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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.

It's hard to believe that almost a year has passed since we started this website. Looking back, the 2009 Triple Crown races proved extremely satisfying. Mine That Bird proved himself no fluke after the Derby with solid showings in the next two legs of the series ( as well as showing himself to be a horse better suited to dirt than synthetics ), Rachel Alexandra time and again electrified us following her powerful Preakness victory, and Summer Bird showed his Belmont victory was far from an ultimate upset with subsequent victories in the Travers and Jockey Club Gold Cup on his way to an Eclipse Award as Male 3YO of the Year. With all three of these horses expected to race in the relatively near future, something we haven't seen with any kind of recent regularity from winners of Triple Crown races, this Summer and Fall should have a much stronger " Handicap " division than recent years. But, that stuff is all secondary right now, as with the KY Derby just a few days away, horse racing's main focus has finally turned from the endless arguments concerning who's better, Rachel or Zenyatta, to who is the best 3YO out there....and of course, will this be the year we finally have a Triple Crown winner. Well...will it?

Looking back, the last time we had a Derby favorite like Eskendereya that many felt would win the Triple Crown, at least in my opinion, it was Fusaichi Pegasus. And somehow, despite carrying that load, he won the KY Derby. However, things fell apart after that, with FuPeg winning " only " ( where he beat El Corridor, Albert the Great, as well as Hook and Ladder, in the race ) the Jerome at Belmont in the Fall among his three subsequent performances. While this year's 3YO crop has some depth, it also contains many horses with a great deal of early speed, which may neutralize the obvious talents of Sidney's Candy and Rule, two of the more impressive performers in the Triple Crown preps. This abundance of speed, however, should not hurt Eskendereya, who quite simply has demonstrated the kind of brilliance in both the Fountain of Youth at Gulfstream and the Wood Memorial at Aqueduct that will make him extremely hard to deny at Churchill on May 1st. He is, at this point, the best and seemingly most tractable horse in the field. But, how far ahead of ourselves are we getting to ask whether or not he can win the Triple Crown? Some would say very far, as winning three races, at a total of 3 and 15/16 miles, in five weeks is the kind of task we only, theoretically, seem to ask of our horses once in their lifetimes in these days of shortened campaigns. But despite all that, what are the chances that in six weeks time we crown a Triple Crown winner for the first time in 32 short years?

I don't think anyone would argue with a conservative estimate that Eskendereya is 35% to win the 2010 KY Derby. Should he win, I doubt anyone would argue with him being a conservative even money ( 50% ) to win the Preakness. And, should he win both these races, it is hard to argue that he will be less than 60% to follow these wins up with a Belmont victory. A quick multiplication of these three conservative numbers gets us 10.5% ( .35 x .5 x .6 ) or slightly less than 9:1. But, that's just for Eskendereya, as surely if he is 35% to win the Derby, the rest of the field is a collective 65%. Let's stay conservative and say that KY Derby winner will be 25% ( 3:1 ) to win the Preakness....or 16.25% to arrive at Belmont with a chance to win the Triple Crown. Considering the short prices Triple Crown hopefuls have been in recent ( and even less recent ) Belmonts, it doesn't seem unfair to tag this horse at no less than 40% to win the Belmont Stakes ( and Triple Crown ) under these circumstances...or 6.5% ( .1625 x .4 ) to win complete the sweep. Adding these two numbers together gives us 17%...or slightly better than a 1 in 6 chance we see ( at least recent ) history in six weeks at beautiful Belmont Park.

Hey, it's horse racing.....and it's never too early to get way ahead of ourselves.

Chock full o' Opinions

Friday, June 05, 2009

Well, the waiting is pretty much finally over, and the website clock ( which seemed to be leading to a time that confused me and my computer ) is ticking down to zero, whereupon I can only assume it will reset to 364 days plus ( a reminder I’m not quite sure how I will feel about during the winter months at the Big A ), and the big day is upon us. And, quite a big day it is. Before we give our final Belmont Stakes thoughts, let’s turn our attention to the five other Stakes races on the Belmont card.

