Wednesday, May 12, 2021

Hoping the Preakness Brings Honor to Racing for Once

First a short rant.

It's hard to get excited anymore about horse racing and is impossible to defend a dying industry that's so disjointed, mismanaged and in desperate need of a national governing/oversight body and legitimacy. 

It's an embarassment, magnified by trainer Bob Baffert's reported 30th medication violation -- the latest surrounding Kentucky Derby winner Medicina, er, Medina Spirit. 

I'm not an industry insider, nor gullible enough to buy Bob's "the world's after me" narrative. The excuses, damage control and broader indifference to cheating and deceit are an insult to mine and other racing enthusiasts' collective intelligence and denigrate the integrity of this gambling venue. 

I won't call it a sport. It's gambling and exists solely because of bettors who like the action and merely want a fair shake -- or the appearance of one -- when putting their cash to work. 

For me it's minor disposable income and hobby. Fun money. For others it's more serious. So to come up with excuse after excuse after excuse at increasingly more-regular rates is a disgrace. 

Bob Baffert should be ashamed.

Churchill Downs should be ashamed. 

Pimlico Race Course, owned by the same group with a history of chemist enablers in California, should be ashamed.

The NTRA should be ashamed, with its homepage completely devoid of anything matching its listed tenets. Advocacy, integrity and leadership. Yeah, OK.

Racing should be shamed in front of a national audience this Saturday in Baltimore, but it won't. 

So enjoy the hours of coverage, most of which I'm sure NBC will gloss over and give no thorough examination or criticism as an enabler while we get Steve Kornacki and his khakis giving some fakakta "analysis" because we so miss all of the nightly vitriol from the 2020 election coverage and can't live without all his fabulous charts. 

In the meantime, here's my take on the field for the 2021 Preakness Stakes. 

I'm unsure if and how I'm going to participate wagering-wise, but begrudgingly think the race runs through the "other" Baffert horse, 2-1 favorite Concert Tour, and whether others from a mostly B and C team field of 10 can pick up the pieces late after the Bafferts run ablaze and/or conspire to finish 1-2 before the Triple Crown circus heads north to Belmont Park in three weeks.

2021 Preakness Horses (Order of Preference)

Consistent with the Derby, I've graded horses A (potential winner), B (can win, needs some breaks), C (needs more than some breaks to win; can hit the top 3-4) and PASS. 

#8, Unbridled Honor (15-1): Putting jockey Luis Saez in the saddle is a significant upgrade in a dirt race from the turf-savvier Julien Leparoux, who gave this horse "curious" rides in the Tampa Derby in March and Lexington Stakes in April. The horse's speed figures are a cut below the two favorites, but he ran well enough to win the Lexington, had Leparoux not been a) asleep the first 48-49 seconds and b) followed eventual race winner King Fury along the rail instead of tipping 4-5 paths in the stretch. To me it was a poor decision that cost Unbridled Honor the 2.75 margin of defeat. I also believe trainer Todd Pletcher is adept at finding winning spots for his lesser stakes horses. This is such a case. Grade: A 

#10, Concert Tour (2-1): The rider switch to Mike Smith from Joel Rosario is curious, and a negative, as strange as it sounds. "Big Money Mike" is aboard Concert Tour for the first time, and all he has to do is gun to the lead from the widest stall and hope the speed carries. I think Concert Tour is way more alert from the gate then Medicina Spirit, and showed in the April 10 Arkansas Derby that he's not cool sitting off another runner and wants to head the pack. It's possible he does it on Saturday. Grade: A

#4, Crowded Trade (10-1): People will draw comparisons to 2017 champ Cloud Computing, who won at double-digit odds for the same connections and took a similar route to Pimlico. It's another horse with a beneficial jockey switch (to Javier Castellano from Eric Cancel). Trade doesn't appear to have much giddyup from the starting gate, however, and with sharp breakers to either side, I wonder if Castellano will be equally aggressive and try to sit just off the front-runners or settle midpack, as the horse did in both the Gotham Stakes and Wood Memorial. Castellano's a two-time Preakness winner, including on Cloud Computing. I'd be worried about this one going off as the third choice and think bettors will have to settle for 6-1/7-1, which still isn't bad but short for my liking. Grade: A-

