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:


Year
TC Candidate
Our Pick
Our Pick’s Finish
Winner
1997
Silver Charm
Crypto Star
4th
Touch Gold
1998
Real Quiet
Parade Ground
4th
Victory Gallop
1999
Charismatic
Best of Luck
4th
Lemon Drop Kid
2002
War Emblem
Sunday Break
3rd
Sarava
2003
Funny Cide
Dynever
4th
Empire Maker
2004
Smarty Jones
Rock Hard Ten
5th
Birdstone
2008
Big Brown
Denis of Cork
2nd
Da’Tara
2012
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.

Contenders

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.
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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.

Thursday, May 15, 2014

2014 Preakness Preview

Art Sherman, trainer of California Chrome
Unsurprisingly, we're not perfect.  California Chrome ran better in the Derby than we thought he would, but our biggest mistake was how we thought the race would unfold.  We thought there would be a blistering pace that would kill off his chances along with most of the other speed horses.  That didn't happen.  The 47-second half mile was the perfect setup for California Chrome: it kept him just off of leaders that had no real shot, out of traffic trouble, and in perfect position to pounce when he reached the far turn.

And did he ever pounce.  His move on the turn to the eighth pole clearly established that he was the best horse on May 3rd; his 5-length lead was diminished mostly because he wasn't ridden out hard to the finish line.  Had Victor Espinoza tried, we have no doubt he could have run half a second faster.  It just wasn't necessary - all the contenders were foiled by the lack of pace and/or horrendous traffic trouble.

So does that make California Chrome this year's Big Brown, or this year's Orb?  Let's take a look at the eclectic field for Saturday's Preakness and count them down from 10 to 1.  As always, we're assuming the track is fast and relatively fair.

What. The. Fuck.

10.  Ria Antonia.  There is questionable management of horses, there is poor management of horses, and then there is the management of Ria Antonia.  Let's take a look at what the connections of this poor filly have done to date:
  • July 2013 - The horse starts her careerin the barn of Ricky Griffith, a low-profile trainer who learned the craft under the tutelage the excellent Mark Casse.  She breaks her maiden in her second start and runs an indifferent 4th in her third start on polytrack.
  • October 2013 - Seemingly displeased with Griffith, the owner moves Ria Antonia to the barn of Jeremiah Englehart, who's not bad, and does his work on the East Coast.  She runs an indifferent 5th in the Frizette, Belmont's prep for the Breeders Cup Juvenile Fillies.
  • November 2013 - Despite having nothing in her past performances that indicates she's any good, Ria Antonia is shipped to California for the Breeders Cup Juvenile Fillies.  Shockingly, she runs a huge race at 32-1, and crosses the line second to She's a Tiger, but is placed up to first when the stewards DQ She's a Tiger for interference.  It's the biggest win of Englehart's career, and evidence that he did a bang-up job with the horse in a short period of time.
  • February 2014 - Ria Antonia  meets buzzsaw and eventual Kentucky Oaks winner Untapable in her next race, who wins by nearly 10 lengths.  In a great case of what-have-you-done-for-me-lately, her fourth place finish causes the owner to fire Englehart and replace him with super-trainer Bob Baffert.
  • April 2014 - Baffert runs her in the Santa Anita Oaks, where she runs a decent second to Fashion Plate.  It's pretty clear that this horse likes Santa Anita's course; she's run two fabulous races there and so-so everywhere else.  But the Kentucky Oaks beckons, so Baffert ships her east.
  • Early May 2014 - In the Kentucky Oaks, she's never a factor and runs an indifferent 6th.  She's now made 8 career starts  at 5 tracks under three trainers and has still never broken a 90 speed figure.
  • Mid-May 2014: Seemingly displeased with one of the 5 best trainers on earth, Baffert is canned and the venerable Tom Amoss becomes her fourth trainer in 8 months.  The reason: the owner wants to take on the boys in the Preakness.
So we have a horse in the Preakness who has only won twice, once by a DQ, and has some clear preferences, none of which are satisfied by running in the Preakness, which is not run in California, is not against the ladies, is two weeks after her last start, and contains horses that are worlds faster than her.  It's an utterly insane move that makes no sense.  Let's hope that she takes a lot of dumb money and doesn't get injured on Saturday.  She could have a useful career on the West Coast if they would just leave her alone.

