Thursday, June 4, 2015

2015 Belmont Stakes Preview

There's plenty to say about the elite horses running in the Belmont, so let's get the lesser portion of the field out of the way quickly.

We acknowledge that crazy things happen in the Belmont  - all you need to do is remember the names Da'Tara, Sarava, Lemon Drop Kid and Birdstone, all of which were over 25-1 and ruined Triple Crown bids.  And we know that Nick Zito has upset the Triple Crown twice with a pair of those bombs (Da'Tara and Birdstone).  But Frammento has less to offer than those two horses, who at least had back class or good recent races to their credit.  Frammento has neither.

The same is true for Keen Ice, who hasn't run a good race in 7 months and still hasn't won a meaningful one.  Dale Romans is a great trainer, but this guy should be running earlier on the card in the Easy Goer, not the Belmont.  A win by either him or Frammento would be a Sarava-level shock.

Tale of Verve and Madefromlucky are ahead of those two because we can see either of them finishing in the money, but can't see either winning.  Madefromlucky was annihilated by American Pharoah twice earlier this year, and while he did win his last race, it wasn't in a blistering time or against a great field.  Tale of Verve closed on a sloppy Preakness track where nobody other than the winner ran at all, and basically finished second by default.  His breeding and running style mean that it wouldn't be a surprise if he finished in the superfecta, but it's tough to make a case for him beating seven other horses.

We're also not interested in Mubtaahij, who quietly had a very easy trip in the Derby - rating off the speed, on the rail, without traffic issues - and showed nothing in the stretch.  His breeding still doesn't scream dirt and he finished behind literally half the horses in this race with no excuse.  If we were setting a morning line for which horse was most likely to finish last, he'd be the favorite.

We give this quintet of horses a collective 4% shot to win the race; meaning they're about 25-1 as a group.  Sadly, we suspect that you won't get that price on any of those horses except Frammento.  Don't be tempted when you see Tale of Verve sitting at 18-1 and think it's a bargain.  It's not.

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On to the real contenders.  The case for American Pharoah is pretty easy and straightforward.  His Derby was probably his worst start since his maiden race and he defeated all top 3 year olds in the country with relative ease.  His Preakness was outstanding, and was almost a paid workout in the slop.  And speaking of workouts, his last two have been utterly gorgeous.  Here's his workout from Monday (jump to about 4:20):


The case against American Pharoah has been made by countless others and in other years when a Triple Crown is on the line.  Horses aren't bred like once were and can't run the distance.  Three races in five weeks is a lot to ask.  New shooters are have a huge advantage over horses that have been asked to compete in all three legs.  He hasn't run at Belmont before.  The pressure may get to the jockey. 

None of these are particularly appealing to us.  If Victor Espinoza can't handle the pressure despite having won 6 Triple Crown races and having a horse that's versatile and talented, then we don't know what to say.  The breeding on this guy is fine - his grandfather did win this race after all.  The fact he's never run at Belmont is a complete red herring to us - neither had Summer Bird, Rags to Riches, Ruler on Ice or Sarava, and they all won the Belmont.

And sure, American Pharoah may regress.  In any race, any horse may regress.  But there's absolutely no reason to think that a bad effort is coming.  Watch that workout again.  This horse is in fine form and is working out brilliantly.  Even if he regresses a little, someone is going to have to improve to beat him. 

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Only two horses appear to be able to take the next step forward and challenge him for the win slot.  The first is morning line second choice Frosted, who was last seen running 4th in the Derby.  We'll admit that there's some stuff to like here - trainer Kiaran McLaughlin is outstanding, his breeding is decent enough for the distance, and he has run well in his last two starts.

But we're very skeptical.  His Wood gets a giant asterisk from us because it was at Aqueduct, and as we noted in the Derby preview, he's a monster at Aqueduct (3/2-1-0), and ordinary everywhere else (5/0-3-0).  His 4th in the Derby is getting some accolades because he closed well and had some traffic trouble.  But to us that was a typical clunk-up finish, passing other tiring horses.  He was wide on the turns at Churchill and lost ground, but didn't really have a bad trip per se.  He tried to close from the back of the pack.  You know what happens when you try that?  You usually have to go wide and lose ground.  He may have been slightly closer to the top 3 with a better trip, but at the same time, may not have had the type of sustained rally that got him in 4th.

We're also generally skeptical of closers in the Belmont (while acknowledging that McLaughlin trained a dead closer that won the Belmont in Jazil).  Usually it takes tactical speed and a grinding ability to win the race.  Frosted doesn't run like that.  His best efforts at Aqueduct all had big moves on the turn.  So did his Derby.  Even his Fountain of Youth, where he ran a crummy 4th, consisted of a big move on the turn then a dead stop at the top of the stretch.  Generally, if you try to make a big move on the turn at the Belmont, you have nothing left for the stretch and fade miserably - recall the losing efforts by Animal Kingdom in 2011 and Mine That Bird in 2009.  So what does he do - try to make a sweeping move and gut it out for 2 extra furlongs, or attend to the pace and lose the closing bid that's made him successful?  It's a Hobson's Choice that we think sinks him.

Which leaves us with Materiality, whose troubled 6th place finish in the Derby has been noted by nearly everyone.  Unlike Frosted, he actually had a bad trip in the Derby.  He was shuffled back early and not allowed to flaunt his early speed, putting him next to last early in the race, which is not how he ran his first three races.  That he closed to 6th despite having the worst of it was a credit.  It's very reminiscent of the Trip From Hell that Lookin at Lucky had in the 2010 Derby.  And he rebounded to win the Preakness.

Adding to Materiality's credentials are his connections - Todd Pletcher and John Velazquez need no introduction here - and that he sports the highest speed figure in the entire field from his Florida Derby win.  And he's making his 5th career start, meaning there's clearly room for improvement.  Equally importantly, his draw (8 post) means that he should go just to the outside of American Pharoah and keep him in his sights.  We don't think that these two are going to engage in a speed duel; the point is that he's going to keep American Pharoah honest and not let him sneak away.

The negatives on Materiality -- other than he's not American Pharoah -- are small but exist.  The fact that he hasn't won a race away from Gulfstream bothers us a little bit.  If we're going to doink Frosted for being a horse for the course, we have to at least acknowledge that the same may be true for Materiality.  We're also not in love with his breeding.  Yes his father won the Belmont and has sired a Travers winner (Afleet Express), but we're still not a big fan of his as a distance sire.  And his dam is the daughter of rank sprinter Langfuhr.  If it comes down to a battle of who's better bred to get the final 2 furlongs, we're siding with American Pharoah.

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For years, when horses have made their bid attempt for the Triple Crown, the racing press have sneered at them as unfit to join the Pantheon with War Admiral, Citation, and Secretariat.  Everyone other than Dick Dutrow was rooting against Big Brown because of his unsavory trainer and owners, and felt they didn't belong with the likes of Billy Turner and Penny Chenery.  People picked War Emblem, Charismatic and I'll Have Another to lose because they didn't have race records before the Triple Crown that made people think they were appropriate Triple Crown winners.  Even Smarty Jones, who most people loved, was greeted with skepticism because he came from a racing backwater (Pennsylvania) and had run against nothing until his race before the Derby.  People thought he was neat, but "greatness" and "historic" seemed to escape him.

Perhaps nobody put this better than Steve Crist when writing about Funny Cide's attempt to take the Triple Crown in 2003:
The other reason I feel compelled to pick against Funny Cide is that for all his admirable qualities and likeability, he seems to stand outside the circle of greatness that characterized the only three horses to have won a crown in the last 50 years. The game has changed since the days of Secretariat, Seattle Slew, and Affirmed, but I still want the next Triple Crown winner to be a champion at 2 rather than a winner of three restricted statebred races.
Well, here's the list of all the horses that have won the Eclipse for champion 2 year old and entered the Belmont with a shot at the Triple Crown:

Year
Horse
Belmont Finish
1973
Secretariat
1st
1977
Seattle Slew
1st
1978
Affirmed
1st
1979
Spectacular Bid
3rd
2015
American Pharoah
???

American Pharoah isn't a horse that's gotten hot for 2 months.  He isn't someone who's lucked into a pair of Triple Crown wins.  He isn't some mediocrity that's been dominating a bad group of horses.  He's been the best horse in this class for nearly a year.  Since losing his maiden race, he's won every race he's entered, has dominated almost all of them, and has beaten every notable member of his class in the process.

