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.
I sit here trying to figure out what I did wrong. Who at NYRA did I anger? How could they ask me to write a blog and then put me in a grouping that includes Ernie Munick? It's not fair. I once read Phil Lesh, the bass player for the Grateful Dead, expressing embarrassment after Miles Davis warmed the Dead up ( even an avowed Dead Head such as myself knows how absurd that is ) at the Fillmore East. Well, compared to this, that was nothing. Here I am trying to string together drivel about the TC races, and this clown Ernie Munick is making graphic illustrations of his 38 Belmonts that are funnier than anything I could even dream of writing. Screw this.
I could, perhaps, compose a list of my bitterest memories of my roughly 30 Belmonts.....missing Colonial Affair ( and Krone ) winning in 1993 ( not to mention a Dead show as well ) due to a wedding commitment ( they're divorced ). Who could forget the famous LIRR breakdown of 1979 ( or was it 1978....who can remember ) BEFORE Penn Station had air conditioning? How about Summing winning in 1981 when I made doubles with Pleasant Colony and second finisher Highland Blade into Maudlin ( who of course won the last race )? What about the rain in 2003 that clearly cost the greatest horse to ever look through a bridle, Dynever, his deserved place in history as a Belmont winner? I'm still waiting for my friend Lance to show up for the 1980 Belmont. Has anybody seen him? Anyone care to explain how Sarava beat the 18:1 ( are you kidding me??? ) Medaglia D'Oro in 2002? I'm still waiting for my High School Math teacher to give me the proper credit for picking Coastal in 1979 ( he scoffed at me...then bet him...claiming it was because " Russ Harris picked him " ). What am I, Rodney friggin Dangerfield?
But I'm over that stuff. Or, at least I was, and then NYRA brought Munick aboard. What's worse is that I actually like the guy. When I first moved to NY, Ernie was writing a daily handicapping column for the NY Daily News called, I believe, Runners and Bummers. Now, I don't know if many of you remember this, but it was brilliant. I idolized him. I actually bought the paper every day just to see his picks and what he wrote. It was great stuff....funny, informative, and the picks were golden. Then he left....dropped me like a bad habit. And it got worse, not only was Ernie gone, but I was left with Kurt Paseka. This was like going to see Olivier play Hamlet, and finding out the understudy is filling in....and the understudy is Jackie Mason. My life has, understandably, never been the same. And now it just got worse.
But there is a silver lining. Ernie still has to make his Belmont Pick. I'm fully confident that no matter how much I embarrass myself with my selection, Ernie will outdo me there as well. I could be wrong, but I heard Ernie got pretty excited when Spangled Star joined the field.
By the way, poetic license, as Kurt Paseka is actually one of my favorite people.
Not to continue to belabor the obvious, but when Eskendereya was withdrawn from the KY Derby, and subsequently retired, it left a major hole in this 3YO division. At that point it became clear that there was no standout racehorse, and even should a horse emerge from the first two legs of the Triple Crown with a chance to complete the sweep in the Belmont Stakes, that horse was unlikely to compare favorably to the likes of the last three winners, Secretariat, Seattle Slew and Affirmed. And thus we saw Super Saver, a talented but hardly exceptional racehorse, get a dream set of circumstances that led to a relatively decisive victory in the KY Derby. Faced with a less ideal setup, he faded badly two weeks later in Baltimore, while Lookin at Lucky got ( here's this year's statement of the obvious ) a better trip at Pimlico, and earned a deserved victory in the Preakness. However, neither of these horses will be running June 5th in the Belmont Stakes, which might lead some to suggest that this year's Belmont Stakes becomes relatively inconsequential. I could not disagree more, and see this year's Belmont as not only featuring perhaps the three best 3YOs still racing in America, but also acting as a doorway to the rest of this year's major races.
Many people, myself included, felt that Ice Box ran the best race in the KY Derby. Considering the extreme traffic woes he faced both into the stretch, and continuing to the eighth pole, it was surprising that he was even able to get second. And, given that both the winner and third place finisher Paddy O'Prado got extremely good trips, his performance becomes even more impressive. Being that he appears an improving horse, considering the improvement he showed in his prior effort while winning the Florida Derby, who's to say he hadn't already stamped himself the best horse of this ex-Eskendereya group? To be fair, the downside would be that he got the same wicked pace to close into in the KY Derby that he got in the Florida Derby, and one-run deep closers are frequently at a disadvantage behind race dynamics. Plus, while one might correctly assume a closer of his type, with unlikely distance limitations, will relish the Belmont distance, these horses frequently disappoint in the 1 1/2 mile Belmont Stakes where speed can be more of an advantage than stamina. However, if nothing else, this leads to a great debate as to whether his in, in fact, the best 3YO racing, or merely a talented horse who needs circumstance to fall in his lap to appear as such. The Belmont Stakes will go a long way towards answering this question.