#5, Midnight Bourbon (5-1): Smith rode this horse to a trouble-free sixth in the Derby, but I believe he ran worse than another Preakness entrant and 7th-place finisher Keepmeinmind. Bourbon looks like a potential speed factor on paper, and very well may be put early into the race by jockey Irad Ortiz, another notable upgrade. World-class rider and trainer, but to me Bourbon's not particularly fast nor does anything that stands out as special. He'll be near the front and could get a share, but I just don't think he's a classic-distance winning horse. Grade: B

#3, Medicina Spirit (9-5): If betting against, it's because he'll be uncomfortable chasing Concert Tour, assuming the latter gets the quicker jump. If he does beat Concert Tour to the first turn, it'll be interesting to see if the rash cream, pee-infused oats and/or Baffert's elixir du jour kicks in for the second time in 14 days. I believe he'll instruct both riders to seize the front, slow the pace in the backstretch with the slower starter carring the field wide to prevent others from passing, then see which one hangs on late for the victory and a spot in the Belmont as the other settles for second and heads back to California. Grade: C

#2, Keepmeinmind (15-1): Good Derby effort and one I wanted to translate into a Preakness win, but he's got zero gate speed and it'd be a lot to ask him to close with the same passion as in the Derby to almost finish 6th after being 20 lengths behind. Keepmeinmind competes. I'll give him that. He disproved my Derby thesis just a bit that he didn't belong. But a nonthreatening effort there doesn't turn this one into a contender on Saturday, and after watching several of his replays, Belatedlyinmind might be a more appropriate name. Grade: C

#9, Risk Taking (15-1): The lesser Chad Brown trainee to Crowded Trade, IMHO. A no excuses 7th-place finisher in the April 3 Wood Memorial doesn't inspire here, nor do pedestrian race times. Probably sits midpack as he's another with scant early foot. I'm eager to see him on turf, though, considering the sire (Medaglia d'Oro: El Prado). Irad's brother Jose gets the mount, so at least he likely won't be ridden out of contention. Grade: C/C-

#1, Ram (30-1): The Preakness as a first stakes race is ballsy, but that's veteran trainer D. Wayne Lucas for you. It's hard to put much stock in coming out of an allowance race (several notches below stakes grade), but someone thought enough to pay $375,000 for the horse, and with nothing to lose and the rail draw, an early bid is possible before a lack of class catches up with him. Grade: Pass

#6, Rombauer (12-1): The three or four of you that read this blog can ridicule me after he wins, but the odds are way too short for my taste. Rombauer finished third behind two good runners (Derby contenders Essentially Quality and Highly Motivated) in the Bluegrass on April 3, but the track notes citing he was "bumped" and "in tight" seemed drastic after replays. Rombauer sat third and rode the rail the entire circuit, mostly unbothered and leaking ground toward the finish line. His one stakes win was at California's lesser track, ungraded and on a synthetic surface. Grade: Pass

#7, France Go de Ina (20-1): Gets a great rider in Joel Rosario, but little to get excited about in this horse's 6th-place finish in the UAE Derby in late March. Nothing stood out there. We've been down this road before with the feel-good foreign shipper (connections are from Japan). If nothing else, they'll bring more integrity and class to the race than some of their key U.S. counterparts combined. Grade: Pass (but will be rooting)

Friday, April 30, 2021

Will Rock Your World With Kentucky Derby Pick

Yes, I'm still breathing.

The feather duster came in handy for yours truly, with my maiden NJ Horseplayer blog post of 2021!

In keeping with tradition, and despite still feeling the scars of the Maximum Security disqualification two renditions ago that cost me a handsome Pick 5 payout and cashing other wagers, here's my 2021 Kentucky Derby analysis.

Traditionally I keep to a $100-$150 bankroll and key most of my wagers around two horses, including my selection to win -- #15, Rock Your World (5-1). It was a coin flip between him and #14, Essential Quality, the probable favorite at a 2-1 morning line, which is saying something in a 20-horse field. 

As I see it, Rock Your World may both be the fastest horse in the field and the most versatile, and with the best jockey in the race at rationing speed. Being on or near the lead is typically critical in the Derby, so as long as Joel Rosario breaks cleanly and can track the "cheap speed" horses -- particularly #8, Medina Spirit (15-1), I believe Rock Your World has the stamina to outlast Essential Quality. 

