Saturday, April 14, 2018

Something Funny Happened Along The Way To Vegas

Hey, there's a lot of time to kill over a guys' weekend away from our families.

On the 75-minute drive last Friday from Cincinnati to Keeneland Race Course with @RedRockOrBust, trainer D. Wayne Lucas came up as one of our far-flung subjects of discussion.

You know, the type of exchanges you'll never hear at the dinner table or on the long, daily train or bus ride commute from work.

Anyway, horse racing was the center of most discussion, considering our plans for two straight days at the illustrious Lexington, KY, track and a visit to the Thoroughbred Center.

I had noticed in preparation for last Saturday's NHC qualification tournament on that the Hall of Fame trainer with 14 lifetime Triple Crown wins -- Oxbow, the last, at 15-1 in the 2013 Preakness -- entered a few horses at Keeneland over the weekend.

Our discussion speculated on his motivations at age 82 after an immensely accomplished career, as well as those of owners who hire trainers (and there are few in the octogenarian ranks)...not to mention why tournament players like us would jump to play his runners.

The latter, especially so, considering Lukas' mere 2-for-90 in stakes tries since 2017 and that he's not winning at nearly the breakneck pace of his glory days of the 1980-90s.

Yet as fate would have it, Lukas' 23-1 Warrior's Club -- the second-longest shot in the nine-horse Grade 3 Commonwealth Stakes -- was the key to my earliest qualification ever to the NTRA National Horseplayers Championship.

I've earned my way into the 19th-annual NHC next February in Las Vegas, largely courtesy of Warrior's Club, but also 10-to-1 winner Spiced Perfection in the Evening Jewel Stakes at Santa Anita just 12 minutes after, and two short-priced favorites in the later stages of my contest.

My third-place finish among 219 entries was good enough to get a shot at the $3 million NHC 19 and to put to rest any concerns about missing out for a third-straight year after qualifying for NHC 15 and 16.

Hey, Nothing Wrong With a Little Luck

"KEE 6" Contest Selections:
5, Conquest Windycity
4, Warrior's Club
The funny part is that Warrior's Club was merely an alternate contest selection after 15-1 Shut the Box, my top pick and a key in my contest preparation, was a pre-race scratch.

Yet, I had to make Warrior's Club a main contest play after subconsciously punching him as a single in the final leg of my separate Pick 3 ticket -- one that was worth $497 if he miraculously won the race.

In all honesty, I intended to use another horse -- one that ultimately did not hit the board in the Commonwealth Stakes. My contest card proves that, as I used Conquest Windycity in one of my two tournament plays.

Instead, Warrior's Club got a perfect trip under jockey Luis Contreras to pay $48.80 to win (capped at $42 for contest purposes). Not too shabby.

Karma Continues

The next (of 12) contest races vaulted me to the top of the leader board, as Spiced Perfection edged out vulnerable 2-to-5 favorite Show It N Moe It to win the Evening Jewel three time zones away.

The combined $29.60 of win and place earnings proved powerful, as several shorter-priced horses for the duration of the contest made it difficult for people to make up ground.

Among them were two that I had, including 3-to-10 Monomoy Girl in the Grade 1 Ashland Stakes at Keeneland and 9-to-10 Justify in the Grade 1 Santa Anita Derby, a key Kentucky Derby prep.

Combined, those two winners provided me just $10.70 of winnings, but that proved enough to stave off the competition and lock up an NHC 19 berth.

So, Now What?

NHC 19 is still almost a full year away.

You may recall that my last post assessed the new NHC Tour points accrual structure and how it favors high-volume players.

Contemplating what I should do now that my NHC spot is assured, yet 10 months from now, I'll revisit that theme next time around.

A deeper reading of the rules structure uncovered some interesting opportunities, even for the weekend player like me who generally lacks the volume of play as full-timers on the NHC circuit.

Monday, February 19, 2018

What's the Point? Tackling the New NHC Scoring System

As a part-time tournament horseplayer, accruing NHC Tour leaderboard points never meant that much to me, as the system clearly favors full-timers who pony up stacks of cash for multiple entries in online qualifiers or travel extensively for on-track contests.

The NHC Tour is a churn-based business, and most of us recognize and accept that, as it caters -- whether fairly or not as an assessment of the best handicappers -- to the volume player.

Changes in Tour points allocation for 2018 make that abundantly clear.

