May 5, 2017

Derby 143 Thoughts

As much as I love beating CHALK in each and every race (especially in a 20 horse Kentucky Derby field with odds galore), favorites have been drubbing me into submission the last several years making my Derby bets look foolish. American Pharoah was the only top win pick I’ve had from the last four Derbies (Nyquist, California Chrome and Orb being other chalk winners). Interestingly, Pharoah’s 2.9 – 1 odds were better than Nyquist (2.3-1) and Chrome (2.5-1).  But this Saturday I’m hoping to get some decent exotic payoffs in spite of backing the likely favorite or 2nd choice on top, Always Dreaming.  To do so, I’ll need a double-digit price horse Hence and/or bomb long-shot State of Honor to crack the top four spots.

There are a few main threats to claim the roses such as Irish War Cry, Girvin and Classic Empire coming off impressive prep victories that I will simply bury my head in the sand and ignore (at least in the win spot on my tickets).  Closers McCraken, Gunnavera and Tapwrit should be coming late, but perhaps too late for my taste.  The tough part about Derby handicapping is having to eliminate several top contenders to play an affordable ticket. That's what makes this so damn fun!

One of my current "hunch" horses may have the best key-race angle of all, yet is coming into The Derby with a historically unsuccessful route via Sunland Park. I am speaking of the strapping hoss chestnut son of Street Boss, HENCE. Somewhat reminding me of other late maturing Steve Asmussen charges Nehro and Creator (breaking maiden late in the spring then getting real good), his Sunland Derby last to first sweeping move in a fast time was very impressive, but his previous flat 7th place finish in Oaklawn's Rebel Stakes was a clunker. I recall the day he broke his maiden at Oaklawn as a heavy favorite, drawing away at the top of the lane before bolting into the rail and losing his action, only to re-rally late to retake the lead. That proves the talent level and"heart" factor of a horse that may be leading up to his best race yet. H

Hence, my main tickets will include Always Dreaming and Hence on top of a few others, including McCraken, Classic Empire and bomb long-shot State of Honor. SOH hasn't won this spring, but has been more consistent than any other running 2nd/3rd and the "lesser" Mark Casse horse is doing fine in the cooler weather of Louisville (float like a butterfly, sting like a bee).

And for you Kentucky Oaks homies, on this - Louisville's Day at The Downs, I'm playing the Cat-Man-Do's little filly, Farrel over long-shot Vexatious to get my Derby Day bankroll started.
Good luck to all!

Speed kills baby -- don't discount the Early/Pressers in The Derby

Why can’t Early/Presser types be used as long-shots?  I will present evidence of speed oriented horses sticking around for the bottom of tris/supers/high five payouts.  Last year was a faster than typical Derby with splits of 22.58, 45.72 and 1:10.40, yet both Nyquist and 3rd place finisher Gun Runner comprised two-thirds of the trifecta after running in the lead group from the opening bell. Granted, they were clearly a notch above the competition at this point last year, where cream rises to the top.  I expect this year’s pace to be comparable to 2014-2015 - an average paced Derby.

In Chrome’s victory in 2014 the internal splits were 47.37 and 1:11.80 and in addition to Chrome going from 3rd to 1st, Samraat was 5th early and hung around for the High Five payout at 17-1.  But 2015 makes the strongest case for Early/Presser types faring well, when the internal splits were average 47.34 and 1:11.29.  Four of the top five finishers were in the top flight all the way around – Pharoah, Firing Line, Dortmund and Danzig Moon at 23-1.  Only highly regarded Frosted was able to close his way into 4th place finish. Going back even further, Shackleford hung around for 4th in the 2011 Derby at 23-1 and in 2008 49-1 longshot Recapturetheglory held onto 5th after being part of the lead group from the get-go. Finally, some of you may recall the zippy bred Limehouse, who in 2004 rebounded from a tiring and distant 3rd place loss by over 6 lengths in the Blue Grass to finish in the Derby superfecta at odds of 42-1 after being only a few lengths off the early lead set by Lion Heart and eventual winner Smarty Jones. This is relevant due to the sloppy track that day, where often horses running up front have an advantage of less kickback and being able to steal races (hint for Saturday with rain likely).

