March 30, 2017: Arrogate Handicapping
We are watching things that have never before been accomplished on a racetrack. With Arrogate’s amazing win in the $10 million Dubai World Cup, the accolades have commenced about where he stands amongst the sport’s greatest. Going from last to first is always great watching no matter the class level of the race, but to do so on the world stage, well, there are no adjectives. Since we’ll have quite a while until Arrogate resumes racing on his way to another Breeders’ Cup Classic, we can go back to concentrating on those three-year-olds on the Derby trail. Yes, the Derby preps seem to be a letdown after seeing Arrogate’s feats this year alone; however, it’s all racing at the highest level and just what a handicapper needs to keep those handicapping tools sharp. So, what can we learn from Arrogate to aid us in our Derby prep handicapping?
The answer is pedigree. Okay, we hear you moaning: “Not pedigrees!” Look at it this way, we have already established how the winners of the Derby preps thus far are lightly raced, which means our Head Handicapping is limited because we need past performances to figure out how a race unfolds. We also looked at angles or Gut Handicapping for this year’s Derby preps and found that to be helpful, but only to a certain extent. What’s left is pedigree or what we refer to as Handicapping the Blood in our Anatomy of Horse Race Handicapping. Why don’t we first take a shortcut, whereby, we look at Arrogate’s pedigree. Sure, you can’t help but be wondering what he would have done in last year’s Triple Crown. You have to remember though the reason he didn’t run in those races was the decision by the connections to let him grow up. Given his achievements, this decision seems incredibly wise in a win-now era.
What do we see in his pedigree chart that would back-up his achievements? Quite simply, our favorite name to see in the pedigree of a classic runner – Fappiano. Typically, this time of year, we look for this name in the pedigree of a three-year-old because we like to think of Fappiano as “the” Derby sire, even though he never won the race himself. In 1990, Unbridled won the Kentucky Derby and his sire was Fappiano. In 1996, Unbridled’s son Grindstone won the Derby. In 1998, another branch of the Fappiano family tree also won the Derby, when grandson Real Quiet did so. Real Quiet also won the Preakness that year, and another grandson of Fappiano, Victory Gallop won the Belmont Stakes. So, grandsons of Fappiano combined to win the Triple Crown in 1998. It doesn’t end there though because you'll find Fappiano in the pedigree of Mine that Bird, the 2009 Derby winner. As for American Pharoah? Yep, we find Fappiano through Empire Maker, whose sire was Unbridled. Now, we come to Arrogate, the son of Unbridled’s Song, grandson of Unbridled, and great-grandson of Fappiano.
“Why just look for Fappiano in a pedigree chart, shouldn’t we just look for the Derby winners like Unbridled?” you question. We look to Fappiano because it isn’t just the Unbridled branch extending from the Fappiano family tree that has found success in the three-year-old classic races. For example, second place finisher in the Dubai World Cup was Gun Runner, whose sire is Candy Ride, who is the son of Cryptoclearance, who is the son of Fappiano. By now you should see where this pedigree is leading us to. That’s right, when handicapping the two major Derby preps this weekend, the Florida Derby and Louisiana Derby, we need to look for Fappiano in the entries’ pedigree charts. Of course, our handicapping focus is on the prep race itself and not the Derby, but looking at the pedigrees will help in your future handicapping as we have seen with Arrogate. So, when trying to judge Arrogate’s greatness maybe we should put him in the content of Fappiano’s descendants. Is he equal to American Pharoah; Real Quiet; Unbridled; etc.? That’s for each race fan to decide.
March 23, 2017: Prepping a World Away
While we expected a big name trainer to win the Rebel Stakes last Saturday at Oaklawn Park with a lightly raced three-year-old, we would have thought it would have been Bob Baffert. Baffert simply has owned the Derby preps held at Oaklawn Park, with the most noted of his trainees winning there being American Pharoah. So, it was only expected that this year’s entry for the barn, American Anthem would be the favorite. However, just when you have all the angles figured out, the racing gods threw their fortune on another three-year-old specialist, Todd Pletcher. Already having won one prep at Oaklawn this year with One Liner in the Southwest, could it be too much to expect Malagacy to win a second prep there for that barn? What’s a handicapper to do? Go with Baffert or Pletcher?
