Saturday, July 28, 2018

The 2018 Haskell Is Not-So-Good Magic

Enthusiasm about the 2018 Haskell Invitational is in short supply for the NJ Horseplayer camp.

By some accounts, Monmouth Park was working to get Triple Crown champion Justify to Oceanport for this year's $1 million Grade 1 showcase. Yet the horse's ailments were such that he's been retired from racing and will go to stud.

That leaves Good Magic as Sunday's headliner, where the winner gets not only a handsome payday but also an entry into the 2018 running of the Breeders' Cup Classic Championship in November.

NJ Horseplayer states a case for
Lone Sailor to win the 2018 Haskell
The two-year-old champion in 2017, Good Magic -- a $1 million 2016 Keeneland September sale purchase and trained by Chad Brown -- is the 6-to-5 morning-line favorite, and deservedly so against a field that's middling at best.

Since teaming up with New York-based jockey Jose Ortiz, Good Magic won the aforementioned Breeders' Cup Juvenile and Grade 2 Bluegrass Stakes in April, after which he ran a game second to Justify in the Kentucky Derby. 

Beyond that is where I have some concerns, and explain why I'm looking elsewhere for a winner.

Perhaps against better judgement, my selection to win the 2018 Haskell Invitational is Lone Sailor, and I'm going to play him above Bravazo, Core Beliefs and Good Magic in "exotic" wagers -- exacta, trifecta and superfecta. 

The other three entrants -- Navy Commander, Roaming Union and Golden Brown are entirely unplayable, in my opinion, making it hard to find "value" in the race.

However, after a brief rundown on each horse, I'll provide some ideas for how to put your bankroll to work, as a few people have asked for suggestions on this race. Personally, I'll have a hard time pulling the trigger on a win bet on horses that will pay $6-$10 at best, though on a scale of one to 10 my conviction in Lone Sailor is probably a four or five. 

With that said, here's the field for the 2018 Haskell Invitational.

#1, Lone Sailor (5-1): I typically wouldn't scoff at a horse that'll pay about $12 to win on a $2 mutuel, but there are two sides to this horse's equation. Handicappers probably will either love or hate this one, and rightly so. Lone Sailor has banked almost $500,000 already, all while winning only once in 11 tries, beating eight others by 11 lengths at Saratoga last September in his second-ever start. 

A 2-year-old win at Saratoga is usually encouraging, but in nine races since he's finished second four times -- by margins of a nose, neck, head and a length-and-a-quarter. There's a lot of close but no cigar with this runner. The Ohio Derby, a Grade 3 race (two cuts below the Haskell), is a shining example, where he took the lead late in the stretch and somehow still lost. 

Pace will be key in the Haskell, however, and will be to Lone Sailor's advantage, and is therefore my selection to win the 2018 Haskell. The way I see the race shaking out, Lone Sailor's going to be wrangled back to last out of the gate by Joe Bravo, who'll try to save ground and energy to make a late charge when all of the early runners begin to fade and fall back to the pack. Past performances suggest that Lone Sailor's best running occurs when there's pace in the race. If you don't watch much racing, listen for the quarter-mile times that track announcer Frank Mirahmadi gives out as the race proceeds. Anything around 23 seconds for the first quarter mile and 46-47 seconds for the half would be favorable for Lone Sailor. A slower pace would be a detriment, IMHO, especially if a freshened and likely superior Good Magic gets toward the front in a slow time.

#2, Navy Commander (12-1): I just don't see it. Two races back, this Robert Reid trainee won an extremely low-level race at PARX when the jockey on a horse about to pass him fell off the horse in the late-stretch when bumped hard. Navy Commander came back the next time to win the $100,000 Long Branch Stakes on July 7 at Monmouth, but that's worlds from facing a Justify. Jockey Angel Arroyo's going to place this one forwardly, but I can't see him being in the thick of things for anything beyond three-quarters of a mile. Pass. 