Then there is First Dude, who some may feel is Ice Box's counterpart from the Preakness Stakes, arguably running the best race in Baltimore after setting fast fractions, and determinedly holding off all but one of his challengers, and even fighting back against Lookin at Lucky throughout the stretch despite appearing spent as the field turned for home. Unlike Ice Box, who had won the Florida Derby, First Dude entered the Preakness with little to no accomplishments to speak of. Still eligible for a NW1X allowance race, his 2010 record was spotty with, at best, " what could have been " types of performances. However, those that wondered just that, were hardly surprised that he gave a good account of himself at Pimlico, and all things considered, who is to say he too can't emerge from the Belmont Stakes at the top of this class? Unlike Ice Box, he has the kind of running style that could work out well in the Belmont, given that he can gallop along on the lead if the race should set up that way, or at the very least not necessarily become a victim of pace should the early fractions not be swift enough to help the perhaps more talented Ice Box. It is hard not to be optimistic about First Dude going forward.
And, while having an Ice Box in one's barn may well seem good enough, Nick Zito will be entering this Belmont loaded for bear. While the aforementioned duo were contesting at least part of this year's Triple Crown, Fly Down more quietly buried the field in the Belmont Park prep for the Belmont Stakes, the Dwyer, run at 1 1/8 miles this year. Aside from a poor effort in the Louisiana Derby, Fly Down has done little wrong in his career, with three victories in his other four races, with each performance eclipsing his preceding effort. He also holds two relatively narrow victories over First Dude, one at Churchill Downs and another at Gulfstream. However, it would not be unfair to say that First Dude ran at least as well, if not better, in both of those matchups, doing more hard work early, while Fly Down was able to capitalize on these circumstances late in both races. But, either way, both of these horses have now proven separately to be genuinely talented, and this third matchup could well prove compelling.
These are but three of the dozen or so horses expected to compete in the 142nd running of Belmont Stakes. While Bob Baffert may be leaving Lookin at Lucky in the barn on June 5th, he is expected to be represented by Lone Star Derby winner Game on Dude. Tim Ice, who trained Summer Bird to win last year's Belmont, will also be represented by New Madrid. And, Setsuko, who, despite my protestations, friends of mine in California continue to insist will be a major factor going forward, is also expected in the starting gate. Thus, while races are often remembered, especially these days, by who is not in the starting gate, I do not believe this will be the case this year. My money says this year's 3Y0 champion will run at Belmont Park in less than three weeks. Come on, after filling out the exacta in the first two legs, I'm due.
As we approach the Preakness, it seems like a good time to revisit our initial blog entry, and discuss the odds of a Triple Crown winner this year. Given the field, and the relative lack of speed, the KY Derby winner Super Saver could well have a tactical edge in this Preakness. With that in mind, it seems unlikely that he will be as high as 2:1, thus 35% seems like a conservative estimate of his chances. However, regardless of what price Super Saver ends up on the tote in the Belmont Stakes ( we know all Triple Crown hopefuls are overbet - how else could Funny Cide have been even money versus Empire Maker in 2003 ), assuming he adds the Preakness to his resume, his chances seem less likely in that 1 1/2 mile race. The distance, combined with the reappearance of Ice Box, as well as some promising others, would make for a very challenging finale. However, it's still hard to keep him under 30%, thus his odds of winning this Triple Crown feel like about 10.5%....or slightly better than 9:1. Even given this conservative estimate of his chances, I would still be inclined to lay that price as opposed to taking the odds.
Super Saver ( a full brother to Winter iron horse Hedge Fund ) may well be the most talented member of this class with the retirement of Eskendereya. He also might be just another reasonably talented member of this group, who got a perfect trip, and a great ride, on his preferred wet track surface, over his preferred Churchill Downs surface, while also benefiting from less than ideal trips for both Ice Box and Lookin at Lucky. Now, I know a lot of the latter is true, and while I'm not convinced the former is necessarily false, all things considered, he is the kind of favorite horseplayers drool at the prospect of betting against. Of course, the problem is who is necessarily better. On paper, this is far from clear, but very often the best way to approach a likely overbet favorite that won its prior race due to extremely favorable circumstances is to simply throw it out and find the next best alternatives. The next question, then, has to be....who are they?
The obvious choice is Lookin at Lucky who has had two less than favorable trips in a row. My problem is that I have never been sold on his talent, as his early wins were achieved with the most perfect trips and setups possible, and he is still yet to run a particularly impressive race. But, given that I am playing against Super Saver, he has to be in my play. Some may feel that Paddy O'Prado, who finished third in the KY Derby, is a reasonable alternative to the aforementioned duo. I could not disagree more. First of all, despite a minor steady on the backstretch, he too had a very sweet trip in the Derby, and until he runs a good race on a dry dirt surface, I will continue to believe turf is his preferred surface. I guess, then, this leaves us with the new shooters.
