Friday, October 31, 2014

2014 Breeders Cup Preview Part 3: The Classic Countdown

What makes this Classic a bit different for most is how badly the older horse contingent has fallen apart.  Gone because of injury are Palace Malice, Lea, Game On Dude, Moonshine Mullin and Will Take Charge.  That would seem to open the door to the three year olds, right?

Maybe.  We had this in 2002, where the older horse contingent just looked dreadful - Evening Attire was a New York bred that won the Jockey Club Gold Cup, and nobody thought he was anything special.  The public responded by betting heavily a series of 3 year olds (Came Home, War Emblem, Medaglia d'Oro, even first-time dirt starter Hawk Wing), figuring the winner had to come from that contingent.  Perpetual underachiever Volponi blew that theory to shreds, running away with the race at 43-1.

The 1999 Breeders Cup posed a similar situation.  Real Quiet, Victory Gallop and a few others never made it to the big race, leaving an over-the-top Behrens and not-great River Keen as the obvious choices for older horses, so much of the action went on 3yos Lemon Drop Kid and General Challenge.  A 3yo did win the race, but it was Cat Thief at 19-1.

So let's not just accept that we have to take a short priced 3 year old and move on.  Let's count them down from worst to first.

This Seems Rather Ambitious

14.  Imperative. The only race where he was remotely competitive this year was his 26-1 shocker int he Charles Town Classic.  We're thrilled for his connections that their horse became a millionaire this year, but think his series of no-shows after that race are more indicative of his ability.

13.  Toast of New York.  He actually has the highest last-out speed figure, a 111 he earned running in the Pacific Classic.  Of course, he was throttled by Shared Belief in that race, and this race is on dirt, not synthetic.  There had to be an easier spot for him to make his dirt debut.

12.  Footbridge.  It's a bad sign when your last race had a perfect trip and ideal setup and the best you could do was a slow third.

The Pace and the Distance Seem Problematic

11.  Moreno.  We know this guy's two best "figures" were the Whitney and Woodward at Saratoga this summer, but we think his best race was actually the Suburban, where he ran fast as hell early and just got passed in the final sixteenth of a mile.  Mind you, he's now back to the 10 furlong distance, and is going to get pressed on the front end by...

10.  Bayern.  ...a horse that has shown zero ability to rate or carry his speed for 1 1/4 miles.  We're actually a little sad he's not running in either the Sprint or the Dirt Mile, two races where he'd be our pick.  Here, he's reduced to pace fodder.

9.  California Chrome.  The lone attribute this guy has is his affinity for Santa Anita.  Other than that, he's not in great form, doesn't look to get a particularly good pace setup, probably doesn't do his best running at the distance, and has never taken on older horses.  We wouldn't take 20-1 on this guy, let alone 4-1.  Rest up for next year, big fella.

Maybe for the Superfecta.  Maybe.

8.  Majestic Harbor.  If he runs back to his Hollywood Gold Cup 3 starts ago, he could be dangerous.   But every other start in his career makes it look like that race was the exception, not the rule.

7.  Prayer for Relief.  We don't see a way that a horse that hasn't won since last August and has won exactly 1 graded stakes race in his last 23 starts can take a $5 million race.  But he actually isn't in terrible form - his closing third on a speed favoring track in the Woodward was a sneaky-solid angle.  He was supposed to start in the Jockey Club Gold Cup but was scratched when he flipped in the paddock.  We can't endorse him on top, but as filler for trifectas and superfectas, he's a potential bomb to his the board.

6.  V.E. Day.  So can this guy, who will be dead last early and passing tiring horses late.  It's a fair question as to whether his rough start in the JCGC cost him that much position and mentally took him out of the race.  Again, we don't see anyway he wins the race, but most years, horses clunk up for 3rd or 4th in this race that you don't expect.  He's got a shot to be one of them.

A Real Chance at a Square Price

5.  Cigar Street.  There's plenty to like here - good breeding, good connections, and some actual upside since he's just making his 9th career start thanks to his injury history.  And having tactical speed is an asset.  But we're a little more wary than we were a couple of weeks ago.  First, everyone is touting this guy as their sleeper alternative.  At 20-1 we were intrigued; we think he's going to be under 10-1 come post time.  Second, he reminds us a little too much of Etched, who we touted as a shot to hit the board in 2010 and did very little.  He's never run in Grade 1 company, and has never beaten a horse of any consequence.  He's an interesting possibility on the come, but we think a level below the next few.

4.  Zivo.  This guy actually is in the running for Older Horse Eclipse Award and has a big shot.  He won his first five starts of the year, the last being his coming out party in the Suburban, where he took on open company for the first time and rallied through the stretch.  Trainer Chad Brown set his sights on this race and decided to give him two prep races: the Woodward and JCGC.  The former went so-so; he was running against the grain of the track, but still couldn't get past Prayer for Relief for third.  His JCGC was much more impressive, where he was a good second and lost some momentum when a riderless horse blocked his path.

The two key questions are whether he would have gotten to the winner anyway and how his New York form translates to California.  We say no on both.  We don't love older horses that have never left a single state before, and think the harder California surface just may not play to his style.  But would we be shocked if he won?  Not at all.

3.  Candy Boy.  Huge sleeper potential here at a big price.  His last two races were actually quite good - he just got nosed out by an improving Tapiture in the West Virginia Derby, and ran a better-than-it-looks third in the Pennsylvania Derby, trying to overcome a freak performance by Bayern and a speed bias.  He actually closed pretty well all things considered.  Now he's back at his home track where he's never finished out of the money, is working out well, and has good connections behind him.  If he were 10-1 we'd pass.  But at 30-1 or higher?  Very, very live.

The Obvious Contender

2.  Shared Belief.  Look, there's not too much to criticize here.  He's undefeated, has looked sensational in past races, is bred for the distance, has great connections, and should get a nice trip.  So why aren't we picking him over...