#3, Roaming Union (10-1): I respect Monmouth Park's top trainer, Kelly Breen, a great deal, but for my money this horse is also in over his head. Roaming Union blew an enormous lead in the stretch in his Haskell prep -- the $100,000 Pegasus Stakes, which might explain why Albin Jiminez gets the mount on Sunday. Maybe he finds the lead for about a half a mile, but there are just to many flat performances in his past to consider at the Grade 1 level. Pass. 

#4, Core Beliefs (4-1): I probably watch the California circuit more than others, and Peter Eurton's a solid trainer who doesn't seem to ship his horses out of state a ton. So it's either a really bullish signal that he's got an up-and-coming three-year-old; or is being opportunistic, figuring you don't need to be Justify to beat this field and get a Grade 1 victory. 

I considered making him my top pick, but didn't for a reason -- jockey change. Whereas Lone Sailor picks up a veteran who knows the Monmouth Park oval like the back of his hand, Eurton's using Flavien Prat on Core Beliefs. I love Prat, perhaps THE finest turf jockey in North America. Yet I have some questions here, as to me it's a major change switching away from a rider who carried Core Beliefs to a win in the Grade 3 Ohio Derby last month. Let's be clear, too, that the field in that one wasn't very good. I think Core Beliefs tracks Roaming Union halfway around the track, inherits the lead from Roaming Union, but then gets passed later in the stretch by Lone Sailor and/or the next horse I'm about to discuss. Second place is the ceiling.

#5, Bravazo (3-1) is the lone horse in the field who ran in all three Triple Crown races, which comes as no surprise as wily Hall of Fame trainer D. Wayne Lucas never shies from a challenge. His gangbusters late-stretch run to finish second to Justify in the Preakness proved his ability, and earlier in 2018 he won the Grade 2 Risen Star Stakes in Louisiana. Yet he's thrown in clunkers -- a badly beaten (and perhaps tired) sixth in the Belmont, eighth beaten by 21 lengths in the Louisiana Derby, and tenth beaten 12 lengths in the Kentucky Juvenile in late 2017. It's just hard to figure this one, and I think the morning line is too low. For my money, Core Beliefs is a better value at 4-1 by comparison, though it wouldn't entirely surprise me if Bravazo wins. Jockey Luis Saez continues to mature, and I think he's one of the better ones in the U.S. with horses toward the lead. The "race within the race" worth watching will be whether Saez or Prat aboard Core Beliefs is just off the front-runner (Roaming Union or Golden Brown). If Saez is sitting second just off the lead coming into the homestretch, then look out. A lackluster start would be his undoing, which is why, for my money, I'll use him exclusively second through fourth in wagering. 

#6, Good Magic (6-5): I'm sorta playing with fire going against the Kentucky Derby runner-up, and perhaps he was just gassed late in the Preakness, but I'll boldly predict that this horse has seen his better days as a three-year-old. Good Magic had every opportunity and the perfect setup to beat Justify in a slowly run Preakness but wilted when looked in the eye and was passed late by Bravazo and Tenfold. Now, you can say that Tenfold's win in Saturday's Jim Dandy Stakes at Saratoga validates Good Magic by way of company lines, but that horse staggered to the wire and won as a disinterested Vino Rosso decided to not run hard until the last 200 yards. Would I be surprised if Good Magic wins on Sunday? Absolutely not. But I think he's vulnerable and will go off closer to 4-to-5 odds. I'm using him third and fourth on my tickets and is the one you need to beat if you want to make any half-decent money betting this race as a single. 

#7, Golden Brown (15-1): This guy's the longest shot in the field for a reason, with speed figures well below the major contenders and his best running in a lower-level turf stakes win at Delaware Park just two weeks ago and against NJ-bred competition. Pass.

Wagering Strategy

I'm not going to break the bank for the Haskell (probably $40-$50), nor do I have overly creative strategies. The tickets presented below may go beyond readers' price points, but remember that the base wager on an exacta is $1, and even lower (50 cents) for trifectas. It's 10 cents for the superfecta (picking the four top finishers in order), so you can scale back the denominations of mine and still be involved in the action at a low cost.  I'll use Lone Sailor at the top of exacta and trifecta tickets and figure to make a decent profit if it's not Good Magic's day. 

