughter of Unbridled’s Song. We already talked this year about the Fappiano lineage, but we also told the story of Frankel in our book A Year in the Anatomy of Horse Race Handicapping Volume 3. If you read that entry from the book, you would know how much interest there is in Frankel’s offspring worldwide.


So, that’s what we learned last week, and we get to do it all over again this coming weekend, as there are more stakes for the three-year-olds, as well as, the older horses. Keep plugging away with the handicapping tools, if only to use them for learning how to use them. Most importantly, keep having fun on the Derby trail.

February 1, 2018: "Tackling" Handicapping for Derby Season

Last week, we were treated to a graded stakes card at Gulfstream Park consisting of nothing but older horses capped off by Gun Runner’s final performance, that was nothing less than spectacular for the current Horse of the Year. This week, the focus returns to the three-year-olds with a Gulfstream card loaded with stakes for them, as well as, two important three-year-old stakes in Santa Anita.

What does this mean for our handicapping? Should we use the tools that we did for the older horse stakes with the three-year-old ones? Do we use all of our handicapping tools no matter what the status of the race? The bottom-line is you can use whatever handicapping tools you would like for whatever race you are handicapping. If you need to Eye Handicap the fields, then do so, but experiment wth some other tools as well. Here’s what we mean. With veteran runners, there are numerous past performances to look at in order to figure out how the race will unfold. Contrary, the three-year-olds might just have that maiden special weight win going into a graded stakes, so, we rely on pedigree handicapping to supplement our eye handicapping with them.


This pedigree handicapping provides us with information as to whether the three-year-old can go a longer distance or if they have turf-running genes. The eye handicapping gives us an idea of how they raced in their prior races when watching the replays or reading the race charts. We are looking for how professionally they ran. Did they just shoot out of the gate going as fast as they could as long as they could? Did they get into trouble that was no cause of their own? You have to figure out where they are in their learning.


Having watched races from both Gulfstream Park and Santa Anita all of January, we should have a pretty good idea of how the tracks play and what bias exist. This experience will benefit our Gut Handicapping. With less learning to be done concerning that tool, we can concentrate on the others at our disposal. It may seem like a great deal of work which will force us into falling back into old habits, but the more practice we get now using all the handicapping tools available to us, the more prepared we will be to tackle the rest of Derby season and those BIG days of racing ahead of us.

January 25, 2018: Handicapping BIG

Our first BIG day of racing in 2018 is upon us. However, it’s not your usual BIG day in that the feature BIG race of the BIG day isn’t for the three-year-olds. All of the graded stakes on the Gulfstream Park card Saturday are for older horses. Typically, this time of year, we have the Derby preps each weekend, where our handicapping centers on Eye and, gulp, Pedigree handicapping tools. With the race being for veteran runners, we can take out those other tools like the Head and Gut handicapping ones.


Veteran horses have a good sample of past performances, so, we can figure out their preferred running style. Do they like to be speed on the lead early In a race or do they like to stalk the early speed. Perhaps they like to come from the back of the pack turning for home. Horses have other preferences too, like running covered up on the inside, or maybe the opposite, where they are doing the herding of others inside by running outside other horses. It’s all there in the past performances and race charts allowing us to determine how a race will unfold. When it comes to looking at numbers like these kinds, we are doing Head Handicapping, a very powerful tool, but not the only one we can rely upon.


Our other handicapping tool for this BIG day of racing concerns the Gut. What type of trends have developed at the Champions’ meet at Gulfstream Park? Do we have horses for the course? Do we have trainers aiming for this BIG day? Which horses do well on the fast dirt surface there or the stubby grass on their turf course? These items are the type of things we listen for in the pre-race chat of the racing analysts or can simply look them up on the track’s web site.


Of course, the feature race is the second running of the Pegasus Cup, the world’s richest horse race. Last year, we had California Chrome in his last race going up against Arrogate. Unfortunately, the race didn’t live up to the hype as Chrome had his worse finish ever. At least, the Chromies got to see their hero run one last time, which highlights the attraction of having a race for older horses this time of year. There was also the performance of Arrogate, who by winning the Pegasus had at the time a three Grade 1 win streak established going into the Dubai World Cup. It looked like Arrogate was the second coming of Pegasus, as he had us all wondering just how great he could become.


