Saturday, May 13, 2017

It's All In The Fine Print

Well, it's the second of the National Horseplayer (nee Handicapping) Championship Tour's five "free" online tournaments in 2017, and it seems the organizers put about as little time into race selection as I did -- with one exception -- in handicapping this dartboard-like NHC qualifier.

Perhaps the middle week of the Kentucky Derby-Preakness sandwich offers only so-so fields, and conditions in the Northeast are awful on Monmouth Park's opening day, but today's 12-race contest is chock full of junky maiden and claiming races, with a pair of short-fielded races from Santa Anita.

For your annual 50-buck NHC Tour membership fee, though, you get to toss darts and cross your fingers that you'll be one of five contestants to beat 2,000 or so others, or to at least come away with Tour points for finishing in the top 10% of the field.

Useful clues in the fine print
So, is it worth the time to handicap the card, you ask?

No, in my opinion, since it's sort of a "wild west" approach where you'll see people pick their favorite number across the board or land exclusively on everything 20-to-1 and above and hope to hit 2-3 bombers.

Yet, for those short on time like me, and in the context of a "pick-and-pray" format where players are locked into their picks once the first contest race goes off, there's some past-performance "fine print" that could land you a decent winner at a price.

Dreammeister at 20-to-1 in Race 11 from Churchill Downs is an example.

It's a low-level maiden claimer that's got 12 horses and an alternate carded, to be run at seven-eighths of a mile on the dirt.

The field's a hodgepodge of runners who've all had at least one start and as many as 12, with each looking for his first victory.

On paper, the 3-to-1 favorite's dropping significantly in class for his third lifetime start yet racing on the dirt for the first time, and so I decided to look elsewhere.

Next-Out Winners Are Quick Clues

I noticed in the italicized print of the racing form on each horse's past races that, in his last three races, Dreammeister ran against "next-out winners."

On March 12 at Oaklawn, Dreammeister finished an evenly run fifth of 10, seven lengths behind Bluegrass Gem, who won his next race (7 furlongs) at the much tougher $50,000 claiming level at Keeneland on April 14. Bluegrass Gem went off at 7.4-to-1 in a four-horse field, the longest shot on the board, but dominated, drawing away for an easy two-and-a-half length victory.

Eighteen days later on the same Arkansas track and from another wide post, Dreammeister improved to third (again at the 6-furlong distance) behind winner Stump and runner-up Tizuis or Tizuaint.

Stump shipped from Oaklawn to Louisiana Downs and finished second of 10 runners on May 8 in his next-out race against far tougher allowance company at six furlongs.

Tizuis or Tizuaint, meanwhile, graduated the maiden ranks, jumping up in class to "special weight" (protected) from March 30's maiden claimer at Oaklawn, beating almost a dozen others on April 19 at Indiana Downs.

In Dreammeister's last try on April 14, a second-straight third-place against maiden claimers at Oaklawn, runner-up Wolf Ticket his next time out dominated a six-horse field on May 5, albeit really weak $5,000 maiden claiming competition at Prairie Meadows in Iowa.

Still, he's yet another next-out winner that somewhat validates Dreammeister despite his 20-to-1 long-shot odds this afternoon at Churchill Downs.

Past Performance Does Not Guarantee Future Success -- the Old Wall Street Adage

The recent success of Dreammeister's past foes by no means ensures his own success today, but a few other bits of fine print support his case.

Trainer Jack Van Berg claimed Dreammeister at a rock-bottom $15,000 out of that April 14 race at Oaklawn and is 7-for-21 in 2017 with a high return-on-investment ($5.39) "off the claim."

The horse also has two decent "breeze" workouts since his last race, and based on his four lifetime races I anticipate he'll at least be forwardly placed this afternoon at a racing level where front-runners or those near the lead tend to have better success.

That being said, based on my awful Kentucky Oaks and Derby selections maybe you'll dismiss my evidence and pick another horse who'll finish out of the money.

I'm happy to take my notional winnings and run with Dreammeister, whose sire Bodemeister was an accomplished three-year-old, winning the Arkansas Derby and finishing second in the Kentucky Derby and Preakness in 2012 before going to stud.

Dreammeister isn't a stud of a runner, but there are signs that make him at least playable today.

