Tuesday, March 25, 2014

Transaction Analysis: The Resurrection

While we talked about ending the TA thanks to life, work, family and general fatigue, a draft recap is still too juicy to pass up.  So now with one of us on the East Coast and one on the West Coast, let's do a bleary-eyed TA of this year's draft.  Ready, Teddy?  (El Angelo)

Wait who what now? Did that draft actually happen? It was 7AM, and I was sober and trying to help my 8.5 month pregnant wife with our 19 month-old in between 90 second draft windows. I might as well have tried to draft while BASE jumping off of the Freedom Tower. (Teddy)

1. Wu Tang Financial: Joey Votto, 1B, Cincinnati.

I had operated under the assumption that Jon would go for Braun first, but there's a lot of bad OBP players you can hide when you're starting a guy who has a .430 on base buy-in.  I'm a little bearish on Votto long-term because I think Cincinnati is about to hit their decline phase and he doesn't knock in a ton of guys since he walks once a game, but it's tough to criticize the pick.  (El Angelo)

There were five very good players available at the top, and it's not worth getting too worked up about the order in which they were drafted. FWIW, I would have gone with Votto here as well. Although, I mean, I went for Reyes at 6, so I'm not sure how meaningful my endorsement is. (Teddy)

2.  Le Dupont Torkies: Stephen Strasburg, SP, Washington.

Assuming you're fine with taking pitchers in the top 3, this was the right move.  Yeah, SS has the arm question and he hasn't really had a truly elite season since coming back from Tommy John surgery, but he's still young, in front of a great defense, and has nasty stuff.  Tucker usually leans pitching early, and did well here.  (El Angelo)

Tucker is traditionally the pitcher whisperer, so this probably means Strasburg is finally going to tear apart this league this year. That said, because of his ability to find SP value further down the draft order, I would have had him take Bruan here. As a former owner of a CarGo-Braun-based OF, I can testify that having those two guys together lets you run platoons at a couple of other positions and still end up just fine in all five categories. (Teddy)

3.  The Grand Swipes: Ryan Braun, OF, Milwaukee.

Just because he got caught doesn't mean he's going to stop juicing, right?  (El Angelo)

Hey, good to meet you. Of course, I'm happy to pee in this cup. Let me just whip this sucker out and [points over tester's shoulder] WAIT LOOK OVER THERE IS THAT BOB UECKER SODOMIZING THE  BRATWURST?!? OK, here you go. Pleasure working with you. (Teddy)

4.  Paging Dr. Rumack: Cliff Lee, SP, Philadelphia.

Lee's an ace, but he's old enough that you have to think you're going to compete this year or next year to really make this pick worthwhile.  Looking at this roster, I'm not certain that a top-3 finish is in the cards so I question the wisdom a little and wonder if there was a reason they didn't just re-up Posey.  Good player, though.  (El Angelo)

Yeah, that was my reaction too. I mean, you're not going to criticize a guy for picking Cliff Lee, but Posey has been a top-3 catcher every healthy year, and they've now banned home plate collisions in order to save him from himself. (Teddy)

5.  Jazzy Rural Grammar: Buster Posey, C, San Francisco.

There's nothing wrong with taking a catcher in his mid-20s that is going to be at his peak for the next 4 years and has already won an MVP award.  Easy and correct pick.  Welcome, Ben! (El Angelo)

Yeah, no earthly way to criticize this one. (Teddy)

6.  Bridge Year: Jose Reyes, SS, Toronto.

I know Teddy didn't love making this pick, but c'mon.  Shortstop is an extremely shallow position, and Reyes is a good OBP/runs/steals guy.  Yes, he needs to get on the field more than 100 games, and the 75 steal seasons are long-gone, but he's more than capable of a .350 OBP, 12 HR, 30 SB, 100 R stat line.  You'll take that from your shortstop any day.  (El Angelo)

Hate. (Teddy)

7.  Torn Ligaments: Ryan Zimmerman, 3B, Washington.

Zimmerman has put up almost identical stat lines the last two years, so if you're in love with an oft-injured declining third baseman that has solid power, he's your man.  I shrugged my shoulders at the pick at the time, but with the exception of the guy who went next, it's not like there were a ton of great options at this point, as depressing as that may seem.  (El Angelo)

I might be alone in this, but I like Holliday more than this guy or the next, and would have taken him at 6 if I didn't already have a full OF. Zimmerman might have one healthy season in him over the three-year keeper contract; Holliday will more than likely have at least two. (Teddy)

8.  Fredbird's Pants: Matt Kemp, OF, Los Angeles.

I love this pick.  The next batch of guys are all unproven, old, or specialists, so why not take a flyer on the guy who, if healthy, has a shot to be an MVP?  It's not like you're going to horribly regret passing on the next set of draft picks.  (El Angelo)

He's had one great full year in what is now a 7-year career, and is no longer the best OF on his own team. I like playing for upside risk as much as the next guy (see my next pick). But why not just take Grady Sizemore in round 15 and be done with it? (Teddy)

9.  MERCER beat duke: Matt Holliday, OF, St. Louis.

Still putting up good stats at 34, Holliday actually lead the league in one category last year: grounding into double plays.  But I can't quibble too much with this pick - outfield is shallow as hell in this draft, and Holliday will be good until he's too expensive to keep.  (El Angelo)

10.  Torn Ligaments: Joe Mauer, C/1B, Minnesota.

Had there been any chance that Mauer would have qualified at catcher beyond this year, he would have gone in the top 5.  But alas he doesn't, which means that Corey probably just drafted Mark Grace.  (El Angelo)

Hey, that one season at 1B has a lot of value, and I think he'll be playable at UTIL even after this year just because of the OBP. He'll become a guy you have to surround with the right mix of complementary players rather than a foundational guy, but that's just fine. (Teddy)

11.  The Spam Avengers: Craig Kimbrel, RP, Atlanta.

The team's keeper list had a good offense, the best pitcher in baseball, and a solid #2 starter.  They're clearly going for it this year, so it makes perfect sense to add a guy that's going to rack up 35 saves and help you a bit in rate categories.  Good example of striking while the iron is hot even if taking a closer in the first round seems premature.  (El Angelo)

Yeah, this is where having a good keeper list coming in really frees you up. A first-round closer is a luxury many teams couldn't afford; for these guys he's a redneck-shaped peg in a redneck-shaped hole. (Teddy)

12.  Fat Dog for Baseball: Michael Wacha, SP, St. Louis.

I don't dislike the pick, but I thought it was an odd fit for a team looking to threepeat.  If they're serious about trotting out Billy Hamilton and his .225 OBP for the entire season, I would have thought an OBP guy woudl have been the right play here.  I guess the problem is I don't know who fits in that category.  Jayson Werth?  Alex Gordon?  Yeah, I wouldn't take either of them in the first round either.  (El Angelo)

This team did not need more offense. They probably could have finished in the middle of the pack if they just started their keepers on offense and left the other slots empty. So kind of the same deal as above--why not take a fun young arm and hope for the best? (Teddy)

13.  MERCER beat duke: Pedro Alvarez, 3B, Pittsburgh.

Alvarez is hitting his prime for a team on the rise and lead the league in home runs last year.  I normally enjoy making fun of Sahil's picks, and Alvarez is far from a complete player, but I honestly don't see a way to crap on this pick.  Nice job.  (El Angelo)

Alvarez is the streakiest hitter in the league, so if you can time his start/sits right he can give you a season's worth of production in 70 games. That's a rather large if, of course. (Teddy)

14.  Fredbird's Pants: Albert Pujols, 1B, Anaheim.

We're going to conduct a study in first basemen with the next three picks.  Behind Door Number Two is a guy who for his first ten seasons was one of the best players in baseball history.  His last 3 years have been much more pedestrian and nobody knows how old he is.  But that history is tempting.  So Andy goes with the rebound theory.  I can defend it and not particularly care for it.  (El Angelo)

Hey, good to meet you. Of course, I'm happy to pee in this cup. Let me just whip this sucker out and [points over tester's shoulder] WAIT LOOK OVER THERE IS THAT JOE BUCK SODOMIZING A  TOASTED RAVIOLI?!? JUST FROM A LOGISTICAL STANDPOINT, HOW IS THAT EVEN POSSIBLE?!? OK, here you go. Pleasure working with you. (Teddy)

15.  Torn Ligaments: Adrian Gonzalez, 1B, Los Angeles.

Behind Door Number Two is a first baseman who had a "hidden" peak while at San Diego, crapped out in Boston, and has morphed into a back-nine Todd Helton while in Los Angeles.  He won't crater, but I will bet that Gonzalez doesn't get a single MVP vote over the rest of his career.  So Corey goes with certainty.  The problem is the certainty is that Gonzalez is back in this draft before the next Presidential election.  (El Angelo)

To answer the actual question, I would prefer the steady guy. I think Gonzalez is going to have a nice, steady, Konerkonian decline, while I have grave concerns about Pujols' fasciia. (Teddy)

16.  Bridge Year: Anthony Rizzo, 1B, Chicago (NL).

Behind Door Number Three is a former stud prospect who had a great rookie year and an absolute shitshow last year and is seeking refuge on a rebuilding team, both in real and fantasy life.  It then makes sense that my humble co-author, who clearly doesn't think he can compete this year, took a paisan from Boston with the pick in the hope that he blossoms into a cornerstone.  And I really like the gamble.  Rizzo could end up with the Ike Davis trajectory and I still like the pick.  (El Angelo)

