Friday, November 4, 2011

Breeders Cup Preview Part V: The Classic Breakdown

The bad news: we went one-for-six picking winners on Friday's card. (Well one for five actually--our pick in the Filly Turf, Announce, was a gate scratch.)

The middling-decent news: Other horses we picked ran fairly well.  Royal Delta and My Miss Aurelia are horses we picked to run well and won.  Switch, our pick in the Sprint, ran second, albeit to a bomb we didn't like.

The great news: We picked the triple in the Juvenile Sprint cold.  And it paid $305.  Hope you cashed!  Let's move on to the Classic, counting the horses down from least to most likely to win.

The Breeders Cup Marathon Was Intended for You

12.  Ice Box.  Winless since taking the 2010 Florida Derby at 20-1, Nick Zito claims he's entering this horse in the race because "the fans want to see him run."  We're still looking for a single person that cares that he's still running, let alone likes him to do anything in this race.

11.  Headache.  Every year a horse or two enter the Classic that knocked it around in the second- and third-tier races for older horses, like this guy, who won the Cornhusker Handicap and Hawthorne Gold Cup, cementing his win in the Claiming Crown last year.  Every year, those horses do absolutely nothing in the Classic.

10.  Drosselmeyer.  We think we get horse racing most of the time.  And then we see how horses like Drosselmeyer are handled, which completely confounds us.  Since pulling off a shocker in the 2010 Belmont, this guy has run five times on the dirt (we'll ignore his turf start), and he's won once--by a nose in an ungraded stakes race in mid-May over horses that would be 50-1 in the Classic.  He has  topped a 91 Gowanus Speed Figure once, in his last race, which we're officially calling into question because it's a complete aberation.  He has done nothing to indicate that he's fast enough to run here, and he's indicated that he would like the 14 furlongs of the Marathon.  So why are they running him here?  And why are they retiring him after this year?  Is anyone going to want to breed to a horse that lost 75% of his races and was never particularly fast?  

The Wrong Three Year Olds

9.  Rattlesnake Bridge.  This three year old has some mildly intriguing finishes in the PP line--second in the Travers, third in the Pennsylvania Derby--but is still winless in graded stakes races.  There's no reason to think that streak will end on Saturday.  Interesting prospect for 2012, though.

8.  Stay Thirsty.  This guy has run exactly one very good race in his career: his Jim Dandy, which on review, is even less impressive because he beat Moonshine Mullin, who isn't very good, and Dominus, who came back to finish up the track in the Kings Bishop.  His Belmont and Travers were good results simply because he showed up; in neither race he did anything spectacular, and was fading badly at the end of the Travers.  He did painfully little in the Jockey Club Gold Cup, as he couldn't even beat the execrable Drosselmeyer. And the Pletcher Factor means he'll probably be around 10-1.  He's more likely to finish last than first.

7.  To Honor and Serve.  He's a lot of "wise guys" horse because he seems like he's blooming late in the year, but we're inclined to bet against.  He's a need-the-lead horse in a race that has a fair amount of speed (Uncle Mo, Headache and maybe Game On Dude should be prompting the pace).  He has yet to win a Grade 1 race, which is the kiss of death for the win slot.  And his last two races that produced gaudy GSF's are both questionable: the Saratoga allowance race was an allowance race where he dictated a soft pace and flew home, and the PA Derby was on a track with a pronounced rail bias.  While he should like the distance, we think he gets fried early and doesn't have the class to keep up with the real contenders.

Phony Contenders

6.  So You Think.  Will Aidan O'Brien ever give up?  The Aussie import is the latest attempt by the Irish supertrainer to take the Breeders Cup Classic with a horse that's never run on the dirt before.  Let's take a look back and see how these efforts have gone in the past.
  • 2000: Giant's Causeway runs second to Tiznow in one of the greatest Breeders Cup races ever.  But this wasn't exactly a surprise.  Not only had Giant's Causeway had a great year in Europe, he was by prominent dirt sire Storm Cat out of Mariah's Storm, who won 10 races (8 stakes) on the dirt during her career.  The surprise was that he was a great turf horse too.
  • 2001: European superstar Galileo flops and runs 6th (at short odds) and Black Minnaloushe runs 10th.  Neither had dirt breeding.
  • 2002: That year's European star, Hawk Wing, runs 7th in a race won by a 43-1 shot.  Hawk Wing is also bet somewhat strongly (x-1).
  • 2003: Hold That Tiger runs an uninteresting 5th, though we note that he had some decent dirt races before.
  • 2005: Oratorio makes his first start on the dirt and runs a non-threatening 11th.
  • 2006: George Washington's first dirt start is bad, as he runs 6th.
  • 2007: George Washington's second dirt start is worse, as he breaks down and doesn't finish.
  • 2008: We're putting an asterisk next to this year because it was a synthetic surface.  Anyway, Duke of Marmalade, his "big horse", runs a poor 9th while Henrythenavigator runs a solid 2nd.
  • 2009: Again, synthetics.  Rip Van Winkle is the second choice and runs 10th.
So putting aside the synthetic races--which we think are completely useless in making historical comparisons--the only success O'Brien has had is by a horse regally bred for the dirt.  This is backed up by other Euros who have tried to go turf to dirt in the Classic: again, ignoring the synthetics, the only good efforts were Sakhee's second in 2001 and Arcangues 133-1 shocker in 1993.  Given that history, do you really want to take 5-1 on the globetrotter that has NO dirt breeding whatsoever?

