Friday, May 4, 2012

2012 Kentucky Derby Preview Part III: The Upper Half

We turn our gave to the upper echelon of horses.  We have more or less divided these horses into three groups: horses we know can win but we think won't, longshots we think can hit the board, and the real contenders.  Let's get to them.

Will Take Money, Just Not Ours

10.  Hansen. In the Derby, fading prior winners of the Breeders Cup Juvenile has always been a good move; only Street Sense has pulled off the double.  Likewise, fading horses that are pure front-runners is a positive expectation play, as the only recent wire-to-wire winners were War Emblem (over a speed biased track) and Go For Gin (over a wet track).  Similarly, fading horses that were passed in the stretch in their prior race without fighting back generally is a positive play (Lion Heart is the recent example of a horse with tactical speed that showed zero fight in his prior race but ran in the money in the Derby).

In Hansen, you have a two-year old champ that's shown little to no sign of improvement, is a need-the-lead (or at least close to the lead) type, showed zero guts in the Blue Grass, and is only really in this position because Union Rags couldn't run in a straight line in the stretch last year.  Given the presence of Trinniberg, Take Charge Indy and others this year, he has the looks of a fast horse that's cooked at the top of the stretch and staggers home.

9.  Alpha.  Oh, how we wanted to pick this horse.  He's fabulously bred, and has a foundation that we really like: 3 races as a two-year old, 3 races as a three-year old, and lots of stakes experience.  His trainer (Kiaran McLaughlin) is fabulous.  His Wood Memorial was excellent--he ran an extremely game second after a bad trip and was running stoutly at the end.  He had all the marks of a horse on the improve who might be a fair price for the Derby.

And then this happened:
Kiaran McLaughlin, who trains Alpha for Sheikh Mohammed’s Godolphin Racing, said Monday that Alpha was treated last week for an infection that came as a result of his suffering a few cuts on his left shin during the early stages of the April 7 Wood Memorial. Jockey Ramon Dominguez had to check Alpha going into the first turn of the Wood. The horse recovered and ultimately ran a strong second, beaten just a neck by Gemologist.
“The first four days he was fine,” McLaughlin said by phone Monday from Lexington, Ky., where he was with family following the death of his father, Ray McLaughlin, Saturday night. “He had a day or two with infection. It’s okay now.
“He got a cut on the shin and he grabbed a quarter a little bit all into the first turn,” McLaughlin added. “It didn’t seem like a big deal, it turned out to be a bigger deal than we first thought."
The horse appears to be "fine" now, as he's on the track and worked out recently.  But it's never, ever, ever good to miss training time right before the Derby or to be dealing with the lingering effects of an injury at this point.  For example, a bad foot felled Empire Maker in 2003, and he was several lengths better than this colt.  And if trainers are going to talk about injuries around the Derby, they're almost certainly downplaying their severity-as we've said in the past, ignore trainers who gush about their horses, but take note of those who have bad things to say.

We think there's a good chance that this guy turns out to be one of the stars of the class and ultimately wins the Belmont or the Travers.  But we think his shortness on preparation is going to be his Achilles' heel on Saturday.

8.  Bodemeister. To answer the question we posed last week, no, we're not buying stock in Bodemeister just yet.  His Arkansas Derby win was good, but we think he actually ran a better (and more important) race in the San Felipe.  There, he sat just a half length off a pace presser that was nowhere to be found at the end of the race through vigorous fractions, and couldn't hold off Creative Cause in the stretch, when he (understandably) tired.  But for a third start, it was very impressive.  He followed that up with a wire-to-wire score in Arkansas, but there, he was under no pressure and faced absolutely no horses of note (Sabercat, who we give no shot, ran third).  And we're always going to discount a speed figure that's high when a horse had an easy trip.

Can he be an other-worldly talent eventually?  Sure.  But he's light on experience and foundation, and runs at his best when he's on the lead.  He's very similar to Pulpit, who ran in '97 with similar credentials and finished out of the money.  He's also very similar to Bellamy Road, who had a huge prep for the 2005 Derby and was fried after 6 furlongs in Kentucky.  We think that's what happens here too.

7.  Gemologist. Of all the horses we're against, this is the one that scares us the most.  But while he's undefeated, we're unconvinced that this guy is actually that good.  Prior to the Wood, he beat no horses of consequence, as Currency Swap has turned out to be a poor runner and Ever So Lucky has yet to win anything of note.  His win over Alpha was good, but he sat an absolutely perfect trip behind no-hoper The Lumber Guy and had an easy go of it in the stretch.  And he's going to be around 6-1.  At those odds, we say pass.

Price Plays, Mostly for Underneath

6.  Daddy Nose Best. We saw this guy break his maiden last year at Saratoga on the Travers undercard, and while he was okay winning, there wasn't a single moment we felt that he would be a graded stakes winner, let alone a useful horse in the Kentucky Derby.  Color us wrong.  He's mostly run on the turf since then but took a liking to the dirt in the Sunland Derby, winning with a strong rally off a moderate pace.  This isn't really a shock because his breeding (Scat Daddy out of a Thunder Gulch mare) says he should like dirt.  But it was a breakthrough performance in his 10th start that caught our attention.

Now yes, we acknowledge that he beat no good horses in the Sunland Derby.  And that historically, the race has basically produced Mine That Bird and nothing else. But he appears to actually be improving despite making 10 prior starts, has one of the best trainers behind him (Steve Asmussen of Curlin and Rachel Alexandra fame) and now gets Garrett Gomez, arguably the best jockey in America.  He is getting zero attention despite being in good form with good connections, and should be around 20-1.  He offers much, much better value than Gemologist, let alone Bodemeister.

