Thursday, June 8, 2017

2017 Belmont Preview

Blaaaaah.

Cloud Computing's narrow victory
That's to both the Preakness and the Belmont.  We are eternal optimists when it comes to horse racing, but it's tough not to be annoyed by this year's result in the Preakness and the last leg of the Triple Crown.  Our pick of Classic Empire was spot on and our tapping of Cloud Computing as the lone outsider with a chance was good too.  But Classic Empire was sapped of just enough energy that he couldn't hold off the latter.  So much for a solid pick.

And now we have a Belmont that lacks both of those two horses plus Derby winner Almost Dreaming.  We're also missing other horses that took money in the Derby - looking at your Gunnevara, McCracken - and Derby third place finisher Battle of Midway.  That leaves us with an intriguing betting race but one that's probably not going to result in a coronation.  Nevertheless, let's take a look at it.

At Least the Weather's Supposed to Be Nice

12.  Hollywood Handsome.  (Morning Line: 30-1; Fair Value: 50-1) Dallas Stewart is known for having longshots run at huge prices in the Derby and Preakness - Golden Soul, Tale of Verve, Commanding Curve, to name three.  But he's never been remotely competitive in the Belmont, and this slow guy who was throttled at a huge price in the Illinois Derby by Multiplier seems unlikely to break the streak.

11.  Multiplier (ML: 15-1; FV: 50-1) Speak of the devil!  Purely sprint-bred, he clunked up for a boring 6th in the Preakness.  Adding blinkers will add speed, but it won't add stamina, which this guy needs in spades.

10.  Twisted Tom.  (ML: 20-1; FV: 33-1) On the plus side, he's trained by Chad Brown (Cloud Computing's trainer) and has three straight wins.  On the negative side, he's never topped 80 on the Gowanus Speed Figure scale.  If quite literally anyone else trained this horse, he'd be double the price he'll be on Saturday.

In a Word: No.

9.  Epicharis.  (ML: 4-1; FV: 50-1) We were against this guy before word came down that he's being treated with Bute because of lameness - the chances of him scratching are pretty high.  But putting that aside, this Japanese import that ran his last race in Dubai, he ran 2nd in the UAE Derby by setting a soft pace against 3rd-tier horses.  Either he's going to the front and should get fried on a quicker pace, or he's just not that fast and won't be a factor

8.  Senior Investment.  (ML: 12-1; FV: 33-1) Horses that run non-threatening 2nds and 3rds in the Preakness are dreadful bets in the Belmont, as they never, ever, ever improve in those 3 weeks in between and pull off the upset.  Some recent examples are Classic Cat ('99), Impeachment ('01), Hemingway's Key ('06), Ichabad Crane ('08), Tale of Verve ('15) and Cherry Wine ('16).  None of these horses did anything in the Belmont.  There's no reason to expect this steed will break that streak.

7.  Lookin at Lee.  (ML: 5-1; FV: 20-1) His regression in the Preakness was easy to see coming; he finished 4th basically because Always Dreaming spit the bid and the rest of the field stunk.  Dead closers like him are always at a disadvantage in the Belmont, as are horses that are pure "clunk up" types that never make a winning move.  Look for him to be nowhere near the picture at the end and to take a well-deserved rest.

6.  Gormley.  (ML: 8-1; FV: 12-1) We're still waiting for him to finish in the money in a difficult race.  The wait will continue on Saturday evening.

Stranger Things Have Happened

5.  Meantime.  (ML: 15-1; FV: 10-1) He is making his 5th career start and some upside.  We thought his Peter Pan was a decent effort, and are curious about him moving back to a fast track.  His breeding isn't as good for a distance but it's not inconceivable, and trainer Brian Lynch isn't terrible, to say nothing of jockey Mike Smith.  At a solid price, he's a little intriguing.

Contenders on the Rebound

4.  Irish War Cry.  (ML: 7-2; FV: 5-1) This has to be one of the weakest and strangest favorites we've had in a Triple Crown race in ages.  His last race was a 10th place finish in the Derby where he lost by 16 lengths and lost ground badly from the far turn on.  He's been brutally bad in two of his last three races.  But yet, he has run 2 quick races this year, was sired by Curlin, and beat Cloud Computing in his last race.  So he's far from impossible.  It just seems like an odd horse to take on as the favorite.

3.  Tapwrit.  (ML: 6-1; FV: 5-1) And here's your second choice, a horse that has lost consecutive starts by double-digit lengths and has never won outside of Florida.  There's a few things here to like if he rebounds and gets a good trip, and we admit, his Derby was something of a toss-out.  It's a pure question of price: at his expected odds, meh, but at double the price, sure.

2.  J Boys Echo.  (ML: 15-1; FV: 5-1) The owner of the best speed figure in the entire field, he ran a huge Gotham at Aqueduct 3 months ago, which put him squarely in the picture of possible Derby contenders.  He followed that up with an utterly blah 4th in the Blue Grass and a non-existent 15th in the Kentucky Derby, so it's not like he's coming in off good form.  But there's reason to be a little optimistic.  His breeding is fine for 12 furlongs.  He's run well in New York (albeit at Aqueduct).  Trainer Dale Romans is excellent, and is going to win this race one day.  He has tactical speed.  And he's getting back jockey Robby Albarado, who rode him to his best races.  We think hasn't had the chance to run his best race in three months and may sit a good trip at a price.

The Pick

1.  Patch.  (ML: 12-1; FV: 4-1) Way overmatched in the Derby (especially from the 20 post), he does have solid distance breeding - his sire and damsire both won the Belmont - and does have the Pletcher/Velazquez combination.  And this is only his 5th start.  He's as likely as anyone to make The Leap and pull off an upset if he moves forward, and we're banking on that by picking him.  We don't think he'll be as long as his morning line price, but even if he's 10-1, that's solid value.  We think Todd & John pull off one of the odder Triple Crown doubles this year, and take it in a small upset.

How to Wager

Well our pick is going to be a decent price, so make sure you bet him to win.  But this is truly a spread race - make sure you're covered well in your pick-everythings.  Good luck to all!

Friday, May 19, 2017

2017 Preakness Preview

Sometimes there's a narrative coming out of the Derby how either the winner was an inspiring tale, or how the best horse didn't win the race for X, Y and Z reason.  We have neither of those this year.  Always Dreaming was an emphatic winner of the Derby, and to steal a good friend's line, was "much the best."  Sure, a few of the also-rans behind him didn't fare so well, but it's hard to argue that a bad trip kept them from winning.  Always Dreaming was well clear of his second place finisher, and the 3rd place finisher was losing ground at the end.  It was a very nice performance.

But can he repeat?  Let's take a look at this year's Preakness field which, charitably, can be called top-heavy.  We'll assume the track is fast and fair again.

We're Not Interested

10.  Term of Art.  (Morning Line: 30-1; Fair Value: 100-1)  Well, he outran his odds in the Breeders Cup Juvenile last year, when he was 90-1 and actually beat two horses in the field.  The only reason to back him is because he's adding blinkers and gets a new jockey.  A few will see that as a chance.  We see it as change for the sake of change.

9.  Senior Investment. (ML; 30-1; FV: 50-1)  Trainer Ken McPeek has been known for pulling rabbits out of his hat when it appeared that he had no chance - think of Golden Ticket in the Travers at 35-1, or more importantly, Sarava in the Belmont at 70-1.  That's about the only case for his horse.  By the way, that's now two horses and two dead closers. This is a theme you'll see here: this race is chock full of runners that like to come from well out of it and little in the way of pace.

8.  Multiplier. (ML: 30-1; FV: 50-1)  A slow horse that exits a 3rd-tier race and has crack sprinter breeding written all over him.  Other than that Mrs. Lincoln, how did you enjoy the play?

7.  Conquest Mo Money. (ML: 15-1; FV: 50-1) Some will bet this guy because he finished 2nd in the Arkansas Derby on the heels of running decently at Sunland Park.  We're unimpressed.  His tactical speed means that he'll actually be prominent in this race, but we're of the opinion he's a Grade 3 horse that should be running in the undercard.

The Wrong Derby Horses

6.  Lookin at Lee.  (ML: 10-1; FV: 33-1)  His runner-up finish in the Derby was the perfect confluence of circumstances.  He had a solid pace to run at.  He drew a wet track, which he likes.  He drew the rail, which helped him on a track where the rail was advantageous.  And jockey Corey Lanierie gave him a perfect ride by never leaving the rail.  He rallied stoutly but never threatened the winner, and after all that, still didn't crack a triple digit speed figure.  A perfect candidate to regress.

5.  Gunnevara. (ML: 15-1; FV: 25-1)  It's looking like this guy peaked three races ago and is on the downcycle.  The switch to jockey Mike Smith might rekindle some effort, but what's more likely is he needs some time off to recuperate.