Now let’s take a look at some mid-priced closers who did NOT fare well, perhaps due to their trip line often associated with closers (included);

2016 closers (had very fast pace to close into): Brody’s Cause 7th (5w, slight response), Mo Tom 8th (steadied, fanned 7w), Creator 13th (checked, bumped hard).
2015 closers (average pace): Keen Ice 7th (wait 5wd 3/16, altr bid), Mubtaahij 8th (rate bk, in chase), Far Right 15th (lagged, very wide).
2014 closer (average pace): Dance With Fate 6th (rough trip, angl 5w), Ride On Curlin 7th (rail, stdy 1/4 angl 9w), Medal Count 8th (shuffled early, chkd 1/8).

So please keep talking up the deep closers and I’ll take my chances with a horse with tactical speed, even getting a bit leg-weary, but without having to navigate the far turn stampede. Even if you happen on the RIGHT closer on that day, they still need a lot of luck to get to the lead group before the finish line. I know this first-hand after being burned with Creator’s rough trip last year, even though we saw he bounced back smartly in the Belmont that didn't present the log-jam that is The Derby!

May 2, 2017

Eric is ALWAYS DREAMING of another Kentucky Derby week!

Welcome back for Derby 143 horse racing fans and friends! Unlike the last few years where the standout Derby prospects as two year-olds were consistent up to and throughout the Triple Crown series (California Chrome, American Pharoah, Nyquist/Exaggerator), we've had some interesting results on Derby Trail 2017.  However, 2YO champion Classic Empire rebounded from health issues and a sub-par early prep to likely establish his favoritism on the first Saturday in May with his late rally score in the Grade 1 Arkansas Derby under Julian Leparoux. Being a self-proclaimed "homer" of Oaklawn Park (which has served me well over the last decade in TC races), I will be using more than one Oaklawn based sophomore from this spring in my bets, although I don't believe the Ark Derby or Rebel is the key race angle horse players seek. More on that later in week.

Rather than the big one or two leading into the final days of preparations at Churchill Downs, it's shaping up as a crap-shoot from 5 of the top 6 major prep winners -- Always Dreaming (FL Derby), Irish War Cry (Wood Memorial), Classic Empire (AR Derby), Girvin (LA Derby) and Gormley (SA Derby). Irap's maiden breaking victory in the Blue Grass Stakes was generally considered a loose horse on the lead winning with dawdling fractions. Thus, he will likely not be a top betting interest.

Others expected to draw a lot of Derby day action at the parimutuel windows include a pair of third place finishers, yet late running threats Gunnavera (FL Derby) and McCraken (Blue Grass). The former is one of the best human interest stories of this year's Derby being just a sixteen grand yearling purchase by a legendary Venezuela trainer who defected to the States after being abducted for ransom money, not once but twice!  The latter is also getting buzz as a "horse for the course" with all his 2YO victories under the Twin Spires. McCraken is also trained by a man who worked as assistant to Carl Nafzger when both Unbridled and Street Sense claimed the roses.

Regardless of who goes off as favorite this Saturday, the odds should be more dispersed than in recent years. A handful of horses could go off as the post-time favorite, which means lowest odds could be in the 5-1 or 6-1 price range. A couple more days to the post position draw, then let the final handicapping occur. Enjoy Derby week 143!



June 13, 2016

Creator wins Belmont "under the rainbow" leading to pots of gold

What a day of racing we were treated to Saturday afternoon from historic Belmont Park in Elmont, NY.  Tip of the cap to NYRA and CEO Chris Kay for putting up the money to host six Grade 1 races on the same card!  A few nice priced winners (Pure Sensation, Tom’s Ready, Celestine) for pick 3 and 4 players, a couple record-breaking performances (Celestine and Frosted), no horses injured (after unlucky Preakness Day) and one of the closest and most debated Belmont Stakes outcomes with Creator nipping Destin on the last jump to cap a quality day of racing at Big Sandy!  Add to that mix seeing one of my personal favorite Arkansas Derby winners of all time claim Belmont fame and my second best day of wagering from three decades playing the ponies and it’s a day I won’t soon forgot for another three decades (or as long as my memory lasts!).

