Friday, June 13, 2014

Trainer Intent

I have never been a party to the decision-making that goes into placing a horse into a race, but a question posed during my latest stint as volunteer fan ambassador at Monmouth Park this past Sunday, and my glance at a particular entry on Friday card, prompted me to reach out to an owner friend on the topic.

During one of the educational tours that I organized on Sunday (contact me if ever interested), I was asked by interested handicapper Diane Skurat of Tinton Falls why Tannery scratched out of the $200,000 Grade 2 Monmouth Stakes. 

I could only speculate that either the horse had a short-term health issue or that Colts Neck Stables did not want to put its filly up "against the boys," opting instead for a softer race or all-female condition down the road.

This led to a discussion on how horses end up in particular races.  

Again, I have my theories, but coming up with the answer tends to be yet another component of the educated guesswork that goes into handicapping horse races.

Upon reviewing the first of three races for Friday's Survival at the Shore online contest, the placement of Lovefindsaway in Race 5 caught my attention.  

This 3-year-old Giant's Causeway maiden colt, making his third career start and first since January, is for the first time entered for a $20,000 "tag" (claiming) against six other betting propositions that, on paper, appear to validate Lovefindsaway's 3-to-2 morning line.

As reflected in the horse's two past performances, respected trainer Eddie Plesa placed Lovefindsaway into much more challenging spots against protected maidens ("maiden special weight").

Lovefindsaway finished fourth as the even-money favorite in his career debut at Monmouth last July but went to the bench, not appearing in a race until a fading fifth-place effort at Gulfstream Park on January 25.

The horse did not have a published work until six weeks later and has since clocked a half-dozen (in my opinion) uninspiring workouts.

In a betting context, I find 3-to-2 way too short and a clear "play against."

Instead, I selected 5-to-2 Justa Little Evil out of the hot Jorge Navarro barn.

Not a great price either, but I only identified 3 plausible contenders.

The field for Race 5 is middling and lacks significant pedigree.

Nonetheless, Lovefindsaway's connections are willing to sell their horse, purchased as a two-year-old at the April 2013 OBS sale for $120,000, for a bargain-basement $20,000 tag.

As a handicapper, the question I have about the huge class drop from protected maidens to claiming for Lovefindsaway becomes whether the horse is sound and the connections are hoping to steal an easy purse without a prospective buyer ponying up $20,000 to purchase a non-winning horse well off form, or if the owners just want to unload a horse that has under-performed his six-figure purchase price.

I respect and sought the advice of Robb Levinsky, founder and managing partner of Kenwood Racing, a very above-board partnership that hosts ownership seminars at Monmouth Park and, in my view, is refreshingly candid about the ownership side of the business.

On the handicapper side: 

"First, I agree with you that I wouldn't touch any horse with (Lovefindsaway's) form at what are likely to be short odds," Levinsky said.  "He's clearly capable of winning in a romp, but also clearly could get beaten as a heavy favorite.  I'd look to cautiously bet against him if I found another horse I liked."

In terms of intent of the connections:

"I can't really say without being part of that barn," Levinsky continued.  "I do know Eddie Plesa is a reputable, capable trainer.  If the horse wasn't safe to race I'm sure he'd not be in the race.  That said, obviously you don't run a horse that cost $120,000 for $20,000 for nothing."

For Lovefindsaway, Levinsky drew what I viewed as a suitable parallel to Lebron James, who had to sit out for key stretches of Game 1 of the NBA Finals against San Antonio with excessive leg cramping in 90-degree conditions at an AT&T Center with a broken air conditioning system.

"Virtually ALL athletes, human and equine, have issues.  Ask Lebron James," said Levinsky, "about the stress of high-performance competition.  I'm sure (the connections for Lovefindsaway) are looking to build confidence for both the owner and horse by placing him where he should be tough to beat.  That's smart."

We'll have a better idea of the ultimate outcome around a quarter-to-3, when Race 5 at Monmouth Park concludes and whether Lovefindsaway walks away with an easy $10,200 winner's take of a $17,000 purse AND their more-confident horse fresh off his first win, or someone who maybe saw Lovefindsaway as a 2-year-old at the April 2013 OBS sale sweeps in with a bargain claim.

Postscript to My Analysis

Once in awhile things go according to plan, as was the case with Race 5.

Justa Little Evil and first-time starter Uncle Chubb got the jump on Lovefindsaway out of the gate to finish first and second, respectively, while Lovefindsaway wilted to finish sixth of seven.

Interestingly, Justa Little Evil and Uncle Chubb were claimed out of the race for $20,000 apiece, while Lovefindsaway remains with owners Majestic Racing Stable and Laurie Plesa.

I generally do not have the time to go into handicapping claiming races to such depth, but keep an eye on future entries for these three to see where they land.

The lesson as a handicapper may be to put less stock in purchase prices.

The last two finishers in Race 5 cost $120,000 and $30,000, respectively, at auction, whereas the nondescript New Jersey bred first-time starter Uncle Chubb ran a game debut and appears somewhat promising.

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