Part of the handicapping puzzle that is so difficult when looking at the entries in these preps is the lack of starts. The Rebel winner, the Rebel favorite, and the Southwest winner only had two starts each before their Oaklawn preps. That’s not a lot to go on, especially, when these colts are being asked to do things they have never done before on a racetrack, like going a distance over a mile, going two turns, and rating behind horses in some cases. These lightly raced entry situations call for Gut Handicapping sure, but when it comes to matching a betting strategy, what we call Tail Handicapping, we have found it is best not to single any favorite. Include them in your contenders, but single them, not so much. As the Derby preps move along on the Derby trail, the competition gets tougher and our handicapping tools need to get sharper.
The same thing applies to this coming weekend’s BIG day of racing a half-a-world away in Dubai. A contingent of 14 U.S. based horses is being led by Arrogate, who has been deemed the highest rated horse in the world with his victories in the Travers, Breeders’ Cup Classic, and Pegasus World Cup. Unfortunately, we didn’t get to see the phenom race on the Derby trail nor in any of the Triple Crown races last year. As a result, we may be wary of this year’s three-year-old crop. Could the best three-year-old in the country still be maturing and won’t make his debut until the summer? Some of this sentiment may be drawn from the top-three Derby prospects: Mastery, McCraken, and Classic Empire having injuries. We can’t let these things interfere with developing or fine tuning our handicapping skills. We need races to practice on and what better group of races than those presented to us Saturday in Dubai. It’s US against the World. It’s your handicapping tools getting an international test. What better fun is to be had for a race fan? So, have fun handicapping the races from Dubai because after this weekend, our handicapping focus will be on the major Derby preps as we prepare for the one and only Kentucky Derby.
March 15, 2017: The DL Effect
This past weekend we had two three-year-old stakes to handicap, so, after the races were run, what did we do? That’s right, we looked at the charts. Now, you may be asking why we would need to look at the chart of the San Felipe, the prep for the Santa Anita Derby, when the masterful winner was Mastery. You may not have noticed it at the time, but he was pulled up after the finish line. It is hard to believe he sustained a condylar fracture in his left front leg given his performance in the race. As a result, the undefeated colt will be on the sidelines for quite some time.
An injury played a role in the running of the Tampa Bay Derby also. The winner of the race prep, McCraken was pointing to the Tampa Bay Derby when he sustained a leg strain. Not as serious an injury as is Mastery’s, McCraken is expected to return to the Derby trail. In the meantime, his absence left the Tampa Bay Derby open for any one of ten entries. Looking at the race chart, we can see the first four finishers were coming out of the Sam F. Davis Stakes run over the track, thereby, repeating a theme found in other Derby preps. The eventual winner, Tapwrit was making his fifth start of his career and was last found running second to McCraken in the Sam Davis. Another thing the colt had going for him was his trainer, Todd Pletcher, who has won this stakes the last four out of five times run. Sure, it’s a Gut Handicapping play picking the horse based on this stat, but such angles are an essential handicapping tool, especially when a top horse like McCraken is out of the race. Another horse to note coming out of the race is State of Honor, who set the pace, but finished second. That placing could be a factor of the remainder of the field just not being stamina runners or it could be the class of State of Honor. How will we know which one? Well, we have to keep handicapping these preps even if the winner Tapwrit doesn’t run again until the Derby.
As for the San Felipe results. We should still look at the race chart to find if any of the other runners offer consideration as Derby contenders. The second-place finisher was Gormley, who won the Grade 1 Front Runner Stakes over the track as a two-year-old. While the third-place finisher Iliad won the Grade 2 San Vincente at Santa Anita in his last start. What their performances tell us is that they can go longer distances, not in the impressive fashion as Mastery, but we have to think of it as horses who are improving and therefore worthy of watching.
This coming weekend, we have the Rebel Stakes at Oaklawn Park, which is a prep for the Arkansas Derby. With Empire Classic, McCraken, and Mastery all sidelined during Derby Season, we have to keep track of how the others perform in these preps. If for no other reason than to aid our handicapping of the major Derby preps to be run in the next few weeks.