Friday, May 5, 2017

Gonna Be Gunnevera

The Kentucky Derby is a completely unique exercise where handicappers spend too much time prospecting a 20-horse field where more than half generally do not stand a chance, and the racing gods need to be on any winner's side. 

You've got tons of interesting stories, and horses such as Sonneteer, who has yet to win a race -- or "break his maiden" in industry parlance -- but has accrued enough points from his prep races to qualify to run for the roses. To be sure, his 50-to-1 odds speak volumes of his chances. 

I focus annually in this situation on watching replays on the horses' prior efforts rather than poring over the past performances. 

Visually, there are three horses that can win the 2017 Kentucky Derby: #7 Girvin (15-to-1), #10 Gunnevera (15-to-1) and #14 Classic Empire, the morning-line favorite at 4-to-1. 

Gunnevera is my top selection. 

Little-known Florida-based trainer Antonio Sono paid a mere $16,000 for this son of Dialed In, who has already won three graded stakes and nearly $1.2 million in nine lifetime starts.

I'm not entirely sure he tried that hard in his last race, the Grade 1 Florida Derby on April 1. Having locked up enough Derby points beforehand, he finished third that day, but there are two efforts prior that inspire confidence in my call -- the Grade 2 Fountain of Youth on March 4 at Gulfstream Park, and of all places, the Delta Jackpot at Delta Downs in Louisiana last November.

In my opinion, Delta Downs is perceived as a sub-par "racino" bull-ring track, so bettors may be quick to dismiss the quality. Yet its Delta Jackpot, run on November 19 last year, has an egregiously long run into the first turn, akin to Churchill Downs, home of the Kentucky Derby. The short and tight turns make it even more impressive when horses can win with wide trips around the track.

Such was the case for Gunnevera, who launched from dead last halfway through the race and swallowed up the rest of his competitors that day 3-4 paths wide. The turn of foot was impressive, and seen again when he won the Fountain of Youth two months ago against Practical Joke, a useful horse in exotics wagering on Saturday from post 19.

Gunnevera may have to come from the clouds to win, which is often difficult if past Kentucky Derby races are a guide, but with top rider Javier Castellano staying aboard for a lower-profile trainer, I sense that he feels he's got a live horse. I'm not sure we'll get 15-to-1, but we'll see.

Classic Empire and Girvin are two others I respect in the field.

Installed as the morning-line favorite, Classic Empire's legit -- winner of the Breeders Cup Juvenile last November, as well as the Arkansas Derby. The only concern I have is the somewhat quick turnaround off of that April 15 win at Oaklawn Park in Hot Springs, Arkansas. It's a race that has offered productive Derby horses and has a long stretch that's similar to Churchill's, though the horse isn't as rested as some of the others here who've had 4-6 weeks to prepare.

Girvin, with a good post position, should get a nice stalking position behind the leaders, similar to his dominant wins at New Orleans-based Fair Grounds in the Risen Star Stakes and Louisiana Derby. I was leaning toward taking him as my top pick despite recent concerns about a quarter crack on one of his hooves, but concerns about his level of competition gave me slight pause, and I think he's perhaps more grinder than top-notch. Still, I think he can win.

First I'll list the horses, by number, that I think can finish in the top 4, and others to toss. Then I'll offer my annual $100 bankroll's worth of plays that I'm making.

Good luck to all and everyone enjoy the wet track!

1st: 7, 10*, 14
2nd: 7, 10, 14
3rd: 5, 7, 10, 14, 15, 19
4th: 1, 5, 7, 10, 14, 15, 19
Toss: 2, 3, 4, 6, 8, 9, 11-13, 16-18, 20

NJ Horseplayer's Bets on a $96 Budget
$10 Win-Place 10 ($20)
$10 Exacta Key Box 10 with 7, 14 ($40)
$1 Trifecta Key Box 10 with 7, 14, 19 ($18)
$2 Exacta Key Box 10 with 5, 15, 19 ($12)
$1 Exacta Key Box 14 with 7, 15, 19 ($6)

Thursday, May 4, 2017

Farrell to Win the 2017 Kentucky Oaks

In thoroughbred racing, an "off" track is the monkey wrench in the works. 

