September 28, 2017: The Breeders' Cup versus Breeders' Cup Preview Days
This weekend begins the “official” Breeders’ Cup preps. Sure, we’ve had the “Win and You’re In” races scattered here and there throughout the calendar, but there are two Saturdays each Fall that have the most of these races and so are called Breeders’ Cup Preview days. As a result, we get 8 Grade 1 Stakes, where 7 of them are the “Win and You’re In” variety. The tricky part in handicapping these races depends upon whether an entry already has the “Win and You’re In” win (try saying that three times fast). If so, then the trainer probably doesn’t want their horse at its peak-performance level and is just using the race as a public workout. A good paying workout, with additional black-type up for grabs, we might add. To save their horse for the BC is a primary reason many trainers don’t send their BC bound horses to run on the prep days. So, we won’t be seeing stars like Arrogate or Vale Dori either weekend.
Now, for the connections still on the fence about going to the BC, these preps present the incentive to do just that, so, those horses will be holding nothing back. There’s another group taking advantage of these preps and those are the connections who see high purses. With preps for the same conditions, for example, older filies and mares going a distance, being held on each coast, there will be openings for barns to take advantage of the situation. Looking over the entries, you might be surprised at the mix of previous Grade 1 winners with those less elite runners. The favorites in each BC prep won’t be meeting each other until the big day, so, why not enter your horse with the hope of getting some of that high purse money?
All these scenarios make quite the challenge for our handicapping. We still have to do our Head Handicapping, where we figure out how the races will unfold, but with some of the favorites not going all-out; we really need to rely on our Gut Handicapping. The combination of these two tools can either make or break our BC Preview Days. Finding your contenders isn’t just a matter of going with the favorite who looks overwhelming compared to the other entries. Instead, use your gut to find the horses going off at higher odds, with the feeling that this is their BC.
As always with any BIG days of racing, we need to manage our bankrolls, especially if we are going to fish around for some longshots. Overall, handicapping the Preview Days is somewhat harder to do than the BC itself because we know all the horses running in the BC have been pointed to their respective races all year. Even though, both the BC Preview Days and the BC offer race fans great opportunities to increase the bankroll, the Preview Days offer us practice rounds for the main event too.
Have fun and you’ll have a week to figure out what you did not so good before tackling the next BC Preview Day!
September 21, 2017: Thank You Penny
This weekend’s Graded Stakes include the last of the restricted such races for the three-year-olds, the Pennsylvania Derby. With the male division of the crop having no clear-cut leader, the race should offer fans some value with all the connections scrambling around to be noticed at this point. On the filly side, we have the running of the Grade 1 Cotillion, also at Parx racetrack in Philadelphia. Abel Tasman is entered, and the Kentucky Oaks and Coaching Club Oaks winner seems to be placed to solidify her top three-year-old filly designation. Since, this will be the last time before the Breeders’ Cup that the top three-year-olds will be racing against each other, as there are no BC races restricted to the crop, horses like Gun Runner and Arrogate will be their rivals in the future. Look them over carefully, not only to handicap the races, but with the BC preps and BC in mind as well.
Having no top three-year-old colt to root for in 2017 is bittersweet this week, as race fans all over mourn the passing of Penny Chenery, the owner of the most popular three-year-old for a generation of race fans, Secretariat. It really isn’t surprising that horse fans were still talking about Big Red and his owner after fifty-plus years of his Triple Crown achievement, as she made the sport accessible to all. I was fortunate to meet Mrs. Chenery a number of years ago, in of all places, a line for the Ladies’ Room at Saratoga. I turned around and there she was, right behind me. Of course, I started gushing about Secretariat, and then realized where were my manners. I offered her my place in line. Too late though because everyone in front of me turned around and there she was graciously holding court. She was so generous and genuine in sharing her stories of Secretariat. Her audience must have been appreciative as well, for every time I saw her at a racetrack thereafter, she had the same energy and enthusiasm as when I first met her. Her love for horses and horse fans came through loud and clear and for that, this race fan will always be grateful. Now, the superhorse has his greatest fan rooting him on in heaven still running “like a tremendous machine”.
September 14, 2017: On the Road (Again) to the BC
Our summer of fun at the track has come to a close. Does that mean it’s time to get serious about our handicapping, like the kids going back to school lugging those backpacks? Heck, no. We actually learned a lot about our handicapping this summer, even when just having fun. Some may have tried new bet types, others finally figured out the difference between loose speed on the lead and a contested pace by just watching the races and not getting buried under piles of speed figures. (Like we would anyway!)
Overall, we hopefully learned the importance of patience. Should you have spent some of your bankroll on grazing all the food options offered at your track or make some goofy bet for the sake of making a bet. Decisions. Decisions. That’s what handicapping is all about, not feeling any pressure to have to make a bet. Just taking our time looking over the card and seeing if anything jumps out, then using a bet type fitting of the contenders picked. Sure, it sounds easy, just pick a horse and throw some cash on its nose. Unfortunately, that attitude gets old fast if you are a race fan over the long haul. That’s why it’s time to sharpen our handicapping tools as we enter Breeders’ Cup Season and take a look at exactly what we have been doing with our handicapping tools by default over the summer.
