May 25, 2017: Chess Anyone?

If nothing else, the Preakness gave us a great lesson in how races unfold (the old Head Handicapping). If you listened to the trainers being interviewed before the race, you could have figured out how "strategic" it would be. The strategies were necessary because the horses that had run in the Derby were doing something they had never done before: being asked to run another long distanced race in just two weeks. Adding to that challenge was the Derby being a very physically tough race, a literal battle if you will.


It turned out to be a Chess match between two trainers in particular. Mark Casse the trainer of Classic Empire said he would like his horse right near Always Dreaming. Why would he want to pursue that strategy? Probably so that Always Dreaming wouldn't get a jump on the field just like he did in the Derby and just like Oxbow did a couple of years ago in the Preakness (here's where those old race charts came in handy). Even though the fractional times were run progressively slower, having the lead contested, it looked as though the winner of the duel would be the winner of the race. So, what happened?  


Listening to Chad Brown, the trainer of Cloud Computing, he stated his strategy in explicit terms: keep the horse out of the Derby to make him fresh for the Preakness, where he could settle behind the two favorites vying for the lead. Give credit to Cloud Computing’s jockey Javy Castellano because when he saw Classic Empire just lopping along after having disposed of Always Dreaming, he had his horse pounce in a perfectly timed move, whereby, Classic Empire wasn't expecting another challenge. It just doesn’t happen in morning workouts after all. He did try to engage Cloud Computing once he saw him, but the winner had all the momentum.


There's something cool when a strategy works out. Trainers strategize all the time, but to have it work perfectly is amazing to watch. Now when we look through old race charts of the Preakness, and run across the 2017 edition, we can be reminded of how speed duels set up for those following, and the faster the pace, the more likely the closers will get some purse monies. This whole speed duel thing can happen in any level of race, whether it's a Grade 1 or a claiming race. So, we need to go over all the entries' past performances to figure out which ones are the need to lead types, and since we have three weeks until the Belmont Stakes, we can keep practicing with all the great racing on tap for the upcoming holiday weekend.


May 17, 2017: Because it's the Second Jewel in the Triple Crown

How do we handicap the Preakness? Answer: the same way we have been handicapping all the races leading up to it. Per usual, all of our handicapping tools will be needed, and now after last weekend’s slop at Churchill Downs, we can throw those mudder skills into the mix. My, aren’t we accomplished. Before we rest on our handicapping laurels, let’s go over what special applications of our handicapping tools will be needed to capture the second jewel of the Triple Crown.


First off, we need to figure out how the race will unfold. Nothing new there. However, the field will be smaller than the Derby. (Did you just say thank goodness?) There’s a reason why many of the Derby runners don’t proceed to the other Triple Crown races. One horse has a shot at the Triple Crown. The connections with horses that didn’t win the Derby figure why bother bring their horses back in such a short period of time, especially those that have been getting a lot of races under their girths during Derby prep season. The thought is that there’s a lot of racing left in the year, so, why not just give your horse a rest. As for the ones coming back in two weeks, it’s highly probable that the connections would like their horses to get that desired Black Type only a Preakness win can attain.  


There’s always some review that needs to be done by us right now of how the track at Pimlico is configured. The race will be 1/16th of a furlong shorter than the Derby, but still a sizable distance for the three-year-olds. Then the horses that didn’t run in the Derby or so-called new shooters will be running. We might want to do some pedigree work on those guys. At least, look over their past performances. Most would have run in some of the Derby preps, so, see how they did against the Derby runners coming back to run in the Preakness.


Another item that will come in handy is looking over the race charts from prior Preakness’. Why do we keep insisting going back through old race charts? Because we find out some key information, that’s why. For example, the Preakness, unlike the Derby, has more wire-to-wire finishers (at least in recent times). You only have to go back two years and remember American Pharoah doing just that, and when it looked like the field was catching him, he just had that great late kick to leave them in his wake (ah slop). In 2013, Oxbow went to the lead and set those all-important 24 second quarters with a brilliant ride by Hall-of-Famer Gary Stevens. The early pacesetters, who couldn’t hang on for the wire are evident too. Look at the race chart from 2012, when Bodemeister went to the lead again, just like he did in the Derby, only to be caught at the wire by I’ll Have Another. In 2011, Shackleford, sat in second until the stretch when he held off a late charge by Derby-winner Animal Kingdom who had to come from 13th to finish second.