4.  Hence.  (ML: 20-1; FV: 20-1)  We're willing to completely disregard his Derby - bad start, bad trip, was much further back then he probably wanted to be, and had difficulty rallying in the  mud.  We think he may run back to his Sunland Park Derby, which would be fine, just not fine enough to win.  Keep an eye on him in wagering - if he does get near his morning line odds, a saver win bet on him is not the worst idea.

The Lone Longshot

3.  Cloud Computing.  (ML: 12-1; FV: 12-1)  If you're going to go with an outsider, this is the one to focus on.  Well-bred for the distance, this Chad Brown steed broke his maiden impressively at Aqueduct, followed up by a pretty nice 2nd in the Gotham, then a middling 3rd in the Wood Memorial.  Brown didn't bother entering him in the Derby or running him in some other race in between, deciding instead to train up to the Preakness, for which he's been working out splendidly.  And Brown is very good training a horse with this amount of rest.

There are some pretty clear holes here.  He's never won a stakes race, hell, he's never won anything better than a maiden race.  The Wood's form is suspect.  He's never run anywhere besides Ozone Park.  And recently, horses that skip the Derby are generally bad win plays in the Preakness: Red Bullet pulled it off in '00 - and he would have been the 2nd or 3rd choice in the Derby had he run - but other than that, it was only a phenom (Bernardini '06) or a Hall of Famer (Rachel Alexandra '09) who managed to do it.  We've seen nothing thus far to indicate that he's that good.  But he has tactical speed and upside - this is only his 4th start after all.  And it's not odd for a new shooter to finish in the money: while Derby horses have won 17 of the last 20 Preaknesses, a new shooter has finished in the triple 16 of the last 20 races.  He's the one we like to do that on Saturday.

Duh.

2.  Always Dreaming. (ML: 4-5; FV: 8-5)  We've generally been of the opinion that the criticism of Todd Pletcher's Derby record was overhyped.  We're kind of glad he got a 2nd win, because he's a great trainer and shouldn't be punished for doing a little less well on the first Saturday of May than he does the rest of the year.  We're not saying he's going to catch Ben Jones, who has an incredible 6 Derby wins, but Lukas and Baffert's 4 wins are certainly reachable (if Baffert doesn't win another).

But the Preakness...that's another story.  There's a damn good reason Pletcher is 0-for-8 in the Preakness: he usually doesn't bother trying to win it.  Of the 8 times he's run a horse, 5 were longshots who he didn't bother running in the Derby.  None of them were remotely competitive.  So let's look at the 3 who he did bother running in the Preakness after the Derby:

Impeachment ('00): Runs a clunk up 3rd that's almost identical to his clunk up 3rd in the Derby.  Snore.  Mind you, this was Pletcher's best result in this race, and it was at a time when he was still forging a name for himself.

Circular Quay ('07): At the time we noted that the Derby almost seemed like a Preakness prep for this guy.  That theory seems to have been dumb: he did very little in the Preakness, in part because he was an echelon below the two best horses.

Super Saver ('10):  Everyone and their brother will note how badly he ran in the Preakness after winning the Derby - hell, he never won again.  It isn't so much that he lost, it's that he was spent with 2 furlongs to go.  Pletcher never runs his horses back this quickly unless he wants to - he enjoys spacing out starts to give his runners time for a peak effort.

So the question is whether Always Dreaming is going to regress the same way Super Saver did 7 years ago.  Our feeling is yes - we don't love the quick turnaround, and are inherently suspect of a horse that has had 4 straight perfect trips.  Sure, he could be that good, and we wouldn't be surprised with a win.  But we think the better horse is...

The Pick

1.  Classic Empire. (ML: 3-1; FV: 7-5)  The parallels to 2010 continue here, as like Lookin at Lucky, this guy was a champion two-year old, was unlucky in his Derby start, and has had some trip issues in the past.  We like his draw in a more compact field, think that he'll use his tactical speed to make sure that Always Dreaming doesn't get away, and go by him at the top of the stretch.  While we know Pletcher's only here because Always Dreaming has to run, we like the confidence that Casse is showing by running Classic Empire in the Preakness - he has every reason to wait for the Belmont and give his horse the extra three weeks.  But we think he smells blood in the water.  He knows Pletcher isn't best on the quick turnaround, knows his horse is on the improve, and thinks this is the better spot to beat him.  We agree.

How to Bet

We're going to bet a couple of triples, with Cloud Computing in 3rd and the two obvious horses up top, and maybe one or two with Cloud Computing in the second place slot.  This isn't a spot to get cute and go heavy on Term of Art - we think either accept that the top 2 tower over the field and bet accordingly, or enjoy a drink with the race instead.

Good luck to all!!

Friday, May 5, 2017

2017 Kentucky Derby Preview Part II: The Contenders

Friend of the blog, voice of the Derby, and all around
great guy Larry Collmus with American Pharoah
We have two basic theses about this year's Derby.  The first is that there's going to be a solid or quick pace.  There are enough horses running that look like they want to be near the front that we think getting a :48 half mile is highly unlikely.  We're not just conceding the race to a closer, but we think those bereft of early speed have a good chance this year.

The second is that this isn't the best crop of 3 year olds.  Two years ago we were treated to not only American Pharoah but also some others who were obviously talented: Firing Line, Dortmund, Frosted, Carpe Diem.  This year, nobody's really stood out or has run that fast.  Which is why we're keeping an open mind and not blindly tossing...

Wildcard #1

11.  Thunder Snow.  (ML: 20-1; FV: 25-1) We have never bet a dollar on a Derby runner that ran in the UAE Derby.  We have never really loved taking turf horses in the Derby.  We've never heard of this guy's sire (Helmet) until now.  (He was a good turf performer...in Australia.)  And we're loathe to endorse front-runners in the Derby.

And yet...there's some intrigue here. If there's going to be a year a Dubai runner contends, it's when the horse has staying power and is competing against a bunch of mediocrities.  This guy has switched well to the dirt, despite the turf breeding.  He's already won at 9 1/2 furlongs.  And he has an excellent jockey, Euro Christophe Soumillion.  We would be a little surprised if he wasn't at least involved early, and it certainly isn't impossible that he's around late.

To us this comes down to price.  If he gets bet and is around 15-1 or so, no thanks.  But if he's ignored in the wagering?  He's interesting enough to throw into your bets.

Something Seems...Off

10.  Girvin.  (ML: 15-1; FV: 20-1) He's 3 for 4 and has the right running style for this race (off the pace, not a dead closer).  But he's never won outside of Louisiana or beaten a high-quality horse.  And he's been battling some minor injury issues, which we never like to see this time of year.  Sure he could improve at Kentucky.  At a relatively short price, we're not willing to take that chance.

9.  McCraken.  (ML: 5-1; FV: 12-1) Prior to the Blue Grass, this was your probable favorite - a perfect 4-for-4 record, solid breeding, good trainer, and an affinity for the track.  Then they went to post in the Blue Grass and he showed...nothing.  He sat in perfect position off a moderate pace, and failed to close an inch on the winner, maiden Irap.  Technically it's not a "bad prep" because he finished 3rd and didn't lose by a football field, but it was about as uninspiring a prep as you'll see, and makes us wonder if he's progressed at all since last year.  We'll use a horse in the Derby that had a poor prep race if he's going to be a price.  But this guy's going to be the second or third choice off essentially a no-show.  No thanks.

8.  Classic Empire.  (ML: 4-1; FV: 10-1) The two year old champ and probable favorite is not without chance, and if he won, we wouldn't be shocked.  He is talented and has the right running style to win, and Mark Casse is a good trainer.  But there are enough red flags to make us side against.  After a good 2 year old season, he was scheduled to have3 prep races starting with the Holy Bull, where he completely no-showed without a real excuse.  Then he suffered a minor injury and missed some training time.  Then he oddly refused to work out.  When he finally began to get healthy and behave, he went to Oaklawn, and he won the Arkansas Derby, but in a rather slow time over competition he should have dominated.  He's basically coming into the Derby off of one okay prep race and a smattering of odd works.  That's not inspiring a lot of confidence here.

Wildcard #2

7.  Hence.  (ML: 15-1; FV: 16-1) The Sunland Derby is generally not where we look for Kentucky Derby contenders, despite Mine That Bird's win.  This guy won it by 7 lengths in a mediocre time, which should relegate him to also-ran status.  But he's actually not badly bred and comes from the barn of Steve Asmussen, who's going to win this race one day.  Even more interestingly, the horses that finished behind him at Sunland Park have good subsequent form - Conquest Mo Money came back to run 2nd in the Arkansas Derby and Irap came back to win the Blue Grass.  A key race?  Eh, probably not.  But this is your likely wise-guy horse based on that theory.