We don’t have to wait until the BIG Breeders’ Cup preview days to get ready, as there are many meets starting up offering terrific races. We have Churchill Downs with their stakes for the baby two-year-olds; Keeneland and Woodbine with their BC “Win and You’re In” stakes; Parx with the last of the notable three-year-old restricted stakes; and the BC preview days at Santa Anita and Belmont Park. Whew! That’s a lot of great racing on our schedule. With so many divisions in racing up for grabs, each of the BC preps takes on added significance, which means great betting opportunities for us.
Just don’t lose that “fun” spirit you had during the summer!
September 7, 2017: That's a Wrap for Our Summer of Fun
Whether Saratoga is still the country’s elite race meet is debatable. Ever since Angel Cordero won 14 consecutive jockey titles there, almost every track in the country makes a big deal over which jockey, trainer, and even owner had the most wins for a meet. These competitions may have lost their luster at the Spa though, given the mainly daily fair of state-restricted races, which shutout the non-New York based outfits, so, the top jocks, trainers, and owners are the same as found at any other New York race meet. Sure, the Saturday cards have the big stakes races, thereby, bringing in the top horses and with them the top jockeys, trainers, and owners, but that schedule makes the meet just like any other with their BIG days of races, think Gulfstream Park on Pegasus Cup Day or Del Mar on Pacific Classic Day. So, what race fans are left with on closing days are these top jockey, trainer, and owner competitions and it was no different at the “elite” race meet in America on Labor Day this year.
The remains of Hurricane Harvey went through the Saratoga area on Sunday leaving the track muddy on the last day of racing. As a result, most of the turf races were run on the dirt track. You know what that means, fields scratched down to five horses. Do you ever notice that smaller fields seem to have more traffic problems than the bigger ones? This situation was the case in the third race, when the winner, Driving Me Crazy was taken down because his rider and second-place top jock, Irad Oritz wanted to take out his younger brother and leading meet jockey, Jose Ortiz, as the field proceeded down the stretch. Usually, the horses are back in the barn by time a DQ is announced, but for some reason, the groom was walking the 20-1 shot around outside of the winner’s circle. When the winner was taken down, the longshot’s jockey C.J. McMahon, who was in town for the weekend realizes he won his first race at Saratoga. He jumps aboard the winner and rides the horse into the winner's circle - bareback. The winner’s circle photo was like no other I have witness, but it is just another example of how significant winning a race at Saratoga still is.
With the trainer’s title also on the line, the whole card promised to be a battle between Todd Pletcher and Chad Brown. This battle was never more evident than in the very first race, where Pletcher pulls out this $1,000,000 maiden from his barn. He didn't win, a Godolphin horse did. (Of course, we don’t know the price tag on that one, but think it’s probably in the same neighborhood as Pletcher’s horse.) Not to be outdone, Brown has the favorite in the 4th, but it’s only a $425,000 purchase. Unfortunately, the rider, Irad Ortiz got in trouble once again resulting in yet another longshot coming home in a five-horse race. The next race was a "cheap" MSW, where Pletcher’s winner was purchased for only $155,000. Not to be outdone again, Brown runs a $550,000 purchase in the next race, which wins with the younger Ortiz.
The next race is the Bernard Baruch, a Grade 2 Stakes on the turf, where the elder Ortiz wins, but for trainer Brain Lynch. The two Brown entries were shut out, but one of them had Flo Geroux aboard, which explains that. Brown and Pletcher were also out of the winner’s circle in the next race, where my new favorite turf rider, Jose Lezcano came from last, after a speed dual developed. Yes, a speed dual on turf. Go figure. This all brings us to the Grade 1 Hopeful for the two-year-olds. Since Pletcher has more of these types in his barn than anyone, it was no surprise when his two entries were favored. What was the surprise was D. Wayne Lukas’ trainee Sporting Chance winning. Hall of Famer Lukas winning a Grade 1 at Saratoga should come as no surprise, but the way the horse won certainly was, as he bolted to the outside fence coming down the lane. Yet another inquiry ensued, the result stood, and Mr. Lukas held court in the winner’s circle until the start of the last race. After all was said and done, Pletcher may have won the meet’s trainer title and Brown came in second with one less win, but “the Coach” Mr. Lukas took the day.
The final race had two gate scratches, thereby, prolonging the final day, then when the gate opens, Sandy Belle goes the first quarter in 21 and change and manages to gasp home first with Jose, uh, Lezcano that is. The other Jose, Ortiz walks off with the jock’s title and his brother finishes second, which is understandable, since they being New York City based, get to ride in all those state-bred races making up the Saratoga cards.