The Pick

1.  Tonalist.  A couple of reasons, besides the price differential.  First, we aren't sure that Shared Belief is as good on dirt as he is on a synthetic surface.  Sure he's 2-for-2 on dirt, but his speed figures on polytrack easily exceed his dirt speed figures.  By contrast, we know Tonalist loves the dirt and will love 10 furlongs.  Second, we really think Tonalist is blossoming and improving right now.  We wonder if Shared Belief has already fired his best shot and is trying to work back to his Pacific Classic.  Could he do it?  Sure, and we'd be foolish to tell you to leave him out of your bets.  We wouldn't be shocked if he romped.  But we still think Tonalist is at least as talented as him on the dirt.  We see Tonalist sitting 8-10 lengths off a hot pace, making a big move on the far turn, and running down Shared Belief in the stretch.

Enjoy the Breeders Cup everyone!

2014 Breeders Cup Preview Part 2: Saturday's Races

We've got eight races to get through, so let's not waste time discussing trivial matters.  On to the analysis!  As usual, we're assuming the track is fast and the turf is firm.

Juvenile Fillies

Synopsis:  1 1/16 miles on the dirt for 2yo fillies.  In 18 of the last 20 years, the winner of this race was either a short price or an utter bomb.  Hunting for a mid-price horse has only worked in 2001 (Tempera) and 2008 (She Be Wild).

Favorite:  What would a two year old race be without a favorite trained by Todd Pletcher? This edition is fronted by Angela Renee, who Pletcher sent west after the Saratoga meet, presumably to avoid the rest of his loaded stable.  She rewarded him with a strong victory in the local prep race, showing tactical but not flaunting speed.  She also beat two other horses in this race and got a race over the track, neither of which is a bad thing.

Price Horse to Consider:   If you're in the mood to try a New York bred on for size, how about Wonder Gal, trained by former jockey Leah Gyramati?  She's bred to like two turns and her last race may have been tempered by a sloppy track.  There's a lot of that going around in this race, by the way - it seems like every 2yo filly race of note took place in California or over a mud pit.

Betting Approach:  Spread.  We know, we just said that taking anything that isn't the chalk or a longshot is a bad idea, but we're just not overwhelmed by the favorites in this race.

Selections:  To continue that thought, Angela Renee looks fine, as does Pletcher's other charge, Feathered and we wouldn't be shocked to see either win.  But neither has much of an advantage over Top Decile or Cavorting, both of which have run strong races and a right to improve in their young careers.  We'll take the former on top, based on her strong finish in the Alcibiades, and her strong workouts for the under-appreciated Al Stall.

1.  Top Decile
2.  Cavorting
3.  Angela Renee

Filly & Mare Turf

Synopsis:  1 1/4 miles on the turf for the ladies, 3yo and up.  If asked what Breeders Cup races were our annual favorites, this one would come second after the Mile.  We love the Euros that ship over and also that Americans usually hold their own here.

Favorite:  Dank won this race last year and has been installed as the morning line favorite to repeat.  As good as she was last year, she's that tough a read this year.  She's only run twice (in Dubai and England) and wasn't competitive in either race.  And yet, her best race towers over the field.  On the other hand, she hasn't run in 4 months.  On the other (fourth?) hand, jockey Ryan Moore thinks she's the best horse he's riding all weekend.  It's all very confusing.

Price Horse to Consider:   We're admittedly honks for Shug McGaughey, but ignore Abaco at your own peril.  She's shown that she belongs in Grade 1 races by being competitive in every race she's entered this year, and sh lost to Stephanie's Kitten by less than two lengths in the Flower Bowl.  While Stephanie's Kitten had a dream trip that race, Abaco didn't.  We're infinitely more inclined to take Abaco at 20-1 than Stephanie's Kitten at 4-1, especially if the ground is hard.

Betting Approach:   This is a tough one, because we think it's an either/or proposition.  If you really believe in Dank being back to where she was last year, there's maybe one horse that can beat her.  If you don't love her, it's a spread race where a bunch of horses are competitive.  We lean towards the latter.

Selections:   Dispensing with a few other competitors, we don't think Stephanie's Kitten has any edge on this field at a short price, aren't in love with Just the Judge on a 2-week turnback, think Fioselana is in over her head, and are of the opinion that Emollient is one of the worst horses ever to win multiple Grade 1 races.  While we'll use Dank, we're more interested in Secret Gesture, who's never finished out of the money, has been keeping good company in Europe, and has had a campaign designed to bring her here.  We'll take her over Dayatthespa, who could steal this race on the front end a la Intercontinental, Dank and Abaco.

1.  Secret Gesture
2.  Dayatthespa
3.  Abaco

Filly & Mare Sprint

Synopsis:  7 furlongs on the dirt for fillies and mares.  We'll say it again - one of the most consistent angles on Breeders Cup weekend has been to go against 3 year olds in this race, who are winless and underrepresented in the trifecta.

Favorite:  Favoritism could go to any one of four horses.  We're going to guess the public sides with Artemis Agrotera, who bombed last year in the Juvenile Fillies and had a bad start to her year in the Acorn, then absolutely blossomed at Saratoga winning an ungraded stakes race and the Grade 1 Ballerina, both in romps.  She regressed a bit in the Gallant Bloom but still won at 6 1/2 furlongs.  Even though she's a 3 year old, she's not a pretender.

Price Horse to Consider:   We're not particularly wild about any of the horses that figure to be double-digit odds.  Gun to our heads, maybe Thank You Marylou can clunk up for third at a price.

Betting Approach:   Narrow/Spread.  We actually think you can whittle down the field of contenders pretty quickly - we don't see why Living the Life is here; think all of Southern Honey, Thank You Marylou and Little Alexis are too slow, and believe Better Lucky is in the wrong race.  The remaining 5, though, all have a real shot.