Perfect for Underneath

6.  Lookin at Lee.  (ML: 20-1; FV: 33-1) A classic plodder, he has no early speed and will be somewhere between 17th and 20th early on, especially since he drew the inside post.  But we think there will be a lively pace for him to close into.  An outsider to actually win, but a definite horse to consider for trifectas and superfectas.

5.  J Boys Echo.  (ML: 20-1; FV: 25-1) Like McCraken, he entered the Blue Grass with high expectations and did absolutely nothing.  So why is he ranked here?  Price.  McCraken is going to be 6-1, this guy is going to be 4 times the price with about as much chance to hit the board.  Again, we're not optimistic about his chances to actually win the race.  But he has "rallies for a piece" written all over him.

Wildcard #3

4.  Battle of Midway.  (ML: 30-1; FV: 12-1) If we're going to use a horse out of California, it's this guy.  A well-bred horse - Smart Strike is an excellent sire; Rigoletta was a really good 2 year old filly whose career ended prematurely with an injury - he cost $410,000 at auction and was sent to the very good Jerry Hollendorfer out west for training.  After a solid maiden win, he was rushed into a stakes race where he had a tough trip and faded, but then won an allowance race around two turns.  Next was the Santa Anita Derby, where for reasons unclear, he was sent to the lead for the first time.  He battled through very quick fractions that fried every other front-runner except him.  He held on for a game 2nd to Gormley, who took advantage of the pace meltdown with a win.

Now there are some big negatives - no wins in stakes company, no starts as a two year old, and a possible propensity for being a front-runner.  But he also may be coming into his own at just the right time, and if he can stalk instead of flying up front, he might sit a perfect trip.  We think he's up against it to win.  But to hit the board at a huge price?  Very, very live.

Contenders

3.  Always Dreaming.  (ML: 5-1; FV: 8-1) We are at the point where we can just create a stock entry about Todd Pletcher's Derby entry that won his prep race.  Yes, this guy ran well winning the Florida Derby and may have come into his own since leaving Dominick Schetino's barn.  But we've seen this before with Gemologist.  Verrazano.  Carpe Diem.  Bandini.  The Pletcher horse that peaks the race before the Derby and completely no-shows in Louisville.  We think it's telling that his only Derby win was with Super Saver, who looked good in his prep but didn't win.

What's a little different this year is that we're not seeing any titans that Always Dreaming has to beat.  Carpe Diem had American Pharoah.  Gemologist had I'll Have Another.  Verrazano had the obviously improving Orb.  Bandini had...well, Giacomo, so bad example.  Always Dreaming's chief challengers are all horses with flaws and who haven't shown flashes of greatness.  So maybe he's just the best horse.  We do think he'll run okay, but will be outside of the top finishers.

2.  Irish War Cry.  (ML: 6-1; FV: 6-1)  Other than the 17 post, there's not much to complain about here.  He's perfectly bred for 10 furlongs, and has shown in two of his races this year that he can race on the lead or just off it and win.  What we are a little concerned about is that total clunker he ran two starts back in the Fountain of Youth.  There he pressed a moderate pace and faded badly in the stretch.  Maybe it was contesting the early pace that did him in, which he probably won't do on Saturday.  Or maybe it was a regression off his nice win in the Holy Bull, which happens.  If he doesn't go back to that good/bad/good pattern, he's very dangerous to win or finish in the money.

The Pick

1.  Gunnevara.  (ML: 15-1; FV: 5-1)  We've been on this guy's bandwagon for a while and are not getting off for the Derby.  He's well-raced with 9 career starts, which isn't a negative: California Chrome won 3 years ago with similar experience, and we've always liked horses with a good amount of 2 year old experience.  He's won on multiple tracks (Saratoga, Gulfstream, Delta Downs) at multiple distances.  He's bred for 10 furlongs.  And we do think his closing style is going to work - in case it wasn't clear, we think there will be a lively pace for him to run into.  Sure, he could have traffic trouble.  That's always possible with closers.  We're willing to take that chance.

The biggest negative is his last race, where he was the 6-5 favorite and was well-beaten by Always Dreaming.  We're willing to look past it: Gulfstream was kind to speed that day, Always Dreaming had a perfect trip, and this guy didn't.  Now sure, if Always Dreaming moves forward and Gunnevara gets caught 8 wide on the far turn, he's going to be up against it.  But this guy reminds us of Monarchos: a horse that had a great win 2 starts before the Derby, had a mild regression/consolidation start as his Derby prep, then exploded in the Derby with a peak performance as a closer.  He needs to run faster to get to Monarchos' level.  But we think the talent's there, and he flies down the stretch to win the whole shebang on Saturday evening.

How to Bet

This is a big reason why we included the fair value odds this year, it's our opinion as to the price where betting a horse makes sense.  For example, we really don't love J Boys Echo to win.  But if he's 30-1?  That's not terrible value to us because it's a longer price than his odds to actually win the race.

In addition to liking Gunnevara up top, we also think he's going to be excellent value.  He probably will be shorter than 15-1, but double-digit odds seems probable for a horse we liked anyway.  But regardless: do not ignore the win wager.  Classic Empire will be at least 4-1 as the favorite, and if you like him, just take a shot at quadrupling your odds.  If you're going to play exotics, we do think some of our goofy longshots have a chance to hit the board and make exactas and triple enticing.

Good luck and enjoy the Derby!!

Thursday, May 4, 2017

2017 Kentucky Derby Preview Part 1: The Pretenders

It's the first week of May, which can only mean one thing - it's time for the Kentucky Derby!

It's hard to believe, but for a long time, being the Derby favorite was the kiss of death.  Between Spectacular Bid in 1979 and Fusaichi Pegasus in 2000, every Kentucky Derby favorite lost, including Hall of Famers Easy Goer and Holy Bull.  Being the favorite was deemed a curse until FuPeg broke the streak in 2000.

In the 16 years since then, favorites have won 7 times, which is a little better than expected.  But it's actually even more chalky than that if you look at the last 10 years, which has had six favorites win, including the last 4 races (Nyquist, American Pharaoh,  California Chrome, Orb, Big Brown and Street Sense), plus a second choice (Super Saver).  Heck, of the other three, I'll Have Another was an obvious overlay at 15-1, and Animal Kingdom was only 20-1 because he had never run on the dirt before.  Really, only Mine That Bird counts as a true upset and longshot.

What's happened?  Well in the last few years, they've changed the eligibility rules to get into the Derby, which used to be based on earnings in stakes races.  This allowed horses that won money at sprint distances to qualify, even though they had no chance of staying 10 furlongs.  (Think of Trinniberg in 2012 for example - he earned a lot, but had no stamina; he won the Breeders Cup Sprint!)  Taking those no-hopers out of the race has made it a lot "truer" a race.  Traffic issues still exist but they're less of a big deal because you're not always dealing with an insane pace and badly tiring horses that closers have to avoid.  It's no accident that a lot of the recent winners have been very close to the pace early; of the last 10 editions, only Orb and MTB were dead closers.

This does not mean that you should pitch all closers and longshots, or skip the Derby altogether, because it's still the fricking Derby, and there's good money to be made.  Last year was about as boring as the results got, as the top three betting choices ran 1-2-3.  But everyone tries so hard to get cute in the wagering (us included), the triple paid $173.  Think about it:  that's 85-1 for simply agreeing with the wisdom of the crowd.  The Derby remains a prime spot for wagering if you have a good opinion or two, even if it's simply "the favorites tower over the field."  If you're right, you'll still get rewarded.

So let's get to our annual countdown of the 20 runners from the least to most likely chance to win.  (We are ignoring also-eligibles Royal Mo and Master Plan; you should too.)  Today are the horses that we think have basically no chance to win, tomorrow's 11 are all on the other side of the pretender/possibility line.  We're assuming the track is fast and fair on Derby Day - keep an eye on the weather forecast, which is a little dicey at the moment.  For fun, this year we'll also give you the track's morning line odds and our fair value odds - i.e., the price where we think a win bet might be in order.  Note that these are odds to win, not to finish in the money - as you will see, we have a couple of horses ranked higher mostly based on their chances to hit the board, not their chance to win.  As you will also see, we are not as nice as the track's oddsmaker.

Gate Fillers

20.  Fast and Accurate.  (Morning Line: 50-1; Fair Value: 100-1) To run in any of the Triple Crown races, you have to be nominated for the Triple Crown.  This is not a particularly onerous process; it requires filling out a form and writing a check for $600 by mid-January, which is not a sum of money you blanch at if you're a horse owner.  This year 418 horses were nominated to the Triple Crown.  In addition to the top 3 year olds, it included 5 fillies, 9 horses in Japan (!) and over 50 horses that had never run a race before.