I just figure that anyone capable of hitting major league pitching at 20 doesn't all of a sudden start sucking. On the other hand, Starlin Castro. (Teddy)

17.  Jazzy Rural Grammar: Alex Gordon, OF, Kansas City.

An actual email I got from Andy earlier this month:
Actually, upon some review, this is a pretty good draft.  Hell of a lot better than last year, which was basically a leper colony after the top.  I think I should be getting someone reasonably valuable at 14, which is not bad.  (For reference, last year's 13, 14, 15 were Alex Gordon, Dan Haren, and Carlos Santana).
So if you wanted to know where the commish thinks the line between "good" and "leper" hit, it was at pick 16, two picks after he took the desiccated remains of Albert Pujols.  (El Angelo)

Alex Gordon is the best player who never, ever gets kept. There's some sort of Pewter Parachute designation in there, but I can't quite find it. (Teddy)

18.  The Grand Swipes: Mashahiro Tanaka, SP, New York (AL).

I basically decided this year to embrace risk and upside and go with young guys over proven old farts.  Tanaka is playing before one of the worst infields I have ever seen and the ghosts of Kei Igawa and Hideki Irabu loom large, but I'm satisfied with the pick.  (El Angelo)

Great value at this spot. (Teddy)

19.  Paging Dr. Rumack: Everth Cabrera, SS, San Diego.

There are two categories that it's nice to be able to just take 1 or 2 players and then forget about for the rest of the year.  Assuming he doesn't get hurt, Andrew is now free to forget about steals until August.  (El Angelo)

Feh. (Teddy)

20.  Le Dupoint Torkies: Glen Perkins, RP, Minnesota.

I knew last year's draft when we took 1 closer in the first 2 rounds had to be a fluke.  Had to be.  (El Angelo)

Meh. (Teddy)

21. Wu Tang Financial: Elvis Andrus, SS, Texas.

Well, by Andy's theory of creeping draft improvement, Andrus should have gone at 26 this year instead of 23, like he did last year.  So the draft got....worse in the mid/late second round?  Can we get some quant to weigh in here?

Also, I think this confirms that taking Erick Aybar last year wasn't a good idea.  (El Angelo)

Each day that Erick Aybar laces up his cleats in anger confirms that taking him in any year is not a good idea. (Teddy)

22.  Torn Ligaments: Jayson Werth, OF, Washington.

Of all of Corey's four picks at the top of the draft, I thought this was the best one.  That probably doesn't speak well of his chances for this season.  (El Angelo)

So many jokes. Head. Hurts. (Teddy)

23.  The Grand Swipes: Brian McCann, C, New York (AL).
24.  The Grand Swipes: Cole Hamels, SP, Philadelphia.

Hamels was a pure flyer - had he been healthy, he was a first round pick and this is a keeper league after all.  As for McCann, I wanted to instill some discipline in my team and teach them the unwritten rules of fantasy baseball.  He's the man for the task.  (El Angelo)

I think McCann is going to go crazy in that bandbox this year, and love that pick. I was hoping he'd slide to me in the 3d. (Teddy)

Monday, March 10, 2014

Worst Keeper of 2014

It's time for the annual vote and rite of passage: who was the worst keeper of the 2014 season.  Let's jump right to the candidates.

  • Jonathan Villar.  Who the fuck is this guy?
  • Jonathan Villar.   Okay, so I looked him up.  Villar is apparently the major haul that Houston received from the Roy Oswalt deal 3 1/2 years ago, and is a shortstop for the Astros.  Which means Corey kept an Astro.  This is historic because the last Astro kept in this league was Hunter Pence in 2011.
  • Jake Peavy.  I didn't realize we were playing Whatifsports.  The last time this guy was any good, Giancarlo Stanton was still called M*ke and getting ready for the junior prom.  But hey, it's always nice to have a team's 5th starter be your 4th starter.
  • Jonathan Villar.  So how good was this guy last year?  Well, in 241 plate appearances, he managed a .243/.321/.319 slash line, good for a cool 79 OPS+.  He did finish in the top 10 of two categories last year: caught stealing and sacrifice hits.  Then again, he is on the Astros, so it's not like he had a lot of teammates helping him out.  Thankfully that should improve in 2018.
  • Kenley Casey Jansen.  Like you can tell them apart.
  • Jonathan Villar.  Okay, well at least he's highly rated, right?  He's...hmm, 16th on Yahoo's rankings for shortstops.  Okay, then he's a highly regarded prospect that makes him a good gambit for 2015 since Corey is not a favorite this year.  So....hmm.  He last made BA's top 100 in 2010, when he was the 94th best prospect in baseball.  He was the Astros' #3 prospect in 2010, slipping to #4 in 2011, #12 in 2012, and completely off the list in 2013.  Part of the reason for that appears to be that in July 2012 he pulled a Jason Isringhausen and broke his hand punching a wall, costing himself half a season.  So he's a temperamental asshole as well.  Good to know.
    • Zack Wheeler.  This isn't really about Zach Wheeler, but about this year's collective decision by the league to keep every young and interesting pitcher, even if they've proven nothing.  Off the board before draft day are Wheeler, Sonny Gray, Danny Salazar, Tony Cingrani and Gerrit Cole, five pitchesr who have a collective 74 starts in the league.  (I was this close to joining this group and keeping Chris Archer.) It's an interesting gambit.
    • Jonathan Villar.  The final point: Corey already has Xander Boegarts, the #2 prospect in all of baseball who is getting a starting job this year, and who is a shortstop on his roster.  Boegarts made is easy for him to cut Starlin Castro loose.  Apparently he also made is easy to keep the second coming of Cristian Guzman.
    • Hiroki Kuroda.  39 years old, had a bad second half last year, and induces a ton of groundballs to an infield that's populated by half-dead men and Kelly Johnson.
    Polls are open now!

    Friday, November 1, 2013

    2013 Breeders Cup Preview Part III: The Classic Countdown

    We have a really fun field for this year's Classic: 5 horses who ran in the race last year, including the top 4 finishers and last year's (and this year's) favorite; the winner of the Belmont, a few hard knockers, two Europeans, and a horse that almost died last year after winning the Haskell.

    Hope Springs Eternal

    11.  Moreno.  The good news for him is that he's riding a 5-race streak where he's never finished out of the money. The bad news is that he's a speedball in a race with a lot of early speed, has never challenged older horses, and has shown little besides his fortuitious second in the Travers to show he can compete in Grade 1 races, much less the toughest dirt race in North America. Why isn't he in the Dirt Mile?

    10.  Planteur. A horse that's over 5 years old has never won this race, even though Hall of Famers Cigar, Zenyatta and Plesantly Perfect gave it a shot. We don't see a 6yo who's never run on the dirt and isn't bred to handle the dirt being the one to break that schneid.

    9.  Last Gunfighter. The only horse that's won the Breeders Cup Classic without having previously won a Grade 1 race was Volponi in 2002 at 43-1. If Last Gunfighter makes it 2, you'll be similarly compensated.

    8.  Paynter.  This year's violin-laden montage on NBC will focus on this horse, who ran a good 2nd in the Belmont last year, then won the Haskell, then almost dropped dead from colic while being in and out of clinics for nearly a year. Somehow, he returned to racing, and somehow, he still has shown some talent - he ran a great allowance race in his comeback in June, then ran a fair second in the San Diego. But he's done little in his next two starts, and think he might be a pace factor, at best.

    Some Like Them, Just Not Us

    7.  Flat Out.  His 3 starts at Belmont this spring and summer were excellent, but his Woodward was disappointing - he couldn't get by Alpha, who stinks - and his Jockey Club Gold Cup was a step in the wrong direction.  Coupled with the 12 post, and we're inclined to think this guy's best races are behind him.

    6.  Fort Larned.  The defending champ has had a goofy year: threw his rider in his first start at Gulfstream, then ran a horrible 5th at Oaklawn. He then trounced the field in the Stephen Foster, basically no-showed in the Whitney, then romped in an ungraded stakes race at Churchill against suspect competition. Now we know he had an in-and-out record last year before he won this on the lead, but there's a LOT more speed this year than there was last year - in addition to Moreno, we think Paynter will be near the front as well as another horse to discuss below.  We don't see him getting the relatively easy trip he had last year (to say nothing of the potential rail bias) and think he menaces early and fades badly at the top of the stretch.

    The Contenders

    5.  Will Take Charge.  Since losing the blinkers, he's run a bang-up second in the Jim Dandy, won the Travers by a nostril, and won the Pennsylvania Derby handily.  He's on the improve and has the breeding to do well in the Classic.  The issue we have with him is his lack of experience against elders: it's no coincidence that EVERY 3yo that's won the Classic has had a race against older horses first.  That doesn't mean he can't run well and finish in the money, but we'd be more inclined to like him if he had taken on stiffer competition last month.

    4.  Game on Dude.  Look, he has a real chance.  Since returning from his ill-advised trip to Dubai in 2012, he's run 11 times, won 9 of them, and finished second once. His Pacific Classic was utterly fabulous.  He's really talented and it's a credit to his connections that he's run this long and at this high a level.

    But we don't love him in this spot. Bob Baffert can say that this horse won't get fried in the early pace, but we don't believe it.  When he broke poorly last year, he lost all chance and resulted in his only bad race in 18 months.  He's going to be hustled out of the gate and thrown right at Moreno, Fort Larned and possibly Paynter.  We just don't see him winning the battle and the war with so much quality running behind him. We're also suspect of his last couple of speed figures where he had early uncontested leads, which also leads to inflated numbers.  We think you have to use him defensively in multi-race wagers, but are looking elsewhere for the winner.

