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Andy Serling has been playing the horses for almost his entire life, and is currently the co-host of NYRA Live. To follow Andy on Twitter, click here.

Eternally Hopeful

Saturday, May 12, 2012

For some reason, I feel like it always rains on closing day at Saratoga. While I know this isn't true, perhaps because I'm always so depressed to see the greatest place on Earth close for 10 1/2 months that it always feels like a dreary day. However, there is little doubt that September 5th, 2011 was a washout, at least from a precipitation standpoint. On the track, as always, it was a different story. As has been the case for many of my 38 Summers at the Spa, the Hopeful has closed the meet, and it was there that I have seen more than a few stars strut their stuff. It started in 1974, when the day after I saw the immortal Ruffian blow away Laughing Bridge, a substantial talent in her own right, Foolish Pleasure, the eventual 1975 Kentucky Derby winner, won the 70th Hopeful on his way to a 2YO Championship. But, it's hard to believe the twists in the road that led to 2012's Kentucky Derby winner emerging from the 2011 Hopeful.
As the field turned for home, an unlikely 68:1 shot named Trinniberg led the field, with the 9:5 favorite Currency Swap hot on his heels. The others were far behind. While the eventual winner Currency Swap would not race again in 2011, and did not win in his first two 2012 starts ( as I write this he is entered on Saturday May 12th at Belmont ), the runner-up Trinniberg eventually established himself as one of his division's top Sprinters with easy wins in the Swale at Gulfstream and Bay Shore at Aqueduct as a 3YO. Going against common wisdom, his connections chose to run him beyond seven furlongs for the first time in the 2012 Kentucky Derby. While he finished 17th, his participation in the race may very well have had a very positive influence on the ultimate performance of another somewhat improbable member of that strung out Hopeful field.
Top California trainer Doug O'Neill is an infrequent visitor to the NYRA circuit. He has made just 13 starts here, with 10 horses, over the last five years. Six of these ran at Saratoga. One of these was Maryfield, who ( thankfully ) won a desperate head bob in the 2007 Grade 1 Ballerina, her penultimate career start before annexing the inaugural BC Filly&Mare Sprint. Another appeared in the 2011 Hopeful. I'll Have Another, despite a maiden win and a 2nd in the Grade 2 Best Pal at Del Mar, garnered little attention or mutual support, going off at just under 12:1. And that dismissal appeared justified when I'll Have Another's cross country trip went for naught when he finished 6th, 19 lengths behind the winner. In fact, few of us remembered him at all until he upset the Robert Lewis at Santa Anita, in his next start after the Hopeful, at 43:1 in early February. But even after winning the Santa Anita Derby, over the highly regarded Creative Cause, in his subsequent start, few of us thought we saw another Derby winner that had prepped in the prior year's Hopeful. But, perhaps partly in thanks to Hopeful runner-up Trinniberg, just four weeks later I'll Have Another would become the first Hopeful winner since Affirmed to win the Kentucky Derby.
Many handicappers, myself included, felt that Bodemeister was the most talented entrant in this year's Kentucky Derby. However, somewhat because of the presence of Hansen, but more because of the presence of the speedball Trinniberg, Bodemeister appeared very vulnerable to an unsustainable pace battle. While Bodemeister outran Trinniberg in the kind of pace that in past Derbies has led the leader to finish 16th ( or worse ), as the field turned for home, many thought Bodemeister would accomplish the improbable when he opened up five lengths on his closest opposition. But the extreme pace eventually took its toll, and Bodemeister could barely crack 27 seconds for his final quarter mile, which enabled the talented I'll Have Another, under a flawless ride by Mario Gutierrez, to roll by on his way to victory and a place in history. It is hardly unreasonable, however, to think that had Trinniberg stayed in the barn, Bodemeister would have been able to go at least a little slower early in the race, which would have been enough for him to become the first Kentucky Derby winner to have made his first start as a 3YO.
The 2011 BC Juvenile was an unusually potent race, with not only the top three finishers heading into the Derby with major prep wins, the fourth finisher Dullahan won the Blue Grass Stakes, fifth finisher Take Charge Indy won the Florida Derby, and the 11th, 12th, and 13th finishers all won Derby preps on their way to Kentucky Derby participation. In fact, nine of the 13 in that BC Juvenile entered the gate for this year's Kentucky Derby. However, after the dust had settled, oddly enough it was a Grade 1 race, run in the slop, on a dreary closing day of the 2011 Saratoga meet, that may have portended the outcome of the year's biggest race. One thing's for sure, Saratoga can make for the strangest bedfellows, and no matter what the weather, you never want to miss a day...or even a race.