You know who it didn't include?  Fast and Accurate.  That's probably because as of January, he had only won a maiden claiming race - the lowest level of race there is - and was beaten handily in his lone dirt start.  He followed those "efforts" up with a pair of wins in something called the Sage of Monticello stakes on the turf, then a slowly run Spiral Stakes at 24-1 on an artificial surface.  So to run him, his owner has to put up $200,000 in supplemental nomination fee.  Some could argue that's a sign of confidence.  We think it's a complete waste of money on a hopeless non-entity.

19.  Sonneteer.  (ML: 50-1; FV: 100-1)  To show you how little we think of Fast and Accurate, we're putting ahead of him a maiden who's winless in 9 races.  Don't worry, we don't think he has any chance either.

18.  Untrapped.  (ML: 30-1; FV: 50-1) A nicely bred colt that has gotten slower in every race this year.  That's not a good trend going into the Derby.  Of real interest, he's adding blinkers for the first time for the Derby.  That happened to Palace Malice in 2013, who then bolted to the lead and set insane fractions, leading to Orb coming from the back of the pack to win.  There's a chance he does the same thing.

17.  Patch.  (ML: 30-1; FV: 50-1) A one-eyed talent, he ran his first race in January, and as we've said a million times, there hasn't been a Derby winner that didn't run as a two year old since Chester A. Arthur was president.  Even for super trainer Todd Pletcher, this is a huge stretch, and resembles past no-shows like Coin Silver, Keyed Entry and Sam P.

16.  State of Honor.  (ML: 30-1; FV: 50-1) This guy's managed to earn nearly $350,000 by consistently hanging around for 2nd and 3rd in races where he set the pace, faded, and was never a threat to win.  We're still in Giacomo territory here.

Destined to Be Overbet

15.  Tapwrit.  (ML: 20-1; FV: 33-1) The second of four Pletcher horses in the field, this guy will get some play on the rebound from his bad 5th in the Blue Grass, as his prior race was a win in the Tampa Bay Derby.  We're not seeing it.  His two races at Tampa were flawed (if somewhat successful) in that he had perfect trips and was never that quick.  We're also skeptical that he wants any part of 10 furlongs - his mother was a good sprinter who didn't have the pedigree to stretch out.  Look for him to resurface in the Woody Stephens on the Belmont undercard.

14.  Practical Joke.  (ML: 20-1; FV: 33-1) A nice two year old that has made no progress this year.  He won the Hopeful and Champagne last year and looked like a possible Derby contender for excellent trainer Chad Brown.  But he's stalled out trying races around 2 turns - he was never really in contention in last year's Juvenile, and showed no punch in the stretch in either race this year.  Another horse that would benefit on a cutback to 1-turn and 7 furlongs.

13.  Irap.  (ML: 20-1; FV: 25-1) The winner of the Blue Grass, he did so as a maiden and at 31-1 over what everyone thought was a great field.  He had some decent races in his past, but we think he basically rode a conveyor belt around the track that day and nobody else did any running.  We think he goes to the front here and is done by the far turn.  But he's another that may ensure the pace is quick.

12.  Gormley.  (ML: 15-1; FV: 25-1) Every time he's run against the second-tier horses, he's been great.  But when he's gone up against the best in the Juvenile and the San Felipe this year, he's performed miserably.  Every year we get a horse like this: excellent at beating tomato cans and taking beatings against the best.  It's odd to say the winner of the Santa Anita Derby doesn't have much of a chance in the Kentucky Derby - it's produced 3 of the last 5 winners, after all - but we don't think this guy really has much of a chance at all.  Our random prediction: he will be switched to the turf before the end of the year, and be really good at grass racing.

Coming up tomorrow: The 11 who actually can compete for the win slot, and our pick.

Friday, November 4, 2016

2016 Breeders Cup Preview Part 2: Saturday's Races

Nine races to preview, let's get to it:

Juvenile Fillies

Synopsis: 1 1/16 miles for 2 year old girls on the dirt.  As always, we recommend that you either go with the chalk or a bomb in this race.  Picking a horse between 8-1 and 20-1 to win has been a disastrous proposition. Fortunately, the lowest price on the morning line is 9-2 and over half the field is below 12-1.

Favorite: It's a little unclear who's going to go off the favorite in this race, but we'll take a guess it'll be Noted and Quoted, who won the local prep (the Chandelier Stakes) in her last.  She's trained by Bob Baffert and has nice tactical speed.  That said, she doesn't hold much of an edge over the rest of the field.

Price Horse to Consider: Sweet Loretta is 6-1 on the morning line but we expect a higher price than that - she hasn't been out in 2 months, dead-heated in her last, and hasn't run particularly fast.  Whatever.  She's trained by Pletcher, cost a fortune at auction and is perfectly bred for this type of race.  If Todd's got her ready to run, she's dangerous.

Betting Approach:  Spread.  This race was a lot easier years ago when the runners actually had run a bunch of times and we could assess their form.  Here, the 12 entrants have run a total of 34 times - less than 3 starts per runner on average.  It's a lot of guesswork.

Selections: Let's do a little process of elimination.  We don't buy Jamyson n' Ginger repeating her gigantic speed figure when it's a fast track, and also don't like Rudy Rodriguez shipping cross-country (so we'll also toss Colorful Charades).  Union Strike's had 2 good starts but has a new trainer because the owner fired the prior trainer - who was also his daughter! - and replaced her with Craig Dollase, who stinks.  We don't love American Gal stretching out in the 12 post.  And Dancing Rags, Daddy's Lil Darling, Champagne Room and With Honors all look too slow.  We'll side with Yellow Agate on the improve and otherwise just cross our fingers.

1.  Yellow Agate
2.  Noted and Quoted
3.  Sweet Loretta

Filly and Mare Turf

Synopsis:1 1/4 miles on the turf for fillies and mares.  This race has developed into one of our favorites over time because it's had a mixture of everything: Hall of Famers, complete shockers, memorable performances and great stories.  Speaking of which...

Favorite: Lady Eli is going to be the focus of 800 soft-focus tales this week, and it's a great story.  She won the Juvenile Fillies Turf in 2014 over this same track, looking like an absolute star.  She confirmed that her three year old year, winning her next three races with aplomb, and people were talking Eclipse Award for her (which would be unusual - turf horses never win the 3 year old Eclipse Awards).  Less than a week after her big Belmont Oaks victory, she stepped on a nail, contracted laminitis and nearly died.  Trainer Chad Brown took a year and nursed her back to health, and she came back to the races in August, losing her comeback in Saratoga by a head but winning the Flower Bowl in her last.  The fact she's alive is amazing; the fact that she has won a Grade 1 this year is insane.

Price Horse to ConsiderSentiero Italia is about as hard-knocking a horse as you'll get.  She has good tactical speed, consistently runs a solid race, and is always near the front at the end.  We don't think she's good enough to win this race, but don't toss her from your exactas and trifectas.  If you want a total bomb, Japanese shipper Nuovo Record was running fabulously last year, but is not in the best form this year.  If she somehow reverts to her 2015 self, look out.

Betting Approach: Somewhat narrow.  We think only 4 horses have a legitimate shot at winning this race.

Selections:There should be a TON of speed in this race, including Catch a Glimpse (who won the Juvenile Fillies Turf last year), Pretty Perfect (who is basically a rabbit), Avenge, and Zipessa.  We think this sets up for a closer, and while we think Lady Eli has a shot, we're more interested in her stablemate, Sea Calisi, who had no shot in the paceless Flower Bowl.  We think she improves off that effort and mows down her stablemate in the stretch while holding off European imports Seventh Heaven and Queen's Trust, both of which have big shots as well.

1.  Sea Calisi
2.  Queen's Trust
3.  Seventh Heaven

Sprint

Synopsis: 6 furlongs on the dirt for the brave and the fleet.  Last year's winner Runhappy probably would have been the favorite here, but his connections went for the Dirt Mile instead, which is a tougher race at a distance he doesn't like for less money.  Sounds like a great plan.

Favorite: Masochistic is going to be the worst favorite of the entire weekend, especially if he's anywhere near his 2-1 morning line price.  Sure, he has two wins this year and has a pair of nice speed figures.  Those two wins came against a total of 6 opponents, and his last win was in a 3-horse field where nobody else challenged him for the lead.  They were also at longer distances; he has a career terrible record at 6 furlongs (5 starts, 1 win, 1 second).  He's as likely to finish last as he is to win.

Price Horse to Consider: We're not sure if his 15-1 morning line is realistic, but Limousine Liberal merits a very close look especially underneath.  He's been in the exacta 6 of 7 times at the distance, and ran a really nice second in the Phoenix last out.  Importantly, that was his first start with blinkers.  Solid chance they made the difference and made him a real contender.