    3.  Palace Malice.  As always with this guy, the trip matters. In the Belmont and Jim Dandy, he had stellar trips and won both handily.  In the Travers, he stumbled badly at the start, had to settle into last place - not his style - and closed well but ultimately too late to get 4th.  His Jockey Club wasn't a bad trip per se but he ran outside on a day where the rail was golden.  We think the margin between him and Ron the Greek is a lot smaller than it appeared in that race and that he's much better value.

    But he still needs to run faster.  His speed figures still haven't crossed 110, and he's going to need to do that to win this race. Fortunately, he's still a 3 year old with some upside, and we think he's immensely talented and bred perfectly for this race. And his stalking style should suit him perfectly.  We think he gets first run on the closers, and the big question is whether he can hold off the next two guys.

    2.  Mucho Macho Man.  We've always liked this horse a lot - we picked him last year - and he finally rewarded us with a breakthrough performance in the Awesome Again last out.  Maybe he love the track, maybe Gary Stevens connected with him better than his other jockeys, or maybe he's just a little erratic.  If he runs back to that last race, we think he's going to be tough to beat; if he improves on it, everyone else has a lot of work to do to win.

    The Pick

    1.  Declaration of War.  So why area we going with this European instead?  Part of it, we admit, is price: Declaration of War will be at least 12-1 while MMM will be around 4-1.  The difference in talent and ability to win isn't that large.  But that's not the only reason - we think this horse has a huge shot, even though he's making his dirt debut here.

    Since being purchased by Joseph Allen and the Coolmore owners, Declaration of War has had success at a range of distances. He won a pair of 1 1/4 mile races on the turf and synthetic last year.  He shortened up to a mile earlier this year and won a pair of races, including the Queen Anne at Ascot, which was more famous for the entrant who finished last: 2011 Kentucky Derby winner Animal Kingdom.  After some decent if losing efforts, he stretched back out to 1 5/16 mile in the Juddmonte International and won impressively.  He's been laid off since then and his connections have been pointing him for this race all year.

    And most importantly, he's perfectly bred for his dirt debut. Sire War Front was a good dirt runner (out of a Grade 1 mare) whose progeny have been wildly successful this year on all surfaces. His dam is out of Rahy, a great dirt sire and a great distance sire. And his great dam's sire, Gone West, is as perfect a dirt sire for a classic distance as you can get.

    It's become fashionable to mock Aiden O'Brien and the Coolmore connections for their repeated failed attempts at the Breeders Cup Classic. In 12 starts, they've only had two horses finish better than 5th; take out the two years on a synthetic track, and they have a 9/0-1-0 record. Hyped horses like Galileo, George Washington, Hold That Tiger and Oratorio have been well-bet and done absolutely nothing.  But the only other time they entered this race with another horse with actual dirt breeding was in 2000 when they shipped over Giant's Causeway.  He lost by a head to the great Tiznow in an epic stretch duel.  Declaration of War is the second horse they're sending that's bred to love the dirt.  We think he takes to it fabulously, sits well off a frenetic pace, and runs down Palace Malice and Mucho Macho Man in the stretch to post an upset to end the day.

    Good luck to all and enjoy the races!




    2013 Breeders Cup Preview Part II: Saturday's Races

    [SATURDAY MORNING UPDATE: Yesterday's card featured an absurd speed bias that allowed utter bombs to win on the undercard, let Goldencents ran impossibly fast early in the Dirt Mile and hold on comfortably, and killed most closers.  Watch out for it today.  We're not changing our picks, but are a little more reticent about tossing front runners than we were.]

    Let's jump right into Saturday's races, which start off with three excellent races, slow down for two races that we're not particularly excited about, then close with a strong Pick Four. We'll preview the Classic in a separate post that will go up later today.

    Juvenile Fillies

    Synopsis: 1 1/16 miles on the dirt for 2yo fillies. Historically this has been the most formful race of the Breeders Cup, and last year was no exception with second choice Beholder winning. We've had only two horses win at more than 5-1 in the last 12 years: She Be Wild in 2009 and Tempera in 2001. We're hopeful that we can get a price this year though. Really.

    Probable Favorite: Part of the reason we think we can get a price is that we don't trust the favorite Sweet Reason at all. Ignoring that she drew the 9 post in a short run to the first turn, her big figure was on a sloppy track, she hasn't been around two turns, and her recent workouts have been terrible. We're inclined to toss her completely and look elsewhere.

    Price Horse to Consider: Off of three fair efforts on a synthetic surface, Concave makes her dirt debut here. She has fine breeding for the dirt, and we saw He's Had Enough go from synthetic to dirt in the Juvenile to take second at 17-1. There's no reason she can't do the same thing here.

    Betting Approach: Spread. We don't trust Sweet Reason, think there are a bunch of holes in Artemis Agrotera that make her a poor play at 3-1, and trust nobody coming out of the extremely slow Chandelier. But we're not inclined to say this is utter chaos, because we don't think the longest shots in the field are any good either.

    Selections: It looks like there's decent speed in the race which has us looking for a closer. We prefer Rosalind, who closed well (if slowly) in the Alcibiades at Keenleand last out and is bred to like this distance. Untapable also interests us, though we're hesitant to put on top a horse that's made 2 starts and none in nearly two months.

    1. Rosalind   2. Untapable   3. Concave

    Filly and Mare Turf

    Synopsis
    : 1 1/4 miles on the turf for fillies and mares 3yo and up. For all the talk about how Euros dominate American turf racing, 5 of the last 6 horses that have won this race had their primary campaigns in North America. For what it's worth, three of them were also good prices.

    Probable Favorite: European Dank shipped into Arlington Park for the Beverly D on August 17 and absolutely dominated the race in one of the most impressive performances we've seen all year. The only real knock on her is that she hasn't run since then, but that's mostly because she got soft turf in the races she was scheduled to run in. If she's fit and ready to go, she's a very strong favorite.

    Price Horse to Consider: Could I interest you in a horse that has been in the exacta at Santa Anita in 5 of 7 starts, has success at the distance, and is making her second start at a layoff, which has been a good value play for her trainer at 20-1 or so?  Yes?  Then take a look at Lady of Shamrock, who's a lot more interesting than the horses she just lost to (Tiz Flirtatious and Marketing Mix) because she's be 5-10 times the price with a fair chance of success.

    Betting Approach: Narrow. One of the biggest sucker bets in the Breeders Cup are domestic 3yo fillies who have never, ever, ever done anything of note in this race. So feel free to look past Alterite, Emollient and Kitten's Dumplings. Ditto for Laughing, who's only in this race because she was guilted into it.

    Selections: The three California horses all have a shot, but we're leaning towards to the two Euros here and feel like we have the race 90% covered using just them in the Pick-Somethings. If Dank runs back to her Beverly D, her only real competition should be Romantica, who's out of 2001 winner Banks Hill and comes in off a loss to Arc winner Treve. We like Romantica a bit more because of the recency on the track.

    1. Romantica   2. Dank   3. Lady of Shamrock

    Filly and Mare Sprint

    Synopsis: 7 furlongs on the dirt for fillies and mares 3yo and up. This race concludes the ladies only portion of the card. Fortunately for us, it's a really fun race.

    Probable Favorite: Groupie Doll dominated this race last year then came back to run a superb second against males in the Cigar Mile. Since then she's done...well, very little of note. She ran a blase third at Ellis Park, won a relatively uninteresting stakes race at Presque Isle Downs, and was beaten by fairly ordinary Judy the Beauty and another horse in her last. She seems to have lost a few steps from last year's greatness.

    Sentimental Favorite: Dance to Bristol is the fan favorite, as trainer Ollie Figgins and jockey Xavier Perez are Breeders Cup neophytes with a horse who has a big chance. Her loss in the Gallant Bloom snapped a 7-race win streak at 5 tracks at 3 different distances which included 3 graded stakes wins. She's never been out of the exacta at 7 furlongs and has a huge shot.

    Price Horse to Consider: We'll get to that below.

    Betting Approach: Spread. We have a clear preference, but there are a lot of horses that are competitive in this race.

    Selections: As expected, there is a good amount of speed in this race: we expect all of Teddy's Promise, Ismene, Starship Truffles and Sweet Lulu to run fast early. There are a lot of quality closers in this race, but we prefer three: the aforementioned Dance to Bristol; Book Review, who barely lost to Dance to Bristol in her last, and Summer Applause, who's turning back from a route and is 12-1 on the morning line. She's one of our best value bets of the day.

    1. Summer Applause   2. Dance to Bristol   3. Book Review

    Turf Sprint

    Synopsis: 6 1/2 furlongs on the downhill turf for all comers. According to the Daily Racing Form, Gary Stevens thinks this is the best race in the world. Oh.

    Probable Favorite: We could see the betting public going a lot of ways, but guess they're likely to side with Mizdirection, who won this race last year and is undefeated both at Santa Anita and at the distance. The fact she hasn't run since June isn't that big a deal because she won this race last year off an even longer layoff.

    Price Horse to Consider: Spring to the Sky is 30-1 on the morning line despite having a competent trainer (Bruce Brown), one of the best jockeys in the world (John Velazquez) and a fair record on the year (5/1-2-1). No horse deserves to be 30-1 in this silly race with anything resembling fair credentials.

    Betting Approach: We complain about this race and say it's chaotic, but since Desert Code took the initial running at 36-1, it's been a parade of logical horses that have won. So we say go narrow with logical horses on top.

