Friday, November 4, 2016

2016 Breeders Cup Preview Part 2: Saturday's Races

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

Juvenile Fillies

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

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

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

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

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

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

Filly and Mare Turf

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

Turf Sprint

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

1.  Found
2.  Money Multiplier
3.  Ectot

Filly and Mare Sprint

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

1.  California Chrome
2.  Shaman Ghost
3.  Arrogate

Enjoy the Breeders Cup everyone!!

Thursday, November 3, 2016

2016 Breeders Cup Preview Part I: Friday's Races

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

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

Juvenile Turf

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

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

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

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

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

1.  Rodaini
2.  Good Samaritan
3.  Channel Maker

Dirt Mile

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

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

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

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

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

1.  Dortmund
2.  Point Piper
3.  Accelerate

Juvenile Fillies Turf

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

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

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

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

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

1.  Spain Burg
2.  Coasted
3.  Cavale Doree


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Coming up tomorrow: Saturday's races.

Friday, June 10, 2016

2016 Belmont Preview

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

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

Not Again

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

The Easy Goer Is a Better Spot For You

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

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

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

Up Against It

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

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

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

Not Impossible

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

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


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)