Thursday, June 7, 2018

2018 Belmont Stakes Preview

Let's get the obvious question out of the way: Justify absolutely can win the Triple Crown.  This is not a given if you've won the first two races: War Emblem was a very tenuous proposition at 12 furlongs after basically stealing the Derby and Preakness, and few people actually thought Funny Cide was better than Empire Maker.  Either horse could have won the Triple Crown, but neither seemed particularly likely.

Justify has been a perfectly reasonable winner of both the Derby and Preakness.  He ran well in both races and is obviously talented - you don't win Grade 1 races in your 3rd, 4th and 5th starts if you're not.  Like American Pharoah, he has good natural speed, but isn't a pure speedball.  His speed figures have been impressive especially relative to the class: he sports 4 of the 10 fastest speed figures for a 3 year old this year, including #1 (his Santa Anita Derby), #3 (his maiden race) and #5 (the Kentucky Derby).  So far, he's clearly the best horse in this class.

It's also clear that the Preakness was his worst race.  It was slow and unimpressive on paper and visually.  He put away pesky foe Good Magic to then almost blow it to Bravazo, who is nobody's idea of Easy Goer.  And it was by far his slowest time.  This may not be a surprise: it was his 5th race in 3 1/2 months, and his second in two weeks.  That's fine and good, except that the Belmont now makes it 6 races in under 4 months, and his 4th race in less than 10 weeks.  That's a lot for any horse to take, let alone one with no prior foundation, and possible distance limitations.

We are also waiting for Justify to face some sort of adversity during a race.  Sure, Promises Fulfilled made him run fast early in the Derby.  But Justify remained to his outside at all times and never got dirt in his face.  Several of his obvious challengers in the Derby were eliminated before the first turn and never had a shot.  The Preakness field was blah besides Good Magic.  He's never had traffic trouble, a bad start, a wide trip, or anything other than needing to hold on to a lead after running fast.  And sure, good horses make their luck and good trips - that was American Pharoah's secret weapon.  We're just skeptical that Justify can do it for the sixth straight time at a new track going 2 furlongs than he's ever gone before.  We're not rooting against him.  But we're not automatically picking him because he's 5-for-5 and the favorite.

*          *          *

So who can beat Justify?

One of the last places you should look for a Belmont winner, amazingly, is the Preakness.  Since Victory Gallop turned the tables on Real Quiet in 1998, we haven't had a horse lose in the Preakness and come back and win the Belmont.  Of the 54 horses to run in both races since then, three repeated: a Triple Crown winner (American Pharoah), a Hall of Famer (Point Given), and a borderline Hall of Famer (Afleet Alex).  The record for the other 51 starts is dreadful: no wins and 12 in the money finishes.  And even that's underselling the badness of Preakness losers, as 5 of those 12 to finish in the money were Preakness winners who didn't repeat (TC busts Charismatic, Funny Cide, and Smarty Jones, plus Curlin and Oxbow).  Only 5 horses have run better in the Belmont than they did in the Preakness (by order of finish): Luv Gov's crappy 5th in 2009, clunk-up 3rds by Orb, Monarchos and Lani, and Medaglia d'Oro's excellent second in 2002.

So we're against both Bravazo and Tenfold to buck the trend.  Both had a real chance to beat Justify in the Preakness, both failed.  We don't see either taking a necessary step forward unless switching to a dry track makes a large difference (and that's assuming it's a dry track, which is not a fair assumption as of press time).  Both horses will get bet, and our money will go elsewhere.

Larry Collmus' view from above
Let's go beyond the Preakness.  The Belmont is often Upset Central, but European invader Gronkowski is a bridge too far for us.  He has zero dirt breeding, hasn't run against top competition in Europe, and hasn't run in over two months.  For everyone who wants to point to Euro Go and Go's win in 1991, we counter that Go and Go already had dirt experience in America and was bred to run in the Belmont.  Gronkowski looks a lot more like Dr. Greenfield, who Team Valor hyped up before the 2001 Belmont and did absolutely nothing, running DAFL.  Plus, the masses are going to bet Gronkowski simply because of his name, meaning he'll be a lot closer to 10-1 than the 50-1 he deserves to be.

We have a hard time believing that Bob Baffert would run a real competitor from his barn against Justify - if he was, we think we'd see Ax Man here, who looked great on the Preakness undercard.  So we're going to discount the chances of Restoring Hope pulling off an intra-barn upset.  Also, it's tough to like a horse that's done nothing besides win a maiden race and ran a GSF of 50 last time out.

Noble Indy strikes us as an unlikely winner but he does have enough early speed to keep Justify honest.  The question is whether he'll actually do so: he's trained by Todd Pletcher, but is partly owned by WinStar Farms, who also owns Justify.  Would WinStar really enter a horse that could tire out their own champion?  You know what, let's put a pin in this and come back to it.

Free Drop Billy is highly unlikely to win but has a shot to hit the board at a huge price.  He's an even-paced grinder that is well-bred for 12 furlongs and Dale Romans remains the most underappreciated trainer in horse racing.  Horses that are even-paced often clunk up for 2nd or 3rd in the Belmont at a price without really ever having a chance to win - think of Keen Ice in '15 (also trained by Romans), Atigun in '12, Ready's Echo in '08, Andromeda's Hero and Nolan's Cat in '05, and Royal Assault in '04.  (Hell, Drosselmeyer pretty much won the race this way in 2010.)  He's got a shot to finish third without actually being within 10 lengths of the winner simply by outlasting the competition.

Finally, we're taking a pass on Blended Citizen, who did win the Peter Pan last out, but did so barely beating a horse that Justify throttled in California.  Justify would have to significantly regress to make this guy competitive, and even if he did, there are other horses who figure to capitalize better than Blended Citizen.  He'll just have to hang on to the trophy from the Jeff Ruby Steaks as consolation.

*          *          *
On to the real contenders to win.  Hofburg is likely going to be the second choice in the Belmont, which is both logical and bizarre.  We tapped him as a sleeper in the Derby and he ran a okay 7th: neither great nor a disaster.  (Some are saying his trip was a disaster; it wasn't great, but at best, it cost him finishing 4th.)  Unlike a lot of other horses in the field, he has the potential to improve, as he's making his 5th start, and he's bred to get 12 furlongs.  But he's still winless outside of maiden races, and his coup de grace so far is a non-threatening second to Audible in the Florida Derby.  We would not be surprised to see him move forward and win the Belmont - as we've said, Juddmonte and Mott don't enter these races for kicks - but we would also be unsurprised if he did very little and finished 7th.  We seem him as a horse that is going to be underbet relative to his chances, and are siding against.

Which leaves Vino Rosso, who won the Wood Memorial then ran a completely indifferent 9th in the Derby.  He's also bred to get 12 furlongs, and skipped the Preakness, which has been the most common path to success in the modern Belmont.  He's trained by Todd Pletcher, who's won 3 of these - including 2 in the last 5 years by running in the Derby and skipping the Preakness - and gets 2-time Belmont winner John Velazquez as his jockey.  He's a closer, but not a dead closer that needs to thread his way through the entire field to win the race.  This means he won't get fried if there's a pace up front, and while he needs some racing luck, he's not going to be completely at the mercy of the racing gods.

Mike Repole and Todd Pletcher
As to that pace...his owner is Mike Repole, who has been extremely successful in racing, but has never won the Belmont.  Repole has said time and time again that the Belmont is his white whale: he's a New Yorker, and wants to win this race yesterday.  Critically, this isn't his only shot in the race: Repole is the co-owner of Noble Indy.  Which is why we think Pletcher is running Noble Indy  despite WinStar's common ownership interest with Justify - Noble Indy can keep Justify honest early, and pave the way for Vino Rosso to close into a contested pace.  Sure, doing that would defeat a Triple Crown.  We don't think Repole cares, especially since we're no longer dealing with a 35+ year drought between Triple Crown wins that would make him the villain.  In fact, we'll go so far as to guess that Repole would rejoice in taking down Baffert and playing the spoiler, and frankly, that Pletcher wouldn't mind either.

*          *          *
At the end of the day, we are having a tough time seeing Justify as the 13th horse to win the Triple Crown.  We're not denying the talent, and his recent works have impressed us, and maybe he is just a freak.  But we can't get out of our head the fact that Baffert admitted that he initially thought that Justify was a sprinter. Yes, some horses have been great at all distances between 6 and 12 furlongs.  But we are very reticent to say Justify is the next Ghostzapper, let alone Forego.

To us, Justify has a lot in common with Smarty Jones - great ability to get in tactical position, a high cruising speed, and the ability to dominate a race at up to 9 furlongs.  Beyond 9 furlongs?  Then it gets dicey, and the horse has to rely on class and luck.  This won him the Derby, but as we saw in the Preakness, getting that 10th furlong is not his best game.  We don't think the 11th and 12th furlongs are going to be his friend either, especially if Noble Indy makes him work early.  We think he gets to the front, is badgered early by Noble Indy (and maybe others as well), shakes them off, gets to the top of the stretch with a lead and the crowd roaring, but gets passed by Vino Rosso before the 8th pole, giving him his first career defeat.  