What we don’t know is the place in history this year’s favorite in the race, Gun Runner will have if he wins. This year’s edition has a most interesting field, which goes to show how the world’s biggest purse will draw such an eclectic group. For example, the field includes Sharp Azteca, a sprint champion for sure, but he has never run the distance. Then there’s the champion mare Stellar Wind, who is making her swan song in the race. Look over the field carefully using all of your handicapping tools, or if you are feeling unready to tackle such a handicapping challenge so early in the year, there’s nothing wrong with just watching. Overall, this BIG day gives us an opportunity to get our handicapping tools out of the tool box, and given that it is still January, what race fan can ask for anything more?


January 18, 2018: The Making of an Eclipse Champion

Had enough Eye Handicapping the past few weeks watching those palm trees in Southern California and Florida? While it is still early days to do some serious handicapping of the three-year-old stakes, this week, why not drag out another handicapping tool, this one we call Handicapping the Blood. Sure it sounds gross, but it has to do with the pedigrees. Now, before you start moaning about pedigree charts, there is a fun way to look at a horse’s family tree. This Thursday, the Eclipse Awards will be presented to the champion horses of 2017 and we can learn a lot about the pedigrees of this year’s Derby hopefuls by looking at the pedigrees of the Eclipse Award nominees.


Why not start at the top with the Horse of the Year nominees. Likely winner, Gun Runner’s father was Candy Ride making him a grandson of Cryptoclearance. His mother (Dam) is a daughter of Giant’s Causeway, and going along that female side, you’ll see the name Quiet American. Both of these relatives, Cryptoclearance and Quiet American make Gun Runner inbred to a horse named Fappiano. Remember that name above all others when looking over the pedigrees of the three-year-old crop pointing to the Triple Crown races. No, Gun Runner didn’t win the Kentucky Derby, he finished third, but that’s a discussion for another time. We are talking pedigrees now, so, check out another Eclipse nominee for Horse of the Year, Arrogate. No, he didn’t finish the year well, but he did win the world’s two richest races in 2017. Remember, we are just keeping our focus on the pedigree, not past performances. Recognize any names in his pedigree?


The third Horse of the Year candidate is World Approval, a turf runner. His pedigree should give you some great turf champion names. If some of these names appear in the pedigree of a three-year-old entered in a stakes on the Derby trail, just don’t dismiss it as being more suited to the turf. Many a three-year-old has found success on turf before switching to dirt for the Derby preps and the Derby itself. Big Brown and Animal Kingdom are just two Derby winners who started being very good turf horses.


You don’t have to do any serious studying of pedigrees here, Just pick a few of the Eclipse nominees that you might be a fan of and look at their pedigrees. If you see some names more than others in these pedigrees, then maybe you’ll remember them when looking up the pedigree of some three-year-old on the Derby trail. We don’t have much in the way of past performances with most of the three-year-olds running in the Derby preps, so, looking at their pedigrees when they are entered is a valuable handicapping tool.

January 4, 2018: Watching a New Year

Happy New Year! All Thoroughbreds had a birthday on New Year’s Day, so, it’s time to follow those newly proclaimed three-year-olds on the Derby trail. Of course, these early stakes restricted to the crop are run at distances shorter than the mile and a quarter of the Kentucky Derby. Like us, the trainers aren’t really sure of what their charges are capable of running. Those doing well as two-year-olds are now faced with competitors that may have caught up with them growth-wise. Then there are those still waiting for the light to go off in their heads about what this racing stuff is all about.


We need to be as patient with these young horses, as their trainers. Sure, we can dive into the dreaded pedigrees, but those can wait. Our Head Handicapping might wait as well, since the past performances on these horses are sparse in some cases, and inconsistent in others. So, how do we handicap these stakes that appear on the racing calendar every weekend until the Derby? Right now, we watch them, before, during, and after their races. Do they get nervous before the race? Do they look like they know what they are doing during a race? Then after a race, do they look like they could go around again?


That’s Eye Handicapping folks, plain and simple. Combine that with some of the Gut Handicapping, we have been doing concerning the major race meets of the winter and you’ve got your handicapping tools for these early stakes for the three-year-olds. Actually, there’s another reason to watch these races. If you live in any part of the country that isn’t Southern California or South Florida, then you can dream about the warmth and sun as you are watching the races at Gulfstream Park and Santa Anita. Even if they aren’t having heat waves, anything above freezing will do for those of us suffering in the seventh ring of frozen hell. So, watch the horses run around the swaying palm trees and enjoy.