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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.

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?

Before we move forward to the only race that really matters, you know.....the one this site is devoted to, let's take a look back at the Preakness. My biggest thought is that it was as satisfying a race, and result, as any fan could have hoped to have seen. First of all, the best horse won, and also earned the victory by clearly running the best race. Rachel Alexandra vied for the lead on an extremely honest pace, one that doomed all others that dared to sit even close, drew off into the stretch, and still had enough left to hold off the horse that dominated the Kentucky Derby. Secondly, Mine That Bird confirmed his KY Derby win with an equally terrific effort, and in doing so proved that he is a completely different horse when significantly rated in his races and also one that may well have improved at exactly the right time. Plus, his jockey Mike Smith rode him flawlessly, as deep closers are almost always tricky to ride, and frequently victims of race dynamics as well as traffic. This is not to knock Calvin Borel, who has risen to new heights with two completely different and utterly flawless rides in both Triple Crown races, but Mike Smith showed that the real star is Mine That Bird, a horse that is much more than simply a lucky recipient of a brilliant ride in the KY Derby.
As for others in the Preakness, Musket Man also proved himself a consistently tough competitor, as unlike his KY Derby counterparts ( save Mine That Bird ) he once again showed up with a strong effort, and even improved to have likely run his best race yet. An argument could be made that if this exact field, minus Rachel Alexandra, had run in the Preakness, Musket Man would have won, as he would have stalked a more modest pace set by Big Drama, and taken over from that one, and further held off Mine That Bird who would have thus been compromised by a slower pace. A lot of ifs, no doubt, but hardly an impossible scenerio. Regardless, Musket Man remains a force to be reckoned with in the future. Big Drama didn't run that badly either, as he still finished 5th after dueling in the rapid pace in just his second start of the year, and ultimately may well be distance challenged. I look forward to seeing him in the King's Bishop on the Travers undercard in three months, a race that has the potential to be every bit as exciting as the main event that day. The 3YO sprinters of 2009 may be as talented and deep a crop as we have seen in many years ( if not ever ).
So, where does this leave us going forward? Well, quite obviously, a lot depends on whether or not Rachel Alexandra shows up in the Belmont Stakes. It is an understatement to say that should she run we will be treated to the kind of showdown that is all too rare in racing, one that will generate excitement for racing fans and non-fans throughout the world. If she doesn't run, we will still have a very interesting group, as not only will Mine That Bird be in the starting gate, Charitable Man and Dunkirk, among others, will very possibly be joining him. Whatever your opinion of them for the Belmont, both have shown genuine talent and promise in their short careers, and Dunkirk was too good in his first three races to take his performance in the sloppy KY Derby at face value. As of right now, whether or not Rachel Alexandra is in the gate on June 6th, I believe Dunkirk is the horse to beat. But, I still have 19 days to come to my senses.
Good luck to that happening.

On The Preakness

Thursday, May 14, 2009

While I wouldn't go so far as to say that I agree with all the machinations of this past weekend involving the Preakness, I can't say that I didn't enjoy following them, as the last thing we want is racing to ever be boring....and even more so at this time of the year. I'm not going to completely argue with someone who disagrees with those who might attempt to keep horses out of the Preakness but I will say that my biggest surprise came that the plot was hatched publicly. Kind of like a guy ( or gal ) whispering loudly to his neighbor at the poker table that he's bluffing. But, all's well that ends well, and it looks like the mighty Rachel Alexandra will be taking her rightful place in the starting gate on Saturday.

