Friday, June 10, 2016

2016 Belmont Preview

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

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

Not Again

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

The Easy Goer Is a Better Spot For You

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

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

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

Up Against It

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

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

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

Not Impossible

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

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


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

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

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

The Pick

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

Good luck to all and enjoy the Belmont!

Thursday, May 19, 2016

2016 Preakness Preview

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

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

They're Just Trying to Annoy Us

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

Make Sure You Spend Time at the Inner Harbor

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

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

Cannon Fodder

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

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

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

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

The Interesting New Horses

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

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

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


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

The Pick

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

Good luck to all and enjoy the Preakness!

Friday, May 6, 2016

2016 Kentucky Derby Preview Part II: The Contenders

We've already written too many words about this race.  Let's get right to the top 10.

Need to Improve.  Now.

10.  Whitmore.  The tease horse.  He's run 6 times and in 5 of them, he had a troubled trip and/or poor start.  (The other?  A horrible 5th place finish where the comment is a depressing "nothing left.")  His best races have all been around one turn and he's a dead closer in a race without a ton of early speed.  It's also tough to endorse him over horses he's been running against that have looked better than him.  Take for example...

9.  Suddenbreakingnews.  Focus your attention on the back of the pack for this guy early on; in his three route races, he's never been closer than 10 lengths at the first call.  In two of those races, he got a good pace to run into and had no trip trouble, and ran first or second.  In the other, he had traffic trouble and was a beaten 5th.  The two problems we see are there isn't a ton of pace in this race and he actually isn't that fast - his closing efforts have been more clunk up than a "strong move on the turn" a la Monarchos or Street Sense.  He's interesting fodder for a triple or superfecta, but not particularly interesting up top.

(By the way, kudos to owner Samuel Henderson for giving him a clever name: Suddenbreakingnews' dam is named Uchitel.  Who herself is out of a mare named Party Cited.)

8.  Creator.  It took this guy 6 starts to break his maiden, but he seems to have finally figured things out.  After taking a lot of money in vain in his first five starts, he also developed into a dead closer and responded with a win-3rd-win in his last three starts.  In fact, he basically has the same running profile as Suddenbreakingnews, only with a little more success and slightly better connections.  We have the same reservations about pace and trip that we had with Suddenbreakingnews; we rank him a little higher because there's a chance this guy is just a pure runner.  He cost $440,000 at auction despite being out of a Peruvian mare that nobody has heard of and never ran north of Panama.  So maybe he's just a throwback to those great South American horses that used to come here in the late 90s-early 00s and dominate the older horse circuits (Siphon, Sandpit, Lido Palace, Riboletta).  More likely, he's a good closer that doesn't quite get there late.

7.  Gun Runner.  It's Steve Asmussen's other starter that, to us, holds the key to the race.  He has good early speed and is an actual contender, meaning what he does tactically affects the complexion of the race.  There's a chance he guns from his post, challenges Danzing Candy early and sets solid fractions.  We think that's suicide; more importantly, it'll give the closers a shot.  What's more likely is he sits 3rd or 4th early, tracks a solid pace, and takes the lead when they approach the far turn.  What we think then happens is he gets overtaken in the stretch by horses with more talent.  We're also skeptical of his chances because his only bad race was also the only time he took on real contenders in this race.  His other wins have been either ungraded races or stakes races against horses that aren't running on Saturday and would be 50-1 if they ran.  We do think you'll hear his name a lot, but not at the end.

6.  Brody's Cause.  A horse for the course?  Throwing out his meaningless debut on turf, he's run two meh races when he wasn't at Keeneland, and ran his three best races when he was at Keeneland.  We have always known that some horses prefer some tracks to others; others have absolutely despised certain tracks.  (Skip Away, a Hall of Famer, hated Churchill Downs.)  To us, Keeneland has always been one of those love it/hate it places.  And the fact that his best races have all been at Keeneland while he's shown little that would leave you to believe that he's great elsewhere has us skeptical of his chances.

Everyone's Bomb

5.  Tom's Ready.  Golden Soul at 30-1 in the '13 Derby.  Commanding Curve at 30-1 in the '14 Derby.  Tale of Verve at 30-1 in the '15 Preakness.  What these horses all have in common - they were bombs that ran second in those races, and they were trained by Dallas Stewart.  This year's Dallas Stewart entry: Tom's Ready, who's 1 for 9 in his career and only qualified for the Derby because he ran second (at 30-1) to Gun Runner in the Louisiana Derby in his last.

There is literally nothing in this horse's past performances that should lead one to believe that he's sitting on a big race.  He lost ground in the stretch to Gun Runner and really only finished second by default.  Mo Tom, who we don't like at all, has finished in front of him four times.  His speed figure for the Louisiana Derby is abnormally high and looks primed for a regression.  Even his breeding isn't that exciting; his sire (More Than Ready) is okay but leans more towards milers and turf horses.

And yet, Dallas Stewart has pulled this off literally each of the last three years with other horses that looked impossible to get into the exacta.  Leave him out of exotic wagers at your own risk.  (But feel free to ignore him in the win slot.)


4.  Exaggerator.  It's the horse with the highest last-out speed figure who won by 6 lengths going away in a key prep over several other contenders.  Definite winner, right?  Not so fast.  Quite literally, everything broke correctly for Exaggerator in the Santa Anita Derby.  The pace was extremely fast.  The track was sloppy, which he loved.  There was no traffic trouble.  And he came into the Santa Anita Derby off a series of stellar workouts and an ideal prep race.

Here, it's unlikely that the pace is going to be anywhere as fast.  We're assuming for the sake of the blog that the track is going to be fast (weather reports say it's going to be sunny and gorgeous).  And yes he's working out fine.  As are half of the horses in this field.  We're inclined to take him over all the other closers in the field, but think he's likely to regress a little off his last, or at best, just not get a perfect trip this time.

3.  My Man Sam.  The upside play.  We acknowledge that it takes a decent leap of faith to see a horse that's only won a maiden race at the inner track at Aqueduct covered in a blanket of roses, but this guy has a big shot on Saturday.  After a completely uninteresting first start, he broke his maiden impressively at Aqueduct, making up a 15-length deficit into a middling pace to win going away by 8 lengths in a quick time.  Next out was an allowance race where he ran even faster but lost to the talented Matt King Coal (who lost the Wood, albeit on a wet track we think he didn't love).  Trainer Chad Brown - who's superb and is just waiting for his first big dirt horse to become known by non-racing fans - ambitiously slotted him in the Blue Grass, where he closed well despite going 8 wide on the far turn and came up less than two lengths short against Brody's Cause.  We also like the fact that he seems to have consolidated his gains speed-wise in the Blue Grass - he didn't move forward, but had an effort that seems to have put him in a position to move forward in his fifth start on Saturday.  What we also like is that he's getting back his original rider, Irad Ortiz Jr., who's also outstanding if unheralded.  If he can keep this guy a little closer to the pace than he has been in some of his prior efforts, we can see him making a big move on the turn and threatening late, and at a nice price (20-1?).

2.  Mor Spirit.  There are some shades of Silver Charm here.  6 starts into Silver Charm's career, he was never out of the exacta, culminating in an excellent second in the Santa Anita Derby, where he contested a strong pace and couldn't hold off a surging Free House.  The tables turned in the Kentucky Derby where Silver Charm had a pace to sit just off of, and he moved forward and held off Captain Bodgit in a truly excellent rendition of the Derby.