    Selections: We think the big question is whether Capo Bastone takes to the turf, because if he does, his closing kick should outdo Mizdirection, Chips All In and everyone else that will be sitting off a strong pace. We say it does.

    1. Capo Bastone  2. Mizdirection   3. Unbridled's Note

    Juvenile

    Synopsis: 1 1/16 miles on the dirt. For some reason this race just bores us this year, it's probably because none of the entrants have run very many times.

    Probable Favorite: Havana is 2-for-2 for Todd Pletcher off a scintillating maiden win and a wire-to-wire win in the Champagne where he held off Honor Code, who's passing on this race. He'll be compared to 2010 winner Uncle Mo, which we think is unfair; Uncle Mo looked like a beast by this point, while we think Havana just looks good.

    Price Horse to Consider: He has the lowest last-out speed figure in the race, but we really like Conquest Titan. Set aside his form for a second (his 2 races can be downgraded because they were on synthetic) - he went at auction for $475,000 despite having fairly unfashionable breeding (Birdstone by a Mineshaft dam) that should translate to good stamina. He likely has stellar conformation and we think he's eligible to run a huge race as the longest shot on the board.

    Betting Approach: If you trust Havana, he's a potential single. If you don't, it's a chaos race because...

    Selections: Here's the thing - we don't love Havana, but don't see any obvious alternatives. Strong Mandate flopped in the Champagne and drew the 14 post. We Miss Artie looks like a synthetic/turf horse. We can't endorse Tap It Rich, who's making his second career start here. Cleburn is very slow. So are all the horses that exited the Front Runner.

    We're more inclined to like some of the price horses in this field, and give Mexicoma, Conquest Titan and New Year's Day shots. But the one we like the most is Medal Count, who still broke his maiden on a dirt track (albeit in a slow time) then ran evenly on a goofy synthetic track during a horrible storm. He has good dirt breeding, some tactical speed, and connections (Dale Romans and  Albarado) that could pop an upset at a price, a la Action This Day in 2003. He's the pick.

    1.  Medal Count   2. Conquest Titan   3. Havana

    Turf

    Synopsis: 1 1/2 miles on the turf for all comers. The fact that we have a whopping two horses from Europe this year is reason enough to get the Breeders Cup back to the East Coast, pronto.

    Probable Favorite: Our pick to win the Filly and Mare Turf last year, The Fugue, is back to now run against the boys at a longer distance.  What's scary is that she's better than she was last year, having taken down the boys convincingly in the Irish Champion Stakes in her last.  There isn't a horse here as good as the competition in that race.

    Price Horse to Consider: Honestly, we don't like a single horse in this race that's going to be over 8-1. If we had to pick someone that could light up the superfecta at a price, I guess we'll say Twilight Eclipse, who at least has some success at the distance.

    Betting Approach: Single/Very Narrow.  We like exactly three horses in this race at all, and honestly, think The Fugue is a bit ahead of the other two.

    Selections: To dispense with some of the faux contenders, we have no interest in Indy Point at a distance beyond 10 furlongs, have never thought Real Solution was particularly good, respect but don't like Big Blue Kitten, and have never cashed a ticket with Little Mike. The only real competition for The Fugue we think comes from Point of Entry, who we'd love if he wasn't coming into this race off a long layoff caused by an injury suffered in the Manhattan, and Magician, who ships over for Coolmore and was very highly regarded before flopping in the St. James.  We think their quality towers over the field and they make a futile run at The Fugue late.

    1.  The Fugue   2.  Point of Entry   3.  Magician

    Sprint

    Synopsis: 6 furlongs on the dirt for 3yos and up. This race looked to have a pretty solid favorite in Pointsoffthebench, but he tragically passed away last week after suffering a catastrophic injury working out.  It's very sad that he's not here to compete.

    Probable Favorite: We can see the betting public going a few ways here but will guess they side with Private Zone, who won both of his 6 furlong sprints since returning from Dubai, the last impressively at Belmont Park.  He's run 2nd in his 3 starts at Santa Anita and has good early speed.  If he doesn't get fried by the early speed duel, he's a legitimate favorite.

    Price Horse to Consider: If you think there was a distinct rail bias at Belmont when they ran the Vosburgh then closer Bahamian Squall merits a longer look at double-digit odds. He likes the distance and has fair tactical speed to sit off the pace and make a rally.

    Betting Approach: Narrow. We think there's a lot of flotsam in this race (Wine Police? Laugh Track? Really?) and a few horses with big names and little chance. For example, we don't see Trinniberg or The Lumber Guy, who ran 1-2 last year, repeating since they have been terrible all year. Nor do we love Justin Phillip from the rail or Sum of the Parts because he won the Phoenix, which hasn't been a particularly relevant race since Keeneland went to a synthetic surface.

    Selections: We say often, but we still find it remarkable that only one horse (Zenyatta) has won different Breeders Cup races. We think Secret Circle has a good chance to make it two, even though the first race he won (the Juvy Sprint) was discontinued this year. He's undefeated at the distance, loves Santa Anita, has rateable speed, and looked great in his comeback.  We like him over Fast Bullet, who probably has the most talent in the field, and Gentlemen's Bet, who is likely to be ignored but whose best race puts him among the contenders.

    1. Secret Circle   2. Fast Bullet   3. Gentlemen's Bet

    Mile

    Synopsis: 1 mile on the grass for 3yos and up. This has always been our favorite race, both parimutuelly and aesthetically. The last 5 editions were won by an all-time great, a Horse of the Year and a 66-1 bomb. It involves horses shipping, stretching out, shortening up, changing surfaces, and using wacky layoffs. It's as good as racing gets.

    Probable Favorite: Wise Dan is back to defend his title, having won all 5 of his starts on the turf this year and suffering a good loss to Silver Max in his last race, which was rained off the turf at the last minute. We're not holding that against him.

    Price Horse to Consider: We have two. Bright Thought is a horse we've been interested in since the post draw; he was great earlier this year, but hasn't run since March. He's also cutting back in distance significantly. On the plus side he's working out fabulously, and we think his talent isn't that far behind Wise Dan's. From Europe, we think Cristoforo Colombo is interesting at a huge price. He hasn't done a ton all year, but was extremely well-regarded as a 2yo and perhaps will prefer a firmer surface and the addition of Lasix. At 20-1, there are crazier ideas.

    Betting Approach: Single.  Part of our reason for saying this is that we're not in love with the horses next in the order of betting.  Front runners are horrible bets in this race, and we think Silver Max and Obviously burn each other out. Olympic Glory has been panned by the European racing press and seems to have no interest in a firm ground. Plus he ran 2 weeks ago. We're not interested.

    Selections: Those who say that Wise Dan hasn't been brilliant this year haven't been watching most of his races.  His Woodbine Mile was fabulous.  His Firecracker was great considering he was toting 15 pounds more than all the other horses.  He won on the Kentucky Derby undercard on a mushy turf with complete ease.  He's a great horse in fine form, and we like him over Bright Thought and No Jet Lag, who ran a credible race in winning the local prep.

    1.  Wise Dan   2.  Bright Thought   3.  No Jet Lag

    Coming up later today: Our countdown of the Classic, which we find fascinating this year.

    Thursday, October 31, 2013

    2013 Breeders Cup Preview Part I: Friday's Races

    It's Breeders Cup time! Sadly, work is going to keep us from doing an introductory post this year, which we're a little sad about. For now, we intend to instead do a wrap up post on Sunday or Monday, looking at where things stand after racing's biggest weekend.

    Before we dive into this year's races, let's take a look back at how we did forecasting last year's races. Of the 15 horses we picked to win the 15 races last year, 2 were victorious, though neither was much of a price: Beholder in the Juvenile Fillies ($9.80) and Groupie Doll in the F&M Sprint ($3.40). Four others (Merit Man, Atigun, The Fugue, Mucho Macho Man) ran in the money. The better play, apparently, was taking our horses that we picked to finish 3rd, which won 5 races (Royal Delta, George Vancouver, Mizdirection, Shanghai Bobby, Hightail). While we're not exactly proud about this showing, we're happy enough that 9 of the horses we picked to finish in the money actually won.

    Let's try to improve on that this year, starting with Friday's races. We'll confess that we don't love Friday's card, which is in large part because the Breeders Cup shifted the races around to move some of the lesser events to Friday, though we think there are a lot of vulnerable favorites running. The good news is that Saturday's card is a mile better. This year we're adding another category in our previews called "Betting Approach", where we'll indicate whether a better should take a narrow approach to betting the race, a spread approach, a potential single, or just chaos. We hope this will give everyone a better idea of how to use the races in exotics wagers.

    Marathon

    Synopsis: 1 3/4 miles on the dirt for all brave enough to try the distance. This races involves horses going past the stands twice and making three turns. "Historically" - there have been 5 iterations of this race - closers are the way to go as they've won every time. There's a ton of apparent speed in this year's edition of this race, making this theory even more likely.

    Favorite: On the heels of South American marathoner Calidioscopo winning this last year, the Argentinian Ever Rider is here, having run the distance a whopping 12 times in his native country. By contrast, the other 9 horses have run the distance on the dirt a combined 4 times.

    Price Horse to Consider: At 10-1, Suns Out Guns Out is the "longest" morning line shot on the board, but he has a chance. Hell, it's a race at 14 furlongs. Nobody is out of it.

    Betting Approach: Chaos. As we said, this is not a race that has a lot of prior form, as horses don't run 14 furlongs on the dirt. Anything is possible.

