The adage about never being too old to learn is completely valid.
I spent a good part of an overcast Saturday at Monmouth Park volunteering for my third time this meet as "racing ambassador," with a grassroots goal of cultivating and educating new or inexperienced fans one at a time about thoroughbred racing.
In educating these fans to the best of my ability, however, I find myself learning a lot as well, proving extremely beneficial as a part-time handicapper ultimately attempting to qualify for the National Handicapping Championship.
Jockeys and trainers have come into focus of late, since as an ambassador I get to take patrons into the paddock to watch trainers saddle their horses and can eavesdrop a little -- a really great experience that yields valuable insight as a handicapper.
Saturday afternoon, I was introduced to top local trainer Kelly Breen in the paddock prior to race 6 and listened to his pre-race instructions to jockey Victor Santiago aboard second-time starter Jackie O' Mine.
Even in a fourth-place finish of nine starters, the jockey followed his trainer's instructions to a tee, with Jackie O' Mine -- an inexperienced horse with more of a two-turn pedigree and not the best early speed -- urged from the gate in a 5-furlong sprint in the slop (to see how she would respond) and giving the connections some valuable information on the horse moving forward.
A race prior, Santiago made a race-winning move aboard 9-to-1 Karobushka in a 6-furlong claimer, navigating his horse through a wide opening along the rail left by front-runner Iron Dale Al, who floated wide into the homestretch and lost valuable ground.
I already have immense respect for jockeys, but after just a small two-race sample I came away with tremendous respect for Santiago, who has a 9% lifetime win percentage, according to Equibase, and in 2014 had a mere 8 wins in 140 mounts heading into today.
The jockey theme is one that leads me to a horse named Stormberg in Race 7 today at Del Mar ($62,500 optional claimer at 1 mile on the synthetic track) -- my selection of the day in the Del Mar 2014 Online Handicapping Challenge.
Stormberg is 15-to-1 on the morning line, but the change in trainer and jockey is what proves intriguing off the horse's last three efforts on the 6 1/2-furlong downhill course at Santa Anita.
If you do not have an online wagering account, sign up for free at www.calracing.com (free replays at all California tracks) and watch the last three race replays for Stormberg.
The horse, in my opinion, got three horrible trips with jockey Tyler Baze and trained by high-percentage California trainer Jeff Bonde.
Granted, based on breaks in the horse's past performances, it looks like the 6-year-old Stormberg has had health issues, racing only 13 times and netting $108,615 of lifetime winnings -- a bad return on the $450,000 purchase out of the 2009 Keeneland September sale. The horse ran only one race in 2013 (Gulfstream in March) for trainer Michelle Nevin before shipping out west to the Bonde stable.
Stormberg made his 2014 debut on April 20 and finished an extremely game third of 10 horses off a 13-month layoff. Next out, on May 24, Stormberg ran very well but lacked room, checking at one point and re-rallying to finish third. On June 20, under the same conditions ($62,500 optional claimer on the downhill turf), Stormberg again was run into trouble, steadying hard in the stretch to finish sixth of seven behind winner Rangi, who finished second next out in the $90,000 Wicker Stakes.
On paper, Stormberg's performances appear less than stellar, which along with the horse's first try on synthetic surface in nearly three years and stretch-out to a mile may help to explain the 15-to-1 morning line.
Beneath the surface, however, the change in trainer to Robertino Diodoro and rider Fernando Perez are bullish angles, in my opinion, and the horse kept some pretty good company in his recent races.
This jockey-trainer combination has 4 wins in 19 tries over the last 60 days, and Perez has proven a formidable and underrated rider at the Del Mar meeting.
Horses coming off downhill turf sprints at Santa Anita seem to have played somewhat well on stretch-outs, from the Del Mar races that I have seen.
In addition, the scratch of rail horse and 3-to-1 morning-line favorite Secretsatmidnight inspires confidence that Stormberg can get to the lead from an outside post without much difficulty. The horses to either side of Stormberg show more of a stalking tactic, in my view, freeing Perez to get Stormberg to the lead into the first turn.
With front-end speed holding up pretty well at Del Mar, I am banking on Stormberg benefiting from the stretch-out from a three straight sprints to two turns -- an angle where Diodoro wins 19%-22% of the time and is in the money nearly 50%. Diodoro is also winning 25% of the time on new horses to his barn.
We'll know for certain a little after 8 p.m. ET, but I'm going a notional $50 win-place on #9, Stormberg, as my selection in the Del Mar online contest, which would go a long way in improving my 210th-place standing of 3,500-plus players.
It'll be interesting to know whether or not a new jockey and trainer make the difference for a horse with apparent talent but has simply ran into a lot of trouble of late.
For additional reading on jockey angles, take a look at this valuable piece from Joe Kristufek for America's Best Racing.