Friday, October 26, 2012

2012 Breeders Cup Preview Part I: Identifying Bad Favorites

 In the past we've used the first few sections of our annual Breeders Cup preview to discuss the state of horse racing, the year in review, and changes we'd make to the Breeders Cup event itself.  We're going to take a different approach this year, because this hasn't been the most captivating year in horse racing.  If the season ended today, I'll Have Another, who hasn't run in 5 months, would probably win Horse of the Year.  The most intriguing horse is the filly Royal Delta, who's good, but a lot less captivating than recent fillies Zenyatta, Rachel Alexandra and even Havre de Grace.  The two most accomplished runners at this point are turfers Point of Entry and Wise Dan.  As talented as they are and as much as we love Shug McGaughey, yawn.

Instead, let's use our warm-up post to try to make everyone a little money.  One of the most important elements of handicapping any race is figuring out what to do with the favorite.  Favorites win roughly one-third of all races, and if you bet every favorite to win, you'd cash a decent amount of tickets but lose money.  Even if you just used faves in exotic wagers, it's a tough road to riches unless you can get something goofy to happen underneath.  So to actually make a buck, you need to figure out when to play and when to pitch favorites with a modicum of success.

What makes analyzing short-priced horses in the Breeders Cup interesting is that there are certain types of horses that are overbet every year.  We're going to look at five of those types below.  Now we note that these types of horses do win sometimes.  But our point isn't that horses that fit these descriptions are complete toss-outs.  It's a question of value.  The horses that fall into the categories described below are playable at 20-1 and curious at 8-1 but are bet-againsts at 3-1.  Be guided accordingly.

1.  The Three-Year Old Paper Tiger.  This is probably our favorite bet-against at every Breeders Cup.  Three-year olds that have never taken on elder horses and are doing so for the first time in the Breeders Cup are horrible, horrible, horrible bets at short prices.  Moving from facing other 3yos to older horses is a significant jump.  It's no coincidence that the last 4 three-year olds to win the Classic (Cat Thief in 1999, Tiznow in 2000, Curlin in 2007, Raven's Pass in 2008) all faced elders before the Classic.  It's also no coincidence that 3yos have done significantly worse in the Breeders Cup since there's been a proliferation of fall races for just 3-year olds.

Previous Example: In 2000, Fusaichi Pegasus came into the Classic with a rather odd running line: a win in the Derby, a shocking second in the Preakness, 4 months of rest, then a strong the one-mile Jerome against other 3 year olds.  He entered the Breeders Cup odds-on despite having never faced an older horse.  He was never a contender and solidly beaten by three 3yos who did face older horses at least once before (Tiznow, Giant's Causeway, Captain Steve).  Five years later, Lost in the Fog entered the Breeders Cup Sprint with an undefeated record having beaten nothing but his classmates.  He cracked at the top of the stretch and finished 7th at 3-5 odds.

The Exception That Proves the Rule: In 2003, Cajun Beat entered the Breeders Cup Sprint having never run against older horses and proceeded to outsprint everyone to a decisive victory.  But he was 21-1.  And that's our main point: you can take a horse that defies these odds IF you're amply compensated.  Taking a short price on a horse that's taking on elders for the first time is a bad idea unless the field they're facing is completely depleted of quality older horses (like last year's Distaff, for example).  The 4- and 5-year olds just have too big of an advantage on experience.

This Year's Example: There are none in the Classic this year, as the division was decimated with injuries.  (Alpha at 20-1 doesn't count.)  So let's instead look down the card to another race.  Like Turbulent Descent last year, Contested enters the Filly and Mare Sprint off a win in the Test against 3yo fillies only.  She's never faced older fillies and hasn't run in over two months.  Last year Turbulent Descent was nowhere near the winner's circle.  Still interested in taking 3-1 on Contested?

2.  The Old Champ That's Lost a Step.  If you have hardware, you're going to get bet on Breeders Cup day unless you were a complete shocker the year you won (e.g., Shared Account in 2010).  The problem is that most of the time the horses that are running to defend their title -- or in rare instances, add a second race to their trophy case -- aren't as good as they were the year before.  Ten horses have won multiple Breeders Cup races.  At least four times as many have tried and failed.

Previous Examples: We had a troika of them last year.  Goldikova clearly wasn't as good as she was as a 3- 4- or 5-year old, yet still went off at short odds and we picked her.  She ran 3rd, and should have been DQ'd to last.  We were more correct to toss Big Drama last year, who had shown little since winning the Breeders Cup Sprint the year before and finished 7th as the second choice.  A little more subtle was Midday, who clearly wasn't as good as she was two years ago when she won the Filly and Mare Turf but was still well-supported in the Turf.