Betting Approach: Narrow.  We're against the three year olds in this race - neither Mind Your Biscuits nor Noholdingback Bear has run fast enough to competitive, and we don't trust Drefong once he gets challenged on the front end.  Delta Bluesman looks too slow.  And in case it wasn't clear, we're against Masochistic.

Selections: We had a long exposition on how we loved Lord Nelson in this spot, but he scratched yesterday with an injury.  Bah.  To heck with it. We're going with our longshot to win..

1.  Limousine Liberal
2.  A.P. Indian 
3.  Drefong

Turf Sprint

Synopsis: 6 1/2 furlongs down the hill for everyone interested.  We usually crap on this race but this is by FAR the best field it's drawn since it was inaugurated in 2008.  There are multiple horses in here that would have been competitive in the Mile and have been competing in legitimate Grade 1 races the last two years.  It's not just a collection of Grade 3 horses trying to get a big paycheck.  That doesn't make it any easier to decipher, of course.

Favorite: This is another race where you could see favoritism going in a few directions, but we think it'll ultimately land on Obviously, who's run in the Breeders Cup Mile the last 4 years.  He was perpetually the pace-setter and usually faded after 6 furlongs, so you can see why they want to cut him back in distance.  That said we're dubious - he's getting a new jockey, hasn't had a ton of success at this track or at the distance, and he is 8 years old.  Wouldn't surprise us if he's won, but we're going to look elsewhere.

Price Horse to Consider: Two of the three horses we like are going to be a fair price and we'll discuss below.  For a total bomb, why not Calgary Cat, who won his last and seems to like the distacne?

Betting Approach: Spread.  In this race, it's always spread.

SelectionsOm has always been a horse that we've been high on and we love him on the turnback here.  He's extremely talented on both surfaces and we think the cutback suits him well.  He's also the answer to this random trivia question:

Yep, he's the horse to beat American Pharoah in his first start.  Underneath we like Celestine, who had a huge win in the Just a Game back on Belmont Day, and Home of the Brave, who's the best of the Euros.

1.  Om
2.  Celestine
3.  Home of the Brave

Juvenile

Synopsis:1 1/16 miles on the dirt.  After this race being fairly irrelevant for the purposes of the Kentucky Derby for years, last year's winner Nyquist won the Derby, and the winner two years ago (Texas Red) validated how good American Pharoah was.  So maybe it's back to being germane to three year old form?

Favorite: There are quite literally 5 horses we could see favored in this race, not because they all look the same, but because they all have different positive attributes.  The morning line favorite is Not This Time, who romped in the Iroquois in late September and has been the subject of a lot of chatter among horse cognoscenti.  We think favoritism is more likely to go to either Syndergaard, who ran an excellent second in the Champagne after hotly contesting the pace - and yes, we do think he'll get bet from casual fans because of the name - or Gormley, who won the Front Runner stakes handily in his last.  Californians often make California horses the favorite.

Price Horse to Consider: We had never heard of Jose Pinchin before a few weeks ago, but he comes in with Three Rules, who's undefeated in 5 starts in Florida, all in fairly convincing fashion.  Yes, he's never taken on horses better than Florida-breds, and he has early speed that might get fried here.  But he has sneaky-good breeding (we love Gone Astray as a sire and think he just needs better mares) and has been working out splendidly.  He'll be at least 10-1 and merits strong consideration.

Betting Approach: Spread.  We're not in love with the three longest shots in this race (Term of Art, Lookin at Lee, Star Empire) but can make a credible case for the rest.

Selections:  Working backwards again, we don't love Gormley as we think he basically lucked into an uncontested lead and walked to a win in the Front Runner.  That ain't happening again.  Syndergaard is probably a 1-turn horse.  Theory doesn't have enough distance foundation.  Practical Joke, who rode the best part of the track and a gift setup last time, doesn't seem fast enough to us.  We have some interest in Klimt and we'll probably use him defensively, but we don't love the rail draw and have to draw a line somewhere.  We're siding with Classic Empire, who would probably be in here undefeated if he hadn't lost his rider coming out of the gate in the Hopeful.  His Breeders' Futurity was really a nice performance, and we expect to see some improvement on it.

1.  Classic Empire
2.  Not This Time
3.  Three Rules

Turf

Synopsis: 1 1/2 miles on the sod for all comers.  In the last 20 runnings, 14 of the 21 winners (there was a dead-heat in '03) were Europeans that shipped in, and another (Main Sequence) was a Euro who campaigned in America all year.  Of the 6 Americans, 4 were prices (Buck's Boy, Little Mike, Better Talk Now and Johar) and only two were really considered championship caliber horses: English Channel and Chief Bearhart.  In short - be very wary taking a stateside horse to win, especially at a short price.

Favorite: Flintshire looks to do what Main Sequence did two years ago - spend the year in the US, win our turf races, then take the Breeders Cup Turf.  He was pretty dominant in his first three races, but ran a bad 2nd in his last to Ectot on a yielding turf.  Most will excuse that as a race where he didn't like the surface but we're a little concerned.  Clearly he prefers a hard surface (which he'll get Saturday) but he had a class edge on the field and really wasn't compromised by a bad trip.  Definitely need to use, but be wary.

Price Horse to Consider: Money Multiplier has never won a graded stakes race and finished 3 lengths behind Flintshire in his last race.  And yet, we're very interested at 20-1 or higher.  His Sword Dancer two back was really good, as was his allowance race before that, and he had a sneaky really good second in the United Nations before that, which was also not on a firm turf.  We think he's on the upswing and will benefit even more from Santa Anita's hard surface.  Very live.

Betting Approach: Narrow.  We think a chunk of this field has no business running this weekend (looking at you, Rallis, Twilight Eclipse, Ashleluvssugar, Texas Ryano), that Da Big Hoss has had a good year beating up on cheap horses, and that Ulysses isn't good enough.  We're also against Highland Reel, we know he ran 2nd in the Arc, but somehow this races seems like an afterthought to his connections.  Finally, Mondialiste is in the wrong race.  He should be in the Mile.

Selections: We have been very impressed with Found's 4 year old season, which in the last month and a half has included a win in the Arc (Europe's big race) and an excellent second to Almanzor in the Champion Stakes last out.  Heck, she beat Minding in September, and Minding may be the best turf horse on earth.  If she keeps her form and takes to the track, she should repeat, and lay waste to this Arc-Breeders Cup "curse."  Underneath, we'll use all of Flintshire, Money Multiplier and Ectot, whose win in the Hirsch last out shouldn't be overlooked.

1.  Found
2.  Money Multiplier
3.  Ectot

Filly and Mare Sprint

Synopsis: 7 furlongs on the dirt for fillies and mares three years old and up.  We have no idea why this is the third-to-last race on the card, rather than the Juvenile, regular Sprint, or frankly, anything else.  It's an okay race.  But hardly deserving of a prime time spot.

Favorite: Haveyougoneaway hasn't been out of the exacta this year and exits a nice win at the distance in the Ballerina.  She's 3-1 on the morning line and she's a good value play if she's that price.  By contrast, Carina Mia is going to get bet and we don't like her at all.  We remind everyone that 3 year olds are terrible plays in this race - they never win and are underrepresented in exactas.

Price Horse to Consider:  We don't understand remotely what the heck Ian Kruljac is doing with Finest City but she's not impossible here at a price.  Her start in the Santa Monica at the start of the year was a good 7 furlong effort, as was her sprint back in April.  Then for some reason he stretched her out to a mile, then threw her on the turf at middle distances where she was okay-not-great.  So she's turning back and switching surfaces.  We feel like anything between a DAFL and a romp at a big number is in play.

Betting Approach:  Spread.  Almost everyone is in the 92-99 speed figure range.

Selections: Not only do we not like Carina Mia, we don't see Wavell Avenue repeating last year's win, her form is just too spotty.  We like the horses exiting the Ballerina and will take them over our goofy longshot, and maybe a piece of Wonder Gal at a huge number.

1.  Haveyougoneaway
2.  Finest City
3.  By the Moon

Mile

Synopsis:1 mile on the turf for the fast and the strong.  Our favorite race every year somehow got the on deck circle again in the race sequence.  Whatever.  We think this race is a lot of fun.

Favorite: Last year's winner Tepin is back and has had a really excellent year: 6 wins in 7 starts over five different tracks, including Keeneland, Churchill Downs, Woodbine and Royal Ascot.  Her Queen Anne Stakes win at Ascot was a really neat victory, but since then she's had a workman-like victory in the Woodbine Mile and lost in the First Lady.  Has she tailed off from her best form?  Or did she just have good excuses in her last two (long layoff, front runner freaked)?  One of the toughest reads of the day.