It's time.

Picks

1.  American Pharoah
2.  Materiality
3.  Tale of Verve
4.  Madefromlucky

Enjoy Belmont Day everyone!

Friday, May 15, 2015

2015 Preakness Preview

Every once in a while, form prevails in the Triple Crown.  There was a stretch that went on for two decades where being a favorite in the Derby was the kiss of death - not a single favorite won between Seattle Slew (1979) and Fusaichi Pegasus (2000).  Since then favorites have fared slightly better: Street Sense ('07), Big Brown ('08), Orb ('13) and California Chrome ('14) all won as the chalk, while Smarty Jones, Super Saver and Barbaro were all well-supported.  And then there was this year's Derby, where the order of betting and order of finish were shockingly similar:

Horse
Betting Choice
Order of Finish
American Pharoah
1st
1st
Dortmund
2nd
3rd
Carpe Diem
3rd
11th
Firing Line
4th
2nd
Frosted
5th
4th
Materiality
6th
6th

We're reminded more than a little bit of the 2007 Derby.  That year, we knew we had a good class of horses, which included the 2yo champ, and discounted longshots accordingly.  The Derby results confirmed our pre-race thoughts:

Horse
Betting Choice
Order of Finish
Street Sense
1st
1st
Curlin
2nd
3rd
Scat Daddy
3rd
18th
Hard Spun
4th
2nd
Nobiz Like Shobiz
5th
10th
Circular Quay
6th
6th

Two things stand out.  The first is that in both races, the horses that were the biggest flops were heavily bet Todd Pletcher horses that skeptics rightly discounted.  If you want to know where the talk of Pletcher-The-Choker comes from, it's not really the 1-for-43 record, it's horses at short prices failing repeatedly in Kentucky.  Nobody's really holding it against Pletcher that Keyed Entry didn't run well in the Derby.  They do hold it against him when Carpe Diem, Scat Daddy, Gemologist, Verrazano and Bandini to run like world beaters in January through April but like garbage in Kentucky.

The second is that the Preakness results doubled-down on the Derby results. Not only did Curlin beat out Street Sense for the win, but Hard Spun took 3rd and Circular Quay ran 5th.  Going after new horses when the crop already looked strong was not a great idea.

So since we have 4 of the top 5 finishers in the Derby running in the Preakness, let's just run back the trifecta, right?  Not necessarily.  Let's count down the field in reverse order of likelihood to come away with a garland of black-eyed susans.  We're assuming the track is fast and fair - check the weather on Saturday, because this may not be the case.

Pimlico Race Course, home of the Preakness
I Mean, What's the Point?

8.  Tale of Verve.  The last horse that ran in a Triple Crown race and was this hopeless was when they ran a maiden in Big Brown's Belmont.  Tale of Verve has actually won a race (hooray!), though it was his last race, his 6th start overall, and returned a 74 speed figure.  That puts him a mere 20 lengths behind the key contenders from the Derby.  Dallas Stewart is a good trainer, Charles Fipke is (usually) a good owner, and this horse cost $440,000 at auction.  Why on earth are they throwing him to the wolves where he has no shot unless every other horse scratches?

Water Seems a Bit Deep

7.  Mr. Z.  Ahmed Zayat, the owner of American Pharoah, was so impressed with the quality of this horse that he decided to sell him to Calumet Farm on Wednesday, fully knowing that the new owners were going to run him in the Preakness and try to spoil American Pharoah's chances at a Triple Crown.  And who can blame Zayat?  The horse has only lost 13 straight race, his three by a combined 45 lengths.  I hope Calumet paid in cash.

6.  Bodhisattva.  It's the annual Preakness entry out of the Federico Tesio stakes!  Since Magic Weisner ran a good 2nd at 43-1 in 2002, the only other Tesio runner to hit the board in the Preakness was Ichabad Crane in 2008, where he ran a non-threatening third in a year where Big Brown scared off almost every other Derby competitor.  The field's a lot deeper this year than it was in 2008, and this horse doesn't look anywhere near as good as Ichabad Crane.

5.  Danzig Moon.  His fifth place finish in the Derby was about an unexciting as you can get.  He rated off the top 3 horses, sat 5th or 6th for much of the race, never closed the gap, and was passed by Frosted in the stretch.  He seems perfectly likely to run a stalking 5th where he never threatens the leaders or completely fades from the picture.

Concerned About the Timing

4.  Firing Line.  Since this guy ran a robust 2nd in the Los Alamitos Derby in his third start, trainer Simon Callahan took a less-is-more approach by intentionally spacing out Firing Line's next 3 starts, which were 49, 43 and 42 days apart.  He responded each time by running well, with a good second in the Robert Lewis, a win in the Sunland Derby (albeit against nobody) and a very nice 2nd at Churchill.  We know this guy's talented, but we're concerned about the very quick turnaround.  It's antithetical to everything else Callahan has done with the horse, and think he may regress off his last effort.  We get why he's running - he was right there with American Pharoah at the end, and should appreciate the shortening up in distance - but the analogue we keep coming back to is Lion Heart, who was gingerly managed in 2004, ran a solid 2nd in the Derby, and was nowhere in the Preakness.  We see this guy showing speed but fading on the far turn, then taking a brisk break from racing and reappearing in the Haskell in July.

The Most Likely Upsetters

3.  Dortmund.  Of the last 20 Preakness winners, 9 also won the Derby and 3 were new shooters (Red Bullet, Bernardini and Rachel Alexandra).  The remaining 8 winners ran in the Derby and lost.  Roughly speaking, this octet falls into three categories:

     a.  Clearly Superior Talent.  These horses were the class of their generation that, for whatever reason, didn't get it done at Churchill Downs.  Sometimes it was inexperience (Curlin), sometimes it was they ran into a buzzsaw (Point Given), sometimes it was just one-of-those-days (Timber Country, Afleet Alex).  The Preakness is where they re-established themselves as the best horse of their class.

     b.  Trip From Hell.  Lookin' at Lucky is the obvious horse that falls into this category; you could argue Afleet Alex does too.  Basically, these were good horses that had bad trips in the Derby but rebounded once they got to Pimlico and dealt with a smaller field.  Importantly, both of these horses were highly regarded before the Derby.  Longshots that had bad trips in the Derby and run back to the Preakness generally don't run well, unless they're a...

     c.  Front Runners That Never Looked Back.  Louis Quatorze, Shackleford and Oxbow all went to the front pretty quickly out of the gate and were never caught.  Shackleford was the only one of the three that was seriously challenged at all during the race; honestly, we're still not sure how he won the Preakness.  Controlling the pace with early speed works in most horses races, it's hardly shocking that it does in the Preakness too.

So does Dortmund fall into any of these categories?  He didn't have a bad trip in the Derby; you could argue he had a perfect trip.  He could in theory steal the race on the front end, but it looks like an identical pace setup as the Derby, with maybe Bodhisattva adding some speed as well.

Which leaves us with the Clearly Superior Talent.  There's a real shot that he could pull a Curlin and turn the tables on American Pharoah if he's truly the better horse, which may be the case if the reports that he had colic a few days before the race are true and affected his performance.  But we don't think that's the case.  He had no visible excuse for fading in the final 1/8th of the Derby, and he looked inferior to the top two finishers.  He could rebound and move forward on Saturday, but we're skeptical, and think he's an excellent miler that's merely a good router.

2.  Divining Rod.  The X Factor.  Normally we're skeptical of the new shooters, because if you were any good, you would have run in the Derby.  The few times that new shooters have won or done very well in the Preakness are because they weren't in the Derby for unconventional reasons.  Red Bullet was intentionally held back by his owner even though he would have been the 2nd or 3rd choice in the 2000 Derby; he won the Preakness easily when he basically faced Fusaichi Pegasus and a bunch of stiffs.  Rachel Alexandra ran in the Kentucky Oaks, a natural goal for a 3yo filly.  When she won by the length of 4 football fields, her new owners wisely decided to try out the boys.  Bernardini and Rock Hard Ten (2nd in 2004) were making their 4th career starts and weren't able to run in the Derby, even though it was clear from their limited records that they were talented enough to compete in Grade 1 races.