This Year's Example: We picked St. Nicholas Abbey in the Turf last year for a multitude of reasons, and he rewarded us with a scintillating victory at 6-1 odds.  We're more skeptical of his chances this year.  He's only been out of the money once this year -- in his last start, which is somewhat forgivable because the turf on Arc day was bog-like -- but has only won once and has been playing second- or third-fiddle to European champions all year.  It's fairly deep field in the Turf this year, and unless he circles back to last year's form, he'll have trouble repeating.

3.  The Winter Legend.  The racing season is a long haul if you contest it from start to finish.  While nobody really cares about racing in December, there are big races in January.  Every year we get horses that are world-beaters at Gulfstream, Santa Anita and Oaklawn, win a couple of Grade I's early on, and then peter out as the year goes along.  It's the mark of a truly excellent horse to maintain that kind of form all year, which is why it rarely happens.  It also means that a horse that has won multiple G1's but hasn't done much of anything since Indepdence Day is a great bet-against, usually at a short price.

Previous Example:  In 1999, Behrens dominated the older horse circuit until about August, when he fell off a cliff.  He was still well-backed in the Classic and finished well behind the winners.  Two years ago, Quality Road was a tour de force until Saratoga, when he lost the Whitney and ran a blah Woodward.  He was up the track in the Breeders Cup Classic.  Really, the only times we can think of a horse that peaked early, had a mediocre fall then won a Breeders Cup race were Escena in the Distaff in 1998 and Tiznow in the Classic in 2001.

This Year's Example: Ron the Greek's year has included wins at the Big Cap and Stephen Foster, plus seconds at the Sunshine Millions, Whitney and Oaklawn Handicap.  By June, he was the pro tem leader for the Older Horse Eclipse.  But then he ran second to Fort Larned in the Whitney and was nowhere to be found in the Jockey Club Gold Cup.  His record may get him some play next Saturday, but it won't be from us.

4.  The Course Changer Back in the day, there were only eight (or even earlier, seven!) races on the Breeders Cup card.  If you were a male above two years old, you had only four places to run: the Sprint, the Mile, the Turf and the Classic.  Meaning that if your bailiwick wasn't 6 or 10 furlongs on the dirt or 8 or 12 furlongs on the turf, you might be SOL.  Needless to say, a lot of horses that didn't fit these categories ran anyway with the hope that they would adapt to the new distance or surface (or both).  Also needless to say, these were our favorite horses to bet against.

Previous Examples: The ultimate example of this phenomenon was Peace Rules being sent off as the 2-1 favorite in the 2003 Mile, even though he hadn't run on the turf all year. We see this type of horse less often these days because they've added 7 races to the Breeders Cup card which gives horses like milers and turf sprinters another option.  But it still comes up from time to time with horses that don't really have a distance to run on Breeders Cup day, like horses that like 10 furlongs on the turf or 7 furlongs on the dirt.  Last year, Jackson Bend was bet heavily even though he clearly wanted a longer distance.  This harkened back to the 2003 Sprint when Aldebaran was a 2-1 favorite despite having never won at the distance.

This Year's Example:  We have a real doozy this year.  Everyone remembers Animal Kingdom as the winner of the 2011 Kentucky Derby, who then ran second in the Preakness and 6th in the Belmont after some horrendous bad luck.  He was laid off until February, when he ran in a turf allowance at Gulfstream as a prep for the Dubai World Cup, which he missed with an ailment.  But he's coming back on Breeders Cup run in the Mile??  It's quite an odd spot to run in when you've run in one race in the last 18 months.

5.  The Anti-Horse for the Course.  This comes in two different forms: horses that can't ship and horses that don't like a particular track.  The former are horses that have a tremendous affinity for certain tracks on a circuit, which is fine and good, except for when the Breeders Cup is being held outside of that circuit.  The latter pertains to horses that usually do well but clearly dislike a track.  For reasons unclear, this seems to pop up more often with the dirt tracks at Belmont or Churchill Downs.

Previous Examples: We'll never see a better example of this than Skip Away in the 1998 Classic, who flopped at Churchill, a track everyone knew he hated.  If you bet any money on him that day, you were asking for trouble.

This Year's Example:  Since returning from an extended layoff in December 2010, Flat Out has 3 wins, 2 seconds and 1 third in six starts at tracks in New York (with all 3 wins coming at Belmont), but has 1 win, 2 seconds and 1 third in 8 starts at all other tracks, with the win coming in an allowance race nearly two years ago.  Still interested in him shipping cross-country and going off as the second choice?

Coming up next week: our annual Breeders Cup preview.

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