Those two horses are my only "win" options. I've otherwise broken the field down into horses that can "hit the board" -- run second, third or fourth. I'll probably allocate 20-30% of my bankroll to a straight exacta (e.g., $20 exacta 15-14, $10 exacta 14-15) and some keys with the "underneath" horses I like.

I'll put another 30-40% toward trifectas, which tend to pay handsomely if you catch a price.

One bomber I believe can finish as high as second is #12, Helium (50-1). It's a horse I think also has some early kick and maybe had one of the "worst trip" wins in the field of 20. 

Enough babbling. A little on each of the runners, grading them "A" (can win), "B" (could win if everything goes right), "C" (ceiling of third or fourth) and "PASS" (aka No Shirt, No Shoes, No Dice). In order of preference...(UPDATED SATURDAY MORNING FOR KING FURY SCRATCH)

The Contenders

#15, Rock Your World (5-1): Potential late bloomer who didn't make his debut until Jan. 1, no less in a turf sprint at Santa Anita. Contrary to the trackman's notes in the past performances, he wasn't "ridden out" late but rather eased in the last few hundred yards having dominated the field of 12. Trainer John Sadler then tried him at a mile on grass in a $100,000 stake, which he easily won. Next was the Grade 1 Santa Anita Derby on April 3, trying dirt for the first time and stretch out to a mile and an eighth. His 4.5-length win made clear the horse loves to run; wasn't ridden at all in crushing the aforementioned Medina Spirit. In a year where some top horses had to drop off the Derby trail due to injury, 5-1 is solid value on a horse with tons of upside and shipping from California, a state that has produced recent Derby winners. Grade: A

#14, Essential Quality (2-1): This guy's 5-for-5 including two Grade 1 wins as a two-year-old. He's equally if not more versatile tactically (at least proven to be), having won from just off the front-runners and as far back as 8-9 lengths. There's nothing to dislike, other than (at least to me), Rock Your World looks a little faster from the gate based on race replay video. They call it gambling for a reason, and I anticipate a ding-dong battle in the stretch. Grade: A

#12, Helium (50-1): Hear me out. A lot of horseplayers will knock Tampa Bay Downs, the track where Helium scored at 15-1 to get into the entry gate on Saturday. It's the second-fiddle Florida facility to Gulfstream Park, but I scored with Helium in the Grade 2 Tampa Derby on March 6 and was subjected to an awful five-wide trip throughout before a bold move into the stretch, then rallying back to hold off a late comer to score a narrow victory. My two beefs are the jockey switch (connections ditched the winning rider Jose Ferrer in favor of Julien Leparoux) and lack of prep in between. Yet the two-month layoff shouldn't affect this horse's "form cycle," as he scored in the Tampa Derby after four-plus months of rest. I think Leparoux is one of the more patient jockeys in the race. Just hoping he doesn't get swallowed up in the vanguard into the first turn. I'll feel more confident about Helium hitting the board if he's sitting no worse than 10th into the backstretch. Grade: B

#1, Known Agenda (6-1): I've been beaten many times using horses from the dreaded rail draw, but I'm not sold there's a ton of speed inside of post 8 and think the best jockey in America (Irad Ortiz) will get this guy safely to a forward position and save ground along the rail. The latter's a tough proposition with so much outer flow from the other 19 post positions. The 6-1 morning line shows the respect this horse deserves, having won two straight impressively for top trainer Todd Pletcher since putting on the blinkers. Maybe that improves the horse's comfort with what he'll face in the cattle charge to the first turn. Grade: B

#3, Brooklyn Strong (50-1): This guy beat Known Agenda two back in the Grade 2 Remsen at Aqueduct in the slop on December 5. Granted, one could argue he got lucky or loved the off going, but his April 3 performance in the Grade 2 Wood Memorial after a four-month layoff was infinitely better than the racing program suggests. Frankly, jockey Manny Franco rose Brooklyn Strong horribly in that race, checking several times along the rail with a horse who was semi-keen but could never find an opening. Once he found a small seam in the stretch, Brooklyn Strong started to rally before again getting cut off and shifting several paths out into the track. Still almost rallied for second in a race won by a 73-1 shot. A cleaner trip that day and he'd have had a shot. Grade: C+