The True North begins the Stakes sequence and the $1 Million guaranteed Pick-6. It’s also the first meeting ( albeit a somewhat belated one ) between two of the country’s best recent sprinters in Fabulous Strike and Benny the Bull. Fabulous Strike draws well on the outside, with perhaps his only early challengers directly inside of him, and he appears to be in the driver’s seat in his first start since his exceptional performance, and moral victory, in the Carter Handicap. He should prove very hard to beat. I am against Benny the Bull from a betting perspective. While it’s great to see him back on the racetrack, betting on a horse that has been brought back from retirement is a very dicey proposition, and adding Fabulous Strike into the mix makes him a throwout for my betting purposes. I will, however, also use Desert Key, as he showed flashes, especially in his exceptional Amsterdam performance, of being a very good horse in 2008. Obviously I was disappointed in his 2009 debut, but I’ll give him somewhat of a pass off the layoff, and if he can settle behind Sixthirteen and Fabulous Strike in the early stages he could prove the only threat to the latter.

The second leg of the Pick-6 is the Just a Game and it features the New York return of last year’s champion grass filly ( now a mare ) Forever Together. In last year’s Just a Game she signaled her future excellence with a very good closing third at 44:1, she followed that up with a win in the Diana at Saratoga, and she pretty much never looked back. She overcame a slow pace, and rain soaked turf course ( which she will face in the Just a Game ), to win her seasonal debut in the Jenny Wily at Keeneland. Aside from her obvious talent, she has shown remarkable versatility, winning Grade 1s at one mile, 1 1/8 miles, and of course 1 ¼ miles in the BC Filly and Mare Turf. She is quite obviously the horse to beat. However, she faces some talented rivals, and My Princess Jess, who annexed the Beaugay at Belmont just five weeks ago, may well prove her chief competition. While My Princess Jess is surely not as accomplished as the favorite, she ran some terrific races last year, and may be very well suited to the mile distance after finding 1 1/8 miles a little beyond her scope late last year. She has also effectively handled soft going at Saratoga……and no discussion of this race should preclude at least a mention of the likely course condition. After a full day of rain on Friday, the courses will have plenty of give, but because we rarely race on our turf courses in this country after absorbing significant rain, it is often a guessing game as to who will handle the surface. However, we do have three horses with European experience in the Just a Game, and all three have run effectively on less than firm turf courses. One, Modern Look, ran very well on soft and heavy ground in France, however her US debut, at Santa Anita in March, was a disappointing second at 3:5. She figures to stalk the pace of Raw Silk, but will have to run dramatically better in this race than she did nearly three months ago. Captain’s Lover, originally from South Africa, easily handled soft courses in her native country, and ran a decent fourth in what was a strong running of the Prix de la Foret, a Group One race last October at Longchamp. Now trained by Todd Pletcher, she was forced to miss her US debut, and prep for this race, early in the Belmont meet when race forced a week of races of the grass. There is little doubt from her past performances that she has significant ability, but this is a stern test off an eight month layoff, and from a betting perspective I will let her beat me. The other with European experience is Carribean Sunset, who finished a decent second behind My Princess Jess after getting a very good trip in the aforementioned Beaugay. She handled heavy ground over in Ireland, and in my opinion is the biggest threat of the three from overseas, but I simply don’t think she is as good as My Princess Jess. Only the turf conditions may reverse that, and I don’t discount that possibility at all, but I will still relegate her to third status behind Forever Together and My Princess Jess.

The Woody Stephens ( who in case you’re unaware, won five consecutive runnings of the Belmont Stakes from 1982 to 1986 ) begins our $1 Million guaranteed Pick-4. There is no doubt in my mind that This Ones for Phil is the horse to beat. After running two big speed figures at Gulfstream, where he won the Sunshine Millions Dash and Swale ( on DQ ), he finished second to Mr. Fantasy in the Withers at one mile at Aqueduct. In the Withers, he got hemmed in behind horses down the backstretch, and while entangled, Mr. Fantasy was able to build a significant advantage which was too much for This Ones for Phil to overcome. Whether or not he would ( or should ) have won is open to debate but he still ran a better race than it appears on paper. His rail post is always a concern, but given the speed in the field, he should be able to sit back and work out a decent trip. I will also use Munnings, who showed early promise, but ultimately may be best suited to races up to seven furlongs. He was compromised severely at the start of the Hopeful last summer before finishing a distant second in the Champagne ( at one mile ) to Vinyard Haven ( who also won the Hopeful ). I liked his return at Churchill Downs on KY Oaks day, when he finished second in a quickly run race, and was the only horse close to the pace of that race that was anywhere close at the finish. Both halves of the Darley entry, Regal Ransom and Everyday Heroes, are dangerous, but as an entry they will offer odds that I don’t feel are commensurate to their chances of winning. Everyday Heroes exploded with a very impressive and fast victory on the Preakness undercard, but it was dramatically better than any race he has ever run and he needs to prove it to me again, in NY, before I bet on him. Hull, who brought his undefeated streak to three with an impressive front running score in the Derby Trial, draws well on the outside, but he may simply not be fast enough to beat the field in this year’s strong renewal of the Woody Stephens.