Mor Spirit has a ways to go before hitting Silver Charm's heights, but his career so far has been similar: trained by Bob Baffert, stabled on the West Coast, 7 starts, 7 finishes in the exacta, and a second place finish in the Santa Anita Derby.  Unlike Silver Charm, though, he didn't run particularly well in his last, as Exaggerator ran right by him with little effort.  Which begs the question: has he plateaued, or did he just hate the slop?  (Or both?)  If he just needed a tightener for the big race, then the Santa Anita Derby is nothing to worry about, and we expect a big effort tomorrow, as he's well-bred, fast, and has the best connections in the sport.  But we're concerned that we've already seen his fastest race, which is why we're going with...

The Pick

1.  Destin.  ...a pick that we acknowledge looks contrary to everything we've written about the Derby over the last 9 years.

We have recited the "Derby Rules" time and again on this blog, and have discussed why some are irrelevant (e.g., a gelding can't win the Derby) and why others matter (e.g., The Apollo Rule).  And there have been a few that we have deemed essential.  A horse must have raced as a 2 year old.  Must have 2 starts this year.  Must have at least 4 career starts.  Must have competed in a recent prep race.  Must be in good form.

By and large, these rules have held true, and there's really only been two exceptions.  The first was Mine That Bird, who broke the laws of the Kentucky Derby and common sense to win at an underlaid 50-1.  The second was Big Brown, whose talent was obvious, but was coming into the Derby off of only three lifetime starts.

What did both of these horses have in common?  They competed against subpar groups of horses.  The second place finisher in Big Brown's Derby was a filly; had she run in the Oaks, Big Brown would have won the Derby by at least 8 lengths.  Subsequent races validated the mediocrity of the class - the best of the 18 colts that ran behind Big Brown was Court Vision, whose success was one the turf.  Mine That Bird's crop was no better: the best horses that year were Quality Road and I Want Revenge, neither of which made the Derby.

In case our analysis of the last 19 horses hasn't made it clear, we are completely unimpressed by this crop of horses.  Almost everyone has proven to be slow.  The vast majority have no early speed.  Horses have plateaued as the distances have gotten longer.  The couple that we thought were very good before their final preps (Mohaymen, Cupid, Matt King Coal) completely flopped.  We're not saying this is as bad as the 2008 group, but we think it's clearly a substandard group of horses.

We see three likely outcomes from this.  The first is that a horse that has already shown good talent does actually take the next step forward and dominates the Derby.  The best candidates for that are Mor Spirit and Exaggerator.  The second is that someone who has shown flashes of talent but hasn't put it all together yet makes The Leap and wins.  That's My Man Sam.  But we're siding with Outcome #3: somebody breaks a rule and wins, because what should be a negative actually doesn't matter that much when competing against 19 flawed opponents.

And that's Destin.  He's trained by best-in-the-biz Todd Pletcher and is extremely well bred for 10 furlongs (by Giant's Causeway out of a mare that won 5 graded stakes including the Grade 1 Apple Blossom, and also yielded the good Creative Cause).  He won his maiden race impressively at Belmont last fall, then shipped to Gulfstream for a solid second in an allowance race, followed by a meh 4th in the LeComte.  He absolutely flourished when Pletcher sent him to Tampa Bay Downs, where he won the Sam Davis with ease, followed by the Tampa Bay Derby in a good time (while having a bad trip), beating Outwork and Brody's Cause in the process. 

Normally a win in the Tampa Bay Derby would lead to a final prep race somewhere else, like the Wood Memorial or the Blue Grass.  And that's what Outwork and Brody's Cause both did afterwards - and won.  Destin, however, was held back to train up to the Derby, meaning he'll be making his first start in 8 weeks.  Why?  One of his owners is an adherent to the "Sheets" - an advanced form of speed analysis that we won't get into here - which showed that Destin's Tampa Bay Derby was so good, he needed a little extra time to recover so he could run back to that race in the Derby.  Ergo, the rest.

Pletcher's tried this before: in 2007 he held back Circular Quay from the final round of preps and trained him up to the Derby.  That didn't work out so well.  Normally, this would make us skeptical and look elsewhere (as we did with Circular Quay in '07).  But again, we don't see this as the swiftest group of horses ever assembled on the first Saturday in May.  And we know he's fast and well-bred.  And has already beaten two of the key contenders in the field.  And is working out well.  And should be at least 12-1.  We're willing to hold our nose a little on his issue and take the plunge on him at a solid price.

How to Wager

If you're anti-Nyquist, just bet on your horse to win.  We don't think a single other horse will be lower than 6-1, heady odds for a good race.  We also think there's going to be a ton of value in the exacta because the betting is going to be spread out with money wasted on horses that we think have little chance.  Just be wary of taking a closer-closer exacta: that's come in once in the last 15 years (Orb-Golden Soul).  Some speed/stalker is almost certain to stick around for a piece.

Good luck and enjoy the Derby!

Thursday, May 5, 2016

2016 Kentucky Derby Preview Part I: The Lower Tier

Larry Collmus, the voice of the Derby.
The fields have been drawn, and it's time for our annual breakdown of the Kentucky Derby.  This is one of our favorite endeavors every year, even though it's often an exercise in frustration.  Let's get to it.  The usual rules and caveats apply: we're ignoring the also-eligibles, we're assuming the track is fast and fair, and we're taking you from the horses we see having the least chance to win to the most.  This year we get to start off with something of a novelty project.

Mine That Bird 2.0

20.  Trojan Nation.  It's not cheap to run a horse in the Kentucky Derby.  Assuming your horse runs, the entry fee alone is $50,000.  You have to get your horse to Kentucky, train him and secure a jockey, which yes you have to do even if you were running in some nondescript race in Pennsylvania, but is still a cost.  Then there's the cost of attending - as the owner, assume you're on the hook for tickets, flights, and hotels for yourself, your family, and your entourage.  That's easily another $20,000.  (Seriously - check out hotel prices in Louisville this week if you're bored.)  A trainer once remarked that if you run worse than 2nd in the Derby, you lose money on the weekend.

Given all this...what's the upside of running a maiden in the Kentucky Derby?  Yeah, he ran 2nd in the Wood Memorial.  And he actually has vaguely interesting breeding.  But he has, literally, ZERO wins.  The Kentucky Derby is not going to be his first win.  And it's going to cost the owners a lot of money for what is a colossal ego trip.

What's even more amazing is that this horse probably isn't going to be 100-1.  Given recent betting patterns in the Derby and the fact that two horses have won at 50-1 in the last dozen years, we think he'll be no longer than 50-1.  Ignore him.  And hope that he keeps out of everyone else's way.

Your Ambition is Admirable

19.  Lani.  It's this year's winner of the UAE Derby!  The first 15 editions didn't produce a single horse that finished in the top 5 of the Kentucky Derby, and there's no reason to think this will be any different.  What's equally notable is that it appears that even Godolphin has given up on hitting the Dubai-Derby Double.  Back in 1998 when they purchased Worldly Manner for $5 million and trained him up to the Derby, people were predicting it was only a matter of time before Godolphin figured this out and stole the crown.  Worldly Manner's experience went horribly - he was spent at the top of the lane and ran 7th, never to be heard from again.  (He did a lot better than Comeonmom, a modestly bred horse that Godolphin paid $3 million for after he won the Remsen at 30-1 and never won again.)  They didn't fare much better in the decade since then, as their best finish was China Visit's 6th in 2000.  Heck, they haven't had a horse tried to pull this off since Regal Ransom in 2009.

