Friday, May 17, 2019

2019 Preakness Stakes Pick: Laughing Fox

After the Kentucky Derby stewards disqualified me out of cashing about a $1,300 profit two weeks ago, I'm hoping that my handicapping will be as strong and my fate much better for Preakness Day, where below I offer guidance on the late-Pick 4 sequence that culminates in Laughing Fox winning the second leg of the Triple Crown.

May the horse laugh like a fox while passing
all others in the Preakness, while I laugh passing
all others to cash big tickets at the windows.
The full horse-by-horse analysis is available in Wednesday's post, though my confidence in this 20-to-1 shot vs. two days ago is on the rise, after reconsidering my initial assessment that I'd have rather had an inside draw rather than post 11. 

In rewatching the horse's effort in the Grade 2 Rebel Stakes in mid-March, it was clear to me that being squeezed at the start, having to check in the final turn and looking somewhat uncomfortable on the rail suggests he'd rather sit wider off the fast early pace on Saturday, and jockey Ricardo Santana can let him relax before a big mid-race move before hopefully lumbering home at a big price.

My selections below key him in the first and second spots of the exacta and trifecta, and on the back end of daily double and Pick 4 selections. I'm also alive to a $142 payout on the Blackeyed Susan and Preakness double; so if Laughing Fox pulls it off, it should be a highly profitable day. 

The bankroll here is slightly less than $100 that I typically assign for the Triple Crown races, but if you're attending Monmouth Park or betting off track and have 20 bucks to burn, I'd say make a $2 win-place-show wager on #11 and consider the $1 "exacta-key box" -- ticket below (a $14 play). Regarding the latter, Laughing Fox would have to finish 1st or 2nd with any of 7 horses.

My play of the day is #4, Mitchell Road, in Race 10, the Gallorette Stakes. I think he'll take the field wire-to-wire, and am also bullish on #6 Gladiator King in Race 11, the Grade 3 Chick Lang, also in front-running fashion. Without further adieu, my Preakness Day late-Pick 4 sequence plays...

Race 10 (Gallorette Stakes): $25 Total
  • 50-cent Pick 4: 4 with 6, 7, 8 with 3, 5, 11, 12 with 1, 11 = $12
  • $5 daily double: 4 with 6 = $5
  • $2 daily double: 4 with 7, 8 = $4
  • $1 daily double: 4 with 3 = $1
  • $1 daily double: 2, 3, 9 with 6 = $3
Race 11 (Chick Lang Stakes): $13 Total
  • $1 trifecta key: 6 over 7, 8 over 1, 3, 5, 7, 8 = $8
  • $3 daily double: 6 with 3 = $3
  • $1 daily double 7,8 with 3 = $2
Race 12 (Dixie Stakes): $14 Total
  • $3 daily double: 3 with 11 = $3
  • $2 daily double: 3 with 1 = $2
  • $1 daily double: 3 with 1, 4, 5, 7, 12, 13 = $6
  • $1 daily double: 5, 11, 12 with 11 = $3
Race 13 (Preakness Stakes): $44 Total
  • $1 exacta key box: 11 with 1, 2, 4, 5, 7, 12, 13 = $14
  • 50-cent trifecta: 1, 11 over 1, 4, 7, 11 over 1, 2, 4, 5, 7, 11, 12, 13 = $18
  • 50-cent trifecta: 4, 7 over 1, 11 over 1, 2, 4, 5, 7, 11, 12, 13 = $12

Wednesday, May 15, 2019

Breaking Down the Broken Down Preakness Stakes

The Maryland Racing Commission may want to send its brethren at Churchill Downs some black roses for obliterating the caliber of the 2019 Preakness Stakes field, with none of the Top 4 from the Kentucky Derby making the trip to Pimlico, though as a service to the public I broke down all 13 entrants, listed in order of preference.

Similar to how I tackled the Kentucky Derby, here I'm listing the runners from 1-13 in order of preference, and based on extensive review of race video going back to each one's 2-year-old debut and trying to anticipate each horse's tendencies and prospects to win.

The morning lines set for each horse suggest that Derby runners Improbable -- the 5-to-2 favorite -- and War of Wills (4-1) are most logical, though I think each is beatable. I'll list each by "A" (can win), "B" (outside win chance, more likely 2nd-3rd), "C" (can it the board) and "Pass."

Feel free to share comments below or on my Twitter -- @njhorseplayer.