Price Horse to Consider: There are a few.  Everyone is presuming Midnight Storm is going to get fried up front.  Maybe.  But don't overlook that he's won three straight in front-running style through tough fractions, and is working out well coming into this race.  Spectre has been competitive all year in Europe (if rarely victoriious) and adds Lasix.  Shades of Domedriver, who won this at 26-1 in 2002.  And then there's last year's Juvenile Turf winner, Hit It a Bomb, who's sown very litle this year in 3 starts, but maybe just needs to return to the US and a harder surface.  We simply can't dismiss him based on how well he closed last year.

Betting Approach: Spread.  To us, there are a two key questions in this race - what do you do with Tepin (discussed above) and what do you do with Limato, the European shipper who's excellent at 6-7 furlongs but not much of a performer at a mile?  We're leaning against both.  There's just too much good competition in this race to take horses with these flaws at short prices.

Selections: Our feeling on the race shape is that there's going to be a lot of early speed - Photo Call, Midnight Storm, What a View, maybe Tepin, maybe Limato - that a strong closer is the way to go.  There's none better here than Ironicus, who has had success at longer distances and ran a great 2nd in the Shadwell last out.  We are professed fanboys for trainer Shug McGaughey, but we think he's the best horse here and is sitting on a huge effort.  He's probably our best bet of the weekend.  Underneath, we like the best Euro, Alice Springs, and Miss Temple City, who's had a really nice year that's gotten overlooked and may sit a good trip just off the frontrunners.

1.  Ironicus
2.  Miss Temple City
3.  Alice Springs

Classic

Synopsis:1 1/4 miles on the dirt for all comers.  Yes we know, we usually do a whole separate post on this race.  But we admit we're a little pressed for time and besides, we think most of this field isn't competitive.

Favorite: 2014 Kentucky Derby winner California Chrome had something of a lost 2015 and was forgotten after American Pharoah's Triple Crown last year.  But he's had a great 2016 - after winning his first start at Santa Anita, he shipped to Dubai, won a prep race and the $10 million Dubai World Cup, then came back and won the San Diego Handicap, Pacific Classic and Awesome Again, each in dominating fashion over the best handicap horses, including Dortmund and Beholder.  He's living proof that horses really peak at age 5 and makes us wonder what other Derby winners could have done had they stayed in training (we're looking at you, Big Brown and Point Given).  Alas.

Second ChoiceArrogate came into the Travers having made 4 starts for Bob Baffert and showing some good talent in allowance races.  Then this happened:



Jesus.  That translated to a 122 Beyer, and was the fastest Travers ever.  It's a tall order to ask him to duplicate that, but man.

Price Horse to Consider: He's gotten no attention, but Shaman Ghost has turned into a nice horse. Last year he won the Queens Plate in Canada - their equivalent of the Kentucky Derby - and was given the rest of the year off after losing his next race.  He came to the States this year and after losing an allowance race, won the Brooklyn Handicap (at 12 furlongs!), overagressively ran in the Suburban and lost, before pulling off an upset in the Woodward, a Grade 1 at 9 furlongs.  He likes to run long, runs best fresh, is on the improve and has good tactical speed.  He's going to need some luck to win.  But to hit the board at 30-1?  We're very interested.

Betting Approach: Narrow.  We have now named every horse we think can win this race.  No, we're not buying Frosted, who ran a great Met Mile but we think wants no part of 10 furlongs, or Melatonin, who hasn't run in 5 months.

Selections:  We're not going to get too creative here.  California Chrome is the best horse in the world, and has had a great year.  Unless Arrogate duplicates his Travers, he should win this going away.  And it would be a great cap to a stellar year by the former Derby champ.

1.  California Chrome
2.  Shaman Ghost
3.  Arrogate

Enjoy the Breeders Cup everyone!!

Thursday, November 3, 2016

2016 Breeders Cup Preview Part I: Friday's Races

It's the first week of November, which means it's time for our annual rite of hubris and insanity.  Yes, it's our annual Breeders Cup preview, where we foolishly try to summarize 13 races in two blog posts and pick 39 horses in the exact order of finish.  We're coming off a year where we actually weren't horrific - we had 4 winners last year, including one longshot (Wavell Avenue, who was 10-1 in the Filly and Mare Sprint) and 3 more expected winners (Liam's Map in the Dirt Mile, Songbird in the Juvenile Fillies, Runhappy in the Sprint).  On the flip side, that's still 9 races we whiffed on, including picking Tonalist over American Pharoah.  Oops.

So while we turned a profit on win bets last year, let's try to improve on that.  And given that last year was the chalkiest year in Breeders Cup history - Wavell Avenue was the longest priced winner, and only one horse over 20-1 finished in the exacta - let's also hope for some solid prices.  We'll start by previewing Friday's 4 races today, and pick up later tomorrow on Saturday's extravaganza.  We'll assume the track is fast/firm and relatively fair.  As usual, we'll break down what each race is about, who the likely favorite is, and our thoughts on how to play it.

Juvenile Turf

Synopsis: 1 mile on the turf for 2 year old colts.  Hit it a Bomb furiously rallied in the stretch to take it last year continuing Europe's domination of this race.  At least it wasn't a Godolphin/Coolmore horse for a change.

Favorite: Having said all that, we don't think favoritism is going to go to one of the several Euros in this field.  It's likely either going to Oscar Performance, who romped in the Pilgrim at Belmont in his last, or Good Samaritan, who ran well in Canada last out for Bill Mott.  We have no quarrel with the latter but are against Oscar Performance - his two big efforts came on uncontested leads, which he's not likely to get on Friday, what with having the 13 post and horses like Keep Quiet and Lancaster Bomber to keep him honest.

Price Horse to ConsiderChannel Maker is 30-1 on the morning line, yet he only lost to Good Samaritan by 3 lengths in his last on a horrible trip.  He's got perfect breeding for this spot, a good trainer, a stellar jockey, and is likely going to sit a nice trip from the 3 post.  We're very interested at will be 7 times Good Samaritan's price.

Betting Approach: Spread.  Even if you ignore the Euros - don't - there are about 5 different horses we could see winning here.

Selections: For a change, we're not in love with either of the O'Brien horses, who drew poorly and look like they may have too much early speed for their own good.  But we are interested in Godolphin's Rodaini.  He doesn't look the part on first glance given he last his last by 24 lengths, but he had an impossible trip - dwelt at the start, stumbled in the stretch and was basically eased.  Yes, if he dwells at the start again, he's going to have trouble.  But if he breaks cleanly, we like Dettori to sit him behind a good pace and make a late charge at a nice price.

1.  Rodaini
2.  Good Samaritan
3.  Channel Maker

Dirt Mile

Synopsis: 1 mile on the dirt for all comers.  This race was added in 2007 amid a fair amount of outcry from Racing People that it wasn't right that there was no race between 6 and 10 furlongs for dirt runners on the Breeders Cup card.  In the 9 years we've had this race, we've had exactly one champion run in it (Caleb's Posse, 2011) and for 3 straight years, it's been a consolation prize for a genuinely good horse looking to make an easy buck by ducking better competition, winning at a short price.  This is neither fun nor productive.  Please discontinue this race.

Favorite: Dortmund looks to follow in the footsteps of Goldencents and Liam's Map by taking the easy route on Breeders Cup weekend.  After knocking heads with California Chrome 3 times and losing each time, he drops to this race where there is nobody nearly as good as California Chrome.  Or Dortmund, who's probably the 2nd or 3rd best horse in America right now.  Having a horse this good run in this race is absurd.

Price Horse to Consider: To win?  We don't think so.  Underneath?  Hmmm.  Point Piper is in decent form if you ignore his last on a wet track and may get a pace to run at.  At 20-1, why not?

Betting Approach: Single.  We're not going against Dortmund.

Selections: The interesting question in this race is what to do with Runhappy, who won last year's Sprint and is one of ten (!) prior Breeders Cup winners running this weekend.  (Fun facts - the 10 horses comprise of 8 that won a Breeders Cup race last year; of those, only 4 are trying to win the same race again in 2016, though three of them won 2yo races last year, making repeating impossible.  Runhappy's the only one who could have run in the same race again and chose not to.)  We're against him - we didn't like his comeback effort at all, and think he's not the same horse around 2 turns.  If you toss him and Gun Runner (meh), the only other horse that's likely to take money in the race, the exactas and tris may not be so shabby.  We're key Dortmund over some prices that have West Coast experience.

1.  Dortmund
2.  Point Piper
3.  Accelerate

Juvenile Fillies Turf

Synopsis: 1 mile on the turf for 2 year old fillies.  We've noted this in the past, but the American fillies always fair well in this race, as evidenced by Catch a Glimpse's solid win last year.  This year's edition has one of the most inscrutable fields that you'll see all weekend, which probably means chalk will run 1-2-3.