At Least Their Owners Get Free Tickets

9.  Pablo Del Monte.  In his last start resembling a dirt route, he showed early speed and faded miserably in the final furlongs.  Sadly, that was at a mile.  If there's an indication that he's going to enjoy the extra 330 yards the Preakness have to offer, it has eluded us.

8.  Ring Weekend.  The pride of the Florida minor league circuit, he won the Tampa Bay Derby in a minor upset and was crushed in the Calder Derby in his last.  There's a touch of interesting breeding that could keep you interested, but there doesn't seem to be much in the way of actual quickness, which seems to matter these days.

7.  Kid Cruz.  He's the local hope, having won both the Private Terms and Federico Tesio stakes in Maryland.  Of course, in his prior start, he lost a January race at the inner track at Aqueduct, which is never a good sign.  Magic Weisner was the last Maryland horse to invade the trifecta on Preakness Day 12 years ago; we think Kid Cruz makes it 13 years and counting.

A Chance, But Less Than You Think

6.  Bayern.  After a good maiden win, everyone was gaga for this horse when he won an allowance race at Santa Anita by 16 lengths in February.  He hasn't matched that effort since, in part because the quality of the opposition has gotten tougher.  After developing a minor injury, he ran an unimpressive third in the Arkansas Derby, setting the pace and fading in the stretch.  Since it seemed doubtful that he would qualify for the Derby, he ran in the Derby Trial - held a week prior to the big race - where he blazed the way and crossed the line first but was DQ'd to second when he bore out and interfered with the second place finisher.  He has the look of a speed freak that will be dangerous up to 6 furlongs, interesting at up to a mile, and merely a pace factor at a longer race.

5.  Ride on Curlin.  It's a little unusual to hear a jockey get excoriated for doing exactly what he was hired to do.  This relative outsider was manned by Calvin Borel in the Derby (his third jockey in as many races).  One would think that the instructions would be to take the horse to the inside, save ground, and ride the rail to the finish.  I mean, it's Calvin Borel.  He's known as Bo-Rail for a reason.  He won the Derby three times doing exactly that.

And he rode Ride on Curlin just that way in the Derby, shooting him over the to fence right after the break, saving ground, encountering some traffic trouble that made him go wide, and passing tiring horses in the stretch.  That got him 7th place.  The owner was displeased - he wanted Borel to move to the rail at some point before the first turn but not in the first 200 yards.  He's convinced that this cost them the entire race, even though his horse has never won a graded stakes race and would have needed wings to catch California Chrome.  While he's still eligible to hit the board by once again clunking up past tiring horses, we see no reason that Joel Rosario will coax a win out of him.  And Joel - don't plan on riding this horse again, even if you do exactly what you're supposed to do.

4.  Social Inclusion.  Of the new shooters, this one is likely to take the most money at the windows, and he'll probably be the 2nd choice come post time.  He's clearly talented, as his second career race was against early Derby favorite Honor Code, and he absolutely blew him out of the water.  That race was good enough for a 110 speed figure, the highest that any three year old this year, including Calfornia Chrome.

Off that race he was shipped to Aqueduct for the Wood Memorial, where he was made the 8-5 favorite.  He broke well, went right to the front, set moderate/solid fractions (23:3, 47:2) and was clear at the top of the stretch...and was caught.  Not only was he caught by Wicked Strong, the winner of the Wood, but he was caught by Samraat, who sat just off the pace.  The problem is that while we like Samraat, we think he's established himself as solid horse that's a cut below the elite with distance limitations.  And the fact that Social Inclusion was caught by him is what disturbs us for Saturday.  We don't think Social Inclusion will rate, and doubt he can wire the field.  When better horses than Samraat come to challenge him, we think he wilts.