March 9, 2017: Getting the Rust Off
Last week, the featured Derby prep was the Risen Star Stakes from the Fair Grounds in New Orleans. We looked at the results in hindsight hoping it would help us handicap this past weekend’s Derby prep the Fountain of Youth at Gulfstream Park in Florida. Well, did it help? Or, did you fall for the handicapping trap of going with the horse who won his last race over the track, which in this case was Irish War Cry. If you did pick him, you may be asking yourself, how can a horse who beat the eventual winner of the Fountain of Youth finish a dull 7th? Our answer: welcome to Derby Season.
Let’s go back to the race chart of the Fountain of Youth to find out what ails our handicapping. First, look at the notes for the winner Gunnevera. They state the horse made a 4 wide move on the turn and won driving. Looking at the race replay, these notes are pretty spot on. Now, let’s look at Gunnevera’s past performances. He had 7 lifetime starts going into the race as compared to the 3 run by Irish War Cry. One of those starts was a win in the Delta Jackpot, which came after a 5th place finish in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile. As impressive as the Fountain of Youth win was, look at the second place finisher Practical Joke. He had never run over the track at Gulfstream Park, but he, like Irish War Cry, had 3 lifetime starts going into the race. What is impressive about Practical Joke’s effort in the Fountain of Youth was the fact that this race was his 2017 debut meaning he hadn’t raced since the Breeders’ Cup. You have to think there’s nothing but upside for this colt by his running so well after such a long layoff.
Like in the Risen Star, the next five finishers in the Fountain of Youth had run their previous races on the same track. One of these entries, Three Rules caught our eye. He finished third in the race after setting the pace for ¾ of it. Now, why would a pace setter, who couldn’t hold the lead for a mile and a 1/16th be of any importance in our future handicapping? Well, he probably won’t be for any Derby preps, but there are many stakes races on the calendar for three-year-old sprinters.
The top two finishers will more than likely go on to run in the Florida Derby. Their running styles are very favorable for distance races and they have shown they don’t have to take their race tracks with them. Any factors you can glean from a race chart, like the ones discussed herein are important, maybe not for handicapping the Derby itself, but for the major Derby preps which begin this weekend with the running of the Tampa Bay Derby. There’s another Derby prep being run this weekend and that is the San Felipe at Santa Anita. Since the SoCal three-year-olds rarely ship, the field will be locally based horses. So, watch these two preps and handicap them using the things we have been discussing in reviewing the race charts of the already run Derby preps. It is good practice, if for no other reason than it gets the rust off our handicapping tools.
March 2, 2017: Looking Back? Really?
Last weekend’s Derby prep, the Risen Star Stakes at the Fair Grounds in New Orleans made for an interesting handicapping challenge. It was a large field of three-year-olds, the majority of which were lightly raced. The horses were a mix of those being based at the track and those shipping from a variety of tracks. “Why should we bother going over a race that was already run and probably won’t yield a Derby winner?” you interrupt. Simply, by going over the Derby preps after they are run, we get an idea of how to approach future preps.
First off, if you look at the race chart of the Risen Star, you’d see that the first four finishers were based at the Fair Grounds and had run their previous races there. Could that be such an advantage in these types of races? Or could it be the quality of the shippers? Typically, Derby-caliber trainers send their second stringers to other tracks for the preps and leave their top Derby prospects at home. More than likely, it is a combination of these two factors that led to the race outcome. Still if you made your contenders just the local runners, how could you have come up with the winner, Girvin?
He had only two starts going into the Risen Star, whereby, he broke his maiden in his first race and then came in second in an overnight stakes in his next start. That isn’t much to go on when trying to figure out how the race would unfold. However, even with limited starts, you can get an idea of the preferred running styles of the horses entered. Girvin and the second-place finisher Untapped both appear to like to run off the pace. The third-place finisher seems to prefer to set the pace, and what usually happens to those pace-setters in a distance race of a mile and 1/16th and longer, he didn’t have enough in the tank to finish strong. The fourth-place horse was Guest Suite who came all the way from 9th to do so. So, the four top finishers had raced over the track and displayed three different running styles. Finding out the running styles of entries is key to Head Handicapping for any race. The puzzle with the Derby prep horses is that their running styles may not be established with only a few races under their girths.