As for your author, well, I'm walking out after the last race and literally run into owner Ken Ramsey. I wished him luck at the upcoming Kentucky Downs meet. He said thank you, told me he gives his fans a pin (his silks), and would I like one. Sure, I say. I was hoping for a tip, but what the heck. So, that’s the Saratoga meet. You get to high-five a young jock, who is thrilled to win his first race at Saratoga; you get a thank you from the country’s top trainer when you congratulate him on winning yet another meet title; and you get a pin from one of the country’s leading owners. Case, and meet, closed.
August 31, 2017: Now What?
Well, we were hoping with the field assembled for the prestigious Travers Stakes, that the three-year-old pecking order would take some shape. Alas, the only pecking that happened Saturday concerned the Race Fans bankrolls. Always Dreaming remains the only three-year-old with two Grade 1 victories (the Florida Derby and Kentucky Derby), but he hasn’t shown much since the First Saturday in May. Both Girvin and McCraken looked good in the Haskell, but that deep Saratoga track didn’t help their grinding styles of running. And what happened to former turf runner Good Samaritan, who went off as the race time favorite? Could his jockey have placed him any further back? He lost all chance when his chicklet fell off the screen (chicklets are those numbers at the bottom the TV screens broadcasting the races in case you were wondering.)
Why is it so important to have division leaders at this time of year anyway, you wonder? The answer is simply that the graded stakes to be run restricted to the three-year-olds are getting fewer. Come Breeders’ Cup preview days, they will have to run with their elders, like Gun Runner, Collected, and maybe Arrogate. If a three-year-old like Travers winner West Coast does well against his elders, he could very well take the title of top three-year-old. Given the state of the older horse division, this outcome could very well happen. The leader at this point is Gun Runner, who took the top spot from Arrogate after his two consecutive losses. The thing is: Gun Runner’s wins have been Grade 1s, but at a mile and one-eighth distance and not the mile and a quarter of the Breeders’ Cup Classic. When Gun Runner races in the Woodward Stakes this weekend at Saratoga, a win won’t help as much as a loss would hurt.
All year, we have been carping about how important it is to have those 24-second quarters in a mile and a quarter race. To realize what a great ride Hall of Fame rider Mike Smith had on West Coast in the Travers, let’s look at the times of the most recently run mile and a quarter races: the Pacific Classic, for ages 3 and above and the Travers, for three-year-olds only.
Pacific Classic: Won by Collected going wire-to-wire
Fractional Times: 23.76 47.19 1:11.06 135.27 Final: 2:00.70
Split Times: 23.43 23.87 24.21 25.43
The Travers Stakes: Won by West Coast going wire-to-wire
Fractional Times: 23.82 48.12 1:12.23 1.:36.82 Final: 2:01.19
Split Times: 24.30 24.11 24.59 24.37
What should jump out at you is the all-important split times of 24 seconds maintain by Smith on West Coast. The race was slower than the Pacific Classic, which indicates to us that the lack of a contested lead for West Coast resulted in the rest of the field being unable to catch him. The faster final time of the Pacific Classic makes it look like Collected would have beaten the entire Travers field and leads us to believe the older horses have an edge for the Breeders’ Cup Classic. However, by watching replays of each race, you can get a better idea of how each race unfolded than the numbers above. What we need to look at with the replays is how the condition of each track influenced the results. We know that the Saratoga track has been deep and tiring the entire meet, which helps loose speed on the lead. The Pacific Classic saw that Accelerate pressed the pace being set by Collected, hence, the faster times posted for that race than the Travers. Unfortunately, West Coast didn’t race at the current Del Mar meet, so, we have no comparing a single horse’s performance on each track.
The moral of our tale of mile and a quarter races is simple. We do our Head Handicapping to figure out how a race will unfold, but we need to throw in some Eye Handicapping, whereby, we see have the track played in earlier races. We have plenty of races before the Breeders’ Cup to refine these handicapping tools. For now, it’s the last weekend of our summer of fun at a track near you. Let’s make the most of it and have fun, fun, fun before handicapping lesson begin in earnest.
August 24, 2017: Cloudy Divisions and Other Math
This Saturday at Saratoga, we have the Biggest day in racing until the Breeders’ Cup Preview days start. Sure, that’s only a month away, but with almost all the divisions in racing without clear-cut leaders, each graded stakes takes on added significance. How many divisions can there be, you ponder? How much more complicated can the sport get, you scratch your head? The divisions may not be important to we race fans as it is to the owners, trainers, and breeders, because having a horse be the leader in a division usually means an Eclipse Award as top horse in that division. Remember last year, California Chrome won the Horse of the Year title, while Arrogate was top three-year-old colt. When we saw Chrome running, it was Heart Handicapping all the way and not thoughts of such a title. However, with this many horses vying for top spots in their respective divisions, Heart Handicapping may not be enough for us this day.