Divining Rod may fall into this category too.  Well-bred for the turf (his dam won multiple graded stakes on the sod), after a start on the turf and in an off-the-turf maiden race, he was entered in the Sam Davis Stakes as something of a lark, and ran an good 2nd at 28-1.  He regressed in the Tampa Bay Derby where he was well-beaten by Carpe Diem and pointed for the Lexington, which is usually a last-ditch stop for horses looking to make the Derby.  He ran quite well, rating off a moderate/slow pace and pulling away convincingly in the stretch.  While he qualified for and could have run in the Derby, his connections opted to wait for the Preakness, concerned the Derby was too much too soon.  It wasn't a bad idea.  His speed figure was a new top that's just a shade below the American Pharoah/Firing Line/Dortmund trio, and he seems to be on the upswing.  And he's going to be around 12-1.  Definitely a contender if he builds off his Lexington.

The Pick

1.  American Pharoah.  Way to go out on a limb, we know.  But let's put aside the talent, which is obvious, and the fact that this race is going to set up for him perfectly again, with a small field and a coterie of horses that will give him something to track.  We're dealing with Bob Baffert, who is called a great Derby trainer, but is really an outstanding Preakness trainer.  He's come into this race with the Derby winner three times; all three of them repeated  He's come in twice with beaten Derby favorites (Point Given and Lookin at Lucky) and won both of those races.  He can get a top-shelf horse ready off of two weeks better than anyone other than mid-80s D. Wayne Lukas.  And promisingly, American Pharoah is making his 4th start of the year.  He should be on the upswing of a form cycle, not over the top.  We think he sits just off the leaders, moves to the outside of horses before the far turn, and has the race in hand by the 1/8th pole, giving us a big Belmont day.

How to Play the Preakness

Well American Pharoah is going to be all of 3-5, so a win bet isn't exactly enticing.  If you disagree with our analysis and want to take someone else to win, by all means, make a win bet, because they're going to be an okay price.  Otherwise, we say take AP-Divining Rod exactas, or if you're ambitious, try the Black Eyed Susan-Preakness double (we like Luminance and Sweetgrass in the former).

Good luck to all and enjoy the Preakness!

Friday, May 1, 2015

2015 Kentucky Derby Preview Part II: The Upper Crust

Click here for Part 1 of our preview.

If you haven't heard elsewhere, this year's crop of three year olds portends to be a good one.  Bill Finley, who is usually cranky about this sort of thing, has said this is the best Derby field ever, topping one that included Secretariat, Forego and Sham.  Mike Watchmaker, who generally thinks every horse since Easy Goer is a dog, has compared two of the entrants to Seattle Slew and Affirmed.  Dick Jerardi, who has never seen a horse outside of Pennsylvania that he's actually liked, thinks this is the fastest crop of horses in ages.

We're tapping the brakes a little bit on these plaudits.  We're not sure there are multiple Hall of Fame horses in this race - hell, if we had one, that would be neat.  But this does look like an above average group of horses.  The best have run pretty fast in the prep races, have good breeding, and have avoided the injury bug.  This isn't 2008, where everyone besides Big Brown looked terrible, or 2009, where everyone got hurt and left the field wide open for an upset.  This looks like the best group we've seen since 2007, which included Curlin, Street Sense, Any Given Saturday and Hard Spun.

Our biggest takeaway from that Hot Take is that we're less inclined to back horses that don't check off a lot of the traditional boxes for Derby contenders.  Big Brown won the Derby off 3 starts because his competitors were garbage. Giacomo and Mine That Bird took the race because there were only 1-2 good horses in the race.  This isn't the case this year.  If you're a horse with flaws, you're going to need to overcome them and beat 5-7 horses that would be good choices most years.  Which is why we're not picking...

This Would Defy History

10.  Mubtaahij.  We've said it many times before and will say it again - the first horse from the UAE Derby that wins the Kentucky Derby will come at our expense.  This guy's a little more interesting than the prior winners because he won the UAE Derby on dirt (rather than synthetic) and is trained by Mike de Kock, who's great in South Africa but almost never comes to the USA.  But still - he's traveling half the world to take on better bred horses that have run on US tracks against better competition.  And there's chatter he'll be the 4th choice in the race (ignore his 20-1 morning line price, that's just wishful thinking).  No thanks.

9.  Materiality.  And then there's the Curse of Apollo.  We're getting to the point where we can write the same copy every year.  Or just point you to our takes on Verrazano, Bodemeister, Curlin, and Dunkirk.  In fact, this horse is Dunkirk version 2.0 - a well-bred Pletcher 3 year old with no juvenile experience but oozes potential.  We were impressed by his win in the Florida Derby, and we'd consider deviating from the Curse of Apollo in a less talented year.  But this year?  Not interested.

Not Out of It, But We're Against

8.  Frosted.  Beware the Horse for the Course.  It's a well-known fact that some horses like some tracks better than others and run their best races at certain locales.  Well, here's Exhibit A, a horse that has 2 wins and a second on Aqueduct's main track, but is winless elsewhere in 4 starts.  More problematically, he never came close in two Florida starts against logical contender...

7.  Upstart.  ...who we acknowledge has a shot but we're not loving in this spot.  This New York-bred dominated his first start then won a state-bred race handily in a very fast time.  Trainer Rick Violette - who we've always liked - aggressively pointed him to the Champagne and BC Juvenile, where he ran 2nd and 3rd respectively, running pretty well both times, but never really threatening the winners.  After a good Holy Bull to start out this year, he ran a DQ'd-into-2nd in the Fountain of Youth, then a beaten 2nd in the Florida Derby.  More importantly, his speed figures have stagnated in his last two races.

So was he just ahead of the class early last year?  There are some interesting excuses in each of his last two races, but the bottom line is that he hasn't developed as the distances have gotten longer.  To top it off, he missed training time last month with an illness.  While the connections say he's back in shape and he's worked out fine, we're not in love with horses that come in to the Derby with any hiccups.

6.  Dortmund.  He's undefeated, has won a pair of Grade 1 races, and has beaten some pretty good horses.  And he could win easily on Saturday and prove us wrong.  But we've got a couple of concerns.  First, his running style is on or close to the lead.  Now this is great in 5-7 horse races where you can control the tempo and take racing luck out of the equation.  But we don't see that as the case here because there is a TON of speed in this race - we expect that all of Materiality, Ocho Ocho Ocho, and 1-2 others will want to go fast early.  If he chases all of them, he's going to be in a world of trouble.  It's a little reminiscent of Bellamy Road in 2005, who came in off a world-beater front running performance in the Wood, and was absolutely fried after 6 furlongs.  Dortmund may fall into that same trap.

Second, and a bit more esoteric, we join many people's concern that this horse is, well, too big.  The horse is 17 hands high and while powerful, isn't the most manuverable horse because of his size.  There is something to be said for being a steed that won't get knocked around by the rigors of the race but there's also something to be said for a horse that can adjust quickly if he gets in trouble.

Look, we acknowledge we could be dead wrong and that this guy may turn out to be a blossoming star.  He's never lost, isn't poorly bred, and looked great in the Santa Anita Derby.  He's trained by Bob Baffert, who's second to none when it comes to the Derby.  But we're concerned that we're seeing another horse that has looked better than he is because he's repeatedly gotten easy leads that have allowed him to control the pace.  That certainly won't be the case on Saturday.  We think he challenges early but isn't in the picture at the end.

Prices With a Shot

5.  Bolo.  Our longshot du jour has a bit of an interesting background.  He's obscurely bred - his sire Temple City was barely known to us beforehand, and Chief Seattle isn't exactly a fashionable damsire - but the breeding actually isn't bad for the dirt or the distance.  He ran his first three races on the turf as a 2yo and did well, winning a maiden and ungraded stakes.  Off a short break, trainer Carla Gaines (who's not bad) switched him to the dirt and threw him to the wolves in the San Felipe, where he ran greenly but still closed to a decent 3rd behind Dortmund.  He regressed a little bit in the Santa Anita Derby, but seems posed to move forward in his third start of the year.  And he has some tactical speed but we think will probably close into the strong pace.  We think he's a bit unlikely to actually win the race, but has a big shot to hit the board at 40-1.