I’m not sure who deserves the most credit for Creator’s victory. Trainer Steve Asmussen will soon be inducted into the National Racing Museum’s Hall of Fame and this late maturing horse has admittedly been one of his greatest training jobs with the cantankerous son of Tapit. Winstar Farm CEO Elliott Walden, no stranger to winning the 12 furlong Belmont Stakes as he led Victory Gallop to snatch defeat from sshhh Real Quiet in the 1998 Triple Crown finale, made a shrewd but common racing move by entering their speedy Gettysburg as a pace factor to not only help Creator’s chance at winning but also Winstar’s stallion prospect Exaggerator. One more comment for the numerous Twitter detractors on the entry of Gettysburg as an “assist” to Creator’s slam dunk. If it was so obvious what the outcome would be with his entry as a pace presence, why didn’t you all make a large win bet on Creator?  Perhaps because whether it be Gettysburg or another horse who would have shown more speed, that didn’t singularly help Creator but also the deepest lineup of “true closers” ever assembled for the Belmont Stakes.  Yet it wasn’t Exaggerator, Suddenbreakingnews, Cherry Wine, Brody’s Cause or Lani who transferred this pace into a victory. Nope -- the best horse on this day at 1 ½ miles was Creator!  Not to mention Gettysburg’s finish ahead of the top two betting choices and well ahead of more hapless long-shots.

Finally, we saw one of the best tactical rides of all-time by the New York based rider Irad Ortiz as he kept Creator within touch early and patiently waited on the rail saving ground on the far turn. Irad held his position in the 2 path, hemming in Governor Malibu (exchanged bumps) as Joel Rosario tried to move outside a tiring Gettysburg. Then you can see Irad pulling his right rein just once to attempt to steer Creator wide before thinking twice and pausing two strides as an ever so slight hole emerged when Rosario again steered to the rail on Governor Malibu -- https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PKxmvnqkXE4.  Watch the following replay and you will see that was the same set-up Gary Stevens used for even a slimmer nose win aboard Victory Gallop (who also had an outside 11 post yet worked to rail to save ground).                            https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KLV7xZPwvM0

Last year's epic Triple Crown series with American Pharoah was one for the ages that will never be forgotten in most of our hearts and minds. But the great thing about the sport of horse racing is that EVERY year produces a favorite Derby, Preakness or Belmont for thousands of fans, owners, trainers or jockeys for various reasons.  On behalf of my fellow Texans Winstar Farm owner Kenny Troutt and trainer Steve Asmussen, this was one of OUR favorites thanks to a special gray colt named CREATOR!

May 23, 2016

Nyquist down, but not out...

As Jimmy Buffett (a fellow horse owner, btw) once sang -- mea culpa, mea culpa, mea maxima culpa for tossing Exaggerator and Mor Spirit in the KY Derby. It's truly ignorant to ever toss a legitimate closer in The Derby as you never know how the pace will turn out. Ice Box should have taught me this painful lesson years ago.  I offer a hearty congratulations to Exaggerator for not only proving clearly second best in The Derby, but for wining the Preakness Stakes convincingly.

While my top 3 picks of Creator (horrible trip 13th), Gun Runner (3rd) and Mohaymen (4th) left me (and others) shutout on Derby day, the Preakness outcome illustrated why you generally do not want to accept a heavy favorite in this triple crown series with huge payoff possibilities when the best horse does not always win. Nyquist was a convincing winner in The Derby and with his speedy style seemed a lock for the Pimlico oval. But the rogue Awesome Speed and jockey Jevian Toledo sandwiched him between Uncle Lino the first time through the stretch and again approaching the far turn and that was his undoing by the end of the 1 3/16ths race. In my opinion, the outside flanking by Toledo took more away from Nyquist than the fractions, as the 22.38, 46.56, 1.11.97 split times of the Preakness were on the whole slower than 22.58, 45.72, 1.10.40 from The Derby when Nyquist was able to spurt clear at a slightly greater distance.

I've gone from trying to beat Nyquist unsuccessfully to hoping his fever is just a minor blip and would love to see him in the Belmont Stakes starting gate where you'll likely get value odds for the first time in this triple crown series.  And a tip of the cap to both trainers O'Neill and Desormeaux for respectfully playing up this rare 3YO rivalry by showing up at the biggest races trying to prove their dominance. What a great marketing tool for racing and I'm sure the NYRA is equally appreciative.

Finally, kudos to all those in attendance at Pimlico who shattered all kinds of records in spite of the rain soaked day at Old Hilltop. I look forward to my return for next year's race to get my Preak' on!

