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!