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.

Friday, June 6, 2014

An Ambassador and Samraat Kind of Weekend

A quick note, first, that I will serving as a volunteer racing "Ambassador" again this Sunday at Monmouth Park, so anyone interested in meeting up or has friends who want to learn more about what goes on at the track, how to read the race program, etc., please contact me on Twitter (@njhorseplayer) or email me and I'll provide my cell number.  

Otherwise, since a few friends asked, I will be more than happy as a huge thoroughbred racing fan for California Chrome to take home the Triple Crown, but as a bettor pored over the past performances last night and landed on Samraat as my upset selection

9 out of 10 Bollywood stars agree!
I have to admit that $20 of my wife's hard-earned dollars are already wagered on Chrome ($10 win, $1 exacta above the other 10 entrants), but likely in the wrong place in a rare gamble for Mrs. NJ Horseplayer.

As an equity research editor I recognize that past performance does not dictate future success, but in reviewing Belmont Stakes dating to 2007, winners by and large were within the top 5 throughout the race and a few lengths of the front-runner.  In addition, Da'Tara won wire-to-wire at 38-to-1 in the year that 1-to-4 Big Brown pulled up, while Paynter (2012) and Dunkirk (2009) almost won start to finish. 

Accordingly, there is precedent for the big shocker and a front-running type prevail at a mile-and-a-half.

Samraat, at 20-to-1, fits the bill and is a reasonable value, and in my opinion will be dismissed for wise-guy horses like Commanding Curve and Ride On Curlin, who turned in credible Triple Crown performances but seem far more comfortable well off the pace, which in my view will not work on Saturday.

Trainer Richard Violette was wise to rest Samraat after a taxing winter campaign that produced two Grade 3 victories and a hard-fought second in the Wood Memorial.  

I sense the connections simply took the shot at Kentucky Derby glory as many would, and subsequently skipping the Preakness was much needed.  The horse responded with a second best-of-15 work on May 18 and was stretched out with two 1-mile breezes in preparation for the Big Sandy.

The appeal, to me, in upsetting California Chrome is that Samraat, as shown in the Gotham, can turn on the jets out of the gate and then settle a bit to track a leader. Or simply take the lead and win at two turns, as in starts prior to the Gotham.  Plus, hot-riding Jose Ortiz (winner of Friday's Grade 2 True North on 9-to-1 Palace) has no horses between his and California Chrome to contend with from the gate, as runners 3-through-6 all appear to be slow breakers. 

I am dismissing potential early runners Tonalist (post 11 and another wise-guy horse) and maybe even General a Rod (post 10) as threats in light of their outside posts and questions I have about their class and fitness, respectively.  

Tonalist's win in the Grade 2 Peter Pan, to me, was against a weak field the week after all of the better three-year-old contenders ran at Churchill, while General a Rod likely needs a rest.

Accordingly, my hopes for Samraat hinge on two factors -- either getting the lead from Chrome and not relenting to him in the stretch, or forcing Chrome toward the rail, where in light of Chrome's picture-perfect stalking wins in the Derby and Preakness I have questions about whether he wants to run inside.  

In other words, better race riding than the outstanding stewardship that Chrome's jockey Victor Espinoza has shown thus far.  

Perhaps a tall order, but one I am willing to gamble. 

Ideally, Samraat will take a straight line out of the gate and force the outer "speed" horses wide, then squeeze Chrome toward the rail into the first turn. 

A stumble at the gate would kill my chances, but at 20-to-1 against 3-to-5, that's a given anyway.

My picks, in order, are Samraat, California Chrome and Wicked Strong.  

I have yet to place my Belmont Stakes wagers, but have already invested a meager $24 in the Pick 3 and Pick 4 culminating in the feature. 

Kaigun (15-to-1), in Race 10 (The Knob Creek Manhattan), is a key for me in the Pick 3 sequence to cash anything meaningful.  A close second to lawn wunderkind Wise Dan in the Makers 46 Mile in April and a game and hard-closing fourth in the Turf Classic on Derby Day signal to me this 4-year-old is vastly improving, and third off the bench can certainly keep moving forward on Saturday.

In Race 9, I expect Palace Malice to win but give Shakin It Up an outside shot at 6-to-1, anticipating the added eighth of a mile will suit this sprinter well, and he can close into any pace, as evidenced by winning the Grade 1 Malibu Stakes at Santa Anita last December. 

I have no strong convictions about Race 8, the Just A Game Stakes, and went 5 deep.
  • $0.50 Race 8-11 Pick 4 Ticket: 5, 6, 8, 9, 10 over 1 over 1, 9 over 2, 7, 9 ($15 total)
  • $1.00 Race 9-11 Pick 3 Ticket: 1, 4, 13 over 9 over 2, 7, 9 ($9 total).
Good luck to all horseplayers on Belmont Stakes day, and be sure to reach out if you're at Monmouth on Sunday!