  • #1, War of Wills (4-1): Stalker who draws an easier rail than the Derby, should easily outbreak the horse in the two hole and looks like he’ll get a nice pace setup. Question for me is if he's got enough left in the tank after a grueling and near-catastrophic trip at Churchill. Wins in the Lecomte and Risen Star proved he can sit off the pacesetters -- and plenty of 'em in the Preakness and who can't win -- and pounce. Clear class edge over most others makes him one of the few "A" prospects in my book, despite questions whether he can get the distance, considering he didn't run well in the Louisiana Derby and faded in Kentucky.
  • #11, Laughing Fox (20-1): Complete dark horse that I think has a shot to win, and hence will make my second "A" selection. The more I watched his replays, the more impressed I became, as he's almost exclusively the most consistent runner in the field. He'll likely sit toward the back of the pack and look to time a move at about a half-mile. I was sorta hopeful he'd get an inside draw, which didn't happen, though with the primary speed horses breaking from the middle of the gate I think he can get away clean and get into a groove. He's another working off only two weeks of rest, after winning the $300,000 Oaklawn Invitational on May 5. It was a non-graded stakes race, though there's no shame for this guy in finishing behind Omaha Beach, Improbable and Country House in the wet Arkansas Derby. And this isn't too different a path his trainer took with Tenfold, who almost shocked in the '18 Preakness. A/B type who'll maybe be a win play for me and a must use underneath on all tickets. 
  • #4, Improbable (5-2): Anticipate he'll sit just off the speed and again stalk, and I think he gets away cleanly from the gate with a speed-ball to his left and a slowpoke to his right. Yet this one's starting to look like a cut below Grade 1. Not like any of the other Preakness runners look like it either, though he looked more convincing as a two-year-old than he did with the optimal trip in the Kentucky Derby, where he didn’t respond in the stretch when prompted. Was fifth across the wire but this close to being three more spots back. Probably a B as a safety net.
  •  #7, Alwaysmining (8-1): The speed-ball Maryland-bred that'll be the hometown favorite, and perhaps be overbet. I'm not buying, and will use him solely underneath. All of his wins were at Laurel Park, including at the end of his two-year-old campaign vs. Win Win Win in late-December, but since then he's faced some mega-cupcakes, including a 45-1 shot that finished second in a 5-horse black-type stakes field. I'd have given him a higher grade had he faced some credible horses to start 2019, or if he was the lone speed, but for my money he's going to be over-bet and not that good a value. Probably the most reliable speed, but see as B/C.
  • #5, Owendale (10-1): Best as a true closer, and can do so in an anticipated hot pace. A later starter as a two-year-old who won impressively from dead last in his third try and into no pace. This guy didn't do much afterward, as the connections tried him toward the front in a few races before realizing he’s a slower starter with the occasional late kick, as seen in winning the Grade 3 Lexington Stakes last month, where he made a sweeping 5- to 6-wide move before the stretch and got away easily. Wonder if he’ll be better suited to Belmont and is prepping for that. Could be in mix late, and I moved him up a bit anticipating a hotter Preakness pace. Did get trounced by Country House, War of Wills and others in earlier stakes though; a concern, but will include underneath on my tickets.
  • #12, Anothertwistafate (6-1): A stalker who was super impressive beating up on lesser foes at Golden Gate Fields in California and showed some ability in his two dirt starts -- second in both the Sunland (NM) Derby and Lexington, though in the latter he saved all the ground in the stretch and still couldn't keep up with winner Owendale. To me he's another that'll take a lot of play and is a borderline B/C, capable of a top-four finish but might have to work too hard from post 12 to get to his preferred place just off the leaders. 
  • #13, Win Win Win (15-1): I may regret being so fickle about a horse I used as a win prospect in the Kentucky Derby, but I really disliked his effort there. Whether he hated the Churchill oval and/or the muddy surface or not, I can't back him as a win contender in the Preakness the way he made up some ground early in the stretch and completely relented. Win Win Win gets a wide post and may have a tough time clearing the horses in the 10-12 holes, and I could see him belatedly running on for third or fourth but no better. C rating for a horse that I'm starting to think might be better served running at one turn (7-8 furlongs) after Saturday.
  • #2, Bourbon War (12-1): A little miffed what to make of this stalker-closer type. Probably most notable was his late-flying second-place finish to Code of Honor in the Fountain of Youth at Gulfstream, but he was disappointing and all over the stretch in the Florida Derby, far behind Maximum Security and never a threat. I see him as being akin to Owendale and better pedigree than an Alwaysmining, though he's a C at best on my tickets. 
  • #8, Signalman (30-1): A stalker-closer who's surrounded by speed from the gate. He's 0-2 in stakes tries this year, including a lackluster Fountain of Youth and a wilting third in the Bluegrass, where he was tiring and all over the stretch, passed by Win Win Win, who had an awful trip and still passed late. Will be surprised if he's a factor at all. Pass.
  • #6, Market King (30-1): All-or-nothing speed horse who needed 5 tries to win his first race, then couldn't beat allowance foes -- at least 4 classes below the Preakness grading -- before finishing a way-distant third to Omaha Beach and Game Winner in the Rebel. He was in it for three-quarters of the Bluegrass before fading badly. Very hard to see. Pass.
  • #9, Bodexpress (20-1): Still a maiden, though strangely he's not the worst here. Sorta got lucky finishing second to Maximum Security in the Florida Derby, then challenged him from post 21 in the Kentucky Derby for about half the race before getting gobbled up and fading. Look cooked there. Figure he'll attend to the pace and may wear Alwaysmining down at most. Pass.
  • #3, Warrior’s Charge (12-1): If nothing else, he could get first dibs on the rail. After failing to break his maiden three times in sprints, he appreciated the stretch-out in his fourth lifetime try, but it wasn't anything visually impressive. Horse was stylish in his prep for the Preakness, but that was vs. claimers in a weak Oaklawn Park field. Rider will wing it and see what happens, though at that Warrior's Charge isn't particularly fast. Expect he'll get gobbled up halfway through and pack it in. Pass.
  • #10, Everfast (50-1): So, the connections thought to it to spend the money to get this bomber into the field at the last minute. Yikes! Complete pass for me. The horse has been very unimpressive overall, and caught a weak Holy Bull field in February to finish second at 128-1 odds. Completely buried next out in the Fountain of Youth and he has eaten the dust of many of these foes already. Should be triple-digit odds, though there might be too much money in the pools for that to happen. Goes off at 99-1 and connections say they had a Preakness runner.
I'll post my real-money wagers by Friday night or early Saturday morning after reviewing the exceedingly strong and difficult under-card, plus the Black Eyed Susan taking place on Friday.

Sunday, May 5, 2019

The Problem? Industry Will Learn Nothing From 2019 Ky. Derby

The 2019 Kentucky Derby outcome only feeds into credibility issues that the U.S. thoroughbred racing industry needs to resolve sooner than next year's Run for the Roses.

There's no better time to enact sweeping changes that give it a puncher's chance of survival in the gaming market favoring short attention spans, and to regain the faith of loyalists and show some semblance of integrity after Maximum Security's controversial DQ.

