Wednesday, August 26, 2015

From Out Of The Clouds

To quote Rambo, "nothing is over."

So I'm not being hunted down in a small mining town.

Rather, I am relaxing on a deck after a 5-mile run and sipping coffee while writing to you a few hundred yards from the Atlantic Ocean on Long Beach Island on a gorgeous Jersey Shore midweek morning.

This morning, squarely in 3,793rd place in the Del Mar 2015 Online Handicapping Challenge and despite my state of relaxation (and perhaps delusion), I refuse to believe I am out of the contest.

More contest players need to take this approach.

Play (and handicap) to the end, I say, rather than losing complete interest or tossing darts at horses with little chance of winning.

NJ Horseplayer agrees; "You just
don't turn it off."
Find a playable long-shot and take an educated risk.

11 Races To Go

There is plenty of time to make up ground; maybe not to repeat as one of two champions in 2014's tournament for spots in the National Handicapping Championship, but perhaps to come away with a Top 200 finish and secure some points in the NHC Tour standings.  

Right now, for example, 200th-place in the Del Mar contest only has an $1,100 bankroll.

According to the NHC Tour points calculator, 200th is worth nearly 2,000 NHC Tour points; not a bad haul considering the field of nearly 5,000 players.

Granted, I am $810 in the minus, but in this contest format, where one good longshot gets me back to the plus side and the cap on winners is 30-to-1, a $1,900 deficit (to 200th) is not insurmountable.

Now, Wednesday's contest race is not entirely conducive to a cap horse.

The contest organizers picked as today's contest race the $80,000 Brubaker Stakes at a mile on dirt and featuring only 7 horses (sans potential scratches and most horses here better on the turf).

Contrary to 2014's wide open contest races, this year's contest has featured thinner fields, but handicappers need to play the race(s) in front of them, and so I will follow the flock.

So far in the hole, I cannot sit out the race, but my goal is to end this week on the plus side of the ledger and surge to a positive bankroll, perhaps giving me a shot in the contests final six races over next week, culminating in what I am guessing will be the Del Mar Futurity on Labor Day (Sept. 7).

Including today's mythical $100 wager, I can easily make up $810 this week; or that's my goal anyway in playing this contest through the end.

Safety Belt Makes Sense

The Brubaker is not a great race.

The 2-to-1 favorite, Motown Man, is clearly the most accomplished dirt horse in the field.

On dirt, Motown Man boasts 4 wins and 5 in-the-money finishes in 13 lifetime starts and has amassed $276k of lifetime winnings on the surface for trainer Ted West.  The horse has a Cal-bred stakes win to his credit at today's one-mile distance.

There are come chinks in the armor, however, as I see it, in that more of the horse's wins are at the optional claiming and allowance ranks, and in my view he benefitted from a dream trip in his last win at Del Mar on July 31.  Otherwise, this is no 2-to-1 world-beater.

Second-choice Big Cazanova is 5-to-2 and a need-the-lead type who is the only frontrunner in the field, in my view, but is 1-for-15 lifetime in dirt starts and will be overbet as the pacesetter and with a 3-for-3 record at Del Mar (albeit all on when the track had a synthetic surface).

And do not let the perceived class plunge for Big Cazanova fool you; save for a graded stakes win on the horse's favorite surface (synthetic), the horse has been largely overmatched.

Co-third choice (4-to-1) Smooth Roller is a 4-year-old Hard Spun gelding making only his third career lifetime start, but 2-for-2 lifetime (both on dirt) and I anticipate will take money.

For long-shot players, this leaves few options among the other four, who are a combined 0-for-10 in races on the dirt, but for my money there is appeal in the rail horse, Safety Belt.

The 12-to-1 morning line in my view discredits a 6-year-old who at the end of his 2014 campaign nearly ran down multiple stakes winner Regally Ready in the $75,000 Big Bear Stakes at Santa Anita at a whopping 50-to-1.  Please excuse the grainy video, but in that replay note the late kick by Safety Belt in the stretch, and consider the horse had a very strong gallop-out.

In making his first start of 2015 for 0-for-31 (2015) trainer Ron McAnally, I suspect that bettors will be chilly on Safety Belt, an Argentine whose two wins in 2014 were on turf against optional claimers.

Plus, the horse's seven works since June 18 have all been on turf, signalling that this horse will be perceived as a field "filler" in what on paper looks to be a race to be had by one of the three top choices.

As a longshot player, I relish angles such as this where, in a short field, there's a chance of a horse being set off as the longest shot, but for no great reason.

There's enough in the Big Bear to make the case for Safety Belt, and so I am playing him ($100 to win) in today's Del Mar contest race and hoping to upset the applecart early this week en route to a return to a positive bankroll by week's end.