Only one of the new players interests me at all, and that is First Dude. Now, clearly First Dude will have to run better than he has ever run before, as his prior efforts are slower than many players in this race. But, it may not be as unreasonable as it appears on paper that he is a better horse than his pps suggest. His effort three races back, on February 21st, is much better than it appears. He lost to eventual Dwyer winner Fly Down that day, despite contesting a very fast pace, and Fly Down getting a great ride and trip that day. To me it is clear that he was the best horse in that race. In his subsequent effort, the Florida Derby, he was close to the fast pace, and appeared to be dropping out on the turn. When the field hit the stretch, he was completely shut off by the rallying Lentenor ( who should have been disqualified from 4th for this infraction ), yet surprisingly rallied again once he was able to get outside ( giving some credence to the theory that he may have been uncomfortable being inside of horses ). Now, it may not be unfair to suggest that his supposed " rerally " was more a case of passing tired horses, but given his trip, and how he appeared on the turn, I don't believe it is unfair to refute this notion. He followed these two efforts with a third on the Polytrack surface at Keeneland in the Bluegrass. Frankly, I doubt he even particularly handled that quirky surface, and was only third because of his talent level. Regardless, I will never allow myself to be thrown by a mediocre effort by a dirt horse on that particular synthetic surface.
Given all this I will be betting First Dude to win and boxing him in the exacta with Lookin at Lucky. I will also play him underneath Lookin at Lucky for extra money, as well as below Super Saver, as even though I am against that one, it would be foolish if First Dude fills out an $80 exacta with Super Saver and get absolutely nothing. Looks can be deceiving....but I'm not that stupid.
The loss of Eskendereya to this year's KY Derby is a significant blow not only to the race but to the game in general. I like to see extremely talented horses win big races. I shudder to think of last year's Derby if Mine That Bird hadn't run....and Pioneer of the Nile had won the Derby. We would have had perhaps the slowest Derby ever (I shudder to think of the ensuing mind numbing criticisms of Beyer when he gave the race the 95 it would have deserved) resulting in a storm of ill-informed praise for a relatively subpar horse and field. Had Eskendereya remained sound, we likely would have seen the deserved coronation of a horse considerably better than his crop. But, the field is what it is (one with only three horses to have earned triple digit Beyer speed figures and none of those over 100) and it will still be interesting to see just how fast the pace is and who, if anyone, can survive being even close to it.
To me, Sidney's Candy is the best horse in the race. However, he is also a speed horse, and taking a relatively short price hoping he can successfully rate at 1 1/4 miles is a poor betting proposition. He will be on all my multi-race tickets but I simply cannot fully endorse him to win the race. Lookin at Lucky certainly can win the race but I also have trouble taking a short price on a horse that has never run a particularly fast race, and in relative terms is not necessarily faster than many of his rivals. However, he will get the kind of pace he needs, and it's hard to knock a horse that finds the wire as readily as he seems to. I do not, however, like many people, believe his Rebel was a terrific trouble filled victory. I thought his steady was minor and he was simply the final mover in a race where everyone else probably moved too soon. But, for a first race of the year, and his only start on dirt, it was surely at least a very good effort, and he makes a great deal of sense in this year's Derby. But, should he really be 4:1ish? I don't think so and thus can't endorse him. Then there is the deepest closer, Ice Box, another horse whose overall quality is still very much in question. In his only big win he took advantage of a supersonic pace and still didn't run a particularly " fast " race, so to speak. But, he did run fast enough to win this Derby, and he also looks like a horse who could be improving. Given his likely odds of closer to 10:1, I will hope that the pace collapses and he is the one running strongest at the end. I just don't particularly like anyone else.
Noble's Promise could be an interesting longshot. He has consistently run well prior to his last race and considering his relatively close finishes to Lookin at Lucky, he feels OK at five times the price. However, his last was not good, even with some trouble at the start, and his ability to negotiate the distance is greatly in question (despite his trainer suggesting he could run in the Epsom Derby in five weeks). But, I can't find any other prices I particularly fancy, thus I'll stick with him as a possible use at a price.
I do not like Awesome Act. He looks to me like an overaggressive " puller " that may very well have distance limitations. I don't see him being able to make his effective burst at the most opportune time, and likely will make it prematurely, and get swallowed up even if he should be a contender at some point. However,I could throw a few bucks on him for the BC Mile Turf if someone wants to give me 50:1 right now. As for the filly, Devil May Care, I like her very much as a horse, and perhaps she can win here, but being that she wasn't particularly pointed for this race until a few minutes ago, I have trouble endorsing her. I could probably write more coherently about why she can win this race than not, but I just don't like her chances. One impressive win, in two starts this year, against the distance challenged Amen Hallelujah (and nothing else) does not give me great encouragement for her to negotiate this 20 horse field...regardless of the overall dearth of high level talent.
Having said all that, I kind of want Sidney's Candy to win, because I think if any member of this field has a chance to, at least somewhat, fill the very empty shoes of Eskendereya, it is he.....and when everything is said and done all I really want is the best horse to win this race....and hope that " best horse " is more than just better than his competition on this given day.