5.  Game on Dude.  Quietly, this guy has had a pretty good year: wins in the Santa Anita Handicap and Goodwood (both Grade 1's), a nose loss in the G1 Hollywood Gold Cup, a second place finish in the Charles Town Classic, where he beat Tizway and others, and a third place finish behind Flat Out earlier this year.  That said, we're just not bowled over with him.  He's not slow but not quite fast, he's been running mostly against a pretty pedestrian group of California horses, and seems to need to be on the lead.  He's not a bad use defensively because he'll probably be 15-1 or so, but he's just so...dull.

4.  Uncle Mo.  Contrary to Andrew Beyer and legions of others, we completely agree that Mike Repole and Todd Pletcher are doing the right thing by running Uncle Mo in this Classic.  If he won the Dirt Mile, so what?  Does anyone care about Albertus Maximus, Furthest Land or Dakota Phone?  If you want the glory and want to be remembered, run in the big race, not a 3rd-tier Breeders Cup race.

Of course, this doesn't mean we think he can win.  This horse probably has the most latent talent of anyone in the field, but he's being asked to do a lot here.  He's never won at a distance over a mile and a sixteenth, and comes in with his prep races being the 7 furlong Kings Bishop and 1-mile Kelso.  While he ran very well in both, it's still a subpar campaign for the Breeders Cup.  It reminds us of Fusaichi Pegasus' attempt to get ready for the Classic by running in the 1-mile Jerome.  He ran 7th.

To make matters more difficult, he's a speed horse that drew the outside post, meaning he'll be on the lead.  We're not going to say it's impossible for a horse to wire the field in the Classic, but the last two horses to do it were Tiznow and Ghostzapper, two Hall of Fame talents, the latter of which drew a fairly paceless race.  If you think Uncle Mo is that level of great, we encourage you to bet him.  At 3-1, we're looking elsewhere.

Actual Contenders

3.  Ruler on Ice.  The definition of value in wagering is when you are getting odds that are higher than the likelihood of an event happening.  For example, if you think a horse has a 10% chance to win a race, his true odds are 9-1, and anything higher is value.  It becomes a little trickier when you're talking about exactas and triples, because you don't know a horse's odds in those pools, but again, if you see a horse that's 20-1 that you think is about 20% to hit the board, you should use him.

Well, we see value in Ruler on Ice.  He's 30-1 on the morning line and we think his odds will be somewhere around there come post time, which is fine, because his chances of winning are certainly better than 3%, and his chances of finishing in the money are much, much higher than that.  Everyone sees him as a one-race fluke in the Belmont.  Not us.  His next three races are more interesting than they appear:
  • Haskell--he ends up on a pretty dead rail and has a trip where he's jostled around a lot, yet finishes strongly, only to fall short.  It's probably the best race he's run, including his Belmont win.
  • Travers--he sits close to a fairly contentious pace and has nothing left for the stretch.  Jose Valdivia did not give him a fabulous ride, and unsurprisingly, he's fired for Garrett Gomez.
  • Pennsylvania Derby--Gomez decides to change tactics and make him a dead closer, which works somewhat, as he rallies stoutly for a good second.  The problem with this strategy was that he did it on a track with a blatant speed bias.
In sum, we have a horse that's been up against it pace-, bias- and trip-wise three straight races.  He's bred for the distance, has one of the best jockeys in the irons, figures to get a good pace to run at, and is training beautifully.  Is he the most likely win candidate?  No, and we're picking him 3rd for a reason.  But we do think he's the value play of the race and will be flying late to complete some fat mutuels.

2.  Havre de Grace.  There's no reason to not admire the filly, as she's put together a very good campaign and has already beaten two of the top older males in the country this year.  We wouldn't be surprised at all if she won, and would be surprised if she ran out of the superfecta.  So why not pick her to win?  We're not sure the mile and a quarter is her optimal distance and are worried that her campaign is going to take a toll on her.  It's rare for a filly to be able to sustain brilliance in a long campaign; note that Zenyatta generally ran 5-6 races a year, almost all against fillies.  HDG has had three pretty strong races in a row, and we think she's due for a minor regression.  Which would still put her in the money, but not in the winner's circle.

The Pick

1.  Flat Out.  He's much better than people give him credit for.   He started out the year in Texas, running a game second at a mile and a sixteenth, a distance shorter than his best.  He shipped to the Stephen Foster, where he ran sixth, but lost by under 3 lengths and was trapped along a dead rail the entire way.  Those who knew that he was on a dead rail were smart to have him at 13-1 in the Suburban, where he smashed the field by 6 lengths and posted a 113 GSF.  It's the most impressive performance by an older horse this year.

Since the Suburban win he's done well but been somewhat anonymous.  He ran a good second in the Whitney to Tizway, who had a perfect trip, and more importantly, isn't running in the Classic (injury).  He ran second in the Woodward to Havre de Grace, who got first run on him and we think the tables would have been turned over another furlong.  Then he won the Jockey Club Gold Cup in solid fashion, looking like the best horse from about the midpoint of the race.  To top it off, he's training beautifully and we know he'll love a mile and a quarter.

He's not a flashy horse, and his record isn't gaudy: if he wins, he'll finish the year 3-for-7 and may not get Horse of the Year.  But that's not the question.  The question is who will be the fastest to run 10 furlongs on Saturday evening.  And we're pretty sure he's the answer, and will be a relatively square price (~9-2).  Here's your winner and, at least, older male of the year.

Good luck to all and enjoy the race!

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