Selections:  Continuing with process of elimination, we're unconvinced that Sweet Reason is fast enough or will be as good outside of the State of New York.  Some prognosticators think Stonetastic will pop the field and never get caught; we disagree and think she'll get pressed more than others think.  We'll instead side with Judy the Beauty, who's the fastest horse, never runs badly, and loves the track, over Leigh Court, who closed well in her last and may just love the distance.

1.  Judy the Beauty
2.  Leigh Court
3.  Artemis Agrotera

Turf Sprint

Synopsis:  6 1/2 furlongs on the downhill turf for all comers.  We're still not sure why this race is worth $1 million.  Would the fields be decimated if this and the Dirt Mile were knocked down to $750,000 each and the Sprint was restored to $2 million?  We're also probably the only people on earth that care about this.

Favorite:  No Nay Never is well-connected, well bred, and has won 4 of his 5 starts.  We think he'll be quite a bit shorter than his 9-2 morning odds and is a solid, if beatable, favorite.

Price Horse to Consider:   We're not really sure why Something Extra is 20-1 on the morning line.  The horse hasn't had a bad turf race in nearly two years and has tactical speed.  What are we missing?

Betting Approach:  Spread.  Yeah, like you have a great idea in this race either.

Selections:  We tend to side with horses that have had success at Santa Anita and/or at the goofy 6 1/2 furlong distance.  Simply going off of that narrows down our top contenders to Ambitious Brew, Home Run Kitten and Sweet Swap.  Of that triumvirate we prefer Home Run Kitten, but will be using them at equal strength in multi-race wagers.

1.  Home Run Kitten
2.  Sweet Swap
3.  Ambitious Brew


Synopsis: 1 1/16 miles on the dirt for 2yo colts.  This race was shaping up to have one of the biggest favorites and most fascinating horses of the weekend in American Pharaoh, but he scratched earlier this week, leaving us with some interesting horses that haven't run too many times.

Favorite:  We're pretty confident that Todd Pletcher is going to train the favorite, but aren't sure which horse it is.  Behind Door #1 is Daredevil, who's won his two starts by a combined 9 lengths and throttled contender Upstart in his last.  The problem is he's never run on a fast track and may just be a slip freak.  Behind Door #2 is Carpe Diem, who hasn't run as quickly as his stablemate, but blew the doors off the field at Keeneland in his second start.  Every trainer would take one of these horses, let alone both.

Price Horses to Consider:  Texas Red merits a closer look at his 20-1 morning line odds.  His first start on the dirt was an even third against American Pharaoh and Calculator, who is getting a ton of buzz on the backstretch even though he's never won a race.  We like that he's sporting good workouts and nice efforts over the track.  For a total bomb, don't ignore Aiden O'Brien's The Great War, who's never run on the dirt but is in good form and good dirt breeding.  And has 7 starts.  All the European 2yos that have done well in this race - Arazi, Johannesburg, Wilko - came in well-seasoned.

Betting Approach:   Narrow.  As much as we're talking up the price horses above, we think they've better used underneath than on top.  We basically think three horses have a real chance to win this race.

Selections:  We're willing to take a shot against Daredevil because of how short a price he'll be and the uncertainty surrounding a cross-country ship on a fast track.  And while we think Upstart should be competitive, the 13 post raises a lot of concerns.  We have no such concerns about Carpe Diem, who looked great at Keeneland and should relish two turns at Santa Anita.  He's one of our favorite picks of the weekend.

1.  Carpe Diem
2.  Texas Red
3.  Upstart


Synopsis:  1 1/2 miles on the turf for all who dare.  Magician was scheduled to be one of four horses back to defend their title this year, but he scratched on Wednesday with lameness.  Sad as that is, it actually does make the race a bit more manageable.

Favorite:  Flintshire hasn't won this year, but ran second in the Arc de Triomphe last out and was second in the Coronation Cup earlier this year.  There hasn't been a turf race stateside as good as either of those events this year.  He's a legitimate favorite.

Price Horse to Consider:  To win?  Not this race.  We don't really like any of the price horses on top.  Underneath, maybe Twilight Eclipse, who's in decent form?

Betting Approach:   Narrow.  When Magician was in this race, we thought it looked like it went three-deep; that's now down to two.

Selections:  Dispensing with the faux contenders really quickly, we don't think Main Sequence has a shot against real Europeans, are not buying Hardest Core's shocking win in the Arlington Million, think Chiquita is in the wrong race, and know Big Brown Panther is only here by accident.  Basically we think this comes down to Flintshire and fellow European Telescope, and prefer the latter.  His second in the Juddmonte was as good as Flintshire's second in the Arc and trainer Michael Stoute has admitted that he's been pointing Telescope to this race since then.  Stoute is an outstanding trainer and it gets our undivided attention when he's pointing for the Turf as a goal.

1.  Telescope
2.  Flintshire
3.  Twilight Eclipse


Synopsis:  6 furlongs on the dirt for all comers.  And we really have gotten all comers this year.  In 2014 alone, the horses in the field have run in 14 different states (New York, California, Kentucky, Texas, Arkansas, Florida, Pennsylvania, West Virginia, Louisiana, Nebraska, Illinois, and Iowa) and four foreign nations (UAE, Hong Kong, France and the UK).  In case that wasn't enough, we have a horse make her dirt debut, a horse that's making his graded stakes debut here in his 4th start, and another horse who last ran 7 days ago.  We love it.

Favorite:  Our third and final horse attempting to repeat is Secret Circle, who won this last year on a fairly thin resume.  He's had a pretty light year once again, running a decent 2nd in February and a blah 3rd in October.  Of course, trainer Bob Baffert won this race in 2008 with Midnight Lute following a similar pattern, so it's not like this is a negative.