As to Lani, look for him guy to retreat early and return to Japan for the rest of the year.  And for us to go through this spiel again next year with some other non-factor.

18.  Oscar Nominated Everything about this horse screams grass runner.  Literally everything - his breeding, his connections, his successes on the turf to date, and his solid closing kick.  He did win on a non-turf race last out, but the Spiral is on a synthetic surface, which is not dirt.  Yeah we know Animal Kingdom pulled this off in 2011, blah blah blah.  We're not interested.  We'll get curious once he's on the sod again.

17.  Majesto.  Woody Allen did say that 80% of life is just showing up.  That's almost exactly true with this horse, who made about 80% of his career earnings in the Florida Derby where he clunked up for second when favored Mohaymen no-showed.  If people ever wonder why seemingly hopeless longshots enter races with decent sized purses, this is why - all you need is one horse to have a bad day to stumble into a good paycheck.  (This doesn't apply for Oscar Nominated, who needs 17 of his competitors to have a bad day to win.)  Horses like Majesto - longshots who outrun their odds in the Derby prep race for an obvious reason that have nothing to do with their actual talent - are some of the worst bets in the Derby.

Wow That Prep Was Garbage

16.  Danzing Candy.  This horse has exactly one path to victory: go to the front, hope that he isn't challenged early, pray for a speed bias, and hold on for dear life.  Given how badly he faded in his last, we're siding with "unlikely."

15.  Shagaf.  We like to note the line between no-hopers and possibilities; we think that it actually falls around here.  We're not in love with Shagaf for reasons we'll get to in a second, but this year's Derby is full of horses that have flaws, some of which are almost identical to each other.  Getting any of the next 15 horses into the trifecta isn't impossible, and we won't argue with anyone playing a multi-race wager whose stated goal is to get to the Derby alive to ten horses.

Shagaf won his first three races but all against suspect fields - he didn't beat a single horse running on Saturday (unless also eligible Adventist draws in).  He went off as the favorite in the Wood Memorial and had absolutely nothing on the turn and into the stretch, finishing a lackluster 5th, beaten by, among others, Trojan Nation.  Now there's a possible excuse: the track was muddy on Wood day, and maybe he just doesn't like the slop.  But the history of horses winning the Derby off a bad prep race is abysmal; they're usually some of the easiest tosses.  That's why we're against him, as well as...

14.  Mohaymen.  ...the horse that was our pick 6 weeks ago.  It's not that Mohaymen can't win, he has a nice pedigree, was 5-for-5 before the Florida Derby with some good wins, and has nice tactical speed in what looks like a race without a ton of early pace.  But his Florida Derby was just horrible.  He had the frontrunner in his sights and tailed off miserably in the stretch to finish behind Majesto and a horse that would be 40-1 if he ran on Saturday.  And there was no obvious excuse for his fade - he'd run well at Gulfstream before, was training nicely up to the race, and the track may have had a touch of moisture but wasn't sloppy.  We wouldn't strongly argue against someone using him in the Derby, but we think taking a short price on him (we think he'll be around 8-1) seems like folly.

No Mo

13.  Outwork.  Pedigree doesn't matter as much as it used to in the Derby, but it's still a factor.  Which brings us to Uncle Mo, who people may remember from our blog 5-6 years ago as the hotshot 2 year old that won the Breeders Cup Juvenile with ease, followed by a disappointing 3 year old season that was marred by injuries.  Uncle Mo was retired to stud following his 3yo season and his first crop of horses debuted in 2015.  It was a helluva debut crop: so far his progeny has won 10 graded stakes races,  5 Grade 1s, and a slew of other races.  At auction, his offspring have been some of the most-sought after.  He has been so successful in the stud barn that his sire fee more than doubled from $35,000 to $75,000, and nobody thought it was ridiculous.

All that said...we are completely unconvinced that Uncle Mo wanted any part of 10 furlongs - he never won beyond 8 1/2 furlongs - and that his progeny do either.  His father, Indian Charlie, was a good horse but was a miler and his other top progeny (Indian Blessing) was a miler.  The distance breeding is more likely to come from his mother's side (she was out of good distance sire Arch) but we're still unconvinced that this is a sire that's going to yield classic winners.  We think he's much more likely to yield a bunch of outstanding sprinters and milers.  And that's fine!  But it doesn't help Outwork on Saturday, a talented developing horse who also has to overcome the fact that he won the Wood by a shortening head over the execrable Trojan Nation.  And it also doesn't help...

12.  Mo Tom. ...this dead closer who constantly seems to find traffic trouble.  These horses are some of our least favorites: full of potential but also full of excuses in their past performance lines.  Sure, he's got a chance to get a clean run and close for a piece.  But in a race with several closers with better late kicks and stouter breeding, we're looking elsewhere.

Harry Nyquist
11.  Nyquist.  Okay, we will admit that we have bet against this horse repeatedly, and have repeatedly ripped up our tickets.  He's 7-for-7 with wins at 4 racetracks on both coasts, has beaten a decent number of these horses already, and has good tactical speed.  We get it.  But in addition to being not really bred for 10 furlongs, he's just not that fast.  His Florida Derby was slow.  His Breeders Cup Juvenile was meh against the clock.  His two fastest races were sprints; he's slowed down as the races have gotten shorter.  We're not that impressed with his Florida Derby because once Mohaymen no-showed, he was basically running against allowance-level horses.  His Juvenile win last year was good and came against a few horses higher on this list, but we can't help think that the wet track helped a little, and note that the horse he perennially beat (Swipe) still hasn't won a second race and was trounced in the Lexington two weeks ago.

Look, we were wrong about California Chrome two years ago.  And we'll be okay with being wrong on this guy on Saturday - it would be neat for the two year old champ to win the Derby and enter the Preakness 8-for-8.  It's about the only narrative that could try to match American Pharoah.  But we're just not seeing it.  We think he's a highly beatable favorite and won't be using him on any of our tickets Saturday.

Coming up tomorrow: The top half and our betting advice.

Monday, April 4, 2016

Transactions Analysis: The 2016 Draft

It's baseball time!  This now marks the 12th anniversary of the TA column that Teddy and I started when nobody knew who Barack Obama was and Donald Trump was merely some schmuck with a reality TV show, rather than the putative nominee of a major political party.  The earliest TA that I can find dates from July 2004, and let's just marvel at one of the entries, which has so much to like:

Grogan's Heroes 

Signed Rich Aurilia, SS, No team, and Jason Marquis, SP, St. Louis [7/6] 

Traded Carlos Lee, OF, Chicago (AL) to The Whales' Vaginas for Carl The Truth Pavano, SP, Florida [7/12] 

Easily my favorite move of the week: The Naked Bootlegs pick up a shortstop that ISN'T ON A TEAM. How the hell is he going to accumulate stats, Teddy? (AG) 

OK, this is clearly the dumbest move of the year to date. Allow me to explain. After trading Miggy [Tejada], I had no SS. At the time I made the move, Aurillia was still on Seattle. The available SS s were guys who had either sucked for their entire careers, or Rich Aurillia. I took Aurillia figuring he couldn t be worse than, say, Neifi Perez in the second half. Then he got cut. 

As for the trade, I cashed in one of my crop of borderline-keeper OFs (still including Dye, Kearns, and Sweet Lew Ford, who is Carlos Lee's non-union non-Mexican equivalent) for a pitching flyer. Why Pavano Will Keep It Up: Nice K rates over the past few years; pitcher s park. Why Pavano Is A Fluke: BABIP is currently like 40 points below his career average. Eventually some more of those balls are going to land, but I still think he ll be useful next year. (CP)

(Post script: Carl Pavano was a craptacular Yankee the following year, and Lew Ford won the Atlantic League MVP in 2014, right after Carlos Lee finished his $100 million contract.  Neifi Perez continued to suck.)