Getting back to the Risen Star, you could have just taken one of the shortcuts we have been discussing and go with the eventual winner because on-track analyst Brian W. Spencer picked him to win. If you even casually follow the racing there, you would have realized that Brian knows that meet inside and out. Does that mean we just go with his picks? No. What it means is that we listen to what he is saying about all the entries he mentions. Does the information reinforce our Head Handicapping?
This weekend the featured Derby prep is the Fountain of Youth from Gulfstream Park. Try handicapping the race looking at the same factors we just used in reviewing the Risen Star. Does the horse have it in their genes to go longer distances? Maybe, they haven’t found a running style yet because they are too inexperienced to figure out what is expected of them on the track. Maybe this will be the race where they put it all together. It’s difficult to make that leap of faith, so, use your other handicapping tools as well. Listen to the on-track analysts mention the workouts. Are their comments positive? How many of the field have run over the track? Is there a track bias? There are many ways to tackle a field of lightly raced horses and come up with some solid contenders. It just takes practice, and luckily, we have many Derby preps left to get that practice.
February 23, 2017: Getting Back on Track
The past couple of weeks, we have been chatting about the shortcuts we race fans take. Most of us are weekend warriors when it comes to our race watching and handicapping, so, it is understandable we may take a shortcut here and there. We also may take shortcuts when our handicapping efforts aren’t producing positive results, aka, a slump or a losing streak. We can switch handicapping tools, maybe going from Head Handicapping to Gut Handicapping, but nothing seems to produce a single ticket to cash. Sigh.
Currently, there are a large number of handicappers (yours truly included) regrouping after sustaining loss after loss at the focal-point meet of the winter, Gulfstream Park. The reason for these losses can be laid at the feet of one bet type, the Rainbow Six. Since it first appeared several years ago, the concept took off in popularity. It started as a ten-cent bet, where one unique ticket could win millions for the single-ticket holder. Weekend handicappers got hooked on the gains made even when there were multiple winners going six-for-six. Confess. It was great to construct a ticket for a small amount and win a few hundred or maybe thousands when there were multiple-ticket winners.
Then came 2017. For some reason, those nice payoffs for multiple winners choosing low to middle odds horses have seemed to disappear. Even the racing analysts that cover Gulfstream are not hitting the Rainbow Six with the same regularly they did in prior years. “What gives?” you ask. Well, let’s use an example of last Sunday’s results for the wager. The first leg was an MSW where the chalk won. To the contrary, the second leg was a low-level claiming race where the winner paid $103. To add insult to injury, the next leg gave us a $65 winner in a three-year-old MSW race.
Now, we can expect longshots coming in, but if you looked at a good-sized sample of Rainbow Six results, you’d probably find these high payers coming in very frequently in comparison to the chalky runners. When a race meet features some of the biggest names in the sport, you’d expect them to win often, especially against the locally based outfits. It is those lower-level claiming races where we typically find the long shots. So, when the card mixes up the class levels with such extremes, the weekend handicapper is usually found on the losing end of things in the multiple-race wagers.
With Spring around the corner and the big-name connections migrating north soon, they are ridding their barns of their unsuccessful stock through these claiming races. The claiming races aren’t going away, so, we have to stop banging our collective heads against the proverbial wall. What has to change is our love affair with the Pick bets, whether it’s the Pick 6 or 5 or 4. What we can do is to focus our handicapping on the stakes races. At this time of year, we need to practice our handicapping skills to get ready for the major Derby and Oaks preps coming up in March, and we can’t do that unless we get some confidence back in our abilities. That confidence will come with a few winning wagers, which are bound to happen using the handicapping tools, we’ve worked so hard attaining.
So, hang in there. Spring is on its way and there’s handicapping to do!
February 16, 2017: Short Cut?
We have a holiday weekend coming up with Presidents’ Day on Monday, which means we have three days of racing ahead of us too. With that many races to handicap, we are bound to try to take some of the shortcuts we talked about last week. One shortcut we didn’t mention is the morning line. Confess, how many of us, when building a multi-race wager like a Pick 3, 4, 5, or 6, just plug the morning line favorite? How does that work out for you? Even if you threw in the morning line favorite with a couple of long shots, did putting in the extra horse cause your Pick bet to double or triple in cost?