All that stakeholders want is a fair shake. Churchill Downs' stewards may have properly applied Kentucky's racing rules to the letter, but in the process made a subjective decision in the only "sport" I'm aware of that polls its participants to reach an outcome.

Unless mistaken, I don't recall New Orleans wide receiver Tommylee Lewis or coach Sean Payton being asked for input from NFL officials who missed a blatant interference call that kept the Saints from the Super Bowl. Presumed impartial bodies, the officials made a decision on their own after a video review without lobbying, as it should be.

Thoroughbred racing needs a national governing body ASAP. Enough with state-by-state regulation where what's OK in one jurisdiction isn't cool in another. We saw why yesterday, but unfortunately it's never going to happen, with dozens of state fiefdoms in a territorial war for survival of the fittest and really no one caring for the national welfare of the game or those that pump money through the betting windows and really are what keep it alive. Without bettors you have no sport.

Ah, The "Sport" of Kings 

It's almost impossible to offer unbiased perspective on the 2019 Kentucky Derby outcome, since thoroughbred racing really is not a sport.

Rather, it's a couture-driven gambling vehicle that spins an upper-crust persona, but with more variables than other forms of wagering and that is generally a losing proposition. Why?

  • The house keeps 15-25 cents of every dollar wagered. 
  • Trainers can teach expensive animals with minds of their own to run fast in circles but not always avoid natural tendencies to herd once the race gate opens. 
  • Tiny, oft-undernourished humans control equine vehicles 10x their weight at 35 MPH on sharp turns and with dirt kicked in their faces.
  • Consumers are in the dark on veterinary care. 
  • Owners, trainers and other insiders can wager, influencing outcomes. 
  • Racing has on old-boy network vs. outsiders feel -- the latter what I think came into play with Hall of Fame trainer Bill Mott playing clean vs. the guy who broke in at Charles Town and wins at skeptically high rates at Monmouth Park and Gulfstream.

Sunday-morning quarterbacking the 2019 Derby and whether Maximum Spirit deserved to be disqualified the 17th place is useless, since those like me who saw a 150% return on investment go poof and have no recourse, even if the DQ'd connections appeal a stewards' decision that owner Gary West deemed "egregious." It all comes across as mere chest thumping or bitching.

Where Do We Go Now?

Twitter pissing matches or whining about spilled milk get us nowhere as a fan base. It definitely won't advance the industry's deep need for credibility.

Debate has some use, but what should come from Saturday's debacle is a move to a nationwide governing body that removes individuals states' biases and does what's good for the product, the human and equine athletes and the industry's shrinking base of wagering customers.

Every other professional "sport" that uses official reviews removes the participants' voice. NBA and NCAA basketball coaches and players don't look over the shoulder of referees reviewing the video of a play in question. Same goes for the NFL, NHL and MLB. Premier League coaches can't spend a few minutes lobbying an official to reverse a red-card decision.

Yet, in thoroughbred racing the biases are obvious -- jockeys get to weigh in on the proceedings, and stewards may have preconceived views of the backgrounds and reputations of a horse's trainer -- with a wagering public's money in the balance.

I've written about this before, focusing on California, which -- like all states -- has its own stewards' guidelines and rules' applications are highly inconsistent. Watch the 2018 Wicker Stakes vs. other rulings and you'll see. 

At the core, racing is gambling, nothing more. 

To be more credible, it needs a national set of rules that are transparent and applied consistently across U.S. race tracks. I'm calling on Churchill Downs to initiate the discussion, and for federal legislators and the NTRA to step in, working toward a national set of rules and enforcement.

At the least, it's a better proposition for bettors than leaving multi-million-dollar decisions (from wagering, earnings and horse-breeding perspectives to name a few) in the hands of a few state appointees.

Wounds of Saturday will heal, and most stakeholders in the game will move forward (e.g. Jason Service and Bill Mott were back in their stables bright and early getting back to business), though I have my doubts that those running the industry every will.

Sure, the game has advanced beyond the days of Kentucky Derby patrons raising their julep cups to jockeys whipping each other in the stretch as "boys being boys", to paraphrase the legendary Jerry Izenberg, but certainly this day smells nothing like roses for this horseplayer.

Saturday, May 4, 2019

2019 Kentucky Derby Pick: Maximum Security

After a sluggish Oaks effort where I had the entirely wrong front-runner (ended up being the winner Serengeti Empress instead of Motion Emotion), didn't like the runner-up (Liora) and my top choice -- Lady Apple -- was only third-best, we roll into the Run for the Roses extremely high on No. 7, Maximum Security.

After listening to way too many podcasts on the Kentucky Derby and making notes on all 19 runners' race replays back to their debuts, I think a lot of "experts" are overthinking it.

Maximum Security's the best and most versatile horse -- 4-for-4 lifetime, won a 6-furlong sprint on a sealed, muddy track where he patiently tracked the speed and pounced (and didn't mind having mud in his face) and had his way dictating a slow tempo in the Florida Derby, going over a mile in his first try.

He's capable of winning either on the lead or off any pacesetters and has a talented jockey, and I like the trainer's style of using his workouts more like a marathoner, using mile-plus drills to build endurance and setting up his horse to "cut back" to today's Derby race distance at a mile-and-a-quarter.

What won't be discussed on the NBC coverage -- too busy talking fashion, playing 35 Longines watch commercials and pretending to care who celebs like in the race -- is that many bettors are going to knock trainer Jason Servis. Skeptics will say his high win rates at Northeastern tracks are attributable to drugging his horses. Social media this week reflected such nonsense, but I think he's simply gotten a horrible knock, but has the best runner and in top form in the field. Reminds me of the skepticism toward California Chrome in the 2014 Derby.