The Belmont is shaping up as a very bettable race with a handful of serious Derby horses sitting out the Preakness to target Big Sandy as well as the Preakness top 3 finishers.

Stay tuned!


May 6, 2016

This TOSS horse may shock you - and I'm not exaggerating

Ok, so the gauntlet has been thrown to Exaggerator, sorry Desormeaux bros! I'm going big this year by tossing the clear 2nd choice in the wagering, a closing son of Curlin, coming off the most visually impressive win by any sophomore, recently bought into for a small fortune by one of the sharpest young eyes in the game Sol Kumin, and whose breeding rights purchased by the Roman fortress of WinStar Farm.  Have I lost my freaking mind?  Perhaps it was the 2nd mint julep during my Thursday "sampling" session.

Call me crazy, but the best Exaggerator will be on my tickets is 4th. Here are a few specific reasons for the knock...
1) Trainer Keith Desormeaux has stated that his charge better be last early or Kent will get an ear full. With so many other talented "dead closers," he is guaranteed to see massive traffic Saturday, unlike the 7 strung out opponents he faced in the Santa Anita Derby. After being more of a stalker type going shorter distances, they've taken back the last couple races and they have been pleased with the results. Previously, the trainer had stated he runs more like a sprinting miler, so he obviously has acknowledged concerns about the 10 furlong distance being from a Vindication mare. One easy win on the slop against overmatched foes and the tune has changed for many, but not me!

2) S-L-O-W finishing times for a closer!  Yes, the absolute times have been a notch better than other preps, as they always are with the Santa Anita strip. He was even passed back by Mor Spirit (another toss horse) in the San Felipe which is never a good sign. But consider his last furlong of SA Derby went an average :13 2/5. It was the slop, you say? Well 2 races back when he finished 3rd, his final 2.5 furlongs went in :32 1/5. EACH of these finishing times are slower than Brody's Cause, Creator, Suddenbreakingnews, Whitmore, Mo Tom (even with the severe checking) and Majesto.  Plus, many of these other horses are used to running in larger fields and have dealt with the traffic. 8-1 versus 20-1 or more on the others?  I'll pass.

3) His only 2 victories post sprinting as a juvenile were on SEALED, muddy tracks. Even if Louisville gets some rain on Derby Day, the track will likely be harrowed and a traditional surface. Sealed tracks are night and day different and some horses do not respond. To borrow a line from Seinfeld, "His father was a mudder.... His mother was a mudder!" Unless you plan on performing a rain dance come Saturday, he may regress on the dirt. Finally, Brody's Cause outfinished him for 3rd in BC Juvenile last year at a comparable class level and may be sitting on a better race.

Having said that, if Nyquist, Exaggerator and Mor Spirit all finish in the superfecta, not only will I have blown a small fortune of my own, but I'll apologize to all Californians then leave Twitter and my blog until next March.  And ya'll know how much I like to #DerbyTalk. The loser leave town match is on!!!

Happy Oaks day to all!  Better use Oaklawn's Fantasy Stakes runner-up Taxable (another Tapit for Steve Asmussen) and I'm pulling with my heart for Rachel's daughter Rachel Valentina for Stonestreet Farm. But remember, small wagers only today so we can back up the van for our Derby score!

Best of luck to all!
E

May 2, 2016

Lessons from previous triple crown series...

One of the best ways to analyze this year's Derby field is to take a look back at winning horses and spotting patterns. Along those lines, I've dusted off notes from the 2013 triple crown races and a few of my top lessons learned then are jumping off the page and should be restated here.

1) Include your favorite horses rather trying to guess a pace factor (which is out of our hands). Derby 142 presents a unique challenge in that pure speed horses are limited and most of my choices are not only closers, but "from the cloud" closers!  Rather than thinking they may not get enough pace to run at and moving up horses I don't like as much, I'm sticking with the merits of each horse hoping the jockey can make needed adjustments to get the job done. Creator is my lesson learned from this category.