1.  Vino Rosso
2.  Justify
3.  Free Drop Billy

Good luck and enjoy the Belmont!!

Thursday, May 17, 2018

2018 Preakness Preview

The Derby infield aftermath, which resembles our picks
Mendelssohn winning the Derby was easily the worst pick we've made since we began posting our picks in 2007.  We've had a decent run so far: of the 33 races we've handicapped, we've had 10 winners (including four straight Belmonts from 2012 - 2015), and show a flat-bet profit of $41.40 on a $2 wager.  We'll put that against anyone else's Triple Crown predictions for the last decade.

But until Mendelssohn, we haven't picked a horse that finished DAFL, much less one that lost by over 70 lengths.  While there are excuses we can make - Ryan Moore wrapped up the horse when he knew he had lost, making the margin of loss seem worse than it was; Mendelssohn didn't like the slop in the Derby; Aiden O'Brien noted the horse wasn't ready for the hoopla of Derby Day - they're all meaningless.

As horse players, we know there's only one solution after absolutely bombing a race: turn the page, and move on to the next race.  Which is this Saturday's Preakness, as Justify tries to stay undefeated and go to Belmont in line to be the 14th Triple Crown winner, and the second for Bob Baffert in 4 yeras.  So let's take a look at the tiny field for Saturday's race.  As usual we'll count down the entrants from least likely to our pick, and provide our fair value line along with the morning line.  The forecast for Saturday at Pimlico looks grim, so the track might be sloppy and taking that into consideration.

Ah, Baltimore in May

8.  Lone Sailor.  (Morning Line: 15-1; Fair Value Line: 67-1)  Our sleeper horse in the Derby pretty much slept his way through the race, grinding his way to a completely meaningless 8th.  The fact he didn't improve in the slop when his best prior race was on a sloppy course leads us to believe he's just stagnated and isn't good enough to compete for a minor piece, let alone the win.

7.  Bravazo.  (ML: 20-1; FV: 67-1)  Rebounded from his garbage 8th place finish in the Louisiana Derby to run 6th in the Kentucky Derby, which sounds okay, until you realize that he was 2 lengths from finishing 10th and lost ground in the stretch.  Some people will point out that Oxbow ran 6th in the 2013 Derby for trainer D. Wayne Lukas before rebounding and winning the Preakness at a price.  But Oxbow did that off a brutal trip in the Derby and by stealing the Preakness on the front end, which has been the usual way to pull off an upset in the Preakness.  We're not seeing that here.

The Wrong Newcomers

6.  Sporting Chance.  (ML: 30-1; FV: 50-1) The management at Pimlico must hope that Lukas keeps training horses until he's 110 years old, because without him, we would have microscopic fields every year for the Preakness.  This is his #2 hope in this race, who won the Hopeful at Saratoga last year but hasn't won anything since.  We thought he rated a huge chance in a race on the Derby undercard when he turned back from 2 turns to a 1-turn mile.  He flopped miserably, finishing behind horses that were 39-1, 35-1 and 25-1.  Now this may be attributable to him not liking the slop, which would be great if rain wasn't in the forecast for Saturday.  Even if by some miracle it's dry, there's little indication this guy has moved forward since the Hopeful.

5.  Diamond King.  (ML: 30-1; FV: 50-1) This year's holder of the Magic Weisner Memorial Trophy, which goes to the locally based horse that wins the Federico Tesio stakes, is the subject of a few write-ups in the Baltimore/DC area press as the local hope, and never, ever, ever does anything productive in the race.  Since Magic Weisner scared the crap out of War Emblem in 2002, the last Tesio winner to finish in the money was Icabad Crane in 2008 where he ran a well-beaten 3rd to Big Brown.  There's no reason to think this guy is on the same plane as either of those two horses, let alone the real contenders in this race.

I don't know.  Therefore: ALIENS.
4.  Quip.  (ML: 12-1; FV: 30-1) We try not to engage in conspiracy theories, because while they can be fun, we don't need to become the next Giorgio Tsoukalos.  That said, we have always thought there was more than meets the eye to Bob Baffert's decision to run Dortmund in the Preakness in 2015.  Travel back three years, and while American Pharoah was the clear favorite in the Derby, Baffert's "other" horse Dortmund came in to the race undefeated and looked very live.  (Baffert knows plenty about his "other" horse running better in the big race - Real Quiet was #2 in the pecking order behind Indian Charlie in the '98 Derby and won anyway, and Congaree finished ahead of favorite Point Given in 2001.)  Dortmund ran fairly well for 8 1/2 furlongs before yielding late to both American Pharoah and Firing Line.  

Had Dortmund been trained by anyone else, we think the trainer waits 5 weeks and runs him in the Belmont.  But it was Baffert, and he knew American Pharoah had a real shot at the Triple Crown.  And we think Baffert also knew he needed the two horses to square off one more time, lest people criticize him for playing favorites or that AP's Triple Crown bid was tainted because he kept him apart from his talented stablemate.  And we also think Baffert felt that Dortmund would be more dangerous off a 5 week break.  So to get to the desired endpoint, he ran Dortmund right back in the Preakness, essentially knowing that he wouldn't be 100% against American Pharoah, and that if he won with Dortmund, well, then American Pharoah didn't deserve the Triple Crown anyway.  Lo and behold, Dortmund ran a blah 4th in the Preakness and American Pharoah won the Triple Crown.  (In possibly related news, Baffert no longer trains for Dortmund's owner.)

What does this have to do with Quip?  Well, Quip is owned by WinStar Farms, who also owns  Justify.  After Quip ran an okay second in the Arkansas Derby, WinStar's manager Elliot Walden said they would pass on the Derby and point to the Preakness instead.  Which made sense - Quip doesn't look like a stiff, but has seemed a level below the top echelon of horses, as his "big" race was winning the Tampa Bay Derby at 19-1 over second-tier horses.  Except now his Derby-winning stablemate is running as well, and there's no chance in hell that Walden and WinStar would want one of their horses to spoil the other's Triple Crown chances.  If this guy were a real threat to Justify, we think WinStar would have pulled him and pointed to something else, like last week's Peter Pan or the summer races, because almost nobody would have said "Justify's Triple Crown is tainted because he didn't face Quip."  That they're running him in the Preakness anyway says to us they don't think he's going to be competitive for anything besides a minor check.  Which in fairness, we don't either.

The Interesting Longshot

3.  Tenfold.  (ML: 20-1; FV: 15-1) We admit that we're take a stab on this guy on the come, because his race record is pretty light with indicia that he can be competitive here.  But there are some positive signs.  An extremely well-bred horse - his father Curlin won this race in 2007; his damsire is the stellar Tapit - like Justify, he was late to take to the track, making his first start in February in a 2-turn race going 1 1/16 miles.  He won that easily, as well as his next start, an allowance race at  the same distance.  Trainer Steve Asmussen - who's won this race twice - pressed his luck and put him in the Arkansas Derby, where he ran 5th, but was less than a length from finishing 2nd.  He didn't qualify for the Derby, so here is in the Preakness with 5 weeks of rest.  His breeding indicates that he'll enjoy a wet track (there's heavy turf breeding on his grand-maternal side, which often overlaps with wet track success).  And there's upside here, unlike with a lot of the other entrants.  We think he's going to have a tough time against the two obvious contenders, but isn't out of it to win if they both falter or run each other into the ground - a la Cloud Computing last year - and is definitely live to hit the board at a price.

Nah, Not Seeing It

2.  Justify.  (ML: 1-2; FV: 5-2) Sure, let's double-down on being stubborn.  We picked against him in the Derby for a host of reasons that we'll still defend, and we were just wrong.  It happens.  Now he enters the Preakness, which is really Bob Baffert's wheelhouse.  He's won the race 6 times, and all four of his Derby winners repeated in the Preakness.  (His other two winners were beaten Derby favorites Point Given and Lookin at Lucky.)  Justify answered some huge questions in the Derby: he didn't mind the slop, he didn't mind the quick pace, and the relative lack of experience wasn't a negative.

Nine times?
With all that said, we don't think he's going to win Saturday.  The idea of bringing a horse back with such a short foundation on 2 weeks rest makes us very skeptical.  It's worth noting that literally all of Baffert's other Preakness winners were long on foundation: American Pharoah was the least experienced with 6 career starts, but all the other winners had made at least 9 starts beforehand.  (Real Quiet ran NINE times as a two year old, which seems mind-boggling now, but was only 20 years ago.)  Heck, all had made their two year old debuts in the summer, meaning they had been in training for nearly a year when they rolled into Pimlico.  Justify hasn't had anywhere near that experience.  While it didn't cost him in the Derby for a multitude of reasons - he's really good, he made his own luck, and a lot of horses didn't like the slop - we are very concerned about the lack of foundation hurting him on a 2-week turnback.  (We're not sure what to make of the hoof bruising, we're inclined to think it's nothing.)