Contenders

3.  General a Rod.  We are well aware that we picked this guy 20th of 20th in our Kentucky Derby rankings and that he showed very little at Churchill.  But he's precisely the kind of horse that frequently outruns his odds in the Preakness - he ran multiple good races before the Derby, his Derby was a complete toss-out (his was, he never had a chance to do any real running), and importantly, he has good tactical speed.  The closers that were screwed at Churchill usually fair no better at the Preakness.  But there's a history of horses that actually can sit on or near the lead rebounding at Pimlico.  Oxbow, Lookin at Lucky, Shackleford and Louis Quatorze are the obvious examples because they won, but think also of AP Valentine (2nd in 2001 at 10-1), Sweetnorthernsaint (2nd in 2006 at 9-1), and the horse we think General a Rod most resembles, Jackson Bend (3rd in 2010 at 11-1).

We call it unlikely that this horse is wearing a garland of Black Eyed Susans at 7:00 p.m. on Saturday.  But his odds of winning are better than his morning line odds, and his odds of finishing in the money are a lot better than those we've already discussed.  Don't toss him from your exotic wagers.

2.  California Chrome.  We swear, we're not being contrarian for the sake of being contrarian.  We admit that he's a really nice horse, ran well in the Derby and has had an excellent year so far.  We were against Smarty Jones in the 2004 Preakness; he won by a dozen lengths.  So we acknowledge that we may look crazy come Saturday evening if this guy improves on the Derby and just decimates the field.

But there's enough to be concerned about that we're leaning against him, especially at 3-5.  First, his Derby was a perfect ride and trip that basically can't be improved on.  And yet, he still ran a pitifully slow time and couldn't crack 100 on the Gowanus scale.  Sure, he wasn't pushed in the final yards, but he still was remarkably slow in the Derby.  Even though everything went his way.  We're concerned that if he doesn't sit a perfect trip again, he'll regress, which puts a host of others into contention.

Second, the two-week turnaround gives us pause.  Now we generally are pro horses making a quick return to the track.  But trainer Art Sherman isn't pleased with it, saying that he'd like to give the horse closer to seven weeks off.  On top of this fairly thorough schedule to date, we wonder if the rigors of the year will catch up to him in Baltimore, much like they did to Orb last year.

Look, we wouldn't be surprised to see him win easily.  And we don't think he'll finish out of the money.  But we think he'll get passed late by... 

The Pick

1.  Dynamic Impact. ...the winner of the Illinois Derby who skipped the Kentucky Derby, in part because the Illinois Derby doesn't count towards qualifying for the Kentucky Derby.  (Don't ask why.)  There's plenty to like here.  He took 5 starts to break his maiden but did so impressively.  The fact it took him 5 starts doesn't bother us since his lineage - by Tiznow, out of a Smart Strike mare, indicates a runner who will love distance but may take a few starts to get going.  The distance will not be an issue.  The rail draw is a nice bonus.  He has tactical speed that should put him in the second flight of horses, right behind California Chrome.

Most importantly, he has the highest last out speed figure.  Now we know that speed figures aren't gospel and are as much art as science.  But it's a tried-and-true rule that the horse with the highest out speed figure is the most likely winner, and simply playing that horse in every race will yield a minor loss after the takeout.  The reason is that the horse with the highest figure is usually the favorite.  But Dynamic Impact is 12-1 on the morning line, which we think is accurate, and may be higher depending on how much action Social Inclusion and Bayern take.  We'll side with the horse on the upswing with an underrated trainer (Mark Casse, great in Canada, mostly unknown in the States), excellent breeding, and has been working out well, and he's our pick to pull off the upset.

How to Play the Race

Dynamic Impact to win should net a nice return, and we like hedging by boxing him with California Chrome and General a Rod.  We'd also suggest looking at doubles with the Dixie, but are loathe to make any picks in that race, where we haven't cashed since Ops Smile's win in 1997.