2) Look at key races/competition, NOT the highest Beyer speed figs to assess quality of the field. Whether you try to beat him or choose to key him on top, there is no denying that Nyquist is the CLASS of this field! To think multiple 3YO males have Beyer or Equibase speed figures greater than him is absurd. He has also beat every "key horse" angle going back to last year's BC Juvenile over Swipe and Brody's Cause. Interestingly, Brody's Cause is the next "proven" horse with his 3rd place BC effort finishing ahead of Exaggerator and others, yet his 3YO speed fig is the lowest of all major contenders. Brody is a real threat in my book! Also worth noting is Destin's two very average losses in Fair Ground's Lecomte Stakes (where a clean trip Mo Tom easy winner) and Gulfstream allowance race before reeling off two fast wins at Tampa Bay. Can he duplicate those efforts elsewhere against better?

3) Young sires (1st or 2nd crops) have great success throughout triple crown series, including Pioneerof the Nile's Triple Crown winner American Pharoah in his 2nd crop last year. This year we have a classic battle shaping up between new (Uncle Mo) and old (Tapit) sires. However, since over 60% of TC race winners of the last two decades hailed from the Mr. Prospector sire lines (mainly via Fappiano), this shapes up as much as a battle of sire power as it does for the individual horses. My vote is that Tapit finally breaks through with a Derby winner. While he comes from the Seattle Slew line, he is by an Unbridled mare which is close enough Mr. P for me!

4) Do not hold grudges against a horse, jockey or trainer.  This will be a tough one for me this year since I'm not an Uncle Mo or Repole fan (recall his disrespectful comment to other Derby owners that Uncle Mo was "five to seven lengths better than any of those horses" upon being scratched from the Derby). I'm not necessarily doubting the Uncle Mo's on distance either but Into Mischief also loaded the starting gate with his early runners, yet Vyjack, Goldencents and Vicar's in Trouble all came up short at Churchill Downs with a lot of hype. Nor am I crazy about several rides by Luis Quinonez aboard Suddenbreakingnews and other closing horses at Oaklawn this spring. Yes, this rule will surely test my patience!

5) Forgive one bad race, but not two. This was a painful lesson when Bluegrass Cat entered the Derby  at huge odds (2nd place finish) off a leg weary 4th place finish in the Blue Grass Stakes. Mohaymen would be the candidate to draw a line through the FL Derby, especially on a sticky race track. Several horses recently bounced back from a previous poor finish (Brody's Cause, SBN, Creator). Where does Mo Tom fit into this?  Were those bad races or toss races due to horrible trips? The way he's working at Churchill and with his back class, he'll be hard for me to leave off relevant spots in my exotics.  Nyquist, Gun Runner, Exaggerator, Mor Spirit and Outwork fall into the consistent category with solid runs each time they face the starter. However, some of these fail to wow with the turn of foot expected by a Derby winner. 

Hope this helps your Derby handicapping!  Final analysis will be out following post position draw, so stay tuned!
Eric

April 27, 2016

Sire power stats - Mr P still rules the Classics!

Research credit to Jeff Scott in April 17, 2015 article entitled "Mr. Prospector continues to rule US classics" published on www.thoroughbredracing.com. 

In the world of finance and investments, there is a research concept of "top down" or "bottom up" (credit to Trey Songz & Nicki Minaj) securities analysis. Applying this methodology to the projected Kentucky Derby 142 field, I will be covering the top down approach of evaluating the past two decades classic (KY Derby, Preakness & Belmont) sire line victors (credit to Victor Espinoza) rather than the merits of each individual horse. That will follow after the post-position draw. Speaking of Victor, let's start with the recency bias that American Pharoah was from the Mr. Prospector sire line via Pioneerof the Nile. BUT... his only inbreeding was to Northern Dancer and AP registered a dosage index of 4.33, just over the rule of thumb cutoff of 4.0.

In the last 21 years (63 triple crown races) we find an anomaly greater than Brad Cox's gaudy stakes winning percentage this year (credit @bradcoxracing). The number that screams off the page is classic races won by tail-male descendants of the legendary Mr. Prospector (Mr P). Register the first Triple Crown Champion since 1978 Affirmed in American Pharoah, 11 Kentucky Derbies, 12 Preakness Stakes (get your Preak on!) and 15 out of 21 editions of the Belmont Stakes.  Come again?!  You heard it right, the Mr P sire line has won over 60% of the top races for sophomores, mind-boggling. Due to multiple runners each year, his actual strike rate is just over 15%.  Improbable Belmont winners Ruler on Ice and Drosselmeyer (credit to @WinstarFarm) in consecutive years is proof enough for me that sometimes at these testing distances, blood is thicker than water!