Who do you like?

Friday, June 10, 2011

The heat has cleared out, the barbs continue to fly, and the 143rd Belmont is just hours away. According to the questions on my Live Chat it will be a glorious day, as virtually everyone asked me who I liked in the sloppy/muddy Belmont, thus ensuring a fast track. Let’s get down to business and try to figure out who’s going to win the Belmont Stakes. Hopefully I can salvage a thread of dignity after failing miserably in the first two legs of the TC. I’ve been so bad that even Mucho Macho Man was herd calling for my job recently. Who can blame him?


The problems I have had in the first two legs of the Triple Crown continue to dog me. There have simply been few horses that have run perceptively better on the track than they appear to have run on paper. In looking at any race, especially one where your overall grasp on the contenders is relatively elusive, a good place to start is to separate the possible contenders into groups by running style. I see four groups in this Belmont Stakes…..Shackleford and Prime Cut ( who is overmatched ) heading to the lead along with Mucho Macho Man. Santiva and Nehro will be the second group, stalking close behind, with Animal Kingdom and Brilliant Speed making up the third tier, and Master of Hounds is the final mover, so to speak. Group B likely moves in the vicinity of the ½ mile pole, Group C around the ¼ pole, and Mr. D ( Master of Hounds ) makes the final run. Thus the question, which if any, of the runners from each tier will be able to sustain their runs and hold off the following wave or waves? I guess the key to this will be how fast a pace we have. Personally, I think Shackleford can maintain a reasonable pace ( lets say 24 and change and 48 and change ) and still have enough in reserve to be there at the finish. Can Mucho Macho Man continue grinding at that clip? I am dubious, but his very best races are when he is stalking the pace, and these tactics will give him his best chance. However, he needs to improve off even his best races, and despite his impossible trip in the Preakness ( watch the race again, focusing on him, if you don’t believe me ), I don’t have confidence in him pulling off the minor upset. From Group B, the more popular Nehro, who is still eligible for a NW1X, appears to be the biggest player. He has shown the rare ability to be completely tractable, in that he can sit close to a moderate pace and finish, and make one run from well back in a fast pace. However, even given this versatility, he is a horse that has had perfect trips in all his recent races, and still continues to come up short. Yes, he appears to be improving, and perhaps skipping the Preakness will help him ( though where is the evidence that it will ), but I expect him to be a short priced second choice, in the 3:1 range, and nothing about him appears to justify those kinds of odds, especially at the daunting mile and a half distance. As for Santiva, I ask only one question…..where is his fast race? Right….nowhere. He is a neat horse, who can run well on all surfaces, but ( at least so far ) not quickly enough to compete effectively here, and it’s not as though he had a compromising trip in the KY Derby. He simply wasn’t good enough that day and doesn’t rate to be good enough in the Belmont. Now group C….obviously Animal Kingdom needs no real introduction, and is simply the horse to beat. His KY Derby, albeit with a perfect trip and great ride, definitely showed himself to be, at that time, the best horse in that group. His Preakness was an equally good effort, and only an improved, and superior, effort by Shackleford denied him a chance to become the 12th Triple Crown winner. With the German breeding on his dam side, despite his sire being a miler, he should be able to handle the distance. No sane person, and even this unstable person, would leave him off a multi-race ticket. However, at 8:5ish, I can find better horses to pick on top, and still believe Shackleford ( who I’ll get to more in depth ) will offer better value. As for Brilliant Speed, he did run better than expected in the Derby, while racing very wide, but if the rail was the wrong place to be, being wide may not have been a major handicap. Plus, he clunked along late with a whole bunch of possibly overmatched horses, and still feels like a major question mark on the dirt, at least at this level. But, I would rather take 15:1 on him than somewhere around 3:1 on Nehro, and he is a better horse than Santiva, so he remains on my superfecta ticket. That leaves us with the last mover, the final wave, Master of Hounds. His Derby was a surprisingly good effort, especially given he had last raced in Dubai six weeks earlier, and logged many thousands of miles in back-and-forth travel over the previous few months. He seemed to handle the dirt just fine and was moving along the supposed deeper rail late in the race. Of all the turf-type performers, save Animal Kingdom, his effort was the best, and as the final mover in this Belmont, I consider him a major contender…..but not THE major contender.