Bettors may whine.

Horses' connections will cry "bad luck" when their horses don't fire or say their equine sportscars don't like getting mud kicked in their face.

"Professional" handicappers and experts in the Twitterverse will lament anything but perfect weather and a dry race track, but this weekend's forecast for Churchill Downs is miserable, with rain projected through at least Friday and tapering off -- hopefully -- by the time 20 runners go to post around 6 p.m. on Saturday for the Kentucky Derby.

A wet if not sloppy track plays into my handicapping of both the Friday and Saturday cards, but my selection of Farrell to win Friday's $1 million Kentucky Oaks -- also going to post a little after 6 p.m. ET -- speaks more of her versatility and, in my view, favorable post position outside of the race favorite, 5-to-2 Paradise Woods.  

Farrell enters her fourth race of 2017 as the co-third choice for bettors at a 5-to-1 morning line, though that could go down for a few reasons, namely that she's got four stakes wins (including back-to-back Grade 2's), is undefeated to start her 3-year-old campaign, and has two wins at Churchill Downs, both on off tracks (one listed as "muddy sealed" and the other "wet fast"). 

Naysayers will point to the level of competition that she has put away thus far, including four Kentucky Oaks runners installed at odds of 20- or 30-to-1. Yet, after watching replays on all 14 of Friday's entrants, to me she seemed to gallop with ease and showed good enough gate speed to get in a stalking position behind apparent front-runners to her inside, namely #3 Mopotism (20-to-1) and #4 Paradise Woods. Stamina isn't a concern either.

The Fair Grounds Oaks race on April 1 -- one notch below the Grade 1 Kentucky Oaks -- shows Farrell (#6) settling in the "three-path" just outside the two leaders until the home stretch, where she kicks into a higher gear without much prompting from jockey Channing Hill and separates -- almost appearing bored and inexplicably switching leads late in the stretch. 

The gallop-out (the part where the horses continue running after the wire) also shows a keen spirit from the gal and tells me that she can get the one-and-one-eighth of a mile distance on Friday.

As for race shape, I see Farrell sitting third or fourth into the backstretch and the field running sensible fractions. If the leaders run 23 seconds and change for the first quarter mile and between 47-48 seconds for the first half-mile as I expect, then it'll make it more difficult for horses well off the pace to make up ground in the stretch drive, giving those toward the front of the pack an edge.

That's been the case in four of the last five Kentucky Oaks, with long-shot Princess of Sylmar shocking the field at almost 40-to-1 in 2013 the outlier in a race run at a faster pace that was conducive to closers. Otherwise, we've seen horses sitting just off the top pair winning this race from a little wider on the Churchill Downs oval.

That's my angle here, and so I'm picking Farrell to win. 

In keeping with tradition, I'm allocating a $50 budget to the Kentucky Oaks and will primarily bet the exacta and trifecta, keying Farrell with Paradise Woods and #12 Daddys Lil Darling, an outsider at 20-to-1 who's a late runner but has a win in the mud at Churchill (last September) and seems like she's got lots of untapped potential. At 20-to-1, she's certainly worth using underneath.

Others in the field that I respect and will use are #10 Miss Sky Warrior (9-to-2, one of the pacesetters in all likelihood), #11 Tequilita (20-to-1) and #14 Salty (6-to-1). The latter stylishly won the Grade 2 Gulfstream Park Oaks on April 1 but gets the outermost draw outside of faster starters; getting a "good trip" may prove difficult, and so I see third place as Salty's ceiling.

Good luck to everyone wagering Friday's Oaks card, and stay tuned for my Derby thoughts.

NJ Horseplayer's Kentucky Oaks Wagers: $50 Total
$10 exacta 7-12 (Farrell over Daddys Lil Darling) = $10
$4 exacta 7-4 (Farrell over Paradise Woods) = $4
$4 exacta 12-7 (Daddys Lil Darling over Farrell) = $4
$4 exacta 4-7 (Paradise Woods over Farrell) = $4
$1 exacta key box 7 with 1, 10, 11, 14, 15 = $10
$1 trifecta key box 7 with 4, 12, 14 (Farrell with Paradise Woods, Daddys Lil Darling, Salty) = $18