Horses to Avoid:  There is a boatload of speed in this race.  We know that California tracks favor front-runners, but man, all of Work All Week, Big Macher, Indianapolis, Private Zone and Fast Anna are going to flash speed, and others may join them.  Sure, one of them could hang on for a piece, but we're inclined to toss all of them.  We're also against Rich Tapestry, who's making his second start in the U.S. after shipping over from Asia.  We are steadfastly against second-time foreigners in Breeders Cup races.  Finally, we know Palace has had a good year, but we hated his last race, and fear he's over the top.

Price Horse to Consider:  We have no idea if French shipper Wind Fire is good enough here.  She's never run on the dirt before, wasn't competing at the top level in Europe, and is light in the win column.  But she's bred up and down to be a dirt sprinter and doesn't seem to have much early speed.  At over 30-1, we'll take a shot on her running down the field late.

Betting Approach:   Spread.  This race is about as wide-open as you'll get.

Selections: There's a good chance he'll get caught up in the speed duel, but if he can rate just a little, we think Baaken rates a big chance here at a price.  He's lightly raced and has some upside, but he's been in graded stakes races and shouldn't have trouble adapting to this level of competition.  His last race was a decent effort off a layoff, and if he moves forward, he'll be dangerous.  We'll use him with Secret Circle, who should get a dream trip here, and take a shot with longshot Mico Margarita as a closer in good form.

1.  Baaken
2.  Secret Circle
3.  Mico Margarita


Synopsis:  1 mile on the turf for everyone.  This is the first edition we've had since 2007 that didn't have either Goldikova or Wise Dan.  In that edition - at Monmouth Park! - Kip Deville, the second-greatest Oklahoma bred ever took it for the Americans.

Favorite:  Toronado is less than 2 lengths away from having taken 5 Grade 1 races at a mile in Europe, having taken on the best horses on the continent and never run poorly at the distance of Saturday's race.  In case that wasn't enough, he has tactical speed, ran recently, and is in good hands.  He's legit.

Price Horse to Consider:   For a medium-priced longshot, Veda has a lot of upside.  Perfectly bred for the Mile, she had a good starter race in France, ran an excellent second in the French 1000 Guineas (their premier race for 3yo fillies at a mile), then ran a meh 4th.  Freshened over the summer - a move we like in this race - she came back on the Arc undercard and ran an excellent second in her first start against older horses and males.  If she moves forward off that, she's a huge threat.  For a total bomb, consider Summer Front, loves the distance and the track, and closed stoutly in his race here in June.  We don't mind the layoff and think he can catch a piece at a huge price.

Betting Approach:   Spread.  After the Sprint, we think this is the most wide-open field of the weekend.

Selections:   Yes you can't toss Toronado, but we sure aren't conceding the race to him when there are a lot of intriguing alternatives.  Mustajeeb rates a good chance, even though he's been keeping lesser company than Toronado.  Karakontie has a shot, though we don't love his odds from the outside post.  (We're discounting interesting longshot Tourist for the same reason.)  And then there's Anodin, who everyone loves because he's a full brother to Godikova, but he still has lost 11 of his 13 starts.

Gun to our head we're going to take the horse with the most upside who's coming in a little fresher than Toronado.  We'll try Veda to post the minor upset, but use all the Euros in the Pick-somethings.  This is going to be a fun race.

1.  Veda
2.  Toronado
3.  Summer Front

Coming up later: Our Classic Countdown.

Thursday, October 30, 2014

2014 Breeders Cup Preview Part 1: Friday's Races

It's time for the most wonderful weekend of racing! Yes, it's our annual rite of hubris and embarrassment, our Breeders Cup selections. Last year's picks were something of a mixed bag, as we only had two winners over the weekend, favored Secret Circle in the Sprint and the obvious Wise Dan in the Mile. You fared much better if you played our picks for second place, which included Classic winner Mucho Macho Man and Mizdirection (Turf Sprint) and two exactas we picked backwards in the F&M Turf and Juvenile Fillies Turf.

Undaunted, we're back once again to look at all thirteen races. (Breeders Cup Marathon, it was nice knowing you.). As usual we'll set up the race, discuss the probable favorite and a long shot we like, and make our picks. We'll also give our opinion on whether a race looks like it has a potential single, should be bet narrowly, or is a spread race. Today we'll examine Friday's card; tomorrow we'll have a post on Saturday's races, with a separate breakdown of the Classic. Onwards and upwards!

Juvenile Turf

Synopsis:  1 mile on the turf for 2 year olds.  There's annual grumbling among racing cognoscenti that this and the Juvenile Fillies Turf don't belong on Breeders Cup cards because they're not really championship events.  That's ridiculous.  This race has never had fewer than 11 runners, is intriguing to handicap, and draws a bunch of Euros every year.  So it's not going to lead to an Eclipse Award.  Who cares?

Favorite:  Favoritism probably will go to Hootenanny, who has one of the more interesting running lines you'll see all weekend.  Trained by Wesley Ward, who's great with sprinters and 2 year olds, he dominated his first start in April on the Keeneland polytrack, then ran a dull 3rd on a muddy track at Pimlico on Preakness Day.  Ward then shipped him to Ascot, where he won a turf race convincingly over European 2yos, and for his last race sent him to France, where he ran a good 2nd in a Grade 1 race.  It's not often that you'll see an American horse having run in 3 countries in his first 4 races.

Price Horse to Consider:   If European shipper Aktabantay is anywhere near his 12-1 morning line odds, he's a must use.  There isn't much separating him and probable second choice War Envoy, except that the latter will be half the price.

Betting Approach:   Narrow/mild spread.  We don't think you need to go much beyond the Euros in this race, and aren't in love with all of them either.