The Acorn begins a sequence of three Grade 1 races ( the Just a Game is also a Grade 1 ) and to me was the hardest race to handicap. The deserving favorite is Justwhistledixie, who really put it together last Fall, and Winter, in NY with three consecutive victories. Perhaps the most important part of her development was learning to rate successfully, and that served her well when she went to Florida and won Gulfstream’s two biggest races for 3YO fillies, the Davona Dale and Bonnie Miss, at one mile and 1 1/8 miles respectively. However, she was forced to miss the KY Oaks ( and a likely second place finish ), and I always worry about backing favorites that were late scratches out of their expected prior race. Also, she improved her speed figures substantially at Gulfstream, and I am interested to see if that improvement transfers to NY. With all that in mind, she is still the horse to beat, and I will use her in the Pick-6 and Pick-4, but I will try to beat her for the win with Funny Moon. Unlike every other horse in the Acorn, Funny Moon is making her Stakes debut Saturday. However, she has looked very good in her last two starts, breaking her maiden in the slop at Gulfstream and running fairly quickly to win an allowance race at Belmont. This is an ambitious, and somewhat rare, move for trainer Christophe Clement, and I share his seeming confidence that Funny Moon may be up to the task. She rates comfortably, but has the speed to stay relatively close, and this may well be the last time we can get a square price on her against this kind of group ( without Rachel Alexandra showing up ). The horse whose chances I don’t like at all is Dream Play. She was able to set a very slow pace, against lesser, why she won the Comely at Aqueduct. She also took advantage of a strong inside bias when she was on the Dearly Precious ( who won the Acorn in the mid 70s ) on the inner dirt course. I don’t believe she is good enough to win this race and I have to believe there will be enough pace pressure to prevent her from effectively “ stealing “ a win on Saturday. Livin Lovin and Doremifasollatido were both very good 2YOs, with the latter having one decent prep race in 2009, that could easily win this race with routine improvement in their 3YO seasons. However, I’m not sure how good Doremifasollatido really is, as she got a very good trip in winning the Matron, and ultimately may find this field too tough. Livin Lovin could be more dangerous, after he easy win in last Fall’s Tempted Stakes at Aqueduct, but this is a tough spot for her seasonal debut. She will be my third choice behind Funny Moon and Justwhistledixie.

The Grade 1 Woodford Reserve Manhattan ( and I need one after I finish this blog entry ) is a terrific race and one that I am looking forward to as much as any on this card. I have decided to stick to the 4YOs and let the old pros beat me. I have been a Gio Ponti fan since early in his career and I’m not stopping now. Yes, he had a very good trip to win his last start, the Grade 1 Kilroe at Santa Anita going one mile, but he sure deserved one after encountering significant trouble in the Hollywood Derby, where he was blocked the length of the stretch, and also was a victim of traffic in the Jamaica at Belmont in early October where he also lost to Court Vision. Today is the rematch and I believe Gio Ponti will be up to the task. I do not discount Court Vision, who should get the pace he needs to aid his strong closing kick, but I have been somewhat disappointed in his races so far this year. He should have finished better in his last race on the KY Derby undercard, but it is also possible that he found the going towards the inside a little too deep to negotiate on a course that ( like Saturday’s Belmont turf courses ) had absorbed a lot of rain. I am also a little interested in another 4YO, Wesley, who seems to have improved this year, but he has to, as he was well behind both Gio Ponti and Court Vision in 2008. Like Court Vision, he is likely to get the kind of pace he will need to run well in this race. I expect Champs Elysees to be the half of the Juddmonte entry that runs in the Woodford Reserve Manhattan, but he has been very disappointing in his extensive US campaign, and comes off a poor effort at Keeneland. No racing fan doesn’t have a place in his ( or her ) heart for the now 10YO Better Talk Now, but it appears that age may have finally caught up to him, and while I wish him well, I will not back him with my hard earned dollars. It is worth mentioning, however, that he was an unlucky loser of last year’s Woodford Reserve Manhattan, when he was badly blocked while closing powerfully in the very late stages of that renewal. Of the speeds, the only one that will be on my tickets anywhere is yet another 4YO, Cowboy Cal. He was a stubborn second to America’s neatest horse, Einstein, at Churchill last time, and is a model of consistency. However, given the expected demanding pace of this race, I think he may find 1 ¼ miles an insurmountable task ( at least for the win ). I plan to bet Gio Ponti to win, and use Gio Ponti, Court Vision, and Wesley in my Pick-6 and Pick-4 plays.