    Selections: Since closers have won every race and generally make up the other horses that finish in the money, let's go with the three horses that figure to be the farthest back early on: Old Time Hockey, Indian Jones and Pool Play. We'll downgrade OTH's chances a bit because of his lack of dirt experience, and lean on Pool Play, who at least has won a Grade 1 race.

    1. Pool Play 2. Indian Jones 3. Old Time Hockey

    Juvenile Turf

    Synopsis: 1 mile on the turf for 2 year old colts. The last two editions were won by second-tier Coolmore horses that made their American debut in the race and were square prices (Wrote and George Vancouver). In case you're wondering why Giovanni Boldini gets a lot of play, that's probably a factor.

    Favorite: Bobby's Kitten is one of seven horses running for the Ramsey family, almost all of which have the word "Kitten" in their name as their attempt to advertise their prodigious sire, Kitten's Joy. In any event, he blew away the field in his maiden victory and the Grade 3 Pilgrim, and looks like a fair favorite, though we're looking elsewhere for the winner.

    Price Horse to Consider: Bon Accord has good turf breeding and his last race wasn't bad, and that was while it was taken off the turn in a rainstorm. He could move up on a return to the sod.

    Betting Approach: Spread. There are a lot of horses that could win this race, even though we're against the American favorites.

    Selections: We think there's a lot of speed in this race, as Bashar has to get sent from the outside post and will likely duel with Bobby's Kitten and All Cash, who will get sent from the rail. So we're going to look for closers at an okay price. The aforementioned Giovanni Boldini has a shot, as does Outstrip, but we're most intrigued by Wilshire Boulevard, who has a lot of races (7) under his belt, good turf breeding, and it appears some tactical speed. We'll take him over Shamshon, who think will also run well at a price, and our longshot.

    1. Wilshire Boulevard 2. Shamshon 3. Bon Accord

    Dirt Mile

    Synopsis: 1 mile on the dirt for all comers. This is a 2-turn edition of this race, which we think favors horses with some distance experience, rather than stretching out sprinters.

    Favorite: It's likely Verrazano, who won the Wood Memorial and Haskell but flopped horribly as the Travers favorite and morning line favorite for the Kentucky Derby. One of our friends called him the worst morning line favorite in Breeders Cup history; we think that's a bit much, but given that he's never faced older horses, hasn't run in 2+ months, and drew the far outside, we're not particularly interested.

    Price Horse to Consider: Broadway Empire comes in having won two straight derbies. Unfortunately, they're the Canadian and Oklahoma Derbies. But still - he's well-bred, in good form, improving and has tactical speed. At 12-1 or higher, he's worth a look.

    Betting Approach: Spread. We think this is a good time to play against both morning line favorites (Verrazano and Goldencents) and look elsewhere for a price.

    Selections: This race has become something of a spot for 2nd-tier horses that are honest and decent enough to win a good race on their best day but have no real consistency and aren't good enough to compete at the upper level (Caleb's Posse was the only real exception). Pants on Fire fits that description to a tee. On his best day, he can finish in the money against the quality of horses that's running in Grade 1 races, and he has to his names some nice wins in Grade 2's and Grade 3's. He also likes the distance, with 4 wins in 7 tries, and has good tactical speed. We like him over hard-knockers Hymn Book, who should close late (if in vain), Broadway Empire, and Centralintelligence, who has a shot and could get forgotten in betting.

    1. Pants on Fire 2. Hymn Book 3. Broadway Empire

    Juvenile Fillies Turf

    Synopsis: 1 mile on the turf for 2yo fillies. We're trying to figure out how this race wound up in the spot right before Friday's big race. We still have no idea.

    Favorite: It's probably My Conquistadory, who won the Alcibiades in a race that was visually impressive but ordinary on paper. We side with the numbers over the eyes.

    Price Horse to Consider: Ready to Act was the favorite in her last race then tossed her rider and didn't finish. We suspect there's value there.

    Betting Approach: Narrow/Spread. We think there are a few ways to go in this race, but none of them include horses that were originally trained in North America. Our inclination is to toss all of them and focus on the imports.

    Selections: We like the Euros but we don't love Vorda who has some obscure connections and races that are less impressive upon examination. We prefer Chirasellium, who's run quite well in Europe against tough competition, Testa Rossi, who ran well in France, then shipped to the US and just got up late in a flying finish in the Miss Grillo, and Al Thakira, who's spectacularly bred but light on experience. We'll side with the middle because she'll be a longer price and has more experience under her belt.

    1. Testa Rossi 2. Chirasellium 3. Al Thakira

    Distaff

    Synopsis1 1/8 miles on the dirt for the ladies, 3 years old and up. Finally, the Distaff got its proper name back! Now we just need to get it moved back to Saturday and get the execrable Turf Sprint off the main card.

    Probable FavoritePrincess of Sylmar enters the race sporting a 10/8-1-0 record, having only lost once since her first start, a fair second in the Gazelle to Close Hatches (who's also in this race). Since losing the Gazelle, she's ripped off 4 straight wins in Grade 1 races, beating Close Hatches and competitor Beholder in the process, and flew past 2-time Distaff winner Royal Delta in her last race. She's sensational and becomes a candidate for Horse of the Year with a victory.

    Price Horse with a ChanceWith all the hype surrounding Princess of Sylmar, Royal Delta and Beholder (who won the Juvenile Fillies last year and has won 6 of her last 8) don't forget about Authenticity, who has had a sneaky good year, finishing in the money in all 8 starts and running a strong second to Beholder in her last race. She's the "other" Pletcher but she's a good horse.

    Betting ApproachNarrow/Possible Single. There are only 6 horses, one of which has no shot, and we think only a couple of them are legitimate candidates to win.

    SelectionsProcess of elimination. Street Girl isn't bad, but is way over her head here. We've never really loved Close Hatches and think she was lucky to beat Princess of Sylmar in the Gazelle because she set a slow pace against a small field. We're also not in love with Royal Delta, who we feel ran her best races last year and is the likely one of the two to fade in a pace battle between her and Beholder. Authenticity and Beholder both have a shot but we see no compelling reason to go against Princess of Sylmar here. We think she wins handily and sets up a fascinating story line for Saturday's races.

    1. Princess of Sylmar 2. Authenticity 3. Beholder

    Coming up tomorrow: Saturday's races.

    Thursday, June 6, 2013

    2013 Belmont Stakes Preview

    Bah.  As unabashed fans of Shug McGaughey and Orb, we were extremely disappointed with the Preakness.  We weren't so much disappointed with the fact that Orb lost, it was the fact he never was in the race.  We're fine with horses losing while running well - Street Sense's 2nd in the '07 Preakness comes to mind as an example - but Orb was basically a non-factor and finished 4th by default.

    So another year goes by without a Triple Crown winner.  What's neat, though, is that we've got a Belmont this year that has both Orb and Preakness winner Oxbow, plus the 2nd and 3rd place finishers in the Derby, plus a couple of other interesting returnees and two intriguing new shooters.  And the usual litany of horses that seem like they don't belong.  You know, the same way Sarava, Ruler on Ice and Drosselmeyer looked like they didn't belong.

    It's one of the more fascinating Belmonts we've had in years, and we're pretty excited for it, even though a Triple Crown isn't up for grabs.  Can Orb re-establish himself as the top horse?  Is Oxbow for real?  Does the filly have a shot?  Let's count them down in reverse order of predicted finish.  We're (probably foolishly) assuming the track is going to be fast (or close thereto), even though we know that a tropical storm is about to deposit a metric ton of rain onto the track over the course of Friday and Saturday morning, so adjust a bit if the track is a soupy mess.

    The Door's Over There, Fellas

    14.  Frac Daddy.  In case his sprint breeding and epic failure in the Kentucky Derby weren't enough to convince you that he's in over his head in this race, he now drew the 1-hole, and trainer Ken McPeek responded they're going to gun him to the lead.  We'll discuss how this impacts the race when we get to a front-runner that actually matters.  But this decision doesn't effect Frac Daddy's chances at all - he has next to no shot no matter what style he employs unless it involves jet propulsion.

    13.  Giant Finish.  He has comfortably settled in the mid-80s range for Gowanus Speed Figures.  As indicated from his last few running lines, that makes you the favorite in ungraded stakes races, somewhat competitive in Grade 3 races, and nowhere near contention in Grade 1s.  Sadly for him, he's running in the Grade 1 race on the card, and not the ungraded stakes 5 races earlier.

    12.  Vyjack.  It's a little hard to get excited about a horse that is trained by an ice-cold trainer under constant surveillance, isn't bred for the distance, and lost his last race by a mere 52 3/4 lengths.

    Owner Mike Repole
    11.  Midnight Taboo.  He's bred up and down to be successful at distances under a mile and has been an utter failure to date at those modest tasks.  He's pretty much only in this race because owner Mike Repole has made it clear that he wants to win the Belmont more than any other race on earth, and has chosen to start his three best horses to do what Stay Thirsty couldn't do.  An admirable goal.  But this isn't the horse to accomplish the task.

    10.  Incognito.  There's a glimmer of intrigue here because of the breeding - A.P. Indy won the Belmont while his dam Octave was a Grade 1 winner at 12 furlongs.  Then there's the fact that he came up completely empty in the Peter Pan four weeks ago and has yet to take on - let alone beat - a horse of consequence besides Freedom Child, who trounced him in the same Peter Pan.  It'll take quite the reversal of form to get him into the top 3, let alone the winner's circle.