$10 Exacta: 1-5 (Lone Sailor over Bravazo) = $10
  • You can bet this as a $1 "exacta box" for a $2 outlay
  • You'd win half the posted $2 payout if the order of finish is 1-5 or 5-1. 
$5 Exacta: 5-1 (Bravazo over Lone Sailor) = $5
  • A bit of a hedge in the event that Lone Sailor again gets "second-itis"
$5 Trifecta: 1 over 4, 5 over 4, 5, 6 = $20
  • You can bet this as a $1 trifecta for a $2 outlay
  • For $18, you can also play this as a $1 "trifecta key box" using 1, 4, 5 and 6; you'd win if any of these three finish first, second and third. Ask a teller if it's available as a 50-cent base wager, in which case it's only a $9 outlay. 
$2 Trifecta: 4, 5 over 1 over 4, 5, 6 = $8
  • Another hedge if Lone Sailor is the runner-up

$1 Superfecta: 1 over 4, 5 over 4, 5, 6 over 4, 5, 6 = $4

Friday, July 27, 2018

CHRB Needs to DQ the Stewards

Still fuming that the winner of Sunday's Wicker Stakes at Del Mar drifted out about 7-8 paths into my onrushing horse in the stretch and cost him -- and me, the horseplayer -- the win and several dollars, I wanted to delve a bit into the disqualification issue at California's thoroughbred race tracks, namely to gain a better understanding of the process both in- and after-race.

Perhaps my research isn't the most scientific or journalistic, but for a general lack of time to conduct exhaustive research and interviews, I focused on a small sample of races since late-2017 where I recalled key disqualifications or non-DQs.

The findings are eye-opening and support my argument that the California Horse Racing Board needs to more-closely examine the highly inconsistent decisions of its referees and how they impact all parties, including paying customers, and a sport that's already rife with integrity questions. 

Most of us who support the sport recognize the risk that supposedly neutral observers -- state-licensed "race stewards" --  could make rulings we disagree with, largely in races involving claims of foul by jockeys, or in cases of "inquiry," where the stewards on their own will review a race where there's potential fouling and one horse compromised another's chances for placement. 

I'd never really questioned the integrity of the stewards or the decision-making process of these arbiters (the sport's rooted in gambling, so...), giving the benefit of the doubt that it's a difficult job that requires much training, licensing and rules interpretation and can cost the customer a lot of money.

Yet, the deeper I dig, the more I question the motives of the stewards and, for that matter, whether they're qualified to make racing DQ decisions, or better equipped to hand out soft-serve ice cream at your local DQ -- Dairy Queen.   

The ensuing samples show curious cases of clear jockey favoritism, horses not being summarily DQ'd for drifting out several paths into other horses' lanes, and of a rider being suspended for 3 days for an incident that never came up as an objection or stewards' inquiry after the race.

Feel free to comment, but overall there's a substantial case to be made about the competency of California's thoroughbred racing stewards.  

Sunday, July 22 -- Del Mar, Wicker Stakes

The Case: Dangerous riding, drifting and interference by the winner. 

Evidence: It's clear from the video, particularly the head-on view that the three stewards reviewed ("inquiry") for a good 6-7 minutes, that the horse that crossed the finish line first impeded another. 

Double Touch, #13, takes the lead in the stretch but drifts halfway out into the middle of the track, herds 3-4 other horses toward the grandstand, and bumps and potentially intimidates Bombard, #14 before the wire. Double Touch wins the photo finish, but a stewards' inquiry is declared. Surprisingly, Bombard's jockey and/or trainer didn't lodge an objection against Double Touch jockey Gary Stevens for failing to maintain his line and creating interference in the stretch.

Stewards Decision: No blood, no foul.