5.  Liaison.
4.  El Padrino. We're talking about these guys together because they're indicative of a phenomenon that we like and few people talk about: The Other Horse in the Derby.  Often hot-shot trainers come in with multiple entries, one of which is considered the "A" horse, and the remaining are there because they just belong or have exuberant owners.  The thing is, The Other Horse often outperforms the alleged star.  Some examples:
  • In 1996, D. Wayne Lukas sent out five horses.  His 4th-most highly regarded horse, Grindstone, won the race. 
  • In 1998, Indian Charlie, trained by Bob Baffert, was the favorite.  His second-tier horse, Real Quiet, won at 8-1 while Indian Charlie ran 3rd.
  • In 1999, Cat Thief came in as Lukas' "big horse" while his other entry, 30-1 Charismatic, won with aplomb and Cat Thief ran 3rd.
  • In 2001, favored Point Given runs 5th while stablemate Congaree runs 3rd.  More interestingly, Todd Pletcher's Balto Star runs 14th at 8-1 while ignored stablemate Invisible Ink runs 55-1.
  • In a variation on a theme, Eskendereya and Toby's Corner were Todd Pletcher's and Graham Motion's best hopes a week before the last two Derbies.  Both scratched and less well-regarded stablemates Super Saver and Animal Kingdom won.
We admit this is not foolproof: Empire Maker finished in front of Peace Rules in 2003, and Barbaro annihilated Showing Up in 2006.  And we're not saying to wager on vanity entries or horses that fluked into the Derby.  But if a horse has been well-regarded by the barn for a while and is being ignored in the public for one reason or another, give them a second look.

Both Liaison and El Padrino fit the category.  The former is a well-bred Baffert charge that won 3 races last year, including a Grade 1.  His three-year old season hasn't gone quite as planned, as he lost his rider in his first race, then running indifferently in his last two.  But Baffert is on record stating that this colt didn't like Santa Anita, and should run better elsewhere, which his record backs up.  (We will ignore that the trainer could have shipped him to run in half a dozen other logical places.)  At 40-1, he's very interesting.

As for El Padrino, he won't be as long a price as Liaison, but his chances strikes us as better.  He started off his three year old season with an excellent allowance win and a game win in the Risen Star.  He flopped a bit in the Florida Derby, when he received a curious ride -- the jockey seemed to be most intent on defeating another horse, rather than winning -- against the grain of the track.  He's well-bred for the distance and adds Raffy Bejarano in the irons, who we like.  He reminds us more than a little of Monarchos, whose prior good wins at Florida were forgotten with a losing prep.  Very live.


3.  I'll Have Another. If you toss his race in the slop, he's never run poorly and his breeding suggests that he'll do well at a mile and a quarter.  There are two things we don't love: his trainer and jockey.  Doug O'Neill does well in California, but rarely in Kentucky, and less often on "big" days.  (We'll leave it at that.)  His jockey, Mario Gutierrez, is going to be the focus of a zillion stories for his rags-to-riches success on this horse, but he's never been remotely on the big stage, and isn't some grizzled veteran of the minor circuits like Stewart Elliott (Smarty Jones' jockey).  They're enough reason to discount his chances below the top two.  Good horse, though.

2.  Union Rags.Visually, this is probably the most impressive horse that's run other than Bodemeister.  His Champagne and Fountain of Youth were both sublime wins.  It's the losses that have us worried.  His complete inability to run in a straight line and mow down Hansen in the Juvenile last year still nags at us a bit, not that he won't beat Hansen, but that he may still be green.  And while we'll excuse his Florida Derby loss tons -- bad trip, tough ride, speed biased track -- the fact remains that he still hasn't hit a triple-digit speed figure.  We think trainer Mike Matz is going to have him primed to run a huge race on Saturday and he'll improve off his last.  But he actually needs to move forward about 5-7 lengths from his best efforts, and that's still a tall order at this point.

The Pick

1.  Creative Cause. Despite having never lost by more than a length and never running worse than 3rd in 8 starts, this guy is getting shockingly little attention this week.  That's fine by us, we welcome the price inflation.  We love his foundation: 3 starts this year off a solid 2yo season.  We like that he's won a Grade 1 race and was just nosed out of his last.  We love that he beat Bodemeister two back and ran a 102 in doing so.  His last race was a slight regression where he didn't focus as much as he should, but we like that trainer Mike Harrington -- not a big name, but a good trainer -- has spent time on that issue in the past few weeks.  The 8 post is perfect.  He should sit comfortably off a strong pace and get first run on the closers.  Simply stated, there's not much to not like here, and we think he'll be 10-1 or so.  He's our pick.

How to Play the Race

Win bets and exactas.  Nobody's going to be below 4-1 on the tote board, and the exacta bets will all be healthy.  There's almost no sense in going for a trifecta unless you can narrow down the third slot to 3 or 4 horses, which we think is next to impossible.

Good luck and enjoy the race!


Anonymous said...

Alpha at 21 worth throwing some money on or still not worth it? Thanks much

El Angelo said...

At 21-1 I say yes.

Prisoner24601 said...

I have to post a big thank you. I have followed your Derby preview for years and have really enjoyed it. I also know that you have a great track record of picking the winner towards the top of your rankings. So using that logic I threw $25 on creative cause and I'll have another to win. So please keep the site up and if you want a shout out on twitter or if there is a way I can help please let me know.

El Angelo said...

Glad you made some money off of it, because I sure didn't.

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