Paramutually, there is absolutely no value in betting Justify to win on Saturday.  The last 5 Derby winners all went off in the Preakness at odds between 1-2 (California Chrome) and 6-5 (Always Dreaming).  We think Justify will probably be close to California Chrome's odds.  Even if we're being a little more generous with our "fair value" line, there's no way he's better than a 50/50 proposition to win.  And yet, the majority of the field is so nondescript that we can easily see him escaping with an easy lead and just cruising home.  We have a tough time getting him out of the trifecta unless he duels with someone into submission, but on top prefer...

The Pick

1.  Good Magic.   (ML: 3-1; FV: 2-1) We were more impressed with his Derby performance than most - he sat near the quick pace, made a run at Justify, and while he couldn't get by him, he didn't really fade either.  (Sure, maybe Audible was second-best with his bad trip, but that's not relevant here.)  It's clear that Good Magic was fine with the slop, so if we get an off track, that's not a negative. He's worked out well since the race.

Most importantly, we trust trainer Chad Brown.  Brown won last year's Preakness with Cloud Computing by making an excellent tactical play.  He scanned the field, saw that it was top-heavy, knew his horse Cloud Computing was improving and in decent form, and concluded that he stood a good chance to pull the upset if Always Dreaming and Classic Empire both faltered, his lack of experience be damned.  When the two favorites dueled each other into defeat, Cloud Computing used a perfect stalking trip to take advantage and swooped in to win.

Brown's comments this week have been similar - he knows that if you're going to beat Justify, this is probably the race to do it, when the turn back is quick and his horse won't be at a tactical disadvantage.  He also knows this is Good Magic's last race for two months (he's already said he's not running in the Belmont, and is pointing next for the Haskell/Travers), so there's no reason not to run him hard here and give him a rest afterwards.  We think this is going to be a replay of the 2012 Preakness with the roles of I'll Have Another and Bodemeister flipped: Justify tries to steal the race on the front end, Good Magic patiently waits, and runs him down in the stretch.

How to Bet

Honestly, we'd be surprised if either of the top two choices offered any value in the win slot.  Our tactic is to try to spice it up with Tenfold, so we'll box the three of them in trifectas, and use Tenfold in exactas with each of the top two entries, a little heavier with Tenfold in the 2nd slot, and a little heavier with Good Magic up top.

Good luck to all and enjoy the Preakness!

Friday, May 4, 2018

2018 Kentucky Derby Preview Part II: The Contenders

Since 1996 - what we define as the "modern" era of the Triple Crown, i.e., since the emergence of Bob Baffert - some of the "rules" have gone by the wayside, but a few remain.  All but one (Charismatic) had 2-4 starts are a 3 year old, though all have had fewer than 4 since Smarty Jones in 2004.  17 of the 22 won a race as a 3 year old.  (Exceptions include bombs Giacomo and Mine That Bird, but also the relatively logical Super Saver, Funny Cide and Real Quiet.)  And a "sharp" prep race was a must - only Mine That Bird bucked that trend.

What's recently emerged is the strange trend of not only winning your start before the Derby, but winning all of your starts as a 3 year old.  Since Super Saver in 2010, each of the Derby winners has won their prep race, and only one has lost at all as a three year old.  (Congrats to Powhatan County for beating Animal Kingdom in an anonymous allowance race at Gulfstream on March 3, 2011. He went on to have an uninteresting career for trainer George Weaver, winning 7 of 32 career starts.)  Part of the reason may be the simple fact that there are so many ways to get to the Derby now that it's easy to duck the tough competition until the first Saturday in May.  Or maybe it's just coincidence.

So is handicapping as simple as tossing any horse that lost a race in 2018?  Not necessarily, because this would still leave you with 4 horses, and would end up eliminate some prime contenders.  With that, let's look at this year's top 10.

Possible, But Not Our Cup of Tea

10.  Noble Indy.  (ML: 30-1; FV: 50-1) There are six big domestic final preps for the Kentucky Derby: the Santa Anita, Louisiana, Arkansas and Florida Derbies, the Wood Memorial, and the Blue Grass.  While winning one of those generally stamps you as a contender for the Kentucky Derby, every year without fail one of those winners is ignored on Derby Day.  As a matter of common sense, this has to be so - one of them will at best be the 6th choice in the race, and not everyone can look fabulous in the beauty pageant that is Derby prep season.  And sometimes a complete bomb wins a prep and looks like someone who won't repeat in Louisville: think of Irap last year, or Dance with Fate in '14.  Other times it's a horse that won his prep but displayed nothing more than sheer competence in the process.  Examples are Outwork in '16, Vicar's in Trouble in '14.

This year's edition is the Blahest Derby Contender is Noble Indy, who's one of four horses in the race trained by Todd Pletcher, who needs no introduction here.  After two wins in Florida, he was shipped to Louisiana, where he ran a not-great 3rd in the Risen Star, followed by professional yet unexciting win in the Louisiana Derby.  It's not so much that his performance wasn't that scintillating, it's that he beat nobody of import: nobody in the LA Derby besides him will be less than 30-1 on Saturday.  And the truth is he was in Louisiana because Pletcher needs to keep his horses apart from each other.  So he sent his second-tier contender to Louisiana while he kept in Florida...

9.  Audible.  (ML: 8-1; FV: 20-1)  We were on the fence about this guy to begin with because we don't love his breeding for10 furlongs, and while he's had two good starts in a row, we're concerned that he's the product of just liking Gulfstream.  (We're aware he won twice at Aqueduct.  Once was over a bad maiden field and the other was against 3 other horses in the dead of winter.  Yawn.)  Then came this quote from trainer Todd Pletcher:
Audible has some noticeable discoloration on his front hooves, the result of the product Equilox being applied, Pletcher said, in order to “bump up” the walls of his hooves. 
“He has shelly walls.  This gives the blacksmith more of a wall to work with. It’s a proactive approach,” Pletcher said, to guard against quarter cracks and to make sure there’s enough area to affix a shoe with nails.
Horses with similar issues sometimes wear glue-on shoes, but Pletcher said he’s had inconsistent results with glue-ons – “sometimes we get issues with their soles” – and thought this approach was best for Audible, who had the work done after the Holy Bull and prior to the Florida Derby, Pletcher said.
In that case, we'll definitely pass.  This guy has a lot more in common with Pletcher's Derby favorites that bombed - Verrazano, Gemologist and Bandini - than winners Super Saver and Always Dreaming, especially at what will be a fairly short price.

Apollo's Ghost

8.  Magnum Moon.  (ML: 6-1; FV: 20-1)  We have referenced the Apollo Curse many times in this blog: no horse has won the Derby without a start as a 2 year old since Apollo in 1882.  We can spend a lot of time going over the reasons why or just link to our old posts.  To be clear, we don't think it's a curse - we think there are excellent reasons why a horse that runs a race for the first time in January or later of his 3 year old season has never won a race with 19 opponents at a new distance in front of 160,000 people.  It's a tall order for veteran 3 year olds; it's even harder for one that hasn't been battle tested and amply prepared.

First up is Magnum Moon, who ran his first race for Todd Pletcher in January, and is 4-for-4, with wins in the Rebel and Arkansas Derby.  What worries us in particular about him is not only the lack of a 2 year old foundation, but also that he's still showing immaturity.  In his last race, he literally had the race all to himself and still continued to weave through the stretch, as he failed to properly change leads, and ran like he had spent too much time sipping mint juleps.  Some will scoff this off as a horse that was bored when nobody was bothering him in the stretch; others have argued this shows he actually has upside.  We go the other way - we see a colt with talent that still has some growing up to do and is likely to have issues at Churchill.  At 6-1 or lower, we're not interested in taking a gamble that it's boredom, rather than immaturity.

7.  Justify.  (ML: 3-1; FV: 17-1) We concede that this guy is talented, and there's a chance he turns out to be a superstar and romps on Saturday.  But this is exactly the type of horse that we will bet against every single time.  He's a favorite that's trying to buck a ton of tradition by not only never starting as a two year old, he didn't get his career going until President's Day.  He's only had three starts, which is a handicap only Big Brown has overcome in recent years.  And his three wins all have giant caveats.  He beat nobody in his first two starts, and in his last (the Santa Anita Derby), he walked to the lead and was never contested.  Sure he repelled his lone challenger in the stretch, primarily because he was never challenged for the first 7 furlongs and had plenty left in reserve.  That's an effort that is not going to be duplicated unless 8 other horses break poorly, or he's the next coming of Seattle Slew.

