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!!

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