With that in mind I intend to capitalize and hope to get 6-to-1 or 7-to-1 win odds, which would be a steal in a race -- as previewed in my earlier ranking of the field -- where I think, at best, 3 horses (Win Win Win and Improbable the others) are win propositions. As a result, I'll key Maximum Security in exacta and trifecta wagers. I'm allocating an affordable $49 specifically to the Derby, and $51 to multi-race exotics. And to be candid, I've resigned myself to the notion that Maximum Security will win, be beaten late by Win Win Win or Improbable, and if not, probably finish in the last 3. He's almost an all-or-nothing proposition, which is fine by me. Maximum Security is my top pick.

Kentucky Derby Wagers ($49 total)

  • $10 win 7 (Maximum Security) = $10
  • $4 exacta 7-14  (Maximum Security with Win Win Win) = $4
  • $2 exacta key box 7 with 5, 14 = $8 
    • key box means 7 needs to win or finish second, with Win Win Win or Improbable being the other first- or second-place horse
  • $1 exacta key box 7 with 8, 16, 17 = $6
    • a hedge where Maximum Security finishes Top 2 and backed up with my "B" selections (see last week's rundown of the field)
  • $1 trifecta: 7 with 5, 14, 17 with 5, 6, 8, 13, 14, 16, 17 = $18
    • here I'm banking on Maximum Security winning, with my B choices running second and using my B and C horses in the third-place spot
  • 50-cent trifecta: 14 with 7 with 5, 6, 8, 13, 16, 17 = $3
    • a "saver" ticket of sorts where Win Win Win has to win, Maximum Security has to finish second, and one of my B and C horses finishes third; sorta of an extended play on my primary exacta tickets, and a backup if it comes out 14-7 win and place 

Wagers Into the Derby ($51 total)

As I'm already part of a Pick 5 pool run by a friend, I've targeted Races 9-12 and am playing some small Pick 4, daily double and trifecta tickets on the races leading into the Kentucky Derby.

These are based largely on No. 12 Bricks and Mortar winning the Turf Classic (Race 11, 5:25 p.m.) and 12-to-1 Mr. Money pulling off the upset vs. prohibitive favorite Instagrand in the Pat Day Mile (Race 10, 4:28 p.m.).

I've also got a soft spot for a horse named Warrior's Club, who got me into this year's National Handicapping Championship by virtue of his 23-to-1 win in last year's Commonwealth Stakes and I think is in really good form and gets a fabulous set-up to track the early speed and win today's 8th. 
  • Race 8, Churchill Downs Stakes (2:45 p.m.) = $19 total
    • Warrior's Club (No. 7) is absolutely worth betting at 12-to-1. He gets a good spot to track speed-ball Promises Fulfilled (No. 6) just to his inside and may be able to fend off latecomer Whitmore (No. 12), a $2.5 million winner. 
      • $2 daily double: 7 with 5, 8 = $4
      • $1 daily double: 7 with 1, 2, 3 = $3
      • 50-cent trifecta: 7 with 6, 8, 12 with 6, 8, 11, 12 = $4.50
      • 50-cent trifecta: 6, 8, 12 with 7 with 6, 8, 11, 12 = $4.50
      • 50-cent trifecta: 12 with 6, 8 with 6, 7, 8, 11 = $3
  • Race 9, American Turf Stakes (3:37 p.m.) = $16 total
    • Avie's Flatter (No. 8) is my top choice at 6-to-1 odds. This is an extremely difficult race with a lot of talented 3-year-old turf stars. Look for No. 1 A Thread of Blue (3-to-1 favorite) to dictate tempo and Avie's Flatter to track and hang on late for the win. That'd be the best scenario for my Pick 4 wagers, where I must have the winners of Races 9-12 in order to cash. I'll spread out this race on my "bigger" ticket, and play a "backup" ticket for fun, where I use only my top two in this race, single the two favorites in the middle legs (Races 10-11) and spread in the Derby with my A-B-C horses.
      • 50-cent Pick 4: 1, 2, 3, 5, 8 with 7 with 2, 12 with 7, 14 = $10
      • 50-cent Pick 4: 1, 8 with 10 with 12 with 5, 7, 8, 14, 16, 17 = $6
  • Race 10, Pat Day Mile (4:28 p.m.) = $15 total
    • For my money, Mr. Money (No. 7) offers great value at 12-to-1. If you're at the track and he holds those odds, he's worth a win wager for sure. As I see it, this race has horses where trainers took their shots trying to make the Kentucky Derby but are placing their runners in more-realistic positions. The favorite, 6-to-5 favorite Instagrand, is case-in-point, having run so-so thirds in the Grade 3 Gotham at Aqueduct in March and the Grade 1 Santa Anita Derby in April. Now, he could entirely run away with this race as trainer Jerry Hollendorfer's consolation prize for having to scratch his top reason for coming to Churchill -- Omaha Beach -- from the Kentucky Derby (he'd have gone off the favorite). But from what I saw in the Derby preps, Instagrand can be beaten if he's looked in the eye, and he's going to burn out with speed-ball Mr. Money Bags up front, giving a stalker type like Mr. Money to steal the race. Mr. Money ran competently against much tougher in the Breeders Cup Juvenile (4th place), Risen Star (decent 7th vs. some Derby contenders) and Louisiana Derby (game 5th). To me today's a softer spot, and so I'll use him in trifectas on the win and place ends, the latter in the event that Instagrand runs away with the race.
      • 50-cent trifecta: 7 with 8, 9, 10 with 4, 8-10, 13, 14 = $7.50
      • 50-cent trifecta: 10 with 7 with 4, 8, 9, 13, 14 = $2.50
      • $4 daily double 7 with 12 = $4
      • $1 daily double 7 with 2 = $1
  • Race 11, Turf Classic (5:25 p.m.) = $1 total
    • This is my least favorite race, and so I'm only playing a $1 daily double of Bricks and Mortar to Maximum Security in the Derby, just to say I hit it if things work out. If I hit on any of the above trifectas and/or Race 8 daily doubles I'll probably increase this to a $10 double and perhaps play some $1 doubles using the No. 2 Raging Bull in the win spot in this race and co-mingling Win Win Win and Improbable in the Derby, but otherwise am just "betting with my head" here.
      • $1 daily double 12 with 7
Best of luck whether you're betting or merely watching the race and have a rooting interest. It's admittedly not my favorite race of the year, but still a huge event -- one where I'll focus more on the socializing, food and bourbon.