Folks like me who play for entertainment purposes and aren't double- and triple-entered in handicapping tournaments each weekend can't compete for year-end cash prizes for landing in the Top 20 of the Tour leaderboard, let alone make the Top 150. Those inside that latter benchmark make the $2.9 million NHC championship each February in Las Vegas, regardless of whether they've won a tournament outright or not. The reward is consistency over a full season, and it's enough of a carrot for some players to play in more tournaments.

Locally, two friends made it on points -- Steve Fitzpatrick, a part-timer like me who executed extremely well in Monmouth Park on-track tournaments and within a rational budget to tie for 101st on points, and Frank Gryboski via a late-season push to qualify on points; he turned that into a 20th-place finish at the NHC for a decent paycheck.

I just missed out, finishing 172nd in points with three consecutive Top 10 finishes in online tournaments from Dec. 3-15. If only Whatta Girl (#7) had passed two others in the stretch in an inconsequential Sunday allowance race at Woodbine, I'd have taken down the qualifier that afternoon and made it to Vegas without having to accrue Tour points. 

It cost me only, and exactly, $257 of entertainment to pick up about 5,000 points in those three qualifiers, though I couldn't convert in a few $50 and $100 online tournaments thereafter to crack the Top 150, and I wasn't going to spend a ton on an investment -- really a sunken cost -- into something with questionable economic value and with 1-in-700 odds of the top prize. 

Plus, as the NHC Tour still hasn't broken the $3 million purse value despite having 100 more qualifiers to Las Vegas than just three years ago, I've got my doubts about a presumably high takeout that more than a few followers have addressed online. To me, it begs the question of whether the Tour is truly growing (i.e. more players qualifying for Vegas but a relatively static total purse and top prize) and has a true value proposition that's largely being return to the players. Or are members funding NTRA salaries and industry lobbying?

It also raises some questions about three notable changes in the Tour's leaderboard-points system:
  • Points accrual will expand to each player's 7 top tournament scores instead of 6.
  • "Free" NHC qualifiers that host more than 1,000 players will cap the Tour-point payout to the 100 top finishers, rather than to the top 10% for such tournaments. 
  • Creation of a "separate" Top 50 leaderboard for those who've yet to directly qualify for Vegas by winning a qualifying tournament.

Top 7 vs. Top 6 Scores

Adding yet another tournament score will widen the chasm between full- and part-time players. 

In 2017, it took 18,825 Tour points, and who knows how much money, to win the regular-season scoring title, worth a $100,000 prize and potential $2 million bonus for winning the NHC in Vegas (an annuity at that, not an outright lump-sum payout). Surely it takes a lot of great handicapping to accrue that many points, but probably also a good chunk of change to accomplish. If we average that total out across 7 events, it'll take about 22,000 points to win it in 2018.

Is it worth the expense to get there? Maybe for some. Definitely not for me and almost certainly not for all but a few hardcore NHC Tour members.

Less Points for Freebies

I'll use yesterday's first NHC Tour Free Contest as an example of the effect of a rule change to reward only the top 100 finishers -- no longer the top 10% -- with points in tournaments with 1,000+ players.

I finished 54th out of 1,920 players. Not a bad start to the year, and no out-of-pocket cost, with this being 1 of 5 "free" tournaments hosted by the NHC for our $50 annual membership.

For my effort, I receive 1,569 Tour points based on this season's calculator with a 1,000-player cap.

In 2017, I'd have gotten 2,255 Tour points -- about 700 more.

At the same time, 92 players (finishers 101-192) who would have received Tour points last season get a goose egg in 2018's format.

So, sorry Mark Richards. The Tour's giving you zero points on the 2018 calculator for your 101st-place finish vs. 1,594 in 2017.

Based on this, it's clear that Tour rule makers want to reward -- or bleed dry -- the players willing to spend $1,000 or more a weekend in travel and tournament entry fees at tracks across the U.S., or who wouldn't blush at spending $500 or more to enter a "more-exclusive" online contest. Or who participate in both at the same time.

I don't necessarily understand the rationale of curbing the reward of mythical points with zero economic value but that might entice a player (like me at the end of 2017) to fork over some money to online-contest venues to play in more tournaments. But whatevuh...

Separate Top 50 Leaderboard

To me, this is sort of a wash, since about 50 Tour players always end up ranking in the Top 150 of the year-end points leaderboard and, by that virtue, qualify for Vegas regardless. 

