April 30, 2008

Thursday - Sizing up the Field

The answer to yesterday's trivia is John Longden, who piloted the great Count Fleet in 1943 and conditioned Majestic Prince in 1969 over a mere seven rivals, including Arts and Letters. "The Shoe", who won four Derbies over three decades, did also get to The Derby as a trainer with Diazo, finishing 5th in 1993.
Speaking of trainers, Rick Dutrow has received much press after his comments earlier in the week saying his Big Brown has no competition on Saturday. That may be true if he were entered in the 3rd race at Aqueduct, but the dynamics of the race itself (field size, untested distance, crowd element, etc.) provides stiff competition. He backed up his arrogance Wednesday afternoon when he chose the 20 post (worst starting position for a speed/stalker type) even though there were five open positions remaining, including the 1 and 2 holes. If I’ve learned anything over the past few months, I know that there are no "cinches" with this group of Derby horses. (I have also come to realize that moderation is the key word when drinking grappa.) Outspoken confidence is deadly at The Derby, as Tony Soprano-esque Ernie Paragallo found out when his Unbridled's Song finished 5th in 1996 (Grindstone) after his guarantee for a victory. (I'm surprised no class action lawsuit was filed by those who bet on his horse.) Bob Baffert was also supremely confident in 2001 with Point Given, who also finished 5th as the heavy favorite. Am I implying that Big Brown will also finish in the 5 slot? Certainly not, but it sure wouldn't hurt my superfecta ticket if he did! You be your own judge of what "Brown can do for you." (sorry, I've been waiting to drop that line all week!)

This year is also the 20th anniversary of Winning Colors' Derby triumph, one of only 3 ladies to claim the roses. I stopped betting fillies in this race after the highly regarded Excellent Meeting finished 5th in the 1999 Derby (Charismatic). She was a big filly bred to get the distance and had the perfect late running style for such a race. I figure if she couldn't get it done on that day, no filly could. But I wouldn't mind being proven wrong for sake of the positive attention it would draw to the sport. (My lovely wife reminded me that Rags to Riches bested Curlin in last year's Belmont Stakes, so it certainly CAN be done.)

So let's get to know these 19 colts and lone filly who will be racing for immortality on Saturday at 6:04 eastern time, shall we? Many starters are from sires or siblings who have won or fared well in The Derby. Namely, both Z Humor (Funny Cide '03) and Monba's (Monarchos '01) sires have produced a Kentucky Derby winner. A slew of runners pappa's made it to the track with varying levels of success; Victory Gallop begot Anak Nakal, Pulpit begot Pyro, Unbridled's Song begot Eight Belles, Harlan's Holiday begot Dennis of Cork, Gulch begot Court Vision, so on and so on. Other entrants such as Gayego, Big Brown, Smooth Air and Visionaire come from sires known as "milers" who had more success in sprint races, yet their dam side of the family tree gives them a distance boost. This pattern has led to recent Derby successes in War Emblem '02, Funny Cide '03, Smarty Jones '04 as well as other triple crown victors Afleet Alex '05 and Curlin '07. Which is probably why I haven't heard the once gospel quoted "dosage index" nary a time this spring.

As you begin pondering your handicapping, you should first come up with a betting strategy. We'll compare this to an investment policy statement for all my friends in the investments industry. First, how much do you want to bet. Second, what is your risk reward dynamic. And lastly, how should you allocate your resources amongst straight board bets (win, place, show) and exotics (exacta, trifecta, superfecta). If you're shooting for the superfecta, be ready to play a several hundred dollar ticket to include enough combinations to give you a reasonable chance of success. If you're wanting to keep it under $100, I would recommend a win bet on your top choice (if exceeds 10-1) and to key your top horse in exactas with ALL in the first and second slot. Finally, you may want to consider a 4 horse $1 trifecta box, which will cost you only $24. While it is VERY TOUGH to whittle down 20 horses, it can be done in a good year. I succeeded in such a bet the year Funny Cide won at 13-1. (For those of you ready to send $$ my way to bet for you, I haven't picked a winner since.) Good luck at the windows!!