Good luck to all and enjoy the Preakness!

Friday, May 2, 2014

2014 Kentucky Derby Preview Part II: The Upper Half

Within minutes of yesterday's post going up, Hoppertunity, one of the horses we really liked, scratched out of the Derby.  Initially we were upset because we liked him, but truth be told, it actually made our lives easier because we had two horses we thought were a bit ahead of the others.  Now we've got one.  Who is it?  Let's get to the top 9.

Others Like You, But We Don't

9.  Samraat.  He's never been out of the exacta in his six career starts but we're not in love with his chances.  His breeding suggests a mile would be his best distance, and his failure to finish strongly in the Wood Memorial did nothing to dissuade us from feeling that he's not going to love the last furlong of the Derby.  To top it off, he's shown a propensity for running fast early, and there is a good amount of early speed in the race.  We think it burns him out by the far turn and we see him contesting 7 furlong races this summer.

8.  Tapiture.  The horse that nobody in racing wants to see win because he's trained by Steve Asmussen, he of the PETA video and controversy surrounding care for horses.  (We are not going to comment on that here - there are hundreds of others with takes on that video.)  We were high on this horse in early April, as his breeding and connections were good, he had a nice foundation as a 2-year old, a win over the track, a nice win in the Southwest, then a good second in the Rebel to a horse we liked.  We were all set to tout him as one of our preferences for the Derby.

Then he ran in the Arkansas Derby and showed nothing.  Not just that he lost or finished 4th - he came up completely empty in the stretch and showed no resolve to take on the 2nd and 3rd place finishers, much less the winner.  Now horses have rebounded from sub-optimal showings to run well in the Derby.  And we often tout horses that have run below expectations in their prep races as potentially interesting price plays on Derby day, and will do so again below.  But the complete lack of an excuse - trip, track condition, bias, equipment malfunction - leaves us at a loss.  Maybe he's just peaked and is on the wrong side of the curve.  We think that's a lot more likely than his last race is a total toss and he rebounds in a field of 20 horses.

7.  California Chrome. He's won four in a row with good speed figures, has a neat backstory, and is the deserving favorite. Color us unimpressed.  As evidenced by his last few races, he needs to be on or just off the lead; his attempts to rate earlier in his career were disasters.  Flaunting early speed is a winning strategy on the West Coast where the attributes for winning on the dirt are speed, speed, and more speed.  It's very reminiscent of Game on Dude, who has a ton of early speed and good stamina and is deadly when racing in California because his strong speed will lead you to a victory at 10 furlongs.  But when Game on Dude ships out of state to take on top competition or doesn't get a good early lead, he yields late.

So back to California Chrome.  What happens when he ships and now gets a few more speed burners thrown at him, such as the intractable Wildcat Red?  We're pretty confident it means that he folds.  And badly.  This horse has the look of an overrated favorite that retreats back to California afterwards and has a wonderful career of winning millions on the California circuit, but rarely making an impact outside of his home state at the top level.  Just like Game on Dude.

6.  Intense Holiday.  The third horse of Todd Pletcher's quartet, he's the one that's likely to be the shortest price on Derby Day.  He's also the media darling of the week based on his strong workouts, which we think means he'll take a little more money than we originally thought.  But we're unconvinced that he's going to give Pletcher his second blanket of roses.  For one, we don't love the breeding: Harlan's Holiday couldn't get 10 furlongs, and the dam side looks like it leans miler, rather than router.  More importantly, we think he's been unimpressive every time he's run against the best competition.  He ran in a lot of stakes races as a 2yo and was never a factor.  He was similarly never a factor in the Holy Bull at Gulfstream earlier this year.  He did blossom somewhat at Fair Grounds, which leads us to believe he's either a horse for the course or has been beating up on inferior competition.  Either way, we're not particularly interested.