Admittedly, I don't know the first
thing about Vonnegut either
Similar to my other rather unscientific opinions, this probably helps the high-volume player over weekend or sporadic Tour members.

It's akin to Rodney Dangerfield telling his hired team of writers in the movie "Back to School" to add another 100 pages to a 600-page report to turn that B+ paper into an A.

If the NHC's new take on Tour points is volume, then have at it hoss!

Maybe that 500-point finish gets you that coveted 7th score that was erased in 2017 but is counted and vaults you to Las Vegas in 2018. If so, congrats!

Otherwise, it's hard to see the value of the 2018 changes to grow the sport, which should be the overarching theme of the rules committee.

Let us know what you think.

Monday, October 30, 2017

It Pays to Keep (Track of) Good Company

For lack of time and involvement on the handicapping-contest circuit, I've been on the writing sidelines for many months. But laid up sick at home today, I've got some thoughts that I've been sitting on since an Oct. 15 qualifier at Monmouth Park that could help you in multi-track competitions akin to the NHC.

It centers on "common races" -- a concept that I hear a lot in passing, usually on TVG or the NYRA show that's playing in the background at home while making dinner or doing chores. Often those shows are good for mental notes. 

Surely avid racing fans have heard it before. Show hosts or professional handicappers will note that so-and-so is live because his last race had a handful of next-out winners or some such. 

I never gave it a ton of thought, especially since it's often about a weekday race where the talent's thin and they're talking about cheap claimers. To me, the further down the scale of field quality, the less I tend to care.

Yet it's an angle that worked for me in identifying a 35-to-1 shot that finished second, scoring me $196 in a $10 across-the-board wager and providing dry powder to make a big wager on a best-bet later in the contest card. 

In a $150 live-bankroll format with $15 wager minimums, I scored early with a $12.90 winner at Woodbine with my second bet. After losing my next three plays, though still above my starting bankroll, I was too conservative with a horse that I liked a lot in Race 5 at Belmont.

Hannah's Smile, a three-year-old filly, was competing in a $50,000 starter-allowance against seven others at seven furlongs on turf. She wasn't a horse that I had ID'd pre-contest, but in four starts -- all turf sprints -- she was keen, including a loss by a neck at the same level on Aug. 3 in Saratoga to First Appeal. As that name rang a bell, I quickly researched that, on Aug. 27, First Appeal won a $75,000 starter allowance at Saratoga.

In short, Hannah's Smile appeared extremely playable at 4-1, especially after taking a lot of early money and at one point earnings 8-to-5 favoritism. 

First Appeal, a positive force
for NJ Horseplayer in Oct. 15
Monmouth Park NHC contest
With a $167 bankroll, I should have been more aggressive, but wanted to save for a big play on a horse that I loved later at Woodbine and settled on a $15 win bet that netted me $61.50 as my horse inched away to win by a length and a half

I foundered on a few suspect plays thereafter (the contest required a minimum of 10 wagers, focused primarily at Woodbine) and down to about $80 of bankroll with only a few races left in the contest, I noticed First Appeal's name show up in the company lines of a long-shot named Nile Princess, who was racing 10 others in far softer company.

Belmont's finale was a mile-and-a-sixteenth $25,000 claimer on turf, featuring three-year-olds and up who've never won two races. The 20-to-1 morning line and 1-for-26 lifetime record on Nile Princess clearly made that five-year-old mare and outlier, and ultimately she drifted up to 35-to-1.

Yet, in a turf sprint on July 13 at Belmont -- sent off at 43-to-1, Nile Princess at least made up a lot of late ground against a winner of two later allowance events at the prestigious Saratoga meeting, and so I thought she'd appreciate the added distance and was playable, even at almost double the morning line. 

Nile Princess made a bold late move to finish second, likely compromised only by the nine-wide trip from jockey Rosario Montanez. The $10 win-place-show wager netted me $196 to run my bankroll to $244 -- precisely the position I wanted to be in for my best bet of the day.

Unfortunately, my $100 win-$40 place play on Fourstar Crook in the EP Taylor at Woodbine did not pan out (he finished third). Neither did my $104 investment in Enterprising in the Canadian International -- won by a different long-shot, $49 winner Bullard's Alley.

The point of this write-up isn't moot, however.

When playing in a handicapping contest where you haven't looked at all 30-35 races from three different tracks -- an impossibility, and no different than the three-day NHC -- looking at the company lines can serve as your quick-and-dirty friend.