Selections:   Commemorative has the look of a horse that fits the race perfectly - multiple starts at a mile, good connections (Charles Hills won the JF Turf last year), and has tactical speed.  We'd use War Envoy and Aktabantay defensively, and of the Americans, side with Startup Nation as the one who rates the best chance to hit the board.

1.  Commemorative
2.  War Envoy
3.  Startup Nation

Dirt Mile

Synopsis: 1 mile on the dirt for all comers.  For all the complaining people do about the 2yo turf races, at least they get full fields and are interesting.  This race?  Not so much.

Favorite:  Goldencents is one of three defending champions running over the weekend, and he's probably going to be the heaviest favorite in the Breeders Cup races.  He likes the track and the distance and got a great draw from the 1 post.  He'll go to the front and try to stay there for all 8 furlongs.

Price Horse to Consider:   Most of the horses in this race that are going to be double-digit odds aren't particularly appealing, so we'll take a complete stab at Bronzo, who ran well in Chile over the summer.  I know, that doesn't sound particularly impressive.  At least he'll be a price.

Betting Approach:   Single/Narrow.  We wouldn't quibble with anyone who wants to single Goldencents and move on to more interesting races, or use this time to go trick-or-treating with their kids.

Selections:   We think the best strategy is use Goldencents but try to beat second choice Fed Biz, who we've never particularly liked and may get fried if he tries to contest the pace, and third choice Pants on Fire, who perpetually disappoints at this level.  We're more likely to side with 3yo Tapiture as the horse that rates an upset chance; he should get a decent stalking trip off the pace and is on the improve. We'll round out the triple our goofy longshot.

1.  Goldencents
2.  Tapiture
3.  Bronzo

Juvenile Fillies Turf

Synopsis:  1 mile on the turf for 2yo fillies.  I'm sure there's an explanation for why this is, but while Americans have been unimpressive in the Juvenile Turf, they're actually fared well in this race.  Yes the Euros were the entire exacta last year and Flotilla won the year before that, but Americans have won the other 4 editions and swept the trifecta twice.  And two of those winners - Stephanie's Kitten and Tapitsfly - continued to be good horses for years thereafter.

Favorite:  Sunset Glow is the filly version of Hootenanny - 2 starts in America, followed by a trip to Ascot, but she mixed it up with two starts on Del Mar's polytrack over the summer.  That said, we're not a huge fan - she looks like she's going to be winging it on the front end along with plenty of other competition (Sivoliere, maybe Lady Zuzu, maybe Quality Rocks).  It's tough to see her winning the battle and the war.

Price Horse to Consider:   We'll discuss our medium-priced horse in a second.  For a total bomb, Prize Exhibit strikes us as mildly interesting because she has a ton of experience under her belt, but she seems to have trouble leaving the gate.  Maybe switching to the States will cure that.

Betting Approach:   Spread.  We're actually not enamored with most the favorites in this race.  In addition to our reservations on Sunset Glow, we don't love Qualify from the 14 post, and weren't particularly enamored with Lady Eli's two wins in New York.  Chad Brown usually does okay in this race, but we see no reason to take a short price on her.

Selections:   We respect Osalia, and wouldn't be surprised to see her run away with this race.  But we're very, very intrigued by the sneakily well-bred Tammy the Torpedo.  She was highly touted in her Saratoga debut, where she didn't disappoint and looked good.  She was favored in the Miss Grillo (won by Lady Eli) and ran an uneven third while acting rank off a dawdling pace.  We don't think that'll be her strategy here - we see Rosario taking her back from a strong pace and unleashing her on the far turn, trying to inhale half the field, and we think she's got a great shot at doing it at 15-1 or so.  For third, we like Graham Motion's Rainha da Bateria, who should be closing late into a good pace.

1.  Tammy the Torpedo
2.  Osalia
3.  Rainha da Bateria


Synopsis:  One mile and one-eighth on the dirt.  About 4 months ago, this was looking like the premier race of the year, as Beholder, Close Hatches, and Princess of Sylmar all looked like great older horses and Untapable was the 3yo filly phenom du jour.  How times have changed - Princess of Sylmar has retired, Beholder is out with an injury, and Close Hatches flopped at 1-5 odds in her prep race.

Favorite:  Untapable remains the one standing from that quartet without a huge blemish on her resume.  After romping in the Kentucky Oaks and Mother Goose, she took a shot at the boys in the Haskell and did little over a speed-biased track.  She caught another speed-biased track in the Cotillion and eked out a win that may be better than it looks.  If she runs back to her Oaks, the rest of the field is running for second.

Price Horse to Consider:   We have a medium-priced bomb that we'll discuss below, but for a true longshot, we think Stanwyck is interesting.  Her best races from last year would be extremely competitive in this race, but we haven't seen that from her recently.  Maybe it's because she doesn't like the East Coast tracks, maybe it's because several of those races were over off tracks, or maybe she's just not as good.  We're willing to take a shot at 30-1 and think she's perfect fodder for trifectas.

Betting Approach:   Narrow/Mild spread.  We think that you have to use Untapable, but are against Close Hatches.  Generally speaking, when a filly goes bad, it rarely reverses itself in a hurry; the only exception we can think of is Escena in 1998.  Her Spinster was so terrible that we're worried she's off form and will burn your money at 3-1.  Look elsewhere.

Selections:  We mocked her being in the Preakness relentlessly, but Ria Antonia fits very well here.  Her race at Keeneland caught our attention, where the addition of blinkers seemed to wake her up, and she attended to a solid pace set by Close Hatches and ran well in the stretch, only to be caught by Don't Tell Sophia.  Her two best races have come at Santa Anita and the blinkers may have been the kick in the pants she needed.  We think she's got a big shot to knock off Untapable at a good price, and are picking her to pull off a medium-sized upset.