Thursday, May 2, 2019

2019 Kentucky Oaks Pick: Lady Apple

It'll be hard to replicate last year's Kentucky Oaks, where I gave out the winner (Monomoy Girl), a $362 trifecta and $1,387 superfecta for anyone who paid attention, but it's impossible to go back-to-back sitting on the sidelines, and so here are my thoughts on Friday's wide-open three-year-old Derby for the fillies.

Whereas I made clear that Monomoy Girl was 2018's standout, the 2019 Oaks is much more wide open, and unlike several pundits I think 2-to-1 morning-line favorite Bellafina is beatable. Sure she has already earned $1 million-plus on the track and has 6 graded-stakes wins in 8 lifetime starts, but she's been feasting on short fields of cupcakes in California to start this season. She's an absolutely credible candidate to hit the board, but there's a ton of speed in the field and so I'm leaning toward runners that can settle and stalk the pace or make a deep late run.
Lady Apple could get it done
at a big price

Lady Apple, from post No. 3 and with a 20-to-1 morning line, fits the profile and is my selection to win the 2019 Kentucky Oaks. 

Granted, Lady Apple only raced at the Grade 3 level and has some clunkers in her past, but from all the replays I've watched of the entire field since their 2-year-old debuts, she's clearly coming into her own and has matured since her rookie season. 

As I see it, the key for her will to stay in touch with the pacesetters, save ground and find a seem in the stretch while others fade. She's a daughter of Curlin and very capable of getting the mile-and-an-eighth distance, and I think will be sent off from the starting gate at low-teens odds. I'll build my tickets around her.

Here's my analysis and selections, with a little bit on each of the 14 runners, based on my rankings:
  • #3, Lady Apple (20-1): Went 0-for-4 as a 2-year-old before breaking through on Feb. 7 in relatively easy fashion. Won that and her next allowance-level race on the front end, and won using more of a stalking tactic in the April 12 Fantasy Stakes at Oaklawn Park. Jockey Ricardo Santana sat 3-4 lengths off the speed and waited for a late seam in the stretch before his mount distanced herself from rivals toward the finish line. She'd have won by way more if not bottled up heading into the final turn, and I think she can replicate the effort in the Oaks at a price. I will bet her to win and use as my key in the exacta, trifecta and superfecta.
  • #8, Motion Emotion (15-1): I was a little skittish about making her my second choice, but for my money she's the speed of the speed and the most gutsy runner in the field. Like Lady Apple, she break her maiden until this year, and has since shown a flair for fast early fractions and, more importantly, being able to carry that speed at least a mile. She has really progressed as a three-year-old and isn't too far from being 4-for-4 this season. Once other need-the-lead types are unable to pass her heading into the homestretch, we'll see them quit as Motion Emotion battles in the stretch before fading, though she'll absolutely hit the board. Ceiling is 2nd, as happened when Lady Apple chased her down late in the Fantasy.
  • #2, Chocolate Kisses (20-1): Gave consideration as a win candidate, but not entirely sure what to make of this one. An out-of-control pace would favor this deep closer. Don't be surprised if she's behind by double-digit lengths at the half-mile point, though as shown in the Honeybee Stakes at Oaklawn, she's capable of coming from way out of the clouds. I think her odds are inflated by a weak effort in last month's Grade 1 Ashland Stakes at Keeneland, but if you watch the replay, she was far more forwardly placed, which I took more as a potential experiment to see how she'd handle being toward the early leaders. It backfired, but to me it's a toss and she's an outside win candidate if the clock reads about 45 seconds for the first half mile. Distance won't hurt her a bit, and I was torn but ultimately decided the ceiling is 2nd here. Definite use underneath on my exotic tickets. 
  • #4, Bellafina (2-1): Considered leaving her completely off my ticket, but she's clearly got talent -- just an awful post position inside of all the early speed. Jockey Flavian Prat's gonna have to aggressively send, in my opinion, and may become discouraged if forced to eat Motion Emotion's and others' dust for long early stretches of the race. A clean break and position will mean everything. Just not sold she's the short-priced favorite. I'd endorse a win bet at 3-1, but sense there's no value at the morning line and won't put her in the win spot. Using 2nd-4th.
  • #10, Champagne Anyone (6-1): I had a hard time narrowing down the next three, but think this one is the most proven stalker of the bunch. Her August 2018 maiden-breaker was a thing of beauty, weaving in and out of horses impressively after much trouble to win. Yet all of her 2019 stakes tries she was either too far back and has had to work extremely hard in the stretch. I think she'll make up ground on a fading pack and can see a belated 3rd-4th, as she won the Gulfstream Oaks at a shorter distance but would have been passed if it went another sixteenth.
  • #1, Out for a Spin (15-1): If she gets an unencumbered lane into the first turn, she'll be in the hunt, much as she was in winning the Ashland at 52-to-1 odds and in her three races prior. Gets a top rider in Irad Ortiz, though this is his first time aboard. I wonder about chemistry and the horse's ability to get the distance, but will play defensively at the bottom of my tri and super.
  •  #14, Restless Rider (6-1): Very promising as a 2-year-old, but I dislike that she drew alongside the leader in her last two races and couldn't pass the winner. Just think it's a really difficult post and she's going to have to motor from the gate for a decent spot. Ceiling is 3rd.
  • #13, Serengeti Empress (8-1): A need-the-lead type who was vanned off in her last prep. I'm taking a risk and leaving her off my tickets, but recognize she could hit the board if sound.
  • #12, Street Band (15-1): Not super impressed with Fairgrounds Oaks win. Seems like a plodder who benefited that day from ground-saving trip and outlasting another long-shot in the stretch. Not fast or gifted enough to factor here. Pass.
  • #9, Liora (20-1): Really gutsy in a November stakes win at Churchill, but couldn't follow up with a stakes win in her last three tries. Replays, to me, showed a horse who looked wilted at 8 furlongs. Going another panel on Friday isn't going to help. Off the board; pass.
  • #11, Jeltrin (15-1): Yeah, she won the Davona Dale at 50-1, but the time was slow and she'll be trying two turns for the first time. Could see in the early pace mix, but will fade. Pass.
  • #7, Jaywalk (8-1): Could be the early leader. Tons of early speed, but to me the 2018 Breeders Cup Juvenile champ looks completely dusted, losing her last 2019 Oaks preps to $105 and $106 winners. May hang on the lead for a bit but I think she's one who maybe would be better-served skipping this race and getting re-energized for Preakness weekend.
  • #6, Positive Spirit (30-1): A stalker who had success at Aqueduct but backed up in her last two Oaks preps, including an ugly finish at Fairgrounds in March. Couldn't win the Gazelle in April after dictating slow race, then faded. Can't see her hitting the board. Pass.
  • #5, Flor de La Mar (20-1): Bet against Bob Baffert at your own risk, but if this horse had some other trainer she'd be the longest shot on the board. Never posed a threat to Bellafina in her lone stakes try after sucking vs. optional claimers in her second lifetime start. Pass. 