Saturday, July 29, 2017

It's Time to Get McCracken

The pressure's on a bit after giving the winner and trifecta last year, but NJ Horseplayer is up to the challenge of a repeat for Monmouth Park's annual showcase, the 2017 Haskell Invitational.

This year's field of seven lacks a Triple Crown stakes winner like an Exaggerator (2016) or the star power of an American Pharoah (2015), though weather conditions appear to be optimal and the depth of the field makes for a challenging puzzle yet promising payouts for winning bettors.

We've gone into detail on each of Sunday's runners, but think it's a two horse field, with McCracken getting a slight edge over Battle of Midway. We'll use Timeline underneath.
NJ Horseplayer gives McCracken
slight edge over Battle of Midway

Sorry, New Jersey, but our money's not going to the Jersey-bred Irish War Cry, clearly the sentimental favorite and the top choice by the oddsmakers. He was an extremely game second in the Belmont Stakes and has been pointed toward the Haskell from the get-go, but his running style may be compromised by the rail draw, especially with a long run into the first turn.

Battle of Midway got serious consideration as the winner since he's got good natural speed -- an angle that typically plays well at Monmouth. But he's our second choice, figuring in the end that he will get run down late by McCracken, who earlier this season won a race at Tampa Bay Downs that's proving productive on several fronts.

Betting wise, on a $60 bankroll we'll play:

  • $10 Win 5
  • $10 Exacta Key: 5 with 2, 3 ($20 total)
  • $2 Trifecta: 5 with 2, 3, with 2, 3, 4, 7 ($12 total)
  • $1 Trifecta 2 with 3, 5, with 2, 3, 4, 5, 7 ($6 total)
  • $1 Superfecta: 5 with 2, 3, with 2, 3 with ALL ($8 total)
  • $0.50 Superfecta 2 with 3, 5, with 3, 5 with ALL ($4 total)

2017 Haskell Invitational horse-by-horse analysis

#1, Irish War Cry (5-2): The sentimental choice as a New Jersey-bred and owned by the granddaughter of the man for whom this race is named, and likely the post-time favorite. Drawing the rail, however, could be a big detriment. The only time he won when off the pace was in the Wood Memorial in April, where he beat a front-runner who has since come back unimpressively with a third-place showing on July 8 against lesser company. Jockey Rajiv Maragh is going to have to choose between working hard to get the lead vs. the two horses directly to his outside or hoping for a clean break, establish a close stalking position along the rail and save ground and wait for a seam. If anything else, I think his runner-up performance in the Belmont Stakes was more flattering for the winner that day, Tapwrit, who ran Irish War Cry down at a middling pace. Cautious about anything better than 3rd, based largely on the post position. If he's not involved early, beware.

#2, Battle of Midway (5-1): This one's gutty and a must-use, albeit "underneath," on tickets. He's perhaps the best gate-breaker in the field and I sense will easily get to the turn before Irish War Cry and establish the tempo. Based on his game Santa Anita Derby effort as well, he's outlasted other front-runners when looked in the eye. The question here is whether Timeline's connections stalk off of Battle of Midway's flank, thinking they've got a better horse, or gun for the front. I'm projecting that Battle of Midway will get the lead and outlast Timeline, but get gunned down late by an off-the-pace type. Runner-up and potential win threat.

#3, Timeline (3-1): The first of trainer Chad Brown's two entrants appears to have tremendous upside and has progressed well in going 4-for-4 since making his debut in March. Yet the question for me is his level of competition. It's going to be much stiffer in the Haskell than what was a paid workout at Monmouth on June 18 in winning the Grade 3 Pegasus at 1-to-9 odds. In seeing that race live on Father's Day, you knew they were using it as a prep for the Haskell. Timeline clearly has talent, but "the other Chad Brown" will offer better wagering value (i.e. higher odds) and has faced significantly tougher foes heading into the Haskell. Probably second or third.