So while we've cut back on the columns significantly - thank you, careers and families! - we still laced up the boots one more time for the annual draft post.  Oddly, I think I'm going to enjoy this more than the actual draft.  (El Angelo)

Yes, my youngest turns two this week and we spent the weekend at my inlaws celebrating. So I was attempting to draft while surrounded by my wife's family and trying to negotiate their crappy satellite wifi. The combination  meant I was either offline or distracted for most of the draft. And that's how you end up with Hunter Pence and Matt Holliday on your roster--when I picked Holliday, I didn't even know that autodraft had grabbed Pence.

I should probably try to pass that off as a strategic gamble that declining two-category OFs are the new market inefficiency. But that seems like a lot of effort, so I've gone with radical honesty instead. (Teddy)

1.  Drumpf: Bryce Harper, OF, Washington. 

We start the draft with a bit of perfectly legal gamesmanship, as Corey takes the opportunity given to him with the first pick in the draft to re-set Harper's contract, who otherwise, would have been 3 slots this year, and up to 5 by 2018.  By doing this Corey gets to keep Harper at 3 slots or less well into his career as a Yankee, and also gets to keep two extra guys this year.  Sadly, they turned out to by Billy Burns and his perfunctory annual Blue Jay, Marcus Stroman.  The other alternative, obviously, was to keeper Harper at 3 slots, dump Burns and Stroman, and draft Giancarlo Stanton or Clayton Kershaw, giving you two of the 5 best players in baseball for the next 2 years.  Me?  I would have gone with Plan B.  But I get why he did this.  (El Angelo)

I think it depends on where you are in the win cycle. Different combinations of guys have different values depending on whether you are looking to win now or stockpile. But, yeah, one year of a Harper-Stanton OF would have been ridiculous. (Teddy)

2.  Backpfeifengesicht '16: Clayton Kershaw, SP, Los Angeles.

I'm generally not pro taking pitchers at the top of the draft, but when it's the best pitcher since Pedro Martinez, I can't argue with it.  (El Angelo)

The first four picks have a common theme. There was more than one guy worth taking. Either option was reasonable, but one was just slightly more reasonable than the other. I think that Harper>Kershaw>Stanton>Sale>Miggy is just about the right order, but it's hard to get to exercised over the placement of any two consecutive links in that chain. (Teddy)

3.  Jazzy Rural Grammar: Giancarlo Stanton, OF, Florida.

Getting one of the 6 best players in baseball with the third pick in a keeper draft has to be one of the best coups we've had since the initial draft.  (El Angelo)

Yes, see above. Although you really do need a functioning face in order to play baseball at the highest level. (Teddy)

4.  Raymond Greenleaf: Chris Sale, SP, Chicago (AL).

Sale has been a player I've always enjoyed watching and know is amazing but still can't believe his arm hasn't Dravecky'd.  I would constantly worry about him getting hurt and making this pick worthless, so I probably would have leaned Cabrera, but won't criticize much.  (El Angelo)

He handcuffed Sale with Dr. James Andrews, so he got himself some insurance. (Teddy)

5.  Balco Bartokomous: Miguel Cabrera, 1B/DH, Detroit.

As usual, pick #5 is un-fuckup-able.  Then again, this is a little reminiscent of the year Teddy took Johan Santana at 5 - a star that quickly fell to pieces.  I still approve, though.  (El Angelo)

Yeah, this marks the end of the no-brainer group. Which means that things really only get interesting after this point, because this group can't always be trusted to make good decisions when left to its own devices.

6.  Le Dupont Torkies: Steve Matz, SP, New York (NL).

This drew a bunch of "huhs?" in the draft chat, but I actually don't mind it.  The quality of players available after pick 5 was a chasm.  If you're conceding that you can get a second baseman in the next round, you don't have to take Jason Kipnis here, and any team that's going for a multi-year approach doesn't want Big Papi.  That leaves you with a bunch of starting pitchers, and if you're building long-term, you may as well go for the highest upside.  Matz wasn't going to last until the second round, so while it's risky, it's defensible.  (El Angelo)

I grant the premise that basically anyone taken in this spot was going to feel like a reach. It feels like there should be good players left in the middle of the first round, but that's just not always the case in this league. That said, even really talented number 5 starters are problematic. He'll probably be on an innings limit, and he throws a ton of pitches per inning. Given that the Torkies nearly always have a short rotation, they're going to need a ton of RP vulture wins to pay this pick off. (Teddy)

7.  Wu Tang Financial: Adam Wainwright, SP, St. Louis.

I am not in love with Wainwright this year or going forward - too injured, too old, and the Cards are the third best team in an absurdly competitive division.  It also seems high to take a guy that started 4 games last year.  (El Angelo)

This is the guy you pick if you're one SP away from contending this year. With a staff of Pineda-Corbin-Fiers up top? Maybe fishing for upside was the better play. (Teddy)

8.  Cruz-Gaynor 2016: Jason Kipnis, 2B, Cleveland.

I'm ecstatic he fell to me at 8.  If you write off his 2014 season as lost to injury, he's in line to have 3-4 seasons of very-goodness, which for a shallow position is fine.  (El Angelo)

"Ecstatic"? Come on. Jason Kipnis is not only one of the least ecstasy-inducing players in baseball, he is one of the least ecstasy-inducing concepts in modern American life. As an idea, "Jason Kipnis" is sandwiched between "cleaning computer keyboard" and "rotating minivan tires" in terms of ecstasty-generation capacity. He couldn't produce ecstasy with a Hitachi Magic Wand and a blu-ray of Magic Mike.

Good pick, though. (Teddy)

9.  Trumpmouse Wormcruz: Adam Jones, OF, Baltimore.

I feel like Jones is always a bit overrated in this league because he's a good batting average guy with power, but is just meh in our OBP format because he doesn't walk.  I also can't believe he still hasn't turned 30 yet.  It seems like he was a prospect in our inaugural draft 14 years ago.  (El Angelo)

He became less exciting once he stopped running a few years ago. But the Baltimore offense is going to score a lot of runs, so he has a chance to have a Kendrys Morales-style bump year by running up counting stats. (Teddy)

10.  Paging Dr. Rumack: Jacoby Ellsbury, OF, New York (AL).

This all depends on the competence of the Yankees' medical staff - if Ellsbury is healthy and plays 145 games, he'll steal 40 bases and have a passable OBP with decent ancillary stats.  But again, banking on old outfielders in the first round is not my cup of tea.  (El Angelo)

The thing with Ellsbury isn't just that he gets hurt. It's that once hurt, it takes him forever to heal. He is the anti-Wolverine. But even if he's not Wolverine, I don't mind him as an upside Gambit.


11.  Cruz-Gaynor 2016 (from The Spam Avengers): Jake Odorizzi, SP, Tampa Bay.

I had a list of 4 young starting pitchers that I valued fairly equally and sort of picked him as the best of the upside guys.  Odorizzi sliced his walk rate by over 1 per 9 innings last year and is supposedly working on a breaking ball that might move him up a notch, plus he plays in front of a quality defense.  Not wanting to go reliever in the first round, I pinched my nose and took a chance.  (El Angelo)

Lacking a natural place to mention this, I'll leave it here based on the tenuous TB connection: I love Drew Smyly this year, and I'm horrified he was snatched away from me.