Shackleford is the one horse in this field that did something that I consider relatively extraordinary. He won a race, the Preakness, under less than ideal circumstances. He stalked a rapid early pace that was set by a solid sprinter who eventually finished dead last. To hold on under those circumstances is more impressive than making the strongest final move in a collapsing race, as Animal Kingdom did in the KY Derby. Plus, Animal Kingdom had every chance to run him down in Baltimore, and simply wasn’t good enough. Now, the mile and a half might be the great equalizer, and certainly Shackleford has to answer that question as much as anyone, but given that I expect him to be at least 6:1 in this race, he will offer value, and value is what we seek…..whether a $10K Claiming race or the Grade 1 Belmont Stakes. My picks are Shackleford-Master of Hounds-Animal Kingdom-Brilliant Speed.


There are five other Stakes races that need some mention. In the TVG Acorn, Turbulent Descent is an overwhelming favorite, and far and away the likeliest winner on the entire card. I have no interest in trying to beat her, and as much as I would like to see It’s Tricky run well, and do consider her the second best horse, I will not bet her against Turbulent Descent. In The True North Handicap ( sponsored by Emirates Airlines ) I prefer horses coming out of the Waldoboro, our prep run four weeks ago. Trappe Shot is absolutely the horse to beat, but Rule by Night may benefit greatly from his start there, as Steve Asmussen runners rarely run their best off layoffs, and is my choice to score the mild upset. Winter hero Calibrachoa does not look good enough to me, and I don’t like horses that miss multiple races, as he did ( the Carter and Churchill Downs Handicaps ), especially following strong improvement. As for the ( Visit ) Woody Stephens, other than Derivative, I could make a case for any horse. Travelin Man’s best race beats these, and he very well may lead them on the proverbial merry chase, but his last race ( the Derby Trial ) was too bad to just dismiss, especially given the horse he dueled with him lost by only a neck. Justin Phillip may well have won the Jerome had it been 7F, and being second to the very promising Adios Charlie, especially at too long a distance for him, is no disgrace. Hopefully he can step up and run his best race here at a square price. I will let Arch Traveler beat me, which he may well do, but even given his last race was a good one, I am still not convinced he is good enough to justify his likely short price. I picked Justin Phillip-Travelin Man- Little Drama in the Woody.


Moving on to the turf portion of our stakes, Aviate is very much the horse to beat in the Foxwoods Just a Game. She looks very likely to add her name to the many Juddmonte runners that have won this race in the past, as her Distaff Turf Mile on Derby Day was a definitive performance. Fantasia ran OK to be third behind her, and perhaps would have been closer if able to rally outside of horses, but she falls short too often for my taste, and seems at best to be a fringe player. Gypsy’s Warning, for Animal Kingdom’s connections, is the other horse I will use. She was likely to close to the early pace in the very tough Jenny Wiley at Keeneland, and got herself shuffled out of the race a bit on the turn. Her prior effort, winning Hollywood Park’s Matriarch last November makes her the second best horse in this race in my opinion. As for the Woodford Reserve Manhattan Handicap, Gio Ponti is clearly the horse to beat after winning this race two years ago and just falling short to his stablemate Winchester in 2010. However, this is his first race back after going to Dubai just over two months ago, and at six years old may well have lost a step. But, he ran a winning race when 5th that day, after being forced to move wide, and prematurely, behind a very slow race. But, I won’t pick him on top at a short price, while using him strongly in any multi-race bets. Both Prince Will I Am and Al Khali were adversely affected by the slow pace in the Turf Classic on KY Derby Day, but Al Khali may also have faced some stretch traffic, and will be a much bigger price, which makes him my top selection. Not the likeliest winner….but good value overcomes that problem. Clearly if the Viscount Nelson that lost by just one length to Twice Over in last year’s Eclipse Stakes at Sandown Park shows up, he will be more than a handful, but given that he raced just eight days ago, and his trainer Aidan O”Brien has had very limited success in North America ( 3 for 47 with an $0.80 ROI ) over the last five years, I will relegate him to the third slot. Even Straight Story, who will likely stalk Mission Approved, is not without a chance. Hopefully we can fund all these bets with the money we win on Mineswept in the 4th race.