Kentucky Oaks Wagers

I've generally kept to a $50 budget on the Oaks each year, but may "splurge" a bit more, including a superfecta ticket ($1 base wager makes it more expensive than the typical 10-cent offering) that runs this year's total to about $90. I just think it's a chance to score big with a horse that'll at least go off at about 12-to-1 by post-time.

Everyone enjoy, good luck, and feel free to comment!
  • $5 Win 3 = $5
  • $10 Show 3 = $10
  • $3 Exacta: 3-8 = $4
  • $1 Exacta Key Box 3 with 2, 4, 8, 10 = $8
  • $2 Trifecta: 3 with 8 with 2, 4, 10 = $6
  • $1 Trifecta: 3 with 2, 4, 8 with 1, 2, 4, 8, 10, 14 = $15
  • 50-cent Trifecta: 2, 4, 8 with 3 with 1, 2, 4, 8, 10, 14 = $7.50
  • 50-cent Trifecta: 2, 4, 8 with 1, 2, 4, 8, 10, 14 with 3 = $7.50
  • $1 Superfecta: 3 with 2, 4, 8 with 2, 4, 8, 10 with 1, 2, 4, 8, 10 = $27

Sunday, April 28, 2019

Breakdown of 2019 Kentucky Derby Field


After watching just about every replay of the 20 horses in Saturday's Kentucky Derby, and recognizing the extremely unfortunate scratch of my second choice Omaha Beach, I'm calling on Maximum Security to win the 2019 edition. Shame on folks for passing up the chance to claim him out of a Gulfstream Park race in December. His versatility is a perfect for the Run for the Roses.

The decent post-position draw (#7) locks Maximum Security in as my A+ pick.

The only other "A" for me is Omaha Beach, who has won on fast and wet tracks, has better-than-average gate speed and showed versatility in his preps for the Derby.

Here's my up-to-date rankings from 1-20, incorporating Omaha Beach's replacement, #21 Bodexpress, who gets post 20 while horses from posts 13-20 shift one inward. These placings are based on my review of prep-race replays and pace setup. I'll list them by "A" (can win), "B" (outside win chance but more likely a 2nd or 3rd place ceiling), "C" (might hit the board) and "Pass". Post position and morning line now included.

Feel free to use the comment field for questions or hit me up on Twitter -- @NJHorseplayer.