TB is a sneaky good pitcher's park, so I can see taking Odorizzi here over a few guys I think are better on talent but play in worse parks (Francisco Liriano, Raisel Iglesias). (Teddy)

12.  The Aristocrats!: David Ortiz, DH, Boston.

If you're drafting a guy who's not going to be playing next year, I think it's safe to say you're going for it this year.  Solid pick with no long-term value.  (El Angelo)

Where can I place a bet that Ortiz appears on Saturday Night Live at some point this year, so he can duet with Keenan Thompson's impression of him? Because that is free money if it's on the board somewhere. (Teddy)

13.  Trumpmouse Wormcruz: Kenley Jansen, RP, Los Angeles.

The only surprise to me was that Ironhead didn't take him in the first round.  He's about as good as closers get, and allows you to move on from finishing in the basement in saves.  (El Angelo)

CLOSER RUN!!! (Teddy)

14.  Cruz-Gaynor 2016: Freddie Freeman, 1B, Atlanta.

With E5 manning first and outfielders coming out of my ears, I didn't "need" Freeman, but he's too good a player to let by at this point.  He's going to knock nobody in with that horrible Atlanta lineup around him, but his OBP boost makes up for a multitude of sins.  But honestly, this pick is as much for 2018 as for 2016.  (El Angelo)

Yeah, this is a good value at this spot. Boring, but true. (Teddy)

15.  The Aristocrats! (from Wu Tang Financial, via Cruz-Gaynor 2016): Ian Kinsler, 2B, Texas.
After a solid 2015, Kinsler passed Ken Holtzman and is now third on the list of best Jewish players ranked by WAR, behind Hank Greenberg and Sandy Koufax.  (Ryan Braun?  4th.)  Mazel tov!  (El Angelo)

That was quite the plateau from 2d to 3d. (Teddy)

16.  Le Dupont Torkies: Rougned Odor, 2B, Texas.

The second half of Tucker's gamble pans out, as our stinky second basemen is now on his team.  (El Angelo)

17.  Balco Bartokomous: Tyson Ross, SP, San Diego.

Ross is a good pitcher, but I'm concerned he won't be in San Diego by July, meaning what are now long fly balls will be home runs in Minute Maid Park or wherever the hell he ends up.  But as long as you're not leaning on him as your #1 or 2, he's fine.  (El Angelo)

18.  Dickie Greenleaf: David Roberston, RP, Chicago (NL).

We're about to echo back now to the 2011 Draft, where a whopping six closers went in the second round, prompting many of us to scratch their heads.  Robertson is the second of six relievers taken in this round, yet I can't quite knock it because he's a good pitcher and will accumulate saves on a mediocre team, and probably be closing for the rest of the decade.  (El Angelo)

19.  Jazzy Rural Grammar: Trevor Rosenpenis, RP, St. Louis.

This is about the last pick on the bubble that seemed okay to me - Rosenthal looked shaky by the end of last year, but he's got that Cardinals' closing job by the nuts and should churn out 35 saves for a couple of seasons.  (El Angelo)

20.  Backpfeifengesicht16: Rasiel Iglesias, SP, Cincinnati.

Iglesias was basically the other guy I thought about taking instead of Odorizzi at 11, so suffice to say if I like a guy at 11, I quite like him at 20.  For me, the line in part was I think Tampa might be sneaky good this year, while the Reds suck.  (El Angelo)

Yeah, between that and the park I could see him being a top-15 pitcher by context-neutral metrics while cranking out an 11-10 3.95 ERA season that doesn't help me a lick. But by this point we're all just choosing our warts. (Teddy)

21.  Drumpf: Hector Rondon, RP, Chicago (NL).

From the man who brought us Huston Street's wolf-eaten labrum in 2011, it's another 3rd-tier closer!  Rondon isn't untalented, he's just a middling reliever that Joe Maddon is bound to fuck with at the least opportune time for his owner.  At least Rondon's real team isn't cursed.  (El Angelo)

22.  Paging Dr. Rumack: David Peralta, OF, Arizona.

Willy's bastard brother will get you some decent OBP if he keeps the gains from last year, but there isn't a ton more in his stat line that gets you excited.  Looking at the quality of outfielders taken this year, I guess outfield was painfully shallow post-keepers.  (El Angelo)

23.  The Spam Avengers: Aroldis Chapman, RP, New York (AL).

The guy throws gas and is a fun player to watch, but he's the Yankees' third-best reliever and is suspended until Mother's Day.  Have we ever had a guy taken this high who had no opportunity to accumulate useful stats for the first half of the season?  (El Angelo)

24.  The Aristocrats!: Roberto Osuna, RP, Toronto.

How fabulous would it be if Drew Storen knocks this guy out of the closing role, the way Papelbon did to Storen in Washington?  Would more choking occur in the dugout, or are Canadians too nice for that?  Also I'm suspicious when Corey passes on a Toronto closer.  (El Angelo)

Saturday, October 31, 2015

Breeders Cup 2015 Preview Part 3: The Breeders Cup Classic

Apologies for being a day later than expected - work obligations tied us up.  With Beholder's scratch, we have an interesting field of 9 assembled for the Classic.  Let's get to it.

Hope Your Owner Got Great Seats!

9.  Hard Aces.  He snuck into this race by winning the nee Hollywood Gold Cup at a big price.  That was his only winning effort this year, and it wasn't particularly fast.  Hope they enjoy the Kentucky hospitality.

8.  Effinex. Named by a guy a scorned by his "effing ex," he's had some decent efforts at 10 furlongs this year at New York tracks, but hasn't been in good form since this summer.  We would ordinarily say he's vaguely interesting to close for a piece at a price, but this race is so full of good closers that we can't see him outkicking them all.

Not Buying the Hype

7.  Gleneagles. Our latest effort by Aiden O'Brien to conquer the Classic, this guy is getting a fair amount of hype as a longshot play and we think we'll be around 10-1.  We're not seeing it.  Let's ignore the Classics held on polytrack for a minute - the only two horses that have hit the board were Giant's Causeway and Declaration of War, both of which were perfectly bred for the dirt.  This guy, not so much.  Think more Galileo, who was up the track.

6.  Keen Ice. The only horse to beat American Pharoah this year, we will admit that this guy has improved since being a plodder during the Triple Crown trail.  But we're not that interested in him here.  His Travers win was pretty much the definition of being in the right place to succeed when the favorite failed, which doesn't always portend greatness - anyone remember the name of the horse that stopped Cigar's streak?  We see a one-paced effort that threatens nobody.

Maybe, With a Big Step Forward

5.  Smooth Roller.  He's only making his 5th start, so there's at least some upside here.  We call b.s. on his speed figure in his last effort - which is actually the highest last out figure - but he's bred for the distance and could be getting good at the right time.  But he still hasn't faced or beaten a top-shelf horse.  We think he's best used defensively.

4.  Frosted. He finally broke through with a big win in the Pennsylvania Derby which may be a little better than it looks.  He sat off the pace, didn't have the best of trips with traffic issues, but exploded in the stretch.  We're ordinarily wary of a 3 year old that hasn't faced older horses yet in this spot, but last year, when 3yos ran 1-2-3-4-5, may have dispelled that notion.  He'll probably be in the second flight of horses off American Pharoah and we can definitely see him threatening the winner, especially if one of the next three don't fire.