    Likely to Be Overbet

    9.  Golden Soul.  We were wrong to downgrade his chances on Derby Day especially since the traffic trouble in his prep race suggested that he might be better than he seemed.  But this is exactly the kind of horse that gets bet too heavily in the Belmont and often does nothing - a closer that was a price in the Derby and ran fairly well that skips the Preakness, tricking us into thinking he'll run a huge race in New York with the added distance.  For every Summer Bird that gets actually runs well, there are a slew of horses like Ice Box, Make Music For Me, SteppenwolferPerfect Drift, and Wheelaway that do absolutely nothing.  You can guess where we think this guy falls.

    8.  Freedom Child.  You'll know who's part of the West Point syndicate that owns this horse because they'll be the ones at the track hoping the rain doesn't stop until Saturday night.  If the track is wet, he has a shot because he freaked in the mud in the Peter Pan last out.  Even then, it's worth noting that he had everything his way that day and the mud tends to exaggerate results one way or the other.  More importantly, his races on fast tracks have been much less impressive.  At 6-1 or so, we're not moved.

    7.  Unlimited Budget.  Speaking of horses that will get pounded relative to their chance, it's a filly trained by Todd Pletcher with a female jockey in the irons.  While 2007 Belmont winner Rags to Riches is the obvious comparison, it's facile, because RTR was a horse who was the clear leader of the filly class in June '07 and had stout distance breeding.  By contrast, Unlimited Budget is probably not the best filly in Pletcher's barn, since Princess of Sylmar won the Oaks and Dreaming of Julia is still the most talented lass based on her running record.  And because it's a filly with Rosie Napravenik in the irons and Pletcher, you know she'll get bet down horrendously by casual fans; we think she'll be around 5-1.  Throw in the very sprint-based breeding on the dam side, and we're looking elsewhere.

    6.  Oxbow.  We commend him, Lukas and Gary Stevens for stealing the Preakness.  They cannily fooled everyone into sitting off the pace and ran away with it pretty handily when nobody challenged them the entire way around.  It was very reminiscent of Louis Quatorze's theft of the '96 Preakness.  So the history question: what happened to Louis Quatorze when he ran in the Belmont?  Well, he was chased up front, and wilted before the top of the stretch.  With Frac Daddy dead-set on the lead and Freedom Child and Vyjack also likely to flash speed, we seem the same scenario playing out.  He'll be in contention for a mile, then fading when they're on the far turn.

    5.  Revolutionary.  We can take everything we said about Golden Soul and apply it here, with the caveat that this is probably a better horse than Golden Soul.  Huzzah.  We're still unconvinced simply because dead closers that clunk up in the Derby are the worst bets in the Belmont.  In fact, let's just quote what we said about Nehro two years ago:

    In recent years, we've seen a few examples of horses that ran well in the Derby, skipped the Preakness and were pointed for the Belmont. Aptitude (2000), Invisible Ink ('01), Empire Maker('03), Bluegrass Cat ('06), Denis of Cork ('08), and Ice Box ('10) all ran second or third in the Derby in fine efforts, then skipped the Preakness to prepare for the Belmont, thinking the rest would help. Five of the six lost the Belmont at short odds (all but Invisible Ink were the first or second choice), with Empire Maker being the lone winner. Nehro seems to be this year's edition of this trend. We can't fault anyone who uses him underneath in exactas and triples--it should be noted that Aptitude, Bluegrass Cat and Denis of Cork all ran 2nd--but on top, we're siding with others. 
    (Ed. note: add to this list Perfect Drift, who ran next-to-last in '02 after running 3rd in the Derby and skipping the Preakness, and Steppenwolfer, who ran 3rd in the '06 Derby and 4th in the '06 Belmont. See? It's not a good play.)

    We think the same logic applies here, and he doesn't get remotely close to the winner on Saturday.

    Contenders

    4.  Will Take Charge.  We're still fond of this horse's breeding and the way he was running in the Derby before he was stopped in his tracks.  As we noted in our Preakness preview, we don't think it cost him the race, but we do think it cost him a spot in the money.  While his Preakness was awful, he did run down inside - not the place to be - and never really had a chance to stretch his legs until it was a moot point.  At 20-1, we're of the opinion he can rebound to his Derby and make his presence felt.

    3.  Overanalyze.   Of the three Repole horses, this one interests us the most.  His breeding should get him there - his sire, Dixie Union, sired last year's Belmont winner, and Unaccounted For is a damsire we've always liked.  If you chalk up his Derby to him mostly not liking the slop - and yes, you can downgrade him if the track is a pea soup on Saturday - then he's a horse that has tactical speed and the services of the best jockey and trainer behind him at a fair price (18-1?).  The problem is we're still not sure he's all that fast.  His best race remains last year's Remsen, and he still hasn't run back to it.  Even if he does on Saturday, that may only be good enough for a third place finish.

    2.  Orb.  What happened in the Preakness?  Was it the inside position?  Tougher trip?  Lack of pace?  Inevitable regression in his 5th race in 5 months?  The quick turnaround from the Derby?  Or was it just not his day?  We're mostly inclined to say it was the lack of pace, rail trip and just "not his day".  The first two would have been good excuses if he had managed to close ground late and get up for third.  But he had absolutely nothing in the stretch at all.  Even with an trip off the dead rail, he probably would have lost.

    So where does that leave him for Saturday?  We would not be at all surprised if he ran back to his Derby and annihilated the field and made us all shake our heads for letting him get away at 3-1, because we still think he's the most talented horse of this crop.  But we have a nagging suspicion that his form isn't on the improve, notwithstanding his recent good workout.  And we're a little reluctant to take a deep closer in the Belmont; it's usually  not the way to go.  If Rosario keeps him a little closer to the pace - which, as we've hinted, we think will be moderate - and waits for the right moment at the quarter pole, he might just explode and win handily.  But we think he's more likely to try to catch up too late to a horse that has more tactical speed.

    The Pick

    1.  Palace Malice.  Yep, we're going with a somewhat unconventional pick, the horse that just finished 12th in the Derby after running one of the fastest opening 6 furlongs of the race, and has never won anything other than a maiden race.  But we've always felt like this was an extremely talented horse and that his breeding - 2-time HOTY Curlin by turf marathoner Royal Anthem - lends himself to be running well at a longer distance.  More importantly, we still believe he has plausible excuses for every one of his losses this year:
    • Allowance race: hits a sloppy track off a layoff and runs into mud freak Majestic Hussar.  It's a decent second place finish that takes nothing away from his credentials.
    • Risen Star: gets a sub-optimal trip and runs an okay third.  This was probably his worst race of the year.
    • Louisiana Derby: has a trip from utter hell and can't find any running room until it's past the finish line.  At the time we joked that Edgar Prado should have been fined for the ride that Palace Malice received.
    • Blue Grass: a good second on a synthetic track, which we don't think is his best surface, which resulted in a loss to Java's War, a horse that loved Polytrack.  Perfectly fine, if somewhat meaningless in the long run.
    • Kentucky Derby: armed with blinkers for the first time, he freaks and turns into an intractable sprinter.  Pletcher admits this was a mistake and has removed the blinkers.
    Now yes, horses that have a litany of excuses are habitual money-burners, and if Palace Malice was going to be 4-1, we'd temper our enthusiasm.  But he's 15-1 on the morning line and we think he'll be around that price come post time.  We think that with the blinkers removed, he'll go back to having tactical speed and sitting about 4-6 lengths off a relatively honest pace.  That should give him the ability to pass the tiring front-runners when it matters while getting first run on Orb, Will Take Charge and the other closers.  It's roughly the same tactic that Commendable used when he stole the 2001 Belmont.  And we think he successfully pulls it off on Saturday, continuing the Belmont's trend of defeating favorites.

    How to Bet the Race

    Well if you like Palace Malice as much as we do, take him at double-digit odds and bet him to win. Or hook him up in the late double with Point of Entry, who towers over the field in the Manhattan in the race before.  We also think that boxing him in exactas with other horses we like would be a good hedge.

    Good luck to all and enjoy Belmont day!!

    Thursday, May 16, 2013

    2013 Preakness Preview

    Well that was satisfying.

    We're not going to lie - we haven't been happier after a race than we were after Orb won the Derby, and that includes some races where we had significant cashes.  Orb's dominant win was the public validation that Shug deserved after decades of being known to everyone in racing as a great trainer but fairly anonymous to the rest of the sports world.  That and the horse appears to be quite talented.  Orb obviously wasn't a fluke winner a la Giacomo or Mine That Bird, nor was he a fortunate winner like Super Saver, Funny Cide or War Emblem, all of which benefited from a fortuitous confluence of circumstances. His  win was the best Derby performance since Big Brown's in 2008, and was probably even better than that since Big Brown beat a class of horses that, frankly, stunk.

    But as we all know, horses that look like world-beaters in the Derby don't always take the Preakness.  Fusaichi Pegasus looked similarly invincible in 2000 and lost to Red Bullet.  Monarchos ran a sub-2 minute Derby in 2001 and finished 6th in the Preakness.  Barbaro...well, moving right along.  And Street Sense got out-and-out beaten in the final furlongs by Curlin.  Now that was a stellar crop of horses and a great race (jump to 1:45):




    So is another upset in store for Saturday?  Let's count down the runners from worst to first, with the assumption that it's a fast track at Pimlico.