One interesting item comes from the 2014 Preakness race chart. California Chrome came off-the-pace to win; however, the chart states that the start was good for all except Bayern. Yes, the same Bayern who would win the Breeders’ Cup Classic by wiping out half the field at the start of the race. Hmmmm, half the field being wiped out at the start. Now, where have we seen that? Overall, it looks like the Derby runners have the jump on the new shooters, but it doesn’t mean you ignore them, because we need to handicap for the contenders, not the winner. Also, this year’s Derby was one of the toughest ever, with horses getting hurt left and right. McCracken is out with a leg puncture. Classic Empire, although confirmed for the Preakness, left the Derby with his eye partially shut and with other bruises. Gunnevera is losing his riding Javy Castellano, who is jumping to new shooter Cloud Computing. Does that mean he knows something, we don’t about Gunnevera. Maybe so, Maybe not.


Overall, horses on the lead or just off-the-lead win the Preakness, which seems to set up for the Derby winner. However, if we were to do some Gut Handicapping (looking at angles), we’d find out that Always Dreaming’s trainer, Todd Pletcher hardly ever runs his horses back so quickly, so, how did he train his charge to run another long race in two weeks’ time? We’ll have to check out the workouts and see.


So, that’s it. Figure out where your handicapping let you down for the Derby card. If it was the slop, then don’t waste time handicapping for it. Wait until the day of the race and adjust to the conditions and any track bias that you noticed in the earlier races. Expand your bankroll accordingly, and if your contenders are the favorites, then pick out some longer odds runners for your multi-horse wagers. More than anything else, have fun, after all, there is a Triple Crown riding on the outcome. 

May 10, 2017: It's Where You Start...

So, are you a “mudder” of a handicapper after the Oaks and Derby cards at Churchill Downs last week? It really is disappointing to have the Derby run over a sloppy track after putting all that effort into our handicapping of the race. Or is it? Our handicapping tools should have allowed us to adjust for the conditions. For example, if you looked at the race charts from past runnings of the Derby, you might have keyed in on those run in such conditions when we found out the rains were not going to stop this past weekend.


The 2013 edition of the race was run over a “sloppy (sealed)” track versus the “wet fast (sealed)” track on Saturday and with a good start noted. So, the difference was that the eventual winner in 2013, Orb, came from the 16th  post, the second-place finisher Golden Soul came from 15th, the third-place finisher, Revolutionary from 17th, and the fourth-place finisher, Normandy Invasion from 12th. So, why might you ask didn’t the outside horses like Classic Empire and McCraken finish well. The answer to that can be found by re-watching the start of the race. Most of the auxiliary gate horses came crashing into Classic Empire. If that wasn’t enough to make him lose all chance of at least finishing in the money, he was slammed again making a stretch move. How he finished a well-beaten fourth can only be explained by the slow final fractions run in 26 seconds and change. As for the horses doing the crashing into, they had their momentum stopped long enough for the inside runners to get a jump on them.


Now, these excuses aren’t just sour grapes on our part because we favored the “Fappiano Factor” Classic Empire over the “Fappiano Factor” Always Dreaming. (Yes, with Always Dreaming’s win “The Fappiano Factor” lives on.) For the reason, you have to go back to the race chart for the 2010 Derby, the last time Todd Pletcher won the race. The eventual winner, Super Saver road the rail, a place where his jockey Calvin Borel is most familiar. The track was listed as “Sloppy (sealed)” and the start was good for all, thereby, producing the second and third place finishers coming from the 19th and 13th posts respectively. An interesting thing to note in the 2010 race chart is the horse drawing the #1 post. Lookin At Lucky is the sire of 2017 second-place finisher Lookin At Lee, who also drew the dreaded #1 post position. The 2010 race was run even slower than the 2017 one, with the third split going in 27:07. That’s three whole seconds behind the goal of 24-second quarters. Were they walking? Maybe swimming?