4.  Firing Line.  When an owner spends $240,000 at auction for a horse out of a completely unproven sire (Line of David) by an unknown damsire, either he's a lunatic or the horse can run.  Fortunately for Arnold Zetcher, it's the latter, as this modestly bred colt has never finished out of the exacta and won his last start by a whopping 14 lengths.  More impressively, he fought Dortmund twice and lost both races by a mere head.  Dortmund is going to be 3-1; Firing Line is going to be 15-1.  You can guess where our interest is.

So why are we ranking him here?  His running style.  We've hinted at it throughout this preview, but we think the pace is going to be strong and may cook everyone near it.  That may well include this guy, who's done his best running within a length of the lead.  Jockey Gary Stevens is one of the best ever and may try to rate him off the strong pace, and the 10 post certainly puts that possibility in play.  Our guess is he rates just a little off the pace but doesn't have enough to pass or hold off the remaining four horses.

3.  International Star. The best closer in the race happens to actually be a halfway decent horse, rather than your standard closer with 3rd-place-itis.  He spent his winter in Louisiana - hey, there are worse ideas - sweeping the Fairgrounds races with three come from behind victories.  He's blossomed since turning into a one-run closer and this race presents the perfect opportunity to continue this tradition, since the pace should be at worst honest, and possibly blistering.  Yes he's a little slow on the Speed Figures, but his running style fits the race shape.  We look to see him closing late, but think he's ultimately a minor threat to the top 2.

The Obvious Favorite

2.  American Pharoah.  While we think any of the top 8 horses could win this race, this one is the most likely to develop into a superstar.  After a poor maiden race, Bob Baffert threw him into a Grade 1  where he responded by wiring the field at 7 furlongs and winning easily.  His next win in the Front Runner was absolutely dominating, and in it he defeated eventual BC Juvenile winner Texas Red with ease.  After time off for a minor injury, he shipped to Arkansas and won both the Rebel and Arkansas Derby with absolute ease.  He has tactical speed (though is not an uncontrollable speedball or committed front runner), should have the pedigree to make 10 furlongs, and jockey Victor Espinoza knows a thing or two about winning Triple Crown races.

Our biggest concern is that his speed figures are inflated because he's had perfect trips in all 4 wins and has never had a serious obstacle in his path.  He towered over his competition in his last two starts; they were essentially paid workouts.  It's hardly uncommon for a horse to run career best speed figures when he gets easy trips and no real competition in the stretch.  So while the possibility of stardom is here, so is the possibility of a regression.  At 5-2, we're wary of picking against, but prefer...

The Pick

1.  Carpe Diem.  Greatness has been expected from this horse for over a year and so far he's done little to dissuade people from the notion that he might be special.  This spectacularly bred son of Giant's Causeway sold for $1.6 million as a two year old, and made his first start at Saratoga, where he won at 5 1/2 furlongs over Ready for Rye, a useful sprinter.  He stretched out to two turns for his second start and utterly dominated the BC Futurity at Keeneland - other than American Pharoah's Front Runner, it's probably the best performance by a horse in this field (sorry, Dortmund fans).  He ran an okay second in the BC Juvenile; this year he's easily won the Tampa Bay and Bluegrass Derbies.  In both races he showed tactical speed, made a good move on the turn and drew off in the stretch while never really being asked.

There are basically two knocks against him.  The first are his relatively low speed figures.  We're less concerned about those because we don't think Pletcher or Velazquez have asked this guy for his best race yet this year.  It's very reminiscent of how Pletcher also managed Super Saver in 2010, who had two useful races before the Derby that hardly indicated dominance, but was primed to go on the big day.  The bigger knock is drawing the 2-post.  We don't love it, but don't think it's a big enough negative to downgrade him from the top slot.  We think he makes a huge leap forward on Saturday, sits an okay trip off the strong pace, and runs down American Pharoah in a memorable Derby.

How to Play the Race

If you like anyone besides American Pharoah and Dortmund, just play him to win!  Carpe Diem is the likely third choice and we suspect he'll be at least 6-1.  There's nothing sexy about win betting, but there's sure nothing wrong with a 600% or higher return on investment.  If you're looking to boost the price, we recommend playing International Star, Bolo and Firing Line "underneath" in exactas and triples, or looking at the Oaks-Derby double that's available on Friday.  (We like Eskenformoney, Stellar Wind, and Puca in the Oaks.) And by all means, please ignore the superfecta.

Good luck to all and enjoy the race!!

Thursday, April 30, 2015

2015 Kentucky Derby Preview Part I: The Underclass

Post positions have been drawn, jockeys have been announced, and the morning line has been set.  It's Kentucky Derby week, which means it's time for our annual preview.  Let's start today off with a look at the bottom half of the field, the 10 horses that do not particularly enamor us.  We are ignoring also-eligibles Tale of Verve (who we literally never heard about until 12 noon Wednesday) and Frammento; we recommend you do likewise.  As always, we're assuming the track is fast and relatively unbiased.

Wow, Our Owners Got Great Seats!

20.  Ocho Ocho Ocho.  For the honor of Worst Name of a Kentucky Derby Winner, this guy would give Mine That Bird, Lil E. Tee and Burgoo King a run for their money.

19.  War Story.  His running lines from 4 of his 5 starts include the comments "off bit slow," "hesitated start" and "flattened".  These are not the sort of notes that portend greatness.

18.  Keen Ice.  The definition of a plodder, he has no tactical speed, no fast turn of foot, and no closing spurt.  Also, he's only finished better than third once in his career and has been thrashed by 7 other opponents in this race.  Other than those flaws, he looks stunning.

17.  Stanford.  His best strategy appears to be go for the early lead and try to hold on for dear life.  That hasn't worked in smaller fields against lesser competition at shorter distances, so sure, let's give it a go against 19 of the best three year olds in the country at the longest distance he'll ever run.

16.  Itsaknockout.  This horse is being oddly cross-promoted with the Mayweather-Pacquiao fight, giving people the chance to bet the rare double between sports that reached their peak of popularity 50 years ago.  As to his merits, he lost his last start by a mere 21 lengths on a track that he appeared to love, and did so against horses we don't particularly care for in the Derby.  We're still in Giacomo-territory here.

15.  Mr. Z.  In his 12(!) career starts, he's been beaten by 10 of the other 19 horses in this race, including this aforementioned Ocho Cubed.  Turning the tables on over half the field seems rather ambitious.

Oh, Why the Hell Not?

14.  Far Right.  Unlike the prior 6 horses, we can make arguments for this next group of horses catching a piece of the superfecta, but are against for a multitude of reasons. Let's start with this guy, who after breaking his maiden toiled around aimlessly in second-tier races. then dropped into third-tier races and found some success.  He tried the big boys in the Arkansas Derby where he second by default and was about a football field behind the winner.  He could clunk up for a piece late, but he's more likely to linger at the back of the pack and finish with the classic running line of "passed tiring horses."

Friend of the blog and Voice of the Derby, Larry Collmus
13.  El Kabeir. This guy would be a hoot and a half to own, because he runs regularly and generally turns in an honest effort, as evidenced by his 8 finishes in the money and banking nearly $800,000 to date.  But his breeding does nothing to suggest that he has any affinity for 10 furlongs, and his two starts in deepest waters (the Champagne last year and Wood Memorial in his last race) were his two worst efforts.  We suspect that this is a miler who's in a bit deep here, and that he'll be very competitive in the King's Bishop and Breeders Cup Dirt Mile later this year.  But not on Saturday.

12.  Danzig Moon. On the one hand, his breeding is good for the distance.  On the other hand, he hasn't been particularly competitive with contender Carpe Diem in their last two meetings.  Back on the first hand, he may be rounding into form and Julian Leparoux is overdue for a Derby win.  Back on the other hand, Mark Casse is consistently a bad bet in these types of races - he's astoundingly good in Canada and astoundingly below par in American graded stakes.  We lean against, but think this guy could be interesting come the summer.