Exemplifying with my comments to Josh Kamis with The Tournament Edge, here we have what I perceive to be a vulnerable favorite and a long-shot (Safety Belt) with three in-the-money finishes in five lifetime dirt starts, and who showed some late foot against a dirt stakes field last fall.

All that jockey Felipe Valdez needs to do with this horse fresh off the bench, in my opinion, is save ground and sit just off the front-runners ahead of a late bid in the stretch.

Perhaps a stretch, but one worth taking with less than a dozen races remaining and significant ground to make up in this handicapping contest.

Tuesday, August 4, 2015

Primetime Churchill Case For Pharoah's Final Breeders Prep

Fanning speculation is a compliance no-no in my real line of work (equity research), but as the blogosphere is free game and handicapping horses involves elements of guesswork anyway, I have no reins in projecting American Pharoah's next race in preparation for the Breeders Cup on Halloween.

Call it a wild guess, but I'm saying American Pharoah will run on Saturday, September 19 at Churchill Downs, contrary to comments by owner Ahmed Zayat published Tuesday by the Courier-Journal's Jonathan Lintner that he'd prefer the Travers if his horse is sound.  

Here Me Out

The Asbury Park Press's Steve Edelson, who has covered pre- and post-Haskell 2015 masterfully, in my view, already articulated Monmouth Park's desire to bring Pharoah back to Oceanport for at least a $1 million under conditions dictated to Mr. Zayat.

Reading between the lines of Mr. Lintner's story this afternoon, however, a comment by Mr. Zayat about money not being the issue presumably eliminates the Pennsylvania Derby at PARX and, in all likelihood, the horse's return to Monmouth Park, as I see it.  

Haskell 2015 was very special to most who witnessed it, but my non-expert opinion is that a return could be a letdown and not as interesting a proposition to customers, who in the New York metro area are thinking NFL, college football and carting their kids from soccer game to soccer game.  

Photo from Courier-Journal
If 30,000 came out for a parade,
imagine how many would watch
American Pharoah race again
under the lights at Churchill
And using the movie business as a parallel, sequels frequently bomb, so I think a mid- to late-September return to Monmouth loses its luster as average attendance dips after Labor Day. 

Scratch Saratoga and California

I get the whole prestige thing with Saratoga and Del Mar, but my gut tells me the connections are interested in maximizing their opportunities for publicity and money with Pharoah before he goes to the stud farm following the Breeders Cup.

Similar to a boxing champion, I think they'd also be entirely justified (whether perceived or not) as ducking the challengers du jour, Texas Red and Frosted, in a potential Travers match-up.  

Mr. Zayat's comment on money otherwise underpins my contention that the extra $600,000 to sweeten the pot to ship Pharoah to the Spa would not be an overriding factor, much as it will not be in sending Pharoah to PARX or Monmouth instead.  

Made-For-TV Event The Key

I like to bet long-shots, and so I'll make such a pitch here that there are two major parties to the equation -- Churchill Downs and NBC -- that make Churchill, in primetime, viable on Saturday, September 19 and American Pharoah's best option for a final prep.

If you look at horse racing as a broader marketing vehicle, and NBC's stake in the mix as the Breeders Cup network, I think sending Pharoah to Saratoga or Del Mar does nothing to enhance the horse's brand or anything more than a slight ratings bump, at least in the case of the Travers, run in the late-afternoon on a Saturday in late-August when a lot of folks are on vacation.

Perhaps I am too cynical, but I absolutely think television exposure is a big part of the equation, and the Travers lacks the brand equity to intrigue Mr. Zayat.  

Ties That Bind To Churchill

Now, think back to Triple Crown season, when Pharoah shacked up at Churchill Downs before the Belmont and after, then paraded in front of 30,000 there on June 13 in an NBC telecast

Churchill is clearly American Pharoah's home away from (California) home and the fans in Louisville are hungry for this horse and the sport, as evidenced by the whopping 24.4 rating and 44 share for Belmont Day -- by far the top viewing market in the nation that afternoon.

Combine a track that can accommodate 100,000-plus people and Churchill's financial heft as a publicly-traded entity, plus the potential for NBC to promote the track's already scheduled "Downs After Dark" and probably to quickly create and finance (and draw decent horses to) a race under the lights featuring the Triple Crown champ and heads would turn.  

Such an option, in my outsider position, would appeal highly to these connections, especially since that date is also just about halfway between the Haskell and the October 31 Breeders Cup, or "less squeezed" and taxing a schedule on Pharoah if, say, entered in late August for the Travers and perhaps a tune-up race in late September/early October.

Picture This

No matter what you're doing on the afternoon of Saturday, September 19, you cannot wait to get home from your kids' sports, family function, college football tailgate (yes, we do that here in New Jersey with Rutgers) or from whatever else you're doing that morning and afternoon and put your feet up on the couch and flip on American Pharoah's final prep race before the Breeders in primetime.