    We're Not Seeing It

    9.  Titletown Five.  Unlike a lot of the recent editions of the Preakness, this year's race isn't full of horses that didn't run in the Derby and have absolutely no hope in the Preakness.  We have only three new shooters in Saturday's race, and this is the only one that clearly doesn't belong.  After breaking his maiden, he ran second in something called the Gazebo Stakes, followed by a horrible finish in the Louisiana Derby and a non-threatening fourth in the Derby Trial.  We also guarantee that this horse is going to get a lot more play than people think, between D. Wayne Lukas being his trainer and his owner being Paul Hornung.

    8.  Oxbow.  While he did run 6th in the Derby, we can't help thinking that was simply a default finish on a day where the unforeseen early pace fried a few horses and the slop ruined the chances of a couple of others.  He was never in contention, never really threatened the top 5 finishers, and has pretty much stagnated since winning the Lecomte earlier this year.

    Others Like Them, We Don't

    7.  Itsmyluckyday.  Okay, we got suckered in at the Derby.  But we're not biting again.  At the end of the day we have a horse that seems to love Gulfstream and run so-so at all other tracks and probably peaked back in February.  And he's gotten slower as the distances have gotten longer, which is hardly a surprise given his breeding.  We do think that he plays an important part in the race though, because we wouldn't be surprised to see him chasing...

    6.  Goldencents.  ...the horse that everyone thought was going to be on the lead in the Derby but wasn't.  So it wasn't Kevin Krigger's best move to put him 5 lengths off the pace, but would it have mattered?  Had he dueled with Palice Malice, he would have been fried.  Now he'll get a second chance to lull everyone to sleep with an early pace.  But we see three enormous problems with this strategy.  First, based on his breeding, we still don't think this horse wants the distance.  Second, we're not so sure he's going to get an easy lead, because we think Itsmyluckyday, Titletown Five and possibly Oxbow will also show speed.  Third, the lulling the field to sleep strategy is not the way to win the Preakness.  Since Louis Quatorze pulled it off in 1996, the only front-runners that have won the Preakness were War Emblem ('02) and Rachel Alexandra ('09).  The former was a legitimate runner with good early speed that it could carry for 9-10 furlongs; the latter was a Hall of Fame horse.  Goldencents is neither.  To us, he's a horse that was fortunate to win the Santa Anita Derby under perfect circumstances, and at 5-1, is a great bet-against on Saturday.

    5.  Departing.  The likely second or third choice in the race, he exits a win in the Illinois Derby and only has one defeat in his 5 career starts.  His Illinois Derby win is pretty much irrelevant to us, as the race did not contain a single horse that was on the Triple Crown trail.  It's his third place finish in the Louisiana Derby that is more interesting to us, as he ran okay, but was passed late by both Revolutionary and Mylute and was almost passed by Golden Soul, the Derby runner-up.  An optimist would say that makes the Louisiana Derby a key race and his chances should be upgraded.  We're more pessimistic - we see no reason he can turn the tables on Mylute, and since Revolutionary and Golden Soul were beaten somewhat handily by Orb, we don't see how he closes the theoretical gap, especially since his breeding on the sire's side is pretty sprint-oriented.  And he's going to be about 9-2.  We're looking elsewhere.

    4.  Mylute.  We still don't know what to make of this horse.  Excellent jockey Rosie Napravenik wisely turned him back into a stone closer in the Derby and he rallied to finish 5th, beaten about a length for second.  He ran a good "Sheets" number in the race, meaning while taking into account trip, etc., he was probably the second-best horse in the race.  That said, he was no threat to the winner and still strikes us as a horse that is more of a closing sprinter than a router - his father was two-time BC Sprint winner Midnight Lute and his dam is by sprinter Valid Expectations.  With a little less pace to run at in this race, he's going to be up against it if he's too far back, but we're not sure he has enough staying power to run with the front of the pack early and hold off the closers late.  He's got a shot to hit the board, but we think the win slot is highly unlikely.

    In With a Chance

    3.  Will Take Charge.  The three horses that have gotten the most discussion out of the Derby are the winner, Normandy Invasion (we'll get to him in the Belmont preview), and this guy, who had a horrible trip.  Take a look at the overhead shot at about the 0:43 mark; he's the horse in the white silks directly to the inside of Orb:





    At you'll see, he comes to basically a dead stop when they hit the top of the stretch, as tiring Verrazano was directly in his path and caused his jockey to slam on the brakes.  We don't think he would have caught the winner - he was moving inside of him, remember - but he likely would have held on for a spot in the money.  Now couple this with the fact that Will Take Charge clearly prefers a fast track to a wet track - he flopped in his lone prior start on a sloppy surface, and his prior two runs on a fast track were both wins - and that he's well-bred for the distance, and gets a bump by going from jockey Jon Court to Mike Smith, and his chances look even better.  That said, he still has a lot of ground to make up on the Derby winner, as he still hasn't cracked a 3-digit speed figure in his 8-race career.

    2.  Govenor Charlie.  He's only had three starts to date but the last two were quite good - a strong maiden win followed by a dominating performance in the Sunland Derby.  He was bound for the Derby until he came up with a foot bruise a week before the race, and trainer Bob Baffert decided to point him to the Preakness instead.  After a good workout on Monday, he's back on the Triple Crown trail with we think a chance to do something at a price.

    Now we'll acknowledge there are a bunch of issues with this horse - he hasn't faced a single top-level horse yet, his breeding does have a fair amount of sprint influence (like Mylute, he's out of Midnight Lute), and he did have an injury significant enough to knock him out of the Derby.  But there are a lot of positives on the other side of the ledger; the presence of Baffert (who's won this race 5 times), a solid jockey in Martin Garcia (who won this race with Baffert on Lookin at Lucky in '10), good dam side breeding (his granddam is Hall of Famer Silverbulletday), a good workout to show he's healed, and the potential for a lot of improvement since it's his 4th career start.  And most importantly: the price.  He's 15-1 on the morning line and we think he'll be the second or third longest shot on the board.  We feel that if anyone's going to turn the tables on the winner, it's either going to be a horse with a bad trip in the Derby (Will Take Charge) or a newbie that makes The Proverbial Leap.  At 20-1 or so, he's definitely worth the gamble.

    The Pick

    1.  Orb.  Simply stated there's no reason to go against him.  The track condition doesn't matter as he has dominant wins on the slop and dirt.  He closed from the back of the pack to win last race but showed in the Florida Derby he can lay close if needed which is likely the case here.  He has a great trainer and the hottest jockey in America.  And he's likely still improving, as evidenced by his workout earlier in the week that left Shug McGaughey "breathless." When a trainer who eschews hyperbole is speaking in such reverent tones, we pay attention.  We think it's all setting up for a neat rematch in the Belmont with Revolutionary and Normandy Invasion coupled with a Triple Crown on the line, and are very excited to see him run on Saturday.  We think he improves yet again and runs away with the race.

    How to Play the Race

    Orb is going to be around 4-5, and while we think he's going to win, it's hard to argue that 4-5 is great value.  We can see saver bets on Will Take Charge and Govenor Charlie if they're over 10-1 and 20-1 respectively, but would avoid most other horses in the win slot.  The better idea is exotics: either keying Orb over those two horses and Mylute in triples and superfectas, or use Orb as a single in multi-race bets.

    Good luck to everyone and enjoy the Preakness!

    Thursday, May 2, 2013

    2013 Kentucky Derby Preview Part III: The Top Half

    We feel like we say this more often than not, but we think this is a pretty good crop of three year olds.  Most of the horses we're going to discuss today have been decent to good so far; there aren't a lot of stiffs in the top half of the pack.  Perhaps this is because this crop has been relatively injury-free this year so far - we can't think of too many of the chief contenders that fell to injury during the winter.  Of course, that happened last year as well and the class turned into a MASH unit by early August.

    Let's get back at the countdown, starting with some of the horses that have accomplished a bit to date but we don't like on Saturday.

    Prep Winners We're Against

    10.  Java's War.  The winner of the Blue Grass Derby; his resume is a lot less impressive once it's scrutinized.  As we've said time and time again, the Blue Grass has become a fairly meaningless prep race because it's on polytrack, and the best finish we've seen out of a recent winner was Dullahan's non-threatening third last year.  Usually the winners do nothing of note on the dirt again - in fact, we're not sure that any of Dominican, Monba, General Quarters, Stately Victor or Brilliant Speed won another dirt race after the Blue Grass.  Even worse for this horse is his propensity to completely miss the break at the start of the race and spot the field several lengths.  That didn't hurt him in Keeneland where the field was smaller and the race played to a closer.  Neither is the case in the Derby.  He could clunk up for a piece of the superfecta but we think he's a great bet-against.

    9.  Goldencents.  The only route for victory for this horse is to steal the race on the front end or just off of it, and he's shown no ability to rate more than a couple of lengths off the pace and his breeding (Into Mischief, a fairly obscure sprint-based sire we noted yesterday with Vyjack) suggests speed.  Sometimes that works - in his last race, the Santa Anita Derby, he sat just off little-hoper Super Ninety Nine and took over when he faded and nobody else could close.  Sometimes it doesn't - two races back, he dueled with Flashback and faded miserably in the stretch.  Now we get that people are speculating that this Derby has no speed and could be stolen on or near the front end, but we don't believe that, and Goldencents isn't a speed freak like Bodemeister who can try to make everyone catch him for 10 furlongs.  He's more of a conventional speed horse that shows no real desire to go beyond 9 furlongs under ideal circumstances, and is more likely to finish 18th than 1st.