11.  Tencendur. So what do we make of that huge last race speed figure?  It represents a sharp improvement from his prior 4 races, and let's remember that a 3yo horse is very eligible to improve markedly 5 starts into his career.  A repeat of the Wood won't win the Derby, so the question is can he can move forward again?  We're skeptical.  A huge jump in speed figures like his last race is a classic "bounce" pattern where a horse regresses afterwards.  Occasionally, that horse will take another step forward later on, but the regression generally comes first.  And we think that's exactly what happens here - a regression that's a non-threatening middle of the pack finish, while his trainer (the highly underrated George Weaver) scouts out Derbies in Ohio and Oklahoma for him to try this summer.

Coming Up Tomorrow: The Top 10 and our pick.

Monday, March 23, 2015

Transactions Analysis: The First Act of the 2015 Draft

Part of this year's draft is in the books, thanks to everyone moving at the pace of a cadaver.  But that hasn't stopped us from analyzing the shit show of the first two rounds.  Up for a resuscitation, Teddy?  (El Angelo)

Wait, what? Is Pat Neshek still available?

Also, in a fit of communitarian madness, I joined a softball team this year. We had our first practice yesterday before the draft. Today I can neither bend over to tie my shoes nor lift my arm to comb my hair. I have managed to solve those problems using, respectively, loafers and baldness, but it was a close-run thing.  In summary, don't get old. (Teddy)

1.  The Left Sharks: Andrew McCutchen, OF, Pittsburgh.

If the second best player in baseball on a rising team is available with the first pick, you take him and move along to more difficult matters.  (El Angelo)

Yep. (Teddy)

2.  Who Run Bartertown?: Jose Bautista, OF, Toronto.

This team needed to reload on its offense after last year's surprising out of the money finish, so it takes the best available hitter in Joey Bats.  I'm not sure this guy will be on the team in 3 years, but with the Trout-E5-HanRam core already in place, you're clearly in win-now mode, so by all means, go with the slugger.  (El Angelo)

I am not as high on Bats because he has only played three full seasons out of the past six. But he'll produce if healthy, and this manager has proven that he can work the waiver wire well enough to mitigate the downside risk. (Teddy)

3.  Paging Dr. Rumack: Max Scherzer, SP, Washington.

Since Cano didn't fit the shape of this roster, it comes down to whether you'd like an aging, elite 3B or a stud pitcher moving to the National League.  I think he made the right call.  (El Angelo)

Yeah, I think Scherzer was the clear pick here. Don't worry, I'll get meaner soon. (Teddy)

4.  PV=nrt: Madison Bumgarner, SP, San Francisco.

It's probably the right pick, but Bumgarner scares me a little bit off the 500 innings he threw last year.  Then again, my team has lost aces to Tommy John surgery in successive seasons, so I'm probably not the best person to ask on pitcher risk.  (El Angelo)

Hooray for me! (Teddy)

5.  flying malaysians:  Robinson Cano, 2B, Seattle.

I feel like every year we find that the guy drafting 5th has the easiest pick to make and never fucks it up.  (El Angelo)

There is definitely something to be said for having the last pick in the first tier of players. I mean, we all love the illusion of agency, but it's also nice to just scoop up whatever shiny object falls to you and move on to planning how you're going to f--k up the second round. (Teddy)

6.  Jazzy Rural Grammar:  Yadier Molina, C, St. Louis.

Four years after Tucker took Geovany Soto in this spot, Ben takes a defense-first catcher coming off an injury-ridden season.  It can't work out much worse than the Soto pick.  I actually think all the available catchers are roughly of the same caliber, so why not wait until the 3rd round to take McCann?  (El Angelo)

I got my shot off on this one in chat, so we'll make this a data post. Last three years: OBP: .373, .359, .333; GP: 138, 136, 110; HR: 22, 12, 7. I mean, literally every statistic is trending downward over the past three years. No, wait, I'm wrong--I found one that's flat!

K: 55, 55, 55

That's something, right? (Teddy)

7.  Beltway Bulldogs:  Yoenis Cespedes, OF, Detroit.

I've never been as high on this guy as others, but he does contribute in 4 categories and generally takes the field in for 150 or so games, so there's something to be said for consistency.  Low-upside, low-downside.  I'm just not sure if that's where the team that's rebuilding should be heading.  (El Angelo)

Just when Cespedes had freed himself from the power-destroying vortex of Oakland and set up shop in friendly Fenway, he gets shipped to Detroit. Comerica has actually played neutral the past few years, but it's not as soft of a landing spot as you'd like. The hope for BB is that Detroit puts Cespedes after Miggy and lets him chit with runners on all year. That should at least let him keep his disproportionate RBI production up. (Teddy)

8.  Torn Ligaments:  Carlos Gonzalez, OF, Colorado.

The team named Torn Ligaments took a guy who's injury prone?  Why not just send a black cat covered with anthrax to his locker?  (El Angelo)

At least it's not a tumor. Oh wait, it was a tumor. Well, at least it didn't have tentacles. Oh wait, it did have tentacles. (Ten years ago that last link would have gone to some genuinely heinous site; now it goes to USA Today. Ah well.) (Teddy)

9.  Wu Tang Financial (from Charming Sociopaths): Adrian Beltre, 3B, Texas.

The pick's spot on for a team that needs a 3B, and the extra price of a 4th round pick is worth it.  Solid all around.  (El Angelo)

Yeah, nice value in this spot. He's another guy who probably won't be on the team in three years, but we're at the point in the draft where you have to start picking the warts you're willing to live with. (Teddy)

10.  Charming Sociopaths (from Wu Tang Financial): Jason Heyward, OF, St. Louis.

This was the guy I wanted all along, plus I received a pick for him that became Yan Gomes, so I'm pleased.  I defer to my colleague on whether I should be pleased.  (El Angelo)

Owning Heyward is a very particular experience. I feel like the Germans need to coin an extremely long compound word to describe it, with the component words being hope, confusion, melancholy, and something racist because this is Germany we're talking about.

That said, I was hoping he'd fall to me in the next round, because I have talked myself into his breakout yet again this year. It just feels like St. Louis is going to baptize him in fried ravioli and he's going to magically put it all together. (Teddy)  

11.  Le Dupont Torkies: Joc Pederson, OF, Albuquerque Isotopes.

A prospect in the first round!  This is historic.  Let's all acknowledge how unique this is.  We will ignore the fact that LA has at least 3 OFs ahead of him at the moment.  (El Angelo)

I think Pederson will actually break camp with the team. It's not like the new GM has any emotional investment in Andre Ethier, and they already shipped out Matt Kemp.

Although I guess this raises the question of whether the fact that Pederson is not really a prospect makes this pick more or less defensible. I sort of like it--it's similar to what I did last year reaching for Anthony Rizzo, and that turned out to be about the only good pick I made. (Teddy) 

12.  The Spam Avengers:  Chris Davis, 1B, Baltimore.

This circles back to the Joey Bats pick - if you're probably in the final year of your champion core, you may as well shoot high.  Davis could possibly be a sinkhole again, but taking a middling outfielder here doesn't sound as appealing.  (El Angelo)

Yeah, why not go for some upside. As we'll see below, the alternatives were a bunch of pretty good arms, which don't go that far in a league full of very good arms. (Teddy)

13.  Torn Ligaments:  James Shields, SP, San Diego.

Moving to a pitcher's park and good for 200 above-average innings.  Shields isn't a cornerstone but if you treat him as a 3rd starter, you're doing fine.  (El Angelo)

I'm a little concerned that San Digo has nobody who can catch the ball, which could lead to a record number of triples in that park. But really, Shields/Gio/Fister are pretty much a coin flip. (Teddy)

14.  Beltway Bulldogs:  Gio Gonzalez, SP, Washington.

I've never been as high on Gio G as many others, but that team is going to win 100 games this year, so why the hell not?  (El Angelo)

Every time I've slagged Gio in print he has gone on to post a great season. So may the road rise up to meet you, Gio!

You still have a dumb name, though. (Teddy).