Justify is clearly not a stiff.  If this were a weaker crop of horses, we'd give him a stronger look.  Indeed, that's exactly how Big Brown bucked a ton of tradition and won in 2008: he took on a bunch of fairly terrible horses and won by nearly 10 lengths over the second-best male.  But this isn't 2008, this is a tough group of horses Justify needs to beat.  And we think that complete lack of experience won't help him once the gates open.  If he tries to wire the field, he's going to see pressure that he's never seen before getting fried (shades of Bellamy Road in 2005)  If he sits off the pace, he's going to get traffic trouble and dirt thrown at his face, two obstacles he's never faced before.  He's never left California.  He's beaten a total of 14 horses in his 3 races.  And he is going to be 7-2 or shorter.  Since the odds don't remotely match his chances to win, we're passing entirely.

The Goofy Longshots

6.  Lone Sailor.  (ML: 50-1; FV: 30-1)  If you want to throw in a total bomb for exotics, you could do a lot worse than this guy.  There's a touch of interesting breeding here - his granddam is the blue-blooded Aldiza, who won a Grade 1 and could run a distance.  He has almost no early speed and zero success on a fast track, but he will be closing late into what shop be a decent pace, and his last race was his best yet.  We give him a remote chance of actually winning, but a much better chance than many others at actually hitting the board, which is why we're ranking him here.

5.  Hofburg.  (ML: 20-1; FV: 17-1)  Like Justify, he's also only had three starts, and he's only won once.  But we like that he at least tried to break his maiden at Saratoga last summer.  Those early starts build a foundation in a horse that is difficult to replicate.  After that loss, he remained in training until resurfacing at Gulfstream this winter, where we won a maiden impressively.  He was then aggressively placed into the Florida Derby, where he ran a good second against Audible, closing well but not having enough to keep up with the winner.

So why are we pro this guy and anti Justify and Audible?  The first reason is price: Justify and Audible will be 7-2 and 6-1, respectively; this guy will be at least 15-1 (though we can see him as the "wise-guy" horse that gets bet).  The other reason is his connections.  Trainer Bill Mott and owner Juddmonte Farms are a top-notch and almost never try to rush their horses or put them in position to fail.  Witness Juddmonte's conservative handling of Arrogate 2 years ago: they waited until he had enough experience to make his stakes debut, and they were rewarded with the Travers romp.  Mott is arguably one of the 5 best trainers of our lifetime, but has rarely tried the Derby because he lets his horses develop at their own pace; he's not in the game for vanity and publicity.  The fact that both Mott and Juddmonte are here with a horse that's only made 3 starts tells us they think they have a stud on their hands.  When they think so, we pay attention


4.  Vino Rosso.  (ML: 12-1; FV: 10-1) He's 3rd on most people's list of Pletcher horses, but he's by far the most interesting to us.  His breeding is excellent: Curlin was a Hall of Famer that needs no introduction, and has become an influential sire in the Triple Crown, as he's sired a horse that's finished in the money in a TC race each of the last 5 years, including Belmont winner Palace Malice and Preakness winner Exaggerator.  His Wood Memorial was by far his best start of his career - sitting nicely off a quick pace, making a wide move on the far turn, and pushing past Enticed to win in a new career top.  And he looked relatively professional doing so, and has retained Pletcher's preferred jockey, John Velazquez, who won last year's Derby on Almost Dreaming.  We see his chances as no worse than Audible or Magnum Moon, and he's going to be easily double their price.

3.  Good Magic.  (ML: 12-1; FV: 8-1)  We have seen super-trainer Chad Brown do this so many times that it's impossible to ignore.  A well-regarded horse runs well enough first time out or first time off a layoff, shows some improvement in the second start, then explodes in his third start.  Hell, that's Good Magic's entire profile from 2017: a solid if losing maiden run, consolidating some gains in the Champagne Stakes when finishing second, then a huge move forward in the Juvenile, which was his ultimate target.

We're seeing the exact same thing again this year: a so-so return to the races at Gulfstream, followed by a professional if unspectactular win in the Blue Grass.  People are writing him off saying that he's shown no improvement in those two starts, given that the horse behind him in the Blue Grass was Flameaway, who's nobody's idea of a contender.  We get it, but strongly disagree.  There is no way on earth that Brown was priming Good Magic to peak in either of his first two races.  Sure, he's happy that he won the Blue Grass, but the Derby is the ultimate goal.  We're expecting a huge move forward from this guy on Saturday and like that he has the tactical speed to be in the mix early on without needing to be on the lead.  Prime contender that we're not picking simply because we think the next two horses are just a little more talented.

2.  Bolt d'Oro.  (ML: 8-1; FV: 6-1) Is it possible for a horse that's an Eclipse finalist and the winner of two Grade 1 races to be underappreciated?   After breaking his maiden, he won two Grade 1's in  California stylishly and was deemed by all to be the strongest favorite on the Breeders' Cup card.  He finished 3rd behind Good Magic and Solomini, largely because he ran extremely wide on both turns thanks to an abominable ride by Corey Nakatani, who validated our long-standing belief that he's the most overrated jockey in American history.  The merry-go-round ride definitely cost Bolt d'Oro second, and we think he would have given Good Magic a run for the win had he received a smarter ride.

Both of his starts this year were excellent.  He began with a somewhat strange win in the San Felipe, where he and McKinzie put on a stellar stretch duel, and Bolt d'Oro was placed first when McKinzie was DQ'd.  He next ran a big number in the Santa Anita Derby, only to lose to Justify, which we largely chalk up to the dream trip Justify received on the lead.   We already are on record that we think Justify is primed for a regression, so the fact this guy lost to him last out is no obstacle to us.  By contrast, Bolt d'Oro is up for his third start of the year, and may be ready to take the final step forward and put forward a big effort on Saturday, and has literally never run a big race.  Plus, we think there's a solid chance this guy gets completely forgotten in the betting.  Huge contender.

The Pick

1.  Mendelssohn.  (ML: 5-1; FV: 4-1) We are still kicking ourselves for not futuring him in February at 44-1.  He has one of the oddest running lines you'll ever see in a Kentucky Derby horse.  His first three races were on the grass in Ireland and the UK, and could only be described as a disappointment: a maiden win and two terrible losses.  But something clicked in his fourth career start in the Champagne Stakes, where he ran a decent second.  Trainer Aiden O'Brien shipped him to Del Mar for the Juvenile Turf, which he won handily while showing excellent tactical speed.

Immediately after winning the Breeders Cup race, O'Brien announced they were pointing him for the Kentucky Derby.  Normally this would be ludicrous: the horse had done well on grass, why should he be running in the Derby?  Because of his impeccable breeding, which is why Coolmore bought him for $3 million.  He's out of the super dam Leslie's Lady, who's the dam of future Hall of Famer Beholder, who won 11 Grade 1's on the dirt, plus Into Mischief, who had a good dirt career and is a hot dirt sire.  And his sire is Scat Daddy, who had become one of the most fashionable sires before he died because his progeny could run on any surface.  Put it bluntly: if Mendelssohn's resume includes a Grade 1 on the turf and the Kentucky Derby, he's one of the 5 most valuable sires on earth.

O'Brien started his year by running him on a synthetic surface at Dundalk in Ireland, which is hardly a conventional path for the Derby.  He won handily while proving nothing.  Then Mendelssohn shipped to Dubai for his dirt debut in the UAE Derby, a prep we generally ignore.  Mendelssohn went to the front before pulling away to win by 18 lengths.  Watch the replay if you want to see pure dominance:

Now if anyone else owned or trained this horse, we'd be skeptical.  But there is no better trainer on earth than Aiden O'Brien.  And this is by far the best chance he's had in a Triple Crown race.  Importantly, he has excellent tactical speed (we would be a lot less interested in him if he were a dead closer, like many turf stars) and a good foundation of 7 starts.  And even more importantly, he has all the hallmarks of a potential superstar.  We think he's the best horse in the field and is going to sit just off the pace setters while getting first run on everyone else in the far turn, and has enough to hold off the competition in the stretch.

How to Bet

We think Mendelssohn will be at least 5-1, and everyone other than Justify is going to be a square price, so don't ignore the win betting.  We're also all for keying our top choices over Lone Sailor, Hofburg, and if we had to use another longshot, maybe Solomini.  And also take a look at the multi-race wagers, like the Oaks-Derby double (in the Oaks, we like Midnight Bissou, Eskimo Kisses and Wonder Gadot).

Good luck to all and enjoy the Derby!

Thursday, May 3, 2018

2018 Kentucky Derby Preview, Part I: The Longshots

The fields have been drawn, the jockeys have been set and it's time for our annual rite of embarrassment: our Kentucky Derby Preview!  We're very excited for this year's race because we legitimately think this is the best crop we've seen since 2007, which included Hall of Famer Curlin, Breeders Cup Juvenile winner Street Sense and good horses like Hard Spun and Any Given Saturday.  This year's group has everything you would want in a Derby: phenoms, veterans, Breeders' Cup winners, and foreign intrigue.