Interesting for Exotics

5.  Uncle Sigh.  It's tough to endorse for the win slot a horse that's never won anything other than a New York state-bred maiden race.  But it's easy to endorse him as a bomb to finish in the superfecta when he's going to be one of the longest shots on the board and has some hidden attributes.  After winning the maiden race, he ran second twice to Samraat in the Withers and Gotham, showing solid speed in both races while taking the worst of a tough trip in the Gotham.  He then had a trip from hell in the Wood, where he broke slowly, was carried very wide on all turns, and had no shot.  We think his Wood is a complete toss-out, and love that he's been working out extremely well at Belmont the last two weeks.  We don't see him as a winner, but more as someone who will be in the mix at the top of the stretch and can hold on for a piece of the money at a huge price.

4.  Ride on Curlin.  Every year there's one or two horses in Triple Crown races that have the pedigree to get 10 furlongs but lack tactical speed, and are perfect fodder for finishing out trifectas and superfectas without ever really threatening the winner.  This year we have Ride on Curlin, who's winless in his 6 stakes appearances but has never finished out of the superfecta.  He's shown a bit more tactical speed in his last few races than he did as a two year old, but we think he'll be a bit further back off the strong Derby pace (sitting 12th or so) followed by a mild rally on the turn and into the stretch.  We don't see him finishing strongly enough to actually win, but given his propensity for passing tiring horses, you'd be crazy to leave him out of the bottom slots of your exotics.

Contenders

3.  Danza.  The fourth horse trained by Todd Pletcher, in his last race he took the Arkansas Derby at a robust 41-1.  Backing a Todd Pletcher horse that comes into the Derby having won his prep race as a longshot has historically been a waste of money.  Here's what happened with Pletcher horses than ran in the Derby after winning their prep race at 15-1 or higher:

Graeme Hall (1999)........14th
Balto Star (2001)............19th
Pollard's Vision (2004)...17th
Flower Alley (2005)........9th
Coin Silver (2005)..........12th
Cowtown Cat (2007).......20th
Monba (2008).................20th
Advice (2009).................13th

Despite being students of history, we're a little higher on Danza than those horses.  The Arkansas Derby was Danza's fourth race; most of those other horses had run more times and indicated less upside.  Danza's past performance lines confirm that Pletcher has had a high opinion of this horse: he broke his maiden first out, ran a good 3rd in a Saratoga stakes race, and was ambitiously placed in the Arkansas Derby off a bad comeback race that was completely excusable based on a long layoff and a track (Gulfstream) that many horses simply don't like.

Now we're not picking him for the top spot because there's a solid chance his Arkansas Derby was a mirage because he did have everything go his way - perfect placement right off the pace, a rail trip, other contenders didn't fire.  But we see upside here, and think that hedging with this guy is a must.  There's an excellent chance he wins right back at a good price (20-1?) and we all leave on Saturday shaking our heads on how we all let a Pletcher horse that had just won a Grade 1 race get away at a big price.

2.  Candy Boy. There's a lot to like here.  He hasn't been out of the money in his last 5 starts, and when he's lost, has done so to some very nice horses - a 3rd in the Santa Anita Derby, a 2nd to 2yo champ Shared Belief, and a 2nd to freak Tap It Rich.  He is going to be closing into a strong pace and has shown enough stretch punch that we think he'll be flying late and we know that Gary Stevens is more than capable of putting together a good ride.  His last race is a bit of a toss for us; trainer John Sadler (who's good) said he's going to be a closer, not a stalker, and it was his first race in two months, giving up recency advantages to California Chrome and Hoppertunity.  We think he moves forward off that start and comes flying late at a solid price (15-1?), but doesn't get to...

The Pick

1.  Wicked Strong.  The ephemera around this horse is excellent.  Jimmy Jerkens is an outstanding trainer; his father Allen Jerkens is one of the great trainers in the annals of horse racing, and Jimmy is owed one after Quality Road didn't make it to the Derby in 2009.  The horse got his name after the Boston Marathon bombing and a portion of his winnings go to charity.  Even if he was a stiff, there are reason to root for him.