  • #7, Maximum Security (8-1; A): Not shy of taking dirt/mud in the face or going wire-to-wire as he did convincingly in the Grade 1 Florida Derby. To me, a California Chrome-type with the quickness to get toward the front, and tactical skill to sit off the front-runners and pounce. Top selection, whether wire-to-wire or tracking from the 2 or 3 path.
  • #14, Win Win Win (12-1; B/A): Deep closer in his two stakes preps, a style that doesn't work too well in the Derby, but he's had misfortune, and I've reassessed his prospects based on reviews of his earlier sprint wins, including one at Laurel where got the lead in 45 second and then ran an 11.06-second eighth of a mile. Go back and watch his effort in the Bluegrass in April at Keeneland -- had good momentum into the homestretch but lost a few spots after having to hit the brakes, before he re-rallied to somehow get second behind dream-trip Vekoma. I think he's a must use underneath and can spice up the exotics ticketsI've elevated him to my second choice and possible win contender, and think he will have a real shot by getting the jump on Code of Honor from the post just to his left and sitting mid-pack.
  • Omaha Beach (A): Like Maximum Security, also won on fast and wet tracks. Arkansas Derby effort did it for me. Settled back to fifth after a strong start from gate, then made a bold, sweeping move past the leaders and gutted out a victory. Versatile enough to win. I think he exerts a bit of energy to get toward front, sits 3-4 lengths off the pace-setter and tries making a move halfway down the backstretch. Can win.
  • #5, Improbable (5-1; B): Only 11th on Derby qualifying points, but 2-year-old season was impressive and he's this close to having won two preps this year. Outgamed by Omaha Beach late in the Arkansas Derby. Curious tendency to turn head toward grandstand in stretch. Think he can compete if able to focus in the Derby, but putting in my second tier for now.
  • #17, Roadster (5-1; B): Figure he'll stalk the pace, much as he did in Santa Anita Derby to get to Louisville. Versatile, but Mike Smith opting for Omaha Beach a negative. Might upgrade only if Smith is named as a replacement rider but would still be my third choice.
  • #8, Tacitus (8-1; C/B): Dream trip to win the Tampa Derby but got an awful trip in the Wood Memorial yet somehow won that too. Gutsy fellow but think those he beat can turn tables in Kentucky.
  • #16, Game Winner (9-2; C/B): Dominated as 2 year old but had misfortune in his two starts in 2019. To me he looks more like a grinder who maybe wins if everything goes his way, though I don't like that he's shipping for the 3rd time in two months. Fatigue could be a factor.
  • #13, Code of Honor (12-1; C): Fountain of Youth win was into a ton of early pace and he sat in perfect stalking spot before winning at 9-1, then bounced in Florida Derby. Ceiling is 3rd or 4th.
  • #6, Vekoma (15-1; C, only with advantageous post): Got a good post. Seems to be quick from the gate, but just don't love him visually. Seems to run bowlegged and drifts a lot. Perhaps a pace force who hangs on for a minor award; just don't see as potential winner.
  • Haikal (C at best): Deep closer who looks a notch below Win Win Win in that category. Effort in the Wood Memorial worth watching, if for no other reason to see how guy doesn't quit, even after horrid traffic early. Closed a bunch to get 3rd but closing style doesn't usually win at Churchill on the first Saturday in May.
  • #4Gray Magician (50-1; Pass C at best): Took 4 tries to break his maiden, though he shows some versatility and got Rosario'd in Dubai prep. Could see him step a bit forward off that effort and will include in the 3rd spot in my trifectas. 
  • #18, Long Range Toddy (30-1; Pass): The sort of horse that would benefit from a Calvin Borel-like rail-skimming trip. Beat Improbable at a big number in the Rebel Stakes in March, but his three other efforts at Oaklawn were nothing to write home about. Just think he's a cut below.
  • #1War of Will (15-1; Pass): Seems capable of getting toward front and maybe hangs on for share. Will use underneath on trifecta and superfecta only. but rail draw keeps him off my tickets. I loved Lookin at Lucky several years back; total monster, but finished 5th from the first post, which is draw about 4-5 paths inside of the rail. Death trap. Has no choice but to gun it and exhaust himself, hoping to get out safely. 
  • #19, Spinoff (30-1; Pass): I might have him too high here after he lost to a 22-1 shot while having his way in the Louisiana Derby. Yet that was his first stakes try, so maybe he's still developing. Seems like a plodder who may be better suited to Belmont Stakes. Post a big detriment with others of similar racing style getting better post positions.
  • #2, Tax (20-1; Pass): May be "wise guy" horse on Derby day, but I'm not buying. Think he was fortunate to get his stakes win; Haikal was better but less fortunate that afternoon.
  • #10, Cutting Humor (30-1; Pass): Barely held on to win the Sunland Park Derby. Another shrewd Pletcher move to do enough to get a horse into the starting gate on May 4, but not buying.
  • #3, By My Standards (15-1; Pass): If nothing else, horse is responding to jockey Gabriel Saez. Yet not sold on 22-1 winner of the Louisiana Derby, and think post 3 is a difficult place to begin with War of Wills gunning for the front and other speed to the outside. 
  • #9, Plus Que Parfait (30-1; Pass): Was lucky in Dubai that jockey Joel Rosario rode Gray Magician 6-8 paths wide the entire race. Otherwise he wouldn't have won. Gray Magician better of the two.
  • #20Country House (30-1; Double Pass): Gets into the Derby starting gate on points, barely. Did nothing to distinguish himself as anything other than filler.
  • #15Master Fencer (50-1; Triple Pass): Japanese entrant who gets to the Derby by way of second-place finish in a prep race where the winner wasn't Triple Crown nominee. I guess folks like to say they had a horse run in the Kentucky Derby.
  • #21, Bodexpress (30-1; Quadruple Bypass): Sure, a game second in the Florida Derby, but how is a horse that has yet to win a race going to pull off a Big Brown and win from the difficult far-outside post?! No way. 
I'll post my real-money wagers on Friday night after a crazy workweek, and will also have thoughts on Friday's Kentucky Oaks, a race where I've had good success in two of the past three years. 

Saturday, April 6, 2019

An Idea to Improve 2-Day NHC Freebie Format Even More

The Pitch for Weighted
NHC Contest Scoring
Best Bet in Green...
Least Favorite in Red
I got a bit sentimental this morning, seeing Warrior's Club -- my key to NHC 19 qualification at 23-to-1 last year in the Commonwealth Stakes at Keeneland -- listed to defend his crown vs. 13 others in a race that kicks off the Tour's second of 5 "free" qualifying contests.

Listed at 10-to-1 this afternoon, my boy may be compromised by a wide draw from post 13, though I believe he's at the proper level and relishes the 7-furlong Keeneland strip and can repeat 2018's win.

Even if Warrior's Club doesn't get it done, there are 11 other races to consider in the NHC Tour's interesting bid to forget "Fourgate," where, in the first 2019 freebie, a handful of players picked the No. 4 horse in all contest races and ended up winning berths to NHC 20.

Fourgate exposed the absurdity of the free Tour events, in that the value of the 5 "free" events (no entry fee, though a $50 annual Tour membership is required to play 'em) was extremely low and that it's hard to take a contest offering 5 NHC berths to 2,000+ players seriously.

The freebies are the state-lottery equivalent of a tournament and everyone sorta knows it. So why not do something like playing the same number across the board and hoping for the best?!

2-Day Format Step in Right Direction

Well, that changes this weekend, with the Tour rolling out a new two-day format where the Top 10% of finishers in Saturday's contest advance to Sunday's championship round.