15.  Jazzy Rural Grammar:  Elvis Andrus, SS, Texas.

Move over Alex Gordon and Rickie Weeks, Andrus is our newest winner for best player who's never, ever kept.  Teddy, name this trophy for me.  (El Angelo)

I don't think it's a trophy at all; I think it's a participation ribbon. (Teddy)

16.  Flying Malaysians:  Doug Fister, SP, Washington.

We can probably just copy everything I wrote about Gio G and put it here.  I still haven't figured out why Detroit traded him for a box of donuts.  (El Angelo)

I have it on good authority that the 2013 Detroit media guide inadvertently left the "u" out of his first name. The resulting PETA firestorm forced management's hand. (Teddy)

17.  PV=nRT:  Kyle Seager, 3B, Seattle.

Put it this way - I considered taking him at 9 and I already have Longoria.  Love the pick. (El Angelo)

With no kept OF, I had to shuffle the deck a bit once the back half of the first round devolved into an OF run. I don't love Chris Carter, but getting him without weakening my IF was nice. I think Seager would be a better fantasy asset than Cano in the (admittedly unlikely) event that Seattle ever switched them in the batting order. (Teddy)

18.  Paging Dr. Rumack:  Jay Bruce, OF, Cincinnati.

I had him last year and he was fucking horrible.  Shitty, shitty player.  (El Angelo)

I'll be honest: I had him circled for my third-round pick as a bounce-back play. He won't be that bad again. (Teddy) 

19.  Who Run Bartertown?: Koji Uehara, RP, Boston.

Taking closers is a dicey proposition to begin with, taking one that's possibly starting the year on the disabled list is doubling down.  Uehara is a nice pitcher, but it's a lot of risk to embrace this early on.  (El Angelo)

There is no way that I'm going to say anything negative about Koji. So . . .
(Teddy)

20.  The Left Sharks: Huston Street, RP, Anaheim.

Oy vey.  (El Angelo)

We almost made it out of the second round without a questionable closer run! We were so close, people! (Teddy)

21.  Charming Sociopaths:  Marcell Ozuna, OF, Florida.

There was absolutely nobody inspiring on the board, so I just went highest upside.  I figured a 24 year old who hits a boatload of home runs fits that category.  (El Angelo)

As proof that there was nobody inspiring left, I note that you picked a guy who's the third-best OF on his own real-life team. By that measure, he's Curtis Granderson. (Teddy)

22.  Wu Tang Financial:  Michael Wacha, SP, St. Louis.

He went 12th last year.  Let's hope this trend doesn't continue for him.  (El Angelo)

Somebody remember to take him 32d next year. Two events are a coincidence; three are a trend. (Teddy)

23.  The Left Sharks (from Le Dupont Torkies): Phil Hughes, SP, Minnesota.

When your rationale was that he finally had a good year, you're probably reaching.  But it's late in the second round.  The number of obviously good players left was zero.  (El Angelo)

I actually liked this pick. Although that's more a sign of the diminished expectations in this part of the draft than any real endorsement. (Teddy)

24.  The Spam Avengers: Charlie Blackmon, OF, Colorado.

The owner thought his name was Chris.  That pretty much sums up everything you need to know about this pick and player.  (El Angelo)

Quick, somebody B-Ref the name "Chris Blackmon". With some luck, he'll turn out to have been a Short Stop for the 1895 Providence Grays and we can foist yet another dead guy onto a roster in this league. (Teddy)

Tuesday, March 17, 2015

2015 Worst Keeper Award

The keeper lists are in, so it's time for our annual vote and award for Worst Keeper of 2015.  Shockingly, last year's winner Jonathan Villar, was not kept by Corey.  But can Corey win the award two years in a row?  Here are the candidates, in alphabetical order:

Henderson Alvarez (flying malaysians).  The epitome of meh.  Actually, that would be a much better team name for this entire team.

Jenrry Meija (Torn Ligaments).  He's probably the 3rd best Mets reliever, which is bad enough.  This guy's on the list more because he's guaranteed to give his owner heartburn on a weekly basis.  Aren't you supposed to enjoy baseball?

Michael Pineda (Wu Tang Financial).  Our 2012 winner returns!  He's made 13 starts in the last 36 months, so sure, let's use a keeper spot on him.

Jorge Soler (The Spam Avengers).  Soler Flare is probably going to be the best player on this list long-term, but he has 95 career PAs, 30% of which ended in strikeouts.  This seems a little ambitious.

Yordano Ventura (Charming Sociopaths).  As a Mets fan, I see no reason to think that Ventura's violent, hard throwing action will make it hard for his arm to stay intact.

Polls are open!


Friday, October 31, 2014

2014 Breeders Cup Preview Part 3: The Classic Countdown

What makes this Classic a bit different for most is how badly the older horse contingent has fallen apart.  Gone because of injury are Palace Malice, Lea, Game On Dude, Moonshine Mullin and Will Take Charge.  That would seem to open the door to the three year olds, right?

Maybe.  We had this in 2002, where the older horse contingent just looked dreadful - Evening Attire was a New York bred that won the Jockey Club Gold Cup, and nobody thought he was anything special.  The public responded by betting heavily a series of 3 year olds (Came Home, War Emblem, Medaglia d'Oro, even first-time dirt starter Hawk Wing), figuring the winner had to come from that contingent.  Perpetual underachiever Volponi blew that theory to shreds, running away with the race at 43-1.

The 1999 Breeders Cup posed a similar situation.  Real Quiet, Victory Gallop and a few others never made it to the big race, leaving an over-the-top Behrens and not-great River Keen as the obvious choices for older horses, so much of the action went on 3yos Lemon Drop Kid and General Challenge.  A 3yo did win the race, but it was Cat Thief at 19-1.

So let's not just accept that we have to take a short priced 3 year old and move on.  Let's count them down from worst to first.

This Seems Rather Ambitious

14.  Imperative. The only race where he was remotely competitive this year was his 26-1 shocker int he Charles Town Classic.  We're thrilled for his connections that their horse became a millionaire this year, but think his series of no-shows after that race are more indicative of his ability.

13.  Toast of New York.  He actually has the highest last-out speed figure, a 111 he earned running in the Pacific Classic.  Of course, he was throttled by Shared Belief in that race, and this race is on dirt, not synthetic.  There had to be an easier spot for him to make his dirt debut.

12.  Footbridge.  It's a bad sign when your last race had a perfect trip and ideal setup and the best you could do was a slow third.

The Pace and the Distance Seem Problematic

11.  Moreno.  We know this guy's two best "figures" were the Whitney and Woodward at Saratoga this summer, but we think his best race was actually the Suburban, where he ran fast as hell early and just got passed in the final sixteenth of a mile.  Mind you, he's now back to the 10 furlong distance, and is going to get pressed on the front end by...

10.  Bayern.  ...a horse that has shown zero ability to rate or carry his speed for 1 1/4 miles.  We're actually a little sad he's not running in either the Sprint or the Dirt Mile, two races where he'd be our pick.  Here, he's reduced to pace fodder.

9.  California Chrome.  The lone attribute this guy has is his affinity for Santa Anita.  Other than that, he's not in great form, doesn't look to get a particularly good pace setup, probably doesn't do his best running at the distance, and has never taken on older horses.  We wouldn't take 20-1 on this guy, let alone 4-1.  Rest up for next year, big fella.

Maybe for the Superfecta.  Maybe.

8.  Majestic Harbor.  If he runs back to his Hollywood Gold Cup 3 starts ago, he could be dangerous.   But every other start in his career makes it look like that race was the exception, not the rule.

7.  Prayer for Relief.  We don't see a way that a horse that hasn't won since last August and has won exactly 1 graded stakes race in his last 23 starts can take a $5 million race.  But he actually isn't in terrible form - his closing third on a speed favoring track in the Woodward was a sneaky-solid angle.  He was supposed to start in the Jockey Club Gold Cup but was scratched when he flipped in the paddock.  We can't endorse him on top, but as filler for trifectas and superfectas, he's a potential bomb to his the board.

6.  V.E. Day.  So can this guy, who will be dead last early and passing tiring horses late.  It's a fair question as to whether his rough start in the JCGC cost him that much position and mentally took him out of the race.  Again, we don't see anyway he wins the race, but most years, horses clunk up for 3rd or 4th in this race that you don't expect.  He's got a shot to be one of them.

A Real Chance at a Square Price

5.  Cigar Street.  There's plenty to like here - good breeding, good connections, and some actual upside since he's just making his 9th career start thanks to his injury history.  And having tactical speed is an asset.  But we're a little more wary than we were a couple of weeks ago.  First, everyone is touting this guy as their sleeper alternative.  At 20-1 we were intrigued; we think he's going to be under 10-1 come post time.  Second, he reminds us a little too much of Etched, who we touted as a shot to hit the board in 2010 and did very little.  He's never run in Grade 1 company, and has never beaten a horse of any consequence.  He's an interesting possibility on the come, but we think a level below the next few.