Plenty of action on what shapes up as an extremely exciting Belmont Stakes and Belmont Stakes Day. Will one horse stamp himself as the top 3YO in America…or will we have a third winner of a 2011 Triple Crown race? In less than 30 hours we’ll have that answer. I know I can hardly wait.

In 1979, the truly great, and even remarkable, Spectacular Bid was set to become the third consecutive winner of the Triple Crown, and fourth in seven seasons. Since opening the eyes of racing fans with his devastating 15 length win in the World's Playground at Atlantic City, getting seven furlongs in 1:20 4/5, leaving his shorter priced rival Coastal 17 lengths behind, Spectacular Bid had run his winning streak to a remarkable twelve straight ( yes, that's 12 wins from September 23rd of his 2YO year through May 19th the following year ). The total margin of victory in those 12 wins, including the KY Derby and Preakness, was 76 1/2 lengths, or just under 6 1/2 lengths per win. With his impending Triple Crown victory appearing to be a mere formality following his 5 1/2 win in the Preakness, many racing fans were beginning to wonder if after a 25 year drought, from 1948 to 1973, suddenly the Triple Crown had become too easy to win. And then, eight days later, they ran the Peter Pan at Belmont Park.
Coastal was merely a blip on most people's radar after a non-descript 2YO season, which included two wins in five starts, including the aforementioned 17 length drubbing behind Spectacular Bid in the World's Playground, when he returned to make his 3YO debut on April 28th, one week to the day before Spectacular Bid won the KY Derby at 3:5. However, in just 29 days, Coastal opened a lot of eyes with three consecutive wins. After winning his six furlong comeback race at Aqueduct in 1:10 3/5, over a muddy track, by 1 3/4 lengths, he returned 15 days later, once again at Aqueduct in the mud, to win by eight lengths, while covering seven furlongs in 1:22 1/5. While these two wins hardly gained enormous attention, especially as it came in the midst of Spectacular Bid's Triple Crown wins, the William Haggin Perry runner, trained by David Whiteley, officially opened those eyes exactly two weeks later, this time at Belmont Park, when he won the Peter Pan, NY's Belmont Stakes prep, by 13 lengths ( who did he think he was, Spectacular Bid? ) stopping the clock at 1:47 for the nine furlongs. Suddenly, as Jerry Seinfeld once said, a new contender had emerged.
Coastal, a half brother to future champion Slew O' Gold, was no great underdog, especially after that explosive Peter Pan win, when he met the great " Bid " 13 days later. He was just 4:1 when he prevented the Triple Crown from being " cheapened " by a third straight conqueror. Whether or not you buy the story that Spectacular Bid stepped on a safety pin the morning of the Belmont Stakes, finishing a neck behind Golden Act, who he had drowned by 5 1/2 lengths in the Preakness, clearly demonstrated he did not run his best race that day. Or perhaps it was the 1 1/2 miles that got to him, as that was the only distance he lost at in his final 26 races. But, given that his next 1 1/2 mile loss was later that year at Belmont Park in the Jockey Club Gold Cup, to Triple Crown victor Affirmed, with Coastal three lengths back in third, it would be more than fair to say that perhaps the best horse did not win that day. But, don't let that diminish Coastal's immense talent. He followed his Belmont Stakes triumph with a four length win, over Private Account, in the Dwyer, once again covering nine furlongs in 1:47, and then an easy victory in the Monmouth Invitational ( later the Haskell ) in early August. After resting during Saratoga ( a wise choice given General Assembly's record setting Travers romp ), he returned in the Marlboro Cup at Belmont Park....and a rematch with the now rested Spectacular Bid. Bid tuned up for the Marlboro Cup with a 17 length gallop in a Delaware Park allowance, his first start since his Belmont Stakes loss. Unfortunately for Coastal, the real Spectacular Bid showed up that day, and Coastal could do no better than third, 1 1/4 lengths behind General Assembly, and 6 1/4 in total behind the Bid. As history would show, this was no disgrace.  Neither were his subsequent 2 1/2 length loss to Affirmed in the Woodward ( besting the very talented Billy Turner trained runner Czaravich by 3 3/4 lengths ), and previously discussed 3 3/4 loss to both Affirmed and Spectacular Bid in the Jockey Club Gold Cup, which ended his racing career.
Spectacular Bid followed his loss to Affirmed with an easy win, 12 days later, in the Meadowlands Cup to close out his 3YO racing season. His 9-9 4YO season was truly the stuff that legends are made of. He finished his career with 26 wins, 2 seconds, and one third in 30 career starts, as well as a remarkable 24 for 24 in races from 7 to 10 furlongs. Thus, when some racing curmudgeons, like myself, complain that perhaps some horse over the last couple of decades might not have been Triple Crown worthy, remember that some of us saw Spectacular Bid fail in his attempt, which then some actually thought would cheapen the legacy of the Triple Crown. And we saw him fail to do it against a horse as immensely talented as Coastal. Believe me, those WERE the days.

