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!

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