4.  Zivo.  This guy actually is in the running for Older Horse Eclipse Award and has a big shot.  He won his first five starts of the year, the last being his coming out party in the Suburban, where he took on open company for the first time and rallied through the stretch.  Trainer Chad Brown set his sights on this race and decided to give him two prep races: the Woodward and JCGC.  The former went so-so; he was running against the grain of the track, but still couldn't get past Prayer for Relief for third.  His JCGC was much more impressive, where he was a good second and lost some momentum when a riderless horse blocked his path.

The two key questions are whether he would have gotten to the winner anyway and how his New York form translates to California.  We say no on both.  We don't love older horses that have never left a single state before, and think the harder California surface just may not play to his style.  But would we be shocked if he won?  Not at all.

3.  Candy Boy.  Huge sleeper potential here at a big price.  His last two races were actually quite good - he just got nosed out by an improving Tapiture in the West Virginia Derby, and ran a better-than-it-looks third in the Pennsylvania Derby, trying to overcome a freak performance by Bayern and a speed bias.  He actually closed pretty well all things considered.  Now he's back at his home track where he's never finished out of the money, is working out well, and has good connections behind him.  If he were 10-1 we'd pass.  But at 30-1 or higher?  Very, very live.

The Obvious Contender

2.  Shared Belief.  Look, there's not too much to criticize here.  He's undefeated, has looked sensational in past races, is bred for the distance, has great connections, and should get a nice trip.  So why aren't we picking him over...

The Pick

1.  Tonalist.  A couple of reasons, besides the price differential.  First, we aren't sure that Shared Belief is as good on dirt as he is on a synthetic surface.  Sure he's 2-for-2 on dirt, but his speed figures on polytrack easily exceed his dirt speed figures.  By contrast, we know Tonalist loves the dirt and will love 10 furlongs.  Second, we really think Tonalist is blossoming and improving right now.  We wonder if Shared Belief has already fired his best shot and is trying to work back to his Pacific Classic.  Could he do it?  Sure, and we'd be foolish to tell you to leave him out of your bets.  We wouldn't be shocked if he romped.  But we still think Tonalist is at least as talented as him on the dirt.  We see Tonalist sitting 8-10 lengths off a hot pace, making a big move on the far turn, and running down Shared Belief in the stretch.

Enjoy the Breeders Cup everyone!

2014 Breeders Cup Preview Part 2: Saturday's Races

We've got eight races to get through, so let's not waste time discussing trivial matters.  On to the analysis!  As usual, we're assuming the track is fast and the turf is firm.

Juvenile Fillies

Synopsis:  1 1/16 miles on the dirt for 2yo fillies.  In 18 of the last 20 years, the winner of this race was either a short price or an utter bomb.  Hunting for a mid-price horse has only worked in 2001 (Tempera) and 2008 (She Be Wild).

Favorite:  What would a two year old race be without a favorite trained by Todd Pletcher? This edition is fronted by Angela Renee, who Pletcher sent west after the Saratoga meet, presumably to avoid the rest of his loaded stable.  She rewarded him with a strong victory in the local prep race, showing tactical but not flaunting speed.  She also beat two other horses in this race and got a race over the track, neither of which is a bad thing.

Price Horse to Consider:   If you're in the mood to try a New York bred on for size, how about Wonder Gal, trained by former jockey Leah Gyramati?  She's bred to like two turns and her last race may have been tempered by a sloppy track.  There's a lot of that going around in this race, by the way - it seems like every 2yo filly race of note took place in California or over a mud pit.

Betting Approach:  Spread.  We know, we just said that taking anything that isn't the chalk or a longshot is a bad idea, but we're just not overwhelmed by the favorites in this race.

Selections:  To continue that thought, Angela Renee looks fine, as does Pletcher's other charge, Feathered and we wouldn't be shocked to see either win.  But neither has much of an advantage over Top Decile or Cavorting, both of which have run strong races and a right to improve in their young careers.  We'll take the former on top, based on her strong finish in the Alcibiades, and her strong workouts for the under-appreciated Al Stall.

1.  Top Decile
2.  Cavorting
3.  Angela Renee

Filly & Mare Turf

Synopsis:  1 1/4 miles on the turf for the ladies, 3yo and up.  If asked what Breeders Cup races were our annual favorites, this one would come second after the Mile.  We love the Euros that ship over and also that Americans usually hold their own here.

Favorite:  Dank won this race last year and has been installed as the morning line favorite to repeat.  As good as she was last year, she's that tough a read this year.  She's only run twice (in Dubai and England) and wasn't competitive in either race.  And yet, her best race towers over the field.  On the other hand, she hasn't run in 4 months.  On the other (fourth?) hand, jockey Ryan Moore thinks she's the best horse he's riding all weekend.  It's all very confusing.

Price Horse to Consider:   We're admittedly honks for Shug McGaughey, but ignore Abaco at your own peril.  She's shown that she belongs in Grade 1 races by being competitive in every race she's entered this year, and sh lost to Stephanie's Kitten by less than two lengths in the Flower Bowl.  While Stephanie's Kitten had a dream trip that race, Abaco didn't.  We're infinitely more inclined to take Abaco at 20-1 than Stephanie's Kitten at 4-1, especially if the ground is hard.

Betting Approach:   This is a tough one, because we think it's an either/or proposition.  If you really believe in Dank being back to where she was last year, there's maybe one horse that can beat her.  If you don't love her, it's a spread race where a bunch of horses are competitive.  We lean towards the latter.

Selections:   Dispensing with a few other competitors, we don't think Stephanie's Kitten has any edge on this field at a short price, aren't in love with Just the Judge on a 2-week turnback, think Fioselana is in over her head, and are of the opinion that Emollient is one of the worst horses ever to win multiple Grade 1 races.  While we'll use Dank, we're more interested in Secret Gesture, who's never finished out of the money, has been keeping good company in Europe, and has had a campaign designed to bring her here.  We'll take her over Dayatthespa, who could steal this race on the front end a la Intercontinental, Dank and Abaco.

1.  Secret Gesture
2.  Dayatthespa
3.  Abaco

Filly & Mare Sprint

Synopsis:  7 furlongs on the dirt for fillies and mares.  We'll say it again - one of the most consistent angles on Breeders Cup weekend has been to go against 3 year olds in this race, who are winless and underrepresented in the trifecta.

Favorite:  Favoritism could go to any one of four horses.  We're going to guess the public sides with Artemis Agrotera, who bombed last year in the Juvenile Fillies and had a bad start to her year in the Acorn, then absolutely blossomed at Saratoga winning an ungraded stakes race and the Grade 1 Ballerina, both in romps.  She regressed a bit in the Gallant Bloom but still won at 6 1/2 furlongs.  Even though she's a 3 year old, she's not a pretender.

Price Horse to Consider:   We're not particularly wild about any of the horses that figure to be double-digit odds.  Gun to our heads, maybe Thank You Marylou can clunk up for third at a price.

Betting Approach:   Narrow/Spread.  We actually think you can whittle down the field of contenders pretty quickly - we don't see why Living the Life is here; think all of Southern Honey, Thank You Marylou and Little Alexis are too slow, and believe Better Lucky is in the wrong race.  The remaining 5, though, all have a real shot.

Selections:  Continuing with process of elimination, we're unconvinced that Sweet Reason is fast enough or will be as good outside of the State of New York.  Some prognosticators think Stonetastic will pop the field and never get caught; we disagree and think she'll get pressed more than others think.  We'll instead side with Judy the Beauty, who's the fastest horse, never runs badly, and loves the track, over Leigh Court, who closed well in her last and may just love the distance.

1.  Judy the Beauty
2.  Leigh Court
3.  Artemis Agrotera

Turf Sprint

Synopsis:  6 1/2 furlongs on the downhill turf for all comers.  We're still not sure why this race is worth $1 million.  Would the fields be decimated if this and the Dirt Mile were knocked down to $750,000 each and the Sprint was restored to $2 million?  We're also probably the only people on earth that care about this.