1.  Ria Antonia
2.  Untapable
3.  Stanwyck

Coming tomorrow: Saturday's races analyzed.

Monday, September 29, 2014

2014 Season Recap: The Chart

We've been light on posting this year - actually, more than just this year - but this was a fun season and we felt it deserved a proper denouement.  So to revive an old favorite, here's the chart for this year's season.  (If it's too small, click on it.)

Friday, June 6, 2014

2014 Belmont Stakes Preview Part II: The Countdown

Since we started following racing in the early '90s, there have been 8 horses that have won the first two legs of the Triple Crown.  We have picked against each and every one of them.  Now in one respect, we've been right each and every time, as none of the Derby-Preakness winners have come back and won the Triple Crown.  But our picks...well, this chart sums it up and brings back some horrific memories:

TC Candidate
Our Pick
Our Pick’s Finish
Silver Charm
Crypto Star
Touch Gold
Real Quiet
Parade Ground
Victory Gallop
Best of Luck
Lemon Drop Kid
War Emblem
Sunday Break
Funny Cide
Empire Maker
Smarty Jones
Rock Hard Ten
Big Brown
Denis of Cork
I’ll Have Another
Union Rags
1st (!!)
Union Rags

So by and large, we're good for picking the horse that rounds out the superfecta, and our one win came the year the horse going for the Crown scratched.  Brilliant.  Still, we would like to think that it is not hopeless to handicap the Belmont when the Triple Crown is on the line.  And we are riding a streak of picking consecutive Belmont winners.  More importantly, we do think we have a good feel for this year's edition.  So let's get to the countdown, from the worst of the 11 entrants to our pick.  As always, we're assuming the track is fast and relatively fair.

Remember Da'Tara!

11.  Matterhorn. Since breaking his maiden last year, this well-bred and expensive Todd Pletcher steed has run no better than third and has never been closer than 6 1/4 lengths to the winner of a race.  Every year we get rich owners with a well-bred horse taking a stab at the Belmont, either because they think he'll prevail on breeding alone or because they want good seats and to impress their friends in Greenwich.  Almost every year, the horse runs horribly.

10.  Matuszak. Spent his last two races futilely chasing Kid Cruz, who found the Triple Crown waters too deep in the Preakness and is skipping the Belmont for the ungraded Easy Goer stakes earlier on the card.  I suppose the connections of Matuszak figured they can't beat Kid Cruz, so they may as well look elsewhere, and oddly, arrived at the Belmont Stakes.  Oh.

9.  General a Rod.  This guy does his best running on the lead and seems to have distance limitations, a combination that's deadly in the Belmont.  We do think his presence matters though because he'll keep California Chrome honest if he chooses to run fast early.  But to win?  No.  He should be done before the far turn and ready for a vacation.

8.  Medal Count.   There are three horses in the Belmont that have more than two wins.  One is California Chrome, the other two are this guy and the next guy.  The reason we're discounting 3-time winner Medal Count is exactly the same as the Derby - show us a good performance on the dirt before we commit to you.  Sure, the Derby was a rodeo race for this guy, and he never really got running.  But we doubt it would have mattered.  Send him back to the turf, please.

7.  Samraat. His 5 wins in 7 starts belies the fact that he isn't bred to go 12 furlongs, has shown no desire to run further than 10 furlongs, and his early speed will probably cook him after 8 furlongs.  It's too bad he's not running in the Woody Stephens earlier on the card (at 7 furlongs!), where he'd be a fascinating entry.  Here, he's merely pace fodder.

Don't Take the Bait

6.  Ride on Curlin. One of the very few things we got right in our Preakness prediction was that this guy would have a new jockey in the Belmont.  Voila, John Velazquez is on board, replacing Joel Rosario.  (The reason why, we'll get to shortly.)  We're still not biting on this guy in the win slot, though.  He still remains winless in a stakes race, doesn't seem to want to flaunt much in the way of tactical speed, and was barely gaining on California Chrome late in a weaker race.  We're also completely unconvinced that his breeding screams 12 furlongs - yes, Curlin is fine as a sire, but his dam was a sprinter out of a rank (albeit good) sprinter.   There are plenty of horses with good dam-side breeding for 12 furlongs, this isn't one of them.  We think the rigors of the Triple Crown catch up to him this race and he's nowhere to be found in the stretch.

5.  Commanding Curve. He is very well bred for the distance, but is similarly challenged in the win column.  We're also completely unconvinced that he isn't just this year's version of Invisible Ink, Wheelaway, Nehro, Golden Soul, Ice Box, and Make Music For Me  - a horse that runs much better than expected in the Derby, skips the Preakness to rest for the Belmont, but ends up regressing at Big Sandy.  Lastly, his past performances indicate a plodder that clunks up late.  That doesn't bode well for Saturday in a race that more often than not demands from the winner a modicum tactical speed.

Make it 37 Years

4.  California Chrome. Yeah, we've picked against him twice and looked stupid.  And you know what?  If we look stupid again Saturday, we'll be thrilled.  Make no mistake, we are rooting for this guy.  We've thoroughly enjoyed his run this winter and spring.  He's a really, really nice horse, has great tactical speed, and has gotten some great rides from Espinoza.  We think he'd be a worthy Triple Crown winner, and no matter what happens on Saturday, we want him to run a lot more this year, next year and in 2016.  Which we think is probable if he loses - his breeding isn't exactly the type that's going to get a great stud deal.

But as to his chances in the big race....we're less than sanguine. We've already been on the record twice with our reservations and they haven't changed - he hasn't had a bad trip yet, is susceptible to speed horses (of which there are several in this race), and we're concerned about jockey error in the pressure cooker.  Now throw in 3 races in 5 weeks, or more accurately, 4 races in 9 weeks.  And throw in the fact that he is not bred for 12 furlongs.  And that in both of his last two races, he looked like he was slowing down in the final furlong, indicating, as we suspect, that he's an elite 9 furlong horse and just okay at a route.