What it also means is that it has a slew of horses that we would consider genuine surprises if they took home the roses.  This year half the field is legitmiately longer than 50-1 to win the race, and some of the longer shots would be a Giacomo level surprise.  So let's countdown the bottom 10; tomorrow we'll look at the 10 possibilities.  (We are ignoring also-eligible Blended Citizen, and advise you to do the same.)  We're including with our analysis the track's morning line odds and our fair value odds, which is the price where we think a horse becomes a good bet.  As you'll see, for this first group, you're going to need odds you won't find at Churchill Downs on Saturday.  As always, we're assuming the track is fast and fair on Saturday.

Bombs Away!

20.  Promises Fulfilled.  (Morning Line: 30-1; Fair Value Line: 200-1) His one good race was a Fountain of Youth where he went to the front unchallenged and stole the race after setting a dawdling pace.  He followed that up with a Florida Derby where he dueled through significantly faster fractions (the half mile was nearly 2 1/2 seconds faster than the Fountain of Youth) and faded to DAFL.  A horse winning the Derby off a last race Gowanus Speed Figure of 47 - which would lose a maiden claiming race at Aqueduct - would be historic. 

19.  Bravazo.  (ML: 50-1; FV: 200-1) Well he finished 8th in his last, which is marginally better than Promises Fulfilled.  We love the D. Wayne Lukas is still saddling Kentucky Derby entrants at age 82.  Then we remember that all of his recent big race successes - Oxbow in the '13 Preakness, Take Charge Brandi in the '14 Juvenile Fillies - came when he had a fit horse steal a race on the front end.  That's hard to do in with a horse that lacks early speed.

18.  Firenze Fire.  (ML: 50-1; FV: 200-1) All of his success has come in 1-turn races where he was able to sit off a fair pace and make a big stretch run after getting into position on the turn.  In his 3 two-turn efforts, he's steadily gotten worse each time.  We do think he's got a big shot in the Woody Stephens in 5 weeks, for whatever that's worth.

17.  Free Drop Billy.  (ML: 30-1; FV: 200-1) Dale Romans is going to win a Kentucky Derby some day, but it seems highly unlikely that it'll come from a horse that stagnated 5 races ago.  Also, we refuse to endorse an animal with this stupid a name.

16.  Instilled Regard.  (ML: 50-1; FV: 200-1) In his last race he received a perfect trip on the rail and just off the leaders and still finished 4th by over 10 lengths.  Jerry Hollendorfer winning the Derby would be awesome.  If this guy were to do it, it'd also be a shock.

Voice of the Kentucky Derby and dapper gent, Larry Collmus
15.  My Boy Jack.  (ML: 30-1; FV: 100-1) We are inherently skeptical of horses that need to alter their plans and run an extra race just to qualify for the Derby, which is what this guy did by running in the Lexington, a the ultimate last-ditch  Derby prep race.  Sure, he won.  In a slow time over absolutely nobody while showing some possible distance limitations.  Other than that, great.

14.  Combatant.  (ML: 50-1; FV: 100-1) This guy only drew into the race because two other horses dropped out late, which is never a great sign for your chances.  He's a dead closer that's a bit slower than the other dead closers, so while there are strained arguments to make for him finishing in the superfecta, we're more of the opinion that you'll hear his name called by Friend of the Blog Larry Collmus exactly once, when he runs through every horse the first time and says "and the trailer is Combatant."

Fun Horses to Own, Limited Chance Here

13.  Flameaway.  (ML: 30-1; FV: 100-1)  Owner of 5 wins in 8 starts, he's won on dirt, synthetic and turf, at distances ranging from 4 1/2 furlongs to 1 1/16 mile, and has earned over $650,000.  He's only run out of the money twice, one of which was in last year's Breeders Cup Juvenile Turf, where he was 8th but only lost by 4 lengths.  He's as honest as a horse gets, and if he stays healthy, will almost certainly have a productive career.

What the 8 races show is that while he's consistent, he's consistently a level below the top horses in this race.  There's not a lot of upside here, especially if he goes to the front where there's going to be a lot of pace.  Look for him to fade and resurface in a lot of Grade 2 races this summer.

12.  Enticed.  (ML: 30-1; FV: 66-1) In his two biggest races, he was thumped by horses further up this list and appears to have some profound distance limitations.  We think he's a nice 1-turn horse that will have a useful career but is way over his head here.  Look for a middling effort and a long layoff to follow, per Godolphin's usual.

11.  Solomini.  (ML: 30-1; FV: 66-1) This guy is also about as consistent as they come.  Since stretching out after his maiden race, his speed figures have been 90-93-93-92-92.  Even trainer Bob Baffert noted that he has "one speed."  That isn't an knock per se, grinders will often have long careers, and this guy's breeding indicates that he should do okay at a longer distance.  But this is the type of horse that's competitive in the Belmont if he speeds up and everyone else falls apart.  In the Derby?  More cannon fodder.

Coming up tomorrow: the Top Ten, including our pick.

Wednesday, March 21, 2018

Transactions Analysis: The 2018 Draft

Back from the metaphorical dead, it's the TA!  I will confess: I almost approached Teddy about doing one last year despite being in the midst of my one-year fantasy sabbatical.  But it's good to be back.  So let's kick off 2018 with a recap of the first two rounds of this year's draft, which was very arm-heavy and Mets-lite.  As it should have been.

And lastly, congrats to my co-author on his 2017 victory.  How does it feel to finally wear the crown of toilet paper?  (El Angelo)

Turns out that all I need in order to win is ridiculous luck and a near-historic level of apathy among other owners. That sounds replicable! (Teddy)

1.  Wu Tang Financial: Stephen Strasburg, SP, Nationals.

I'm not sure which is odder: that this is the first of 7 pitchers to go in the first round (and 10 of the first 15 picks), or that three #1 picks from the amateur draft went in the first round, all of which were starting pitchers.  I suppose it's a credit to our collective genius that Bryan Bullington wasn't one of them.

As to Straz, you know what you're getting at this point - an annoying injury that robs him of 5-7 starts, a bunch of frustrating no-decisions, a good K rate and around 15 wins.  His ERA dropped enough last year that it's reasonable to theorize that he's about to enter a 2-3 year peak, so I'm pro this as the first overall pick, especially with the lack of obvious alternatives in the hitting department.  Even if he hasn't developed into the second coming of Justin Verlander, he kinda fits as "starter with the fewest warts."  (El Angelo)

Let's set out the background here first: this draft is flatter than a [REDACTED BY BLOGSPOT #METOO FILTER]; Strasburg is the pointy center of the slightly raised area of the draft which, to extend the metaphor, makes him the [REDACTED BY BLOGSPOT #METOO FILTER] in the middle of her [COME ON, DUDE]. So, yeah, good pick.

In other news, WTF is actually going to win this year, isn't he? I'm only going to get to feel like a special boy for one year and then all the other longtime losers are going to show up and steal my shine. (Teddy)

2.  A Lovely Tea Party: Josh Donaldson, 3B, Blue Jays.

This is probably the right pick for a team whose keeper list had only two "hitters" (and that's being kind to Billy Hamilton), but Donaldson scares me.  He's entering his age-32 season, literally every stat has declined over the last two years, and the Jays are going to suck this year, potentially sapping his Rs and RBIs.  It's unlikely that Donaldson will kill Scot - especially this year - but I'm suspect of taking an obviously declining asset at #2.  (El Angelo)

Again, I think this is an issue of calibration more than anything. Donaldson feels like a reach at 2, but I think he's the only real choice for a hitter-shy team in a draft this shallow. Giancarlo Stanton and Buster Posey aren't going to be the last two picks in the first round like last year.  (Teddy)

3.  The Darkest Timeline: Madison Bumgarner, SP, Giants.
4.  The Darkest Timeline: Starling Marte, OF, Pirates.

Both Bumgarner and Marte are coming off their worst years: Bumgarner because pitching 9000 innings may have caught up to him, and Marte because he failed to speak with his local pharmacist at Walgreen's.  I actually like Marte this year and think he'll be a perennial All-Star going forward, and that Bumgarner has at 1-2 ASG appearances left.  So to say something I've never said before: good work by the commish.  (El Angelo)

At the risk of correcting my esteemed colleague, Bumgarner didn't miss time because of workload. He missed time because he is a ridiculous redneck. He appears in pickup truck commercials in the Bay area, which is not a terribly pickup truck-dense part of the country. And he hurt himself when he fell off a dirtbike for no reason. (Note: in the previous sentence "no reason" is being used as a questionable synonym for "shortly after murdering a party ball of Coors Light".)  But yeah, otherwise agreed. (Teddy)