Even if you didn’t go back through the race charts looking for runnings of the Derby over wet tracks, just approaching each race on the cards by going through the entries trying to find some wet-track success would have proved successful in our handicapping. The very first race Saturday had the #1 Maximus Beauty winning, which while not confirming a positive rail bias, it did tell us it leaned that way. Then in Race 4, when Caviar Czar with 2017 Derby winning jockey, Johnny Velazquez aboard won, there was more proof provided to us that the horses with inside posts held an advantage. In the Distaff, Paulassilverlining had the #2 post and had a wet track record of being in the money in 5 out of 6 tries compared to the co-favorites Finest City and Carina Mia, who were 1 for 1 each on the slop and had posts outside of the eventual winner.


Now you’re saying that’s good for the dirt races, but what about the turf ones? Look over the entries for the Churchill Distaff Mile run over a turf course labeled “good”. The favorite was Roca Rojo, who was a perfect 4 for 4 on wet turf. So, while post position didn’t matter on the turf, the experience of racing on giving turf did. Of course, there were races where there was little information to glean about wet track performances, like with the Derby entries. Therefore, we needed to go back to the prior Derby race charts looking for the ones run on a sloppy track. If you checked for a track bias and went back to the charts, it would have been pretty easy putting Always Dreaming on your list of contenders. He had an inner post on a track favoring runners on the inside, his trainer and jockey were already Derby winners, and he had the Fappiano lineage.


We still wouldn’t have singled him as the winner though because the start of a race with 20 entries was unpredictable, which is why we pick contenders and not a winner. Of course, having all those factors in his favor made Always Dreaming a standout among any list of contenders, but how could you have landed on Lookin At Lee to come in second? Even his sire, Lookin At Lucky couldn’t overcome the #1 post position. The answer is simple: he had the ground saving trip at the rail ala Super Saver and he didn’t have the entire field coming over atop of him at the start as typically happens. Instead, the pile-up occurred in the middle at the start. No, we don’t have control over the weather nor the start of a race, however, we can adjust our handicapping to the former.


If you think about it, we did learn an awful lot about handicapping in such weather conditions and that lesson will come in handy throughout our race watching lives.

May 3, 2017: America's Derby

With the post positions being drawn, we have the last piece of our Head Handicapping puzzle. Oh, we still have to place the pieces on the track, which is no small task with a field of 20. We first need to herd them into groups based on the running styles they displayed in their prior races (remember those race charts from the Derby preps?)


Based on this information, horses like Fast and Accurate, Always Dreaming, State of Honor, Irish War Cry, and Irap look the most likely to become the leading pack. In the middle, we should find Untrapped, Girvin, Hence, J Boys Echo, Classic Empire, McCraken, Gormley, Practical Joke, and Patch. That’s two big groups, but some will have traffic trouble at the start and others just won’t break well. So, the key in a field this size is how well they string out going down the stretch for the first time. Of course, they’ll all be wanting to go to the rail right out of the gate, but it will take the length of the stretch to get them at least 3 wide going into the first turn. Anyone left any wider will have to rely on those stamina genes if they have some. Around the turn, we should know who is going to give up by the backstretch.


Many of the middle-pack runners will make their move for the front early on the far turn. Here’s where our pedigree work comes in handy because we need to decide if any of these early movers have enough for that extra final 1/8th? Even if they have shown a late kick, it probably won’t be enough to keep away those horses who make their moves to the front at the top of the stretch and have a late kick to boot. The favorite. Classic Empire has shown this ability in his past races. What about the closers? We have to ask if the pace will be enough to allow the closers like Gunnevera and Thunder Snow to get by those who have been saving energy by running mid-pack like McCraken and Gormley.


Because it’s a horse race, and run at a distance none of the entries have ever run before, we’re going to need more than one scenario of how the race will unfold. These multiple outcomes are good to have since you don’t have to pick “THE” winner, just the contenders. Let’s face facts, all of our handicapping tools are going to be used to weed out the contenders from the non-contenders. Do you really want to include horses like Sonneteer, a maiden with 10 starts or Battle of Midway, who had no starts as a two-year-old. Patch didn’t race in 2016 either because he lost an eye to illness. Poor guy seems really up against it doesn’t he? Then there’s Lookin at Lee, who drew the dreaded #1 post. You can probably find more reasons to make a horse a non-contender than a contender, especially if you don’t do much Heart Handicapping.


With your contenders set, you can now do your Tail Handicapping, which is what we call the betting decisions. One thing to keep in mind is that the race cards at Churchill Downs on both Friday and Saturday are some of the best we are going to be offered all year, so, expand your bankroll and use all of your handicapping tools for the other races as well.