So let's apply this metric to the 20 candidates for Derby 142, shall we?  Not surprisingly, Mr P is tied for the most progeny at 5; Gun Runner and Danzing Candy both are inbred to the great sire Fappiano while Suddenbreakingnews and Trojan Nation are inbred to Mr P himself rather close up. Finally, Exaggerator has Mr P's daddy, Raise a Native, coursing through his veins via 4s x 5d cross. If any of these are your bubble horses, you may want to give them a long second look for a top placing at Churchill Downs.

Logically, Northern Dancer ranks a clear 2nd with 10 winning grandsons or great-grandsons, but with nearly as many starters as Mr P diluting his strike rate to around 4%. Storm Cat is the near exclusive source of Northern Dancer in this year's Derby and he's had only one sire line winner (Shackleford 2011 Preakness) with nearly 90 starters of triple crown races, ouch! Naturally, the big white face of Shackleford was from a Mr P line mare (via Unbridled).This year Brody's Cause, Mor Spirit (who has 4 strains of ND on his page) and Destin lead the way for this line, while Oscar Nominated and Tom's Ready have inbreeding to ND.

Next comes the Bold Ruler sire line that dominated the 1970's (credit to John Denver and marijuana) with studs Secretariat (credit Penny Chenery), Seattle Slew and Spectacular Bid (credit safety pin in hoof). The A.P. Indy line is blossoming today through his grandson Tapit (appropriately named at 300K a pop!). Creator, Lani and Mohaymen will try to sneak Tapit into the Twin Spires winner's circle -- seems bizarre it hasn't happened yet, but then again look at A.P. Indy's progeny record. Shagaf and My Man Sam are interesting in that they are inbred to Fappiano and Mr P, respectively.

That leaves us with a formerly dying vine of Caro (11 total wins but none in last 20+ years) prior to Uncle Mo's burst onto the Derby prep scene! For all the Nyquist "second coming" fans, I must point out his dosage index is a gaudy 7.0. While I'm not fully sold on the 4.0 or below rule myself  I am more concerned with his 5X pedigree and just one trace of Mr P via a Seeking the Gold second dam. He may have to be the "Adonis" superstar as portrayed to overcome his speed oriented family tradition (credit to -- all together now -- HANK!). Outwork is bred eerily similar to Nyquist with one strain of Mr P and 2 strains of ND. Mo Tom is actually inbred 5s x 3d to Caro, so he has some "back class" to pull the extra distance from.

The final two outlier horses are Whitmore (Ribot line) who is inbred 4d x 5d to Mr P and Majesto, an In Reality male line that was briefly brought back to relevance by two-time BC Classic winning Tiznow, but seems to have fizzled lately.

Please don't blame me if this discussion changes your picks and screws you out of a big trifecta, but information is power!

Eric


April 18, 2016

KY Derby 142 top 5 win candidates

Gentleman, start your ADW engines!  We are going to blow up the Churchill Downs toteboard in Kentucky Derby 142!  Odds players are overdue after 3 years of favorites muting the typical monster exotic payouts. In its illustrious history, the KY Derby produces about standard race percentages of winning favorites at 37%. But we've certainly seen wild swings of a near two decade gap of winning chalk in 80's and 90's to the recent three in succession. In looking back over some recent stats, I was shocked to see that California Chrome was a heavier favorite at 2.5 - 1 than American Pharoah at 2.9 -1 last year, compared to lukewarm selection Orb at 5.4 - 1. While I am grateful to have had all exotics keyed last year with AP, I'm ready to have another digit or two tacked on this year's W-2G.  Let the handicapping begin...