5.  Angelo M. Grasseaux: Alex Wood, SP, Dodgers.

I have a very hard time getting a strong handle on Wood, who sprouted big last year and became rock solid.  The Dodgers are loathe to let anyone make 30 starts, and he had elbow tenderness in 2016, which as a Mets fan, automatically sets off warning bells.  On the other hand, he has under 700 total innings pitched and may just be coming into his own.  I kinda get it as an upside play, even if I like each of the next 3 pitchers more.  (El Angelo)

The question is whether Wood's stamina can be improved by medication. If not, Wood may have to be extended by surgery. That's always a dicey proposition. (Teddy)

6.  Murica Thirst: Gerrit Cole, SP, Pirates.

As a regular reader of Joe Sheehan's newsletter, I'm in complete agreement that the move to Houston is the best thing that could have happened to Cole.  I have him as a dark horse Cy Young pick (18-1 right now!), so yeah, I like him a lot at 6. (El Angelo)


7.  Stable Guinesses:  Jose Quintana, SP, Cubs.

To defend our pick, the guy's a horse for innings pitched, and strikes out plenty, and now gets the benefit of having an actual offense behind him to give him some run support for a full season.  He may not have the highest ceiling, but the floor is pretty low.  (El Angelo)

I was hoping he'd slide to me, so yeah. Good pick. (Teddy)

8.  Le Dupont Torkies: Jake Arrieta, SP, Phillies.

I guess it's because he just signed, but 5Dimes does not have odds on Arrieta to win the Cy Young.  For the NL, their longest shots are Anthony Discalfani and Clayton Richard, both at 500-1, and a quartet of pitchers at 300-1, including the hilariously misspelled "Hosmer Bailey."  That should be Tucker's team name.  (El Angelo)

By an interesting coincidence, "Hosmer Bailey" is the name of the old-timey prospector I referenced above!


Folks, it is not easy spicing up a list of #2 starters. Ang, why the hell did we decide to recap the fifth round of the draft? Can we just go back and recap the first round of last year's draft instead so that I can dunk on people? (Teddy)

9.  Paging Dr. Rumack: Lance McCullers, SP, Astros.

I recognize McCullers was lights out in the postseason, but there is next to no evidence that this guy can throw 140 innings a year, let alone be a #2 starter.  As someone who's watched Steven Matz toil between the mound and operating table for the last three years, I can attest that there are few things more frustrating than young starters who tantalize with talent and can't stay healthy.  (El Angelo)

[Shatters humerus] (Teddy)

10.  CentralMassAll-Stars: David Price, SP, Red Sox.

I'm trying to reconcile Teddy having a mashing Yankee outfielder and an overpaid, declining, misogynist Red Sox starter as the cornerstones on his roster.  There's no way this ends badly.  But hey, flags fly forever, even if they're made out of orange construction paper.  (El Angelo)

Yeah, he sucks and I hate him. Although I think it's more accurate to describe him as misanthropic generally than misogynist specifically. Whatever else you can say about Dennis Eckersley, he's hard to mistake for a woman. (Teddy)

11.  Stable Guinesses: Tommy Pham, OF, Cardinals.

I think in June you could have gotten fairly long odds on the proposition that Tommy Pham would be the third position player off the board in the 2018 draft.  I defer to Theodore for criticism of our pick, which I presume will be scathing.  (El Angelo)

So, Pham was one of the approximately 15 useful OFs I pulled off the waiver wire last year. He was genuinely great--contributed in all categories, didn't miss too many games, enabled me to shout "What up, Pham?" when I checked his stats after a good day, really a pleasure to have rostered. The issue is despite being close to a rookie in terms of service time, dude is 30. That means we likely just saw his career year. Among potentially useful OFs I discarded this offseason, I'd put him behind Domingo Santana. (Teddy)

12.  Murica Thirst: Kyle Hendricks, SP, Cubs.

Which should you believe: the three seasons of being a #4 starter, or the one season (half a season, really) where he was great?  Thought so.  (El Angelo)

Why did a NASCAR driver get drafted? (Teddy)

13.  Angelo M. Grasseaux: Ken Giles, RP, Astros.

I'm just going to put Giles' postseason line up here for review:

7.2 IP
11.74 ERA
2.217 WHIP
0-2 record
2 saves
3 HR allowed
3 Wild pitches

Enjoy Armando Benitez 2.0. (El Angelo)

Yeah, this guy was the anti-Pham on my team last year. He really makes you taste the whole rainbow as a fantasy owner. (Teddy)

14.  The Spam Avengers: Daniel Murphy, 2B, Nationals.

Oh, fuck you.  (El Angelo)

I can't quite explain it, but this is exactly the right spot for this guy to go. (Teddy)

15.  The Darkest Timeline: Dick Hill, SP, Dodgers

I found this TA from June 2009 where Scot released Hill, then pitching for the Orioles, for something called Randy Wells, who I have zero recollection of existing or playing.  A trip down a rabbit hole revealed that Wells was a Cubs starter who finished 6th in 2009 NL Rookie of the Year voting, trailing Casey McGehee (!), the next pick in this draft, Dead Tommy Hanson, the first iteration of J.A. Happ, and Chris Coughlan, who I completely forgot won that award.  (El Angelo)

Don't be modest: back in 2008 you referred to Hill as a "potential young stud". The "young" part of that sentiment never really materialized, but he's one of a very few guys from back then still worthy of drafting early in 2018. (Teddy)

16.  A Lovely Tea Party: Andrew McCutchen, OF, Giants.

And it's the 5th place finisher in the 2009 NL ROTY race.  (Pop quiz: who was the '09 AL ROTY?  He beat out the likes of Rick Porcello, Brett Anderson and Elvis Andrus, and earned 5.8 of his 5.9 career WAR in his first two seasons.  Answer below.)

As to Cutch, it all depends on what you want.  Assuming health, he'll be fine in most categories, but the days of a .400 OBP and 20 steals are long gone.  He's fine, I just have a hard time separating him out from the Jay Bruces of the world.  (El Angelo)

I like the pick--unsexy veterans provide decent value in this league because everyone is willing to take flyers on young guys in hopes of finding a keeper. And nothing is less sexy than late-period Cutch. (Teddy)

17.  Wu Tang Financial: Robinson Cano, 2B, Mariners.

It is so, so refreshing that the years change but the owners never do.  Pre-draft, I would have put the odds on Cano being drafted by one of the Elders Brothers at 1-20.  They didn't disappoint.  We're all winners, really.  (El Angelo)

Wait wait, no, THIS is the best match of player and slot. In terms of raw value this is not great, but for a team that had guys locked up at pretty much every other position, getting the last playable 2B is a fine idea. (Teddy)

18.  Le Dupont Torkies: Elvis Andrus, SS, Rangers.

Never my cup of tea as a middling OBP shortstop, Andrus did have the distinction last year of leading baseball in Caught Stealing at 10.  His spikes in doubles and HR seem a little out of place at age-29, query whether that was a combo of the juiced ball and career fluke, Brady Anderson-style.  (El Angelo).

Jesus, spicing up a list of middle-aged middle infielders is even harder than spicing up a list of #2 starters. I'm serious about retro-diarying last year to make up for this dreck. (Teddy)

19.  Paging Dr. Rumack: A.J. Pollock, OF, Diamondbacks.

I like this guy a lot as a rebound candidate.  Of course there's a huge injury risk, but the upside is 30/30 if he can stay on the field.  Nice pick at this point.  (El Angelo)

20.  CMAS: Edwin Diaz, RP, Mariners.

In a draft opener that lacked a Questionable Closer Run, it's a faint approximation of the same for my esteemed co-blogger to end this charade with a very good closer on a not-very good team.  I'm pro targeting a specific category at this spot, so simply adding 35 saves to the roster while trying to repeat seems like a sound short-term strategy.  In the words of baseball savant Chris Russo: "Good job by you Teddy!" (El Angelo)

He sucks and I hate him. (Teddy)

*           *           *

(Answer to quiz: Andrew Bailey!)

Friday, November 3, 2017

2017 Breeders Cup Preview Part II: Saturday's Races

We've got nine races to cover, so let's dispense with the chitchat and get on to it.

Juvenile Fillies

Synopsis:  1 1/16 miles on the dirt for 2yo girls.  Last year's upset by Champagne Room at 33-1 continued the theme that in this race, you're best going with either a favorite or a bomb.  Here is how the 33 winners have broken down by price:

Less than 2-1: 9
2-1 to 3-1: 8
3-1 to 5-1: 6
5-1 to 10-1: 2
10-1 to 20-1: 1
Over 20-1: 7

Even those stats don't tell the full story: of the three horses between 5-1 and 20-1, one was on a synthetic surface (She Be Wild in 2009).  While the average win pay in this race is $22, the median is $6.70.  In short, the worst play is a horse in mid-range odds.  Either go with the favorites or look for a bomb.