Besides Tail Handicapping, we need to do some Eye Handicapping of all the races, whereby, we see how the horses are acting in the paddock and/or the post parades. Also, do some Gut Handicapping by checking the earlier races on the cards for any track bias. Recall how the Derby horses worked over the track during the week. Who liked it? Also, review the connections. Which jockeys, trainers, and owners have had success, not only in the Derby, but in other Triple Crown races and the Breeders’ Cup as well. For example, Zenyatta’s owners and trainer have Gormley running and Triple Crown jockey Victor Espinoza aboard. The team of Leparoux and Casse have each won Canada’s Queen’s Plate, that country’s Derby. Besides, do you want to back a trainer or jockey who has never won a race of this magnitude?


So, that’s it. Come up with your race scenarios. Review the information you’ve gathered about what makes a Derby winner. Do your Eye and Gut Handicapping the day of the race. Set a betting bankroll you can live with. Leave yourself some wiggle room before the race because no matter how much homework you’ve done, no decision is set in stone. Most of all, HAVE FUN! There’s nothing in sports like America’s Derby.

April 27, 2017: Handicapping the Derby (Better Early than Late)

Every week we bring together topics from the book with upcoming races in an effort to become better handicappers. The archived posts are to your left <---

Last week we suggested coming up with a profile of a Derby winner. We do this exercise because it helps us in our Head Handicapping of the race. The goal of Head Handicapping is figuring out how a race, any race, will unfold by looking at the running styles of the entries. We can determine the running styles by looking through the past performances or as we have been doing by looking at the major Derby prep race charts. We can also determine running style by re-watching the Derby prep races, but Eye Handicapping doesn’t give us the numbers to compare the races. A race may look visually impressive, like Empire Classic’s Arkansas Derby win, but so too did Always Dreaming’s Florida Derby win. That’s why we have been comparing the fractional and split times of the major Derby preps. Now, it’s time to compare this crop of Derby hopefuls with past winners, so, we go back to the race charts. Though this time, we go back a few years of Derby charts to find out this information.


Comparing the Derby race charts from the past few years with the major Derby preps run this year, we can almost see how the race will unfold; however, we will need the post positions to get a firm grip on that visualization. So, what can we do until those post positions are drawn? Lots. One thing to do in the coming week is to follow what the workout experts are saying about the morning workouts of all the Derby entries. Some of the entries may be training at Churchill Downs, while others maybe still at their home tracks. For the ones at Churchill, hear what the workout watchers are saying about how the horses are handling the track. Do they appear to like it? It’s not a case of which ones are working out the fastest, as it is the case of which ones aren’t having a good workout.


We also need to know the connections of each entry. Last year’s winner Nyquist had the same jockey, trainer, and owner of Derby winner I’ll Have Another. Experience does matter. For example, trainers Todd Pletcher and Mark Casse have multiple runners. What are the chances one of them uses an entry to set a good early pace? Now, we say good early pace, not a blistering one. We want to see those 24-second quarter miles set in a race of this distance. Why? Well, get out those past Derby race charts. Last year’s Derby had Danzing Candy set a first quarter pace of 22.58. There was little chance of him lasting that final quarter mile. The result was that the eventual winner Nyquist could sit behind him saving energy to use for a stretch run. The pace also let closer Exaggerator come from 15th to 2nd.


The year before, American Pharoah sat in third position most of the race as Firing Line and Dortmund went at each other. Even though the first quarter mile was run in 23.24, the dual for the lead let Pharoah save energy until the stretch when he used that terrific late kick of his to win. One more Derby race chart to look at is the 2014 running of the race (which happens to be the year this year’s entries were born.) California Chrome sat in third for most of the race until the stretch with the first quarter mile being run in 23.04. Similar to last year, a closer, Commanding Curve came from 18th to finish 2nd.


