Saturday, October 31, 2015

Breeders Cup 2015 Preview Part 3: The Breeders Cup Classic

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

Hope Your Owner Got Great Seats!

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

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

Not Buying the Hype

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

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

Maybe, With a Big Step Forward

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

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


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

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

The Pick

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

Good luck to all!

Friday, October 30, 2015

Breeders Cup 2015 Preview Part 2: Saturday's Races

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

Juvenile Fillies

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Turf Sprint

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

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

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

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

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

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

Filly & Mare Sprint

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

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

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

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

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

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

Filly & Mare Turf

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

1.  Runhappy
2.  Big Macher
3.  Barbados


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

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

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

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

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

1.  Impassible
2.  Tourist
3.  Mondaliste


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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

Betting Approach: Single.  Golden Horn is that good.

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

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

Coming later: Our Classic breakdown.

Thursday, October 29, 2015

Breeders Cup 2015 Preview Part 1: Friday's Races

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

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

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

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

Juvenile Turf

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

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

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

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

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

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

Dirt Mile

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

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

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

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

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

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

Juvenile Fillies Turf

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

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

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

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

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

1.  Mirage
2.  Alice Springs
3.  Illuminate


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, October 1, 2015

Bill Simmons: Mediocre Football Handicapper

Everyone's favorite internet sports personality, Bill Simmons. resurfaced this morning with two new podcasts  available for download.  Say this for Simmons - he knows what he likes and what he thinks his fans like, and he's going to continue to give it to them.  The first two podcasts were a rambling session with JackO and the weekly Guess-The-Lines segment with Sal.  Outside of the lack of music and some open potshots at Chris Berman, it was tough to differentiate it from his old ESPN podcast.

We won't comment here on whether the podcasts are any good - some people love them, others hate them.  (We will note that the amount of smugness was off the charts, but hey, to use horse racing parlance, Simmons is coming off a long layoff and with new connections, and may have needed a start.)  What the Sal Podcast did remind us, though, is that Simmons' NFL thoughts are far from cogent and often without any basis.  This has been evidenced for nearly a decade by his selections from his ESPN column.  While Simmons would love to have us believe that he's a great handicapper, we looked at his results from 2004 forward, and we found that he's slightly above .500 with his picks but well in the red once the vig is taken into account:

W L T % "Profit"
2014 101 93 4 52.06%  $           (130.00)
2013 95 121 6 43.98%  $        (3,810.00)
2012 132 120 4 52.38%  $                   -  
2011 120 127 9 48.58%  $        (1,970.00)
2010 131 119 6 52.40%  $              10.00
2009 133 116 5 53.41%  $            540.00
2008 132 116 8 53.23%  $            440.00
2007 118 129 7 47.77%  $        (2,390.00)
2006 128 122 6 51.20%  $           (620.00)
2005 124 124 6 50.00%  $        (1,240.00)
2004 120 112 8 51.72%  $           (320.00)
TOTAL 1334 1299 69 50.66%  $        (9,490.00)

So for the record, that 3 out of 11 years in the black, with a loss approaching 10 grand for a decade. Even just the picks straight up against the spread are a mere 35 games over .500, which is basically within the margin of error on tossing a coin.  We certainly hope Bill is not funding his children's college fund with his wagers.

We are not saying we would do much better - we are not football handicappers, and have never pretended to be.  But we do think that everyone who prognosticates is worthy of some scrutiny - that's why we put up our picks for Triple Crown and Breeders Cup races and look back at them afterwards.  (In sum: we're great at the TC and all over the map in the BC.)  If you're going to pass yourself off as someone who understands Vegas and is equipped to deal with point spreads, perhaps your overall record should come close to backing it up.

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.

*               *               *

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. 

*               *               *

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.

*               *               *

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:

Belmont Finish
Seattle Slew
Spectacular Bid
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.


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:

Betting Choice
Order of Finish
American Pharoah
Carpe Diem
Firing Line

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:

Betting Choice
Order of Finish
Street Sense
Scat Daddy
Hard Spun
Nobiz Like Shobiz
Circular Quay

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!!