#4, Practical Joke (4-1): "The other Chad Brown" runner, indeed, has been entered into far tougher races than Timeline, but I'm suspicious about whether Practical Joke is a two-turn horse and can beat this field. You can point to his fifth-place showing in the Kentucky Derby from post 19 and on a wet track as evidence of him "outclassing" much of this field, and he's got $1.3 million of lifetime earnings to back it. Yet a deeper dive into his eight races raises questions. He's just 1-for-4 as a three-year-old, and in that win on July 8 in the Dwyer Stakes at Belmont (a one-turn race at a mile) was against only four others, and he didn't necessarily blow away from a 43-to-1 runner-up in the stretch. A highlight of his two-year-old campaign was a victory by a neck over horses that were 15-to-1 and 25-to-1. And in his Derby prep this April in the Bluegrass Stakes, he couldn't pass 31-to-1 Irap in the stretch. Go against Chad Brown horses at your own risk, but there's a lot to dislike here. Third or fourth at best, solely out of respect for the connections.

#5, McCracken (9-2): I'm not sure we've seen the best of this one yet, but sense he can steal the Haskell. The Sam F. Davis at Tampa Bay Downs on Feb. 11 is proving highly productive. Runner-up Tapwrit won both the Tampa Bay Derby and Belmont Stakes. Third-place runner, State of Honor, finished second in his next two -- to Tapwrit in the Tampa Bay Derby and Always Dreaming in both the Florida Derby and Kentucky Derby -- and came back with a game third in the Queen's Plate at Woodbine last month. I've panned jockey Brian Hernandez in the past, but sense that he's got a live stalker-closer type here who can win under either a fast or slower pace. Coming in off an easy Grade 3 win at Churchill where he was squeezed at the start, McCracken is my selection as the winner of the 2017 Haskell Invitational

#6, Hence (12-1): Local jockey Paco Lopez will get bettors' support on the longest shot in the field, but I think the morning line's accurate for a horse that made it into the Kentucky Derby field by winning the little-known Sunland Park Derby in New Mexico, two grades below Haskell's level of competition. Hence got bounced around like a pinball at the start of the Kentucky Derby and ran a one-paced 11th before entering and tiring badly in the Preakness Stakes. He's coming into the Haskell off a win vs. lesser in the Iowa Derby and isn't the quickest of foot from the gate. The best-case scenario is fourth-place, rounding out the superfecta. 

#7, Girvin (6-1): It's hard to knock this one, who has two Grade 2 stakes wins and somehow lost by a nose to Bluegrass Stakes winner Irap on June 24 in the Ohio Derby. Toss his Kentucky Derby try, where he was among those jostled right at the start and knocked out of contention. I sense he'll be a little closer to the pace in the Haskell, which should play well on a historically speed-favoring track. Yet I'm hesitant to call him a winning prospect. Girvin and Hence are the only two runners where their past winning jockey is not shipping in for a Grade 1 race, which to me is a concern. Here's another whose ceiling, in my opinion, is to round out the superfecta -- maybe third or fourth. 

Friday, June 9, 2017

Patching Together a Belmont Ticket

Entering the Belmont Stakes, it's been fashionable in horse racing circles to pan this field and the entire three-year-old crop.

So much so that it was hard to keep track of how Monmouth Park handicapper Brad Thomas, a guest on WFAN on Friday afternoon, would play the Belmont without keeping to less than a few thousand betting combinations.

In a race devoid of the Kentucky Derby or Preakness winners, perhaps it's a rational argument and this race lacks allure, yet these are opportunities to cash in if you've got the conviction in a single horse.

“If you can dodge a wrench, you can dodge a ball.” – Patches
Patch, listed at a 12-to-1 morning line, is the NJ Horseplayer selection to win the 2017 Belmont.

All 12 horses entered for Saturday's final leg of the Triple Crown have question marks.

Irish War Cry, the lukewarm favorite and local hero as a New Jersey-bred horse, beat the top-two Preakness Stakes runners (Cloud Computing and Classic Empire), but ran two clunkers in a troubled Kentucky Derby trip and the Fountain of Youth.

Second-choice Lookin at Lee is winless in five tries this year and has zero early speed, and horses like him that love to launch from way back generally fare poorly in the 1.5-mile Belmont, which has long favored horses closer to the early pace. Plus, I just think another closer type -- Senior Investment -- is a better choice to use "underneath" in exotic wagers.

For my money, I think Patch is a good value even if bet down to single-digit odds, drawing outside, which should give jockey John Velasquez the opportunity to stalk the pace maybe from the fourth or fifth position and be close enough to outlast the rest to the wire.

Patch boasts the pedigree to get the distance, having past Belmont Stakes winners Union Rags (2012) and A.P. Indy (1992) in his bloodlines.