If you follow certain race meets, you may notice that the morning line odds just don’t hold up come race time. This causes a great deal of frustration for handicappers at all levels. So, here’s a segment from our book, The Anatomy of Horse Race Handicapping or How to Have Fun at the Track, which tackles the subject:
Morning Line versus Afternoon Line
No, there isn't anything officially called the afternoon line. We just wanted to point out how the morning line odds listed in your race program differ from the final odds by which your winnings are calculated, when fortunate enough to pick the right horse that is. Most of all, we want to know: when did making the morning line odds become a lost art? It is still calculated the same way, based on 100% of the money wagered, plus the track's takeout, which is around 25% for win bets. Therefore, the person making the morning line odds, called the odds maker, must have the total odds of all the entries equal 125. This means the morning line must be "balanced". The odds maker starts with determining which entry is the favorite. How? By practicing good handicapping, we hope. Unfortunately, they sometimes take the approach where they guess who the betting public will make the favorite. Regardless of how they handicap, they will aim for a balanced morning line like in this example:
In our example above, the morning line odds for the favorites are the #3 horse at 5-2 and the #2 horse with odds of 3-1. Having assigned odds for the favorite, the odds maker continues until all the entries have morning line odds, with points given each horse based on these odds. For instance, the #1 received odds of 8-1, which equates to 11 points. These points are derived by dividing 100 (100% of the pool) by the sum of 8 plus 1. Adding up all the points, we get 125. The #3 with odds of 5-2 might throw you. Odds of 5-2 are really 2 and ½ to 1, so, we just divide 100 by the 2.5 plus 1 to get the 29 points. Most odds makers usually take a conservative approach with determining the odds of a favorite in order to let the betting public have wiggle room to drive the odds down further. Similarly, a long shot's actual odds may be much higher than those given it in the morning line. In such a case, the level of the long-shot's odds are deflated in order to balance the morning line. So, when looking over the entries in your race program and you see 20-1 odds for one, that horse may go off at odds far higher than 20-1, even 99-1 or more. Yes, the odds board may only show 99-1 odds for a long shot, because most of them can only display a maximum of two digits. So, if a horse with 99-1 odds displayed wins, the payoff may be higher. Regardless of the payout (unless you picked it), you now know it's not an error in calculating the morning line, rather it is the way it is calculated.
February 9, 2017: Listen. Did you hear that?
Shhhh. Listen. Do you hear that? Last week, we had two cards full of graded stakes with each featuring two Derby preps, so, how’d you do? What’s that? Not so good? We can guess what happened. You just fell into your old routine of picking horses using one or none of the handicapping tools available. The whole “try some new handicapping tools” thing sounded like too much work. Why find out the angles to play at Gulfstream and Santa Anita? Why learn the pedigrees of the three-year-olds on the Derby trail? Why watch race replays? Why do all that work?
Why do all that on your own when you can listen to the seemingly endless ramblings of the on-track race analysts. They give you their picks and proceed to back them up with evidence through things like race replays or ROI statistics for the horse’s connections or the stats of the sire. Sometimes the amount of evidence presented sounds like a trial lawyer trying to save a client from a life sentence. You may be so overwhelmed with their reasons you just bet their picks mindlessly. Yep, we get it. Sure, they are at the track every race day, but their typical reliance on one handicapping tool makes them as limited as you with your reliance on one handicapping tool. Then there’s the fact that they are strapped by having to make their choices long before the races actually start. So, if track conditions change, all of their evidence is sadly washed away. Also, they need to make picks for every race and to rank their choices. All of which causes them to reach out for some long shot to win in order to differentiate themselves from the other race analysts. Do you ever notice how they don’t mention their stats at picking winners? To the contrary, we have the luxury of waiting until race time to make our choices and to decide whether we even want to wager on a race. We can also use a bet type where we can choose several horses and not have to single out a winner.
There is nothing wrong about letting the experts provide you with the information that you could research on your own. However, you might want to listen to what they are not saying as to what they are saying. Remember where their opinions are coming from. Carefully weigh the replays they chose with those left unchosen. Do they need more than two replays of the same horse’s races to convince you? What about the other contenders in the race? Is there anything in the past performance notes that would interest you enough to view that horse’s replays? How about listening closely to the statistics they choose. Do they take into account the track itself? Do they mention anything about a current track bias or about the hot connections for the meet? Overall, have you noted how successful they have been during the meet. You don’t want to back a loser on the track, so why put your money on one giving picks.