So, which of this year’s entries can sit off the pace and have enough late kick to take the lead in the stretch? Just go back to our major Derby prep race charts to find out (you did keep them didn’t you?). In the Arkansas Derby, the first quarter mile was run in a sharp 22.75; however, that last eighth of a mile was run in 12:50, the fastest of the major Derby preps. Doing some Eye Handicapping, we saw it was the last eighth of a mile where Empire Classic took control of the race. The Wood Memorial had no early pace and the final eighth was the opposite of the Arkansas Derby-slow. The same can be noted for the Louisiana Derby and Santa Anita Derby. Look at the split times of the Blue Grass and you’ll see those 24-second quarters, but the final one-eighth was 13.04. Lastly, we noted that the Florida Derby had 23-second quarter miles early in the race, which is consistent with the typical speedy surface there. Given that track surface, it is usually very difficult for closing-types to win. However, third-place finisher Gunnevera did go from 10th to 3rd that day. A move very reminiscent of Exaggertor and Commanding Curve in their Derby runs.


So, until those post positions are drawn, what other handicapping can we do to figure out how the race will unfold? Well there are always the pedigrees. We found numerous entries with the “Fappiano Factor”. Empire Classic and Always Dreaming have it. Gunnevera has Fappiano on his Dam’s side of the pedigree as do both Patch and Battalion Runner. Girvin and Gormley have Malibu Moon in their lineage. Malibu Moon was the sire of Derby winner Orb. For the most part, this year’s entries have young sires, so, you won’t find their names associated with past winners. However, go through the pedigrees to do your own investigating. You’ll probably find names of Derby sires in many of the lineages, such as, Elusive Quality; Distorted Humor; Mr. Prospector; and others. Looking over the entries’ pedigrees is a great way to get familiar with these young sires lineages too.


Alright, that’s enough handicapping to do for next week. Find out who the experienced connections are, which entries have it in their genes to sit off the pace and have a late kick down the stretch, and who is training well by keeping an ear for the workout information that will come out every day.

April 20, 2017: Prepping for the Derby

It seems like the major Derby preps saved the best for last in last Saturday’s running of the Arkansas Derby. There’s no doubt Classic Empire showed his class and heart winning so impressively coming off a hoof abscess. Anyone watching the race would agree it was visually impressive, BUT do the numbers back that up? Well, let’s break out the old race chart to find out:


The Fractional Times:


Louisiana Derby:        23.46    47.00    1:11.15   1:36.8

Florida Derby:            23.28    47.08    1:10.75   1:34.94

Wood Memorial:        23.50    47.34    1:11.83   1:37.67

Santa Anita Derby:    22.66    46.55    1:10.92   1:37.55

Blue Grass:                23.79    48.34    1:12.36   1:37.35

Arkansas Derby          22.75   46.92     1:11.16   1:36.43


The Split Times:


Louisiana Derby:     23:54      24:15    25:65    12:97

Florida Derby:         23:80      23:67    24:19    12:53

Wood Memorial:      23:84     24:49    25:84     13:24

Santa Anita Derby:  23:89     24:37    26:63     13:61

Blue Grass:             24:55     24:02    24.99     13:04

Arkansas Derby:      24:17     24:24    25.27     12:50


The Final Times:


Louisiana Derby:     1:49.77

Florida Derby:         1:47.47

Wood Memorial:     1:50.91

Santa Anita Derby: 1:51.16

Blue Grass:             1:50.39

Arkansas Derby:     1:48.93


Yes, the final time of the race was the fastest noted of all the major Derby preps, but the number that stands out is the final eighth of a mile being run in 12:50 seconds. Why? Because that’s when Classic Empire won this race, and if you watched closely, you would have noticed his jockey Julian Leparoux gave him a hand ride to the wire. So, shall we just give the Kentucky Derby trophy to the connections right now? Whoa, not so fast. Remember he will be running against the best three-year-olds in a race without those need-to-lead speed types setting a fast pace early in the race.


We said that about last year’s race though and there was an honest pace, but don’t take our word for it. Go print out the race charts for several years’ runnings of the Derby. We should be very familiar with race charts and the information they contain. Look at the times and read the descriptions, then go watch the replays. By doing this exercise, we can develop a profile of the types of runners and running styles that finish well in the race. We won’t be able to figure out how the Derby will unfold just yet because we’ll need the post positions for that. However, comparing the field in this year’s event to a Derby profile can help us weed out the contenders from the non-contenders in the field, and with twenty horses running, you need to weed out as many as you can!