In all likelihood, if you're looking for ideas on how to play the race, here are my selections, including a Pick 3 ticket starting Race 9 where I think Tom's Ready is a very playable horse at a 15-to-1 morning line and may be the best one-turn horse in the U.S.

The total bankroll is $70, though you can scale down the amount of the base wager on a lesser budget. Good luck to those participating!
  • $10 win-place 12 = $20
  • $5 exacta key box 12 with 7, 8 = $20
  • $2 trifecta 12 with 7, 8 with 1, 5, 7, 8 = $12
  • Race 9 $1 Pick 3: 8 with 1-4, 6-7, 9 with 7, 12 = $14

Saturday, May 13, 2017

It's All In The Fine Print

Well, it's the second of the National Horseplayer (nee Handicapping) Championship Tour's five "free" online tournaments in 2017, and it seems the organizers put about as little time into race selection as I did -- with one exception -- in handicapping this dartboard-like NHC qualifier.

Perhaps the middle week of the Kentucky Derby-Preakness sandwich offers only so-so fields, and conditions in the Northeast are awful on Monmouth Park's opening day, but today's 12-race contest is chock full of junky maiden and claiming races, with a pair of short-fielded races from Santa Anita.

For your annual 50-buck NHC Tour membership fee, though, you get to toss darts and cross your fingers that you'll be one of five contestants to beat 2,000 or so others, or to at least come away with Tour points for finishing in the top 10% of the field.

Useful clues in the fine print
So, is it worth the time to handicap the card, you ask?

No, in my opinion, since it's sort of a "wild west" approach where you'll see people pick their favorite number across the board or land exclusively on everything 20-to-1 and above and hope to hit 2-3 bombers.

Yet, for those short on time like me, and in the context of a "pick-and-pray" format where players are locked into their picks once the first contest race goes off, there's some past-performance "fine print" that could land you a decent winner at a price.

Dreammeister at 20-to-1 in Race 11 from Churchill Downs is an example.

It's a low-level maiden claimer that's got 12 horses and an alternate carded, to be run at seven-eighths of a mile on the dirt.

The field's a hodgepodge of runners who've all had at least one start and as many as 12, with each looking for his first victory.

On paper, the 3-to-1 favorite's dropping significantly in class for his third lifetime start yet racing on the dirt for the first time, and so I decided to look elsewhere.

Next-Out Winners Are Quick Clues

I noticed in the italicized print of the racing form on each horse's past races that, in his last three races, Dreammeister ran against "next-out winners."

On March 12 at Oaklawn, Dreammeister finished an evenly run fifth of 10, seven lengths behind Bluegrass Gem, who won his next race (7 furlongs) at the much tougher $50,000 claiming level at Keeneland on April 14. Bluegrass Gem went off at 7.4-to-1 in a four-horse field, the longest shot on the board, but dominated, drawing away for an easy two-and-a-half length victory.

Eighteen days later on the same Arkansas track and from another wide post, Dreammeister improved to third (again at the 6-furlong distance) behind winner Stump and runner-up Tizuis or Tizuaint.

Stump shipped from Oaklawn to Louisiana Downs and finished second of 10 runners on May 8 in his next-out race against far tougher allowance company at six furlongs.

Tizuis or Tizuaint, meanwhile, graduated the maiden ranks, jumping up in class to "special weight" (protected) from March 30's maiden claimer at Oaklawn, beating almost a dozen others on April 19 at Indiana Downs.

In Dreammeister's last try on April 14, a second-straight third-place against maiden claimers at Oaklawn, runner-up Wolf Ticket his next time out dominated a six-horse field on May 5, albeit really weak $5,000 maiden claiming competition at Prairie Meadows in Iowa.

Still, he's yet another next-out winner that somewhat validates Dreammeister despite his 20-to-1 long-shot odds this afternoon at Churchill Downs.

Past Performance Does Not Guarantee Future Success -- the Old Wall Street Adage

The recent success of Dreammeister's past foes by no means ensures his own success today, but a few other bits of fine print support his case.

Trainer Jack Van Berg claimed Dreammeister at a rock-bottom $15,000 out of that April 14 race at Oaklawn and is 7-for-21 in 2017 with a high return-on-investment ($5.39) "off the claim."

The horse also has two decent "breeze" workouts since his last race, and based on his four lifetime races I anticipate he'll at least be forwardly placed this afternoon at a racing level where front-runners or those near the lead tend to have better success.