Listening is easy to do, when you know what to listen for. It is also a shortcut we can take when we just don’t have the time to do our own Head, Eye, Gut, and Pedigree handicapping. It’s all about having fun handicapping yourself and not just throwing your bankroll away on someone else’s handicapping.
February 2, 2017: Happy Derby Trail to You!
Okay Chromies, it’s time to move on. Sure, your guy didn’t go out in a blaze of glory, but how many top-level athletes do? Did Red Sox slugger David Ortiz hit a homer in his last at bat to win a playoff game? Take solace in the fact you got to see him run in a race twice more because of the Pegasus Stakes. One of those extra races came at his home track of Los Alamitos. It was the first and only time he ran there too. Then, in a few years, you can root for all of his offspring of which there will be many to choose from considering the dates he has lined up with some pretty high-class mares.
So, it’s back to the thus far neglected Derby trail, and since it is now February, it means the preps for the final preps will be run. Most Derby prospects don’t debut in their three-year-old season until February, with the goal of their trainers being two preps before the big race. Given that game plan, this Saturday there are two key Derby preps, the Holy Bull at Gulfstream and the Robert B. Lewis at Santa Anita. The Holy Bull features the three-year-old debut of the Eclipse champion, Classic Empire. Even if you are not a fan of any member of this crop right now, give them a chance. Sure, you can’t replace Chrome, but there are many Derby prospects worthy of your following. Besides, nothing makes the Derby season more enjoyable than having one or more horses to track.
Also, remember with these Derby prep days come race cards full of graded stakes. There are three each at both Gulfstream Park and Santa Anita in addition to the three-year-old ones. This means you’ll get plenty of practice with your handicapping tools. Try them all because now is the perfect time to experiment a little. If you’ve always been a Head handicapper, why not dabble with some Gut, Eye, or Pedigree handicapping tools. If you can’t let go of your standard operating procedure, then work on that bankroll management. With four graded stakes on each of these cards, it is important to figure out how to bet your choices so you don’t run out of bankroll.
Derby season is heating up, so, it’s time to get yourself into action!
January 26, 2017: Pegasus
This weekend brings us an event for which race fans haven’t seen such hype surrounding a race for older horses since the bygone days of Seabiscuit. The inaugural Pegasus World Cup Invitational Stakes is scheduled to be run at Gulfstream Park on Saturday. With its $12 million purse, it surpasses the Dubai World Cup, and its $10 million purse, to become the world’s richest race. The brainchild of track owner, Frank Stronach, the purse is constructed in a unique way. Stakeholders, who could be anyone, not necessary horse owners, bought a place in the starting gate for $1 million each, and with 12 starting gate places, the total purse of $12 million was created. The name Pegagus seems appropriate for such a race, as it is the name of the winged stallion from Greek mythology. Pegagus was featured prominently in many of the myths, mixing with the big names like Zeus, to the point where an entire constellation is named for him.
When word of the race first became public last year, the critics were of course being critics. Who would want to pay a million dollars to enter a race, they cried. Who is interested in stakes races for older horses anymore, they carped. Well, it looks like their negative outlooks are being proved nothing more than that because the very first running of the race has drawn two-time Horse of the Year California Chrome going up against the recently named Longines World’s Best Racehorse for 2016, Arrogate. The latter did defeated the former in the 2016 Breeders’ Cup Classic, but the finish was close and this time they will be going a furlong less. Besides the race also means that fan favorite, Chrome will run once more before heading to his new career as a sire.
Looking back at the history of racing in North America, the races for older horses were equal, or even more significant to race fans than those for the three-year-olds. Most of the races for older horses were designated as Handicaps. The most famous of them is probably the Santa Anita Handicap. “The Big Cap” as it is still called was known as the “Hundred-Grander” during its early editions because of its $100,000 purse. Of course, that purse seems paltry compared to the Pegagus’ $12 million. We have to remember that was during the Great Depression, when such a purse was a fortune. Part of the race’s fame today stems from the tale of Seabiscuit. The champion attempted to win it twice in 1937 and 1938, but lost in photo finishes both times. Just when it was thought his career was over after an injury, he came back and finally succeeded 1940, his final race, which thrilled the entire country during those sad times. With the present day being filled with a similar gloom, it seems fitting a race like the Pegagus appears on the racing calendar. No, it won’t bring back the glory days of the sport, but it sure is nice to have such excitement so early in the year.