Favorite:  No Nay Never is well-connected, well bred, and has won 4 of his 5 starts.  We think he'll be quite a bit shorter than his 9-2 morning odds and is a solid, if beatable, favorite.

Price Horse to Consider:   We're not really sure why Something Extra is 20-1 on the morning line.  The horse hasn't had a bad turf race in nearly two years and has tactical speed.  What are we missing?

Betting Approach:  Spread.  Yeah, like you have a great idea in this race either.

Selections:  We tend to side with horses that have had success at Santa Anita and/or at the goofy 6 1/2 furlong distance.  Simply going off of that narrows down our top contenders to Ambitious Brew, Home Run Kitten and Sweet Swap.  Of that triumvirate we prefer Home Run Kitten, but will be using them at equal strength in multi-race wagers.

1.  Home Run Kitten
2.  Sweet Swap
3.  Ambitious Brew

Juvenile

Synopsis: 1 1/16 miles on the dirt for 2yo colts.  This race was shaping up to have one of the biggest favorites and most fascinating horses of the weekend in American Pharaoh, but he scratched earlier this week, leaving us with some interesting horses that haven't run too many times.

Favorite:  We're pretty confident that Todd Pletcher is going to train the favorite, but aren't sure which horse it is.  Behind Door #1 is Daredevil, who's won his two starts by a combined 9 lengths and throttled contender Upstart in his last.  The problem is he's never run on a fast track and may just be a slip freak.  Behind Door #2 is Carpe Diem, who hasn't run as quickly as his stablemate, but blew the doors off the field at Keeneland in his second start.  Every trainer would take one of these horses, let alone both.

Price Horses to Consider:  Texas Red merits a closer look at his 20-1 morning line odds.  His first start on the dirt was an even third against American Pharaoh and Calculator, who is getting a ton of buzz on the backstretch even though he's never won a race.  We like that he's sporting good workouts and nice efforts over the track.  For a total bomb, don't ignore Aiden O'Brien's The Great War, who's never run on the dirt but is in good form and good dirt breeding.  And has 7 starts.  All the European 2yos that have done well in this race - Arazi, Johannesburg, Wilko - came in well-seasoned.

Betting Approach:   Narrow.  As much as we're talking up the price horses above, we think they've better used underneath than on top.  We basically think three horses have a real chance to win this race.

Selections:  We're willing to take a shot against Daredevil because of how short a price he'll be and the uncertainty surrounding a cross-country ship on a fast track.  And while we think Upstart should be competitive, the 13 post raises a lot of concerns.  We have no such concerns about Carpe Diem, who looked great at Keeneland and should relish two turns at Santa Anita.  He's one of our favorite picks of the weekend.

1.  Carpe Diem
2.  Texas Red
3.  Upstart

Turf

Synopsis:  1 1/2 miles on the turf for all who dare.  Magician was scheduled to be one of four horses back to defend their title this year, but he scratched on Wednesday with lameness.  Sad as that is, it actually does make the race a bit more manageable.

Favorite:  Flintshire hasn't won this year, but ran second in the Arc de Triomphe last out and was second in the Coronation Cup earlier this year.  There hasn't been a turf race stateside as good as either of those events this year.  He's a legitimate favorite.

Price Horse to Consider:  To win?  Not this race.  We don't really like any of the price horses on top.  Underneath, maybe Twilight Eclipse, who's in decent form?

Betting Approach:   Narrow.  When Magician was in this race, we thought it looked like it went three-deep; that's now down to two.

Selections:  Dispensing with the faux contenders really quickly, we don't think Main Sequence has a shot against real Europeans, are not buying Hardest Core's shocking win in the Arlington Million, think Chiquita is in the wrong race, and know Big Brown Panther is only here by accident.  Basically we think this comes down to Flintshire and fellow European Telescope, and prefer the latter.  His second in the Juddmonte was as good as Flintshire's second in the Arc and trainer Michael Stoute has admitted that he's been pointing Telescope to this race since then.  Stoute is an outstanding trainer and it gets our undivided attention when he's pointing for the Turf as a goal.

1.  Telescope
2.  Flintshire
3.  Twilight Eclipse

Sprint

Synopsis:  6 furlongs on the dirt for all comers.  And we really have gotten all comers this year.  In 2014 alone, the horses in the field have run in 14 different states (New York, California, Kentucky, Texas, Arkansas, Florida, Pennsylvania, West Virginia, Louisiana, Nebraska, Illinois, and Iowa) and four foreign nations (UAE, Hong Kong, France and the UK).  In case that wasn't enough, we have a horse make her dirt debut, a horse that's making his graded stakes debut here in his 4th start, and another horse who last ran 7 days ago.  We love it.

Favorite:  Our third and final horse attempting to repeat is Secret Circle, who won this last year on a fairly thin resume.  He's had a pretty light year once again, running a decent 2nd in February and a blah 3rd in October.  Of course, trainer Bob Baffert won this race in 2008 with Midnight Lute following a similar pattern, so it's not like this is a negative.

Horses to Avoid:  There is a boatload of speed in this race.  We know that California tracks favor front-runners, but man, all of Work All Week, Big Macher, Indianapolis, Private Zone and Fast Anna are going to flash speed, and others may join them.  Sure, one of them could hang on for a piece, but we're inclined to toss all of them.  We're also against Rich Tapestry, who's making his second start in the U.S. after shipping over from Asia.  We are steadfastly against second-time foreigners in Breeders Cup races.  Finally, we know Palace has had a good year, but we hated his last race, and fear he's over the top.

Price Horse to Consider:  We have no idea if French shipper Wind Fire is good enough here.  She's never run on the dirt before, wasn't competing at the top level in Europe, and is light in the win column.  But she's bred up and down to be a dirt sprinter and doesn't seem to have much early speed.  At over 30-1, we'll take a shot on her running down the field late.

Betting Approach:   Spread.  This race is about as wide-open as you'll get.

Selections: There's a good chance he'll get caught up in the speed duel, but if he can rate just a little, we think Baaken rates a big chance here at a price.  He's lightly raced and has some upside, but he's been in graded stakes races and shouldn't have trouble adapting to this level of competition.  His last race was a decent effort off a layoff, and if he moves forward, he'll be dangerous.  We'll use him with Secret Circle, who should get a dream trip here, and take a shot with longshot Mico Margarita as a closer in good form.

1.  Baaken
2.  Secret Circle
3.  Mico Margarita

Mile

Synopsis:  1 mile on the turf for everyone.  This is the first edition we've had since 2007 that didn't have either Goldikova or Wise Dan.  In that edition - at Monmouth Park! - Kip Deville, the second-greatest Oklahoma bred ever took it for the Americans.

Favorite:  Toronado is less than 2 lengths away from having taken 5 Grade 1 races at a mile in Europe, having taken on the best horses on the continent and never run poorly at the distance of Saturday's race.  In case that wasn't enough, he has tactical speed, ran recently, and is in good hands.  He's legit.

Price Horse to Consider:   For a medium-priced longshot, Veda has a lot of upside.  Perfectly bred for the Mile, she had a good starter race in France, ran an excellent second in the French 1000 Guineas (their premier race for 3yo fillies at a mile), then ran a meh 4th.  Freshened over the summer - a move we like in this race - she came back on the Arc undercard and ran an excellent second in her first start against older horses and males.  If she moves forward off that, she's a huge threat.  For a total bomb, consider Summer Front, loves the distance and the track, and closed stoutly in his race here in June.  We don't mind the layoff and think he can catch a piece at a huge price.

Betting Approach:   Spread.  After the Sprint, we think this is the most wide-open field of the weekend.

Selections:   Yes you can't toss Toronado, but we sure aren't conceding the race to him when there are a lot of intriguing alternatives.  Mustajeeb rates a good chance, even though he's been keeping lesser company than Toronado.  Karakontie has a shot, though we don't love his odds from the outside post.  (We're discounting interesting longshot Tourist for the same reason.)  And then there's Anodin, who everyone loves because he's a full brother to Godikova, but he still has lost 11 of his 13 starts.

Gun to our head we're going to take the horse with the most upside who's coming in a little fresher than Toronado.  We'll try Veda to post the minor upset, but use all the Euros in the Pick-somethings.  This is going to be a fun race.

1.  Veda
2.  Toronado
3.  Summer Front

Coming up later: Our Classic Countdown.