People are equating him to Affirmed, who had tactical speed and made his own racing luck.  We don't agree.  We see Smarty Jones redux - a great miler who could win at longer than 9 furlongs on his best day but would burn himself out at long distances against long-winded horses.  We think he's spent by the top of the stretch, gets passed by each of the next three horses, and recuperates this summer in California to prepare for the Breeders Cup.


3.  Wicked Strong.  All things being equal, his Derby wasn't terrible.  He had a bad stumble out of the gate, was caught in some bad traffic around both turns, but still had enough power to get up for 4th even with a moderate/slow pace in front of him.  We're siding with others over him because he is a closer in the Belmont, and historically, deep closers are up against it while closers that lie a little closer to the pace have a better shot.  It depends just how far back jockey Rajiv Maragh wants to keep this guy; if it's 10 lengths, we don't like him to win, but if it's just 5-6 lengths, then he has a big shot.  The only real thing not to love is his price; we think he'll be around 9-2, which is okay, but not great.  By contrast...

2.  Commissioner. This guy is going to be around 20-1, even though he's perfectly bred for the distance, has Todd Pletcher in his corner and has a shot.  Now there are good reasons why this guy is going to be a long price - he completely no-showed in the Arkansas Derby against the likes of Ride of Curlin, was a non-threatening third in the Sunland Derby against lower-level competition, and was well behind General A Rod in the Fountain of Youth.  So if we're simply going off his prior races against top-shelf horses, he comes up well short.  But his 2nd in the Peter Pan last out was encouraging; he showed good tactical speed under a more aggressive ride by new jockey Javier Castellano - who's back aboard on Saturday - and finished well against a good winner.  If he takes that more aggressive tactic and stays near the pace, we think he'll be a factor come the stretch, because he's bred up and down for the distance.  Very, very live.

The Pick

1.  Tonalist. We have been waiting to bet this horse in the Triple Crown since he broke his maiden at Gulfstream in impressive fashion.  His next start was in a salty allowance race, won by Constitution (who won the Florida Derby next out), where Tonalist ran a very good second on a track where horses off the pace had no shot.  Importantly, the 4th place finisher in that race was Wicked Strong, who came back to win the Wood Memorial and run 4th in the Derby.

This guy missed the last round of preps with an injury.  So instead of trying to shoehorn into the Derby picture, trainer Christophe Clement - who's second to none when it comes to turf horses, and just hasn't had many good dirt runners - waited for the Peter Pan, the local prep for the Belmont.  After a slow start, jockey Joel Rosario pushed him to the front and had him set a moderate pace, and he won easily by 2 1/2 lengths over Commissioner.  He looked great in the process, validating our impressions that this guy might be the best horse in this class of three year olds.

Two things concern us.  First, he's a little light on seasoning with only 4 career starts.  Traditionally horses that win the Belmont have had more experience under their belt; even bombs Da'Tara, Sarava and Ruler on Ice were well-raced.  This may not be coincidental; there's something to be said for having a bunch of races under your belt when asked to go 2-3 furlongs longer than you've ever raced before.  We're concerned, but think his distance breeding offsets the lack of foundation.

The second issue is his speed and 11 post - if he gets caught wide early, he may have to run and get in a speed duel.  But again, we're willing to take that chance because good early speed is more important than a late closing kick.  And he's got tactical speed, not flaunting speed.  He has the distance breeding.  And his connections are as good as they get.  There's a reason that Joel Rosario flew off of Ride on Curlin - he knows this horse is his best chance to win the Belmont.  We think he takes home the carnations on Saturday and extends the Triple Crown drought by yet another year.

Good luck to everyone and enjoy the race!!

Wednesday, June 4, 2014

2014 Belmont Stakes Preview Part I: The Greatness of Tom Durkin

August 31, 2014 will mark Tom Durkin's final day as the racetrack announcer for NYRA, which runs Saratoga, Belmont and Aqueduct.  A mainstay of NYRA since 1990, Durkin was also the voice of the Breeders Cup for over two decades and called all the Triple Crown races for 2001-2010.  He's had an extremely accomplished career, and after calling just shy of a bajillion races, it's no surprise that he's decided to hang up his spurs.

Durkin has long been one of our favorites.  He has a great voice, almost always lets the viewer know exactly where their horse is at all relevant times, and has elan.  And it's not just in the big races, he'll often make a conventional race at a New York track seem like a bigger deal than it actually is, and when appropriate, give the race call the denouement.  The track always felt like a bigger deal when Durkin was calling the races.  There are other announcers we love - Larry Collmus is a dear friend of this blog who we think is second to none, and we love the work of Trevor Denman and Kurt Becker - but Durkin is the voice of racing we grew up on.  We'll miss him.

We're going to honor Durkin by posting our 13 favorite Durkin calls.  Some of these have been posted on this site before; nobody should mind seeing them again.  So large is Durkin's breadth that some calls that would make other people's lists - Cigar's Breeders Cup Classic, Barbaro's Derby, Sarava's Belmont - aren't here.  We're not trying to put together The Definitive List; this is our list.  Here's the baker's dozen we love the most.

13.  Belmont Maiden race, July 4, 2008.  As you'll see from the first few videos, 2008 in some ways was Peak Durkin, as if he decided to basically say "to hell with it, let's just have fun."  And we're convinced that owners specifically named their horses to bait him - not racetrack announcers in general, but Durkin specifically - to give their steed a great call.  Durkin obliged the owner of Doremefasolatido by belting out a perfect scale when she took the definitive lead in the stretch.