In the last 23 years, there have been 5 KY Derby winners coming off 4th place last outs including three consecutive runnings from '93-'95 (Sea Hero, Go For Gin, Thunder Gulch) joined by bombers Giacomo in 2005 and Mine That Bird in 2009. Charismatic finished 4th in the Santa Anita Derby of '99 but wheeled back quickly to annex the Lexington Stakes. But when you focus on the place position of the KY Derby four horses in the last decade played second fiddle at big odds after running 3rd or 4th in their final prep -- Closing Argument, Bluegrass Cat (** beaten 21 lengths in Blue Grass which prompted me to jump off in Derby), Golden Soul and Commanding Curve from recent Louisiana Derbies). This year's prep races were flip-flop results for the most part which leaves many raised brows when constructing vertical exotic tickets and my guess is that the total handle will be larger than ever. In addition, having one pure and deserving favorite (Nyquist) will tilt the odds to gigantic proportions if you can beat the perceived second coming of American Pharoah (can you sense my skepticism?). I will be in the camp of trying to beat him for a life changing payout (think Keeneland yearlings instead of TX or LA auctions). Here are my updated top 5 win candidates following the Arkansas Derby -- a key race that including LA Derby could produce 3 runners finishing top 5 at The Downs in 3 weeks...

1) Mohaymen – After seeing him in person in the FOY, I made the comment "He has the appearance of a king among peasants." After 1:49 seconds of Florida's Derby at Gulfstream Park he quickly morphed into the emperor with no clothes. I still like his calm mental state and think there is no reason he can't regroup from one bad race (on a quirky and sticky Gulfstream track that day). He does have an adaptable running style -- usually forwardly placed in small fields but actually trailed and split horses in the FOY, which will come in handy at Louisville with the stampede into the first turn. Finally, I was partly to blame for putting a jinx on this horse using the revered phrase TRIPLE CROWN prior to his butt-whipping at the hooves of Nyquist.

2) Suddenbreakingnews (SBN) – Still love his masterful stamina breeding (Mineshaft over Afleet Alex mare). In his Southwest victory, Whitmore appeared to be home free in the last sixteenth of a mile but Luis Quinonez had this guy flying late on the outside. He is a tall and lanky horse and has won both sprinting (7 furlongs) and going long with a good foundation of five starts at age two. Reminds me a lot of his damsire Afleet Alex in that he had 6 starts at age 2 and also won sprinting, having that quick turn of foot that creates a winning move at any distance. I heard a quote yesterday that Luis Q/Donnie K. Von Hemel said he didn't handle the track too good for much of the race until he got clear on the outside and switched leads. If this is true, could he have been 2-3 lengths better? Will he be under the twin spires?  The only thing that concerns me is that his jockey often runs into problems coming from the clouds, so for their sake I hope he lays mid-pack instead of having to get around 19 steed!

3) Brody’s Cause – BC laid an egg in first start of 2016 in the Tampa Bay Derby.  But that is known to be a deep and taxing track and perhaps he simply needed the comeback race. Came back and crushed in the Keeneland Blue Grass (recall it's back to regular dirt there). There is always a late bloomer on the Derby trail that makes their presence felt at Churchill Downs and I think BC is this year's version. He is another resolute closer who likes to launch on the far turn, which never hurts in the KY Derby. Looking at the key race angle, Brody's Cause beat Exaggerator in last fall's Keeneland Breeders' Futurity with similar trips. Mor Spirit then finished just ahead of Mo Tom and Gun Runner the following month at Churchill Downs in the KY Jockey Club, so all about equal? Fast forward to Exaggerator crushing Mor Spirit recently in the SA Derby slop. So to me that moves Brody's Cause to the top of the pecking order on his best day, while I believe his odds will be higher than a couple of these common foes. Dale Romans has been close to taking the roses with primarily turf bred horses and is excited about this prospect.

4) Creator -- I swapped out Mor Spirit after his lethargic stretch attempt vs Exaggerator to no avail in the Santa Anita Derby. Most Derby winners have a nice turn of foot to swoop to the lead on the turn/head of stretch. I feel the west coast horses (sans Nyquist) are getting too much credit/high speed figures so they will be overbet as a group, especially one from the Bob Baffert barn. The "other" Tapit in Saturday's Kentucky Derby behind heralded Cupid (Baffert), this grey product by Tapit from a Peruvian champion mare hopes to follow Animal Kingdom's Derby with the foreign bloodstock. Further, this is the year of Hall of Fame coronation (deservedly so) for top Oaklawn conditioner Steve Asmussen. On multiple occasions this meet I cashed nice tickets by playing the larger odds horse of the Asmussen entries, so I would be hard on myself if I used Gun Runner instead of my big Ark Derby winner ($22 winner, cha-ching!).