Favorite: It's either going to be La Coronel, who won the Jessamine at Churchill Downs very impressively in her last and is trained by Mark Casse (who won this race last year), or Aiden O'Brien's Roly Poly, who just missed in a Grade 1 at Newmarket last out.  The problem with these two horses is they drew the 13 and 14 post, so they need to either clear the field or take back quick, lest they get caught very wide on the first turn.

Price Horse to Consider: Coasted won a pair of races at Saratoga impressively this summer, then did little in the Miss Grillo, the prep for this race at Belmont.  But that was over a yielding turf that she probably didn't like.  She has tactical speed, a positive jockey switch (Mike Smith isn't our favorite, but he's great at Santa Anita) and is going to be around 20-1.  Definitely worth considering.

Betting Approach: Spread.  Seriously, we were deciding between Coasted, Rymska, Cavale Doree and Lull as our "Price Horse to Consider."  There are a lot of options in this race that make perfect sense.

Selections: We think there's a decent amount of speed in this race, so we're looking for closers that should make a nice move on the far turn and run down the leaders.  Of the 6 or so that we like, we're siding with Spain Burg, who gets a new trainer (Kathy Ritvo, who's fine), Lasix and a short layoff to prep for this spot.  We'll use her over all the longshots we discussed above, and maybe some of New Money Honey.  This race is as tough as they get all weekend - plan accordingly.

1.  Spain Burg
2.  Coasted
3.  Cavale Doree

Distaff

Synopsis: 1 1/8 miles on the dirt for fillies and mares, 3 years old and up.  This is the best race of the weekend, and is one of the best races in recent Breeders Cup history.  Even if it's not the best wagering opportunity in the world, as a sporting event, it's phenomenal.

Favorite: Songbird won last year's Juvenile Fillies and is 11-for-11 in her career.  In those 11 starts, she's won 7 Grade 1 races, has won by a total of over 60 lengths, and has never won by less than 3 1/2 lengths.  She's something else, and has been drawing praise from all over the racing press.  And of course, we're going to try to beat her.

Next two choices: Stellar Wind and Beholder have met each other three times this year and put on three excellent performances, with Stellar Wind holding the 2-1 advantage.  Stellar Wind is last year's 3 year old champion who's had a light campaign (3 starts) but has never been out of the exacta at Santa Anita and could sit a beautiful trip behind what should be a fair pace.  Beholder is a Hall of Fame horse that's already won two Breeders Cup races (Juvenile Fillies in '12, this race in '13), has a ridiculous record of 13 wins and 2 seconds in 15 starts at Santa Anita, and since her debut, has only finished worse than second once in the next 24 starts.  She's amazing.  And she's probably going to be the third choice.

The East Coasters: In case that wasn't enough, we have a troika of interesting horses shipping from the East.  Curalina has put forth some explosive performances: her La Troinne and Shuvee were both outstanding, and she comes in off a layoff, a move trainer Todd Pletcher did last year with Stopchargingmaria en route to a win.  I'm a Chatterbox and Forever Unbridled have each won two Grade 1's this year and ran fabulously in their last races, winning by open lengths in traditional Breeders Cup preps.  All three of these horses should be 10-1 or higher.

Price Horse to Consider: Pass.  We can't make any case for the other two horses, Land Over Sea or Corona del Inca, other than strange things happen every day.

Betting Approach: This comes down to how you want to treat Songbird.  Some people will single her.  We think that's nuts.  She's never run against older horses, has no edge in speed figures, and is going to go to the lead where she's likely to get pressed by Curalina and Beholder.  She's never faced real speed before.  We think she does this Friday and folds, very similar to what happened to Lost in the Fog in the Sprint 11 years ago.  So in short, spread.

Selections: God this difficult.  Working backwards, we think Curalina will also chase Songbird and get eaten up by the early pace, and we think Stellar Wind is ripe for a bounce off her last.  Both could win, we're just leaning otherwise.  Forever Unbridled is a really nice horse that never seems to get there against the best competition.  We're going to side with Beholder taking her final race and capping off a magnificent career, thinking she sits a perfect stalking trip on a track she loves.  Because chalk never runs 1-2-3 in these races, we're throwing in the improving I'm a Chatterbox is a fun wildcard.  Sit back and enjoy, this is going to be a good one.

1.  Beholder
2.  I'm a Chatterbox
3.  Stellar Wind

Coming up tomorrow: Saturday's races.

Friday, June 10, 2016

2016 Belmont Preview

For the umpteenth time, we were wrong with Nyquist.  We're convinced this horse exists solely to make us look stupid, and more importantly, cost us money.  But at least he's out of the Belmont, which relieves us of the burden of trying to figure out which way his form is going and trying to guess wrong yet again.  Instead, we have an eclectic 13-horse field that is more wide-open that it appears at first glance. 

Let's get to this year's edition of the Test of Champions, and see if we can extend our streak of picking the winner to 5 straight years.  As always, we're assuming that the track is fast and fair.

Not Again

13.  Trojan Nation.  The only surprising thing about his Derby was that he wasn't the longest shot on the board and only went off at 40-1.  Other than that he didn't disappoint - he broke horribly and was never closer than 20 lengths behind the leader, and only beat horses that were eased or had given up.  Why does the owner keep wasting their money on these races when he still hasn't won a race?

The Easy Goer Is a Better Spot For You

12.  Seeking the Soul. 
11.  Forever d'Oro.  We're putting both of these guys together because they're functionally speaking the same horse.  Both are owned by Charles Fipke, trained by Dallas Stewart - who we acknowledged in the Derby preview can get a longshot home underneath at a price - and enter in off maiden wins.  Neither ran particularly fast, neither has tactical speed that gives them any type of advantage on the field, and they're both taking a major hike in class.  We rate Forever d'Oro slightly higher because he is well-bred, but this is a helluva a spot to make your stakes debut.

10.  Gettysburg.  This guy was entered mostly to guarantee a fast pace for a couple of other horses in the race.  There's a remote chance that he steals the race on the front end, but given that he continuously fades late at shorter distances, we'll side against.

9.  Governor Malibu.  Some people are giving this guy an outside chance because he's the same trainer and jockey as 2014 Belmont winner Tonalist and has had some good recent efforts.  We're not impressed.  His 2nd in the Peter Pan was a crawling gain on a horse that was tiring while stretching out two furlongs.  His prior races were slow efforts in state-bred company or against horses in Maryland that would be 30-1 here. But sure, take 8-1 on him against the best 3-year-olds in the country.

Up Against It

8.  Cherry Wine.  He ran about as well as we expected in the Preakness, closing into a solid pace to catch a piece.  The fact he finished second rather than 3rd or 4th was in part because Nyquist ran worse than we expected and Cherry Wine absolutely loved the slop.  We're skeptical of those who are calling him a horse on the rise with a big shot Saturday.  Dead closers like him are up against it in the Belmont generally, and there isn't a ton of speed in the race.  And he still isn't that fast.  Speaking of which...

7.  Brody's Cause. At Keeneland this guy's a monster: two Grade 1 wins and a solid 3rd in the Breeders Cup Juvenile.  Outside of Keeneland, he's a disaster: a maiden win and 3 losses by a total of 47 lengths.  And like Cherry Wine, he's a slow closer.  There's always a chance he clunks up to hit the board, but that's also the profile of several others who are just faster.

6.  Lani.  Random prediction: he gets bet and goes off about half the price of his 20-1 morning line odds.  He has evolved a bit from the butt of jokes before the Derby - people have been talking up his workouts the last few weeks, and he did show some improvement from the Derby to the Preakness.  But he still wasn't that close to Exaggerator, finished behind two other horses that are running in this race, and hasn't shown any type of explosive speed or staying power that we think is necessary to win the Belmont. 

Not Impossible

5.  Exaggerator. He's a very good horse and has run faster than almost everyone in this field.  He absolutely can win on Saturday.   Hell, he's a real contender for Horse of the Year if he continues to improve.  But we cannot, and will not, endorse taking even money on a horse that does his best running when he closes from well out of it on a sloppy track.  That defines a money-losing proposition.  At that point, why not take a shot on...

4.  Creator.  He's the main reason that Gettysburg is here, because as a dead closer, his mission looked very difficult without any true speed horse in the race.  Gettysburg at least makes it likely that he'll have some pace to run at.  His Derby is a borderline complete toss because he had horrendous traffic issues and never got a fair run at anything.  He's got a chance here if he's a little closer to the pace and gets a fair trip.  From the 13 post, we're a little hesitant to pick up on top, but to hit the board at 12-1?  Very live.