Let’s look at the feature race of the weekend, the Grade 1 Travers Stakes as an example of what we’re up against. The Travers will be the first race restricted to the crop to be run at a distance of a mile and a quarter since the Kentucky Derby. Does that mean we have to handicap it as we did the Derby? Don’t worry race fans, a lot has happened since the first Saturday in May, so, we don’t have to start from scratch looking over the field. We have been watching and handicapping most of them all year. However, one thing that may go unnoticed is how these horses have grown. The ones maturing early in the year had an advantage going in to the Derby, but the rest have caught up. That leaves us with deciding which ones have grown in talent, as well as, conformation. Last year, Arrogate was a new face for us this time of year, so, we had to go back to looking at his pedigree given his few past performances. This year, the newcomer is Fayeq. If you do your Pedigree Handicapping, you’d find out he is a half-brother to Rachel Alexandra because they have the same mom.
With the amounts of past performances accumulated by the rest of the field this year, our Head Handicapping should be easier than at Derby time. Head Handicapping is where we figure out how the race will unfold. This means we need to look at the past performances of each entry. We need to know who are the need-to-lead types, the off-the-pace runners, and the closers. What makes this Travers special is the entry of the winners of each leg of the Triple Crown, Always Dreaming, Cloud Computing, and Tapwrit. Those horses and most of the others entered have enough races under their girths to figure out their preferred running style. For example, we know Always Dreaming will be out there trying to take the lead setting those reasonable 24-second fractions. So, who is going to contest that lead? Someone will have to, since loose speed on the lead typically finds success at the finish line. Yet, when Classic Empire contested Always Dreaming on the lead in the Preakness, they both didn’t have enough to hold off Cloud Computing (actually Always Dreaming spit the bit early if you remember). Then in the Jim Dandy Stakes, the prep for the Travers, Cloud Computing didn’t have Classic Empire to contest Always Dreaming’s lead, and he had to do the job, which resulted in former-turf runner Good Samaritan using that turf training to have the late kick necessary to pass his distinguished rivals.
The horses coming into the race from the Haskell, like Girvin and McCracken have grinding, off-the-pace type of running styles, and without early speed to contest Always Dreaming, it will be interesting to figure out if their connections will have them placed closer to the lead. Then you have to think if Good Samaritan’s late kick will be enough to pass the off-the-pace and/or pace-setting horses. With all these angles to play, the Travers Stakes presents the handicapper with a canoe-load of fun. Any handicapping tool you want to use is okay, Eye Handicapping, Gut Handicapping, Heart Handicapping and the rest, because the outcome will provide value. You only have to go back two years and remember what The Graveyard of Champions did to eventual Grand Slam winner, American Pharoah. Maybe we won’t have a clearer picture of the top three-year-old colts after the race, but it is sure a great way to spend a summer’s day.
Besides the three-year-old colt division, there are six other graded stakes on the card for other divisions. The Personal Ensign Stakes features everyone’s sweetheart Songbird. Unlike her two and three-year-old seasons, she has hasn’t been the dominating victor in her races this year, so, any faltering in this race will open that top spot to mares like Stellar Wind, who races on the west coast.
Both the female and male sprint divisions will be on display in races such as the Ballerina and Forego Stakes. Both fields have drawn runners from last year’s Breeders’ Cup Sprint editions. Drefong, the winner of the Kings Bishop on Travers Day last year went on to win the Breeders’ Cup Sprint; however, in his 2017 debut race, he dumped jockey Mike Smith at the start. As a result, we will have to throw that tidbit of information into our handicapping of the race. You may not want to handicap all the races on the card. The Ballston Spa Stakes features a true star of the sport, Lady Eli, which makes it a must-watch race. How you tackle a BIG day like this one is all good, as long as you have enough in that bankroll to last. Nothing is sadder than spending time handicapping a BIG day race card and not being able to wager on your contenders because your bankroll went bust after the fifth race - ouch.
Enjoy the day, and what you learn from it can be used in a month from now for those Breeders’ Cup Preview Days.
August 17, 2017: A Pair of "Classics"
We have two Grade 1 races to test our handicapping skills this weekend and both are at the classic distance of a mile and a quarter. Unfortunately, only one is interesting from a handicapping standpoint and the other, well, the other will hopefully answer some questions. The latter is the Pacific Classic, the highlight of the Del Mar summer meet and it features the enigmatic horse, Arrogate. Rumors have been flying about ever since the top-rated horse in the world didn’t lift a hoof in the San Diego Stakes run there earlier in the meet. It wasn’t a health issue because he has been training in his usual nonchalant manner. So, questions arose as to whether he liked the track at Del Mar. If he doesn’t, we will find out this Saturday, and then the rumors begin as to whether he will return to the track for the Breeders’ Cup to be held at Del Mar in November. So, with all these questions, do we really want to handicap the race?
We say: naw, especially when we have the Alabama Stakes being run at Saratoga for the three-year-old fillies. What makes this race so interesting to handicap is not only who is entered, but who is not. The winner of three consecutive Grade 1’s, Abel Tasman is staying home in California resting for a Breeders’ Cup prep out there. Could it also be because she has never run the mile and a quarter distance of the Alabama? What do you think race fan?