That being said, based on my awful Kentucky Oaks and Derby selections maybe you'll dismiss my evidence and pick another horse who'll finish out of the money.

I'm happy to take my notional winnings and run with Dreammeister, whose sire Bodemeister was an accomplished three-year-old, winning the Arkansas Derby and finishing second in the Kentucky Derby and Preakness in 2012 before going to stud.

Dreammeister isn't a stud of a runner, but there are signs that make him at least playable today.

Friday, May 5, 2017

Gonna Be Gunnevera

The Kentucky Derby is a completely unique exercise where handicappers spend too much time prospecting a 20-horse field where more than half generally do not stand a chance, and the racing gods need to be on any winner's side. 

You've got tons of interesting stories, and horses such as Sonneteer, who has yet to win a race -- or "break his maiden" in industry parlance -- but has accrued enough points from his prep races to qualify to run for the roses. To be sure, his 50-to-1 odds speak volumes of his chances. 

I focus annually in this situation on watching replays on the horses' prior efforts rather than poring over the past performances. 

Visually, there are three horses that can win the 2017 Kentucky Derby: #7 Girvin (15-to-1), #10 Gunnevera (15-to-1) and #14 Classic Empire, the morning-line favorite at 4-to-1. 

Gunnevera is my top selection. 

Little-known Florida-based trainer Antonio Sono paid a mere $16,000 for this son of Dialed In, who has already won three graded stakes and nearly $1.2 million in nine lifetime starts.

I'm not entirely sure he tried that hard in his last race, the Grade 1 Florida Derby on April 1. Having locked up enough Derby points beforehand, he finished third that day, but there are two efforts prior that inspire confidence in my call -- the Grade 2 Fountain of Youth on March 4 at Gulfstream Park, and of all places, the Delta Jackpot at Delta Downs in Louisiana last November.

In my opinion, Delta Downs is perceived as a sub-par "racino" bull-ring track, so bettors may be quick to dismiss the quality. Yet its Delta Jackpot, run on November 19 last year, has an egregiously long run into the first turn, akin to Churchill Downs, home of the Kentucky Derby. The short and tight turns make it even more impressive when horses can win with wide trips around the track.

Such was the case for Gunnevera, who launched from dead last halfway through the race and swallowed up the rest of his competitors that day 3-4 paths wide. The turn of foot was impressive, and seen again when he won the Fountain of Youth two months ago against Practical Joke, a useful horse in exotics wagering on Saturday from post 19.

Gunnevera may have to come from the clouds to win, which is often difficult if past Kentucky Derby races are a guide, but with top rider Javier Castellano staying aboard for a lower-profile trainer, I sense that he feels he's got a live horse. I'm not sure we'll get 15-to-1, but we'll see.

Classic Empire and Girvin are two others I respect in the field.

Installed as the morning-line favorite, Classic Empire's legit -- winner of the Breeders Cup Juvenile last November, as well as the Arkansas Derby. The only concern I have is the somewhat quick turnaround off of that April 15 win at Oaklawn Park in Hot Springs, Arkansas. It's a race that has offered productive Derby horses and has a long stretch that's similar to Churchill's, though the horse isn't as rested as some of the others here who've had 4-6 weeks to prepare.

Girvin, with a good post position, should get a nice stalking position behind the leaders, similar to his dominant wins at New Orleans-based Fair Grounds in the Risen Star Stakes and Louisiana Derby. I was leaning toward taking him as my top pick despite recent concerns about a quarter crack on one of his hooves, but concerns about his level of competition gave me slight pause, and I think he's perhaps more grinder than top-notch. Still, I think he can win.

First I'll list the horses, by number, that I think can finish in the top 4, and others to toss. Then I'll offer my annual $100 bankroll's worth of plays that I'm making.

Good luck to all and everyone enjoy the wet track!

1st: 7, 10*, 14
2nd: 7, 10, 14
3rd: 5, 7, 10, 14, 15, 19
4th: 1, 5, 7, 10, 14, 15, 19
Toss: 2, 3, 4, 6, 8, 9, 11-13, 16-18, 20

NJ Horseplayer's Bets on a $96 Budget
$10 Win-Place 10 ($20)
$10 Exacta Key Box 10 with 7, 14 ($40)
$1 Trifecta Key Box 10 with 7, 14, 19 ($18)
$2 Exacta Key Box 10 with 5, 15, 19 ($12)
$1 Exacta Key Box 14 with 7, 15, 19 ($6)