Favorite:  Moonshine Memories is 3-for-3 with two wins over the track and is a well-bred filly.  She's a solid favorite but at the same time, she's never run particularly fast, and seemed to be running out of gas at the end of her prep race.  Respect, but playing against.

Price Horse to Consider:  Wonder Gadot is making her dirt debut, but there's no reason to think that she won't take to the surface, as she's out of Medaglia d'Oro and a Vindication mare.  And we think she may sit a nice trip - ignore all the 1's in her past performances, because those were on slowly run turf races.  She's not going to outsprint some of these fillies into the first turn but won't be a stone closer either.

Betting Approach:  Spread.  Honestly, if you're playing a Pick-something, our advice is to use Moonshine Memories defensively but focus on some bombs.

Selections:  We think there's going to be a lively pace in this race, which might set up for a closer.  We're going to take a gamble that longshot Stainless is the one who gets up.  A well-regarded Todd Pletcher horse, her last race was a toss-out because it was on the turf, except that it showed that she's in good form.  But it's the prior start in the Adirondack Stakes that has us wondering if she's good and being overlooked: she fell to her face at the start and spotted the field at least a dozen lengths.  She actually wound up running a little after that, but went wide on a day with a golden rail, and the race basically a toss out.  As noted, since then she's worked well and had a useful prep that will likely throw everyone off the scent of a Pletcher/Velazquez horse with good breeding.  She's going to be completely ignored in betting - she's 20-1 on the morning line, and we think she'll be longer than that.  In a race without an obvious star, we think she rates as good a chance as any.

1.  Stainless
2.  Wonder Gadot
3.  Moonshine Memories

Turf Sprint

Synopsis:  5 furlongs on the turf for all comers.  This is only the 4th time this race isn't at 6 1/2 furlongs, but in fairness, it's also only the 4th time it hasn't been run at Santa Anita with their bespoke turf chute.  This remains an entertaining race to watch and a bear to handicap.

Favorite:  Lady Aurelia is one of the odder horses you'll see all weekend: trained by Wesley Ward, she's only made 2 of her 7 starts in the States, and has otherwise run in Europe.  And quite well: she won at Ascot both this year and last year, and has a Grade 1 win in France to boot.  She's fast and talented, which bodes well here.

Price Horse to Consider:  Cotai Glory had some success sprinting overseas, and ran so-so at Woodbine in his last, but that may be because he encountered soft turf.  Perhaps he rebounds on a firmer surface?

Betting Approach:  Narrow.  Usually we think this race is wide open for chaos.  This year, we think there are three standouts.

Selections:  Lady Aurelia and Marsha, who beat her last out, tower over the field on speed figures, and both like 5 furlongs.  It's dull, but we think they make up the exacta; gun to our heads, we prefer Lady Aurelia by a hair.  The only domestic horse we're interested in is Disco Partner, who's had a really nice year and is a good sprinter, but 5 furlongs may be too short for him.  We'll take him to round out the triple.

1.  Lady Aurelia
2.  Marsha
3.  Disco Partner

Filly and Mare Sprint

Synopsis:  7 furlongs on the dirt for the ladies 3 years old and up.  Three year olds remain horrible bets in this field, as they're still winless.  That factoid is going to get strongly tested this year by...

Favorite:  In March, Unique Bella was on everyone's short list of favorites for the Kentucky Oaks off her decisive wins at Santa Anita.  Then she was injured and off the trail.  Proving her quality, the horse she trounced in her last race, Abel Tasman, came back and won the Kentucky Oaks.  She resurfaced last month in a 6 1/2 furlong prep race that she completely dominated.  If she improves off of that, she'll be very tough to beat.

Price Horse to Consider:  Proper Discretion comes into this race with good early speed and at 10-for-17 record.  Now yes, she's really only been running in Ohio, which isn't known for its high quality racing.  On the other hand, she's going to be at least 30-1 and does like to sprint.  She vaguely reminds of us Work All Week, who similarly seemed to be keeping cheap company but was a distance specialist, and popped the field in the 2014 Sprint.  Just saying.

Betting Approach:  Narrow.  There are a bunch of horses in here that have spent the entire year beating up on each other and running blah speed figures - we're looking at you, By the Moon, Finleysluckycharm, Paulassilverlining, Carina Mia and Highway Star.  We're inclined to toss them all and go with horses with some upside.

Selections:  Our strategy here is to include Unique Bella both on top and underneath in exactas and trifectas along with a few who have been a little removed from the usual filly and mare sprint circuit.  The one we like the most is Ami's Mesa, who's great at 7 furlongs, but has never run on the dirt before.  If she adapts well, we think she'll get a nice trip just off the pace and could pull off an upset at a nice price.  Underneath, we'll use Curlin's Approval, who likes the distance, Bar of Gold, who's cutting back, and last year's winner, Finest City, in case she wakes up.

1.  Ami's Mesa
2.  Unique Bella
3.  Curlin's Approval 

Filly and Mare Turf

Synopsis:  1 1/8 miles on the turf for the ladies.  This is the shortest distance for this race, it's always been either 1 1/4 or 1 3/8 miles.  Del Mar's turf can't do a race at 1 1/4 miles because of its configuration, but it's odd that they chose to go to this short a distance, rather than longer.  We're not pleased.

Favorite:  Possibly the best story of the entire weekend is Lady Eli's attempt to win her second Breeders Cup race.  She won the Juvenile Fillies Turf three years ago, then in the middle of her 3yo season came down with laminitis and nearly died.  Not only did live and make it back to the track, she's been amazing: 4 wins and 3 seconds in 7 starts, including a loss by a nose in this race last year to Queen's Trust (who also returns).  She has an outside chance at Horse of the Year if she pulls this off.

Price Horse to Consider:  Time for our annual promotion of a Shug McGaughey horse that we claim has a chance.  War Flag is a regally-bred filly that exits a win in the Flower Bowl - a Grade 1 prep for this race - that is largely going to be forgotten because she's shortening up in distance and travelling across the country.  She has some knocks, but if she's 15-1 or higher, she's a must-use.

Betting Approach:  Either single or spread.  If you think Lady Eli is a lock, then just single her and move on.  If you don't, there are a lot of different directions you can go.

Selections:  We're squarely in the Lady Eli camp and think she's one of the most likely win candidates all weekend.  We think the real way to make money in this race is with exactas, trifectas and superfectas, because we don't love a lot of the other horses that will take money.  Specifically, we think Grand Jete is overhyped, Dacita wants more distance, Avenge will get cooked on the front end, and Queen's Trust is just not in great form.  We're much more interested in trying some bombs underneath, such as War Flag, Nezwaah (who might have just hated soft turf in her last) and Wuheida, who may be getting good fast.  But to us this race is all about Lady Eli.  Let's hope she does something special and memorable.

1.  Lady Eli
2.  War Flag
3.  Nezwaah


Synopsis:  6 furlongs on the dirt for the fast and furious.  One of the biggest mistakes we perpetually make in this race is predicting a pace meltdown because of all the fast runners and picking a closer.  The truth is that front-runners and stalkers dominate this race, having won 17 of the last 20 editions.  Oddly, the only three closers in that time period (Midnight Lute twice and Secret Circle) were trained by Bob Baffert, who also trains...

Favorite:  Drefong, who won this race fairly impressively last year and is back to defend his title off a short campaign: a start out west where his jockey was thrown leaving the gate, and a decisive score at Saratoga in late August.  That's it.  That's his entire campaign.  We'd laugh at it, but Baffert's won this race five times, and his runners have had campaigns of 4, 4, 1, 1 and 3 races, respectively.  The man knows what he's doing.

Price Horse to Consider:  One of the most consistent themes in this race is to take a horse that has had a lot of success at 6 furlongs; horses shortening up or stretching out are terrible bets.  For the epitome of this, we give you Whitmore, who's won 7 of 9 starts at 6 furlongs, and finished third in the other two starts.  He was the leading sprinter in the country until early June, when he ran a bad 3rd in the True North, followed by a layoff, then a blah third in the DeFrancis at Laurel Park.  He did win his last race, so maybe he's rounding back into form.  At 15-1 or so, he's worth a second look, even though he's a closer.

Betting Approach:  Spread.  Honestly, we like our pick a lot, but we wouldn't be shocked with a win by about half the field.

Selections: Takaful seemed to lose his way on the Triple Crown trail earlier this year, so the excellent Kiaran McLaughlin gave him a rest, then brought him back at a sprint at Saratoga this summer, and was rewarded with an emphatic win at 6 furlongs.  He then ran him in the Jerkens at 7 furlongs, where he dueled through quick fractions and was passed late by Practical Joke - who is a typical example of a good 1-turn horse that would be a bet-against at 6 furlongs - and then backed it up in the Vosburgh.  We think he's developed into an ace sprinter, and think he validates it here with a wire-to-wire victory over last year's champ and Roy H, who's had a really nice year and is far from out of this.