Other differences between then and now abound. Handicap races are rarely run anymore. The original idea was to make an even playing field by giving more weight to the more successful entries. Today’s owners won’t enter their horse in a race where they feel the weight assigned is too much in relation to the competition, so, handicap races have become a thing of the past. Whenever race fans talk about Handicap Stakes, the name of Forego usually comes up. Forego carried 130 pounds or more 24 times in his career and became a three-time Horse of the Year with his 14 Grade 1 victories. Even in modern times though, the Santa Anita Handicap has produced winners such as Hall of Famers: Lava Man (2006 and 2007); Alysheba (1988); John Henry (1981 and 1982); Spectacular Bid (1980); and Affirmed (1979). For a race first run in 1935, there’s a rich history to be found. We can only hope the Pegagus Stakes winners will be talked about many years from now as well.
January 19, 2017: Growing Pains
With the Eclipse Awards being given out this weekend, we can’t help but go through all the nominees and think of our favorites and their races run in 2016. Then again, when we think of last year is it the races featuring these champions that are our favorite memories of 2016 or others? This time last year, we were awaiting the three-year-old debuts of Songbird and Nyquist. Then Songbird never made it to the Kentucky Oaks, as a result, we were deciding between fillies like Catherine Sophia and Go Maggie Go. When Songbird returned, her races rose in significance as she defeated those who were at the top of the three-year-old filly crop. As for the colts, Nyquist did come through to win the Kentucky Derby to remain undefeated, but never was competitive again. So, do those results mean we shouldn’t pay any attention to all the Derby prep races on the racing calendar? What do you think?
Instead of waiting around for the horses that proved themselves as two-year-olds last year to make their three-year-old debuts, we need to handicap all the Derby and Oaks preps. The main reason to do so is that many changes occur between two and three. The horses mature at different rates just like people (and just like people, some never mature.) Just because their birthday is considered January 1st the horses don’t actually turn three until their actual birthdays meaning some won’t even be three at the time the Triple Crown races are run.
So, how can we handicap races when we don’t really know if the horses have grown, matured, and are taking this racing stuff seriously? Our biggest hurdle in handicapping the three-year-olds is the fact they don’t have many prior races and the ones they do have were run when they were two. That is why we rely on Eye and Pedigree Handicapping tools this time of year. The Eye Handicapping mainly consists of watching replays of their most recent races versus their first race. Do you notice any differences? Alright, how about looking at them in the paddock before their 2017 debut.
You probably won’t notice much of a change and will have to take their trainer’s word for it, which is why pedigree handicapping is so important right now. Which sires have precocious offspring? What pedigrees produce horses that can go a mile and a quarter come May? It may sound like a lot of work looking at pedigrees especially when you can’t remember who is who in the world of lineages. However, you don’t have to be a pedigree expert. Just do some snooping around past champions’ pedigrees. You can start with the Eclipse Awards nominees or you can look at prior Triple Crown winners. Get yourself familiar with looking at pedigree charts. You might find the same names popping up in the pedigrees of these established champions.
This can be a fun exercise if you approach it from a sense of handicapping as you do when you figure out how a race unfolds using the past performances with your Head Handicapping. If that’s too much of a bother, then look for the names of your favorites in the pedigrees of horses entered in the Derby or Oaks preps. Handicapping the Blood is a key tool and one that we will rely on heavily in the next few months, so, don’t miss the opportunity to start using it now. And have some fun while you’re at it too!
January 12, 2017: Getting in Touch with Your Inner Handicapper
Having a difficult time getting back into the handicapping thing? Let’s face it. It’s sure been awhile since the Breeders’ Cup, a time when we had those handicapping tools going full speed. Like a healthy race horse that had a long, much-deserved layoff, we need to get back in training, and those tools are still the same, maybe a bit rusty is all. How about we get the rust off by starting at the beginning. There are two decisions we need to make every time we tackle a horse race. The first decision is figuring out which horses will contend in the race. This is our handicapping step. The second thing we have to do is decide how to wager, or maybe not wager, on those choices. It appears that the second of these decisions is easier than the first. After all, don’t most of us just use the same bet type every race? Actually, the first decision is probably easier for most folks because we tend to pick our horses the same way we make the majority of our decisions in every day life.