3.  Honor Code.  If this race had something resembling a pace we'd be a lot more interested, because he's clearly the most- or second-most talented horse in the race.  But with Beholder's scratch there's only one or two horses that may make American Pharoah run at all.  Our guess is he falls too far behind and runs well late but doesn't nearly get up in time.

2.  American Pharoah.  So why are we not picking him over...

The Pick

1.  Tonalist. ...our upset pick?  First, we're unconvinced that Tonalist is going to be a mile off the pace again this race - this horse has shown tactical speed in the past and we think he'll do it again, making sure American Pharoah has some pressure, at worst, with a half mile to go.  Second, we like the recency in Tonalist's run.  Horses off a longer layoff have traditionally been poor bets here.  But we see Smooth Roller challenging him first, then Tonalist coming with about a half mile to go and putting him away in the stretch.

Good luck to all!

Friday, October 30, 2015

Breeders Cup 2015 Preview Part 2: Saturday's Races

8 races to cover and tons of information to digest.  Let's dive right into it.

Juvenile Fillies

Synopsis: 1 1/16 miles on the dirt. We were correct last year in noting that this race either goes to the chalk or the bombs. But for the life of us, we didn't see the case for Take Charge Brandi even on a loose lead.  Yes, she won some races after that, but last year's edition of this race is near the top of the list for most inexplicable Breeders Cup results.

Favorite: Songbird comes in with three dominating wins on the west coast and has been working out well for good connections. There's really not much to dislike here.

Man We're Old: The second choice is Rachel's Valentina, who won her maiden and the Spinaway at Saratoga this summer. She's the daughter of former horse of the year Rachel Alexandra, who we wrote a ton about 6 years ago. Where did the time go?

Price Horse to Consider: Speaking of fast dams, Forever Darling is out of Darling My Darling, a talented filly we really liked in the early '00s who won a couple of stakes races and was grade-1 placed as a two year old. She's been a flop at stud but maybe this ambitiously placed maiden winner can redeem her at a big price.

Betting Approach: Narrow. We really think there are only three possibilities in the win slot.

Selections: We're pro Songbird, but don't love Rachel's Valentina - we are not in love with the long layoff and fear she just loves the Spa. Underneath, we will side with Tap to It, who wasn't much worse than Rachel's Valentina in the Spinaway and should be triple the price, and our goofy longshot.

1.  Songbird
2.  Tap to It
3.  Forever Darling

Turf Sprint

Synopsis: 5 1/2 furlongs on the turf for anyone bold enough to try.  And now for a new distance altogether!  We've seen this race at 5 and 6 1/2 furlongs, so why not try something goofy in between?  Also, this race has our first of three defending champs on the card: Bobby's Kitten, who we don't like at all.

Favorite: Both a horse for the course and a lover of the distance, 3yo filly Lady Shipman has 7 wins and a second in her 8 starts at the distance, and finished second in her only start here 3 weeks ago.  Mind you, this is a horse that's never competed in a graded stakes race or against males.  So there's that.

Price Horse to Consider: Toss out his last race, which was rained off the turf, and Something Extra fits as well as the rest of these horses.  Looks like he could provide some value at his 20-1 morning line price.

Betting Approach: Spread.  Just try to get through this race in your Pick-whatevers and move on to more interesting affairs.

Selections: We prefer younger horses on the upswing to old fogies just trying to cash a check in a stupid race, so we lean towards Ready for Rye, who looked great at Saratoga, and The Great War, who we noted last year as a bomb in the Juvenile (he ran 4th).  We'll take them with the favorite.

1.  Ready for Rye
2.  Lady Shipman
3.  The Great War

Filly & Mare Sprint

Synopsis: 7 furlongs on the dirt for fillies and mares of all stripes.  We could just cut and paste what we said last year - the consistent strategy in this race is to avoid 3 year olds in the win slot.  Last year Judy the Beauty and the not-impossible-to-pick Better Lucky, both mares, beat out 6 three-year olds to make up the exacta.  This is particularly relevant here because...

Favorite: Cavorting comes into this race on a 3-race win streak, including 2 strong wins at Saratoga a 6 and 7 furlongs.  She's undefeated at distances under a mile, has tactical speed but can close if the pace is hot, and is working out fairly well.  She's a very solid favorite if you ignore history.

Price Horse to Consider: Dame Dorothy is somehow 15-1 on the morning line despite: (a) being trained by Todd Pletcher, who always gets bet, (b) being 4-for-5 at the distance, (c) having 3 wins and a second this year against some of the same horses she's running against on Saturday, and (d) coming off a much improved effort in her last.  If she's anywhere near her morning line price, she's a must use.

Betting Approach: Spread.  This is one of the most contentious races on the card, especially because we're not in love with the favorites.  Cavorting should be respected but hardly lays over the field.  Stonetastic has the best last-out speed figure but needs the lead and often gets fried in big spots.  La Verdad has had a great year but only ran a week ago (!) and seems to want no part of 7 furlongs.  And defending champ Judy the Beauty has had an erratic year, but we know she likes the track.

Selections: We think the race calls for someone to come off the pace and win, so we're looking at Dame Dorothy, Judy the Beauty, and an interesting horse on the improve, Wavell Avenue.  She beat Dame Dorothy by a head last out when she didn't have a perfect trip and sports the second-best last out figure.  We think she's on the improve, sits off a very contentious pace and holds off the other two horses we like and Cavorting.  This race should be a lot of fun.

1.  Wavell Avenue
2.  Dame Dorothy
3.  Judy the Beauty

Filly & Mare Turf

Synopsis: 1 3/16 miles on the turf.  In addition to having three defending champs on the card, we also have four-time Grade 1 winner Stephanie's Kitten, who won the Juvenile Fillies Turf 4 years ago.  Sadly, we think she has no shot here.

Favorite: Saying Legatissimo has been good is selling her short - she's two noses away from a 6-race win streak that would include five Grade 1's.  Really, the biggest issue with her is that she's a closer in a race without a ton of speed and that American tracks may not let her uncork her furious rally as well as European tracks.  But she's the best horse from Europe to come over for this race since Ouija Board.

Price Horse to Consider:  Meh.  We think this race is very competitive, but it's mostly between the obvious contenders.  If we had to pick someone that's going to be more than 15-1 to do something, we suppose we'd say Hard Not to Like if she runs back to one of her summer races.  Maybe.

Betting Approach: Single or spread.  If you think Legatissimo is that good, single her and move on to other matters.  If you think that she's beatable, then there are about 5 other options that are equally enticing.

Selections: To us, three horses stand out.  We've already discussed Legatissimo.  Queen's Jewel looks very interesting exiting the Prix de l'Opera on the Arc undercard and her affinity for firm turfs makes us think she'll take well to a somewhat soft American bog.  The real wildcard is Dacita, who's never met a field this good, but closed like an absolute shot in her first race outside of Chile and beat Tepin, who's pretty good.  We intend to use all three at equal strength and gun to our heads, prefer Dacita.

1.  Dacita
2.  Legatissimo
3.  Queen's Jewel


Synopsis: 6 furlongs on the dirt for the fast and bold.  This race took a bit of a hit when divisional leader Rock Fall tragically passed away earlier this month, but it's still a contentious group.

Favorite: Private Zone enters as the most accomplished horse in the field with 3 wins, a second and a third this year, on the heels of a third place finish in last year's Sprint.  He's fast and consistent, but his race record starts to look a little more suspect on closer examination.  6 furlongs isn't his preferred distance, and all three of his wins this year have come against suspect fields or when he's been loose on the lead.  Neither is the case here.