Now, several of those entered have run the distance, but not on dirt. We have New Money Honey, who won the Grade 1 Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Fillies Turf as a two-year-old and most recently the Grade 1 Belmont Oaks in July at a mile and a quarter on turf. She is the daughter of Medaglia d’Oro, who also sired Songbird and the great Rachel Alexandria amongst other champion fillies. (Note; they are only considered sisters, if their dam is the same, not the sire.)
Another entry who ran and won at a mile and a quarter is the Queen’s Plate winner, Holy Helena. That race was run on Tapeta, a synthetic surface, which is not turf nor dirt. The race was also restricted to Canadian breds, but we don’t hold that against her. What makes her entry so interesting is the fact she ran and won twice on dirt, once at Aqueduct and again at Belmont Park. The trainer being American-based Jimmy Jerkins may have something to do with that, while being an Ontario bred got her into the Queen’s Plate.
Another favorite in the race is sure to be Unchained Melody, who won the Grade 2 Mother Goose Stakes at Belmont Park at a mile and 1/16th. No, it’s not a mile and a quarter, but watch the race replay to see if she wants to go longer.
Overall, there are nine entered, thereby, a race providing value, which is an expression meaning the favorites probably won’t be going off at very low odds. The kind that would have been placed on Abel Tasman had she been entered. Whatever the outcome of the Alabama, the absence of Abel Tasman and the addition of those who do well in the Alabama will add some spice to the Breeders’ Cup Distaff, which is run at a distance of a mile and 1/8th.
One last tip to pass on concerns the event known as Equestricon, which was held this past week in Saratoga Springs, New York. If you are a race fan, no matter if you consider yourself a newbie, a railbird, or born into the sport, this was a not to be missed event. Your author is honored to have participated in it and hopes there will be a second edition in 2018 as being hinted at today. Thanks to Justin, Katie, and Danny for their vision and hard work. It paid off in multiple ways.
August 10, 2017: A Stakes Near You
Every summer it seems like Del Mar and Saratoga hog all the good races. Well, they do have some great racing at each place, the kind that grabs the top horses in training, but race fans, that observation just isn’t true this weekend. Three tracks in each section of the country have graded stakes this weekend, and surprise, none of them are named Del Mar or Saratoga. The key word with the stakes being run is that they are usually very competitive, and those are they kind that our handicapping tools just love.
One of the tracks is Arlington International Race Course, which is having their meet’s BIG day, and it is a BIG day we should pay attention to at this point in the year. Why should you abandon the surf and the spa this weekend for a track outside of Chicago? Because it is a palace of racing. If the picnic table scene has become old, then Arlington Park is the place to be. The clubhouse is a marbled hall and the turf course is immaculate for lack of a better adjective. Waiters in black tie and tails deliver your adult beverages in the paddock, as you view the most magnificent of turf runners. If it’s racing celebrities you want to mingle with, then the top trainers. owners, and jockeys will be there. Some of the names might be unfamiliar to you, but trust us, when you see names like Buick and Moore riding, you will know you have seen two of Europe’s, if not the world’s, best. As for their mounts, the Euro runners shipping in for the races will have pedigrees that include names like Galileo; Theatrical; Danehill; English Channel; Sea the Stars; and of course, what American turf race would not have those Kitten Joy offspring.
The stakes races, such as, The American St. Ledger run at a Euro distance of a mile and 11/16ths will give us a lesson in how to handicap turf races. A lesson that will payoff come Breeders’ Cup time when even more Euro shippers will return for the turf races. The name of the feature race, The Arlington Million may seem unimpressive, when we have the Pegagus Cup and Dubai World Cup with their multi-million dollar purses, but this race is named so because it was the very first million dollar Thoroughbred race in North American. The inaugural running in 1981 found future Hall of Famer John Henry winning. He went on to win it again in 1984, overall becoming a two-time Horse of the Year and four-time turf champion. How’s that for history?
Now, if a race begun in 1981 doesn’t seem old enough for you, then stop by Monmouth Park Saturday for the running of the Monmouth Oaks. Yes, as the name implies it is for three-year-old fillies. It may not draw the type of field found in the Grade 1 Alabama to be run next week at Saratoga, but it was first run in 1871, thereby, making it the oldest Oaks in America and it always seems to come up with a competitive field to get our handicapping juices flowing. What’s more fun at a track than that?
How about you fans out on the west coast. No, not down in SoCal, but in the Northwest. Yes, there are other race tracks besides Santa Anita and Del Mar on the west coast. This Sunday, the Grade 3 Longacres Mile is being run at Emerald Downs in Washington State. The stakes has been run at a track in that state since 1935, when it was held at the now closed Longacres Park, hence the name.
So, no more excuses for not getting to a race track near you. However, if you are going to be visiting Saratoga next Monday and Tuesday, you’ve picked a great time to be there because much anticipated Equestricon will be held at the City Center. Your author will be participating bringing the entire Anatomy of Horse Race Handicapping series of books and can’t wait to meet you. So, please stop by this cannot be missed event.