It's a little early for me to try to handicap a race that hasn't even been drawn yet, but being that I will be out of town ( at the Preakness ) this week, I'll do my best. Now, being that I am looking forward to the excitement of a Triple Crown attempt in the Belmont Stakes, there is no doubt that I'm rooting for Mine That Bird. However, the question is whether or not that is anything more than a pipe dream. On the one hand you have a horse that had never run that well before, who rode the best part of the racetrack in the Derby, and also raced over a wet racetrack. All of these are factors that most sane handicappers use to toss a horse the next time it races. Luckily, however, sanity has never been one of my strongsuits. The plusses he has going for him are that in the Derby he made a devastating run from far back after having been overaggressively ridden in both of his Sunland Park races. He was easily best in the Borderland Derby, where he still earned an 81 Beyer Speed Figure, and had he received even a slightly more patient ride his number would likely have been in the mid to high 80s. In the Sunland Derby, he made another premature move, and probably should have been no worse than second. It could be argued, especially based on some subsequent performances, that the figure for that race was 5 or more points on the low side, so his final figure, with an adjustment for trip and possible overall needed adjustment, could have been a bit over 90. Neither of these figures would have made him look particularly competitive for the KY Derby, and he still would surely have been a toss for me, but they do make him look like at least a slightly more competitive racehorse. When you couple this with his new running style, you have a horse that no longer looks like a complete aberration, and one that just might be a very dangerous member of this weekend's field, rain or rail or no gold rail.

None of the other returnees from the Derby, save perhaps Friesan Fire, particularly concerns me. While I am loathe to accept wet track performances, either positively or negatively, the second through fourth finishers all seemed to have run their races, and none of them can be reasonably expected to follow those efforts up with breakout performances this weekend. As for Friesan Fire, I suppose like a Snow Chief who flopped at short odds in the Derby only to rebound in the Preakness, perhaps he hated the track, and like the possible good horse he is, he will show up this weekend in Baltimore and prove best of a group that just might not be very strong ( don't worry, I'm not knocking Rachel Alexandra, and will get to her shortly ). However, he has never run particularly well outside of the Fair Grounds, his one big figure came in the mud, and he got very good trips in all of his races down there. While a good effort by him Saturday will not surprise me, it will come at the expense of my wagering dollars, as I am simply not a fan.

Big Drama
This brings us to the new shooters. First let's discuss Big Drama. Make no mistake, this is a talented horse. He ran reasonably fast races as a 2YO, winning twice at two turns, showing the ability to rate, while also having tactical speed, in both of those wins. He returned from a minor setback to beat, although he was later disqualified, a very talented This One's For Phil in the 7 furlong Swale at Gulfstream. I don't think it's a stretch to say he is the most talented colt or gelding in the Preakness. But, will he be ready to get 1 3/16ths miles in his second start of 2009, seven weeks after his last race? That's the unanswerable question, but I am taking a positive view as of now, especially given the possibility that he will be the lone speed. However, and even more importantly, will he be able to handle Rachel Alexandra?

Rachel Alexandra is a wonderful filly and perhaps the best 3YO or her sex since the mighty Go For Wand ( one of the my all-time favorites ). Each of her last four races has been better than the one preceding it, and her KY Oaks performance, albeit against no legitimate competiton, was a sight to behold. I won't argue with anyone that says had she raced the following day at Churchill instead, Mine That Bird would be the longshot that filled out a very nice exacta. Simply speaking, if she runs to her capabilities this coming Saturday, she won't lose. But, will that happen? Her former owners had planned to give her five weeks off following the KY Oaks, with the Acorn, a mile Grade 1 race on the Belmont Stakes card, being her next start. I am not a big fan of horses deviating, especially on short rest, from their schedules, especially when those deviations are in races as potentially demanding as the Preakness Stakes. Even though I am dubious that this alone will be enough to prevent her from winning, at her expected low odds, it is enough for me to take a small shot against her at the windows.

As of now, I am hoping that the big drama will ultimately be just that......a win by Big Drama. It feels like a win-win-win for me this weekend. I know this racing fan will be happy to see a filly strut her stuff in any Triple Crown race, just as like most racing fans I will be happy to see a horse set himself up for the recently elusive Triple Crown, but I'll also be very happy to collect my winning bets should Big Drama upset them all.

I can't wait.

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