Another thing will can do in handicapping the race right now is to look over the pedigrees of the entries. At The Anatomy of Horse Race Handicapping, we look for the “Fappiano Factor” for all the reasons we highlighted a few weeks ago when Arrogate won the Dubai World Cup. Meaning, we like to find Fappiano in the pedigrees of the entries in this year’s Derby. This may sound like a lot of work for just one race; however, it provides us with a great handicapping mindset for the future. Besides all the work we do now means less to do later. You certainly don’t want to be there the morning of the race scrabbling around for the race charts you threw somewhere, or just getting frustrated not knowing where to begin with your handicapping, all of which leads you to choosing the chalk. Granted Empire Classic has the resume of a Kentucky Derby winner, but his favoritism directs us to find the other horses for the Derby exacta, triple, superfecta bets. Remember a betting strategy, or Tail Handicapping as we like to call it, comes last in our decision-making. We need to zero-in on those contenders first and there’s no time like the present.


April 13, 2017: More Time(s)

Last week, we compared two major Derby preps, the Louisiana Derby and the Florida Derby in the few ways available to us, one being through comparing the fractional and split times of each race given that they were run at the same distance, a mile and one-eighth. This past weekend, we had three more major Derby preps, the Wood Memorial, the Blue Grass, and the Santa Anita Derby and each of those was run at the same mile and one-eighth distance too. Sure, we can compare the races by just re-watching them over and over again. However, the information on all the entries is right there in the race charts. Now, if your handicapping of these preps just wasn’t there, then shake it off. We need to use the races like the horses are using the races, to get ready for the Derby. Unlike the horses, we don’t need to use our feet to get ready, we have our heads and eyes. So, let’s use those heads and compare all of the major Derby preps run so far:


The Fractional Times:


Louisiana Derby:         23.46    47.00    1:11.15   1:36.8

Florida Derby:            23.28    47.08    1:10.75   1:34.94

Wood Memorial:         23.50    47.34    1:11.83   1:37.67

Santa Anita Derby:      22.66    46.55    1:10.92   1:37.55

Blue Grass:                23.79    48.34    1:12.36   1:37.35


The Split Times:


Louisiana Derby:     23:54      24:15    25:65    12:97

Florida Derby:         23:80      23:67    24:19    12:53

Wood Memorial:      23:84     24:49    25:84     13:24

Santa Anita Derby:   23:89     24:37    26:63     13:61

Blue Grass:             24:55     24:02    24.99     13:04


The Final Times:


Louisiana Derby:     1:49.77

Florida Derby:         1:47.47

Wood Memorial:     1:50.91

Santa Anita Derby:  1:51.16

Blue Grass:            1:50.39


What should jump out at you looking over these times is how slowly last Saturday’s preps were run compared to the previous week’s races. Although, it’s always good to see 24-second quarters being run, those final eighths of a mile were, well, run at a seemingly walking pace. Such speed, or lack thereof, makes it very difficult for closer types. You can see in the race charts how the winners were stalking the early pace setters. Is that the excuse we can give heavy favorites like McCracken, Tapwrit, and Reach the World? Well, McCraken was coming into the race off a layoff and has already punched his ticket for the Derby, so, it is not surprising he wasn’t giving it 100% out there.


For those horses looking to get into the race, we need to watch who was running well during that last eighth because the Derby will be run another eighth of a mile.So, if you are re-watching the races, also check out how they ran after the wire. Did they have something left? We also have the problem of handicapping those lightly raced horses like Tapwrit. How much did they get out of the prep? Was there an excuse? Irish War Cry, the winner of the Wood Memorial is a good example of a horse coming off a poor effort after an impressive win earlier in the year, then coming back to win again. It is obvious the connections are using the Derby preps to find out about the running style of the horse. Where does he like to run on the track, inside or outside other horses? Does he like to close or can he rate behind others? Does he have a closing kick?


So, when we handicap the last major Derby prep to be run, the Arkansas Derby this Saturday, try to find some of these angles. For instance, Classic Empire is returning from an injury and he already qualified for the Kentucky Derby, so, he won’t be giving it his all; however, maybe his 75% efforts will be enough. How do we find out? Handicap the competition that’s how. For example, if there’s no speed to set a good early pace, the closers won’t be able to catch those stalking whatever pace there may be.


After that race, we should at least have a clear picture of the Derby field and once that happens, we can do a different type of comparison, this one gives us an idea of how the field stacks up against a profile of a Derby winner. So, don’t throw your copies of the race charts away, as we are going to need them for this comparison as well.