Price Horse to Consider: Barbados is intriguing at his 20-1 morning line price.  He's been solid all year save for his ridiculous turf experiment.  And apropos of what we've said a zillion times, he has a nice race over the surface. He's precisely the type of horse that can clunk of for a piece.

Betting Approach: Narrow.  Some will lean heavily on Private Zone, but we think even beyond him, the list of probable winners is tiny.

Selections: We feel like we perpetually picks closers in this race and are disappointed when the winners are horses that lead gate to wire or from just a length or two off the pace.  So we're going with Runhappy, who undoubtedly has the fastest turn of foot of anyone in this field.  He doesn't always break well but if he gets going in the first 100 yards, he'll be in the front and we think he won't come back to the field.  Underneath, we don't like the shorter priced horses (Private Zone, Wild Dude, Masochistic), and are more interested in Big Macher, who's ripe for improvement second off a layoff, the aforementioned Barbados, and the quickly improving Limousine Liberal.

1.  Runhappy
2.  Big Macher
3.  Barbados


Synopsis: 1 mile on the turf for 3 year olds and up.  Last year Karakontie won this at 30-1, completing a triple with horses at 10-1 (Anodin) and 20-1 (Trade Storm) for an epic triple.  He's back this year to defend his title, and while he'll still be an okay price and has a shot, there's no chance he'll pay $62 once again.

Favorite: There's about 4 horses that can vie for favoritism here, but our guess is that Make Believe will take the most action.  She's won a pair of Grade 1's this year, including her last on the Arc undercard, and loves the distance.  We give her a fair chance but aren't as in love with her as others because of her front-running style.  She's going to face hopeless speedball Obviously and possibly others on the front end.  There's a reason that this race is rarely won wire-to-wire.

Price Horses to Consider: Most of the American horses will be double digit odds but they're not without chance.  Tepin has had a really good year at the mile distance and comes off a blowout victory at Keeneland in her last.  She's never faced males before but may be around 12-1 and is very live.  Tourist ran an excellent 3rd in the Shadwell (Keeneland's prep) that he figures to improve off of for the always dangerous Bill Mott.  For a total bomb, Mshawish ran races at the beginning of the year that would be competitive here and can close to catch a piece at a huge price (30-1?).

Betting Approach: Spread.  Seriously, there are about 8 horses we can see winning this race, and almost anyone can hit the board.  (Sorry to fans of Recepta and Obviously.)

Selections: We do think the Euros have an edge on top, and prefer Impassible, who loves the distance and is on the improve.  We do think that the very dangerous Esoterique needs to be used, but also think Mondaliste is being overlooked off a nice closing win at the Woodbine Mile.  Sit back and enjoy - this is the best race of the weekend.

1.  Impassible
2.  Tourist
3.  Mondaliste


Synopsis: 1 1/16 miles on the dirt for 2 year old colts.  While we knew before last year's Juvenile that American Pharoah was a nice horse, Texas Red's smashing victory in last year's edition in this race - who AP had beaten handily in his last - indicated just how good American Pharoah was as a two year old and was a prelude to this year's Triple Crown.  We're not sure there's anyone on that level present this year.

Favorite: Brody's Cause - which we hope is not a Homeland reference - has two come from behind wins in his two starts on the dirt, including one at Keeneland's prep over a few horses in the field.  He looks like he should improve with distance and is a worthy favorite.

Price Horse to Consider: We're not 100% sure why he's here instead of the Juvenile Turf, but Isotherm intrigues us a little bit at 20-1 or so.  He hasn't won on the dirt yet but his two turf wins were solid and he has tactical speed.  George Weaver is one of our favorite underrated trainers, and if he runs as swiftly on the dirt as he does on the sod, he's very interesting.  For a total bomb, don't overlook Waterloo Bridge, who will be making his first start on the dirt but has a lot of races in Europe (which is a common trait among European 2yos that have run well in this race) and has okay dirt breeding.  His biggest issue is a difficult outside post.

Betting Approach: Narrow.  It's odd to say this, but we don't like any of the horses that come out of the Champagne or Frontrunner, which are generally the biggest preps for this race.  The Frontrunner came up slow, and while we're probably just being narrow-minded, we just can't see a horse trained Dominick Schettino winning the Breeders Cup Juvenile.  We're also not as enamored with bad-trip-in-his-last Unbridled Outlaw as everyone else, who we think may go off as the second or third choice.

Selections: Brody's Cause can win this but we're a little wary of taking a dead closer in a full field with horses of questionable quality, fearing he may have traffic trouble.  We prefer Exaggerator, who was beaten by Brody's Cause in their last race, but may not have loved the sloppy going that day.  He's run well in three straight races, has a race over the track, and has the same connections as Texas Red.  We think he moves a little forward off that race and reverses the result from the Breeders' Futurity.

1.  Exaggerator
2.  Brody's Cause
3.  Waterloo Bridge


Synopsis: 1 1/2 miles on the sod for anyone long-winded enough to try.  8 of the last 10 winners of this race were either based in Europe or began their career in Europe and came here for easier pickings (Main Sequence last year).  To top things off, the crop of American turf horses this year is suspect at best.  So be wary if you want to support an American in the win slot.

Favorite: If American Pharoah is the biggest horse running this weekend, Golden Horn is a close second.  This year he's won the Epsom Derby, Arc, and Champion Stakes.  His only career loss was by a neck in the Juddmonte International.  On the one hand, he's the best turf router to run in this race since Arc winner Dylan Thomas came here in 2007.  On the other hand, Dylan Thomas, like every other Arc winner that's run in the BC Turf, lost.

Price Horse to Consider: If you toss his last race, Red Rifle is as good as any of the American horses running in this race, having put together a pair of nice efforts over the summer.  That said, he lost to Flintshire in the Sword Dancer, and Flintshire was easily beaten by Golden Horn in the Arc.  It's been a few years since we learned the law of syllogisms, but we think that doesn't bode well for Red Rifle in the win slot.

Betting Approach: Single.  Golden Horn is that good.

Selections: The only reason to pick against Golden Horn is because horses trying the Arc-Turf double are 0-for-5.  Frankly, that's a stupid reason to pick someone else.  But that said, we do think there's wagering values in triples and superfectas by going against Big Blue Kitten, who we never have loved and has never run great against big competition, The Pizza Man, who we're just not buying, and Found, who has never been close to beating Golden Horn and ran less than two weeks ago.  We'll instead look at Red Rifle and Twilight Eclipse, who was the best horse in the Hirsch 4 weeks ago.

1.  Golden Horn
2.  Twilight Eclipse
3.  Red Rifle

Coming later: Our Classic breakdown.

Thursday, October 29, 2015

Breeders Cup 2015 Preview Part 1: Friday's Races

So, what happened since last time we talked horse racing?

Yeah, that was pretty incredible.  American Pharoah followed up that win with a dominant Haskell then a shocking loss in the Travers.  Since then, he's been training well for the Breeders Cup Classic, which is run on Halloween at 5:40 in the afternoon.  Just in time to see the race before trick or treating.

Before that, we've got 12 other Breeders Cup races that have mostly full fields and tons of fascinating horses.  As usual, 4 races are on Friday and Saturday has a gargantuan 9 race card.  And we're undertaking the ridiculous proposition of breaking down each of the 13 races once again.  We'll give a general description of the race, name the favorite(s), a price play or two that we like, offer an opinion on how to play the race, and make our picks.  Hopefully we do better than last year when we only tabbed two winners (Goldencents and Judy the Beauty), but last year's card was upset laden.  We're not as certain that it'll be bombs away this week.