5) Mo Tom – Repeat my previous comments after his troubled Risen Star trip, but add an asterisk*. His composure after being slammed into the rail evoked images of Afleet Alex touching his nose on the Pimlico track due to Scrappy T. boring out in the stretch to win going away late.  Yet he still came running late and if a quick pace materializes on Derby Day he could be a major threat. With Nyquist, Destin and likely another from Pletcher barn ding-donging early, at least a fair pace is expected (or else Nyquist could seal the deal). Regarding my theme of "2nd chances" jockey Corey Lanerie may be getting a 3rd chance to redeem his poor rides of trapping Mo Tom on the rail rather than swinging wide, which he easily used winning the Lecomte, beating Tampa Bay Derby winner Destin 5 lengths in the process. Uncle Mo is the hottest sire going right now and they appear to be even better at two turns, much to my surprise.  In previous foal crops top freshmen sires produced major Derby threats (i.e. sires Birdstone, Curlin, Into Mischief) so you've been warned!

March 1, 2016

March Derby top 10 now whittled down to 5...

Well, that wasn't the start to my Derby trail that I was looking for. After 1 or 2 prep races now complete on most circuits, the contenders are starting to separate themselves from the pretenders. I would feel okay with my list had I used Donnie K. Von Hemel's "other" Derby hopeful instead of Synchrony, but my personal rooting interest didn't pan out. And since my Derby listing is about who can possible WIN the roses on the first Saturday in May (rather than hitting board), I now feel the winner comes from this select group of 5...

1) Mohaymen – the easiest of victories without being asked in Saturday’s Fountain of Youth Stakes at sunny Gulfstream Park in Hollywood, FL. He has the appearance of a king among peasants. He was the only horse in the small field that didn’t act up entering the starting gates or during the race. Most trainers tell you it’s the mental side that make super horses (many more are gifted physically). Well, I saw first-hand how this guy knows his job and seems to relish it. With his adaptable running style (usually just off the pace but actually trailed and split horses in this small field), may be too tough to handle in Louisville with a clean gate break. I hope I'm able to say that I witnessed two TRIPLE CROWN winners in a row in Derby prep races. Yes, he may be that good!

2) Suddenbreakingnews (SBN) – debuts on my list at a high position with his masterful stamina breeding (Mineshaft over Afleet Alex mare). In his Southwest victory, Whitmore appeared to be home free in the last sixteenth of a mile but Luis Q had this guy flying late on the outside. He is a tall and lanky horse and has won both sprinting (7 furlongs) and going long with a good foundation of five starts at age two. Reminds me a lot of his damsire Afleet Alex in that he had 6 starts at age 2 and also won sprinting, having that quick turn of foot that creates a winning move at any distance. Southwest Stakes was SBN’s first start off the year and he could improve in future races with that tightener. Really turned heads with his stretch rally into a moderate pace (half mile in :47, 6 panels in 1:12.30). “This is unbelievable where this horse launched (last into stretch).  Wow, what an explosion late!” – Paul LoDuca (TVG network)

3) Brody’s Cause – he certainly hasn’t validated his 3YO form yet as he awaits his first start of 2016 in the Tampa Bay Derby.  But there is always a late bloomer on the Derby trail that makes their presence felt at Churchill Downs. The more I review his juvenile races, he’s already beaten most of the top Derby candidates, sans Nyquist (who I think will struggle with the 10 furlong distance). He is another confirmed closer, which never hurts in the KY Derby. His first major workout back in January at Gulfstream Park over 4 furlongs was a bullet :47.74. When deep closers work that fast, it’s a hugely positive sign.

4) Mor Spirit – so far doing everything right. Probably getting a little more attention than he deserves since he’s handled by Bob Baffert. Received the same Equibase speed rating in his Robert Lewis score at Santa Anita as SBN at Oaklawn even though the speedier SA dirt strip produced nearly 2 full second faster time. Looks steady but not spectacular.

5) Mo Tom – hard luck 3rd place in the Fair Ground’s Risen Star Stakes and being checked into the rail turning for home. Yet he still came running late and if a quick pace materializes on Derby Day he could be a real threat (but I still prefer SBN as a closer). Uncle Mo is the hottest sire going right now and in previous groups top freshmen sires produced major Derby threats (Birdstone, Curlin, Into Mischief).