Finally, and thankfully, we come to the main event…..The Belmont Stakes. It’s no secret, I am betting Dunkirk, I am using Mine That Bird defensively in my Pick-6 and Pick-4 plays, am throwing in Summer Bird somewhat lightly, and I am completely dismissing Charitable Man. I detailed why I am against Mine That Bird in my last blog entry ( and I don’t feel like retyping those reasons now ). He can win, and I will shed nary a tear if he does, but I am not backing a short priced deep closer who is coming off two perfect trip efforts. I still believe Dunkirk may well be the most talented member of this field. I will forgive his sloppy track Derby effort, where he stumbled at the start, and simply ran too poorly to believe. Unlike Mine That Bird, he is a closer who seems comfortable with a grinding running style, and should not be a victim if the pace becomes too dawdling. I am going back to that old handicapping standby of betting who I believe is the best horse in the race. Summer Bird is an unknown quantity, who ran well to finish third, in just his third career start, in the Arkansas Derby. He had an impossible trip in the Derby, racing three or more wide around the track ( on a track that favored the inside path ), before fanning out at least seven wide into the stretch. He needs to improve, and like Dunkirk is very lightly raced, but considering how I feel about the other contenders, I have enough reason to throw him in at his expected odds. As for Charitable Man, while he may be the main speed, I believe Miner’s Escape will engage him early, and I think he may be somewhat dressed up after his easy win in the Peter Pan. He sat the easiest of trips that day behind a fast pace that collapsed and was not flattered when the horse he turned back, Imperial Council, finished eighth in the Shadwell Met Mile. I am dubious about his ability to handle the distance, and even though he can certainly win this race, I believe he will be a betting underlay at anything close to his morning line odds of 3:1.

Well, there you have it. It will certainly be a fun and exciting day at Beautiful Belmont. Best of luck to all and may some of us have at least some good opinions ( and an even better day ).

My Guarantee

Monday, June 01, 2009

I always enjoy during the NBA playoffs when players guarantee victory. Patrick Ewing, who was one of my all-time favorite players, used to do it fairly often. Sometimes he was right.....sometimes not. I feel like there were some recent guarantees from the Cleveland Cavaliers. I always wonder how exactly they would define guarantee. Does it mean " I hope we will win? " Maybe if players were told they had to pay for every season ticket holder's seats the following season if they were wrong they would reconsider their promises. Maybe not. I thought of all this when I read the following comment from Calvin Borel, concerning Mine That Bird, on this website.....“We're going to win it, no questions asked," Borel told reporters. While I appreciate his confidence, as I have been known to be extremely confident about my selections from time to time, and certainly Mr. Borel is riding the kind of horse racing high right now that most can only dream of, but I can't help but wonder if this is somehow akin to pronouncing your horse "home " at the eighth pole....something you invariably end up regretting. Sounds pretty tempting to the Horseracing Gods if you ask me.
Contrarian that I am, I now plan to bet against Mine That Bird with the utmost confidence, that I can guarantee. I, however, will attempt to stand on at least slightly firmer ground than simply hoping the supposed Horseracing Gods will be forced to intervene. Mine That Bird has been the recipient of two extremely good trips in a row, at a very opportune time may I add, and this is something that rarely happens to deep closers. In the Derby, he rode a very strong rail, while getting a shockingly clean trip, against a field that simply did not show up. In the Preakness, while failing to beat a very good horse in Rachel Alexandra, he was able to take advantage of a pace the essentially collapsed, and got a very clean trip, all things considered, in a large field that bunched as the field was turning for home. Now, don't mistake this for a lack of respect for Mine That Bird, as I think he is a very nice horse, and he may very well be the best horse in Saturday's Belmont Stakes, but I think there is a high likelihood that he will not get as favorable a trip this weekend as he has gotten in the prior Triple Crown races.
Consider the pace scenerio. There are simply no confirmed front runners. Charitable Man, whose chances I am also not particularly high on, may end up going to the lead, or perhaps Miner's Escape will try to duplicate the same tactics that got the same connections into the winner's circle last year, but neither of these horses figure to be going particularly fast early. Thus, in all likelihood, Mine That Bird will find himself closer to the pace than he has been while being effective in the Derby and Preakness. In the past, when he has raced close to the pace he has had no effective finishing kick, while racing against much weaker foes. In my opinion, the main reason for his recent improvement is his new running style, and there appears to be more than a reasonable chance that will be mitigated in this weekend's Belmont Stakes. At his expected short odds, these are enough reasons for me to bet against Mine That Bird.
The problem, of course, is who can you be confident will run a winning race Saturday. I will worry about this later, or more distinctly Wednesday night after the pps come out, as I have already convinced myself of perhaps the most important decision a horseplayer can come to......I'm tossing the favorite. I guarantee that Calvin Borel's comments actually had nothing to do with this.