Outcomes: Bettors who had Double Touch cashed big on a 25-to-1 bomber, while mine and several others' win wagers on 8-to-1 Bombard were kaput. Minutes from this week's stewards meeting (page 7) make zero reference to a fine or reprimand vs. Stevens for riding dangerously, and had the audacity to say that Bombard drifted out too, which I'd argue was jockey Flavian Prat recognizing that Stevens' was rolling at him at almost 40 MPH. Sort of like being in Lane 5 of a sprint but moving to the right a little when you see Usain Bolt invading your space from all the way over in Lane 1. Common sense says to move the hell out of the way to avoid getting steamrolled.

NJ Horseplayer take: Based on the ire of several people on Twitter who either bet or just watched the race, Double Touch should have been disqualified and placed second. I complete agree. I should have been cashing winning wagers, as well as higher up the leaderboard of the Del Mar Online Contest instead of being in 180th-place out of 4,162 contestants as of this writing. 

Saturday, July 21 -- Del Mar Race 9

The Case: Jockey gets a seemingly egregious suspension from riding for, in essence, failing to ride his horse in a straight line.

Interesting, since...isn't that what Stevens did in the Wicker a day later?

Evidence: Below, watch #9, Truck Salesman, a 2-year-old making his first-ever start. Jockey Kyle Frye gets a clean lead and maintains TS's line until the stretch, where after a left-hand tap of the whip the colt tires a bit and comes into the path of fourth-place finisher Synthesis. The top three finishers were unaffected. 

Steward's Decision: Not Applicable, since there was no claim of foul by another rider vs. Frye or an inquiry into the stretch run that would merit an action such as a DQ.

Outcome: A look at the official race chart from Equibase makes zero mention of any sort of shenanigans in the stretch by Truck Salesman. Yet, in "Ruling #002" by the stewards from July 22, Frye was suspended 3 racing days for "failure to maintain a straight course in the stretch and causing interference. This constitutes a violation of California Horse Racing Board Rule #1699 (Riding Rules-Careless Riding)."

NJHorseplayer Take: Perhaps the jockey had prior warnings for similar race riding that substantiate severe 3-day penalty, but from afar the infraction seems minuscule vs. Stevens' Wicker. The cynic in me wonders whether the steward here wanted to teach the 26-year-old Frey a lesson, whereas they took no action on a Hall of Fame jockey riding for a trainer on the cusp of his first stakes win.

Sunday, May 6 -- Santa Anita Park Race 8

The Case: Winning horse ridden by Hall of Fame jockey Mike Smith fails to maintain its lane, carries 2-3 of his opponents into the middle of the track during the stretch, then drifts back in before crossing the wire first.

The Background: I couldn't find a direct link of the video to post here, but it's available on Cal and author John Cherwa gives a great account of the incident in the May 10 Los Angeles Times, including some excellent feedback from racing experts and stewards' rulings.

Steward's Decision: Our old friend -- Rule #1699 -- rears its head. The stewards made no change to the race-order finish, leaving prohibitive favorite Achira as the winner, while Geovanni Franco (who lodged a claim of foul vs. Smith...rightfully so) and runner-up Helen Hillary and that horse's connections and backers drew the short straw. But, hey, according to the stewards subsequent meeting minutes (pg. 7-8), Smith had to go back and attend a "film review" on May 10.

Outcome: Bettors who backed Helen Hillary may be angry to learn that Smith wasn't disqualified for his actions aboard Achira on May 6, but on May 10 was handed a four-day suspension (May 17-20) for, ahem, "failure to maintain a straight course and causing interference in the stretch."

NJHorseplayer Take: The ruling sounds harsh on the surface, but in hindsight is feckless, considering that Smith's suspension in California happened to be for a period when the steward knew full well that he'd be riding Justify in the Preakness Stakes in Maryland. I'm not saying that Smith should have been locked up or anything, but the CHRB is starting to look more clownish by the minute, and horseplayers who lost hard-earned money betting the victims of the race interference get zero solace in learning a few days later about a suspension, when on May 6 the stewards made a horrendous decision and bent the rules or had zero understanding of how to apply them. 