NBC already draws eyeballs on Saturday afternoons, so the Notre Dame crowd already tuned in for the 3:30 p.m. (ET) tilt vs. Georgia Tech might stay put just a little longer to catch a glimpse of the dynamic Triple Crown winner's return to Louisville, Kentucky...just down the road from where presumably he will cap off his illustrious racing career in Lexington on October 31.

American Pharoah would not need to ship from California to Saratoga back to California and potentially somewhere else in September in search of another prep for the Breeders.

Much as I dislike several things about Churchill Downs as a fan and horseplayer, from the high takeouts to the well-publicized treatment of Secretariat's jockey, Pharoah's home away from home, in my view, makes a lot of sense, or perhaps is just a pipe dream in hopes of getting new people interested in watching the sport and enjoying the greatness of this champion horse.  

Saturday, August 1, 2015

Outcasts To Use In The Haskell

Handicapping the 2015 Haskell Invitational sort of got me thinking about the OutKast lyric "throw your hands in the air and wave 'em like you just don't care" from '90s hip-hop standard ATliens.

As a horseplayer and passionate Monmouth Park fan and New Jerseyan, I absolutely care about the historical significance of the event because I love horse racing and pray for a half-decent contest on Sunday

Candidly, however, substitute "past performances" for "hands" and there's my sentiment about this year's field.

Might as well just toss 'em in the air.  Pitch 'em.

Past performances of this year's field, or the hieroglyphics, if you will, tell us the story of not-of-this-world American Pharoah and a band of ragtag followers.

Now, I'm no visionary, but American Pharoah crossing the finish line first by several lengths difference will not be a mystery.

The mystery is building a profitable ticket for Race 12 on Sunday with a short-priced favorite, which I hope to do here with a look at the 2015 Haskell Invitational field, first ranking the field, in my view, from top to bottom.

#4 American Pharoah (morning line odds: 1-5):  The only way Pharoah fails to run the field off its feet is if he stumbles out of the starting gate and gets pinched inward by #5 Mr. Jordan or has such a bad start (i.e., takes a bad step) that Victor Espinoza completely pulls Pharoah out of the race for preservation sake.  I merely speculate that Espinoza is under strict orders to pull up if he feels anything is amiss where Pharoah is exposed to potential injury that would compromise his Breeders Cup campaign, breeding future or survival.  I may make a few backup $2 show wagers on other horses, assuming the bridge-jumpers pounce on Pharoah in the show pool, but otherwise he completely routs this field after taking the lead or sitting close second behind clear front-runner #2 Competitive Edge into the first turn, settling into the backstretch and turning on the jets without prompting.  Pharoah's the only Grade 1 winner in the field and has won decisively in the slop, God forbid the weather turns bad on Sunday.  Projected final odds: 1-9.

#5 Mr. Jordan (15-1):  This has nothing to do with local connections or drinking the Jersey Cool Aid, but rather a horse who is still learning and improving and I think is in way better form than #1 Upstart and #2 Competitive Edge.  Monmouth-based trainer Edward Plesa, Jr. has what, to me, looks like a formidable 3-year-old with upside and that lost to Competitive Edge in March at Gulfstream Park but still finished second in his 3-year-old debut off a 4-month layoff.  Since then, Mr. Jordan sports two straight wins -- one at a 1-turn mile (overnight stakes at Gulfstream on April 25) and the other at 2 turns (a mile and a sixteenth) in the Grade 3 Pegasus Stakes at Monmouth on June 21.  Mr. Jordan is 4-for-6 in his early career and has shown both front-end and tactical speed (i.e. stalking, then passing, the leaders) and I anticipate will seek a spot just off American Pharoah's right flank and hope to hang on for second or get extremely lucky if Pharoah's off his A (or C) game.  Mr. Jordan drifted out into the lane very late in his last two races, but I figure the last race was a good stamina builder and the horse sports good works, including one in the mud, where I'm guessing Mr. Plesa was testing the waters in the event it rains on Haskell Day (unlikely).  Keeping Paco Lopez aboard Mr. Jordan is otherwise another bullish indicator to me, as I'm sure Monmouth Park's top jockey could have had his pick of a few of other horses here.

#6 Keen Ice (12-1):  I really dislike Keen Ice's late-running style for speed-favoring Monmouth, but I sense he can simply outlast the rest to the wire and maybe pick up third-place money (second-place, at best).  This Dale Romans trainee is 0-for-7 since breaking his maiden last September at Churchill Downs in a 1-turn mile, but gets a huge pass for running in 4 Grade 2 and 3 Grade 1 races.  Keen's 3rd-place finish in the Belmont was curious in that jockey Kent Desormeaux seemed to take his horse back from a good stalking position almost to the rear and a subsequently wide trip, but the horse responded to urging in the lane and at least kept up with Pharoah.  The question with this one becomes whether he's just a lazy sort who needs more urging earlier in a race, or is chronically over-matched and should maybe pass the allowance condition before taking on another graded stakes field.