Handicapping Now or Later?

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Apparently there is often an impetus to handicap Triple Crown races weeks, if not months, in advance. That's probably not the best way to arrive at the winner, and as far as I know, you don't collect more at the window if you inform the teller " I predicted so and so would win this race on March 16th. " I could be wrong, but I would guess there is a major negative correlation between how much time before a race a handicapper arrives at his final decision and how well he ( or she ) does overall ( assuming an adequate amount of time is ultimately spent ). In fact, one of the reasons the job of a public handicapper is so difficult, is that decisions need to be made well in advance.

The other problem with making early decisions is that we effectively " marry " ourselves to these horses, and thus all too often, disregard other handicapping factors that we use on a day to day basis. Personally, from a handicapping perspective, I view every race the same. Each race is a matchup of relative talents, and the most likely winners are not just the most talented horses, but also the ones that will benefit the most from the dynamics of the given race. However, often when we decide well in advance of a race, we do so simply because we decide that our selection is the best horse. OK, the best horse does win a lot of races, but for the purposes of making money betting, you really need to determine the best horse given today's conditions. How effectively can you do this well in advance, before knowing the post positions, the track conditions, any possible track bias, or even how the horses look as they head to the starting gate? OK, the last one is hard for the sense of any significant pre-race opinions, but you get my drift.....the longer you wait, in theory, the better your chances of being right.

A lot of people seem to have decided that Charitable Man would win the Belmont just seconds after his relatively easy score in the Peter Pan. He looked good, but he also got a very easy trip, and he was hardly flattered on Monday when Imperial Council ( who finished second in the Peter Pan ) finished 8th of 12 in the Shadwell Met Mile on Memorial Day. Yet, I have yet to hear one of his proponents taking this new piece of information into account. Maybe it is meaningless......but I can guarantee you had Imperial Council even run well on Monday, Charitable Man's advocates would be citing this as further proof that their choice would be tough in the Belmont Stakes. You can't have it both ways.....unless, of course, you prematurely marry yourself to a selection.

Many people think Mine That Bird will be a cinch to annex his second leg of this year's Triple Crown. I can see this, he has run exceptionally well since adopting a deep closer's running style. However, he also got optimal set-ups in both the Derby and Preakness, riding a favorable rail in the Derby and getting a very sweet trip behind a strong pace in the Preakness. As of now, the pace in this year's Belmont Stakes does not appear nearly as strong as the one in the Preakness, but at the very least, wouldn't it be better to try to determine the pace of the Belmont once the final field has been assembled? Plus, how many deep closers have won the Belmont Stakes in recent years? Victory Gallop came from well back, but got up by a nose after getting one of the greatest rides in history by Gary Stevens, with his competition, Real Quiet, questionably challenging Grand Slam and Chilito at the three eighths pole. I wouldn't want to rely on that kind of confluence of events to get home what may well be the betting favorite. Now, maybe Mine That Bird is simply better than his competition, like Afleet Alex was when he came from well back to win the 2005 Belmont Stakes, but, at the very least, I think any ability gap is much smaller going into the 2009 Belmont than it was that year.

All of this may be moot if Rachel Alexandra graces us with her presence. Maybe she will, once again, prove herself superior to the 3YO colts currently attempting the Triple Crown races. Or, maybe she won't. Maybe she will help ensure the pace Mine That Bird needs to win the Belmont Stakes, and the added distance will, in fact, help him while hurting her as some felt could have been the case in the Preakness. How will her presence affect Charitable Man, a horse whose best chance may well be galloping along on the lead? Of course, we don't need to worry about any of this if we, at least, wait until Wednesday June 3rd when the entries are drawn.

Then again, if we don't worry about this kind of stuff well in advance, what would I have to write about?

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