<< New text box >>
August 3, 2017: A Good Trip Needs Good Planning
Another summer weekend, and another weekend of graded stakes, with a derby thrown in to boot. With the upset by Good Samaritan, beating both Kentucky Derby, winner Always Dreaming and Preakness winner, Cloud Computing in the Jim Dandy Stakes at Saratoga last Saturday, the top three-year-old honors picture is really still anyone’s to grab. Sure, the Eclipse Awards aren’t given until January, but now is when trainers and owners adjust their plans for their three-year-olds. This year, those adjustments can be dramatic given that no one three-year-old has come close to dominating.
After Girvin’s performance in the Haskell on Sunday, many can make the argument that he is the crop leader at the moment. Others might be looking more closely at horses like Good Samaritan, who until the Jim Dandy only ran on turf. Remember Arrogate didn’t burst onto the three-year-old scene until the Travers last year. All these factors are making that race, the Travers, a real show down for the three-year-olds. Sure, there are races like this weekend’s West Virginia Derby, but with American Pharoah’s defeat in 2015 running of the Travers and Arrogate’s record setting win in last year’s race, the Travers will be a key factor in the year-end Eclipse honors for top three-year-old colt and one trainers and owners will want to take part in this year.
So, how do we handicap that race based on what happened in the races run last weekend? Remember back during Derby season, when we compared Derby prep races by looking at the fractional and split times of races run at different tracks, but at the same distance. Well, we can compare the Jim Dandy results with those of the Haskell too, since both were run at a distance of a mile and 1/8th.
Fractional Times: 24.13 48.53 1:13.27 1.38.23 Final: 1:50.69
Split Times: 24.40 24.74 24.96 12.46
Fractional Times: 23.93 47.34 1:11.25 1:35.65 Final: 1:48.35
Split Times: 23.41 23.91 24.40 12.70
It is obvious that the Jim Dandy was run slower than the Haskell by just looking at the final times; however, notice those 24-second split times? Hall of Fame jockey Johnny Velazquez was aboard early leader Always Dreaming and soon to be Hall of Fame jockey Javy Castellano was riding Cloud Computing, who was on the leader’s tail throughout the race. Both accomplished jockeys know how important it is to keep reasonable 24-second splits in order to have a chance at winning on the front end in a distance race. So, they did their job well until Good Samaritan, with his turf training, ran a turf race.
If you have been handicapping turf distance races this summer, then you’ve probably realized how slow the races are run until the final furlong. Now, will JV and Javy repeat these strategies in the Travers? That will depend on the presence of any need-to-lead speedy horses entered. If you noticed the times of the Haskell, there were these types running, which made good sense since Monmouth is known for being a speed favoring track. With off-the-pace types, like McCraken and the eventual winner Girvin, the speedy types couldn’t hold the lead because they ran too fast in the beginning of the race. Will the off-the-pace runners like McCraken and Girvin have an advantage in the longer distanced Travers then? Again, that will depend on any pace setters entered.
This type of Head Handicapping is what we were talking about when Arrogate threw in his clunker race in the San Diego. Not only did handicapping the Pacific Classic, which Arrogate is still being pointed to, get more interesting, but other stakes for older horses have taken on importance. None more important than this weekend’s Whitney Stakes at Saratoga. Why? Well, Arrogate’s two main rivals at the moment, Gun Runner and Keen Ice are entered in the Whitney. You remember Keen Ice. He defeated American Pharoah in the Travers at Saratoga two years ago. He didn’t win again until last month in the Grade 2 Suburban at Belmont. Before that race, he was seventh in the Dubai World Cup and third in the BC Classic. Gun Runner enters the Whitney off a win in the Grade 1 Stephen Foster at Churchill Downs in June. Before that effort, he was second to Arrogate in the Dubai World Cup. Overall, Gun Runner hasn’t finished out of the money since the 2016 Haskell, which was won by Exaggerator on a sloppy sealed track.
So, that is the set up for the Whitney, which takes on even more significance than usual. You are going to have to use your Head Handicapping tools for this one folks and you might want to throw in some Gut Handicapping as well, since we are very familiar with these older runners having followed them for a few years now. Can our summer of fun at the track get any better!
July 27, 2017: A Midsummer Night's Always Dreaming
What happened to our summer of fun? Saturday’s San Diego Stakes from Del Mar was more of a subplot from Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream with characters like Puck, Oberon, and Titania playing games with we mere mortals both human and equine. How does a horse that won the world’s two richest races this year lose in a $300K prep race. Wait a minute – a prep. That’s got to be it. Arrogate was just out for a public workout and no one told him the other guys weren’t. That’s got to be it. Right? He knows he’s the world’s top horse and why should he be bothered with purses lower than a million? Until he tells us, we just don’t know.