Contenders

3.  Stradivari.  His Preakness was fairly good - in only his 4th career start and stakes debut, he sat close to a brisk pace, went very wide on the far turn, ran on a sloppy track for the first time, and still was only beaten a half-length for second.  There's an excellent possibility that he moves forward off that race especially on a faster track.  We also like that he has tactical speed in a race without a ton of early speed.  There's a chance that he's the most talented horse in the field and shows it on Saturday.  That said, we think there are a pair of horses that are better than him right now.

2.  Suddenbreakingnews. We're not going to dispute that the two best horses on Derby Day were Nyquist and Exaggerator.  But this guy was probably the 3rd best.  He had trouble early on in the race, which put him next-to-last and a whopping twenty-seven lengths behind the front runners.  (Exaggerator, by contrast, was 17 lengths off the pace.)  Despite this and going wide on the far turn, he rallied stoutly from the back of the pack, winding up 5th and only a couple of jumps from third place.  With a better trip, he easily would have been third and could have contended for second.

Now yes, dead closers like him are always vulnerable to bad trips.  And we've already noted that closers are tough bets in the Belmont and that there isn't a ton of pace here.  But we think this guy has a ton of talent that he's shown in his last 3 races, even if it hasn't translated into wins.  And while we don't love Mike Smith, we think he's a huge improvement over Luis Quinonez, who we think may have waited too long with this guy time and again.  We wouldn't be surprised to see Smith ride him a bit more aggressively and try to keep him in closer contact with the leaders.  That would give him a big shot, but to us, still makes him second-best.

The Pick

1.  Destin. Yep, we're doubling down with our failed Derby pick.  We know, he ran 6th without much of an excuse.  But we thought it was a nice effort.  Asking him to deliver a peak effort off an 8-week layoff probably was a tougher task than we acknowledge, and his fade in the final 600 yards was likely due to the lack of recency.  If he moves forward off that - a common trend, to improve second off a brief layoff - he'll be dangerous.  More importantly, we love his tactical speed, like Pletcher/Castellano in this spot, and think his breeding is perfect for the 12 furlongs.  We think he sits about 3-4 lengths off the pace, starts grinding away at the lead on the far turn, and holds off the closers in the stretch to give Pletcher his 3rd Belmont win.

Good luck to all and enjoy the Belmont!

Thursday, May 19, 2016

2016 Preakness Preview

We're at a loss trying to think of a horse we've been wrong about more frequently than Nyquist.  So far we have publicly picked against him in the Breeders Cup' Juvenile and the Kentucky Derby; he's made us look foolish both times.  Privately, we've wagered against him another two times, and he won both of those races with ease.  Usually we're wrong with horses that constantly tease us by showing greatness that never actually puts it together.  (See: too many examples to count.)  Nyquist is the opposite.  He's already proven that he's a top quality horse; middling horses don't five Grade 1 races.  Our attempts to harp on flaws has kept us from picking him time and time again, perhaps just ignoring that he's really good.

But does that mean he's going to win the Preakness?  Let's count them down.  In a slight change from the past, we are not going to assume the track is fast - the forecast for Saturday in Baltimore is dreadful, so we're instead assuming there's a fair bit of moisture in the track.

They're Just Trying to Annoy Us

11.  Laoban.  Another maiden?  Really?  Can we put a stop to this please?

Make Sure You Spend Time at the Inner Harbor

10.  Fellowship.  He broke his string of uninspiring third-place finishes by running an even less inspired 4th in an undercard race on Derby Day.  This is trending in the wrong direction.

9.  Lani. His Derby was a little better than expected in that he actually finished the race ahead of half the field.  Of course, he had trouble leaving the gate, was never remotely in contention and didn't beat a horse of consequence, so it's not like we learned that he's the second coming of Sunday Silence

Cannon Fodder

8.  Awesome Speed.  It's the Tesio winner!  Annually we enjoy noting the winner of Maryland's local prep race that hasn't produced a good horse since we received First Communion.  This guy's record against poor horses in Maryland is utterly fabulous, and some people are actually interested in him because the horse he beat in the Tesio (Governor Malibu) came back to run a decent second in the Peter Pan.  That means nothing to us - Governor Malibu was gaining on a horse that was stretching out by 2 furlongs and would have been passed by a quality horse.  Also this colt is early speed in a race with a ton of other early foot.  Look for him to connect early with...

7.  Abiding Star. ...a horse that's won 5 straight races.  Somehow, in his last 4 wins, he has beaten a total of 17 horses, which seems impossible even in this day of smaller foal crops.  There's actually some vaguely interesting breeding here, but he's more early speed with no indication of latent staying power, which means he'll get fried competing with Awesome Speed and...

6.  Collected. ...the winner of the Lexington Stakes.  People often think that a good performance in the Lexington makes you a Preakness contender, and point to Lexington winner Touch Gold's outstanding 4th in the '97 Preakness as evidence.  That's just wrong.  The Lexington produced useful horses for the Preakness at one point; besides Touch Gold, Charismatic won it in '99 (with the Derby in between) and Classic Cat clunked up for 3rd after winning the '98 Lexington.  The next Lexington winner to hit the board in Maryland?  Divining Rod last year. 

The truth is that the Lexington doesn't get great horses.  It is generally the last-chance stop for horses desperately trying to make the Derby or a prep race for second-tier Preakness horses.  The Lexington gets horses that are competitive in the Preakness only if a lot of things go wrong with the contenders.  We don't see that here, and the fact that Collected is going to be on the lead with a lot of other speed makes it more likely that he finishes last than first.

The Interesting New Horses

2006 Preakness Winner Bernardini
5.  Stradivari.  We bet that any prognosticator that's picking a winner besides Nyquist and Exaggerator is going with this guy.  And it's not without reason - he has solid breeding, a fast win in his last, and is trained by Todd Pletcher.  And comparisons to 2006 Preakness winner Bernardini are inevitable - he also was well-bred and well-connected and entered off a blowout win against lesser company.  But we think it's a facile comparison.  This horse has only made one start this year: an allowance race where the only other good horse faded horribly after a half-mile, basically leaving Stradivari running uncontested for the final 5 furlongs.  We don't think he learned anything from the race and the margin of victory is meaningless.  By contrast, when Bernardini won the Preakness, he already had three starts in the year and had faced stakes company before the Preakness.  Stradivari hasn't done any of that, and we think that's a huge knock. We don't like a horse coming into a classic off of one race in 5 months.  And he's going to be wildly overbet: we think the 8-1 morning line on him is high.  He's got a shot to hang around for a piece but we prefer others.

4.  Cherry Wine.  This guy's case is pretty simple: he's one of two true closers in a race with a lot of early speed and he likes a wet track.  Can't see him winning.  Easily can see him closing for 3rd or 4th while never threatening the winners.

3.  Uncle Lino.  There are some things to like here.  He's had four straight solid performances in stakes races, even though he still hasn't won a graded stakes yet.  After pressing the pace and fading in the San Felipe, he sat off the pace just a little bit in the Santa Anita Derby with somewhat better results - he didn't fade in the stretch, but Exaggerator blew by him in the slop while Mor Spirit outgutted him for second.  He seemed to build off that a little bit in the ungraded California Chrome last out - it was a wire-to-wire job, but with relatively reasonable fractions against a field without speed.  We do think that if jockey Fernando Perez has learned something, it's that this guy can sit off a hot pace and stalk.  Our hope is that this is exactly what happens - he watches 3-4 horses go flying in front of him, makes a solid move on the turn right with or before Nyquist, and gives it a shot down the stretch.  He may not be fast enough to compete with the top 2, but he might get a perfect trip and be on the upswing to hit the board.  Don't ignore him at 20-1 or so.

Duh.

2.  Exaggerator. That Derby effort was pretty good.  It was a strong pace and he closed pretty stoutly into it, and was gaining on Nyquist late.  And he's going to get a wet track on Saturday, which moves him up in theory.  He has a huge shot and it would surprise nobody if he won the black-eyed susans, but we're siding with...

The Pick

An...interesting version of Nyquist's trainer
1.  Nyquist.  No, this is not a reverse jinx.  It's us coming to reality.  We don't think Nyquist is unbeatable.  We just don't think there's a horse in this race that's going to beat him.  Lani stinks.  6 of the 8 new shooters would have to run a career top to get 3rd.  Stradivari and Uncle Lino are mildly interesting but have to make up a lot of ground to win and have Nyquist regress.  Which leaves Exaggerator, who Nyquist has beaten all four times they've faced.  Fool us once, etc.  We think the race is going to set up perfectly for him, as he'll sit 4th or 5th about 3-4 lengths off the hot pace, and start running on the far turn once the pacesetters wilt.  And will have too much left for Exaggerator to pass in the stretch.  For the 3rd straight year, we think a Triple Crown will be on the line Belmont day.

Good luck to all and enjoy the Preakness!