Preakness Thoughts....

Thursday, May 19, 2011

What do you do at the racetrack if you love a horse in the last race, but a good friend is alive for a monster score in the Pick-6, and his ticket does not include your selection? I know what I do...I bet my horse, and if I lose, I root like hell for my friend to win. However, if I don't have a strong opinion on the race, I don't bet...and I root like hell for my friend. Well, I have two roots in this year's Preakness. I work for NYRA, and at NYRA we root for one horse, in one race, every year. We root for the KY Derby to win the Preakness for the very obvious reasons. But I'm also rooting for Dialed In. Not that long ago, Magna announced a bonus for horses winning a combination of races in either California or Florida. Because Dialed In won both the Holy Bull and the Florida Derby, he became eligible to win that bonus, which would be $5 million to Dialed In's owner Bob LaPenta and $500,000 to his trainer Nick Zito, if Dialed In wins the Preakness. Given that Nick is a good friend of mine, I will root for him ( assuming the horse racing for those that sign my checks, that would be Animal Kingdom, doesn't win ). However, the question still remains as to whether or not I have an opinion strong enough to bet against either of these two enormous roots.
In the absence of any major reason to want to wager on any in this year's Preakness, let's start by discussing the horses I don't like, and why. Starting from the rail out, there's Astrology, a horse that has always generated a reasonable amount of buzz, and frankly, I'm not sure why. He's OK, but nothing he has done on the racetrack indicates he will be particularly successful in this Preakness. In a way, he feels like he's always running in a race without having performed in a prerequisite prep. Norman Asbjornson seems overmatched. King Congie is a nice turf horse, but has not run well on the dirt, and feels misplaced. Flashpoint is a sprinter, whose connections seem determined to run him in the wrong spots, when there are plenty of " right " spots available. He is a very talented horse but seems highly unlikely to be successful at longer distances, especially against top company. He will, however, guarantee an honest pace, and perhaps compromise the chances of Shackleford, while possibly helping some others. Midnight Interlude was dreadful in the Derby, backing up after sitting in a comfortable spot, and needs to show a LOT more before he can be considered a legitimate contender. Running down Comma at the Top at 1 1/8 in the Santa Anita Derby is no longer seeming like a particularly strong accomlishment. Isn't He Perfect and Concealed Identity both seem overmatched.
Now that I have eliminated half the field, let's take a quick look at the charms of the remaining entrants. I left Mr. Commons in, not because I am a big fan, but because it seems possible the rail wasn't the best place to be in the stretch of the Santa Anita Derby. The problem is, there is nothing else to recommend about him, and he may only seem possible because having raced in only four races, we have yet to determine conclusively that he doesn't belong. He would be, at best, a very fringe player, say third or fourth in supers, for me. Shackleford has certainly run OK in his last two, but after setting a quick pace in the Florida Derby, he got away with a more tepid one in Kentucky, and that does not rate to happen in the Preakness. With Flashpoint, and even some others I will get to, this pace should be hotter, and Shackleford has yet to show an ability to rate comfortably off a faster pace. While I consider him a possible winner, for those reasons I wouldn't bet him. I can understand the appeal of Sway Away, he ran a visually impressive, and fast, race three back, had a seemingly fair excuse two back, and made a premature wide move into a hot pace in the Arkansas Derby. My problem is that I think Dance City ran better