One result of the out-of-the-money finish is that handicapping that Pacific Classic just got a little bit more interesting, as we have gone from a watch-only race to a handicapping one. If you ever wonder how to make money betting on these watch-only type of races, just look at the payoffs from the San Diego when the heavy favorite doesn’t come close to the top-three finishers:
Accelerate $17.60 / $32.60 / $22.00
Donworth $119.80 / $67.10
Cat Burglar $38.20
If you ever have been frustrated listening to those on-track race analysis always picking long shots on top, they live for these kind of outcomes. For us common garden-variety handicappers, they don’t happen that often to warrant our selecting long shots for every race. So, with a weekend coming up full of grades stakes, should we change our handicapping? Even though we are all for you changing up your handicapping tools race by race, especially your Tail Handicapping, whereby, you aren’t just using the same bet type every race, we don’t suggest you concentrate on just playing long shots unless the conditions are right for such an outcome.
You can practice this weekend looking for long shots with the three-year-old stakes being run. There’s the Jim Dandy at Saratoga, which is a prep for the Grade 1 Travers and there’s the highlight of the Monmouth Park meet, the Grade 1 Haskell Stakes. Both include runners we are familiar with by now. The Haskell draws Derby runners McCraken; Irish War Cry (a NJ bred to boot); Girvin; Battle of Midway; Hence; and Practical Joke. Unlike the Haskell, where most of the entries have run since the Derby, the Jim Dandy draws two that we haven’t seen since the Preakness, Kentucky Derby winner, Always Dreaming and Preakness winner, Cloud Computer. With the Jim Dandy looking like a match race between two Triple Crown race winners, the Haskell looks to offer the more competitive field, therefore, one generating more value to us. The competitiveness of the Haskell field won’t be the only reason to focus on the card that day though. Why? Simply because it is the fun-est day of the meet there. Both tracks offer terrific cards this weekend, so, there will be plenty of ways to exercise our handicapping prowess.
But you don’t have to choose fun over handicapping. They go hand-in-hand this time of year. If there are any heavy favorites ala Arrogate on either the Saratoga card Saturday or the Monmouth card Sunday, then maybe throw some $ on a long shot to show, if only to see some bridge jumpers, well, jump. Don’t know what a bridge jumper is? They are the folks that place large bets, like the 5 or 6 figure kinds, on can’t lose horses like Arrogate figuring a large show bet will have to pay a nickel on the dollar. However, when those favorites finish out-of-the-money like Arrogate in the San Diego, they are thought to head for the nearest bridge to drown their troubles. Don’t worry, with our box of handicapping tools, we would never be so foolish. Instead, we have the knowledge to make little bets that pay BIG and have fun at the same time.
So, go have some fun at a track near you and watch those show pools closely for bridge jumper bets because that’s your cue to make those little show bets on BIG long shots.
July 20, 2017: Vacation? Beach or Mountains?
We’ve been… uh... suggesting to get out there and have fun at a track near you this summer, but if it’s time for a summer vacation, your timing is perfect. Why? The two premiere race meets of the season started this past week, Del Mar and Saratoga. Let’s see, mountains or beach? Either place will provide you with plenty to do. While Saratoga has history on its side, this year, Del Mar will draw more interest than usual because it is the location of the 2017 Breeders’ Cup. Over the past few years, Del Mar has undergone many changes like new dirt and grass surfaces, and with the BC taking place there, many trainers will be taking advantage of the summer meet to give their BC prospects a sneak preview of sorts. This Saturday, the fans at Del Mar will get to see the number one ranked horse in the world, Arrogate, run in the Grade 2 San Diego. It’s kind of funny that the winner of the world’s two richest races this year will be running for a purse worth a mere $300,000, but he needs a workout to get ready for the Grade 1 Pacific Classic later in the meet considering he hasn’t run since Dubai. California Chrome took the same route to the BC last year, so, Bob Baffert is taking a page out of Art Sherman’s play book.
Now, how do we handicap these much-awaited meets? It’s tempting to just concentrate on the graded stakes since they are sure to draw the top horses in the country and the rest of the daily cards typically are a mix bag of state bred, high-to-low priced claiming, and MSW races. Of course, many fans look forward to these two meets because of the high-level Maiden Special Weight races. They are the races featuring two-year-olds, who are making their racing debuts and are of interest because there is a chance of seeing next year’s Triple Crown race winners. American Pharoah made his race debut at Del Mar. Unfortunately, he lost to Ohm, but that isn’t surprising (Ohm, remember him, didn’t think so). The problem with handicapping these so-called baby races is that the Derby pointed horses are bred to go long distances, but the first races they run are at shorter distances. Instead of picking those regally bred Derby types, we might want to look at speedsters who can go wire-to-wire in the short distance MSWs. It’s a tough call, where we’ll need our Pedigree Handicapping skills.
With handicapping decisions like the ones these MSWs present, we certainly have our work cut out for us. Even those graded stakes, which populate the weekend cards; you will find full fields of the best runners. You will need to get out all your handicapping tools unless you go with those state bred races, then you may as well play jockeys or trainers instead of the horses, since these types take turns winning against each other on a regular basis. Whose turn will it be today is a phrase you’ll find yourself repeating as you handicap these types of races.