#19, Soup and Sandwich (30-1): I had this one on my "watch list" before his impressive second-place finish in the Grade 1 Florida Derby, a race where he carried the field from the front and semi-wide before relenting to Known Agenda in the stretch. I'm not sure he'll get the distance as sire Into Mischief was more of a sprint-type one-turn horse. But I'm fairly confident the second of trainer Mark Casse's runners (the first being Helium; see above) will be one of the pace-setters; maybe the track bias carries him to a third- or fourth-place finish as the others languish. Grace: C

#9, Hot Rod Charlie (8-1): This is another one I think may be distance-constrained and needs the best of trips. HRC's win in the Grade 2 Louisiana Derby was on the lead, but it looked to me he inherited it and no one else wanted the front; sorta lulled his foes to sleep. The race I didn't like on replay was his one before that, in the Grade 3 Robert B. Lewis at Santa Anita in January, where he was one of the top choices but outgutted for second place by an 11-1 shot and between foes. Grade: C

#17, Highly Motivated (10-1): Same deal as S&S and HRC. Think he's ultimately going to be great as a miler. Gave in to Essential Quality in the Grade 2 Bluegrass Stakes last month and am concerned he was a bit used up there. I can see jockey Javier Castellano having to use the horse hard to gain a forward position into the first turn -- a tough task from post 17. Grade: C

No Shirt, No Shoes, No Dice

In number order:

#2, Like the King (50-1): Know the expression about having nothing good to say? Yeah...

#4, Keepmeinmind (50-1): Perfect example of why a 20-horse field is completely silly. Doesn't have a credit 3-year-old race to fit here.

#5, Sainthood (50-1): Cheap speed. Maybe you'll hear his name early. Could be the primary impediment to Known Agenda getting a safe position into the first turn along the rail.

#6, O Besos (20-1): Ran late for minor awards in two Derby preps at Churchill-owned Fairgrounds in New Orleans. Slow gate-breaker who may be last into the first turn. Can't see him factoring.

#7, Mandaloun (15-1): I don't think distance is an issue for this guy, and will keep my eye if he's entered in the Belmont Stakes in June, as in the Risen Star Stakes in February he won impressively at 9 furlongs and I thought was wrapped up late by his jockey. But the start wasn't particularly fast, and so I view him as a "grinder" more than a tactical horse with a quick burst of foot. Just not my cup of tea in a chaotic race where he may get crunched early. Respect, but adding to watch list for future races.

#8, Medina Spirit (15-1): Bob Baffert B-teamer after his top horse Life Is Good scratched. To me this guy's going to be forwardly placed, but not Derby caliber and one that can't rate. A need-the-lead type who'll probably wilt a mile and back up in the stretch.

#10, Midnight Bourbon (20-1): Had the lead in the aforementioned race won by Mandaloun and wonder if he's cut out for the dirt. Not a big fan in this spot despite world-class trainer and rider. 

#11, Dynamic One (20-1): Really hated how he finished in the Wood, losing second to Bourbonic after putting away his other foes. Another Pletcher trainee, so he deserves respect. Just not sure he's meant for the distance.

#13, Hidden Stash (50-1): See write-up on Like the King

#18, Super Stock (30-1): Somehow won the Arkansas Derby on April 10 after two speed horses tired each other out, but that was a dream scenario in a short field of six where the other three contenders probably didn't have a winning chance. Writing that off as soft field. Tries, but not your winner.

#20, Bourbonic (30-1): If nothing else, I'm rooting for Kendrick Carmouche, a local jockey and class act who's living the dream here. It's really hard winning from post 20, but as he showed in the Wood, Bourbonic's a patient horse who'll probably duck pretty quickly to the rail, sit back and maybe hope tempo's extremely fast and conducive to closers. Another Pletcher trainee, so respect is deserved, but I'm passing for the Derby.

Out of the Race

#16, King Fury (20-1): SCRATCHED; spiked a fever: A $950,000 purchase with three lifetime wins in six tries, including two at Churchill Downs. Connections haven't backed down from putting him in tough fields, including the Grade 1 Breeders Futurity and Breeders Cup Classic in a month's span last autumn, with an overnight stakes win sandwiched between. His 3-year-old debut on April 10 in the Grade 3 Lexington was a win, but a part-the-seas type of clean trip a jockey can only dream about. He'll have to work a lot harder today, but I think can run late for a minor award. Grade: C-/SCRATCHED