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.