Fortunately, he's not a stiff.  After an okay debut, he won his allowance race professionally, then ran an excellent third in the Remsen last November, closing into the slowest pace we've seen in a non-harness race behind two horses (Honor Code and Cairo Prince) that were on everyone's short list for Derby contenders.  His only bad race came next in the Fountain of Youth where he completely no-showed.  Jerkens smartly dropped him into an allowance race where he ran a sneaky good fourth: the track was speed biased to make closing impossible, but he still closed some ground while racing wide and losing to the eventual winner of the Florida Derby (Constitution) and two allowance horses (Mexicoma and Tonalist) who many had as Derby sleepers.  He then shipped to New York for the Wood as a "wise guy" horse, and rewarded backers with a closing victory at 9-1 odds.

He has almost every factor in his favor.  He's a closer in a race that should burn out early speed.  He drew the 19 post which should help him settle back and avoid early traffic trouble and waiting in the gate.  He has good breeding for the distance.  His connections are impeccable.  While he's eligible to regress off the Wood, we think that based on his workouts, he's on the improve and moves forward on Saturday, and takes the Derby at around 6-1.

How to Play the Race

California Chrome should be a good favorite (3-1), so if you like anyone else, bet them to win.  We also think Untapable lays over the field in the Kentucky Oaks, and Wise Dan has only one horse that can beat him in the Woodford Reserve Turf (Bill Mott's horse), so look to the Oaks-Derby double or Oaks-Woodford-Derby pick three with those as your mainstays.  We also like wheeling Wicked Strong over Candy Boy, Ride on Curlin, Danza and Uncle Sigh in exactas.

Good luck and enjoy the race!

Thursday, May 1, 2014

2014 Kentucky Derby Preview Part I: The Pretenders

The prep races have been run, the workouts are for the most part completed, the post positions have been drawn, and all the hats have been purchased.  That's right - it's time for the 2014 Kentucky Derby!

For the first time in 6 years, we have a Kentucky Derby with a solid, legitimate favorite.  In prior years, we've been scrambling between a mish-mosh of horses that constituted the "group of favorites" or 2-3 horses that stood out from the field.  But this year, we're going to see California Chrome as a solid favorite on Derby Day, off of his 4 straight wins in California, the last two of which were by widening margins over solid fields.  We haven't had a horse this solidly backed since Big Brown in 2008, and he only romped over the Derby field by open lengths.  California Chrome is 5-2 on the morning line, and we think he'll be near that price come post time.

So is California Chrome a cinch?  Well, let's do our annual Derby preview and see how he stacks up against a fully loaded field.  As always, we'll count down all 20 horses currently in the race - sorry, Pablo del Monte - in reverse order of likelihood that we see them wearing a blanket of roses at 7:00 p.m. on Saturday.  Today we'll deal with the 10 we like the least; tomorrow we'll get to the contenders and make our pick.  As always, these picks are made with the assumption that the track is fast and not absurdly biased on Derby Day.

Isn't Kentucky Lovely In May?

20.  General A Rod.  In one of the odder moves we've seen in recent years, the erstwhile owner of General A Rod solid his entire interest in the horse on Monday to new owners.  It wouldn't be surprising if an owner of a Kentucky Derby entrant hedged his interest by selling off a share of his horse, but if the horse had an actual shot in the race, wouldn't the original owner have held on to at least a small share?

19.  Wildcat Red.  He and General A Rod spent their last two races dueling it out on the front end of the Gulfstream Park prep races, showing little ability to rate and even less chance that either wants any part of 10 furlongs.  They only ran well in the Fountain of Youth because the track was absurdly speed-biased that day; unless the Derby track is a conveyor belt, you'll hear from these two early, but not late.

18.  Harry's Holiday.  The fact that the owners of this horse also wanted to buy a piece of General A Rod tells you what they think about this guy's chances on Saturday.  The fact that he lost his last race by a cool 28 1/4 lengths while finishing 13th of 14th probably doesn't help either.