1.  Takaful
2.  Roy H
3.  Drefong


Synopsis:  A mile on the turf for all comers.  While the Euros have done well in this race (having won 13 of 33 editions), the two biggest outfits, Coolmore and Godolphin, have never won this race in over 50 tries.  Given that they make up 29% of the field this year, this might be relevant.

Favorite:  Ribchester has had a solid year: a 3rd place finish in Dubai at a mile and an eighth to start the year, then 5 Grade 1 races at a mile in Europe with 3 wins and 2 close seconds.  He's a horse that's tough to toss, but is also tough to take at a short price.  Our interest in him is a lot higher if he's 3-1; if he's 7-5, meh.

Price Horse to Consider:  Bill Mott won this race last year with Tourist, and this year brings the improving Ballagh Rocks, who's run some nice races at a mile this year.  We think he's probably a year away from actually winning the race, but he's got tactical speed and we could see him hanging around for a piece of the trifecta.  For a complete bomb to hit the board, Om is a very unlikely win candidate but always runs well at Del Mar and likes a mile.

Betting Approach:  Narrow.  We're skeptical of some of the horses that will take action here.  World Approval seems to have woken up at a mile, but his win at Saratoga was over a complete bog, and he beat absolutely nobody in a paceless, oddly run Woodbine Mile.  We're not buying Suedois against better Euros.  Lancaster Bomber has still only won once.  Roly Poly has talent but she's going to go to the lead.  It's almost impossible to wire the field in the Mile, and we think she'll be fried by the far turn.  As will Heart to Heart.

Selections:  Ribchester merits respect, but we're even more interested in Zelzal, who last year was a highly touted and successful 3 year old but has had a trying season as a 4 year old.  He ran pretty well in her first start of the year on firm turf, closing well but failing to catch the excellent Tareef (who would probably be our pick here).  His next two starts were Grade 1s on softer turf that he didn't like, and yet, he didn't run horribly in either of them.  We think he'll appreciate the addition of Lasix, getting firmer turf, and having a strong pace to run at.  We'll take him to post an upset (he's 20-1 on the morning line) over Ribchester and Ballagh Rocks.

1.  Zelzal
2.  Ribchester
3.  Ballagh Rocks


Synopsis:  1 1/16 miles on the dirt for 2 year old colts.  One consistent theme when this race is in California is to ignore the New York horses - in the last 25 years, only Shanghai Bobby has shipped from the Empire State and won.  You're much better off staying with the locals or Kentucky horses.

Favorite:  Bolt d'Oro is likely the heaviest favorite on the weekend: three wins in California, including a blow out win in the prep for the Juvenile at a very fast time.  This looks like a serious racehorse.

Price Horse to Consider:  US Navy Flag might have been favored in the Juvenile Turf, but Aidan O'Brien has decided to run him here instead, even though all 10 of his starts have been on the sod and his dam was a pure turfer.  That said, whenever a European has won this race, he's been well-raced, and 10 starts as a two year old certainly qualifies.

Betting Approach:  Single.  Some will make a case against Bolt d'Oro.  It won't be us.

Selections:  Since we're pro a favorite that will be around even money, let's talk about underneath.  We're very meh on Firenze Fire and Free Drop Billy, the winners of the Kentucky and New York preps, and are much more interested in horses that finished second last out.  Good Magic is still a maiden but improved in the Champagne for Chad Brown, and we think he's ready to take a step forward.  We don't think Solomini will close the 8 length gap he lost to Bolt d'Oro in his last, but think he'll run well again.  This isn't the best betting race of the day - hopefully we can see stardom instead.

1.  Bolt d'Oro
2.  Good Magic
3.  Solomini


Synopsis:  1 1/2 miles on the turf for the long-winded.  10 of the last 12 editions have been won either by horses based in Europe or European horses that relocated to America for the year (Main Sequence).  Recently, their domination has been even more stark: they've swept the last four exactas, comprised the entire triple in 2014, and last year made up the entire superfecta.  If you're going to use an American horse, you'd best be hoping for weak Euros and a really good Yankee.

Favorite:  A couple of horses could be favored, but we think it'll probably be Beach Patrol, who's domestically based and won the Arlington Million and Hirsch Classic for trainer Chad Brown.  He's a perfectly fine horse, but we're not seeing greatness here.  In the Million, he barely beat Fanciful Angel, who was a third-tier Euro, and will be 30-1 on Saturday.  His Hirsch was marginally better as he beat Fanciful Angel by a larger margin, but largely because he just sat a perfect trip.  He looks like a good bet-against.

Price Horse to Consider:  There are a few, but let's focus for the moment on Cliffs of Moher, who is one of three horses Aidan O'Brien is sending and likely the one to get ignored.  Impeccably bred and very well-regarded by the Coolmore family, he was an excellent second in the Epsom Derby earlier this year, and has since had tough trips over soft goings while competing against the best of Europe.  He needs to move up a little on speed figures, but he should stalk the pace and may get first run on the closers.  At 20-1 or so, he's intriguing. 

Betting Approach:  Spread.  There are a lot of potential winners here.  We're not going to pick either Ulysses or Highland Reel - we're a little underwhelmed with the former's form, and think the latter will get cooked on the front end by Oscar Performance - but they're not without chance and we'll use them defensively in multi-race wagers. 

Selections:  In multi-race wagers we will use Cliffs of Moher and probably a little of Talismanic and Seventh Heaven, but our main interest is in Decorated Knight, who's had an excellent season with 3 Grade 1's in Ireland and Dubai, including in the Irish Champion Stakes last out, which has produced a number of BC Turf winners (Pilsudski, Daylami, High Chapparal, Fantastic Light) plus others who ran 2nd (The Fugue, Golden Horn, and if we're being cute, Giant's Causeway and Swain albeit in dirt races).  The knock on him is that he's never raced at the Turf distance of 12 furlongs, but we're not particularly concerned - the breeding seems fine for the distance, and we like that he has tactical speed.  We'll take him to post a minor upset.

1.  Decorated Knight
2.  Cliffs of Moher
3.  Ulysses


Synopsis: 1 1/4 miles on the dirt for whoever's brave enough.  Again we're pressed for time so we're not doing a separate post on the Classic, even though we think it's a neat race.

Favorite: The only thing that's gone wrong for Gun Runner this year was a ban that kept him from running in the $10 million Pegasus stakes in January.  Since skipping that race, he's won 4 of 5 starts, including dominating wins in the Stephen Foster, Whitney and Woodward, a very prestigious trifecta to pull off.  He's quick, has tactical speed, and should be at his best coming into this race.  A very tough, legitimate favorite.

The Defending Champ: Three months ago, people were saying that Arrogate was the greatest horse of the century, as his Travers-Classic-Pegasus-World Cup wins were all sublime in their own way.  Then he came back in the San Diego Handicap, and finished a well-beaten 4th as the 1-20 favorite, while showing no interest in running.  He ran faster in the Pacific Classic a month later, but still lost and had to be heavily urged to get to second.  We see a horse that's lost interest in running and is going to be wildly overbet.  We're against completely, while still admitting that we wouldn't be upset to see him run back to his earlier form.

Price Horse to Consider:  Some year, Aidan O'Brien is going to win this race with a European shipper.  He barely missed in 2000 with Giant's Causeway and was pretty damn close a few years ago with Declaration of War.  Now he brings two horses to the race making their dirt debuts.  We're not at all interested in Churchill, but the lightly-raced War Decree is very intriguing.  In his last, he raced on synthetic, showed some tactical speed, and annihilated his competition in the stretch.  At 20-1 or so, he's very interesting on the come.

Betting Approach:  Narrow.  We are against a few horses that are going to take some action at the windows.  In addition to Arrogate, we're not seeing it for Collected, who we think won the Pacific Classic because Arrogate wasn't operating at 100% (we're not buying the speed figure for either horse) and got a relatively easy lead.  Here, he's going to get fried by Diversify, who we think is a neat story with no chance.  We have no interest in Cupid, who's just too slow.  Finally, Pavel might be the horse we want the most in 2018, but he's making his 5th career here and has only a maiden and Grade 3 win to his name.  This is a tough spot to get your first Grade 1 win.

Selections: We think this entire race is going to be a cat-and-mouse game between Gun Runner and West Coast, who's coming into this race in great form with five straight wins, including the Travers and Pennsylvania Derby.  While either can show early speed, we think both will sit off Collected and Diversify and make their moves on the turn to duke it out in the stretch.  We think West Coast has the slightest edge in upside and distance pedigree, which is why we're picking him to beat out Gun Runner in the stretch, and incredibly, gives Bob Baffert his fourth straight Breeders Cup Classic winner.

1.  West Coast
2.  Gun Runner
3.  War Decree

Enjoy Breeders Cup day everyone!