So let's dive into Friday's quartet of races.  As always, we're going with the assumption that the main track is fast.  We're less certain about the turf because of the deluge that hit Lexington on Wednesday, but we're going with the assumption that it's good turf, if not firm.

Juvenile Turf

Synopsis: 1 mile on the turf for 2 year old colts.  We've run this race 8 times, and unsurprisingly, horses that primarily ran in Europe have won 7 times (the exception being Pluck, trained by Todd Pletcher).  In fact, the last four runnings have gone to either the Godolphin or Coolmore connections, showing domination by Europe's biggest stables.

Favorite: Airoforce has a stupid name but sports two wins in two starts, the most recent over the Keeneland turf course.  We'll say this repeatedly over the course of this preview, but Keeneland is one of the tracks where we feel that the "Horse for the Course" phenomenon truly exists.  It's a little premature to say that Airoforce is that off of a whopping one win in a 2 year old turf race, but success at the track shouldn't be dismissed.

Price Horse to Consider: Ray's the Bar has an even dumber name but merits strong consideration at his 15-1 morning line price.  After a good maiden win in Europe, his connections shipped him to Belmont for the Pilgrim stakes, where he ran pretty well, finishing third after having a lot of ground to make up and horses to pass.  He probably would have won in 3 more jumps, and would be sitting at a much shorter price if so.

Betting Approach: Spread.  This field seems pretty tightly bunched with almost everyone having a real shot.  Now watch the favorites run 1-2-3.

Selections: Cymric should challenge Airoforce for favoritism and rightly so.  Since barely running in his first start, he's had 4 good efforts and was necked out for a win in a Grade 1 on the Arc card against horses that would be 2-1 against this field.  Plus he has tactical speed and is trained by John Gosden, who's outstanding.  We'll cross our fingers that he overcomes the horrendous 13 post and take him over Ray's the Bar and Shogun, who was very close to Cymric in their last and should be around 10-1.

1.  Cymric
2.  Ray's the Bar
3.  Shogun

Dirt Mile

Synopsis: 1 mile on the dirt for all comers.  We can't really state enough our displeasure that this race exists in this state.  Now in its 9th year, it's been a one-turn mile on the dirt exactly twice.  The other six editions have been second-class affairs for a motley group of Grade 2 horses and generally with uninteresting results.  For the umpteenth time: make this race worth $500,000 and drop it to a Grade 2.

FavoriteLiam's Map will either be the shortest or 2nd-shortest price for the entire Breeders Cup weekend.  In his 7 starts, he's accumulated 5 wins and 2 seconds, including a win in the Woodward last out and a great second in the Whitney earlier this year.  This is not only a cut back in distance for him, it's a cut back in caliber of competition he's facing. 

Price Horse to Consider:  Street Strategy not only has a win over the course, but is undefeated at the distance.  He's a little on the slow side, but if he can rate of a fair pace, he might clunk up for a piece at a good price (20-1?).

Betting Approach:  Single/Narrow.  As we've noted, Liam's Map is a legit favorite that we don't think is wise to go against with the full artillery.

Selections: Completing our rant about how uninteresting this race is, second choice Lea looks to be by far the second best horse in this race, and should pick up the pieces if Liam's Map fails for some reason.  But we don't see that happening.  We think they run 1-2 in a fairly boring race with a $7 exacta.  Let's move on.

1.  Liam's Map
2.  Lea
3.  Street Strategy

Juvenile Fillies Turf

Synopsis: 1 mile on the turf for 2 year old fillies.  We generally enjoy this race because it gets full fields, is full of horses from all over the place and with goofy angles, and there's usually a price to at least hit the board.  We also haven't had a true bomb yet in this race's short history.

Favorite: It's probably going to be Illuminate, who's coming in off a series of good races in the UK but has never gone beyond 6 furlongs.  Additionally, he's trained by Richard Hannon, who's not bad, but perpetually disappoints on Breeders Cup day (see Toronado, Olympic Glory).  This horse can win, but we're looking elsewhere.

Price Horse to Consider: Pricedtoperfection may be in over her head here - she only ran 13 days prior to this race and is coming out of a maiden race - but trainer Chad Brown is perpetually dangerous on the turf and this girl does have an explosive kick.  She could be dangerous if there's a good pace up front (which there may be).

Betting Approach:  Spread.  We already noted that we're not nuts about Illuminate, and the other possible favorite, Harmonize, doesn't get our blood pumping either.  She had a nice enough win in the Jessamine, but hardly has this field over a barrel.  Heck, the horse she beat by a neck, Sapphire Kitten, is considered an outsider here, which would tend to downgrade Harmonize's chances, no?

Selections: We know domestic horses have fared well here, but last year, Lady Eli was a clearly superior talent against a so-so field.  Here, the entire field looks pretty even, so we're more interested in Europeans with good connections and breeding.  Illuminate obviously fits that category, so does Alice Springs, who's the typical 2nd-tier O'Brien horse that tries to steal an American Grade 1.  But quietly, Mirage also does.  She broke her maiden handily in Europe, shipped to the US to prep for this race in the barn of Simon Callaghan (who's pretty good) and had a trip from hell when obstructed while trying to close in the stretch.  If she improves off of that, she's potentially dangerous at a huge price (30-1 morning line) and we're going to root for the upset, outside post be damned.

1.  Mirage
2.  Alice Springs
3.  Illuminate


Synopsis: 1 1/8 miles on the dirt for fillies and mares, 3 years old and up.  Untapable was scheduled to be one of three defending champions on the Breeders Cup program, but she scratched earlier this week with an injury, which is too bad for her and us, because we thought she was a great bet against.

Favorite: Wedding Toast owns a pair of Grade 1 wins at Belmont Park in her last two races, where she beat about half the field in two wire-to-wire efforts and sports the best speed figures.  That said, we're against her because we don't see her getting an uncontested lead on Friday afternoon, and think many horses will make her run fast early, which saps her strength late.  We're also against probable second choice Sheer Drama.  Both her and Wedding Toast are 5 year olds, and 19 of the last 20 Distaff winners were either 3 or 4 year olds (the exception being Escena in '98).  If a dominant mare like Beholder were here, we'd ignore that stat, but for this caliber, we are not.

Price Horse to Consider: Peruvian import Salama is only in this race because she won a qualifier at her home track this summer, but she has an okay (if slow) race over the track already, is bred okay for 9 furlongs and is a closer.  We've heard (and will pitch) nuttier ideas than including her in the bottom slots of triples and superfectas at 40-1.

Betting Approach: Spread.  As noted, we're against both Wedding Toast and Sheer Drama, and we think Got Lucky is going to be overbet based on a pair of perfect trips in her last two races and having Todd Pletcher on her side.  Get past those three, and the race is wide open.

Selections: Stellar Wind has exactly one bad running line to her name - her Kentucky Oaks start, where she was the favorite, caught 9 wide in the first turn, and had a terrible trip.  She nonetheless rallied for 4th, and followed that up with a pair of wins over the summer.  She's only made 7 starts and has room to improve, has good connections, should get a nice stalking trip behind a good pace.  And most importantly, she's going to be ignored in the wagering (10-1?).  She's one of our favorite price plays of the weekend.  Underneath, we prefer 3 year olds Curalina and I'm a Chatterbox instead of the older mares, who we think are just ordinary.

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

Coming up tomorrow: Our analysis and picks for Saturday's races