17.  Vinceremos.  And here's the one horse that ran worse than Harry's Holiday in the Blue Grass Stakes.  He rates marginally higher because he has a stakes win on the dirt (Sam Davis Stakes), which he followed up by running a disappointing second in the Tampa Bay Derby and his DAFL in the Blue Grass.  Todd Pletcher usually has one horse in the Derby that runs near the back of the pack and does nothing; of his four entrants, this appears to be the most likely to fit that bill.

16.  We Miss Artie.  Or it could be this grass and synthetics specialist, who's looked horrible on the dirt.  In fact, after his last workout, rival trainer Bob Baffert said "I'm not sure at all if he should be running in the Derby."  Next time Bob, don't hold back with your opinions.

15.  Commanding Curve.  Drew into the race when his stablemate, who would have been 30-1, came down with a fever at the last minute.  He's only won once, and was a non-threatening third in a lower-tier prep race last out.  It's tough to view this entry as anything other than your usual publicity stunt by West Point Thoroughbreds.

Nice Last Race.  Still Don't Care.

14.  Dance with Fate.  The winner of the Blue Grass Stakes in his last start, he looks to continue a stretch of horribleness for winners of the race since Keeneland went to a synthetic track.  Here's how the recent winners of the Blue Grass fared on the first Saturday in May:

2007.....Dominican.................11th
2008.....Monba.......................20th
2009.....General Quarters.......10th
2010.....Stately Victor.............8th
2011.....Brilliant Speed...........7th
2012.....Dullahan....................3rd
2013.....Java's War................13th

We do have some indication as to how this guy will do in a dirt route: badly.  In his last dirt start, the Breeders Cup Juvenile, he ran 8th and was never a factor.  To top it off, his owner and trainer were vacillating on whether to even run him in Derby right after the Blue Grass, noting that this horse is better on turf and synthetics.  Clearly, Derby Fever got a hold of them both.  If the owner and trainer don't think he really belongs, we don't either.


Voice of Churchill Downs and Friend of the Gazette, Larry Collmus.
13.  Medal Count.  Rates slightly higher than Dance with Fate even though he lost to him in the Blue Grass because he at least has some dirt pedigree and his owners aren't running here for kicks.  But all of his good races have been on turf and synthetics, while all of his dirt races have been unimpressive.  We look forward to seeing him and Dance with Fate renew their rivalry in the Secretariat Stakes in August.

12.  Chitu.  The winner of the Sunland Derby, this guy has always looked like Bob Baffert's backup plan.  While that worked in the case of Real Quiet, it's less impressive when he lost his only race of consequence to Candy Boy, who's also running in the Derby and has taken on tougher horses.  His race in New Mexico looked impressive visually and came up pedestrian on the numbers.  Given he beat nobody of interest in that race, we side with the numbers.

11.  Vicar's In Trouble.  The star of the Louisiana circuit.  After running a perfunctory 2yo race at Keeneland's fall meet, he's run four times at Fair Grounds with three wins, including the Louisiana Derby.  But we're skeptical.  Two starts ago, in the Lecomte, he ran a clean race (if a little wide) behind a fair pace and was never close to the top two finishers.  In the Louisiana Derby, the favorite (Intense Holiday) broke poorly and he and others had traffic trouble, allowing Vicar's in Trouble to get an easy (if unexpected) lead that was never really contested.  He hit the top of the stretch with plenty left in the tank and was never really threatened by others who couldn't quite get their act together.

There are few horses that are better bet-againsts than horses who ran well when they had an uncontested lead and nothing to challenge them.  He won't get an easy lead in the Derby - we don't think he'll be anywhere near the lead, honestly - and we've seen nothing to indicate he has the stretch punch to beat Intense Holiday again, let alone the other contenders.  We think you'll hear his name exactly once during the entire call of the race, and will next think about him when he's running in Louisiana as a four-year old in January.

Coming tomorrow: Our look at the top 10 and our pick.