April 29, 2008

Wednesday - Human Connections

Yesterday's trivia answer is Yum! Brands, which is the parent company to KFC, Taco Bell and other calorie pushing fast foodies selling heart attacks in 99 cent increments. Those of you on my email list last year already heard my tirade about this sponsorship, so I'll leave it at that.

The equine superstars provide most of the drama and lead in stories on Derby day, but without centuries of breeders refining nick patterns and owners willing to drop ever increasing sums of moola to purchase this bloodstock, deeply committed trainers and life risking jockeys would not be able to ply their trades. Of all the multiple winning jockeys and trainers, only one man has proved a dual threat winning as both. And while Nick Zito is revered at Churchill Downs as a two-time Derby winning trainer for his plainspoken nature, the seemingly unavailing Todd Pletcher, 0 for 19 with Derby starters, has more top 3 finishes than Zito with a comparable number of starters.

Many handicappers like to bet on certain "hot jocks", but it's clear to me that the trainer has the most influence on the condition of the horse. Along those lines, Steve Asmussen is in a good position to steal The Derby with Pyro or Z Fortune after taking over the rest of the racing world, mainly via Curlin -- 3rd in last year's Derby but now horse of the world. His dominance over his home base Lone Star Park makes it difficult to bet any race he has a starter since his horses are bet to heavy favoritism and run accordingly (winning at a 40% clip), similar to the way Pat Day ruined odds at Oaklawn Park throughout the '80s and early '90s. But there are other fine horsemen represented with multiple starters, such as Bill Mott (Z Humor and Court Vision), Barclay Tagg of Funny Cide '03 fame (Tale of Ekati and Big Truck), the aforementioned Nick Zito (Cool Coal Man and Anak Nakal) and the expected appearance of Todd Pletcher (Monba and Cowboy Cal).

As for the owners, Calumet Farm set the gold standard by sending eight winners from only 20 starters, most notably Whirlaway in 1941. Furthermore, Calumet is credited with breeding a record nine Derby winners. A few victorious owners this past decade have been multiple owner groups via racing syndicates or individuals hitting it big in their early foray into racing. The success of ordinary racing syndicates (with horses such as Funny Cide and Afleet Alex or Dogwood and West Point Stables on the higher levels) have also created more opportunities for a nominal investment to produce the thrill of a lifetime. One owner that the Jockey Club would shriek to see in the winner's circle again is Mike Pegram, the McDonald's franchise owner who's association with Bob Baffert produced a winning colt named (sshhhh) Real Quiet '98. If any of you recall that inebriated trophy presentation, those few minutes are likely why "live" events are now time delayed to block the foul language.

The post position draw will occur Wednesday afternoon in a made for television event on ESPN2 at 5:00 ET. Then I'll spend Thursday and Friday focusing on the horses and betting strategies (for those so inclined).

April 28, 2008

Tuesday - Handicapping Edge

Yesterday's trivia answer is Saratoga, the visit once and fall in love with the sport showcase track in Saratoga Springs, NY near picturesque Lake George. Even though the Kentucky Derby is the oldest continually run horse race in America, it is not the oldest track nor race.

I often assert that race tracks should do more fan-friendly promotions to appeal to the younger generation to keep younger patrons involved as spectators (leading to future owners) rather than watch the old school Hammerin' Hank Goldberg's of the world slowly die off and cripple our sport. I'm not referring solely to revenue streams, since "the future" of slot machine terminals is well entrenched. I'm talking about keeping fans coming to the track for the product of racing alone, something that is clearly dead at many tracks, such as The Fair Grounds in New Orleans, which draws more in a half day during JazzFest that is hosted at the track than a year's worth of racing patrons. (However, a nice place to mingle with top trainers such as Steve Asmussen, Frankie Brothers, Tom Amoss.) At Saratoga, they allow customers to haul in chairs, blankets and coolers as large as you can find them -- including ice cold adult beverages -- as long as you stay in their grassy, shaded picnic areas and saddling paddock, which is prior to entering the grandstand.