Here’s an example: say you’re going to buy a new car (still thinking horsepower here, but a different kind.) Some of us do seemingly endless research. We dive into the numbers. With our horse racing decision, we go into the numbers too, but with the past performances to figure out how a race unfolds, which is what we call Head Handicapping. Some of us just look at specific numbers when buying a car like safety ratings or the percentage of recalls, breakdowns, etc. When it comes to the horses, these decision-making types probably do a great deal of what we call Gut Handicapping, which is simply the use of angles. What trainers, jockeys, horses, etc. are on a winning streak type of thing.
What about those car buyers who need to see, feel, and test drive car after car? Those are the same folks that need to see the horses before the race or the ones that watch race replays, which are both a part of Eye Handicapping. “Let’s not forget that new car smell!” you yell. In the case of live horses, we might want to skip that part. This type of handicapping includes the folks that decide on a car by its size or the all-important color. How many of us have ever picked a horse because it looked the part? Huh? Lastly, we certainly can’t forget the pedigree handicappers, who decide on a horse by the breeding. We surmise that when these folks go car buying, they probably go with a brand name.
So, those are the reasons we feel the first decision needed to be made about which horse or horses to pick is much easier than the second decision of how to bet those picks. It comes down to making the decision in the same manner in which we make most of our decisions. Whereas, how to bet the chosen contenders is difficult because we always need to match our contenders with a bet type. Keep these thoughts in mind for this weekend’s racing, especially those Derby preps. If you find yourself just using one type of handicapping make note of it. Lots of questions arise when looking into your inner handicapper, but it doesn’t mean you can’t have fun doing it. Now, don’t moan. The start of Derby Season brings with it new opportunities. What better way to seize those chances than figuring out just what we learned last year using those handicapping tools.
January 5, 2017: Heart Handicapping Your Way Through 2017
We really don’t talk too much about one of our handicapping tools, that being handicapping with your heart. Yes, you’re probably saying quite disgruntled: “What’s there to handicap? You’re a fan of a horse and always make it a contender, then bet on it only to get a nickel back on every dollar bet.” Whether a heart play or just a heavy favorite in a race, betting chalk really is the bane of a handicapper’s existence. However, there is a way to incorporate our Tail Handicapping (the betting) when a favorite of ours runs going off at low odds. You can always single that heavy favorite in a multi-race bet like a Pick 5 or 4, even a Pick 3. Just remember not to blow your entire bankroll for the day on this one wager. Carefully handicap the other legs of the Pick bet, if only to avoid the “ALL” button, which will make the cost explode. If the price of the wager becomes too much, you can always choose just to watch your favorite. If you absolutely must, then how about an exacta picking some longshots underneath for second place. Your chances of cashing that ticket are slim and the payout not as much as if the longshot comes in first, but you will at least be satisfied that your heart horse won.
We bring up the topic of Heart Handicapping now because at the beginning of any year, we want to find out which of our favorites are returning for another year. This year, we have an unusual returnee with California Chrome running in a few weeks in the Pegasus Stakes at Gulfstream. His legion of Chromies must be ecstatic to have him come back, even if it is for this one last race. It is a rare event to have a champion of his age to still be racing at the top level of the sport.
It is in January that we typically look forward to the Derby and Oaks preps, which begin this weekend with the Grade 3 Sham and Grade 2 Santa Ynez both at Santa Anita and the Grade 3 Hutcheson and Dania Beach at Gulfstream. Even though we became familiar with the crop as two year olds last year, they were just babes and now we find out how much they have matured, or perhaps regressed. Look at Arrogate, he didn’t even begin racing until after the Triple Crown races were run last year. He’s now the leading candidate for the Eclipse Award for top three-year-old of 2016. “Does that mean, we shouldn’t even bother handicapping those Derby preps this early in the year?” you ponder. Of course we should! Just like the horses, we need to brush up on our handicapping skills and what better way to do so than handicapping all the preps filling the racing calendar from now until the first Saturday in May.
So, get ready for a 2017 racing calendar full of great races (and if the year doesn’t meet the hype, American Pharoah just had his first foal born, if you want to think that far ahead.)