Saturday, March 10 -- Santa Anita Park, San Felipe Stakes 

I won't belabor this or the next example, but watch the replay, and read Cherwa's take in the LA Times. Smith comes out on the short end this time when DQ'd aboard apparent winner #4 McKinzie for "aggressive bumping" in the stretch, after #1 Bolt d'Oro (awarded the win by virtue of disqualification) clearly slams into him turning into the homestretch. I didn't bet this race, but watching it live and after several replay views would have made no change. Clearly the steward disagreed, first changing the order of finish, then suspending Smith three days for the incident. Read the quote from trainer Bob Baffert in the Cherwa story, pretty interesting.

Saturday, December 9, 2017 -- Los Alamitos Futurity

Another involving McKinzie. This time a suspect disqualification of a winner with obvious momentum and who looked sharper than the others, and the stewards' curious explanation. I was unable to find any follow-up investigation by the CHRB, but figure there wasn't one, since it's Los Alamitos and the officials probably wanted to move their meeting around then along to get out quicker and do their Christmas shopping.

Again, feel free to draw your own conclusions. However, as horseplayers, you'll agree that it's hard enough when you put in your work and find winners, then have it all blown up by inconsistent stewards incapable of fairly applying the rules and avoiding controversy. From the videos and other citations above, CHRB stewards are all over the map in their race-day and follow-up determinations. The state's governing body needs do something about it, namely to restore faith that horseplayers -- the core customer -- will get consistent and fair treatment on DQ rulings.

Monday, July 16, 2018

Fun, Free Contest for 2 NHC Seats

Summer officially arrived almost a month ago, but for most horseplayers the best part of it begins this week with the start of the boutique race meetings in Saratoga, NY and Del Mar, CA.

I've already got dates on my calendar to hit the Spa -- less than a four-hour drive from the NJ Horseplayer headquarters -- and haven't been to Del Mar yet, though it's a bucket-list item and a place near and dear to my heart.

That's because I qualified for my first National Horseplayers (nee Handicapping) Championship -- "the NHC" -- via this contest four seasons ago.

The 2018 edition kicks off this Wednesday, July 18. Register here.

The premise is simple -- parlay a $100 mythical per day into the one of the two biggest bankrolls by contest's end on Sept. 3 and win a berth to NHC#19 in Las Vegas in February 2019.

Tour membership is not required for the top prizes, so if you've considered trying a handicapping tournament and are not an NHC Tour member, Del Mar provides a great opportunity; if nothing else than to sharpen your skills or to kick the tires.

Sounds easy, right?

It's anything but, considering you'll go against a few thousand folks, from the novice who'll play names, favorite numbers, etc., to the extremely the players who'll only play horses at gigantic odds in hopes of winning with a few.

As the second-place finisher in 2014, and as discussed in the post-contest recap linked here, the key of course is to identify winners, but also "value." A few words to the wise:

  • Avoid playing horses at odds of less than 5-to-2. The reward for putting $100 (again, mythical dollars) on a runner who's 8-to-5 isn't worth the risk. You can't win this kind of contest playing favorites. You'd have to hit 40-50% of your wagers to have a chance in such a format. If you're in love with a short-priced favorite, just sit out the race that day; you only need to make 20 "wagers" over the contest to qualify for prizes.
  • Find the overlays. In my 2014 contest, Meinertzhageni was 8-to-1 on the morning line and completely ignored by the bettors, but a logical horse who'd press the pace and showed speed in the past. The horse went off at 29-to-1 and won easily, vaulting me to the top of the leaderboard. 
    • If you have time to wait until close to post time to make your daily play, absolutely monitor the live tote and take into consideration horses that the odds-maker thinks has a shot but is dead on the board.
  • $100 Win Wagers ONLY. Again referring to my 2014 link spreadsheet, there's not a lot of value in playing place and show wagers in this format. There are simply too many players, and with no real money on the line, contestants will predominantly go "all in" with win plays. I recommend doing the same, and will take that approach myself this season.
    • The only wagers allowed, by the way, are win, place and/or show, and to count as a "qualifying" play, you must use the full $100 daily bankroll.
  • Sign up and enjoy! Again, zero cost to enter, and Del Mar provides free past performances for your use to make educated decisions on some great races where the turf meets the surf.