So, just how much handicapping you’ll want to do on your vacation is all up to you. Just remember to have some fun watching the best the game has to offer in settings that are unparalleled in the sport.
July 13, 2017: Summer of Fun at a Track Near You Continues
If you haven’t been to a race track near you this summer, WHAT ARE YOU WAITING FOR? “Oh, it’s too hot or it’s going to rain.” you whine. If you’d rather waste your summer away sitting in your air-conditioned house, then at least live-stream some cards. Last week, with stakes races going off every five minutes, you certainly had your handicapping work cut out for you even if live-streaming them all. But remember though, it’s summer, and the word “work” with handicapping is not to be used, unless of course, you find that kind of work fun.
If you have been having fun handicapping the Ohio, Belmont, and Iowa Derbys the past couple of weeks, then there’s more this Saturday with the Indiana Derby and the Los Alamitos Derby. However, the highlight of the weekend has to go to Songbird running in the Delaware Handicap. It’s the only Grade 1 of their meet and it typically draws the best older fillies and mares. It is a race Songbird’s owner, Rick Porter would like to win more than any other. Why? It’s the premier race at his home state track. Ironically, he tried to win it with eventual Horse-of-the-Year, Havre de Grace in 2011, but she finished second. So, will this be the year for Mr. Porter to have his dream fulfilled? We’ll have to watch to find out. The race is certainly worth watching just to see a great filly race once more. Songbird was the top three-year-old filly (and probably top three-year-old period) last year. Her only defeat came when she lost by ever a small margin to Beholder in the Breeders’ Cup Distaff. With Beholder retired, who can match her talent? This unknown is the reason we need to follow her this year.
From a Tail Handicapping perspective, it will be a difficult race to bet. You could try to beat her and go with a long shot(s), after all, Harve de Grace did lose there. Or you could try and work on those Pick bets. We’ve been practicing our wagering skills with the ten-cent superfectas so far this summer, so, why not use the same strategy, but with multiple races. You may have singled the favorites on top of a superfecta, and with a Pick bet, you can single Songbird in that leg of the multi-leg wager. then choose several contenders in the other legs. Be careful of the bankroll however; as the Pick bets usually have a fifty-cent minimum.
If you are still trying to get the hang of the superfecta, then keep at it, and if you want to move on to something different with a Pick bet, then go right ahead. It’s a summer of fun at a track near you!
July 6, 2017: Road Trip Anyone?
Are we having fun yet? What are you waiting for? For you diehards, those refusing to give into fun at the track, this weekend’s stakes will sure test your handicapping tools for turf racing use. Arlington Park has its Arlington Million Preview day with a slate full of turf races, ditto for Belmont Park. Now, don’t get confused with the names Belmont Derby and Belmont Oaks on the Belmont card. Even though they are on the turf, they are races restricted to three-year-old colts and fillies respectively hence the names Derby and Oaks apply.
If you aren’t ready to handicap a “Derby” on turf, then you have the Iowa Derby being run on dirt this Saturday, where a few of the Kentucky Derby runners will be entered. If you are near the Mid-Atlantic region, Delaware Park has the Grade 3 Delaware Oaks, and again, the “Oaks” in the title tips you off that the three-year-old fillies are running against each other. With all these tracks around the country having such good cards, how can you not take a road trip to watch some live racing? We’ve been recommending a visit to a race track near you just to hang out with friends or family on a summer’s day. The perfect opportunity will present itself for those of you living around Boston, as Suffolk Downs is having the first of three weekends of racing. At one time, the New England racing circuit was bustling seeing the likes of Seabiscuit and Cigar. Sadly, we won’t have too many more chances to visit Suffolk Downs since the property has been purchased for develop ala Hollywood Park a few years ago. So, don’t wait much longer to visit a race track near you, whether it is a place like Suffolk, Delaware, Belmont, Arlington, or Prairie Meadows, the site of the Iowa Derby, because they have so much fun to offer race fans new and old alike.
It’s summertime, so, homework won’t be attached to your visit unless you want to exercise that brain. How about practicing structuring bets by playing those ten-cent superfectas, like we were talking about last week. Sure, you can goof off and just do quick-picks for a dime each, but there are many alternate ways to structure this bet type. If you come down to four contenders, then perhaps box your superfecta. Maybe, you’ll just want to key the favorites on top of the bet and fill the third and fourth place spots with long shots. You could go wild and put the long-shots on top with the favs underneath. With the price of a dime, you can practice all you want without worrying you’re blowing your bankroll after the first race. Of course, if a dime bet is beneath you, think of hitting the “all” button for one of the spots and see how fast the price goes up! You could have everyone in the group give a horse and structure the bet that way. Be creative, after all imagination is a part of Head Handicapping.
There’s much fun to be had by going to a race track near you, so, get up and go, because summers don’t last forever and neither do race tracks.