#2 Competitive Edge (8-1):  This one's the rabbit for American Pharoah, as I see it, and should benefit from a speed-favoring track and maybe hang on for a minor award.  Edge boasts a Grade 3 win at Churchill on Kentucky Derby Day, but that was at a 1-turn mile, and the horse's three wins prior also were at one turn, albeit sprint distances (6 and 7 furlongs).  Edge flopped in his last start, the Grade 2 Woody Stephens on Belmont Stakes Day in a race far faster than anything this horse won earlier in his career, so I expect Edge's speed to carry him for most of the race before fading late.

#1 Upstart (6-1):  It's hard to dismiss the second choice with Monmouth master Jersey Joe Bravo aboard this Grade 2 winner (Holy Bull at Gulfstream on January 24), but his Kentucky Derby effort showed me that he does not like getting dirt kicked in his face.  Watch the replay and you'll find a horse who jerks his head several times into the first turn, apparently averse to the kickback from the leaders.  He had a decent break from not the worst of post positions but basically quit thereafter.  I would have given him a much better chance in the Haskell had he drawn an outside post (where he won most of his prior races), but in my view, Edge, Pharoah, Mr. Jordan and perhaps even #3, Nonna's Boy, establish the lead and Bravo takes Upstart at least 3 or 4 paths wide, which will compromise a horse whose 3-year-old wins were just off the pace.  I get the second-choice morning line, but think it's based on a gaudy win in the Grade 2 Holy Bull at a time where 3-year-old horses are far from mature.  To me, Upstart might be the equivalent of the 10-year-old giant who dominates rec ball until the other kids outgrowing him by age 14.  This horse, to me, is an all or nothing proposition, similar to Materiality, who was the hot horse heading into the Belmont and flopped.

#3 Nonna's Boy (30-1):  Lamplighter Stakes on July 18 shows this one is better suited to turf, and wheeling the horse into this race two weeks off the Lamplighter is questionable, but he has at least shown some early foot in past races and was game in the $150,000 Easy Goer Stakes on Belmont Stakes Day.  The runner-up in that 3-horse field, Stanford, barely won the Long Branch Stakes at Monmouth earlier in the meet but flopped in Friday's $100,000 Curlin Stakes at Saratoga.  PASS on this horse, who might actually take some money on solely trainer-owner (Pletcher-Repole).

#8 Dontbetwithbruno (30-1):  Another Pletcher Monmouth B-teamer whose best was a conditioned allowance win at PARX in April.  Bruno never came close to Mr. Jordan or Nonna's Boy in head-to-head match-ups and should be 50-1 or more come post-time.  Take a flyer on Pletcher here at your own risk, as this one's an even bigger reach than his Repole stablemate (Nonna's Boy).

#7 Top Clearance (30-1):  I wanted to consider this one for fourth-place money but cannot in good conscience.  I'll walk home from Monmouth if Top Clearance wins.  OK, so I live less than 10 miles away and walking might be a faster means than navigating all of the car traffic exiting Oceanport, but you catch my drift.  The gaudy win on July 11 was against $20,000 optional conditioned claimers.  In short, the horse beat up on 4 others, including some much older horses, but did take well to his first two-turn race.  I have nothing against trainer Wayne Catalano, but expecting anything more than finishing the race fifth on an enormous step up to Grade 1 company is insane.  Free country, though.

Haskell Bets

Admittedly more into the spectacle of the event, I will tier a few wagers with American Pharoah and Mr. Jordan finishing one-two and probably keep to a $20-$25 bankroll for the race.  

Any multi-race exotics will feature Pharoah as a single.

I am tossing Nonna's Boy (#3), Top Clearance (#7) and Dontbetwithbruno (#8) completely. 

Here's what I'm thinking...

$10 Trifecta: 4-5-6 (Pharoah, Mr. Jordan, Keen Ice)
$2-$3 Trifecta: 4-6-5
$2-$3 Trifecta 4-5-2
$1 Superfecta: 4 with 5 with 2, 6 with 1, 2, 6 = $4 total investment
$2 Show: 2, 5, 6 = $6 total investment (only if American Pharoah's 1-9 and there's an enormous show pool; this is strictly a hedge in the event Pharoah is rank for some reason and pulls up and out of the race.)

Good luck to everyone playing the Haskell and enjoy the moment for what is, historically, a monumental day for Monmouth Park!