    8.  Overanalyze.
      In theory there's a ton to like here: solid breeding, Todd Pletcher, and a win in the Arkansas Derby.  But once you get past that initial blast of positive information, it's a lot less interesting.  He's run exactly one race with over a 90 Gowanus Speed Figure (last year's Remsen), where he was hanging on for dear life at the end.  His return to racing in the Gotham earlier this year was horrendous, which he followed up with his Arkansas Derby victory that looked good visually but yielded a paltry 88 speed figure, which looks worse when you consider that his main competition (War Academy) didn't finish the race.  He's going to need to take a huge step forward to compete on Saturday, let alone win.

    The Price Doesn't Match His Chances

    7.  Revolutionary. The one guarantee we can give you is that this horse will be overbet in relation to his chances on Saturday solely because 3-time Derby winning jockey Calvin Borel will be in the irons.  After guiding to victory a favorite (Street Sense), logical horse (Super Saver) and utter bomb (Mine That Bird) in the last six years, the public is convinced that Borel's touch is golden and bets him accordingly. Two years ago Borel rode the horrendous Twice the Appeal to a 10th place finish at 12-1.  Had any other jockey been on him, he would have been at least 40-1.  Last year, Take Charge Indy was 12-1 when he should have been about twice that price.  The only horse he beat was Daddy Long Legs, who pulled up.

    This isn't to say that Revolutionary has no chance in this race, but he's likely to be around 8-1 and his chances of winning are a lot longer than that.  After three races Revolutionary was considered a titanic disappointment, having failed to break his maiden and losing at 1-5 in an Aqueduct maiden race.  Clearly some switch finally flipped after that race, as he's torn off three straight victories in closing style, but it's really difficult to be impressed by those wins.  The first was over maidens at Aqueduct in the dead of winter; hardly a vintage crop of horses.  Next up was the Withers Stakes, a prep for a prep for the Wood Memorial, which he won by a hard fought neck over a horse that has done nothing since.  He followed that up with a grinding victory by a neck in the Louisiana Derby over Mylute, who was 19-1 that day and figures to be even longer on Saturday.  (We'll concede that a couple of other nice horses finished behind him that race, including Illinois Derby winner Departing and someone further up on this list.)  Add to these middling victories breeding that's schizophrenic on getting 10 furlongs - his sire, War Pass, screams sprinter, while his dam, Runup the Colors, was an excellent router - and we're reluctant to put him in the top tier of horses.

    6.  Verrazano. Sabermetric studies have shown that generally speaking, baseball position players develop along a predictable curve where they show talent early, peak at ages 26-29, then have a noticeable decline into their mid-30s followed by a collapse.  Starting pitchers, by contrast, by and large do not follow an aging curve.  Some starters take years to develop into good pitchers and reach their peak when they're in their late 20s (Greg Maddux, Tom Glavine, to name two).  Some start off fabulous and keep up a level of excellence for years (Roger Clemens, Andy Pettite, Felix Hernandez).  Some take forever to reach their apex (R.A. Dickey, Jamie Moyer).  And tons more start off like a house on fire and flame out for any number of reasons - fans of Mark Mulder, Dwight Gooden, Barry Zito and Mark Prior are nodding right now, while Chris Sale and Matt Harvey acolytes are covering their eyes.

    Horses, we believe, develop a lot more like pitchers than hitters.  Some will take years to get good and peak at ages 5 or 6.  Others peak when they're 3 or 4.  And some are prodigious right out of the gate and actually have their best starts in one of their first three races, which is akin to a pitcher having his best season his rookie or sophomore year.  You can't assume a pitcher will get better just because he's young, and you can't assume a horse will simply get better because he did well when he was running in allowance company.

    We mention this because Verrazano has all the looks of a talented horse that may have already peaked in his 4-race career.  (He has other issues as well that we won't focus on: the lack of a start as a 2 year old and being sired by a pure sprinter.)  His maiden race was great - he won by over 16 lengths - and his second start was absolutely electric, as he sat a length off a contested pace and pulled away under a hand ride.  That yielded a 105 speed figure.  Stretched out to two turns, he won his next two starts (Tampa Bay Derby and Wood Memorial) in a more professional manner, looking solid while never really dominating.  More importantly though, his speed figures have declined as the distances have gotten longer and he's faced more seasoned competition.

    There's a good chance that the last two races were just consolidation races and he's ready to make a leap forward into greatness after getting the two-turn and stakes experience under the belt.  That's happened before.  But what we think is more likely is that he ran his best race in his second start and is on the decline.  We think he fades in the final furlongs and either retires or takes a break to return in shorter races.

    Contenders for a Piece

    5.  Black Onyx. We freely admit this is a little bit of a stab but there's a lot to like here on a horse that will be at least 30-1 (he's 50-1 on the morning line).  While his greatest success has come on synthetic surfaces, his breeding (Grade 1 winner Rock Hard Ten out of a Cape Town mare) is very dirt-oriented.  He isn't a dead closer and has enough tactical speed to be in the second or third flight of horses.  His speed figures, while slow, are on a definite path up.  And we love Kelly Breen with longshots - he did pull off Ruler on Ice in the 2011 Belmont.  We would be a bit surprised to see him on top, but not in triples or superfectas.

    4.  Palice Malice. It's odd enough that a Todd Pletcher entry has already made 4 starts this year but this guy takes it to the next level by making the Derby his third start in 5 weeks. At some level we want him to win the Derby because it means Pletcher would have to run him 4 times in 7 weeks, which would be often of in harness racing, let alone Grade 1 thoroughbreds.

    The reason this superbly bred colt is running so often is that he needed the points to qualify for the race.  Pletcher set up his schedule that the Louisiana Derby would be his big prep race but Palice Malice had a trip from hell where he was boxed in the stretch the entire time and never able to really run.  His connections - and in no small part, his owner, Cot Campbell of Dogwood Stables - decided to wheel him back two weeks later in the Blue Grass, where he wrested control at the top of the stretch but ultimately lost to the late-charging Java's War.  But that was a synthetic surface which we suspect wasn't his best surface and think he'll move forward off that race.  We also like the fact that he's going against the grain by running so often and think this may inure to his benefit. That said, this guy has only won once to date, so be careful about taking him in the win slot.

    3.  Normandy Invasion. We really like his form cycle coming into this race: an excellent second to close out his 2yo campaign, followed by a start off a layoff that was pretty meaningless and an excellent second to Verrazano in the Wood where he was closing late.  While we think his trainer Chad Brown is poised to make The Leap into fame and like his breeding for the distance, we have two major concerns.  First is the fact that this guy is a world beater at Aqueduct and squarely pedestrian elsewhere.  That could be coincidence but he could also be a horse for the course.  The second is the fact that he's only won one race lifetime.  Every year we get horses that are good closers but light on the victory tab that are heavily bet during the Triple Crown.  They're fair bets to finish in the money but never win - think of Nehro in the 2011 Derby.  He may be another one of those who menaces but can't close the deal and ultimately finishes a good third.

    2.  Itsmyluckyday. The Forgotten Horse.  After a decent but pretty uninteresting 2 year old campaign (which had 7 starts!), the light switch turned on when he returned to the Gulfstream dirt, as he won an ungraded stakes on January 1 by open lengths.  He then went to the Holy Bull where he beat BC Juvenile champ Shanghai Bobby handily by showing good tactical speed and drawing away in the stretch.  These two races were good for speed figures of 102 and 104, respectively.  He then went off as the favorite in the Florida Derby where he ran a second that's better than it looks - there was no pace in the race, the track had a fluky bias, and he was collared in the final furlongs.  But it was also his first race off a by-design two month layoff, as his trainer decided to give him a breather before the Triple Crown and the prep race.  We think that was a good move and he jumps back into triple GSF territory again, which puts him near the top of this group.  Even better - he's 15-1 on the morning line, and we think he'll drift up to even a higher price as people focus on his last race and relatively unknown trainer and jockey.  That would be a mistake - this is a good horse in good hands.

    The Pick

    1.  Orb We know, a complete shock given Wednesday's post.  But putting aside our infatuation with Shug McGaughey, we simply think he's the best horse in the group.  His move in the Fountain of Youth to propel him from the back of the pack to second at the top of the stretch reminded us of Monarchos' huge move in the 2001 Florida Derby, which he replicated in winning the Kentucky Derby.  Orb's Florida Derby showed a new level of versatility as he sat close to the non-existent pace and pounced when they came to the stretch.  We think he'll be in a good spot in this race - maybe 5-7 lengths off a moderate pace - and in prime position to take over and hold off the closers down the stretch.  And give Mr. McGaughey his first Derby win, at long last.

    How to Play the Race

    Orb is currently 7-2 on the morning line, and we think he's going to be longer than that: closer to 9-2/5-1.  At those odds, just bet him to win, as there's nothing wrong with quadrupling your money.  And the same holds true for most of the other horses: we don't think too many will be single digit odds.  If you're looking to make a bit more than that, take a peek at the multi-race bets.  Wise Dan and Point of Entry tower over the field in the Woodford Reserve in the prior race, and doubles with them should be okay, especially if you're able to pick between the two.  (We can't.)  If you're interested in a Pick Three, check out closers Hierro, Pass the Dice and Unbridled's Note in the CD Handicap, a race that's loaded with speed.  And to make it official, the picks:

    1st: Orb
    2nd: Itsmyluckyday
    3rd: Normandy Invasion
    4th: Black Onyx

    Good luck to all and enjoy the Derby!

    UPDATE: Black Onyx has scratched, so move Palace Malice into the 4th slot.