12.  Saratoga Allowance Race, August 23, 2008.  One of Durkin's great attributes was an awareness of the exact circumstances of a race and the participants.  When Arcangues and Volponi pulled off their huge upsets in the Breeders Cup Classics, he was amply prepared to tell everyone just how shocking the result was.  Ditto for Giacomo in the 2005 Derby.  Which makes his call of this win by longshot Slambino in an innocuous allowance race at Saratoga all the better.  Listen to Durkin's voice after the finish line - it's clear that he basically forgot that the horse was even in the race, and all but screamed out "holy shit!" after reading the horse's odds.  Even though he had the best view, he was as shocked as everyone else at the track.

11.  Breeders Cup Mile, 1998.  The Breeders Cup Mile has always been one of our favorite races, but we imagine that it's an utter bear to call.  It's usually a full field running fast early and late, more often than not encompasses two turns with loads of traffic issues, and has been fodder for many upsets.  So the fact that Durkin nailed every element of this renewal in 1998, including catching Hawksley Hill at all pertinent points (look early on, he's last then wends his way through) is impressive in and of itself.  What separates this race, though, is his call and after race comment concerning Da Hoss, who won the race 2 years earlier, and came into as a decided outsider having run in a whopping one race in the 24 months since the '96 Mile.

10.  Saratoga Allowance Race, August 16, 2008.  If I'm not mistaken, the owner of Arrrr actually admitted at some point that he wanted Durkin to have fun calling this horse.  We were at Saratoga for this race and it was hilarious as it happened.  For our money though, our favorite part comes right at the end when Durkin deadpans "Feline Felon second, Stand Pat third."

9.  Belmont Stakes, 1997.  Silver Charm's bid for the Triple Crown in 1997 was the first Triple Crown opportunity since Durkin took over at NYRA, and he did a fabulous job of calling Touch Gold's minor upset.  Keeping track of where Touch Gold was at all times during Chris McCarron's flawless ride was an accomplishment.

8.  Travers Stakes, 1994.  We'd love to have Durkin tell us who were his favorite horses to watch race.  We would guess that one of them was Holy Bull, who emphatically won the Met Mile and Woodward in 1994.  But his best achievement was winning the Travers over Concern in dramatic fashion.  Durkin called several great Travers - the '97 renewal between Deputy Commander and Behrens, Coronado's Quest over Victory Gallop in '98, Colonel John winning by a nose in '08, the dead heat in '12 - but Holy Bull's was the best, and his call matched its greatness.

7.  Belmont Stakes, 2007.  Even though he called the Derby for ten years, Durkin never really had a memorable Derby call.  Most of his winners were either boringly professional (War Emblem, Super Saver) or dominating to the point where there wasn't much to say (Smarty Jones, Big Brown, Barbaro, Street Sense).  What could have been the two best calls - Monarchos and Mine That Bird - were marred by errors he made, comparing the former's time to Secretariat, and completely missing MTB until it was too late.  We're not trying to pick on Durkin, it's just a fact that his Derby calls aren't his best.

The Belmont was really his bailiwick, and this renewal is the second of several that appear on this list.  Well aware of the history behind a filly going for Todd Pletcher's first victory in a Triple Crown race, Durkin appropriately rose to the occasion.

6.  Breeders Cup Classic, 2001.  This would have merely been a "memorable race" but for Durkin's call.  His finish line pronouncement of "Tiznow wins it for America" may sound cheesy today, but if you attended the Breeders Cup at Belmont Park less than 2 months after 9/11, trust me, you didn't think it was at all.

5.  Woodward Stakes, 2009.  The style of the race was similar to Holy Bull's Travers - go to the front, run fast as hell, and hold on for dear life.  The first filly to take the historical Woodward was amazing, and Durkin's call perfectly captured the energy and moment.

We mentally have a gap between the top 4 calls and the 9 that we've already gone through.  The final four are, to us, about as good as you'll get in race calling.

4.  Breeders Cup Juvenile, 1991.  Arazi entered the 1991 Breeders Cup Juvenile as the European hotshot and was made the favorite.  He did win, but the way he did it shocked every person at Churchill Downs, none moreso than Durkin.  Durkin's line "and Arazi runs right by him" is one of the immortal calls in all of racing, almost matched by his enthusiastic declaration that Arazi was indeed a "Superstar!"  And god, this race is still amazing to watch 23 years later.

3.  Test Stakes, 2002.  You have to be a real fan or student of racing to remember this race, because the Test - a 7 furlong race at Saratoga for 3yo fillies - isn't exactly on most people's radar.  But the 2002 Test  drew Bobby Frankel's You, who came into the race having already banked 4 Grade 1 wins, and Carson Hollow, who was fast as hell.  They put on one of the best races in recent Saratoga history, and Durkin's call, especially the final 8 seconds, encapsulated how great a race this was.

2.  Belmont Stakes, 1998.  We could write 4,000 words about whether Real Quiet was overrated, underrated, or properly rated.  The point here isn't whether or not he's gotten his due, it's that he was a nostril from winning the Triple Crown.  Durkin perfectly captures the stretch drive, and his call for the final yards and when Real Quiet and Victory Gallop hit the wire together are historic.

1.  Belmont Stakes, 2004.  Every element of this call is perfect.  He sets up the race perfectly in the first two furlongs.  He keeps track of all of the horses for precisely as long as they're relevant.  He apprises everyone of the tactics that Eddington and Rock Hard Ten are using to try to beat Smarty Jones.  He notices that Birdstone is a threat long before most patrons did.  And the final three furlongs are just sublime.  The line "it's been 26 years! it's one furlong away!" is possibly our favorite call ever.  And the disappointment that rings from Durkin's voice when Birdstone wins captures exactly what every person at Belmont was feeling when Smarty Jones lost the race.

Enjoy retirement Tom.  You've earned it.