than him at Oaklawn, and ultimately I believe Sway Away is more of a sprinter. However, he does seem like one of the few that might be able to win this race, and I would use him as a C type in Pick-4s or the like. Dance City does seem like a major player. He has come around quickly for Todd Pletcher, and ran well in the teeth of the Arkansas Derby pace, after being used hard early to keep The Factor at bay. The biggest question with him may be whether or not a son of City Zip can ultimately be successful at the Preakness distance, but given his performances so far at 1 1/8 miles, it doesn't seem out of the question. He seems like the likeliest upsetter to me. Mucho Macho Man is obviously a player, and I will include him in multi-race tickets as insurance, but ultimately I'm not convinced he will beat these horses without a comfortable trip on a modest pace, something that won't happen here. He simply hasn't shown the quickness to pounce and win races against better than decent fields. Unless you feel for some reason that Animal Kingdom will be a complete no-show, I don't see why he should win this weekend. He's OK, but not a horse that I expect to win unless all the others fail to run their best races. Which leads us to Dialed In. The $6.1 million question ( I've included the Preakness purse ) is whether or not he was really simply too far off what was a moderate pace in the KY Derby ( personally I think it was relatively fair....but not super fast like most KY Derby paces ) to do his best running or is he ultimately just not good enough, and more of a talented closer best suited to one mile races. His Holy Bull win was impressive. It was a fair to moderate pace, and yet he made a huge run, in just his second career start, to win rather impressively. His Florida Derby, however, while visually impressive, may well have been the result of a fast pace where nobody save Shackleford ran a step. However, given the likely fast pace of this Preakness, and the distance questions which surround many of the other contenders, a fair case can be made that Dialed In is the second likeliest winner of this race. Perhaps it is simply a case of him proving enough so far to suggest he deserves one more chance after the KY Derby. But, is this enough for me to bet him in the 9:2 range? No, it isn't. I will root for my friend, use him in the Pick-4 as an A, but I can't pick him on top. He simply has too many questions to answer to make him worth a play at his expected odds. Which leaves us with the KY Derby winner Animal Kingdom.
Animal Kingdom is, based on his KY Derby, the best horse in this race, and unquestionably the likeliest winner. However, off the rest of his races, he is nowhere close to that. Thus you have to ask yourself if this seemingly turf-bred horse is ultimately a dirt horse, that was hampered by the surfaces he raced on prior to May 7th, or if his Derby was a one race fluke. Frankly, that cannot be answered until late on Saturday. My gut feeling, however, is that he is a dirt horse. He ran so smoothly, and easily, in the KY Derby that I have no concrete reason to question him going forward. It was not hard to believe going into the Derby that one horse could easily separate himself from this bunch, as the overall talent level was not high for a race of this magnitude, and Animal Kingdom has did just that. Going forward, I will hardly be surprised when he continues to show his dominance. He is, sorry to say from an odds standpoint, my pick to win this Preakness. My Preakness picks are Animal Kingdom - Dance City - Dialed In - Mr. Commons. From a betting standpoint I will use mostly the top three in multi-race bets, and in just the Preakness I will fool around with Dance City, and try to make money with him if he finishes in any of the first three slots. My root from a betting and loyalty standpoint may very well be intertwined.

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