Since this is a "blog" I'll further digress to mention a travel tip. For those of you with teenage children or sports enthusiast adults, one can fly into Albany, head to Cooperstown baseball HOF upon arrival, then make the 3+ hours trek north to Saratoga from the last weekend of July through Labor Day for a truly memorable vacation.

Back to the handicapping... In most years I have changed my top Derby pick a handful of times by now. This year has been no exception. But since I'd rather you come to your own Derby conclusions, I will keep with tradition and not reveal my top 3 picks until my last post on Friday. However, I will touch on some handicapping angles and historical traits of the winning formula based on past performance. One tool I've come across in recent years that is very helpful in sorting the key past performance factors that are most important in your mind is the C-J Derby DataTrack database found at http://www.courier-journal.com/ on the Louisville Courier-Journal's Derby page. This site also has daily insightful articles leading up to the Derby and is a must for tips for those throwing or attending a Derby party (i.e. what is Burgoo and how to make bourbon balls).

There is one historical trend that can possibly be bucked this year (pun intended). That being the winner of The Derby typically comes off a win or place in their last prep race. Some of the solid contenders in this race have thrown in clunkers recently, most notably Pyro, who I will be giving consideration to in spite of his dull 10th place finish in the Blue Grass. Not only was that race run on a synthetic surface that the jockey admitted Pyro never "grabbed a hold of", but the speed fractions of that race (1:13 for 6 furlongs) were nowhere close to the typical Derby with 20 mad-dashers and hurt the chances of this true closer. Which leads to my best angle of handicapping The Derby, just like where I start prior to ANY race... try to estimate pace (quarterly speed fractions) based on past performance of route races. Since 2000, the first half mile went under 45 seconds only once - in 2001 when confirmed speedsters Balto Star and Songandaprayer went dueling from the opening bell. This resulted in the 2nd fastest Derby ever setting up the closers Monarchos and Invisible Ink rolling in the stretch. Even though the undisputed "stud" of that group was Point Given, who finished 5th after being too close to this suicidal pace. On the other end of the spectrum, the very next year in 2002 War Emblem, a confirmed frontrunner, was lightly pressed through the only half mile in over 47 seconds since 2000 and had enough gas left in the tank to win gate to wire, a very rare occurence at 10 furlongs. So my friends, pace certainly makes the race. You just need to get into the mind of 20 jockeys and you'll find your winner come Saturday!

April 25, 2008

Monday -- Perspective

Hear ye, hear ye, Derby week has finally arrived! How spectacular to reflect on last year's crop of 3 year-olds and see how much they accomplished. Namely Curlin, who after coming up a bit short to super filly Rags to Riches (too bad she was soon after injured) in the mile and one-half Belmont Stakes reeled off impressive victories in the Breeders' Cup Classic and more recently the Dubai World Cup (see archived blog), inching ever so closer to Cigar's high water earnings mark of $9.99 million USD. Street Sense and Hard Spun also went on to win two additional graded stakes each in their fall campaigns, with the latter placing behind Curlin in the Breeders' Cup Classic. I can not recall such utter domination by a class of sophomores in all my racing years. Thus, we were due for a letdown this racing season. However, based on how as a whole this year's top prospects have floundered, we may be witnessing the "bounce" effect with this crop (for those non-handicappers, bounce refers to a poor performance following an unusually strong race).

Nevertheless, The Derby is about so much more than the two minutes it will take the twenty colts (and likely fillies this year with Eight Belles and Proud Spell) to zip counterclockwise over 10 furlongs. First, this event is an anniversary of past Derby champions, both the great (Secretariat's 35th) and the fortuitous (Giacomo's 3rd). It is the drama of the heavy favorite scratching the day of the race (A.P. Indy in 1992, Dr. Carter in 1984), the crescendo of owners and trainers perservering over seven or eight decades to finally have arrived with a Derby starter (Francis Genter in 1990 with Unbridled and Harold Rose with Hal's Hope in 2000), and the social theatre of Churchill Downs and parties all over this great land that has catapulted this day into the vernacular of every casual sporting and/or fashion pupil. Ladies and Gentlemen... let the games begin!! (Not those soon to be games in Beijing causing all the trouble, mind you.)