It's a step in the right direction to give the free-tournament format some validity, though it doesn't automatically prevent a repeat of Fourgate as a no-cost event.

That said, paring Saturday's enormous field to about 200-250 players who'll compete on Sunday for both 5 NHC 20 berths and Tour points (to the top 10% tomorrow) makes it somewhat more rational.

The primary drawback, as I see it, is in the Tour wiping players' Saturday bankrolls clean heading into Sunday's qualifier. To me, it's inconsistent. It's the opposite of the real NHC, a three-day event where players' winnings carry over from one day to the next, making it harder, in theory, to let people at the bottom of the standings make a resounding late run by stabbing at gigantic long-shots.

A player who finishes first today and accrues $130 of bankroll on Saturday -- you know it'll be me, since it's not a direct qualifier -- vs. the 195th-place finisher at $70 is penalized on Sunday by resetting the counter to zero. It's not entirely fair.

Rather, the NHC organizers should consider -- maybe for its third free tournament -- a format where the Day 1 bankroll is carried over to Round 2, but perhaps with Day 2 odds caps cut in half to 10-to-1 for win and 5-to-1 for place, so as to both reward Saturday's best players and put a premium on picking winners in Sunday's event, and to prevent folks from coming way off the pace by nailing a few bombers that appear to have no shot on paper.

Pitch for Weighted Scoring

Another format I'd like to see -- if the NHC wants to get creative -- is a weighted contest, where players are paid a premium for their convictions in particular plays. In other words, set up a 12-race contest where players can tab XYZ horse as their best bet (with a win payout at 12-to-1) and ABC as their least-favorite bet (worth 1-to-1 odds). The place-payout cap would be half that (e.g. 6-to-1 for my best bet and 0.5-to-1 for my least-favorite horse.

In my view, it would reduce the prospect of bomber-focused players from getting lucky in 2-3 races to qualify from the NHC. It would also put a premium on finding winners, reducing the place-payout maximum to $14 from the current $22.

In today's freebie, for instance, I think Vino Rosso is a lock to win the Carter Handicap. I've selected him as my horse in the fourth contest race today, though his 5-to-2 morning line suggests about a maximum return of $7 on the winning end and probably $3 and change for the place. It's a risk if some bomber with no chance on paper scores at cap odds.

If I had the option to weight today's selection, I'd pick him as my 12-to-1 play. If he wins, I get $26 on that end, plus $14 to place). If he finishes third or worse, I get zero.

I might make Instagrand in the Santa Anita Derby as my next-best play, allotting 11-to-1 win odds to him in a bad 6-horse field; and so on down the line to my least-favorite selection -- Ocean Fury in the seventh from Santa Anita, a deep maiden special race on turf -- who'd I'd play at even-money odds. (Warrior's Club, by the way, would probably be my 9th or 10th-best play.)

I'm not sure such a weighted-selections approach would prevent another Fourgate, but in my view, it takes the real odds out of play, reduces the enormous payouts on horses like the $105 winner that few in their right mind would have bet with real money on the day Fourgate occurred, and makes players focus on picking winners and to at least think about their handicapping selections and maybe taking the freebie tournaments more seriously.

Feel free to weigh in with your thoughts as always. 

Friday, March 29, 2019

A Friend Remembering Frank Diciaulo

I want to dust off my blog today to share a very meaningful tribute by my good friend and fellow NHC Tour competitor, Marie Jost, who reminds us that March 29 is National Vietnam War Veterans Day and had a close connection with a man she got to know over several years at Monmouth Park -- Frank Diciaulo, who served in combat and was a Purple Heart recipient.

"Frankie" passed away in late 2015, but Marie's post to Facebook this morning reminded me of a tribute that she had written in the time after his passing. As I understand it, Frankie was pretty much alone until the end, and Marie advocated for a proper memorial and military burial.

Marie's words are touching, and if nothing else say a prayer on this special day in memory of her friend and avid horseplayer, and for all of those that served.
"Frank Diciaulo...served in the 27th Infantry Regiment nicknamed "The Wolfhounds." It is my understanding that the Wolfhounds saw some of the worst of the fighting during the Vietnam War. Frank was wounded in the line of duty and was awarded the Purple Heart. Sadly, Frank passed away on December 8, 2015, and remained unclaimed at the county morgue. 
"I met Frankie at Monmouth Park years ago. We used to talk horses and he'd always ask me, "Who do you like, Doll?" and then he would run to the window to bet it. He was a real sweetheart of a guy. 
"Frankie gave me these pictures of himself because he had no one else to pass them along to and there was an unspoken understanding that he really wanted someone to remember him when he was gone. Frankie had cancer and knew he was dying. These pictures were no doubt his prized possessions. They represent a time in his life that he was most proud of and I am honored that he chose me to give them to.
"I'm happy to say, Frankie will receive the honor and respect he deserves with a proper burial this afternoon at the Brigadier General William C. Doyle Veterans Memorial Cemetery. I will miss seeing him at Monmouth Park. I will miss him calling me Doll and blowing me kisses when he saw me. So today, remember a veteran and say a prayer for them and for the people who remain unclaimed. Frankie lived, and he was my friend."
-- Marie Jost, January 28, 2016
Rest in peace, Frankie.

Monday, February 11, 2019

NHC 19 Quickies

United was courteous enough to make us sit on the plane from Vegas to Newark before announcing a radio issue, so quick thoughts before takeoff...

Not happy finishing way off the leaderboard, and akipping a play that cost me 18th in consolation tourney.

Blast of a time again but new venue may be needed.

Concerned over tourney rake and no movement in total prize pool.

Time for takeoff, both to Newark Airport and to qualifying to NHC20.

Stay tuned. More thoughts to come later this week and in weeks ahead.