To gain some perspective on this race from a historical context, let's take a stroll down memory lane, shall we? Close your eyes and pretend we're in the spring of 1875. What's that, can't read with your eyes closed? Well open them again and just "imagine" people walking around dirt roads -- some on horseback-- on their way to the mercantile store, saloon (or heaven forbid, brothel). Folks back then are more astute handicappers, since most are shodding their horses on a monthly basis and can identify bowed tendons and the like. Who's that screaming baby? Oh, that's future poet Robert Frost being born just in time for the big race. Now what's that smell? No dirty diapers up in here, that's the incense coming from St. Patrick's Cathedral where Pope Pius IX has just ordained the first American Cardinal. Yes, people still attended church way back then before Al Gore invented the internet. Those not living close to Louisville are S-O-L since Mr. Bell is still tinkering with his sound transmission project. And people are too afraid to ride the train anywhere since Jesse James and Bat Masterson are in their gunslinging, train robbing heyday.
Most people didn't even notice Aristides victory on May 17, 1875, witnessed by only 10,000 folks. There was no blanket of roses for the winner, no mint juleps for the celebrating owners. Just a simple notation of the race called "The Kentucky Derby" in the local papers. People would soon turn their attention to fighting the mass of European immigrants overtaking this country until one of those immigrants produced a crisp, refreshing beverage called "Budweiser". Then they decided Germans weren't so bad after all and turned their attacks toward a woman by the name of Susan B. Anthony, who thought it was a good idea for women to be involved in the political process and be allowed to vote. I'd venture to guess she would be proud of the road she paved for Hillary, just like Col. Lewis Clark would be proud of what has become of his little horse race to showcase Kentucky breeding. I'd better wrap it up for today. More on the actual horses tomorrow...

April 17, 2008

Derby picture... clear as mud??

Back in my youth, one of my favorite songs was "Another one bites the dust", which the JunkYard Dog "JYD" used as an entry song for his Mid-South wrestling matches. NBC would be well served to use this as the theme music while profiling this year's Derby field on the rapidly approaching first Saturday in May! Even though most of the heavyweights have stumbled in their past race or two, their trainers are willing to give them another chance in what appears to be a wide open Kentucky Derby 134. Topping this list seeking a "do over" is Pyro, who had been the most consistent sophomore while racing over the Fair Grounds oval prior to his 10th place Blue Grass Stakes finish behind Monba, who had previously run up the track in the Fountain of Youth prior to this win.

Which brings up one of the several reasons that may lead to such anomolic race results; synthetic surfaces. Pyro raced for the first time on a non-traditional dirt surface while never showing his usual stretch kick. All California based horses are accustomed to this surface due to state horse track mandates. The problem is that Churchill Downs still maintains a traditional dirt surface, along with Oaklawn Park and other eastern based tracks. This creates yet ANOTHER "angle" for handicappers to use while pondering their Derby bets.

Elsewhere in major prep race action, Gayego proved that being second best in the west was enough to take over the top spot in the midwest by winning the Arkansas Derby. This win was pivotal for Gayego, who had run only on a synthetic surface out west, then stepped it up a notch at Oaklawn Park. Z Fortune came out of that same race with a game second, which puts the Asmussen trainee back into the top tier of horses after throwing in a clunker in the Rebel Stakes as odds-on favorite.

In the Wood Memorial, War Pass came back from a last place finish at Tampa Bay to run second, whilst also potentially showing his distance limitations by struggling home the last sixteenth of the 9 furlong event. The winner from that race, Tale of Ekati, rebounded from his sixth place finish in the Louisiana Derby to Pyro. But in my opinion, the Wood was perhaps the weakest of all the major preps. So now all that's left for us handicappers is to figure out which race to throw out... the win or the off the board finish of a half dozen or so horses, and we'll be collecting some greenbacks just a couple Saturdays from now!